| CONTRIBUTORS |

The following reviews were originally featured in the pages of the Northern Sky Magazine. Thanks to all those who took the time to contribute over the years.

Esperanza Spalding | Chamber Music Society | Album Review | Heads Up | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.02.11

Imagine finding your name on the list of nominees for the Best New Artist Grammy award. Quite an honour, I’m sure you’ll agree, and something that is bound to get your heart racing or at least give you a clammy pair of palms.  Now look a little further down the list.  Sadly, you appear to be sharing the excitement with a series of names that have not only slipped into common usage but are almost as ‘household’ as Fairy Liquid, Lux Soap and Coke.  There’s Florence + The Machine, Mumford & Sons, Drake and – yes, you are reading it correctly – Justin Bieber (a blonde-haired teenager who appears to be taking over the known universe with his chipmunk-high voice, disgustingly good looks and dazzlingly limber dance moves).  Unfortunately, your chances of winning the little shiny gramophone have now become supermodel-slim.  But your name just happens to be Esperanza Spalding.  You’re a twenty-six year old jazz bassist and singer from Portland, Oregon.  You’ve played with the best of them, including Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheney and Patti Austin and already have three top-notch solo albums under your belt.  Legendary vibraphonist, Gary Burton, once said that you “communicate your upbeat personality into everything you play” and guitarist Pat Metheney thinks you’re “pretty amazing”.  I’m not so sure Gary or Pat would have such praise for little Bieber.  To cut a long story short, on February 13th 2011, you succeed in draining the not-yet-shavable face of Justin Bieber when you win the award.  It might seem shocking to you and the several million people watching you accept the award, but I think I know why you won and why I’m not so surprised, either.  You see, you have just released an album entitled Chamber Music Society – an album that presents both a new, refreshing and unique jazz sound and a vibe that fits plug-snug into the fusion music of the last half-century.  In other hands, the fusing together of jazz and chamber music might be, at best, ‘worth a listen’.  In your very competent, young yet enlightened hands, however, we get something that can only be described as obligatory listening for anyone with the slightest interest in where jazz is at in 2011.  As well as bringing your energy, musical abilities and hot-waxy voice to the party, you also bring a delicious Brazilian lilt that is clearly a major part of your whole.  Dipping all this into the string arrangements of Gil Goldstein and adding just enough piano from Leo Genovese and vocals from Gretchen Parlato and Milton Nascimento, not to mention the percussion of Terri Lyne Carrington and Quintino Cinalli, makes for a pretty reasonable explanation for your success.  The album is a rich, creamy blend of laid-back improvisation and sit-up-straight, complex vocal arrangements.  Sitting slap-bang in the middle of this tour-de-force is “Wild Is The Wind”, a track that seems to literally scale a mountain of jazz, chamber, folk and Brazilian music.  What begins as a breeze whirls up into a heavy storm of exquisite musicianship, culminating in a piercing, haunting Esperanza wail.  It’s just stunning.  “Winter Sun” shows off the dexterity of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and pianist Leo Genovese while continuing to showcase Esperanza’s unique vocal style – something that is explored further with “Inutil Paisagem” – a beautiful, vocal/bass piece with a fascinating rhythm.  For those Bieber fans who have now come to realise the error of their ways, you might want to try Esperanza’s first two albums Junjo and Esperanza as well as this latest offering to get a feel for what good jazz is and to understand why Esperanza Spalding just saved another little shiny gramophone from falling into the wrong hands.

Cassie Taylor | Blue | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.03.11

This soulfully bluesy debut from the daughter of Bluesman Otis Taylor, sees the multi-instrumentalist coming to grips with ten original songs from her own pen.  Very much in tune with the music industry, having appeared with her father on stages around the world, not to mention contributing to his back catalogue of acclaimed albums and even having served on the board of directors of The Blues Foundation, Cassie Taylor’s debut was only a matter of time coming.  Released almost simultaneously with Taylor’s side project Girls With Guitars, part of the famed Blues Caravan tour, with Kansas-born Samantha Fish and Brighton’s own Dani Wilde, Blue is less about girls with guitars and more to do with exploring the possibilities of her trusty bass and piano.  Equally at home with raunchy R&B numbers that tell it straight, such as “Make Me Cry”, with its direct no nonsense opening line “Hey asshole, I wrote you a song”, to the late night ballads of “Haunted” and “Black Coffee”, which owe more to the sort of soulful brews that Isaac Hayes would serve up in the Seventies than the usual blues fare, Taylor is unafraid to mix and match her blues and soul influences with her rock and country leanings, reflecting the fact that this twenty-something singer-songwriter is blessed with a youthful spirit.  This Ain’t No Old Man Blues is her proudly displayed website slogan, and true enough, there’s no evidence on this album to the contrary.  With a core band of Jeremy Colson on drums and James Rooster Olson on guitar, Taylor has gathered together a bunch of musicians to flesh out the songs on Blue, exploring their rootsy possibilities rather than pandering to the expected twelve-bar standard.  Look no further than the all too short opener “Memphis” for the potential single release.  

Loudon Wainwright III (with Lucy Wainwright-Roche) | Royal Opera House, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.05.11

Mention the name ‘Wainwright’ to the person sitting next to you and it’s a safe bet that they’ll think of either wagon-makers or musicians.  Okay, the odd one or two might well picture those countless little hand-written guides to walking in the Lake District, but most would decorate their minds with portraits of Rufus, Martha, Lucy and Loudon – folk music’s ‘first family’.  As well as creating a handful of talented and successful offspring with a couple of equally talented and successful wives, Loudon Wainwright III has spent the majority of his sixty-four years compiling an enormous back-catalogue of heartfelt, autobiographical songs.  Tonight he has parked the tour-bus in York and, as well as unloading a portion of that back-catalogue on the stage of the Grand Opera House, he also brings with him the supporting talents of daughter Lucy Wainwright-Roche.  Opening the show with a selection of mostly self-penned songs, Lucy demonstrates that the best of her father’s musical genes haven’t all been used up on Rufus and Martha.  Unlike much of the music of her half-siblings, Lucy’s own songwriting sits very comfortably alongside her dad’s.  Songs such as “Next Best Western”, “The Worst Part” and “Accident & Emergency” are just a few examples of the delicately melodic folk ballads that have been crafted from the raw materials of Lucy’s own life.  They’re also just a few reasons why this reviewer can’t help but make comparisons with Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent – the beginnings of a list of great female singer-songwriters to which Lucy surely belongs.  Just as the crowd begin to fall deeply in love with Lucy, her old man marches out on stage to give us a few wise words.  Indeed, there is something of the universal father-in-law in Mr Wainwright – he’s been there, he’s done that and now he’s going to tell you how it feels.  Luckily, ‘how it feels’ isn’t always as bad as you’d expect.  Divorce, fatherhood, getting old and even throwing your guitar on the fire can all have their moments of smirking clarity – “I guess that I’m just ageing like the finest wine and cheeses” Loudon sings in the side-splitting “Shit Song”, proving that there’s lyrical gold buried somewhere in life’s various miseries (“desperation’s the father of invention” he sings in “Bein’ a Dad”, another of tonight’s highlights).  Armed with a guitar, a banjo and a baby grand piano, Loudon blows us all away this evening with equal amounts of his inimitable heart and humour, each being delivered with a voice that doesn’t seem to have altered in forty years.  One minute you’re plunged into the emotion of “White Winos” – an exquisitely vivid portrait of Loudon’s relationship with his mother – and the next you’re laughing uncontrollably at a doowop-inspired song about the untimely death of a surfing queen.  Loudon also teams up with Lucy for a handful of duets during tonight’s performance.  For a few stunning moments, father and daughter depart from their own lyrics to give us their rendition of the evergreen Boudleaux Bryant song, “Love Hurts”, complete with the kind of harmonies that would surely fill Lucy’s mum, Suzzy Roche, with pride.  At sixty-four, Loudon is as good as he’s ever been and, like the song says, he is, indeed, ageing like the finest wine and cheeses.  His latest album Ten Songs for the New Depression is inspired by the recent financial crisis and proves that, while the economy and Mr Wainwright’s hairline struggle to recover from recession, the songs continue to flow like white wine.

Meschiya Lake and the Little Big House | Lucky Devil | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.05.11

Never judge a book by its cover – that’s what we’re always told, anyway.  And if we’re to apply the same old cliché to long playing records, then surely Lucky Devil by Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns isn’t the good old fashioned New Orleans jazz/blues album that its cover would have us believe.  Thankfully, the contents are exactly what you’d expect, and much more.  Thanks to the talents of that striped-stockinged, tattooed bar-room beauty on the cover, along with the timeless Dixieland sound of the Little Big Horns, this is nothing short of a steaming bowl of red hot Creole gumbo with a glass of bourbon on the side.  Somehow, sliding this debut album from New Orleans-based Lake and her band into a CD player seems too much of a newfangled thing to do to a record that really ought to be spinning beneath the needle of a gramophone.  Indeed, there are moments on this album – on “I’m Alone Because I Love You” and “Lucky Devil”, for example – when you’d be forgiven for thinking that Meschiya’s voice was being fed into one of Thomas Edison’s early phonograph cylinders.  As for the ‘Sox’ Wilson song “Gimme a Pigfoot” – well, not even Nina Simone (who covered this in 1966) dared to edge as close to that thirties sound as Meschiya does on this outstanding track.  To add to the authenticity of the album, Lake and her band have chosen songs by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and, of course, Bessie Smith, whose ghost lingers distinctly within the roomy echo of this, at times eerily atmospheric,  record.  There’s also a couple of self-penned numbers from Lake that just go to prove, along with the rest of this gem of a record, that no flood nor new century can subdue the spirit of New Orleans.

Chrissi Poland | Songs From the Concrete | Album Review | Danben | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.05.11

“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced…it’s good”.  That’s what soul music is all about, according to the Queen herself, Aretha Franklin. Chrissi Poland’s Songs From the Concrete is a soul-crammed scrapbook of life’s trials, love’s troubles and the tribulations of living in the real world – each song penned by Chrissi alone or with acclaimed composer and pianist John Cowherd.  But, like the best soul albums, getting the blood out of the stone is down to the power of the voice.  And what a voice it is.  There are moments on this seven-track album when Poland’s vocals grab you by the hairs on the back of your neck and simply won’t let go.  Just try reviewing songs such as “Yours Is The Love” and “Angel Weep For Me” and you’ll soon discover that you’re unable to type and listen at the same time – it’s difficult to write when you’ve got your eyes shut.  Poland has mixed her ‘concrete’ perfectly on this album.  Thrown into the tumbling drum is a masterful voice, a band so tight it could snap and songwriting that is reminiscent of Carole King, Janis Joplin and Sarah McLaughlin.  There’s also an exquisitely balanced assortment of styles that show off Poland’s flexibility.  “Thinking of You”, for example, presents heartfelt gospel while “Caught Between” is a deep, dark blues.  And then there’s “Sing” – an uplifting number that, although set in Chrissi’s current home of New York City, has New Orleans written all over it.  It comes as no surprise that Chrissi Poland has already worked with some of the biggest names – Elvis Costello, Sting and Moby to name just three.  She has also  toured with the Scissor Sisters and supported that little-known shrinking violet, Lady Gaga.  Perhaps, with this release, she’ll be able to step out of those rather sizeable and oddly-shaped shadows and let the spotlight fall on a voice that the legend Sam Moore says “you GOT to hear!”  After hearing Songs From the Concrete you’re left wanting more and it’s good to know that Chrissi has a busy touring schedule as well as another batch of self-penned songs up her sleeve.  Now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to fold away this laptop and listen to the album again.

Miss Tess | Darling Oh Darling | Album Review | Miss Tess | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.06.11

No matter where your tastes may lie, it’s most likely that you’ll reserve one or two musical taste-buds for at least one track on Miss Tess’s Darling Oh Darling – an album that ushers its listeners around a veritable museum of America’s musical heritage.  Riding Home is as good a place to start as any – a sweet slice of big band swing with all the right ingredients.  This, along with “I Just Wanna Make Love Again”, is the kind of song that any existing Miss Tess fan will have come to know and love.  Her 2007 release, When Tomorrow Comes, is an unabashed outpouring of jazz standards with more of a bow down to Ella Fitgerald than a simple nod.  Fortunately, Miss Tess possesses one of those incense-smoke voices that puts her snugly amongst the likes of Madeleine Peyroux and Melody Gardot rather than allowing her to vanish into that lingering mist of somewhat flavourless jazz singers.  If When Tomorrow Comes was Miss Tess’s Rubber Soul then Darling Oh Darling is surely her Revolver, demonstrating that there are several more strings to this artist’s bow.  “That Oo Oo Oo, Oh No” and “Train Ride to Caroline” provide a shot of pure rockabilly while “Darling Oh Darling” is a laid back, lap-steel guitar-laden country song.  And, just for good measure, there’s a brief but most welcome visit to New Orleans with “Saving All My Love”.  With an enormous band of strummers, pluckers, ticklers and blowers in tow and a voice that loiters for hours after the disc has stopped spinning, not to mention its dizzying blend of styles, this is an album to return to time and time again.

Rory Gallagher | Notes From San Francisco | Album Review | Eagle Records | Review by David Jennings | 10.07.11

Ok – where to start?  I knew about the ‘lost’ Rory album back in the 80’s, when the Torch album was mentioned in various articles and interviews (maybe around the time of Jinx?).  So like legions of other Rory fans, I was keen to hear any new material.  His final studio album, Fresh Evidence, was along time ago, in fact nearly twenty years, and since then releases have been either re-workings of previous releases, albeit with extra tracks, or live material that is always welcome, but is a variation on a familiar theme.  My long awaited copy of Notes From San Francisco arrived in the post the day of release, – thank you Badlands !!  Firstly, the packing.  This well designed Limited Edition book and two CD package is superb.  Very well designed and nicely made, it is a suitable format for such an important release to Rory fans worldwide.  Sleeve notes that detail recording information, arrangements and lyric changes are great to see, and add another level of interest to the songs, some of which are alternative versions of tracks subsequently released by Rory after ‘starting again’.  A couple of essays add background to the story behind this lost recording.  Original producer Elliot Mazer and Rory’s brother/manager Donal Gallagher supply a time-line and some fascinating anecdotes.  The first disc is the studio album, and it is a rich, layered affair with multi-track vocals and arrangements that go far beyond the previous studio albums by this line up.  It is obvious to me that a different pair of ears producing added another dimension to the sound Rory, Lou Rod and Gerry had previously made.  Bluepring, Calling Card, Against the Grain and Tattoo are fine albums, but they have a leaner, less arranged sound.  Notes From San Francisco is closest in ‘feel’ to Against the Grain and it could, in my opinion, have launched Rory into league One in the US. It just has a ‘sound’ that compares to the big AOR hits of the day, no doubt having Neil Youngs’ producer on board was a major factor here.  Starting with a barrelhouse piano intro, opening track “Rue The Day” is a classic Rory blues rock number, which is followed closely by similarly upbeat “Persuasion”.  Both tracks are skillfully arranged, full band numbers that would sit happily on any other Rory album of the period.  The next six tracks are familiar to Rory fans, having appeared on other albums in different versions.  Are they better or worse?  Well, neither.  They are different enough to be regarded as standalone songs, and they all fit the feel of the album.  Brass, keyboards and multiple guitars feature strongly, in contrast to the leaner arrangements on the other later versions.  “Overnight Bag” is perhaps the biggest departure, with phased, double tracked vocals, a new verse and different solos.  A second, less folky version of “Wheels Within Wheels” on the same album shows Rory was always working on arrangements.  The funky, stark sound of “Cut a Dash” is a real departure, and is the only track on the album that sounds like a work-in-progress.  To me, this is a ‘B-side’ as it stands, and is the weakest song on an otherwise excellent album.  “Out on the Tiles” finishes disc one the way it started, with a rocking Rory number.  Disc two is a live treat, with the trio Rory seemingly preferred returning to San Francisco a year after the recordings on disc one. Some blazing versions of familiar live tracks along with a few lesser heard live gems.  Stand-out tracks are “Tattoo’d Lady” and “Calling Card”, but the entire disc is superb and really showcases a band on top form, with Rory playing and singing at his usual 110%.  In summary, this album lives up to expectations, and would also be a fine place for new fans to start – any guitar players or rock fans who like Clapton, Springsteen, The Allman Brothers, Neil Young, John Cougar etc etc will find much to like here, and hopefully progress onto the rest of the formidable Rory back catalogue.  The more acoustic “Wheels Within Wheels”, featuring Martin Carthy amongst others, may be a gentler introduction formidable fans of UK folk and roots music.

Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three | Middle of Everywhere | Album Review | Continental Song City | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.07.11

With just a single spin of Middle of Everywhere it would seem that Pokey LaFarge has successfully mastered the art of time-travel.  One would imagine that Pokey’s garage, should he indeed own one, contains a selection of complex machinery engineered for the purpose of commuting from present to past with the anxious flick of a modified kitchen light-switch.  Glance over the sepia-toned inlay photographs of Pokey wearing a Fedora and Crombie and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this man has just returned from a shopping trip to the 1920s.  And it seems, while he was there, he had time to share a bourbon with W.C. Handy, Alberta Hunter, Bessie and Louis.  But while these songs might be dressed in old clothes, all thirteen of them are newborns, fresh from the pen of LaFarge himself.  Those of us who are partial to a bit of old-time jazz and blues but crave something shiny and new amongst all that roadside dust and vinyl static will, no doubt, love this record.  Amongst the sweet harmonies of “Head to Toe”, the feel-good western swing of “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye”, the shuffling percussion and slide guitar on “Sunny Side of the Street” and that good old St. Louis brass on “Feels So Good”, there lies a newness, a distinct breath of fresh air that proves that Pokey LaFarge is no throwback, he’s just showing us that there’s a lot more life left in the old dog yet.  Tilt your head slightly and you’ll note the shrinking gap between this hundred year-old musical style and the recent releases of the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White and The Strokes.  Pokey might sound like Robert Johnson on “Coffee Pot Blues” but, while our women are still leaving us and the whiskey’s still there to numb the pain, it’s only natural that even us 21st century kids turn to our old friend the blues.  Thankfully, Pokey’s brand of blues, like R. Crumb’s, Leon Redbone’s and Ry Cooder’s before him, is infused with a sense of humour that gives the album a happy-go-lucky, optimistic feel that might just put that time-machine into retirement and give us something to look forward to.

Jacqui Dankworth | It Happens Quietly | Album Review | Newquay Music / Proper Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.08.11

To be left without any kind of warm and fuzzy glow after hearing Jacqui Dankworth’s latest album, you would have to possess a heart made entirely of plastic or some such insentient, inanimate material.  It happens Quietly, like a good Disney film or snow on Christmas day, delivers just the right amount of charm, one would even say several moments of pure magic.  The album is dedicated to Jacqui’s father, the legendary Sir John Dankworth, who died during the making of the record.  The very fact that his is the first voice you hear on the record, as he asks if his daughter is ready for him to count in the band, adds to the already bittersweet flavour of the songs themselves.  You get the distinct feeling that Jacqui knew these would be her final hours with her father and was, therefore, totally unprepared for his count-in.  As well as leaving his well-known and much-loved spirit on these recordings, Sir John has also left the album dripping with spellbinding musical arrangements as well as a real goosebumper of a saxophone solo on “The Man” – a song co-written by this father and daughter team.  And as well as the luscious string and brass arrangements on this record, there’s the incomparable saxophone of Tim Garland, the exquisite bass of Jacqui’s brother, Alec Dankworth and the delectable piano of Jacqui’s musical director, Malcolm Edmonstone, to name just a few of the fine musicians that this record boasts.  Sir John’s arrangements perfectly complement his daughter’s lush, glassy vocals, mining old standards in order to produce diamonds such as “In The Still of the Night” and “At Last” – both, despite their age, sounding like brand new songs – and a version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” that finds the listener skipping back to listen again, even before track two has had a chance to start.  “Make Someone Happy” shows off the talents of pianist Malcolm Edmonstone, as well as the masterful production of Tony Platt, while “The Folks On The Hill” closes the album beautifully with handsome guitar accompaniment from Chris Allard and an immaculate vocal from Jacqui that surely filled Cleo with pride!  It Happens Quietly is a flawlessly produced, carefully structured tribute to both a father and a musical virtuoso.  It’s also Jacqui’s finest outing yet, released just in time to provide the warm and fuzzy glow for the forthcoming autumn months.

Michael Stegner | Fascination Nation | Album Review | CMA Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.08.11

There’s a laid-back, somewhat unenthusiastic quality to Kentucky-based Michael Stegner’s tenor voice, coupled with an occasional ‘just-woke-up’ crackle.  His vocals seem to hang perilously from his melodies, and though they could easily let go and tumble down the stave at any moment, they don’t.  After a few songs, you suddenly get it, just like that first time you heard David Byrne, Nick Cave or Ben Folds – all, surely, amongst Stegner’s influences.  Here’s a voice you want to tell people about, knowing all too well (and rather enjoying the fact) that some of those people will wonder what the heck you’ve been smoking.  If we’re talking influences, you might want to step back a little and take in the entire landscape of Stegner’s debut album, Fascination Nation.  There are moments on this record, particularly on the tracks “Illumined Man” and “I Miss You”, that are so Randy Newman, you’d half expect to hear them featured in a Disney/Pixar film.  Michael is, himself, a fine pianist but, like Newman, manages to cross a spectrum of genres with notable agility.  The songs on this album go from jazz to soul to funk to blues, but each keep a leather boot firmly grounded in story-fuelled country music.  Thankfully, Stegner has brought along a strong line-up of fellow musicians to help colour in-between the lines: Forrest Giberson (bass), Joe Doria (Hammond organ),  Colin Higgins (guitar), Mark Fung and Andy Sells (drums/percussion) as well as Dan Tyack, who provides a noteworthy steel guitar that makes the album sound like its front cover – a sun-drenched salvage yard, full of rusted tractor parts beneath a piercing blue American sky.  There’s also the occasional flourish of brass and some heavenly backing harmonies, too.

Miho Wada | Para Ti EP | EP Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.12.11

It’s always nice when a record falls into your lap from nowhere and immediately confirms itself as a lifelong favourite.  I was prompted to listen to Miho Wada’s Para Ti after reading her name in several jazz journals and noting that she belongs to that, nowadays all too rare species, the jazz flautist.  Thanks, in part, to legendary Anchorman Ron Burgundy, the jazz flute seems to have rolled into the groove cut by the cheesier side of jazz, often being regarded as one of the stand-out instruments of ‘light’ and ‘smooth’ jazz.  I, however, have always been a dedicated member of the Jazz Flute Appreciation Society, forcing Eric Dolphy and Herbie Mann albums upon those who insist on sullying the instrument’s status, before reminding them of the genius of Ian Anderson.  Thanks to Miho Wada, I now have another reason to fight for the cause.  A brief glance at this five-track EP may result in some confusion.  Tokyo-born, New Zealand-based Miho, with pink hair, pigtails and striped stockings, looks like she’s just emerged from the pages of a Japanese Manga.  Indeed, Miho is leading a self-confessed double life, releasing a handful of jazz recordings while also performing with her wonderfully-named Japanese Punk outfit, Miho Wada & The Shit Fight.  But never mind the punk – the five tracks on Para Ti explore a range of other, perhaps more palatable musical influences.  Bailamos is a buoyant, feel-good opener that not only introduces Miho’s bright, lilting flute but also acquaints the listener with the raw and graceful violin playing of Claire MacFarlane and Pascal Roggen.  And there’s an almost anticipated shift to a more traditional folk style with the second track, “Fancy Tango”, which demonstrates Miho’s ability to blend several styles of international folk music with her own brand of Eastern jazz.  The track also benefits from the effervescent, charged piano of Takumi Motokawa.  There’s another shift with “Welcome Home”, this time into a more mainstream, swing style, featuring the stunning clarinet of Mark Dennison.  Surely the thirst of any jazz-fan’s ears are quenched with this track’s catchy melody and wide jazz orchestra production.  “Cats Out” presents another jazzy production, this time with a cartoon feel that’s reminiscent of Raymond Scott and, at times, Vince Guaraldi.  Again, each separate instrument is given its moment to shine, particularly that lovely, scraping electric violin that perfectly captures the feline nature of this mischievous little piece.  The EP closes with “Los Dos”, complete with improvised solos from each musician, notably Miho herself who finds her most comfortable foothold in the rhythm of this Latin-flavoured, dance-inspiring climax.  With all that style-shifting, it may come as no surprise that Para Ti was released to accompany an educational score-book, providing students of Miho Wada with a range of improvisational exercises.  The EP, however, is gaining interest in its own right; and rightly so.  While this EP will, no doubt, sit snugly on my iPod for many years to come, I look forward to further outings from this intriguing and vibrant new artist.

Becca Stevens Band | Weightless | Album Review | Sunnyside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.03.12

I’ll admit it, I was looking for the next Billie Holiday when I discovered Becca Stevens.  It is, for me, a weekly ritual involving the scouring of music magazines and shops for that new voice, that next big thing in the Vocal Jazz section.  And, occasionally, a Norah Jones or an Esperanza Spalding will roll in, proving not only that jazz vocalists still have the ability to warp even the most rigid of spines, but also that jazz has evolved enough to claw a hole through some of the thickest and seemingly impenetrable divides.  Though it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s a blessing that our record shops are vanishing from the high street – who’d be a record shop assistant in a world where Norah Jones is producing jazz, country, pop, blues, soul and alternative rock?  I mean, where do you display the CD?  With Weightless (Sunnyside, 2011) Becca Stevens offers another boundary-defying album for our diverse record shelves.  At just 28 years old, New York-based singer, guitarist and composer Stevens is just beginning her solo career (albeit under the name of the Becca Stevens Band) but has already notched up several appearances on recordings by such notable jazz artists as Brad Mehldau, Taylor Eigsti and Curtis MacDonald.  With guitar, ukulele or even the South American charango in hand, and with a unique vocal style, Becca has served her apprenticeship as part of some of the finest jazz combos around, including the 18-piece Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra whose 2008 album Enjoy! won critical acclaim from just about everyone.  Weightless, with its rich acoustic sound and lashings of contrapuntal vocals from Stevens and each member of her band is a captivating, earthy fusion of folk and jazz.  The album, Becca’s second and best yet, opens with the enchanting title track “Weightless” – a veritable labyrinth of complex harmonies and rhythms, not only showcasing Becca’s songwriting and vocal prowess but also the magnetic blending of Becca’s strings, Liam Robinson’s accordion, Chris Tordini’s bass and Jordan Perlson’s percussion.  The song provides the foundation for the rest of the album, which includes a handful of beguiling reworkings of songs by The Smiths “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, Animal Collective “My Girls” and Seal “Kiss From a Rose”.  Aside from the, frankly, delectable organic, trickling acoustic sound that makes this album one of the most fresh and alluring jazz records of the last few years, the strength of Weightless lies within that one essential ingredient that led, initially, to its creation – Becca Stevens’s voice.  Here is a new voice for the jazz world and an altogether fresh sound for the music world as a whole.  And while there really is no point in searching for another Billie Holiday, the hunt may, at least, be validated by the occasional uncovering of precious gems such as this.

Rory Gallagher | Reissues | Album Review | Sony Legacy | Review  by David Jennings | 20.03.12

The reissue of the first six Rory Gallagher albums is a timely reminder of how recorded music is changing.  These remastered CDs are part of the Sony Legacy programme, intended to be the definitive edition of landmark albums by key artists.  It is testament to the lasting appeal of the Irish blues player that his entire back catalogue will be part of the Legacy project.  This review will focus on the first three albums, with the others to follow on.  These CDs are remastered form the original ¼” master tapes, and in the worlds of Rory’s nephew Daniel Gallagher, who has overseen the re-issues, they are intended to be the digital version that captures “the spirit of the original release…they look and sound exactly as Rory intended”.  The move from vinyl to CD to digital has recently been criticized by none other than Neil Young, and I have an opportunity to compare these formats in some depth, as I have the initial vinyl pressings of these albums, the earlier 1990s CD versions that were ‘remixed’, access to the Spotify streamed versions, and now these Sony Legacy editions that are newly remastered for digital, but not remixed like the earlier CD versions.  A piece about format differences will be along soon.  Before the format comparison – what about the music on these albums?   Well, it is, almost without exception, some of the best guitar-based rock, blues and roots music ever pressed into vinyl, and these remastered CDs are a fitting digital version.  The quality of playing is superb throughout, which is not surprising as Rory was widely acknowledged as one of the very best players, having turned down offers to join The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple over the years, and counting John Lennon, Hendrix, The Edge, Slash, Brian May  and Johnny Marr as fans.  His songwriting and singing are perhaps less renowned than his playing and his astonishing live shows, but these albums show the quality and depth of his talent, with a set of original songs that really are not bettered by any of his peers either for consistency or musicianship.   The self-titled debut LP and the follow up Deuce were both released in 1971, and either would be a career best for 99% of musicians.  Both contain songs Rory continued to play live for the next 20 years, and anyone interested in guitar music should just buy these albums.  Acoustic slide blues sit alongside rocky electric numbers and jazz infused workouts.  Standout tracks like “Laundromat” and “In Your Town” also appeared on the follow up album, Live In Europe – a visceral collection of songs recorded without overdubs in 1972, and the first Gallagher album to enter the Top 10 in the UK.  Understandably thought of as one of the all-time great live recordings, this is the album that inspired U2’s Adam Clayton and The Edge to play in a band.   The remastering is great, and has none of the boomy sound that, in my opinion, marred the earlier digital releases of these analogue classics.   Rory later recorded with stalwarts of the traditional music scene, such as Martin Carthy, the Dubliners and Davy Spillane, and while some of his output is more mainstream than traditional, you can hear his artistry shining through on these albums.  The first two studio albums were recorded back to back by 21 year old Rory, and yet they have a depth and musicianship that most artist fail to achieve over an entire career. 

Norman Bergen | Symphony Of Love | Album Review | North Mountain Music | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 26.04.12

There’s a distinct joy amongst the thirteen-tracks that make up Norman Bergen’s Symphony Of Love – a joy that derives from an unequivocal passion for music and the melodies that weave their way through the tapestries that are our lives.  Bergen’s own tapestry is something to behold.  His songs have been recorded by the likes of Tom Jones, Nick Lowe, Gloria Gaynor, Wyclef Jean and even Snoop Dogg.  He’s produced and arranged music for such eminent artists as Astrud Gilberto and Tiny Tim and has performed with Neil Sedaka, Cab Calloway and Joe Williams, to name just a few.  To refer to Norman Bergan’s contribution to music as significant would be to reinvent the art of the understatement.  Indeed, he has been living and breathing music for some sixty-eight years.  Now, almost five decades since Arthur Prysock recorded the first version of Bergen’s most famous hit, “Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart” – a song that has since prompted a further eighty renditions, including the one by Bergen himself that features on this album – this pianist, arranger, songwriter and producer finally emerges from the shadows with a record of mostly self-penned songs, each of them rich with the kind of memorable melodies that can only be the work of a songwriter whose musical roots are embedded in the sixties of the Brill Building, Phil Spector, Carole King, The Beach Boys, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield.  Indeed, the title track of Symphony Of Love is a no-holds-barred tribute to that most musical of decades, and the only departure that Bergen makes from his own songwriting on this album comes in the shape of the 1963 Hawker/Raymonde classic, “I Only Want To Be With You”.  And it’s not all toe-tapping, goosebump-inducing, sixties-inspired melodies.  The album opens with “I Saw The Full Moon”, a respectable Dixieland ditty, complete with traditional New Orleans jazz backing.  “I’d Rather Do Nothin’ With You” is a Glen Campbell-esque, finger-picking country song while the upbeat blues song, “Love of My Life”, will please the Ray Charles fans amongst us.  Bergen’s warm, laid-back vocals have all the sincerity of Willie Nelson’s, and just as much flexibility, too.  Symphony Of Love presents a selection of songs from a songwriter whose primary concern is to write a good melody, regardless of genre or changing approaches to musical composition.  The lush orchestral arrangements complement Bergen’s thoughtful lyrics and pleasing chord structures, not to mention his subtle yet intricate piano style.  Here we have the product of a craftsman in his workshop – and a fine example it is, too.

Darrell Scott | The Duchess, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.07.12

Like many American singer songwriters, Darrel Scott possesses that just right factor.  As with those by James Taylor, Guy Clark, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tim O’Brien, Scott’s records are like a drop of good whiskey after a long day out there in the world.  His soothing yet emotionally-charged voice slips into each line of his poetic songs like an arm into the sleeve of a cherished shirt. And whatever label you slap on it – Country, Americana, Folk – Scott’s brand of songwriting is, simply put, the product of a brimming memory, a sentient soul and a dexterous hand.  Lucky for us, then, that Darrell dropped into The Duchess in York on Sunday evening, to play us a few new songs from his superb new album, Long Ride Home, as well a handful of his previous best.  Supported by local singer songwriter Boss Caine, whose razor-sharp finger-picking and gritty, beer-soaked vocals pointed us down that dirt road towards the America of our headliner, Scott illuminated the dark Duchess stage with the flickering projector reels of such songs as “Hopkinsville”, “No Use Living For Today” and the beautiful “Someday” – all highlights from his latest, nostalgic release.  Of the many pin-dropping moments it was, perhaps, during “The Country Boy” – a song penned with his late father, the musician Wayne Scott – that the explosion of a dropped pin would have done the most damage.  The ghost of Scott’s father, indeed the spectre of his entire childhood, haunts Long Ride Home and, thanks to Scott’s heartfelt delivery and generosity, those spirits almost blew out the candles on each of the Duchess’s twinkling tables.  Whilst the poetry of Darrell Scott’s songs has long been delighting the ears of this particular reviewer, it was the deft and, frankly, dazzling guitar playing that left the biggest impression after Sunday’s gig.  Scott’s often very subtle delivery was frequently whipped up into a frenzy of extended guitar solos and chord-juggling, such magic that one would expect to see from Tommy Emmanuel, Stefan Grossman and Tony Rice, and which seemed almost impossible considering that the sound was coming from one man with one guitar.  Rodney Crowell once called Scott “scary good”, a fact that was confirmed by the candle-lit expressions of horror on the more amateur guitarists in Sunday’s audience.  And while we go and put our fingers underneath a bus, we hope Darrell is cooking up plans to return soon again to our neck of the woods.

Mary Chapin Carpenter | Ashes and Roses | Album Review | Decca | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 15.07.12

The singer songwriter Sarah McLachlan once said of sadness that it is “a great place to get songs from”.  Indeed, Sarah has been shopping there for years and has brought home bags and bags of melancholic songs in her time.  It is one of the great ironies that every artist inevitably encounters: the saddest times are often the most fruitful when it comes to art.  Mary Chapin Carpenter has had more than her fair share of sadness of late.  The death of her father, the break up of her marriage and a serious illness all recently befell this cherished singer songwriter during a short space of time.  The result?  Grief, anguish and despair.  And yet, in the hands of one of our finest songwriters, those sobering moments not only inspired a bunch of sad and beautiful songs but an outpouring of poetry and melodies on a theme of getting through the pain and resolving to repair oneself.  Ashes And Roses documents the journey towards healing.  It’s a deeply personal though entirely universal album – a work of delicate beauty for those of us who are hoping to hear another great Mary Chapin Carpenter album, and, for those of us experiencing darker days, a true account of how the heart, head and soul can make it through the rain.  “Transcendental Reunion”, with it’s references to travelling alone and being herded through airports and onto planes, is the perfect opener for an album about coping with the uncontrollable forces that life hurls at us.  Bitterness and frustration are explored in “What To Keep and What To Throw Away” and the sublime “The Swords We Carried” – a song that perfectly describes the loss of trust in a once loving relationship – while “Chasing What’s Already Gone” is a Polaroid picture of the past.  “Another Home” provides the turning point in the album as it explores the possibility of starting a new life – a theme that is, perhaps, better presented later with “Learning the World”.  As the journey progresses, the ashes give way to roses as the songs become more uplifting and optimistic.  And what better way to celebrate than with the sudden presence of James Taylor whose voice and guitar make a welcome appearance on Soul Companion – a song that celebrates the company of others, just when you thought the loneliness would never lift.  As well as its deeply moving subject matter, Ashes And Roses benefits from some fine musicianship and a sound that paints a picture of a softly-lit, cosy coffee-house gig behind rain-spotted windows.  Mary Chapin Carpenter’s voice remains at a subtle, sombre level throughout the album, never making the unnecessary climb above the lines of delicate, unfussy melody.  It is a voice that’s perfectly complemented by the ethereal electric guitar of Duke Levine, Mary’s trickling acoustic finger-picking and the gentle yet defiant piano of Matt Rollings.

Pat Metheny | Unity Band | Album Review | Nonesuch | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 18.07.12

Over the last century, Jazz has drawn a varied map of adventures for the guitar. From Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell to John McLaughlin, Herb Ellis to John Abercrombie, the guitar has been handled by just about as many innovators, technicians, wizards and eccentrics in jazz as it has in rock, blues or any other musical genre.  Some of the finest moments in the guitar’s more recent history have been down to Pat Metheny who, ever since serving his apprenticeship with Gary Burton’s band in the mid-1970s, has played an indefatigable role in blending a multitude of musical styles and genres in order to create a compelling discography while helping to maintain the guitar’s reputation as a significant jazz instrument.  Metheny’s latest in a long line of ambitious projects is Unity Band; a record that sees Metheny, once again, exploring and, ultimately, pushing the boundaries of the quartet.  And what a quartet it is.  While Pat, at times sublimely, works his way through a selection of electric and acoustic guitars to create that utterly delicate, sagacious sound by which he has come to be defined, the Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez delights with the percussive delirium he has so often brought to Metheny’s recordings.  Winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition and fresh from his 2011 debut solo album, State Of Play, Ben Williams proves, as part of Metheny’s unit, just why he is now regarded as one of the most sought-after bassists in the whole of jazz. And, thanks to the combined generosity and wisdom of our guitarist leader, the well-respected saxophonist Chris Potter, who has almost twenty recordings as leader under his belt as well as hundreds as sideman for the likes of Paul Motian and Dave Holland, is ushered into the spotlight – often with exhausting power and ingenuity – on this record.  Highlights of Unity Band include “Roofdogs” which, with Potter’s exploratory soprano sax, often reaches the euphoria of John Coltrane’s more spiritual work; “This Belongs to You” features a sumptuous, stripped-back performance from Pat on acoustic guitar; “Leaving Town” is a departure from the rest of the album, with its laid-back grin and band-in-a-room production, before a rapturous climax is well and truly reached on the album’s closing track, “Breakdealer”.  With its simple, stylised white-text-on-a-black-background for a cover and only nine tracks and four musicians in total, you’d be forgiven for any initial minimalistic ideas you might have about this record.  What you get, however, is a locomotive of an album, crashing through any preconceived ideas of what a jazz quartet recording is and, perhaps, ought to be.

Bruce Kaphan Quartet | Bruce Kaphan Quartet | Album Review | Wiggling Air Records | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 23.07.12

Like the crumhorn, the kettle drum and the pipe organ, the pedal steel is one of those strange instruments that you rarely see at your local jazz club.  Unlike the crumhorn, however, the pedal steel is a mainstay of the blues – a genre so closely related to jazz that you’d expect to see many more sliders washing up on the jazz shore.  Here’s one. Bruce Kaphan is a San Francisco-based musician, composer and producer who, with his latest album Bruce Kaphan Quartet has broken into the jazz world using his pedal steel and a handful of fine musicians, most notably Jeffrey Wash: a fretless bass player with the tenderest of touches.  The album features eight original compositions, each showcasing the landscape-evoking moans of Kaphan’s pedal steel, smeared over the stand-up groove of the piano, bass and drums.  The remaining tracks are covers and include a slick version of Weather Report’s “Birdland” and a particularly pleasing and entirely suitable interpretation of the Allman Brothers’ classic “Jessica”.

Empirical | Elements of Truth | Album Review | Naim Jazz | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 24.07.12

There’s a lot to be happy about in British jazz at the moment.  We Brits have produced some of the finest, most adventurous and industrious jazz outfits of the last few years: The Neil Cowley Trio, Kairos 4tet, Polar Bear and Portico Quartet have all produced some outstanding music, but ask this reviewer where to start and he will reply Empirical – a four-piece band of young, like-minded musicians, each intent upon capturing the state of the world around them in moments of ‘trial and error’ improvisation (according to the statement on their website).  Whatever their intentions, the result has been three very captivating, stunningly presented records.  Elements Of Truth, their third release, showcases the intertwining and occasionally starkly contrasting sounds of Nathaniel Facey’s energetic sax and Lewis Wright’s dreamlike vibraphone upon the rolling and often foreboding tide of Tom Farmer’s drums and Shaney Forbes’s bass.  Guest pianist George Fogel adds a very fitting yet somewhat uncanny white foam to the scene.  Aside from the frequent outbursts of complex, driving rhythms that have come to typify much of the contemporary British jazz scene, there are some truly exceptional moments of ethereal, otherworldly jazz on this record, specifically during “Out of Sight”, “Out of Mind (Part 1)” and “Cosmos (for Carl Sagan)” – music that, like Carl Sagan himself, is capable of going against the grain and mesmerising you with the potential for beauty in chaos.

Red June | Beauty Will Come | Album Review | Red June Records | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 25.07.12

With roots firmly planted in the Appalachian tradition and branches reaching defiantly into the fresh and lively breezes of contemporary Americana, North Carolina trio Red June are surely about to enjoy a veritable autumn of success, dropping their leaves into many a contented ear with the release of their second album Beauty Will Come.  Opening with the delicious and somewhat Gram Parsons-esque “These Old Chains” – penned by the trio’s guitarist and vocalist Will Straughan – Beauty Will Come is a Sunday afternoon country album with all the sweetness of an early Alison Krauss record and the warm veneer of anything by Tim O’Brien.  There’s clearly no leader of the pack here as each member of the trio takes his or her turn on lead vocal.  And whether it’s resonator guitar, mandolin or fiddle, there’s plenty of chance to enjoy the slick yet disarmingly subtle artistry of each player.  There’s the occasional reel and breakdown thrown down the mountain, a few gutsy, harmony-laden bluegrass numbers and even a spine-tingling a capella version of Bob Flemming’s “I’m Willing To Try”.  Amongst all of this, however, lies the real deal breaker – a selection of finely crafted country songs with lyrics to warm the heart and melodies and chord changes to make it flutter.

Eddie Gomez | Per Sempre | Album Review | Varese Fontana | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 28.07.12

The title of Eddie Gomez’s latest release is entirely fitting.  Indeed, it seems as if Puerto Rican double bassist Gomez has been around ‘per sempre’ – forever.  Accompanist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Benny Goodman and, most notably, Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez has long been a familiar name in the liner notes, but one that has rarely taken the spotlight.  On Per Sempre, however, there are moments when the double bass – rawly plucked, mournfully bowed and occasionally accompanied by Eddie’s vocal mumblings – assumes a character all its own with the aid of some truly mesmerising bass techniques.  Despite this obvious dexterity and his years of informed experience, Gomez never climbs on top of his fellow musicians.  More than anything, Per Sempre provides an example of how a group of instruments can delicately blend and their phrases may be allowed to subtly expand and contract to create moments of true musical emotion.  The melding of Matt Marvuglio’s flute and Marco Pignataro’s saxophone on this record, especially when embracing Gomez’s gorgeous, melancholic melodies on “Arianna” and “Pops & Alma”, is a delicious affair indeed.  Teo Ciavarella smears himself all over the keyboard to create a wide expanse of piano accompaniment while Massimo Manzi’s sweeping sheen of cymbals and brushed snare lowers a glass jar over the album to keep it all in.  Like the best Bill Evans recordings, Eddie Gomez’s Per Sempre is a thoughtful, dimly-lit production from a musician who knows that less is more than enough.

Antony and the Johnsons | Cut The World | Album Review | (Rough Trade | Review  by Liam Wilkinson | 19.08.12

After a steady stream of emotionally-charged, positively unique and often genuinely bewitching studio albums, Antony and the Johnsons have made the very sensible decision to release a live album.  Cut The World comprises a selection of live recordings taken from the band’s September 2011 concerts at the DK Concert Hall in Copenhagen, as well as a studio recording of “Cut The World”, a brand new song from the pen of Antony Hegarty.  After the album’s stirring, symphonic title track, there comes a lengthy and absorbing introduction, recorded live on stage, by Antony himself.  And it’s an intro that sets the tone for the entire record; a chatty preamble on the subject of spirituality, sexuality and the nature of our ecologically doomed world.  Deep stuff indeed, and yet, despite its heavy message, there’s something charming about Antony’s informal tone – a delivery that aids the digestion of the acidic hatred Antony has experienced, particularly in the monotheistic religions he so casually mentions.  Charming is a good word for the rest of the album, too.  These luscious, symphonic recordings of some of Antony’s most profoundly poetic and melodically arresting songs are like operatic nursery rhymes, each getting under the skin with as much ease as a splinter but without any of the discomfort.  “Cripple and the Starfish”, “Kiss My Name” and “The Crying Light” are all highlights, but like the best live albums, the record should be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the lights turned down and the volume turned up.

The Steel Wheels | Lay Down, Lay Low | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.08.12

Lay Down, Lay Low is the third and most recent release from Virginia-based bluegrass band The Steel Wheels.  This refreshingly crisp bluegrass album, equal in contemporary country sheen as irresistible old-timey scuffs, benefits greatly from the Darrell Scott-esque vocals of Trent Wagler, the liquidity of Jay Lapp’s drip-dropping mandolin and Eric Brubaker’s weeping fiddle.  However, the album’s best moments arise out of the harmonies that this band are capable of creating.  While “Breaking Like The Sun” is reason enough to add this record to any collection, “Halfway To Heaven” and “Indian Trail” secure this album’s place in the long list of must-have bluegrass albums of the year.

Tin Hat | The Rain Is A Handsome Animal | Album Review | New Amsterdam | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.08.12

Ten years ago, while sitting in my cold and leaky garden flat by the sea, I switched on the radio and heard what sounded like a violin dancing with a broken mattress.  The sound turned out to be a tune entitled “Fountain of Youth” by the Tin Hat Trio.  I was hooked and, over the next decade, I stuffed my record collection with everything the trio released; from the eerie chamber music of Memory Is An Elephant and Helium, via the malformed western swing of The Rodeo Eroded, to the haunting insert-genre-here of Book Of Silk and The Sad Machinery Of Spring.  Surreal, otherworldly, usually instrumental though often accompanied by the vocals of violinist Carla Kihlstedt or such eminent guests as Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, the Tin Hat Trio – known as Tin Hat since the departure of accordionist Rob Burger – have been defying categorisation for fifteen years with a steady stream of weirdly unique, though always exquisite, records.  Billing the project as their most ambitious to date, Tin Hat have just released The Rain Is A Handsome Animal – a seventeen movement song-cycle using as lyrics the poetry of e.e.cummings.  Employing the usual, spine-tingling blend of accordion, clarinet, guitar and violin, the band have, once again, tinkered with the mechanisms of jazz, classical and European folk to produce the usual captivating monster that is their unparalleled brand of chamber music.  This time, however, Carla Kihlstedt breathes life into the deformed marionette with her wispy, ethereal vocals and the unpredictable modernist poetry of the perpetually lower case e.e. cummings.  Like their 2007 outing The Sad Machinery Of Spring, which was inspired by the writings of Bruno Shulz, Tin Hat’s The Rain Is A Handsome Animal presents another perfect marriage – that of the band’s dark and chilling acoustic sound with the words of a troubled artist.  And whether you’re approaching this album as a Tin Hat devotee, a cummings reader or someone with a penchant for the musically extraordinary, you’ll be thoroughly entertained and nourished by the record’s spirited inventiveness and mischievous charm.

The Vespers | The Fourth Wall | Album Review | Black Suit | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.09.12

After a sweet, jangly and quietly self-released debut two years ago, Nashville-based four-piece The Vespers have returned with another richly melodic album of instantly loveable folk-pop songs.  The Fourth Wall, like its 2010 predecessor Tell Your Mama, is brimming with those whistle-inspiring Americana songs that are an ad-man’s dream; the ones that invariably end up on washing powder commercials due to their infectious melodies.  There is, however, a depth to this band’s brand of seemingly buoyant folk-pop thanks to the breadth of musicianship and ingenuity.  Those catchy melodic phrases, for example, are agreeably plumped out thanks to Callie and Phoebe Cryar, the band’s lead vocalists, whose sibling harmonies are angelic and often preternatural in their courage and complexity, reaching, in several places, the dizzying heights of Larkin Poe.  Completing the line-up, brothers Bruno and Taylor Jones cite southern rock, folk and blues as their unshakable inspirations.  As well as including a cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face”, there’s also a generous helping of bluegrass and gospel on this record, particularly in the ground-shaking prayer “Lawdy” and the banjo-frailing, old timey “Will You Love Me”.  The album also benefits from a sprinkling of effervescent pop songs such as “Flower Flower” and the uke-plucking “Jolly Robber”.  Weaving in and out of light and lilting love songs, gritty blues numbers and Sunday spirituals, The Vespers have built upon an impressive debut and, if there’s any justice, we’ll be hearing much more from them as a result.

Miho Wada | Wanderland | Album Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.09.12

Following on from last year’s Para Ti, Miho Wada has revisited her PlayM!ho score book to produce another exuberant and energetic collection.  Wanderland is an eight-track scrapbook of flute-led jazz tunes inspired by the landscape of Miho’s home in Auckland, New Zealand. Composed “while walking her puppy” around Auckland, each composition presents an impressionistic picture of Miho’s own “Wanderland”, instilled with a palpable warmth and generosity of spirit.  Miho doesn’t hold back – her flute style is at once fearless, passionate and exploratory.  Unfold the CD’s insert and you’ll melt deeper into the mind of this Japanese-born, New Zealand-based jazz flautist and occasional punk vocalist (Wada is also the lead singer of the daintily-named Miho Wada & The Shit Fight).  In her liner notes, Miho describes the track Bears and Bamboos as a tune about a mountain bear who wishes he were a panda and notes that “Breakfast With Aliens” is a feast of laser beamed eggs.  Surreal the titles may be, but Wanderland is a seriously good jazz record with as much complexity in its arrangements as in its bizarrely enchanting inspirations.  Miho is joined by violinist Pascal Roggen, cellist James Donaldson, bassist Leo Corso, guitarist Andrew Rudolph, pianist Takumi Motokawa and percussionists Alistair Deverick and Jane Chen.  The album was entirely written, arranged and produced by Miho Wada.

TG Collective | Release The Penguins | Album Review | Stoney Lane Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.09.12

One would need a Large Hadron Collider to discover the single unknown something that makes TG Collective’s Release The Penguins the infectious little treasure that it is.  There is so much at play here – from the madcap title track that is as much Raymond Scott as it is Django Reinhardt to the flirtatious flamenco of “Silhouette”; from the intricate mystery of “Sutta and Homage” to the dramatic, somewhat filmic complexity of “The Long Arm”.  The mix of gypsy-style guitar, flute, percussion, bass and the occasional trumpet creates, at once, a full yet attractively sparse sound that pulls you toward the music rather than bringing it to you.  Much more than your average gypsy jazz album, this record is a thoughtful tour of that surprisingly varied terrain.  Often intoxicating in its musical curiosity and so exquisitely produced, Release The Penguins exemplifies the diversity and ambition that exists in contemporary British jazz.

Maurizio Minardi | My Piano Trio | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.09.12

Italian-born, London-based pianist Maurizio Minardi has just released another superlative collection of thoughtful compositions that blur the line between classical and jazz. My Piano Trio, with it’s Magritte-inspired cover art, is reminiscent of the best of Jacques Loussier but with an uplifting contemporary feel.  Testing the technical and emotional limits of each Bach-like arpeggio, Minardi’s meditative piano seems to seep out of the speakers and deep into the listener.  With all the studious consideration of Bill Evans and the subtle intensity of Esbjorn Svensson, My Piano Trio – which actually features five musicians and three trio setups – presents a beautifully tranquil and, at times, brooding performance from a modern master.

Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks | The Sales Tax | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.09.12

As one of Australia’s foremost jazz bassists, Leigh Barker has earned himself quite a reputation.  As well as appearing with his own bands and as sideman for some of Australia’s best jazz musicians, Leigh has also played with such renowned jazzmen as saxophonist Branford Marsalis and guitarist Doug Wamble.  Barker’s most recent project is Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks – a six-piece 1930s jazz/blues outfit fronted by the Australian singer Heather Stewart.  The Sheiks’ latest album The Sales Tax is a live recording that not only showcases the band’s authentic 30s sound but also proves that they are capable of putting on a hell of a show.  Heather’s gin-soaked vocals, balanced somewhere between Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, while managing to remain totally unique and alluring, wind their way around an impressive repertoire of blues and ragtime numbers by such eminent artists as Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes and, their namesakes, the Mississippi Sheiks.  The record – or, shall we say, performance – also benefits from a couple of tasty instrumentals that show off the immaculate, often bowed bass of the band’s mastermind, Leigh Barker.

Coltrane Revisited | Birdland NYC | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.09.12

Leaving the bustle and steam of New York’s 8th Avenue and drifting onto the quieter West 44th Street, you’re suddenly met with the glare of a familiar neon sign hanging in the window of a small, otherwise unassuming bar.  It just happens to be Birdland – the ‘jazz corner of the world’, according to Charlie Parker, the man who gave his name to the club back in 1949 when it was located on Broadway.  Step through a couple of sets of curtained doors and you find yourself in the warm, red-lit and altogether womb-like jazz club that has played host to some of the best performances and finest performers the jazz world has known.  Tonight it’s the turn of legendary pianist Steve Kuhn, saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Andrew Cyrille – an all-star quintet going by the name of Coltrane Revisited, formed in tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane who would have turned 86 this week.  After a spot of dinner and a glass of wine, Mr Kuhn takes to the stage, gradually followed by his fellow musicians, to perform the second of this evening’s concerts, beginning with a solid fifteen minute interpretation of the Latin-flavoured “Fifth House” from Coltrane’s 1961 album, Coltrane Jazz.  The opening number gives Eric Alexander a chance to show off his artistry as one of the best reedsmen in his field.  It also gives the Martini-sipping late crowd the chance to let down their hair and tap their feet madly beneath the lamp-lit tables of this cosy midtown club.  With that particular Coltrane classic tackled, the quintet move into sacred territory with a rendition of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” – perhaps the most ambitious take on a Rogers and Hammerstein composition and Coltrane’s most commercially successful recording.  Former pianist of the John Coltrane Quartet, Steve Kuhn, sets the scene with a choppy piano intro which is steadily swept up by the brooding tide of remaining instruments.  Alexander’s tenor sax delights in mirroring Coltrane’s take on the familiar melody, whilst offering a uniquely strong, filled-out alternative to the languid fragility of Coltrane’s soprano.  Whilst the fragility of Tom Harrell’s health is clear from tonight’s performance, there’s nothing weak about his playing and, during “My Favorite Things”, Harrell’s trumpet solo is a sophisticated, show-stopping affair that contrasts the stillness of the musician’s physical presence.  Lonnie Plaxico’s bass solo is, at times, awash with Mingus-esque experiments that are ideally placed in this ever-meditative piece, as are the splashes of cymbal and tumbling rolls of Cyrille’s thoughtfully distributed drum breaks.  And it’s a true delight to witness the interplay between certain musicians and their instruments on stage tonight – not least between Kuhn and Plaxico and, most enchanting of all, the harmonic engagement of Harrell’s trumpet and Alexander’s sax.  Further highlights of tonight’s tribute to Coltrane include a driving, ever-intensifying version of “My Shining Hour”, the sleepy elegance of “Theme For Ernie” – complete with a hypnotic bowed bass solo from Plaxico – and, to conclude, a reading of Coltrane’s Mr PC that prompts Andrew Cyrille to perform a drum-seat solo that sends everyone out into the New York night with a contented grin.  Another happy birthday to John Coltrane from all of us at Birdland.

Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin | Derby Assembly Rooms | Review by Sam Hindley | 17.10.12

On Wednesday night, I found myself in familiar surroundings at the Derby Assembly Rooms for an intimate acoustic evening with two of America’s greatest female singer songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin, together, no support, no backing band, just them and their guitars complimenting their beautiful voices.  You could really appreciate what fantastic vocalists they are.  Having enjoyed Mary’s music from being a young child, I’ve always loved her voice, but I don’t think I had ever really appreciated how deep and rich it is.  Colvin’s voice is very lovely too, and they go together perfectly especially when Colvin is taking the lead and Chapin sings harmony above her.  Hardly surprising then that they kicked off the evening together with a really lovely version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, which appears on Colvin’s latest album.  Then a Mary Chapin song, “I Have a Need for Solitude”, from her 2010 album The Age of Miracles.  Following this, the pair played one solo number each, Shawn chose her song, “Trouble”, while Mary gave a taste of her latest album Ashes and Roses with “Chasing What’s Already Gone”, which is my personal favourite from the album.  This album in Chapin’s words is a ‘narrative arc’ and covers times in her life from divorce, depression and joy.  A lovely album, but for me, there is not enough about joy, however on the evening she did pick my favourites, so that was ok.  Another song together followed, a cover this time of Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”, which was absolutely brilliant.  More solo songs from each, Colvin, sang her song “Diamond in the Rough”, which turned out to be my favourite from her on the night; it has been stuck in my head ever since.  Carpenter chose another from her latest album with “What To Keep and What to Throw Away”.  It was at this point that I was sat there thinking ‘three new songs in a row, very nice, thank you, but I need a hit here soon Mary’.  She must have read my mind, as her next song was the old favourite, “This Shirt”, and a great version too.  Their next choice, together was Colvin’s own composition “A Change is on the Way”, followed by the interesting choice of Crowded House’s “Four Seasons in One Day” and a really nice version of Steve Earle’s Someday.  The next highlight came just before the encore in the form of a fabulous version of Mary Chapin’s classic song, “The Hard Way”, really good to hear this again.  A four song encore was to follow consisting of two more covers songs and one solo number from each.  Colvin performed her song “Therapy” and Carpenter another song from her new album.  As a Mary Chapin fan, I could have done with one more old song, but I’m sure the Shawn Colvin fans in the audience were thinking the same thing.  The final cover songs ranged from Tom Waits’ “Hold On” to the beautiful “That’s the Way Love Goes” (Lefty Frizzell), finishing off another wonderful evening.

Gary Bartz | Coltrane Rules: Tao of a Music Warrior | Album Review | OYO Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.10.12

Surely one of the most exhilarating jazz releases of the year so far, Gary Bartz’s Coltrane Rules: Tao Of A Music Warrior is a multifaceted statement of an album.  At once a celebration of and tribute to John Coltrane, this eleven-track album could, at times, be easily mistaken for an original Coltrane release, evoking, as it does, the powerfully meditative playing of that much-missed jazz legend.  For almost half a century, Bartz has been considered one of the best saxophonists of his generation, his playing having been compared with Coltrane on countless occasions.  With this latest release, Bartz explores the spirituality of the late saxophonist’s and, indeed, his own ruminative playing.  There are moments when Bartz’s sax is indistinguishable from that of Coltrane, meandering capriciously through improvised lines over the reliable, reflective yet unobtrusive playing of pianist Barney McAll, bassist James King and drummer Greg Bandy.  There are also gospel-influenced vocals from Andy Bey, Ommas Keith, Makea Keith, Eric Rose and Bartz himself, adding an extra dimension to an album that was already, at best, a multidimensional modern classic.

Daniel McBrearty | Clarinet Swing | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.10.12

Subtlety seems to be the underpinning factor on the superbly spare and unadorned new record by Welsh-born, Belgium-based clarinetist Daniel McBrearty.  Inspired by a visit to New Orleans, Clarinet Swing – an album of mainly jazz standards with a few McBrearty originals thrown in – was recorded in just two days with only pianist Dirk Van der Linden and bassist Jean Van Lint there to provide accompaniment.  And, with a production that’s unencumbered by audio effects and multi-tracking, this tastefully uncluttered record, at times reminiscent of the 1940s recordings of the Benny Goodman Trio, succeeds in reducing each composition to its essential parts.  Take, for instance, the opening track: Raymond Hubbell’s “Poor Butterfly” has never sounded so sparse.  And yet the effect is almost hypnotising.  You can hear the length of every breath as it makes it’s way down McBrearty’s clarinet.  As for Van der Linden’s piano, there’s nothing showy here, and yet the musician’s joy and passion for his art is palpable in every note.  Jean Van Lint’s double bass arrives on the second track, McBrearty’s own “March of the Bluestones”, complete with the rustic twang of string on wood.  This is as far as the sound needs to be pushed and you can hear the bounce of every note off every wall in that confined space.  Apart from the very welcome originals, you find yourself hoping for certain standards as the album proceeds. Sometimes those wishes are fulfilled.  There’s a delightful version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” here, a slow and intimate “Body and Soul” and a surprisingly infectious “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”.  There’s also a snugly-fitting reworking of “When I Grow Old To Dream”, complete with vocals from McBrearty that add to the warmth and charm of this elegantly cosy record.

Wild Card | Everything Changes | Album Review | Top End Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.10.12

As London-born jazz records go, you’d be hard pushed to find one that reflects the capital city more sharply than Wild Card’s latest release.  Exuberant, energetic, bold – Everything Changes is a carnival of urban rhythms and serpentine Latin grooves.  It is, at once, an album that lifts you to your feet but encourages you to stop and absorb every one of its many thoughtfully dexterous solos.  And what soloists they are, too.  Consisting of French guitarist Clement Regert, percussionist Sophie Alloway and organist Andrew Noble, London-based trio Wild Card provides a wealth of consistently strong breaks.  Add to the mix special guests such as trombonist Dennis Rollins, trumpeter Graeme Flowers and saxophonist/flautist Robert Manzin and you have yourself a pretty gutsy sextet.  Throw in a couple of spellbinding raps from French rappeuse B’Loon and you’ve got an album that just won’t let go of the CD drawer.  With such a tenacious group of musicians at the helm, the album is nothing short of a pleasure cruise and these waters are, thankfully, populated by the compositions of such masters as Horace Silver “Psychedelic Sally”, Jason Moran “Ms. Garvey Ms. Garvey” and Steve Kuhn “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers”.  There’s even a hypnotic, Latin-infused version of Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” – a cheesy yet, somehow, welcome diversion to which I intend to return time and again, just for the sheer joy of it.

Ed Cherry | It’s All Good | Album Review | Posi-Tone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.10.12

There’s a cleanliness in Ed Cherry’s guitar style, an immaculate delicacy that is never allowed to stray into the clinical precision of a smoother kind of jazz.  On It’s All Good, Cherry’s playing breathes its soul out in whispers, often tackling some rather complex melodies and improvisations with a lightness that prompts you to get as close as you can to the speaker.  Occasionally, the notes will jump out like controlled explosions, but with an admirable effortlessness.  And when they do, you know that Ed means it.  These dynamics are mirrored in the organ of Pat Bianchi, a player of incredible control and elegance whose background work, coloured with a spectrum of striking tones, is equally if not more enticing than his solos.  Byron Landham’s drums are distributed about the album like a fine dust on “In a Sentimental Mood”, often mounting into impressive clumps on “Deluge”.  Indeed, having backed Dizzy Gillespie for over a decade while also appearing with saxophonist Henry Threadgill and organist John Patton, Ed Cherry clearly surrounds himself with only the cream of the crop.  It’s All Good is a sumptuous collection of covers and originals from a trio of musicians who seem, throughout, to be aware of just how great they sound together.  Let’s hope they have the good sense to reconvene in the studio in the not too distant future.

Miss Tess | Sweet Talk | Album Review | Signature Sounds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.10.12

Three years have passed since the release of Miss Tess’s last studio album and while much of the sassy, brassy jazz appears to have been drained from her repertoire, it’s a delight to report that New York’s Tess hasn’t let go of the crackling-hot rockabilly that made Darling Oh Darling sizzle.  Sweet Talk – Miss Tess’s latest release and debut recording with backing band The Talkbacks – is a spirited outpouring of a fifties-inspired style that has not only enjoyed a revival of late (thanks, in part, to Imelda May) but seems to have endured, building proudly upon its credibility with each passing year.  Thanks to Miss Tess’s hearty, bluesy vocals, Sweet Talk isn’t just another disc to chuck on the rockabilly pile – it’s a fine example of how these albums can transcend the ‘throwback’ appeal.  While clearly rooted in fifties rock n’ roll, “People Come Here For Gold” is as fresh and contemporary in feel as it is nostalgic; “Adeline” – a highlight of the record – would sit comfortably with Amy Winehouse’s version of “Valerie” on any Friday Night Playlist while New Orleans – surely in the running for the best of the bunch – features a barrelhouse piano solo that almost succeeds in ushering the rest of the record into the shadows.  The album concludes with what has to be the most dreamy, lonesome-sounding “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” ever recorded, featuring the soothing guitar of Will Graefe – and it’s a track that will either cast you off into a very pleasant nap or insist that you start over from the beginning.  Sweet Talk is, in short, a treat.

Hywel Davies | Hywel Davies | Album Review | Prima Facie | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.11.12

For those unfamiliar with Hywel Davies, a first spin of his eponymous new disc will reveal the work of a composer who is, perhaps first and foremost, a sonic artist. Modern composition this may be, but it is merely a starting point for a record that blurs the boundary between music and listener.  The seventeen works herein range from the serenely ambient to the abruptly turbulent, each imbued with an element of chance – whether it be in the aleatoric composition or in the way Davies leaves the work open to the interpretation of the listener.  “Descent”, for example, may have been inspired by the length of a breath taken by freediver Tanya Streeter, but the resulting, pensively ascending piece with its graceful, stirring strings, is a stunningly emotive meditation.  Similarly, though instrumentally different, “Albumleaf” and other solo piano works on the album may be strictly diatonic but seem to grow out of and away from the rigidity of their composition, flowering in a space that is accessible to all.  The music on this new release from one of Britain’s foremost composers and artists may be abstract but, like the best of its kind, the work insists only upon a mind as wide open as its ear.

Homegrown Festival | The Met, Bury | Review by Kev Boyd | 12.11.12

This is the very first Homegrown festival, being held in and around the Met arts centre in Bury (a few miles north of Manchester) and promising a weekend of ‘Finest English Folk’.  The initial lineup looks both interesting and varied and includes established artists like Jim Moray, Mawkin, Emily Portman and Martin Simpson (a late replacement for a convalescing Eliza Carthy) and names that are likely to be a little less familiar to a standard folk festival audience like Skinny Lister and Dizraeli and the Small Gods.  The format is fairly familiar to anyone who has attended this kind of festival: two main concerts on the Friday and Saturday evenings in the main theatre, a Saturday matinee in the same location and a handful of fringe events in smaller locations within the same venue.  Some of these are programmed to run concurrently so you’re virtually guaranteed to miss something interesting over the weekend but with a bit of judicious planning it should be possible to catch most of your preferred acts and avoid missing out on too much over the two days.  Well, that was my theory at least, but I hadn’t counted on the festival’s bizarre scheduling on the first evening which saw the virtually unknown Skinny Lister headline the main Friday night concert, meaning that I arrive having already missed Gavin Davenport’s entire set and only just in time to catch the end of Jim Moray’s first song.  This is a solo set from Moray featuring just guitar and piano so we don’t benefit from the full range of textures and intriguing instrumentation that have characterised his album releases to date but instead we get stripped down arrangements that give the songs the chance to breathe and allow Jim to demonstrate what a great singer and guitarist he has developed into.  This shouldn’t be at all surprising but it’s sometimes easy to forget that behind the well-deserved praise for his recorded output this is someone who is a gifted musician with an easy-going charm as well as a talented arranger and producer.  Back in the bar between sets there’s a healthy turnout of media delegates who have been invited to cover the festival and who enthuse about a number of the upcoming performances.  There’s little enthusiasm amongst those I speak to though for tonight’s headliners Skinny Lister.  I nevertheless feel obliged to check out their set but their brand of sub-Pogues, Anglo-skiffle-lite (it’s a thing!) doesn’t particularly appeal.  True, singer Lorna Thomas is a striking presence who seems to spend as much time dancing with the audience as she does on stage and there’s an appealing urgency to their approach that would go down well on many an outdoor festival stage but here it just seems to fall a little flat.  I’m clearly not alone in thinking this as the bar continues to do a brisk trade during the greater part of their set, thanks in no small part to the assembled media contingent.  Saturday’s programme looks a little more promising and although I miss the afternoon concert I later hear positive reports of Emily Portman, a recently re-formed Faustus and local electro-folk exponents Harp And A Monkey.  The main evening concert kicks off some time later with Mawkin who, thanks partly to the recent addition of a drummer to their lineup, present an hour of sparkling, mostly instrumental folk music that is tinged with elements of jazz and rock and perfectly demonstrates their all round virtuosity.  This is followed by a fabulous set from Martin Simpson, for whom instrumental virtuosity is a given.  It’s over 25 years since I first saw Simpson and whilst it’s no real surprise that his guitar playing has improved in this time (as if that were even possible) the real revelation of recent years has been the increased command he has of his vocal range and strength.  His voice on recent recordings and live performances has a ‘lived-in’ quality – demonstrated admirably tonight – that had somehow been missing in earlier years but which now serves to perfectly frame the peerless instrumentation that we have come to expect from him. Perhaps surprisingly, tonight’s final band Dizraeli and the Small Gods turn out to be the highlight of the weekend for me.  They’re a strange choice of headliner in light of the core audience this festival appears to be targeting but they bring a definite ‘folk mentality’ (whatever that is) to the party and their instrumentation is varied enough to encompass a wide variety of tastes.  Dizraeli himself is an incredibly engaging frontman: a gifted rapper and storyteller and more than willing, where necessary, to allow his bandmates to take the spotlight.  He’s right to do so too as the band includes, amongst others, accomplished vocalist Cate Ferris, Guildhall-trained bassist Bellatrix, who also happens to be the World Female Beatbox Champion, and two-time World DJ Championship finalist DJ Downlow.  It’s difficult to deny that this is essentially a hip-hop outfit with a neat line in vaguely ‘folky’ vocals, acoustic guitar licks and voila accompaniments.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I does mean that tonight’s slightly older and mostly seated audience is hardly their target demographic and they have to work mighty hard to engage them.  But it seems to be a challenge they’re more than willing to take on and it’s not long before a sizeable chunk of the crowd are front and centre, dancing with vigour and shouting their enthusiastic encouragement.  This proves to be a fitting end to the first Homegrown festival which, on the whole, has been a qualified success.  The choice of artists was varied enough to cater for a wide variety of tastes and included both established and lesser known names.  Some of the choices were either bold or just plain odd, depending on your viewpoint, but for the most part they were successful.  Some of the gigs were a little low on atmosphere and this may have been partly due to the presence of an overly large media contingent for the size of the venue which had the effect of making some events feel more like industry showcases than paid-for gigs.  You can’t blame the organisers for wanting to engage the media with a new festival in an increasingly difficult marketplace and it’s no surprise that the same venue is due to host the first industry-only English Folk Expo on the same weekend next year.  But the sheer size of the media presence this weekend seems to have thrown the organisers and venue into disarray and the atmosphere suffered as a result.  Nevertheless, whilst not everything I saw was to my taste and there were some minor programming concerns, these are the kind of issues that will no doubt get ironed out in time for next year and I don’t think they should distract from the essential success of the weekend, not least from a musical perspective.

John Wheeler | Un-American Gothic | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.11.12

Who is John Wheeler?  Not only a valid question but also the prevailing theme of Un-American Gothic, the first solo album from the creator and frontman of Rockgrass outfit Hayseed Dixie.  For the past twelve years, John Wheeler has been performing under the pseudonym Barley Scotch and leading the world’s most successful hillbilly rock group.  But, after a gruelling 2011 tour and over a decade of live and studio successes, the band has decided to take a break, giving Wheeler the chance to shave off the beard, cast off the dungarees and record a very personal, insightful and often technically astonishing solo album of southern rock songs.  These days, Wheeler’s ‘south’ is Cambridge, UK where the ex-pat American resides with his family.  Un-American Gothic explores Wheeler’s new-found identity with a rattlebag of gritty, occasionally humorous but always intelligent self-penned songs as well as refreshing takes on Paul Weller’s “Eton Rifles” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” – an evergreen anthem that, here, purrs like a machine and builds with a wonderfully restrained intensity.  The first single from the album – Wheeler’s “Deeper In Debt” (inspired by a chat between Wheeler and Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg) – is a barbed yet sophisticated, gently comic but seriously listenable contemplation on the subject of the global credit crunch, performed with just the right amount of Hayseed-inflections to please those already dedicated fans and spawn a plethora of new ones, too.  While benefitting from a wealth of pleasing originals and cannily-selected covers, it is, perhaps, Wheeler’s distinctive voice that gives Un-American Gothic its instant appeal.  And, while Barley Scotch is briefly packed away in an old suitcase in the garage, it’s a pleasure to get to know John Wheeler and to rediscover a voice we thought we knew.

Harry Allen & Scott Hamilton | ‘Round Midnight | Album Review | Challenge | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.11.12

Jazz has seen the emergence of many a duet recording, some of which have created enough deliciously white-hot sparks to forge themselves into the monument of the music’s long history: Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker… the list goes on.  ‘Round Midnight – the latest release from Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton – provides another example of the amalgamation of two great jazz musicians, this time with one great jazz instrument – the tenor sax.  But while Allen and Hamilton share a common instrument and love for their music, the subtle differences in their styles are what lend this union its overwhelming appeal.  This is an album to savour over and over again, with enough intricate interplay of saxes to keep you hooked for some considerable time. Take, for instance, the opener “My Melancholy Baby” a tune so deeply ingrained in our consciousness and yet one that, here, overflows with equal amounts of joy and invention.  The conversation between the two saxes is one that has you eavesdropping from the start – the lines of melody weave in and out of harmony, at times blending so smoothly that you almost imagine the very metal of the horns to have fused.  The performance is equalled on the Dorothy Parker/Jack King composition “How Am I To Know?” and Eddie Lockjaw Davis’s “Hey Lock!” while the pace is picked up for the stunningly sophisticated lines of Allen’s “Great Scott”, Bill Potts’s “The Opener” and a version of the Hart/Rodgers classic “Lover” from the 1932 Chevalier comedy Love Me Tonight – a track that provides those effervescent sparks we were hoping for.  Allen and Hamilton – two seasoned musicians with towering reputations – are joined on this, their third recording together, by pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes and Chuck Riggs on drums.

Fat Babies | Chicago Hot | Album Review | Delmark | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.11.12

Hot Chicago jazz is alive and well and living in…well…Chicago.  Almost an entire century since King Oliver made the walls of Chicago’s Royal Gardens sweat, the Fat Babies are exposing the roots of the windy city’s jazz heritage with great gusto.  With their debut release Chicago Hot, the Fat Babies have created a positively shining example of how a century-old style of music can, once again, dazzle.  Every scratch and jot of fluff and dust has been removed from the surface of these early jazz gems to provide a clean and clear-cut sound.  Fats Waller’s “Willow Tree” and Victoria Spivey’s “Black Snake Blues” swing beguilingly while King Oliver’s “Snake Rag” and Freddie Keppard’s “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” are so hot hey ought to come with a safety warning.  And while every musician on the album contributes to the flavour of this dish, it is perhaps Andy Schumann’s Bix-style cornet and John Otto’s clarinet that provide the spiciest notes.  If your jazz tastes extend as far back as the 1910s and you enjoy the steaming amalgamation of cornet, clarinet, trombone, sax, piano, bass, banjo and percussion, then this fresh yet traditional album may be for you.

Cory Weeds | Up A Step | Album Review | Wienerworld | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.11.12

Saxophonist, club owner, record label owner, radio host…Cory Weeds is a man who lives and breathes jazz. Weeds is the owner of Vancouver’s top jazz club The Cellar – now a world renowned venue – and continues to promote jazz with what seems to be every fibre of his body.  He also happens to be one of Canada’s foremost sax men and has, for the past fifteen years, performed with the cream of the international jazz crop as well as releasing a handful of superlative recordings as leader.  His latest outing – Up A Step – presents a live tribute to tenor sax legend Hank Mobley and features eight solid readings of Mobley’s unfailingly magnetic compositions.  As well as benefitting from the complex, jagged meanderings of Weeds’s impulsive tenor sax, the album’s success is also indebted to the inclusion of Cory’s old friend, the New York pianist/organist Mike LeDonne whose B3 organ bubbles like molten lava beneath every track on this white-hot record.  Also featuring Vancouver stalwarts Oliver Gannon (guitar) and Jesse Cahill (drums), Up A Step is an example of contemporary Canadian hard bop, in all its verve and vitality, at its very best.

Nicolas Repac | Black Box | Album Review | Naïve | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.13

Remarkably, almost fourteen years have passed since American electronica artist Moby sampled the field recordings of Alan Lomax, proving that sampling could provide some rather tasty moments of musical experimentation.  Ever since the release of Moby’s 1999 album Play, the eerie sound of almost century-old work songs and crackly blues melodies layered over contemporary back-beats and synthesised chords has become an accepted and, often, arresting musical device. Just listen to Chumbawamba’s spine-sizzling “Jacob’s Ladder (Not In My Name)” from the band’s Readymades album, featuring a sample of Harry Cox’s “The Pretty Ploughboy”, and you’ll hear just how chillingly affective the device can be.  Enter Nicolas Repac – a Frenchman with a penchant for tinkering with machines and cooking up haunting sound collages.  Repac’s first album Swing Swing sounded like the soundtrack to a strange dream in which Repac’s time machine had somehow become stuck between the present day and the 1930s.  Familiar swing rhythms, brass flourishes, lines of clarinet and scat vocals were fused with modern beats and industrial sound effects to create a somewhat attractive mutation.  Think ‘The House of Elliott’ crossed with ‘Total Recall’.  Now, Repac has returned with another, somewhat more mature album and this time it’s less a collection of mutants than a series of bionically engineered compositions.  Black Box isn’t another eyebrow-raising showcase of the possibilities of sampling, instead this album presents a carefully woven soundscape that often reaches the truly sublime.  And while traces of old blues and jazz are still integral to his experiments, Repac has focused much of this new exploration on world music, combining his brand of industrial and electronic music with samples of French and African singers to host a multidimensional journey into the continuing history of international blues.  The time machine is still, thankfully, malfunctioning, but so is Repac’s compass as he meanders between continents like a musical David Attenborough.  Black Box is an ever-moving, ever-evolving, richly textured album that will surely continue to intrigue and delight for some time to come.

The Gift Band | Liverpool Philharmonic Hall | Review by Kev Boyd | 03.12.12

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago to compile a list of gigs I thought I’d never see this may well have appeared somewhere near the top.  In the winter of 2010 Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza Carthy embarked on a national tour to promote Gift, the album they had released earlier the same year and their first as a duo.  During the tour Norma developed a knee infection that quickly escalated and she soon found herself critically ill, on dialysis and hooked up to a ventilator.  She ultimately spend the best part of three months in Intensive Care and when it emerged that she had endured a tracheotomy as part of her treatment and that she could barely speak, never mind sing, the prospects of ever hearing one of Britain’s finest female singers in full flight again seemed anything but positive.  So it’s no surprise that the biggest applause of this evening occurs before a single note has been sung as Norma, assisted by husband Martin Carthy, walks out to take her seat at the front of the stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic.  For the vast majority of this audience Norma is little less than an icon and one of our finest musical treasures but she takes this adoration in her stride and quickly gets on with the business of introducing the first song.  She and daughter Eliza start things off with their version of Louden Wainwright’s “Dreaming” and it’s immediately apparent that Norma has lost none of her ability to communicate with an audience but, it becomes apparent over the course of the evening, her voice does seem to have developed a slightly deeper timbre.  Early in the evening Norma, relying partially on a set list and lyric sheets on the music stand immediately in front of her, forgets the next song and Eliza removes herself from her chair, proceeds to rearrange the various song sheets until the correct paperwork is visible and returns to her seat.  This forms a theme throughout the evening as Norma’s set list seems to differ from everyone else’s at various stages and Eliza, ever the dutiful daughter, gets up, re-arranges the papers and sits down again.  In lesser hands this would seem somewhat ramshackle but with this pair it becomes an amusing pantomime that is never less than endearing.  Besides, Norma has built up an enormous amount of credit with this audience over the years and considering that it’s remarkable that she’s even here they are not about to let a few fumbled set list issues spoil their evening. Norma is very much the centre of attention throughout the evening but Eliza has her time in the spotlight, most notably with with her version of the beautiful translation of Manx lullaby “Washing Song”, specially requested by Norma tonight.  Eliza also provides fiddle accompaniments throughout and the pair of them are wonderfully assisted by a four-piece band consisting of two refugees from Eliza’s band, Phil Alexander on piano and accordion and David Donnelly on double bass, plus Dave Delarre on mandolin and beautiful jazz-inflected guitar and of course Martin Carthy on guitar and vocals.  Their set draws largely from the Gift album and from Norma’s various solo releases and the repertoire is both interesting and diverse.  Many of the more unusual choices derive from Norma’s childhood experiences such as the half-remembered nonsense lullaby which, through some judicious Googling on Eliza’s part, was revealed to be the 1920s standard “Ukulele Lady” and which in turn goes on to form an improbable medley with Amen Corner’s “If Paradise Is Half As Nice” and this pairing becomes a kind of microcosm of the set as a whole.  Traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic rub up against odd bits of music hall or swing which in turn give way to the work of contemporary songwriters like Wainwright or Richard Thompson, whose work is twice represented tonight with Josef Locke and “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven”.  Norma’s anecdotes of her childhood or of her early days singing with The Watersons are fascinating and frame many if the songs tonight.  When she tells us about meeting the great American singer Almeida Riddle, by way of an introduction to “Poor Wayfairing Stranger”, it’s hard not to be taken in by the wonder of it all and to be hit by a tinge of regret that we weren’t all there to witness it ourselves.  Eliza too has a great way with a story and does her fair share of the introductions, but it’s the songs that we’ve all come to hear.  With such a diverse and lengthy set it’s not easy to pick out a favourite but when the entire audience join in with the final chorus on “Bunch Of Thyme” it’s something of a defining moment for a comeback that may never have been and, more importantly, a fabulous high point to an emotionally-charged evening.

Solarference | Lips of Clay | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 03.01.13

The latter half of 2012 proved to be a productive time for Bristol-based duo Solarference.  Having developed a unique approach to live performance since forming in 2008 and with an increasingly busy gigging schedule, Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen also found themselves the subject of an enthusiastic article in fRoots magazine, received the Innovation gong in the annual Fatea Awards and finally released Lips Of Clay, their debut album-length recording.  If, like me, you’re naturally disdainful of labels you may cringe at the mention of the word ‘Folktronica’ but on the evidence of these recordings it’s the only sensible way to describe what Solarference do.  Essentially, they sing folk songs while accompanying themselves on laptops that utilise custom-built software to sample a variety of live sounds.  If that seems simple then it is deceptively so.  They credit themselves with ‘playing’ (amongst other things) ‘sound objects’, which in reality means sampling a combination of percussive handclaps, vocal clicks and ticks, domestic objects and conventional percussion instruments.  They ally all this technology with some impressively strong vocals that often pull off the difficult trick of skipping between melody and harmony in short order.  In terms of repertoire, they draw material exclusively from the British tradition and make some familiar choices – “Higher Germanie”, “Tarry Trousers”, “Bobbie Allen” (their version of the more familiarly-titled “Barbara Allen”) – while also including a few lesser-known pieces, some of which are partially sung in the Welsh language.  In their live shows nothing is pre-recorded: every element is sampled ‘live’ then stretched, looped or otherwise manipulated to create multiple layers of sound that, unusually in the field of electronica, make every performance entirely unique.  In some instances performances of the same song can be radically different from one gig to the next.  With such reliance on the accidental event and the one-off performance Nick and Sarah admit that the prospect of translating their live sound to the permanency of the recorded artefact presented some particular challenges.  They seem to have reached a sort of compromise where they have retained much of the atmosphere of their live shows but allowed themselves the freedom to adapt their approach to the different medium.  ‘We’ve tried to reflect the live show’, Sarah told fRoots in October 2012, ‘but also to create different colours and textures for each song, unique to the album’.  So then, what of the album itself?  On first hearing it seems a little percussion-heavy – an inevitable function of their working methods, perhaps – but further layers of subtlety are revealed with subsequent listens.  So while “Milder and Mulder” and “Tarry Trousers” are largely percussion-based, “O Wake O Wake” and “Little Blue Flame” are driven predominantly by strong vocal performances.  The impact of “Higher Germanie” (and to a lesser extent the predominantly Welsh language piece “Ei Di’r Deryn Du”) stems from an atmospheric approach that is built around a layering of sound textures and subtle beats.  There is plenty of scope for cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches throughout though, and the perhaps the two most successful tracks are “Cold Blows The Wind” and “Bobbie Allen”, both of which manage to combine the various constituent parts that make up the Solarference sound to great effect.  “Cold Blows The Wind” in particular is the standout track amongst a number of potential candidates.   Nick’s acoustic guitar adds warmth and a sense of sonic familiarity to a number of tracks but if that’s the main reason for its inclusion it is hardly needed.  Considering their methods and regardless of the instrumentation on any particular track, the overall feel is more organic than you might expect and several tracks have a creaking analogue quality that is at odds with the technology that helped create them but which suits the traditional material perfectly.  And the more you listen to Lips Of Clay the more you come to the realisation that despite their working methods it is in fact the human elements – namely Nick and Sarah’s vocals – that hold this absorbing debut release together.

Sam Lee | Ground of its Own | Album Review | The Nest Collective | Review by Kev Boyd | 22.01.13

Now that the dust has just about settled on Ground of its Own’s surprise shortlisting for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize this seems like a good time to gather ones thoughts, take a deep breath and reassess Sam Lee’s debut solo release.  He didn’t win the big prize, of course – that went to the instantly forgettable Alt-J – but the Mercury nomination did at least serve the cement Lee’s already growing reputation within the UK folk scene.  Given that this is Lee’s debut album, his pedigree is already impressive.  Born into a Jewish family in London’s Kentish town he has variously been, amongst other things, a teacher, song collector, promoter and BBC Folk Award-winning club organiser.  At one point he took a live-in job with the late collector and scholar Peter Kennedy and his wife where he had access to their vast archive of field recordings and later volunteered at Cecil Sharp House where he was to become a regular at the Singers Club – his first paid gigs.  He came to most people’s attention as the impetus behind the award winning Magpie’s Nest Folk Club a few years ago but by then he had already spent a number of years collecting songs within the British traveller communities.  Lee had introduced himself to the great gypsy balladeer and storyteller Stanley Robertson (nephew of the near-legendary traveller singer Jeannie Robertson) at Whitby Festival.  Stanley took him under his wing and not only taught him a large chunk of his own vast repertoire, but crucially introduced him to the traveller communities in his native Aberdeenshire where Lee proceeded to immerse himself in their songs and customs.  The songs on Ground of its Own are sourced from Lee’s own collecting forays within these communities and while much has been made of the repertoire being relatively obscure, there are in fact a number of familiar inclusions.  “Goodbye My Darling” shares its overall theme and a number of verses with the much better known transportation ballad “Australia”, “The Ballad Of George Collins” will be familiar to anyone who has heard Shirley Collins’ late-60s recording, “Northlands” is in fact a fairly complete version of the widespread “Outlandish Knight” and “The Tan Yard Side” will be familiar to many, not least from the version included on Topic Records’ Voice of the People collection by the great gypsy singer Phoebe Smith.  Other familiar fragments of songs and verses crop up throughout the album, as tends to be the way with traditional repertoire, so there is actually very little here that is completely obscure.  Lee possesses a smooth baritone voice which, although natural-sounding and free from any obvious affectation, has certainly picked up some of the subtle flourishes that are characteristic of British gypsy singers.  In contrast to their equivalents within the settled community, many traveller singers tend to possess a repertoire of vocal ornamentations that betray an interest in and exposure to music hall and early popular music as much as traditional forms.  Lee uses these techniques to great effect in “The Ballad of George Collins” and most notable in some of the more sentimental songs like “Wild Wood Amber” and “On Yonder Hill”.  This sentimentality is another characteristic of traveller repertoire and Lee’s voice is perfectly pitched to do these songs justice.  While more may have been made of Lee’s decision to exclude the use of guitars from Ground of its Own than is strictly necessary, it is certainly true that the instrumentation, and to some extent the production, are immensely important on this album.  At various points you’ll hear violin, viola, banjo, clarinet, shruti box, trumpet, Jews harp and a number of different percussion instruments including tank drums and hang drum.  You’ll also hear snatches of sampled and processed sounds, sometimes used quite subtly and sometimes less so – as for instance with the inclusion of Massenet’s “Meditation From Thais” in “Wild Wood Amber” or the complete verse of Jane Turriff singing “What Can a Young Lassie Dae Wi An Auld Man” at the beginning of “My Ausheen”.  The extent to which these touches are successful will come down to personal taste and may depend on how much you value either the purity of the Lee’s voice in narrating these songs or the ‘sound collages’ that he seeks to create to illustrate them.  Certainly some commentators have revelled in the quirkiness of the accompaniments while others have wrung their hands at the extent to which they shift the emphasis away from Lee’s vocals.  Either way, Lee and main producer Gerry Diver have successfully merged vocals, instruments and sampled sounds and for this reviewer the balance is just about right.  And if Lee’s main concern was to present the songs that he so clearly holds very dear in such a way that they retain their relevance within a contemporary setting while losing none of their potency then he has succeeded in doing a fine job.

Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra | Bloom | Album Review | Nineteen Eight Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.01.13

Put eighteen leading New York jazz musicians in a room – five sax players, four trumpeters, four trombonists, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, a percussionist and a vocalist – and it won’t be long before you’re undoing your bow tie and belting out “Fly Me To The Moon” with enough brass-power to launch you into the night sky.  Who’d blame you?  Isn’t that what you do with a big band?  Not always.  For Asuka Kakitani, this particular assemblage of fine musicians is a Jazz Orchestra – a very different beast indeed – and the limits are pushed way beyond the glow of any celestial body.  Asuka, a Japanese-born Brooklyn-based composer, arranger and conductor, is an explorer of musical form, an expressionist sound painter, a composer who seems unrestrained by tradition or trend and one who has so many new things to say without resorting to tired standards.  Bloom – the Orchestra’s debut – contains moments of ethereal lightness, brooding intensity and flourishing explosions of colour, constantly pushing the boundaries of large-scale jazz composition.  The pieces are grand in scale, but each have a notably delicate and elegant presence, often thanks to the fine thread of Pete McCann’s guitar and Sara Serpa’s obediently melodic vocal accompaniment.  And while Asuka maintains a low profile on the recording, her spirit provides the glint in every note.  Here we have a composer who manages to translate the essence of the world around her without losing a single drop of magic in the translation.  Bloom is as arresting and refreshing a debut as you’re every likely to hear.

The Milk Carton Kids | Prologue | Album Review | Junketboy | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.02.13

Cross the harmonies and melodic sensibilities of Simon and Garfunkel with the supple, liquid lead guitar of David Rawlings and you’re a sixteenth of the way towards a full appreciation of The Milk Carton Kids – a Californian ‘minimalist’ duo consisting of singer/guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan.  Consider the gentle, almost hypnotic power of the babbling brook that is their second record, Prologue, released in 2011.  Here we have an album of finger-picked folk songs so sweet that you’d better brush twice this evening.  And yet, like the work of Gillian Welch and the aforementioned Rawlings, there is an underlying, earth-shattering potency beneath the stripped-back simplicity.  Far from being the placid country ditties that their surface would have us believe they are, songs such as “Milk Carton Kid”, “There By Your Side” and “New York” are layered with complex harmonies, multifarious chord structures and weeping guitar solos that often trick the listener into thinking that there’s more to this than two guitars and two voices.  And that’s what I love most about this gem of an album – less is more and more and more.

Transatlantic Sessions | Celtic Connections | Review by Sam Hindley | 02.02.13

The final Friday evening of the 2013 Celtic Connections festival saw the first of two performances from the annual event Transatlantic Sessions.  The long running TV show of same name, was first brought to the concert stage in 2004 as a special event for Celtic connections and has been a permanent fixture ever since.  For the past three years there has been a tour of the event straight after Celtic Connections festival.  This year’s sessions kicked off with some good old-fashioned jigs and reels from the house band, which as usual included musical directors Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas with John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick, Danny Thompson and many more.  Guests are invited to perform and bring two or three of their songs to the show.  The first guest this year, Teddy Thompson, was an interesting choice I thought.  Every year on both the concert and TV series there is always one singer-songwriter who is totally different to anyone else on the bill, and you always wonder how are they going to fit into this?  In my opinion some of the performers from outside the Traditional folk genre do not always work on the show, although there are very few of these.  I’m happy to say that Teddy Thompson worked perfectly.  Although from a famous folk family Thompson’s solo work has drifted away from the folk scene, taking his own direction and establishing his own fan base, of which I am one.  Obviously mindful that his backing band included mostly traditional folk musicians, Teddy’s second song for the evening was “Dear Mary”, a song which he wrote with his mother, Linda Thompson.  Describing it as the ‘folkyist’ thing he could think of, the song was the opening track for Linda’s 2002 comeback album Fashionably Late, a great song choice.  Teddy remained onstage to provide backing vocals for the next guest, Scottish singer Emily Smith, whose song choices included Archie Fisher’s “The Final Trawl”.  Transatlantic Sessions has always been about getting the performers to join in with each other and not to just do their own bit with the house band.  The trio of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emily Smith and Aoife O’Donovan, from Crooked Still, provided beautiful backing vocals on each others material throughout the evening.  As well as the guest singers there were also regular contributions from members of the house band.  Musical director Jerry Douglas led the band in his own composition “Gone to Fortingall”.  Douglas wrote this tune after filming the last two Transatlantic TV series in the highlands of Scotland in the area which he now loves and would like to live.  Bluesman Eric Bibb brought a different vibe to the stage. With his wide brimmed hat, distinctive voice and rousing guitar playing he treated us to gospel, traditional American “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and of course the blues.  While on stage Bibb remarked “I feel embraced”, in fact we all did.  Everyone in the 17-piece band expressed their delight at being part of this patchwork of musicians.  The house band also included some of the top American roots musicians, most notably Old Time fiddler Bruce Molsky and Cajun musician Dirk Powell, who incidentally produced Eric Bibbs 2012 album Deeper in the Well.  Molsky’s main contribution tonight was a duet with Aoife O’Donovan singing “Pretty Saro” which I believe is an old time version of a song covered by Martin Simpson, “Batchelor’s Hall”.  Probably the most anticipated appearance for a lot of people was a Transatlantic debut for Mary Chapin Carpenter.  Mary Chapin’s songs for the evening seemed to be the most transformed.  “I Have a Need for Solitude” from her 2010 album Age of Miracles was given the addition of a McCusker/McGoldrick style riff.  Transcendental Reunion from her latest album Ashes and Roses was, I hear, totally different to how they had rehearsed it.  Instead of the planned ‘full house band works’ it was delivered to us totally stripped down with just McCusker, O’Donovan and Danny Thompson.  By the look on the drummer’s face, not even he was aware of this change!  This demonstrates the ever changing arrangements and one suspect that each night of the tour could be slightly different to the last.  All 17 musicians were on stage for the finale, Mary Chapin led her classic “Down at the Twist and Shout”, absolutely incredible.

Wolfgang Muthspiel | Vienna Naked | Album Review | Material | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.02.13

Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is, perhaps, best known for his collaborations, most of which involving names that would raise even the most Botox-inflicted eyebrows.  Whether playing alongside Paul Motian, Dave Liebman, Gary Peacock and John Patitucci or replacing Pat Metheny in Gary Burton’s band, Muthspiel has been something of a busy picker for the last few decades.  With the release of Vienna Naked, however, it’s clear that his talents don’t end at his frets.  Containing fourteen self-penned songs, complete with self-sung lyrics, Vienna Naked is a solo album that teeters somewhere between jazz and folk, often seeping into the realm of classical music with Downland-esque compositions that would, perhaps, impress the likes of Sting.  Indeed, there are moments of hat-tipping towards the ex-Police man on this album, particularly in Muthspiel’s soaring vocal delivery and gently nimble handling of some rather serpentine melodies, albeit without any of the self-importance that haunts Mr Sumner’s solo output.  And yet, with a voice that often eclipses his undeniably outstanding guitar playing, you’d excuse Muthspiel the occasional digression from any kind of modesty.  Despite the several instances of harmony-stacking and layered guitar, which needlessly depart from the overall mood of the album, Vienna Naked provides an agreeably mellow and celestial melding of dexterous jazz guitar and remarkably strong contemporary songwriting.

Eric Burdon | ‘Til Your River Runs Dry | Album Review | Commercial Marketing | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.02.13

While a handful of original members of sixties British invasion band The Animals are busy celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with a reunion tour, their founding member is preparing to celebrate his seventy-second birthday with the release of a brand new, and very personal, solo album.  It’s Eric Burdon’s first solo release in six years, and only his second in the last nine.  Nevertheless, ‘Til Your River Runs Dry only goes to prove that the voice of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – a voice that ranked 57th in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Voices of All Time – has emerged unscathed from the many years of legal battles and health problems that have plagued this particularly influential Geordie blues man.  The twelve-track ‘Til Your River Runs Dry is a raw and fiery album, bubbling with the zest of the early Burdon while benefitting from the unsparing honesty of an older Animal.  ‘Nothing bugs me, I’m Mr Anarchy!’ growls a smirking Burdon on “Old Habits Die Hard” – indeed, this is an album of protest, of home truths and laying it all on the line – and, while his age compliments the soulful, vintage sound of the album, the underlying youthfulness of the record burns through with intensity.  With impassioned topical protests such as “Water”, “Memorial Day” and “Invitation To The White House” and swampy blues numbers such as “River Runs Dry” and “Medicine Man”, the mood and message of this fervent album reaches an inspired climax with a meaty cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me”, a blues classic usually associated with another famous Eric.  It’s a master-stroke that concludes an unsentimental, uncompromising album from someone we should be thankful to have around.

Faustus | Broken Down Gentlemen | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.02.13

If it’s a no-nonsense collection of traditional English folk songs that you’re after in 2013 then look no further than Broken Down Gentlemen – the second outing from a band that looks and quacks exactly like a folk supergroup.  Benji Kirkpatrick, Saul Rose and Paul Sartin are the well-known and much-admired masterminds behind this three-piece thrashing machine, each no stranger to producing a steady crop of good old murderous folk songs.  Broken Down Gentlemen provides a straight-forward outpouring of traditional rural ballads, each benefitting from an uncluttered sincerity that is all too often overlooked these days.  It’s no secret that Faustus contains some of the most dexterous players on the scene, but in omitting the frills the lads have only reinforced the dignity and potency of these old songs.  The title track, for instance, pummels your belly with the determined steadiness of its Morris engine while “American Stranger” and “Captain’s Apprentice” seem to gather up every thread of your attention with their understated production and exquisitely sung melodies.  Each musician is given his chance to shine on the album – Benji’s strumming gleams throughout, Paul’s fiddle and stunning oboe lend an amiable warmth while Saul’s melodeon fires the furnace of every track – but the peaks of this record are always reached via the impassioned melding of those three hearty voices.  Thanks to the gumption of this three-piece supergroup, Broken Down Gentlemen is a reminder of just how rich the soil of traditional song can be and how crucial it is that we keep turning it.

Ron Sexsmith | Forever Endeavour | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.02.13

When this little island got its first taste of Ron Sexsmith’s brand of melodic, sunnily melancholic music, we couldn’t help but point out the obvious – that this guy had the kind of voice you either love or hate.  As with any distinctive voice – be it a Richard Thompson, a Bob Dylan, a Billie Holiday or a Ron Sexsmith – there’ll always be that clutch of crumpled faces who mistake the unusual for the unpleasant, the incomparable for the intolerable.  Well, a few years have passed and, with them, a long list of long playing records from Canada’s Mr Sexsmith, each providing a feast of wonderfully melodic vignettes, ballads and infectious pop songs that sit comfortably with those of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and Ray Davies.  His perpetually strong albums hit the same note as those of Harry Nilsson in their keen yet considerate interweaving of happy and sad.  And the best songs of the bunch almost always have as much punch as a “Wichita Lineman”, a “Your Song” or a “Hallelujah” in terms of pitch-perfect songwriting.  Whether you like the voice or not, you simply can’t fault this artist’s songwriting prowess.  And that’s why it’s a delight to report that Forever Endeavour – Ron’s thirteenth solo release since 1991 – provides another twelve reasons to be cheerful, and two bonus tracks to boot.  Once again we have a Sexsmith release that ranges from the sweetly devastating (“Lost In Thought”, “Blind Eye”, “If Only Avenue”) to the simply gleeful (“She Does My Heart Good”, “The Morning Light”).  There’s even a few sublime moments on “Back Of My Hand” when Sexsmith reaches the dizzying heights of the early Beatles (the song could easily have made it onto A Hard Day’s Night).  Indeed, there are traces of early Ron Sexsmith himself on this album, thanks in part to the producer – one Mitchell Froom – who was there right back at the beginning.  At a time when most musicians are madly battling to define the future of their art, it is a sincere pleasure to discover another collection of wholly satisfying, radio-friendly songs from a singer songwriter who does exactly what it says on his tin, namely writing and singing his songs.  Forever Endeavour, you’ll be glad to know, is just another great LP to add to a thankfully towering pile.

Millpond Moon | Broke in Brooklyn | Album Review | Tikopia Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.02.13

Considering that their nearest branch of Dunkin’ Donuts is 4000 miles west of their home in Norway, it’s astonishing just how authentically American Kjersti Misje and Rune Hauge sound on their latest release.  Assuming the name Millpond Moon, Kjersti and Rune have managed to capture the essence of Americana on Broke In Brooklyn with songs that tip their hat to Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Shawn Colvin to name just a few distinct influences.  While both Misje and Hauge are proficient, occasionally dazzling acoustic guitarists, the true allure of this album lies within the melding of two soaring vocals.  This is especially apparent on their reading of Peter Rowan’s “You Were There For Me” and Hauge’s stirring “High Mountain”.  It is a union that, at times, recalls the fine blend of Christine Collister and Clive Gregson and, with the delightful addition of fiddle, double bass and the occasional mandolin, it’s one that makes for a very satisfying album indeed.

Evie Ladin | Evie Ladin Band | Album Review | Evil Diane Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.02.13

While there is no doubt that claw-hammer banjoist Evie Ladin is deeply immersed in the spirit of Appalachia, her latest release is anything but old-timey.  Indeed, Evie Ladin Band is an album that crackles and sizzles as this traditional American musician cooks up something refreshingly contemporary in feel.  Take a little sip of “Down To The Door/Lost Girl” and you’ll detect flavours of traditional bluegrass as well as hints of modern electronica (albeit with a banjo and not a synthesiser!)  Similarly, “Weathering” opens with a claw-hammer intro that would make Philip Glass’s mouth water while “Songbird Blues/Backstep Cindy” uses Appalachian clogging to create a distinctly modern beat.  There are moments on this album of percussive wizardry, usually thanks to the feet of ‘body musician’ Keith Terry, that make you ache to see the band live.  But don’t let the experimental side of this wholly enjoyable album detract from the purity of Ladin’s voice set against the backdrop of her band’s sensitive musicianship.  “The First Time” – a reading of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – is just one example of the delicate craftsmanship behind this release.  Evie Ladin Band is a very special album, indeed.

John Wort Hannam | Brambles and Thorns | Album Review | Borealis | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.03.13

Thanks to his warm yet commanding vocals, not to mention his sensitive, sprawling yet intimate songwriting, John Wort Hannam has crafted another unfalteringly absorbing album.  Brambles And Thorns meanders through gentle, heartfelt odes to Hannam’s guitar, love songs set against the backdrop of his dear Canadian landscape and straight-forward, easygoing Nashvillian country songs.  Though Hannam’s influences pop up like whack-a-moles throughout this album, you can’t help but detect the fingerprints of Warren Zevon and Guy Clark as the light hits each sincerely written, tenderly performed song.  There are also very welcome hints of Tom Russell in Hannam’s evocative narratives.  Aside from the above, Brambles And Thorns benefits from its long list of backing musicians, amongst them fiddle player Scott Duncan and multi-instrumentalist John MacArthur Ellis.

Bob Cheevers | Smoke and Mirrors | Album Review | Back 9 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.03.13

Bob Cheevers is no stranger to accolades.  Indeed, this Memphis-born singer/songwriter has been lauded with well-deserved praise from every direction over the last half century.  And while it’s tempting to list the many reasons for spinning a Cheevers disc, there is one reason that eclipses the rest – his voice.  Mixing the warmth of Willie Nelson and the life-soaked crispness of Glen Campbell, Bob’s is a seductive, oscillating voice that daubs a sun-drenched landscape on the back of your eyelids.  And when it’s fed through lyrics concerning sailors, drunkards, star-crossed lovers and a man named Jesus, it’s hard to avoid being painted into the picture.  Fortunately, his latest outing Smoke And Mirrors provides a double helping of Cheevers.  The album is split into two discs – ‘Smoke’ providing eleven band-backed, smokin’ country songs and ‘Mirrors’ revealing a more reflective, acoustic side to Bob’s poetic, image-laden songwriting.  Like many of his peers – Johnny Cash, John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker among them – Cheevers is a storyteller.  A quick glance at the song titles is enough to open tomes in the mind, but listening to songs such as “Cardinal Lane” (a song about the Bastop wildfires), “Girl On The Early News” (about a TV personality with a crooked smile) and Popsicle Man (about a childhood spent on the banks of the Mississippi) is to be treated to a series of short stories from the life of a writer who, like a Guy Clark or a Steve Earle, is one of those cherished American originals.  But why stop at tales of the American landscape when you can have enchanting, string-driven vignettes set amongst the flowers of a secret garden or even a musical reply to Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby”?  Smoke And Mirrors is simply magical.

Ducie | Mancunia | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.03.13

There’s a palpable sense of passion for rhythm in all its flavours on Mancunia, the latest release from Manchester-based Ducie – a band that is, like the music it produces, an intoxicating melting pot.  Andrew Dinan (fiddler, Adrian Edmondson & The Bad Shepherds), Ian Fletcher (guitarist, Mike McGoldrick Big Band), Jon Thorne (bassist, Lamb) and Rich Sliwa (percussionist, Mojito) each bring to the mix a wide vocabulary of influences and styles gleaned from their respective histories of impressive collaborations and musical projects.  Mancunia froths with Indian, Caribbean and Celtic rhythms, occasionally boiling over into Eastern European folk and even blues without ever heaving its roots out of the hard northern turf.  On “Sunset Barmaid”, Scottish jigs are infused with red hot Afro-Caribbean funk while Grianan Bear pours a traditional Spanish tune over a buoyant reggae beat.  And in the middle of all this, a serene break from the exhilarating globetrotting is provided by the Donegal air “Song Of The Strings” which showcases the tenderness of Dinan’s bow and the rapturous string arrangements of Troy Donockley who appears on the album with fellow guests Michael McGoldrick (flute), Paddy Kerr (bouzouki), Kavan O’Donoghue (harp), Eamonn Dinan (button accordian) and Parvinder Bharat (tabla and dholak).

Police Dog Hogan | From the Land of Miracles | Album Review | Major Tom | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.03.13

Lulling its listener into a false and rather serene sense of security, the gentle guitar tune that opens From The Land Of Miracles soon explodes into a gritty country-folk foot-stomper, setting the tone for what is an energetic and passionate record from Brit ‘townbilly’ seven-piece Police Dog Hogan.  Benefitting from an onslaught of radio-friendly country songs, penned and sung by James Studholme and Pete Robinson, From The Land Of Miracles is a love-at-first-listen album, rich in sharp lyrics and songs that will surely have the festival crowds slopping their beers this summer.  Tim Dowling’s banjo, frequently plipping and popping at the surface of the record and often mingling with sumptuous string arrangements and the violin of Eddie Bishop, creates a very welcome, warm and sunny sound, especially on the delightfully infectious song Jennifer and the album’s closing number “Fourteen Roses” which epitomises the carefree effervescence of the whole album.  Exuberantly produced and featuring plenty of opportunities for an Elbow-style singalong, From The Land Of Miracles is a gleaming smile of an album from a band that knows exactly how to mix country-folk and pop to create something of an irresistible cocktail.

Annie Keating | For Keeps | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 07.03.13

With four albums under her belt and the firm backing of our very own Bob Harris, New York-based singer songwriter Annie Keating is well-prepared for a surge of interest as her fifth album For Keeps hits the shelves.  And with a voice that’s at once commanding and deliciously fragile – a voice that will surely satisfy fans of Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris – as well as a repertoire of frank and heartfelt without being sentimental songs, Keating is well equipped to blow the socks off any self-respecting, sock-wearing Americana fan.  From the swampy grit of “Storm Warning” to the Neil Young-esque “Sidecar”, Keating delivers a series of well-crafted self-penned country songs before closing the album with a stunningly ethereal version of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl In The Sand”.  And while much of the album crackles through the amber hue of a delectably vintage sound, the songs themselves are as crisp and cool as it gets, thanks in part to a voice that often verges on the charged languor of Chrissie Hynde.  With a sizeable roster of backing musicians, including renowned guitarist Michael Hampton, multi-instrumentalist Jon Graboff and Canada’s Jason Mercer, For Keeps is a tenacious and timeless release from a true musical craftsperson.

Sharon Shannon | Flying Circus | Album Review | IRL | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.03.13

Upon first hearing Sharon Shannon’s Flying Circus you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is the soundtrack to some wonderful independent Irish film – a Heartlands of the Emerald Isle, perhaps, or a Malcolm in which Melbourne is replaced by Galway.  Brendan Gleeson would almost definitely make an appearance, as would Brenda Fricker.  And there would most certainly be a scene in which someone leaves the handbrake off an old Citroen car and it trundles down a cobbled hill towards the harbour wall.  It would be one of the sweetest, gently enchanting films you’ve ever seen.  Sadly, no film accompanies this magical musical journey.  But that shouldn’t stop you from conjuring up a reel of captivating images as one sunny little tune gives way to another.  So what’s the secret?  Well, the album is the result of a dream come true for Shannon who, thanks to musical collaborator Lloyd Byrne who organised an orchestral performance of Shannon’s tunes back in 2006, has teamed up with the RTE Concert Orchestra to create the most delicious accordian/orchestra collaboration you’ve ever heard.  Tunes such as “Top Dog Gaffo”, “Windchime Dance” and “Off The Hook” are typical of Sharon Shannon, who has been treating us to her irresistible melodic charm for almost a quarter of a century.  But drenching these lovely melodies with the wide, lavish sounds of a concert orchestra, as well as the amiable pickings of guitarist Jim Murray, is to lift them even higher off the ground. And while there are touching moments, such as “April Magnolia” (a tune I wish had been recorded in time for my wedding), it is damn near impossible to listen to this album and feel anything but joy and blithe contentment.  With the release of Flying Circus Sharon Shannon wishes to shine a light on her campaign Adopt Don’t Buy – an impassioned plea to all those considering a new or first time pet to start their search at a local animal rescue centre.

Stiff Little Fingers | The Ritz, Manchester | Review by Kev Boyd | 14.03.13

It’s now over thirty-five years since Stiff Little Fingers emerged out of the nascent Northern Irish punk scene with their first album Inflammable Material.  This landmark release was the first independent album to enter the official charts and cemented their reputation for a particular brand of social realism which reflected their upbringing at the height of the Troubles.  Indeed, a number of early songs drew inspiration directly from their experiences of growing up in late-70s Belfast and the astonishing sound they managed to manufacture on those first recordings perfectly reflected the anger and frustration that seeped out of the lyrics.  In truth, their early sound emerged largely out of naivety rather than as part of a grand sonic design but that just added to the rawness of their feel, which was also unhindered by the unmistakeable hacksaw vocals of frontman Jake Burns, making Tom Waits sound positively honey-toned.  A number of the standard biographies of the punk era would have you believe that this was all they amounted to, with many a rueful tale being told of the disappointment felt by once-loyal fans on first hearing their later, more polished, recordings where they not only bothered to tune their guitars in advance but where Burns appeared to have actually learned to sing!  They had to move on, of course, and if a few Mohawk-sporting diehards were left behind on the way then so be it.  In any case, they always did advance a much broader socio-political world view and explored a wider range of musical styles than they were perhaps given credit for.  If they hadn’t developed from those early efforts it would hardly be likely that they would still be selling out venues from Aberdeen to Southampton in 2013, but that in fact is precisely what they are doing.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they tour at least twice annually as they have for as long as most people can recall and in doing so have developed a solid reputation as a live act.  The band’s current tour is their longest for some time and comes at the start of what promises to be a busy year.  After treks through the UK and Europe they plan on entering the studio for the first time in a decade (and the first time ever for the current lineup) to record what will be their tenth studio album.  As such, their set includes a sprinkling of the unfamiliar but if years of touring has taught them anything it’s how to get straight to the point so they kick off with a trio of old favourites: “At The Edge” was their most successful single back in 1979; “Wasted Life” the b-side to their first single; and “Roots, Radics, Rockers & Reggae” one of their numerous radical reworkings of reggae favourites.  This opening section is an object lesson in getting the crowd on your side from the outset, but never wishing to rest on their laurels they head straight to the first of three new songs.  As a resident of the USA for a number of years Jake Burns is well placed to comment on US domestic policy and “Trail Of Tears” takes a swipe at recent changes in legislation in certain southern states which give police increased ‘stop and search’ powers.  It’s the first of three new songs that prove Burns has lost none of his ability to condense complex social concerns into perfect three-minute soundbites.  “Liars Club” has been heard in previous live shows and takes on a popular SLF theme – the duplicity of elected politicians – whereas “My Dark Places” is a deeply personal account of Burns’ encounter with depression, reminding us that for SLF the personal and political have always been inextricably linked.  Elsewhere the set list draws heavily on their earlier years with a handful of more recent songs thrown in for good measure.  Of these “Hope Street” makes a welcome return having been absent from their set for a few years, “Strummerville” is Jake’s tribute to the late Joe Strummer, without whom he freely admits SLF wouldn’t exist and “Harp” turns a term of abuse for the Irish population in the US into an acerbic attack on prejudice and intolerance.  The rest of the set is largely familiar territory but despite having played the likes of “Fly The Flag”, “Piccadilly Circus” and “Nobody’s Hero” countless times the band approach each with no less vigour and intensity than they did thirty years ago.  Arrangements of familiar songs don’t differ greatly from their 1970s and ‘80s recordings but when they do the changes are subtle enough to retain the impact of the originals.  It helps that they often attack those older pieces in their repertoire with a bit more verve than you might expect from a bunch of guys in their 50s.  In fact, just when they may be forgiven for slowing things down on occasions, they insist on speeding up some of their better-known songs.  It works because SLF 2013 is a leaner beast than many previous incarnations.  In fact, the current model of SLF, including drummer Steve Grantley, second guitarist Ian McCallum, and original bassist Ali McMordie (having returned several years ago after a 15-year hiatus) as well as mainstay and frontman Burns, is perhaps their most accomplished.  They tear through an astonishing half-dozen song section at the end of the set that includes the likes of “Listen”, “Just Fade Away”, “Straw Dogs” and “Suspect Device” and acts as a kind of synopsis of the SLF live experience as a whole: one exhilarating and inspiring song leads to another, then another and another…  It’s this combination that defines what SLF have always been about: songs of genuine significance played with the energy and commitment of a band at the top of their game.  They may have been around for over thirty five years but as long as this version of SLF still have something to say they will always find an audience. But maybe most importantly they are still around, still relevant and still selling out sizeable venues because they are in fact one hell of a live band.

Sam Lee and Friends | Band on the Wall, Manchester | Review by Kev Boyd | 15.03.13

Sam Lee has a Mercury Music Prize nominated album Ground of its Own under his belt and an accomplished band at his disposal so it’s a wonder he hasn’t gigged more often over recent months.  The 19 dates on this tour and the four London shows that immediately preceded them may well represent the biggest commitment for Sam and Friends in their relatively short lifespan.  If that’s the case then I certainly doesn’t seem to faze them when they roll into Manchester’s historic Band On The Wall on a particularly frosty Friday evening.  What is immediately striking about the band – and a little unusual for this kind of repertoire – is the diversity of their instrumentation.  Fiddle, trumpet, cello and ukulele are all relatively conventional but add to these the koto (a large Japanese harp played on the floor), shruti box, Jews harp and a variety of percussion including cajon and tabla then you have an intriguing mix and a unique ensemble sound.  Some of the band appear on Lee’s album but whilst the overall feel of some songs is not dissimilar to the album, the actual arrangements are often pleasingly and subtly different.  The sampled elements that occasionally marked the album as being so distinct are discarded in a live context although there’s no doubt the available technology would have made them possible had Lee and band been so inclined.  This shouldn’t be considered a loss though, as there is a much more organic feel to their sound that is a necessary and welcome side effect of a purely live approach.  Of the songs from the album, “Wild Wood Amber”, constructed from several fragments in the repertoires of gypsy singers Mary Ann Haynes and Joe Jones, and “Ballad Of George Collins”, from the singing of Enos White as collected by Bob Copper, fare best in a live context.  Both are characterised by disjointed or incomplete narratives that make little sense when examined closely but which each suggest a sense of mystery and intrigue.  Interestingly, whilst the former manages this thanks largely to Lee’s editorial intervention, the latter is more likely an example of chance intervening to produce similar results.  Lee and Friends have some equally fascinating songs that don’t feature on their album.  Indeed, the entire first half is made up of such, with “Over Yonder’s Hill” from the singing of Jean Orchard and “Black Dog & Sheep Crook” via Queen Caroline Hughes being two of the more compelling examples and Lee’s encouraging of the audience into a sing-along towards the end of “Phoenix Island” providing another memorable moment.  At various points throughout both sets Lee gives up the stage to another wonderful singer, Thomas McCarthy.  McCarthy is an Irish traveller who learned his songs from his extended family and only started singing in public within the last few years.  It’s rare for a singer to literally stop you in your tracks but McCarthy manages this within moments of starting his first song.  He sings in the sean-nós style with a natural vibrato and the sometimes elaborate ornamentation that is characteristic of many gypsy singers.  His repertoire ranges from the saddest ballads to the bawdiest barroom songs and he provides an interesting context for Lee’s explorations of traveller traditions.  It’s to Lee’s credit that he readily allows McCarthy to share his stage.  Less competent or self-assured performers would shrink at the comparisons that could be drawn with such an accomplished singer who is essentially doing in a ‘traditional’ context what Lee is attempting to recreate in a contemporary one but the comparison serves both singers well.

Boo Hewerdine and the Bible 25th Anniversary Gig | Eureka, Bury Met | Review by David Jennings | 16.03.13

For fans who have grown accustomed to seeing Boo Hewerdine in his folkier, acoustic mode as a solo artist, or playing with the excellent Brooks Williams in the sublime State of the Union duo, it has been a long wait to see The Bible in full flow at a gig.  Playing just a handful of shows to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Steve Earle produced Eureka LP, The Bible played Bury Met to a full house.  The gig was supported by Jake  Morley, who plays his guitar in a Newton Faulkner inspired ‘lap tapping’ style, and has some fine songs in his set.  During his set, the audience, which was fully seated, went from half empty to full, and the latecomers missed a great set.  I know its quite common for people to skip support acts nowadays, but personally I always welcome the chance to see someone new, and it has always struck me as a bit odd so many people pass on the chance.  Jake has had some mainstream coverage on BBC radio, and is a name to look out for at festivals and gigs – he is well worth seeing. In a well played set of assured, engaging songs his stand-out track “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” already has the feel of a standard.  The Bible recorded the gig for future release as live album, and perhaps that explains the even better than usual quality of the playing, and the addition of a second keyboard player and saxophonist.  Anyone unfamiliar with the on/off nature of The Bible would never know these musicians rarely play together, the set was such a tight, slick run through of songs from Eureka, and a few other classics thrown in, you would think they toured for weeks on end each year.  Songs as well written as “Graceland”, “Skeleton Crew”, “Cigarette Girls” and “Sky Writing” would be stand-out tracks in the career of many bands, making the bands lack of mainstream success a puzzle.  Factor in the musical prowess of Boo and Neil McColl on vocals and guitars, and the solid backing of the rest of the band, and The Bible should really be playing arenas, not arts centres.  Anyway – the wider public’s loss is our our gain, and a couple of hundred of us enjoyed some great music in an intimate venue.  A spur of the moment version of “Buzz Aldrin” from the ‘lost’ Bible album Dodo was one of several superb encores, and it was clear from the chat on the way out that most people present would not want to wait another 25 years to hear The Bible play again.

Old Tire Swingers | Old Tire Swingers | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.03.13

Thirteen years have passed since Joel and Ethan Coen administered a shot of bluegrass into the world’s bloodstream with O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Indeed, the film’s soundtrack went platinum eight times and was, a decade after its release, regarded by NPR as one of the fifty most important records since 2000.  With the dawn of a new century, and with a little help from Krauss, Welch, Tyminski and others, the Coen brothers had made this traditional Appalachian music cooler than it had ever been.  In the meantime, an appetite for old time string bands has developed with the emergence of such combos as the Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham Country Line and the Carolina Chocolate Drops to name just three.  It could be said that these bands have gone beyond the traditions of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass to garner influences from the Scotch American bands of the Appalachian mountains and even the Vaudevillian jug bands of Beale Street.  The latest band to explore this incredibly versatile and perpetually vibrant style of traditional music is the Old Tire Swingers – a Californian quartet with a hard driving, grit-flecked chug whose harmonies often reach levels of blissful sweetness.  With Paul Chesterton’s banjo jammed firmly in the engine, guitarist Nick Kennedy, mandolin player John Codgill and fiddler Terry Bennett rattle along with a resonance that is thoroughly drenched in its traditions.  Indeed, on their debut self-titled release, it’s only the rawness of Chesterton’s lead vocals that shine a contemporary light on these self-penned songs, coupled with lyrics that are timeless enough to cross the ages.  With the stomping energy of songs such as “Police”, “Home” and “Something About Life” balanced alongside more laid-back tracks like “More Good Than Bad” and the gorgeous “Bernadine”, Old Tire Swingers provides a burlap sackful of equally energetic and emotional string band foot-tappers.

Cody McCarver | I Just Might Live Forever | Album Review | AGR Television Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.03.13

You may recognise a few of the songs on I Just Might Live Forever, the latest release from Cody McCarver.  The title track, for instance, was sung by Cody in the movie Billy The Kid, while other songs on the album featured in the films LA Dirt and Cole Younger and the Black Train.  As well as singing and acting on the big screen, McCarver has been busy McCarving a niche for himself as a solo country artist, having spent twelve years in the multi-platinum selling band Confederate Railroad.  With the release of his latest record, this self-proclaimed redneck has rooted himself firmly in the same ground as Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Toby Keith with such radio-friendly songs as “White Trash With Money” and “Bow Chicka Wow Wow”.  However, McCarver retains his outlaw status and approaches much of his material with a grittier, edgy touch.  Songs such as “Outlaws and Trains”, “Redneck Friends of Mine” and the Springstein-esque “I’m America” each provide reasons to take Cody that little bit more seriously than many of your average Stetson-topped cowboys.

Robin Trower | Roots and Branches | Album Review | Manhaton Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.03.13

Never was there a more appropriately titled record than Robin Trower’s Roots And Branches.  It is an album on which one of our finest rock guitarists exposes his blues roots while spreading the branches of a handful of new, self-penned songs.  Revisiting classics such as “Hound Dog”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, “Little Red Rooster” and “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the former Procul Harum guitarist succeeds in digging up some rather tasty guitar licks, effortlessly turning the soil in a unique manner and always hitting exactly the right spot.  With the succulent liquidity of his pitch-perfect playing, it’s plain to see why Trower has been likened to both Hendrix and Clapton during his fifty year career.  Indeed, fans will recall Trower’s many collaborations with Cream bassist Jack Bruce when listening to this new release, which is closer in style to BLT (1981) and SEVEN MOONS (2008) than the more funky TRUCE (1981).  The new songs on ROOTS AND BRANCHES seem to fit snugly between the covers thanks to Trower’s knack of making an old song sound new and a new one sound old.  And, aside from the agile guitar work, there’s also the golden thread of Robin’s smoky voice which ties everything very neatly together.  Listen out for the lofty keyboards of Luke Smith, the basslines of Richard Watts and producer Livingstone Brown and Chris Taggart’s refreshingly unfussy drums.  There’s also a couple of characteristically meaty harmonica breaks from Paul Jones.

Joe Tilston | Embers | Album Review | Fellside Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.03.13

When it comes to having music in the blood, Joe Tilston’s veins must be symphonic.  His father Steve is one of the UK’s most accomplished and cherished singer songwriters.  His mother Maggie Boyle is a renowned folk singer and flautist.  And his sister Martha is one of the most deliciously unique folk singers of her generation.  It doesn’t take a Marvel comic hero to detect the sonic influence that Joe’s family have had upon him.  Joe’s voice displays all the grain of his dad’s, with some of the fragility that makes his sister’s voice so alluring.  His songs – particularly “Different Feet”, “Little Scars” and “A Song For Old Friends” – would please fans of Steve and Martha alike, while his vocal delivery will surely prick up the ears of any Maggie Boyle devotee.  Pushing the family album aside, however, reveals a striking new singer songwriter who introduces a punk-infused freshness to his musical heritage.  All those years playing bass for punk band “Random Hand” has equipped Joe with an electric charge that spits and sparks under the gentle acoustic fingerpicking and temperate vocals.  Embers is an album that glows furiously, always threatening to burst into flames but never quite allowing itself to do so.  It’s within this nervous energy that the album triumphs.

Trio Gitan | Moldavian Cafe | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.03.13

Whether conjuring up the atmosphere of a smoky Parisian cafe or giving us a blast of fresh Balkan air, Trio Gitan have that rather satisfying knack of transporting their audience with the power of musical suggestion.  Moldavian Cafe provides an armchair tour of Eastern Europe via the violin of Andy Lawrenson, the guitar of Jack Burge and the accordion of Paul Carroll.  And while these well-seasoned musicians make up the main components of the engine, the sightseeing comes courtesy of such eminent composers as Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt and Fats Waller.  String-driven versions of standards such as “I Love Paris” and “Honeysuckle Rose” are interspersed with spirited Jewish klezmer and evocative Eastern European folk tunes on an album that passionately explores the limitless, frenetic allure of gypsy jazz.

Jimmy LaFave | Depending On The Distance | Album Review | Music Road | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.03.13

For years, Austin, Texas has been something of a chief supplier when it comes to singer songwriters. Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and Joe Ely have all slipped off the conveyor belt, as has Jimmy LaFave, whose first release in five years has just hit the shelves.  Depending On The Distance is not simply a showcase of new and well-crafted LaFave originals such as “Living In Your Light” and “It Just Is Not Right”, the album also includes Jimmy’s take on such classics as John Waite’s “Missing You”, Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” – perfect opportunities for this uniquely passionate voice to soar.  Depending On The Distance provides a well-balanced drive through the landscape of the American south with a mix of tender acoustic ballads and sun-soaked mainstream country songs, bound by a tight band of slick musicians.  It is an album of saturated colour snaps and dog-eared sepia scenes.

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt | Night | Album Review | Sony | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.03.13

Mixing the delicate elegance of a curtain dancing in a breeze by an open window with the rustic allure of wood shavings tumbling across the scuffed beams of a porch, Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt’s Night presents a poetic, operatic and enigmatic sweep of a uniquely arresting musical landscape.  Providing the answer to the question ‘What do you get if you cross a Julliard-trained pianist with a Grammy award-winning North Carolina singer songwriter?’, Night was originally conceived as a song cycle developed for a concert commissioned and presented by Duke Performances, Durham NC in January 2011.  But the collaboration has turned out to be much more than a meeting of two very different musicians – it is an ambitious creative project that has succeeded in celebrating the effects of blurring musical boundaries.  It is also, perhaps, the only album on which you’ll ever find Debussy colliding with Leonard Cohen.  And Daniel Felsenfeld’s hypnotic The Cohen Variations is not the only moment of fascinating innovation.  Sincere, strummed Merritt originals such as “Only In Songs” and “Feel Of The World” are bound by a ribbon of graceful classical piano pieces from composers such as Brahms, Bach and Purcell.  There are some notable covers, too – particularly that of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, each remoulded to fit, as well as truly haunting readings of traditional songs “Wayfaring Stranger” and “I Will Give My Love An Apple”.  The renowned Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has also contributed a composition to the project with “I Shall Weep At Night”, a painterly and bluesy track that lends the album its masterpiece.  With the magnetic inventiveness of The Unthanks Diversions series and the whimsical melancholia of any Kate and Anna McGarrigle release, Night is a bold statement of musical elasticity from two women who have all the mettle it takes to assert it.

Matt Woosey Band | On The Waggon | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.03.13

Matt Woosey’s brand of the blues comes from the rubbing together of raw emotion and masterful technique.  Armed with a clobbered Taylor guitar and a dusty voice, Woosey approaches his material with an impressive musical dexterity, but he never allows his proficiency to trim the rough edges it so clearly takes to perform these sincere blues songs.  There is, after all, nothing worse than clean blues.  Proficiency, however, is probably the wrong word. Woosey doesn’t simply play acoustic guitar, he explores it, slapping and picking the instrument until all the rhythms have been exorcised from its body.  On The Waggon – Woosey’s latest release – presents an energetic exhibition of that distinctive style; a style he has been nurturing on the road for the last decade.  On such tracks as “Elsie May” and “That’s My Baby”, infectious locomotive rhythms are only interrupted by brief stops at charming turnarounds and Broonzy-style bends.  And while there are notable moments when Woosey’s guitar and vocals are all it takes to lull you in Delta-infused reveries – particularly on the hypnotically beautiful “One of The Three” – the peaks of the album are reached with a little help from drummer Jim ‘E’ Williams and bassist Adji Shuib.  The result is most palatable indeed – an unobtrusive, somewhat unpolished yet sprightly album from a British acoustic bluesman of the highest calibre.

Dave Kelly | We Had It All | Album Review | Hypertension Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson |27.03.13

For blues completists and fans of premier British bluesman Dave Kelly, We Had It All provides a ‘family album’ of sorts – a scrapbook of unreleased tracks from a thirty-five year career, each featuring at least one notable collaborator.  Being that the material herein has been cut and pasted from assorted studio tapes and live recordings, the quality is rarely pristine.  But behind the snap, crackle and pop, there are many gems to be had.  Take, for instance, “Needed Time” which combines Dave’s bottleneck playing with the laid-back delivery of Eric Bibb’s vocal and inimitable guitar style.  Thanks to the extensive, stunningly produced sleeve notes, we know that this recording comes from a Lancashire radio performance – and it’s a delight to find that this rarity has been committed to disc.  Other notable treats from this bag of goodies include a mandolin-driven cover of Green Day’s “Good Riddance”, sung by Dave’s son Homer Kelly-Tarrant and doyenne of the British folk scene, Christine Collister.  Despite its unpolished quality, the cover still seems more sincere than Glen Campbell’s over-produced 2008 version.  There’s a beautiful recording from Dave’s daughter Lily Kelly-Tarrant entitled “Wasting Time”, which features the gentle, folky fiddle of Steve Simpson and D-Day Blues, a Dave Kelly original featuring Jona Lewie on boogie piano.  Perhaps the best moments of the album crop up in the handful of recordings made with legendary blues musicians.  These include a version of “Dust My Blues” on which Dave performs a slide backing for the great Howlin’ Wolf and a fantastically jangly version of “Take This Hammer” featuring the vocal and twelve string guitar of Long John Baldry.  But it’s the appearance of Dave’s sister, the much missed Jo-Anne Kelly, that lends this album its most poignant, stirring moment.  “Ramblin’ Gal” – a reworking of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” – is taken from the rehearsals for an album the siblings never completed.  While Jo-Anne’s voice raises a skinful of goosebumps, Dave’s haunting slide guitar is equally bewitching.

Nicole Maguire | What You Really Mean | Album Review | IRL | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.04.13

With an album cover that’s reminiscent of a Gram Parsons sleeve and a sound that’s more Southern California than South Tipperary, you may be surprised to find that Nicole Maguire grew up in the little village of Conna, Ireland.  Lean in a little closer, however, and you’re likely to detect an Irish breeze in the flute-like voice of this angelic singer songwriter.  With a little friendly encouragement from such eminent performers as Damien Dempsey and Paul Brady, Nicole introduced her craft to the bar-room audiences of Dublin and Cork before having the good fortune of securing the support spot for Nanci Griffith on one of the Texan singer’s Irish tours.  The tour culminated in a stint in Nashville, where Nicole was able to hone her songwriting and road test some of the material that would find a home on What You Really Mean, her debut album.  And a fine and seductive album it is, too.  If you like your country with more emotional, melodic charm than big hats and spurs, then you’ll delight in the melancholy, folk-tinged Americana with which this album froths.  “Run With Me”, the opening track, is a graceful punch of a song that recalls the power of Lucinda Williams while “Two Weeks Today” blends dirt-road country with a more contemporary folk sound.  It also features a lofty vocal that would give Alison Krauss a run for her money.  The title track provides the highlight of what is a perpetually strong debut.  Featuring the lilt and grit of Sheryl Crow’s guitarist Val McCallum, and a melody that long outlives the song’s final chord, “What You Really Mean” is a song that feels forty years older than its composer.  And while we’re mentioning notable guest performers, you can throw Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas and CSN bassist Bob Glaub onto the pile of reasons to spin this disc.  As for backing vocalists, Nicole has managed to reach to the very top shelf to select Vonda Shepherd – the award-winning singer from Ally McBeal.  With eminent producer Mitchell Froom at the controls, a repertoire of mellifluous self-penned songs and an immaculate voice to feed those sinuous melodies, What You Really Mean is an eyebrow-raising debut from a future household name.

Blue to Brown | Blue to Brown | Album Review | Remedy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.04.13

Kinship in music has a long and rich history.  The Carter Family, The Everly Brothers, The Bee Gees and The Jackson 5 all exemplified the phenomenon of sibling harmonies and the mysterious energy that can only spark from family collaborations.  And if it’s sparks that you’re after, give Blue To Brown a spin – the eponymous debut from a father and son duo with blues in their blood.  Rob Brown (father) and Dom Brown (son) each bring distinctive prowess to this energetically electric collection of impressive blues originals.  Rob has one of those lived-in voices; a kind of Howlin’ Wolf meets Ian Dury rasp that not only lends this album its authenticity but also its proudly British feel.  And talking of British pride, Dom Brown is one of this island’s best contemporary guitarists.  The release of Blue To Brown comes as his second tour with Duran Duran draws to a close – a tour that saw Dom perform at Hyde Park as part of the 2012 Olympics opening celebrations.  While a gritty voice and a red-hot, wailing guitar are enough to infuse these original songs with a respectable credibility and substance, the strength of the album is firmly planted in the melding of two distinctive vocal styles.  When Rob’s growl mingles with Dom’s higher, cleaner register on tracks such as “Blue Boy” and “Please, Please”, a tangible balance is reached.  It’s a balance that gives this album its shine.  The Browns are joined on this album by drummer Darrin Mooney, keyboardists Martin Winning and Mike Bramwell, bassist John Noyce and vocalist Anna Ross.

Carlos Núñez | Discover | Album Review | RCA Victor | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.04.13

Perhaps best known for his collaborations with musicians as diverse as Sharon Shannon, Montserrat Caballé, Linda Ronstadt and The Chieftains, Spanish piper and flautist Carlos Núñez has long been justly praised for his entrancing technique and musical adaptability.  His performances are steeped in energy and excitement, crossing cultures to vividly express the power and universality of music.  While presenting an exhibition of this artist’s craft, Discover – a hearty double-disc anthology of recordings from the last fifteen years – is a richly entertaining and enlightening journey through world rhythms, traditional tunes and fusions of otherwise historically and geographically separated musical styles.  The album froths with intriguing musical collaborations, often insisting that the listener fasten their seatbelt as the piper jets from one shore to another. But the dizzying effect is made somewhat more palpable when you begin to detect the cultural crossover that is occurring from one track to the next. Hothouse Flower Liam Ó Maonlaí, for example, sings a gently devastating version of Christy Moore’s “Viva La Quinta Brigada”, backed by Núñez’s stirring whistle and Florea Sandu’s equally emotive accordion.  Soon, however, we’re flung to Cuba where Compay Segundo performs a deliciously sunny Para Vigo Me Voy.  Other notable guest appearances include Roger Hodgson, Sinéad O’Connor and Jackson Browne, whose live version of “The Crow On The Cradle” is coloured by David Lindley’s fiddle and another of Núñez’s serpentine whistle accompaniments.  With its intoxicating mix of tranquil airs, rousing songs and lively Celtic dance tunes, Discover is a veritable trove of musical treasures.

Albert Hammond | Legend II | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinsion | 04.04.13

Songs that are built to last usually have a top-drawer architect behind them.  The spires of “Let It Be” were erected by Paul McCartney, the stunning interiors of “You’ve Got a Friend” were designed by Carole King and the glass domes of “The Air That I Breathe” were the work of one Albert Hammond – a songwriter who now presides over a veritable city of hits.  Legend II is an eighteen-track follow-up to Hammond’s Legend, an album that gave this cherished songwriter the chance to record his own versions of the songs he has been churning out for over forty years.  While the initial release boasted such classic Hammond compositions as “It Never Rains In Southern California” and “Don’t Turn Around”, part two of the set includes “I Don’t Wanna Lose You”, a hit for Tina Turner, “One Moment In Time” originally recorded by Whitney Houston for the 1988 Olympic Games and “I Need To Be In Love”, a song purported to be Karen Carpenter’s favourite of all that she recorded.  Hammond’s own delivery may not reach the standard of a Turner, a Houston or a Carpenter, and the often uninspiring backing certainly doesn’t do these expertly crafted songs any extra justice.  However, there is something pleasing about hearing the author sing his own, now legendary lyrics.  Debussy wasn’t the greatest pianist that ever lived and there are better public speakers out there than Stephen King – but it’s always a distinct pleasure to see the architect walk his own corridors.

Nobody’s Business | Easy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.04.13

There’s only one thing better than hearing a reworking of a blues classic and that’s hearing a faithfully unadorned rendering of one.  Easy, the second release from British acoustic guitar/blues harp duo Nobody’s Business, never departs from the raw blues spirit of the delta during any of its fourteen covers.  Danny Ward has a satisfyingly scuffed voice and plays a Broonzy-drenched fingerstyle guitar while Colin Elliot fills the gaps with a sparing and delightfully subtle harp.  The result is exactly what any self-respecting country blues fan would want – a cheerfully blue, back porch simplicity that is only further engineered with a little studio echo here and there.  The songs are cherry picked from the recordings of such legends as Mississippi John Hurt, Jesse Fuller, Doc Watson, Big Bill Broonzy and Howlin’ Wolf and with faithful interpretations of such songs as “San Francisco Bay Blues”, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “Going Down Slow”, it’s clear that Danny and Colin have spent some considerable time with their beloved blues records.  Easy is a record that handles blues with love and care, each sentiment shining through with every authentic note.

Martin Harley | Mojo Fix | Album Review | 60/20 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.04.13

Mojo Fix is as colourful and striking an album as its cover.  It’s the latest release from Martin Harley – leader of the British blues trio The Martin Harley Band – and while blues provides the soul of this richly-textured album, it’s Harley’s panoramic rendering of it that creates the little masterpiece that this record truly is.  With gently confident watering, Martin’s blues grows from seed to brightly blossoming spectacle in roughly three and a half minutes.  And each track blooms with distinctly different flowers – some bluesy, some folky, some rockabilly, too.  Take, for instance, “Ball & Chain” – a swampy, brooding lizard of a song that slithers along steadily until it bursts into colour with wide stereo backing vocals, blustery percussion and a sorrowful delta blues harp.  Then there’s “Cardboard King”, a string-laden acoustic folk song with a Martin Simpson feel.  And talking of inspirations, the beautiful “Treading Water” surely tips its cap to John Martyn while the energetic “Mean Old City” is a pretty stunning stab at Hendrix.  “Wrecking Ball” is classic rockabilly, with its shot of red hot gypsy fiddle, and “Tightrope” is a sunny, happy-go-lucky ukulele song.  There are many reasons to laud praise on Mojo Fix, but its biggest strength lies within its reluctance to be defined.  Rather like a Tom Waits release, Martin Harley’s new album is always surprising, constantly beguiling and perpetually enjoyable.

King King | Standing in the Shadows | Album Review | Hatman | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.04.13

The expectations have been high for Standing In The Shadows, the second album from Glaswegian electric blues combo King King. The band’s debut album Take My Hand received a string of five-star reviews upon its spring 2011 release and their high-octane, tartan-clad live performances helped establish the band as one of Britain’s foremost blues-rock outfits.  Led by Alan Nimmo – already a familiar figure on the scene thanks to the success of the Nimmo Brothers, the band he formed with brother Stevie – King King have entered this second phase with a ten-track album that certainly satisfies those high expectations.  Once again, the band has bottled a fizzy blend of high-energy blues numbers and slower, arresting ballads sewn with a thick ribbon of weeping guitar solos.  While most of the songs have been penned by Alan Nimmo and bassist Lindsay Coulson, there are a couple of well-chosen covers such as a powerfully soaring version of Frankie Miller’s “Jealousy” and a crisp retelling of Free’s “Heavy Load” that has all the brooding energy of the original and more besides.  The latter also benefits from the fingers of keys man Bennett Holland who tackles Andy Fraser’s piano part with gentle faithfulness while Nimmo dazzles on guitar and vocal.  With the might of Wayne Proctor’s percussion providing a steady heartbeat throughout, coupled with several memorable moments of deft blues songwriting and white-hot solos, Standing In The Shadows comes loaded with some of the best contemporary British blues you’re going to hear.

Norma Waterson | Coal Not Dole | EP Review | Topic Single | Review by Kev Boyd |

Margaret Thatcher, Topic Records and the Ding Dong! ding dong.  In a week that saw the British news media dominated by the death of Margaret Thatcher and a social media-driven epidemic of musical novelty ‘anti-tributes’ to the late former Prime Minister you could have been forgiven for missing the fact that English folk music specialists Topic Records released a two-track download-only single by Norma Waterson; but they did and their timing was no accident.  Of the two previously-released tracks, “Coal Not Dole” is Norma’s solo version of Kay Sutcliffe’s post-miner’s strike poem and Hilda’s Cabinet Band is the Waterson family’s 1990 recording of a song written by Norma’s late sister Lal in response to what she saw as the dubious achievements of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.  The use of appropriately-themed music to protest topical events is hardly a new phenomenon of course, with the successful 2009 Facebook campaign to send Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name” to the top of the charts being perhaps the best-known recent example.  Topic’s release is hardly expected to achieve the same level of attention of course, and indeed given its relative lack of publicity it’s not exactly an enterprise you would describe as bandwagon-jumping.  However, the context of the release does raise some interesting questions around the ‘digital vs. physical’ debate, the state of the contemporary music industry and the nature of protest in the context of an ongoing social media overload.  In the days of physical-only releases it would have been materially impossible (not to mention financially impractical) for all but the largest major labels to rush-release a single within the space of a few days, but in the digital age even a cottage-industry setup like Topic’s can react to events and have their product ready for sale just about as quickly and economically as the majors.  Without the practical and financial hindrances of packaging design and manufacture and with no need to organise the physical distribution of the finished product a label can make a track available in your iTunes playlist potentially within hours of the events to which they are reacting.  It’s a process that’s perfectly suited to the modern-day ubiquity of social media: in a matter of moments you can buy a track, share it, ‘like’ it, tweet it, make a pithy comment and advertise your ideological viewpoint all at once, without ever having to deal with the inconvenience of leaving your sofa.  In one sense this phenomenon points towards a welcome democratisation of the music industry in the digital age, allowing both the likes of Topic to specifically make tracks available for download in reaction to recent events and fans of a particular artist or genre the opportunity to protest a relevant cause (assuming, of course, their political or ideological leanings tally with those of the artists in question).  Perhaps an even clearer indication of democracy in action in this context has been provided by the improbable rise up the UK singles chart of “Ding Ding! The Witch Is Dead” in the wake of Thatcher’s demise.  No specific industry intervention was required in this instance, with the track having long been available for download and languishing virtually unnoticed on the Warner Brothers’ Wizard of Oz soundtrack album.  All it seemed to take was the combined efforts of Facebook and Twitter and a not-inconsiderable word-of-mouth campaign to slowly nudge the track up the charts over the course of a week.  Rarely could a so-called novelty song have caused such widespread opprobrium as the Ding Dong! single.  That Thatcher was a divisive figure virtually goes without saying, but there will still be those who were taken aback by the levels of public vitriol expressed on both sides of the political divide in relation to the song’s unlikely popularity.  The BBC for their part, not for the first time in their recent history, seemed totally incapable of devising an appropriate and consistent approach to an issue in which they found themselves playing an admittedly unwanted supporting role.  That point aside, and whatever your thoughts on the morality of those individuals who parted with their 79 pence for this little snatch of 1930s kitsch, its popularity is a clear indication that although there is currently a distinct lack of decent protest singers in the mainstream music industry, there still exists the means to enable ordinary folk to participate in mass musical protest.  If only they had better taste then maybe Norma would be in with a chance of a hit!

JJ Grey & Mofro | This River | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.04.13

Treating himself to a pair of rather fancy new speakers a couple of years ago, this reviewer turned eagerly to his collection of JJ Grey & Mofro records, confident that these exceptionally produced albums would help test the limits of his new speakers.  As expected, they handled the job very nicely indeed. My little house rattled rhythmically, almost coming loose from the rest of the terrace as JJ Grey’s guitar and vocals ripped into the quiet of suburbia and Anthony Cole’s drums rippled the clothing of neighbours several houses away.  This River, the latest release from Jacksonville-based Grey and his band, provides more of the same soul-infused, mud-drenched funk that seeped in abundance from previous releases such as Country Ghetto, Georgia Warhouse and Lochloosa.  This time, however, the emphasis is very much on soul. With sax lines that echo the classic recordings of Otis Redding and the authentic wrapping of a delightful late-sixties fuzz, courtesy of Grey’s co-producer Dan Prothero, This River glows from start to finish in a way that so few albums do these days.  Stopping, here and there, at vintage soul for tracks such as “Somebody Else” and “Tame a Wild One” and taking flights of funk with “Florabama” and “Harp & Drums” the album winds its way towards the title track, a show-stopping five and half minutes of gentle acoustic beauty that screws the cap on another treat for your speakers.

Miho Wada | Exit 621 | Album Review | Florestar | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.05.13

It’s a shame that the world doesn’t contain more jazz-flute-ninjas – a thought that flutters into my mind when listening to any of the many scrumptious outings from Japanese-born New Zealander Miho Wada.  Exit 621 is Miho’s fifth outing and presents a further eight reasons to be deliriously happy, happiness being the overarching tone of Miho’s wickedly enticing albums of flute-led instrumentals and, thanks to the detail of Miho’s self-penned liner notes inside this attractively packaged record, we’re offered a glimpse into the life of a beguiling and unique musician/composer.  We learn that the ska-infused “Go Go Go” is inspired by her energetic teaching styles and that the very moving “Taking Off” is a meditation on the beauty of our universe and one that impeccably evokes Miho’s Japanese heritage, too.  Exit 621, with its colourful mixture of jazz, ska, rock and Latin-flavoured compositions, is another exhibition of works from the Play M!ho score books that Miho uses to teach her music students.  However, thanks to the expertise of Miho’s Jazz Orchestra, not to mention the spirited flute and saxophone playing of the band’s leader, Exit 621 is less ‘accompanying CD’ than enticing example of modern jazz fusion from an artist who is clearly devoted to her art.

Brass Monkey | The Best of Live: 30th Anniversary Celebration | Album Review | Park Records | Review by Kev Boyd | 13.05.13

The title is a bit of a giveaway of course, but it’s still worth noting that this CD and DVD set celebrates 30 years since Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick’s vision of an English folk ensemble driven primarily by brass instrumentation became a reality.  It’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey for Brass Monkey: the original band called it a day after a mere five years when it became increasingly evident that an 80s folk scene yet to fully embrace the arts centre and theatre circuits was unable to financially support five full-time musicians.  They were off the scene for the best part of a decade but returned with increased vigour for a number of years until trumpeter Howard Evans fell ill mid-tour in 2004.  He was never to recover and died in 2006, after which the band soldiered on as an unconvincing four-piece for a couple of years.  With the trumpet being a central element to the Brass Monkey sound it was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually return to their full compliment and this happened with the addition of Paul Archibald in 2009.  On the few occasions where Archibald’s other commitments clashed with the band’s he would send former pupil Shane Brennan as his replacement.  ‘We all thought this would be a ghastly idea’, says Kirkpatrick in the CD sleeve notes, but Brennan proved to be a more than competent replacement and for their 30th anniversary tour in 2012, from which this live recording is taken, the band included both Brennan and Archibald in a mammoth six-piece lineup. Kirkpatrick notes that they ‘tickled up a few old hits’ to explore the additional resources available but this is to understate the achievements of their newly extended lineup, with virtually every song or tune receiving some sort of makeover, either subtle or otherwise.  The addition of the extra brass has allowed them to approach some of their repertoire completely afresh, with the likes of “Jolly Bold Robber”, “Brisk Young Widow” and “The Maid & The Palmer” positively rollicking along in their new settings.  This added versatility also means they can dust off their impressive take on Kirkpatrick’s “George’s Son”, which they haven’t previously attempted live due to its complex brass arrangement but which here proves to be something of a highlight.  It’s easy to forget that they’ve clocked up a total of six studio albums over the years and this 17-track set draws material from all but one of these.  Their characteristic mix of Morris and other dance tunes, songs from Kirkpatrick and Carthy, military band repertoire and the odd curio is augmented by a couple of less familiar pieces.  One of these is “The King’s Hunt”, Archibald’s expansive arrangement of a tune by composer John Bull that he unearthed from a seventeenth-century collection.  It’s the only entirely new piece in the set and allows the extended brass section to flex their virtuosic muscles rather impressively.  An old piece given a new lease of life is “Friar In The Well” which had originally been recorded by the pre-Brass Monkey trio of Carthy, Evans and Kirkpatrick but is here given the benefit of the full band treatment.  The whole thing bounds along at a brisk pace – even accounting for a couple of slower pieces like “The Trowie Burn” and “Willie The Waterboy” – and sound quality is clear and punchy with a deep resonance to the bottom end that is impressive for a live recording.  The CD is packaged with a DVD taken from the same show which includes one additional track.  The visuals are clear and unfussy and the sound is again impressive but it may have been worthwhile to have utilised the extended playing time available and included some of Kirkpatrick’s between-song banter to provide more of a flavour of the live experience and to distinguish the content from that of the CD.  As it is the DVD doesn’t add much to the experience as a whole so it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity but that shouldn’t detract from what is a thoroughly impressive package.  There may have been times during the 30-year lifespan of Brass Monkey that they felt the distinctive snarl of young folk upstarts snapping at their heels, but this live album represents Messrs. Carthy, Kirkpatrick, et al. biting back with a vengeance and it’s mightily impressive stuff!

The Wayward Tour | Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray | Buxton Opera House | Review by Kev Boyd | 27.05.13

Wow, looks like Eliza’s back in town!  Mr Carthy’s wayward daughter is celebrating 21 years of being on the folk stage in style, touring along with Jim Moray and an 11 piece band of fine musicians.  I caught up with this grand event in the apt setting of Buxton Opera House, about half way into the tour.  Jim, who is also enjoying 10 years as a major performer, kicked off the show with a solo song at the keyboards, then quickly brought on the full Wayward Band.  A well thought out duet with Lucy Farrell on “Jenny of the Moor” set the scene for the evening.  Moray’s set also included “Lord Douglas”, a beautifully adapted Child ballad and a well-deserved winner of  Best Traditional track in this years Folk Awards.  After no more than an hour we were hearing the familiar rousing chorus of “All You Pretty Girls” signalling the end of Jim’s set.  Post interval Eliza took to the stage, heading first to the piano which was probably surprising to most people in the room.  The result was a gorgeous version of “Diego’s Bold Shore”, from Waterson Carthy’s Dark Light album but rarely heard in this form.  From there Eliza gave us a tour through her immense and varied back catalogue, starting with “Cold Haily Rainy Night” which was the first song that she’d recorded with band members Saul Rose on melodeon and bassist Barn Stradling some 16 years ago – and she still made it sound as fresh as ever, with lots of little yells and dances.  I was great to hear Eliza in good voice again, hardly a trace of the throat problems she has suffered in recent years.  Having a big band to play with allowed both Jim and Eliza to fill out the arrangements they usually do on stage, creating something as big and in many cases better than the original studio versions.  A good example was “Worcester City”, popular song from the Rat Catchers days, but this time with the distinctive percussion intro from the album.   Also from the Rat Catchers era was “Gallant Hussar”, heavily featuring some great brass playing by Nick Malcolm on trumpet and Adrien ‘Yen Yen’ Toulouse on trombone.  21 years in the business has given Eliza depth and variety, and this showed up on the “Grey Gallito”, which is actually a version of “The Lovers Ghost” originally picked up from her father.  However, she recorded this with the great dance band Salsa Celtica, with the addition of a Spanish chorus – result, simply gorgeous.  More treats to come with a lovely version of Mike Waterson’s “Jack Frost”, with Dave Delarre on guitar and Lucy Farrell with backing vocals.  My only slight disappointment of the show was the limited material from Eliza’s Red Rice album, only 2 songs.  These were never the less brilliant, particularly “Billy Boy/the Widdows Wedding” with Eliza and Sam Sweeney playing together.  Last song before the encore was a fine version of “Willow Tree”.  This song used to appear at the same point during the Ratcatchers set and it was great to hear it again in an even fuller arrangement.  To round off the evening everybody joined in the vocals on a rousing “Glory Land”, then a big band treatment of “The Cobblers Hornpipe”, the only full instrumental set of the evening, sending all home with smiles on our faces.  It was evident watching how much fun the band seemed to be having up there.  Sam Sweeney confirmed this after the show.  Sam said “It’s great to play Eliza’s old material, she was one of the big reasons I started playing folk music in the first place”.  Well, I think you speak for a lot of people there Sam. 

York Ukulele Festival 2013 | York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.06.13

Sunny with a very good chance of heavy rain.  That was the forecast for Saturday 15th June 2013 in York. But, as puffs of off-white cloud tickled the twin bell towers of the city’s scaffolded Minster, nobody really seemed to care what the skies had in store.  From 11am, every alley and snickleway of this ancient city would be filled with the sunny sound of that most delightful and ever-popular of instruments, the humble uke.  The first ever York Ukulele Festival was presented by Red Cow Music – the best music shop in the city to discover the uke or feed your obsession for the instrument – and attracted a bustling crowd of curious onlookers throughout the day.  The main stage in St Sampson’s Square boasted a host of strummers – from individual pluckers to sizeable uke orchestras – from mid-morning to late afternoon with the Black Swan pub in Peasholme Green taking over in the evening.  The Grand Old Uke Of York – the city’s most vibrant ukulele collective who meet weekly at Victor J’s Bar in Finkle Street – opened the festival in true Live Aid style with a fifteen-strong uke rendition of Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over The World”.  Soon, the weathered slabs of the old Square were flooded with crowds, each unable to stifle that traditional uke-induced smirk.  And the smiles were only lengthened by the collective’s buoyant versions of Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls”, The Beatles classic “Eight Days A Week” and a show-stopping “Rawhide”.  A gently enchanting version of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” was performed by two of the group’s members and another Disney favourite, “I Wanna Be Like You”, introduced the giggling passers-by to the kazookulele – a uke with a luminous green kazoo pegged to its headstock.  And while the music itself laid the foundations for what would be a day of merriment, a brief and unanticipated interlude to let a booming uniformed marching band pass through Parliament Street, during which the entire collective stood in acknowledgement, created an infectious ripple of guffaws that failed to evaporate all day.  Kyle Frasier’s folk-flavoured uke set was next up, featuring a four-stringed rendition of “Dirty Old Town” as well as a selection of self-penned songs.  Kyle also paid tribute to George Harrison – the late Beatle and ukulele-obsessive – with an admirable re-working of “If Not For You” – the Dylan song that Harrison covered on his All Things Must Pass album.  After a colourful performance and rousing version of Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” from the Harrogate Ukulele Group, the seven-piece Ukulele Sunshine Revival  rattled off a lengthy set of well-known numbers such as “Fisherman’s Blues”, “Hello Mary Lou” and a beguiling version of “Mr Sandman”.  And, as those grey clouds began to let go of their first stinging drops of rain, pupils from York’s Headlands School took to the stage for an impressive showcase of cleverly-reworked songs, including a fitting rendition of “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”.  Thankfully, the charming little pub The Habit was on hand to save us from getting drenched with a ukulele open mic session.  The boards of the pub’s first floor were put to the test when hoards of uke-lovers assembled to sip local ale and listen to impromptu performances from a long list of diverse strummers.  Performers as young as fourteen shared the bill with more seasoned ukulele players in front of the pub’s open upstairs window, filling not just the room with that adorably happy sound but the whole of Goodramgate, too.  And the happiness continued well into the evening with further performances at the city’s six-hundred year old Black Swan, sealing the lid on York’s first ever and clearly very successful Ukulele Festival.  Let’s hope the dancing fleas will descend upon us again next year.

The False Beards | Ankle | Album Review | Ghosts From the Basement | Review by Kev Boyd | 01.07.13

When an outfit describe what they do as ‘old time English psych folk blues world twangery’ you can pretty much guarantee two things: that their sense of humour is fully intact and their repertoire will be nothing if not eclectic.  Such is the case with The False Beards, the latest collaboration between Ian Anderson and Ben Mandelson who boast a combined 90-plus years of live gigging between them and only a little less as recording artists.  With that kind of pedigree it’s no surprise that the level of musicianship rarely, if ever, falls short of virtuosic on this, their first full-length CD as a duo.  Much of the repertoire will be known to those familiar with Anderson’s musical meanderings: “A Sign Of The Times” and “Marie Celeste On Down” date from his days as a self-confessed ‘psych-folk twerp’ in the early 1970s whereas “The Panic Is On” was an English Country Blues Band favourite dating from the depression-era United States that will resonate equally with contemporary audiences – plus ça change, and all that!  Anderson has the perhaps enviable claim to fame of possessing two separate ancestors who sang for some of the great English folk song collectors of the early 20th century and he reclaims his cultural heritage on two tracks on this collection: Ralph Vaughan Williams noted “Lord Allenwater” from his great grandmother in 1904 and Anderson has previously sung this with Blue Blokes 3 while “The False Bride” was collected by Cecil Sharp from Charles Norris in 1909.  Guest Katie Rose takes on the vocals for these tracks and her presence adds a nice point of contrast to Anderson’s singing elsewhere.  In being reminiscent of the classic 1970s folk voice she manages to point up the essential Englishness of these songs.  Not that Anderson’s vocals are ever anything other than quintessentially English themselves and he rarely loses his West Country twang, even when tackling material rooted firmly in the American tradition that would have less confident singers dusting off their best midlantic drawl.  As well as handling most of the singing, Anderson plucks a mean acoustic guitar throughout and adds some occasional and well-placed slide guitar passages.  Mandelson augments this with mandolin and his unique baritone bouzouki.  That’s more or less it save for Rose’s vocal contributions, some muted trumpet from Peter Judge on one song and an incessant percussive stomp that pervades a number of tracks.  Despite the eclectic mix of styles it’s this relatively simple instrumentation that lends a sense of stylistic unity to these ten tracks.  It somehow underpins everything from a seben characteristic of the Congolese tradition, a tune from Guinea, songs from the English tradition and the playful slab of Greekadelica that is their take on the Stones’ “Paint It Black”.  Their approach is reminiscent of the era in which both protagonists originally learnt their trade: where young upstarts with guitars were just as likely to be found exploring obscure singer-songwriters, playing American country blues or tackling an Indian raga as they were singing songs from their own cultural tradition.  It works partly because of that aforementioned virtuosity but also, as is often the case with the best musicians, because they make it all sound so utterly effortless!  The CD comes packaged in a neat, environmentally friendly digipak sleeve with song notes by Anderson and a cool Alex Bertram Powell cover illustration.

Davy Graham | 3/4 AD | EP Review | Topic | Review by Kev Boyd | 01.07.13

20 April 2013 was the sixth UK Record Store Day: every year labels and artists produce limited edition vinyl, CD and promotional releases that are only available for sale in participating independent record stores on the third Saturday in April.  In turn those stores often put on special events on the day which can range from in-store performances, DJ sets, signings or simply providing coffee and cakes.  The special releases bring custom into the shops that might otherwise have gone to larger stores or online outlets and the knock-on effect of this increased custom should, in theory, be felt by the independent artists and labels whose releases are stocked by the shops during the rest of the year.  As their contribution to Record Store Day in 2013 Topic Records issued this faithful reproduction of their influential 1962 Davy Graham EP in an edition of 1000 pressings.  Topic’s philosophy has always been built around making traditional-based music as widely available as possible so I was intrigued by the apparent retrograde step of issuing this on 7” vinyl in such limited numbers.  ‘Topic is very keen to support as broad a cross-section of retail outlets for recorded music as possible’, Business Manager David Suff told me in relation to Record Store Day, ‘especially the independent stores’.  More specifically, he adds, 3/4 AD celebrates the original release being over 50 years old and provides ‘an idiosyncratic way to promote our Great Big Digital Archive project with a piece of prime vinyl’.  There’s a bizarre rationale to his thinking that appeals to me: the Digital Archive project started in January 2013 with the digital release of 84 previously out of print albums from the label’s vast back catalogue including full digital artwork, original accompanying sleeve notes and additional photographs or ephemera from the archives.  It’s an incredibly ambitious and important project, made possible by the relatively low overheads inherent in the download-only release process and I like the idea of promoting it using good old fashioned vinyl.  It also strikes me that this is all a far cry from the late-1980s when I first started seriously accumulating vinyl and CDs from Topic.  I still have vivid memories of thumbing through the inch-thick stack of A4 photocopies that passed for Topic Distribution’s mail order catalogue.  Every week another Postal Order would be dispatched to Stroud Green Road and every week a different slab of vinyl or shiny silver plastic would drop through my parents’ letter box to contribute towards my ever-expanding and increasingly exhilarating musical education.  Memorably there was They’ll Never Keep Us Down, Rounder Records’ incredible compilation of women’s coal mining songs; Radio Freedom, the album of illegal ANC broadcasts from apartheid-era South Africa; and the entire Martin Carthy back catalogue, slowly building in quantity and unwittingly waiting to change my life forever.  So either as a label or distributor Topic have always played an important part in my musical life and I’m thrilled that they are still looking for interesting and innovative ways of promoting their releases.  It almost seems unnecessary to point out Graham’s importance to the 1960s folk scene, such has been his obvious influence over the last half century.  Of the three tracks on 3/4 AD, “Angi” will undoubtably be the best known, having famously been considered a rite of passage piece for generations of aspiring guitarists.  Davy’s “Train Blues” is a rhythmic blues workout that is perhaps the most conventional of the three pieces, which is not to say that it isn’t executed with Davy’s usual technical mastery.  The title track is a duet with Alexis Korner and provides the missing link between Miles Davies’ “All Blues” and The Pentangle’s “I’ve Got A Feeling”.  The entire package comes in a heavy card cover that faithfully reproduces the fold-back sleeve construction used for early 1960s vinyl releases and Topic’s familiar blue and silver 1960s label design.  The original EP was issued in three different sleeves and this version includes the complete artwork and sleeve notes from each of these.  The EP is also available to download via iTunes so not everyone will wish to shell out the additional cost for this lovingly-reproduced facsimile of the original release but those who choose to can obtain it for a limited period via the Topic Records website.

Guy Clark | My Favorite Picture Of You | Album Review | Dualtone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 06.07.13

After the sad passing of his beloved wife Susanna in 2012, and with a few of his own health issues to deal with, it seemed for a while that Guy Clark may have reached the end of the road.  His last studio album, Sometimes The Song Writes You, was released four years ago and a star-studded tribute album, albeit a superb jaunt through Guy’s impressive back catalogue, signalled the completion of a distinguished musical career.  Having seen and met Guy a handful of times, I was one of those fans whose lip started to quiver at the thought that this craftsman’s work was done. And then something wonderful happened.  On July 22nd this year, Guy released his fourteenth studio album My Favorite Picture Of You, presenting eleven brand new recordings, most of which penned by Clark along with such friends as Verlon Thompson, Shawn Camp and Rodney Crowell, who all feature on the record.  It’s not surprising, considering his recent hardships, that the album has a melancholy feel, the sound of Guy’s weathered voice adding to the bitter-sweetness. But no one does melancholic musical storytelling like Guy.  “Heroes”, a song about the mental anguish of a soldier returned from Iraq, is reminiscent of Guy’s classic “The Randall Knife” and comes with as much of a heartfelt punch while the album’s title track tells the story of the photograph of Susanna Clark which features on the album’s cover.  Presented with a handful of sweetly performed waltzes such as “Cornmeal Waltz” and the instant classic “El Coyote”, My Favorite Picture Of You is not just another formidable Guy Clark album for the collection but also proof that, when faced with adversity, Guy’s your man.

The Bills | Yes Please | Album Review | Red House | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 07.07.13

Hailing from the West Coast of Canada, The Bills (formerly The Bill Hilly Band), have the knack of making music that effortlessly draws the listener in.  The opening song on their latest album Yes Please invites us to step inside, which we all do with no further dispute.  Fluently pivoting between a broad range of musical styles, The Bills could quite easily become the masters of all trades and Jack of none, with their instrumental virtuosity and grounded vocal interplay.  No less than five of the thirteen selections on the album are instrumentals, perfectly demonstrating the band’s chops as first rate players with styles ranging from European swing jazz, with Django Reinhardt’s classic “Love’s Melody”, through to the dramatic Marc Atkinson composition Scotch Bonnet, by way of Adrian Dolan’s assured fiddle tune “After Music”, to the almost Classical composition of “The Gardenton Waltz” and “Quarter Century Mazurka”, each showcasing the expansive range of the band’s many influences from around the world.  If “Hallowed Hall” successfully invites you in and on first listen it’s almost guaranteed to, then there’s some delightful surprises further along with the highly memorable “Gale in My Snail”, the bluegrass-inflected “Black Berry Ivy” and “Broom” and the stormy and turbulent “The Plant Song”.  

Richard Shindell | The Live Room, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 02.08.13

Richard Shindell timed his 5 date mini tour of the UK to coincide with our brief heat wave so it was quite a warm, humid night at The Live Room, Saltaire.  Fortunately as well as a fan aimed at the stage a door was kept open which allowed a cooling breeze to circulate around the front of the room at least.  A good crowd turned up to see Richard Shindell, surely one of the most under rated and largely unrecognised singer/songwriters of his age.  Although born in the States, Richard now resides in Buenos Aires.  It’s always baffling to me why the likes of Tom Russell and Richard Shindell don’t regularly play far larger venues.  However, I’m sure that most of the audience along with myself were very pleased to see Richard perform in such an intimate setting.  The Live Room at The Caroline Social Club has been putting on acts for just over a year now.  Recent ‘scoops’ have included The Home Service and Martyn Joseph, full credit to Ron and Hilary, the promoters, although it has to be said that it was a bit of a squeeze to fit all 8 members of The Home Service on the stage.  The evening started with a short but delightful set from the very capable Jess Morgan from Norwich.  I first saw Jess in May 2007 at Fibbers in York supporting Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter.  She was one of several supports that night so she obviously made quite an impression on me back then.  Her stage presence, guitar work and song writing abilities have progressed immensely in those few years and surely a ‘Laura Marling’ type break could happen anytime.  As well as playing support to Richard she has supported the likes of amongst others, First Aid Kit, Teddy Thompson, Chris Wood, Lau and Megson.  Jess was the perfect opener for Richard Shindell as she is very much in the story telling vein of song writers.  Many of her songs are about travelling as, in her own words, she does a lot of it.  She has a great voice and unlike many support acts had that confident manner and introduced all her songs and gave background information.  Her very good use and choice of words was emphasised by her very clear vocal style.  Call me old fashioned but I like to hear the words to songs without straining.  I think the highly polite and attentive audience would have been very happy for Jess to perform a few more songs, recognising that she is a real talent.  Jess is well worth taking the time to see if she is playing near you.  The first thing Richard Shindell said when taking the stage was to ask for another round of applause for Jess saying how much he enjoyed her set.  Throughout the night a seated Richard switched between a custom made in Buenos Aires white electric which resembled a Fender Stratocaster and an acoustic guitar on loan from Show of Hand’s Steve Knightley.  It was, apparently, Richard’s intention to just play electric guitar for the tour but a change of mind and the offer of the loan from Steve meant both were used.  If anything the acoustic was actually played louder than the electric.  Sometimes Richard tours with an accompanying guitarist.  In 2010 he toured with the wonderfully talented Mark Schulman who created a kind of sonic backdrop to Richard’s songs.  This time, however, Richard demonstrated that he quite a talented and inventive guitarist in his own right.  Richard first two songs were what he calls his road songs, “Transit” from a 2000 album Somewhere Near Paterson.  During the evening Richard told of how wonderfully civilised he thought drivers were in the UK.  He had been driving himself around on this tour and described roundabouts as something totally new to him, nothing like them in the States or Buenos Aires where any kind of road etiquette is non existent.  The comments that we Brits are very civilised courteous drivers obviously surprised a few in the audience but I guess it’s all relative.  The song basically describes traffic gridlock on a Friday evening, brilliantly observing the characters, faces, frustrations and actions of the drivers and their vehicles.  This was followed by a new as yet unreleased song “The Deer on the Parkway”.  Richard remarked during the evening that most of his songs fell between road songs and four legged creature songs.  “The Deer on the Parkway” being a combination of both.  From the very new he then played as a request “By Now” from his first album 1992’s Sparrow’s Point, a song he rarely performs live as he calls it ‘creepy’, hauntingly beautiful would be more apt in my opinion.  Continuing the four legged theme he then played “Stray Cow Blues”, another as yet unreleased song.  Keeping on the road theme we then had “The Juggler Out on Traffic” from 2009’s So Far Now, his last ‘new’ album.  Also from that a chirpy four legged creature song “Get Up Clara” which must be the only song I can think of that has the word Visigoths in it.  A song Joan Baez and Fairport Convention have covered was next, “Reunion Hill”, an American Civil War song told from the views of a woman waiting for her husband to come back from the war.  The chilling “You Stay Here” was next, this also has been recently covered by Show of Hands.  It was after hearing that song on the Mike Harding Show that they invited him to tour with them last year and Richard regularly joined them on stage during their set to join in on his own song.  A change of pace to Richards attempt at a country song “Kenworth of My Dreams” which was perfectly punctuated at the end of the song by a falling glass which Richard thought was perfect for the end of a country song.  Another road song, this time from the point of view of a cab driver in New York, “The Last Fare of The Day”.  A new song, an anti objectivism ditty called “Ayn’s Air” based around Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand meeting Yul Brynner at the gates of heaven showed the wide range of topics covered in tonight’s songs.  Two more unreleased songs “Your Guitar” and “Careless” followed.  Careless was played by tapping the guitar strings rather than finger picking or plectrum.  A fairly impromptu tribute to one of Richard’s heroes Nick Lowe was next with a cover of “You Make Me”, it was the first time he had played the song and Richard jokingly asked someone videoing not to put it on YouTube.  The nearest Richard Shindell song to a sing along followed, his Halloween breakup song, “Are You Happy Now”.  I was at Sheffield two nights before where there was a resounding audience participation with this song which left Richard slightly disconcerted saying ‘No-one sings at my shows’.  Richard finished the set with another request, one of my favourite songs and one of his catchiest guitar riffs “There Goes Mavis”.  This song is seemingly about building a sand castle before the tide washes it away with the background story of an orange canary escaping from its cage, great story telling.  Another piece of perfect timing/synchronicity on the last refrain of “There Goes Mavis”, the guitar amp ran out of battery and stopped abruptly but at just the perfect moment.  Of course the audience weren’t going let him go without an encore.  No choice now but to use Mr. Knightley’s borrowed acoustic for another cover.  A traditional song that I will always associate with the Grateful Dead, a beautifully sung “I Know You Rider”.  That was it, 1 hour 45 minutes had flown by.  He is a superb story teller, let’s hope the new CD will be released soon and that he returns to the UK to promote it.  On leaving the venue, long awaited rain was falling, several people were seen to be just standing in it to appreciate it’s cooling effect.  No doubt that the warm weather will pass and usual Yorkshire climes will resume.

Larkin Poe | Parish Church, Wigan | Review by Keith Belcher | 07.08.13

On arriving at Wigan Parish Church I spotted a Larkin Poe poster labelling them as ‘Swampadelic Soul Sisters direct from Atlanta, Georgia’.  The first time I’d seen or heard of the word Swampadelic, more of that later.  Getting to the Church was a challenge.  My satnav had already taken me on two circular tours of Wigan, each time getting desperately close to the Church only to be thwarted by Bus/Taxi lanes and one way systems, almost like driving through Sheffield!  I settled for abandoning the car nearby and walking as directed through a narrow ginnel to the Church.  For those not from the North of England that’s a narrow passageway between two buildings.  By the time the Church doors were unlocked a good crowd had gathered for the night’s show.  Pausing only to grab a cushion for some comfort when faced with sitting on an unforgiving wooden Church pew for a couple of hours I took my seat, resisting the urge to genuflect and cross myself having been a good catholic while younger.  Being a Weddings/Funerals only sort of Churchgoer I’m not used to seeing a pair of swampadelic soul sisters rocking in front of the altar so this was going to be interesting. Larkin Poe is the name taken by the two younger Lovell sisters, Rebecca and Megan after their eldest sister Jessica chose another path in life after performing as bluegrass band The Lovell Sisters for many years.  The Lovell Sisters appeared at many large American festivals and the Grand Ole Opry.  Keeping in mind that Rebecca and Megan are still only 22 and 24 respectively this means they have been performing most of their lives.  Larkin Poe was the name of their great, great, great grandfather.  They currently perform with bass player Robby Handley and drummer Marlon Patton.  Judy Dunlop, a very well known singer in her own right and also mother of Blair Dunlop with whom Larkin Poe have recently released a collaborative CD EP Killing Time did the honours as MC for the night.  Support was provided by Fabian Holland, a very well regarded young singer, songwriter and guitarist.  Fabian’s been playing guitar since the age of seven, taught initially by his father before attending the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford.  After that he spent four years in Italy learning and developing his musical style.  He now lives on a narrow boat in London.  Playing a Lowden guitar in an accomplished wonderfully flowing style with many flourishes but never over embellished Fabian did a mixture of his own and traditional songs.  His second song “Like Father Like Son” about turning into his Dad raised a chuckle throughout the audience who obviously recognised many of the traits mentioned.  This was followed by a more serious and sad song “Little Boy Johnny” about a military conscriptee at age 18.  Another own composition “At The River” related to his observations from his narrow boat.  A traditional song “Banks of the Dee” was very ably given his own interpretation.  He finished the set to much applause with “Dr Price”, a tale of a 19th century druid, surgeon, chartist , lawyer, bard, nudist, vegetarian and pioneer of cremation.  Fabian has a CD due for release on October 7th.  After a short break Judy introduced Larkin Poe.  Larkin Poe as a band have evolved musically in a huge way in the last couple of years.  This year there were some personnel changes in that guitarist Rick Lollar and drummer Chad Melton left the band, Chad being replaced by Marlon and Rebecca has mainly put aside her acoustic guitar and taken to playing a mean electric lead guitar as well as mandolin and fiddle.  Megan plays Lap Steel with attitude as well as occasional keyboards.  Recently Mark Radcliffe at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival commented (I paraphrase slightly at times) “one of my favourite acts this weekend has been Larkin Poe, two sisters from America originally an acoustic bluegrass outfit who were playing a sort of deep down and dirty sort of swamp blues, you heard this incredible slide guitar thinking that’s going to be played by someone who looks like one of the hairy bikers and you turn the corner and it’s being played by a very pretty young girl with silver hair (Megan)”. Fair praise indeed.  As well as deep down and dirty the two sisters also produce the sort of sublime harmonies that seem divinely reserved for siblings.  Over the past couple of years the band’s music has evolved and been refined significantly to their own gutsy but sophisticated sound, what they call Swampadelic Americana Soul.  They still do the occasional cover song , tonight they did as an encore a wonderfully harmonious “Take Me Back” by Buddy and Julie Miller but the majority of the music is theirs, written by them, arranged by them and played in their own style which is also more sophisticated than traditional Blues swamp music taking in elements of gospel, jam band, soul, R&B and country.  That sounds like a melange but it really works well and sounds good. Rebecca urged the audience to make noise as she had noticed that she had been very conscious of the noise her footsteps were making in the Church. Possibly not the best thing for Rebecca to say in a Church was “For Christ’s sake let’s make some noise” but no bolt of lightning split the roof so all was obviously well and approved of on high.  First song was “The Principle of Silver Lining”, which has undergone many arrangement changes over the years, this performance a lot heavier and gutsier musically but with delicate ever building background vocals from Megan in contrast to Rebecca’s lead vocals finishing with Rebecca joining Megan in harmony.  No pause for breath and straight into “Trick of the Light”. The band have become a lot more substantial and polished musically in the last year or so with Rebecca both singing powerful vocals and taking lead guitar role, with Megan producing some ‘down and dirty’ Lap Steel. You start to get what they mean by Swampadelic Americana Soul.  A very swampy, bluesy traditional Wade in the Water followed, the contrast of the harmonies and powerful strident music with soaring electric and Lap Steel breaks as well as a mandolin solo throughout worked really well getting the audience to form a couple of choirs and join in with the multiple harmonies coming from all band members.  “Mad as a Hatter” a new unrecorded song written for their crazy grandfather and performed last year at Cropredy for the first time featured Rebecca on mandolin and Megan playing some very powerful but subdued Lap Steel licks, beautiful harmonies throughout and many hand gestures from Rebecca during the choruses of ‘Off With Her Head’. Another new song, the very rocking “Sugar High” followed with piercing Lap Steel from Megan, Robby and Marlon keeping a very solid rock rhythm.  A new far gentler song “Slow Moving Giant” contrasted with “Sugar High” and “Mad as a Hatter”, Megan playing some keyboards in addition to Lap Steel on this one.  Rebecca switched to fiddle for another new song “The Heart of You” in the same gentler vein, debating whether it was a fiddle or a violin.  The best definition I have heard was from Tim O’Brien with “you can spill beer on a fiddle!”  A bass and drum groove rhythm was background for the band intros leading into “Mr Mechanic”, a junkyard romance song.  Some delightful interplay between all instruments in the band to get a very catchy groove going to Rebecca’s slowly phrased vocals. Back into the swamps for hip swinging muddy swamp soul on this one.  Almost scat singing at times between Rebecca’s vocals and Megan’s guitar.  “The Banks of Allatoona” about (their words) an ugly lake in Georgia showed a new dimension with a pre-recorded opening vocal digital loop from Marlon’s drum pad kept with the swampadelic theme.  An extensive Lap Steel solo from Megan underlying Mark Radcliffes comments mentioned earlier, the song fading out to the earlier pre recorded loop. A song about autism Fear and Trembling slowed the pace down.  Megan manages the contradiction of being both delicate and powerful at the same time with her Lap Steel, that is never more evident than this song.  To up the tempo again Larkin Poe’s take on a fairy tale Goldilocks started and maintained a rocking beat, some very nice drumming with syncopated vocal interplay.  Another song about a strange family member Jesse, their paternal great grandfather who was by all accounts a very strange and mean character.  While Rebecca introduced this song Robby created some unusual bass effects using an array of pedals and switches.  A very striking bass and drum groove open this song which is quite dark in its lyrical content.  A long swampadelic intro to the very upbeat “Jailbreak” brought the set to an end. Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Take Me Back” was a beautifully performed almost acoustic encore from Rebecca and Megan singing, with faces almost touching, perhaps in reflection to their bluegrass past, into a single microphone. Sibling harmonies have that something extra and this was a great example. Larkin Poe have a number of CD EPs on release but hope to release their first solo full length CD this winter.  The plan is to start recording as soon as they are back home.  With their Swampadelic Americana Soul sound now firmly developed and established this should be a treat.

Cassie Taylor | Out Of My Mind | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.08.13

Having given us some of the most innovative blues music of the last half-century, Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor now presents the blues with another reason to be cheerful – namely Cassie Taylor, his incredibly talented daughter.  Out Of My Mind is Cassie’s third solo outing. It comes after years of performing alongside her dad and, as a result, the sound is that of a seasoned performer.  Granted, Cassie has a perfectly languid blues voice, a dexterous handling of the bass and a tight, often dazzling band to help these thirteen tracks along, but the songs themselves prove to be Cassie’s strong suit, thanks to her gift for songwriting.  While fitting snugly into the blues and soul tradition, most of the songs here are lined with refreshingly atypical turns that give the album a pretty sharp, contemporary edge.

Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns | Foolers’ Gold | Album Review | Continental Song City | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.08.13

If 2011’s Lucky Devil wasn’t hot enough, with it steamy gumbo dish of Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith songs, then Foolers’ Gold will surely singe your musical taste buds.  It’s the second album from New Orleans-based singer Meschiya Lake and her band, the Little Big Horns and, remarkably, it manages to build on the meatiness of the first.  The sizzling dixieland sound is still there, thanks to the well-oiled brass engine that is the Little Big Horns, and Meschiya’s sassy voice, which surely belongs to the era of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, is very much at the forefront of this spirited second album.  While renditions of “My Man” and “Do Right” will satisfy established Lake fans, with their traditional creole sound, tracks such as “Catch Em Young” and the title track “Foolers’ Gold” present a more contemporary edge to the traddy sound, a la Caro Emerald, which may throw Lake’s fan-base wide open.

Various Artists | The Lone Ranger: Wanted | Album Review | Disney | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 22.08.13

Gore Verbinski, director of Disney’s The Lone Ranger, described the artists who appear on The Lone Ranger: Wanted as those ‘we listened to on the way to set each morning and in the evenings with the dust, like bitter chalk, upon our teeth’.  In celebration of the release of the film, Disney asked the likes of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Pete Molinari, Iggy Pop and Lucinda Williams to donate ‘songs inspired by the film’ to this lively compilation.  The result is a wide and shimmering landscape of Americana treats.  Shane MacGowan provides the album with one of its two traditional songs, “Poor Paddy on the Railway”, while Iggy Pop supplies the second, “Sweet Betsy From Pike”.  Grace Potter’s rockabilly “Devil Train” is an impressive departure from the artist’s usual style while Lucinda Williams’s “Everything But The Truth” is typical of the gritty singer songwriter’s usual fare.  One of the album’s stand-out tracks, however, comes from South Carolina songwriter Sam Beam, better known as Iron and Wine.  “Rattling Bone” is a multi-layered, evocative oil painting of a song that sums up the overarching mood of the entire project.  Film or no film, this sturdy compilation is something of a stand-alone Americana classic.

Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors | Good Light | Album Review | Magnolia Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.09.13

Tennessee-born Drew Holcomb has admitted that he is one of those artists who takes time to hone their craft and see their vision realised over years of development.  Good Light, which is Drew’s sixth album with the three musicians that comprise The Neighbors, is something of an arrival; a coming together of the components that Drew has been nurturing since 2005’s Washed In Blue.  Drawing from often harrowing personal experience, this impressive collection of introspective, melodic Southern Americana is a showcase of Holcomb’s splendidly pictorial songwriting and distinctive voice.  And when that voice is blended with that of Drew’s wife Ellie, the results are nothing short of magical.  Drew may sing ‘I’m not a sunset, or a hurricane or a Vincent Van Gogh’, but the effect of those two mingling voices has the impact of all three.  With the sprawling landscape of Tennessee, the tender might of “The Wine We Drink” and the bluesy soul of “Nothing But Trouble”, each glinting with delicious slide guitar licks and melodies that will remain with you long after the twelfth track expires, Good Light is a perpetually strong and multifaceted album from a thirty year-old songwriter whose craft has surely reached its zenith.

Sheesham Lotus and Son | 1929 The New Kings of Old Time | Album Review | Sepiaphone | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.09.13

Wrapped up in a no-nonsense, this-is-how-it-should-be-done tenacity, 1929 The New Kings Of Old Time by Seesham Lotus and Son is a record that celebrates the uninhibited joy of old time music by returning it to its grass-roots.  Recorded live off the floor with one microphone and in pleasing MONO, this twelve-track romp through the music of Jaybird Coleman, Walter Vinson, Cow-Cow Davenport and other great bluesmen showcases the delightful eccentricities of a three-piece banjo-strumming, sousaphone-pumping, kazoo-blowing band from Canada.  Renowned for their highly original live performances, Sheesham Lotus and Son have managed to jar their singular style with a record that manages to do with no-frills simplicity what many have tried and failed to achieve with complex technical wizardry.  It is a stark, unpolished recording of a bar-room string band who clearly adore the musical heritage they strive to celebrate.  Such adoration is distinctly rendered in the gritty yet faultless vocal harmonies on “Drunken Nights” and the chugging rhythms of “Lazy Lazy River” and “Sister Maud Mule”.  Presented in an attractive vinyl-replica sleeve, complete with authentic sepia photographs of the band, 1929 The New Kings Of Old Time is a curious time-capsule you’ll want to open again and again.

Bright Phoebus Revisited | Liverpool Philharmonic | Review by Kev Boyd | 13.10.13

Forty-one years ago Mike and Lal Waterson, aided and abetted by a ragtag bunch of friends and family, wrote and recorded one of the strangest and most beguiling albums of the 1970s.  Bright Phoebus has had a long and often less than illustrious history.  Originally pressed in an edition of 2000, only half of which had the hole in the conventional central position, it later disappeared into a publishing black hole and, save for a substandard CD-R release a decade or so back that barely merits a mention, hasn’t seen the light of day for at least 30 years.  During those three decades the album has developed a much deserved reputation as a lost classic and in what you could be forgiven for thinking was the age of the reissue you’d imagine it to be a prime candidate for the full box set treatment.  But whilst recent developments suggest there may now be a glimmer of hope in that respect the Waterson family aren’t holding their collective breathe and are taking things into their own hands by revisiting Bright Phoebus in a live context.  At the same time they are celebrating the release of Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning, a CD and book of Lal’s unreleased demos and diverse artwork.  Sadly, both Mike or Lal are no longer with us but the family have mustered their more than adequate collective resources and with the help of Musical Director Kate St John have gathered an impressive cast of characters which includes Neill MacColl, Rory McFarlane and Martyn Barker alongside various Carthys and Watersons (namely Eliza, Martin, Marry, Norma and Oliver).  The ensemble is completed by the mightily impressive John Smith, Kami Thompson and, perhaps most surprisingly, Richard Hawley.  The original album was nothing if not eclectic and tonight’s show is similarly varied in tone.  Sandwiched between the singalong classics “Rubber Band” and “Bright Phoebus”, which topped and tailed both the album and the main portion of tonight’s live set, are a diverse collection of solo, duo and group performances.  Some are familiar but others get an all too rare airing such as Hawley’s “Piper’s Path”, an unreleased song written by Lal apparently under the influence of pickled onions (and not mushrooms as he had first suspected).  Elsewhere he tackles Mike’s rockabilly “Danny Rose” (well, with that hair you’d expect nothing less) and the spoken portion of “Magical Man” but his overall contribution is relatively modest.  The same can’t be said for John Smith who proves to be the revelation of the show, firstly by taking the lead vocal on Mike’s majestic “Scarecrow” and then by reinterpreting Bob Davenport’s original vocal interlude on “Child Among The Weeds”.  Similarly, Kami Thompson impresses with a mid-Atlantic take on “Marvellous Companion” and a beautiful duet with Smith on Lal’s “Evon Our Darling”.  But it’s perhaps unsurprising that the real highlights come courtesy of various Watersons and Carthys.  “Fine Horseman” has now been in Marry’s repertoire for several years but is no less powerful for its familiarity and her version of “To Make You Stay” is similarly dark and esoteric.  Eliza’s take on “Jack Frost” is utterly enchanting and is an example of Mike’s casual regard for his work, having been offered one morning over the breakfast table almost as an afterthought.  “Winnifer Odd” and “Never The Same” perfectly suit Martin’s unique guitar accompaniments and peculiar sense of rhythm and Norma’s beautiful interpretation of “Song For Thirza”, written for the woman who helped raise the three Waterson siblings, is a genuine emotional high point.  Martin and Norma also reprise “Red Wine Promises”, the song they performed together on the original Bright Phoebus (under a slightly different, erroneous title) and which arguably helped seal their blossoming romance during the course of those sessions. A final, euphoric, singalong moment comes courtesy of “Shady Lady”, followed predictably by a standing ovation and the last of several ‘something in my eye’ moments.  The entire show has been a bit of a high-wire act as full band numbers lead into quieter solo or duo moments and perhaps a clearer ‘narrative’ thread throughout the evening might have helped contextualise these changes.  But this is very much a minor gripe and something that is likely to be ironed out if the show ever goes beyond these few performances, as it surely must.

Look, Stranger : Ruthie Culver, UtterJazz and Sir Derek Jacobi | NCEM, York | Liam Wilkinson | 17.10.13

An unusually balmy autumn evening filled the darkened streets of York tonight. Restaurants looked cosy in candlelight as small groups of tourists trundled over the cobbles to catch a glimpse of the ancient city under a dazzling full moon.  And only a few sinuous snickelways away from the birthplace of the poet WH Auden, Ruthie Culver and UtterJazz took to the stage of the National Centre for Early Music to entertain a packed house with the songs of Wystan Auden and Benjamin Britten.  Weaving samba, swing and blues, Ruthie and her jazz quartet breathed new life into a selection of collaborations between the two legendary British artists.  Songs that have become so well known in their original, classical vernacular were interpreted by these five jazz musicians with often spellbinding results.  Culver’s bright, lilting vocals tackled the complexities of Auden’s lyrics with fervour whilst Mick Foster’s saxophones and flutes, Jonny Gee’s bass, Dan Hewson’s piano and Andrea Trillo’s percussion expertly remoulded Britten’s compositions for a jazz setting.  If this wasn’t enough to mark Britten’s centenary and redeliver York’s most famous literary son to his home town, Ruthie and co. had drafted in the talents of Sir Derek Jacobi – just one of the four treasured British actors appearing on this tour – to intersperse the performance with readings of Auden’s poems.  Best known for his roles in the BBC’s I, Claudius (1976), Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet (1996) and Love Is The Devil (1998) in which he portrayed the artist Francis Bacon, Sir Derek has, more recently, appeared in popular television series Last Tango in Halifax with Anne Reid and Sarah Lancashire and Vicious alongside fellow thespian Sir Ian McKellen.  Tonight, he brought his wonderfully engaging voice to York and to Auden’s poetry, infusing each line with a sensitivity that only a seasoned stage actor could muster.  His interpretations of Auden’s poems held the crowd tight, most notably, perhaps, during “Song of the Beggars” in which Sir Derek’s repeated chant of “Cried the cripples to the silent statue / The six beggared cripples” would have made a dropping pin sound like an atom bomb.  And whilst his presence and expertise lent both the evening and subject matter a touch of magic, this revered artist abstained from overwhelming the music and musicians and sat, throughout, to one side of the stage, seeming to revel in the performance as much as we, the audience.  Look, Stranger – the accompanying twelve-track record – is available now from Purring Records.

The Full English | Firth Hall Sheffield University | Review by Sam Hindley | 29.10.13

On Tuesday 29th October the Full English tour arrived in Sheffield, to the beautiful and intimate setting of Firth Hall.  ‘The Full English is a groundbreaking project sponsored by the English Folk Dance and Song Society that draws together for the first time the early 20th century folksong collections of Harry Albino, Lucy Broadwood, Clive Carey, Percy Grainger, Maud Karpeles, Frank Kidson, Thomas Fairman Ordish, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alfred Williams.  The result is the most comprehensive searchable database of British folk songs, tunes, dances and customs in the world.’ – Fay Hield.  An extremely talented bunch of musicians have been put together to perform songs and tunes from and inspired by the Full English archive.  Musicians included Fay Hield, Martin Simpson, Seth Lakeman, Sam Sweeney, Nancy Kerr, Ben Nichols and Rob Harbron.  Arriving on stage to a great reception the gig was underway with Fay and Seth leading the rest in some fabulous harmony singing, it quickly became clear how much work had been put into this entire show, the band sounded fantastic and very slick.  As well as the music there were also pictures and film footage of the collectors displayed along each song.  A memorable example of this was when Rob and Sam played “The Princess Royal” while a clip of Maud Karpeles performing a morris dance was being shown on the screens either side of the stage.  My favourite piece from the first half came from Mr Lakeman with a beautiful song he found in the archive from Frank Kidson – Portrait of My Wife, with an additional chorus from himself.  It’s worth pointing out at this stage that this is very much a collaborative project and not just each individual getting up to do their own thing separately.  The selected musicians have spent time working on each song together and arranging the material as a band.  The hard work has paid off, as during the interval, inevitably there was a discussion between folk about the performance they had just seen so far and how amazing and inspiring they thought it was, many people commented saying it was like having a concert in their own front room, I have to agree.  The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly and everyone was completely spellbound by the musicians in front of them.  Time for the second half, kicking off with the traditional song “Linden Lea” which in fact is not part of the archive but a song Fay thought was just too beautiful to miss out of the show, I again have to agree.  The only other song in the performance not from the Full English was a contemporary piece written by Nancy Kerr – “Fol The Day-O”.  ‘This was written as a homage to Joseph Taylor (1882-1961), in which Nancy examines the interplay between folk song’s ancient rural imagery and the modern world, and the transporting, transformational capabilities of a great singer.’  Without the introduction to this song, you would have easily mistaken it for a long surviving traditional song.  It was hard not to notice how much fun the band were having on stage, I’ve seen the individual musicians perform their own material on various occasions, however you could really tell the difference, they all sounded as if they had been playing together for years.  It was a tight performance and the relationship between the band was glowing.  Martin Simpson came off stage evidently buzzing, Seth Lakeman was stamping and tearing his fiddle apart as usual.  The second half seemed to fly by, before we knew it the show was coming to an end, the audience however had a different opinion, with such a raucous applause the band came out to do the perfect encore led by Fay Hield, a song she found after a long day trawling through the various notations at the library she told us she was feeling tired and bored or searching through bits of writing she couldn’t read when she came across a beautiful song called “Man in the Moon” a perfect chorus song joined by the band and the entire audience raising their voices in appreciation to the hard work by Fay for putting together this brilliant project that will hopefully continue for many more years to come, and the outstanding talent of the band for recreating the life of all these songs that should never be forgotten and the people who sang them all those years ago.  Well done and congratulations have to go to everyone involved in this project.  The tour itself its merely a percentage of the project, as there are many strings to its bow.  Please do go and check out the website and look up more about the Full English online.  You are missing out on an absolute treat and we are very lucky to have such hard working and inspiring people in our folk community.

Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion | Theatre Royal, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.11.13

Known to most as the wildly animated blur behind the drums of sixties supergroup Cream and to others as the ill-tempered old rocker, shrouded in a thick blanket of contempt for those he sees as lesser beings, Ginger Baker is, undoubtedly, a living legend.  Recently, Baker’s fifty year career has been scrutinised by a candid autobiography (2009’s Hellraiser) as well as an equally revealing feature-length documentary (2012’s Beware of Mr Baker).  Each document makes for uneasy digestion.  Both tell the tale of a dangerously volatile and altogether unlikeable human being who has been known to prompt the most docile of music journalists to roll up their sleeves and offer a fist fight.  They paint a picture of a man who would rather break your nose than sign your souvenir programme.  Tonight, Mr Baker took to the stage of the York Theatre Royal with his Jazz Confusion – a quartet of seasoned players – to perform two brief sets of hand-picked jazz classics.  With not a single “Strange Brew” or “Sunshine of Your Love” in sight, the seventy-four year old, silver-haired and somewhat fragile ghost of that once flamboyant showman fired the engine of a performance packed with the melodies and rhythms of Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Ron Miles.  He did so in spite of poor health and a bitterness brought on by what he referred to as “the coldest place I’ve ever been!”.  Indeed, the frosty York autumn only added to the lines in Baker’s frown, having just returned from a balmy twenty-show sell-out tour of the United States.  It was, as he commented, “like jumping into a cold swimming pool!”  Baker was joined by American saxophonist and former member of James Brown’s band Pee Wee Ellis, supreme bassist and member of British jazz royalty Alec Dankworth and dazzling Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo.  Each musician was offered generous spotlight time by their leader – Ellis with his sinuous sax lines during Shorter’s “Footprints” and his own composition “Twelve and More Blues”; Dankworth’s air-thickening bass runs and arresting chords on Ron Miles’s “Ginger Spice” and Dodoo’s indefatigably explosive conga and cymbal playing on the Sonny Rollins classic St Thomas.  Baker himself proved that his drumming can still be as firey as his temperament, especially during performances of the mesmerising Lagos folk tune “Aiko Biaye” and his own composition “Ain Temouchant”, a tune inspired by a village in which Baker landed in a tree having driven his car off a mountain.  The pitifully small audience was, by the end of the evening, so enthralled by the sparks bouncing off the stage that they showed their appreciation by jumping to their feet, which is more than Ginger himself could muster.  After a visibly exhausting encore performance of Baker’s “Why?”, the living legend’s weary bones were carefully escorted off the stage and into the darkness by his right-hand man, Dodoo.  And whilst the majority of York’s citizens missed their chance to see a man oft regarded as rock’s greatest drummer, a modest crowd of more canny rhythm-seekers left the Theatre Royal tonight with a shiny new memory to savour.

Bright Phoebus Sings Tom Waits | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Keith Belcher | 20.11.13

At Martin Simpson’s 60th Birthday Bash part 1 on 3rd May Fay Hield announced that Bright Phoebus would be putting on a Tom Waits night at the Greystones in July.  This would be the first trial run of shows to take place at various festivals throughout the summer.  Being a huge Tom Waits fan and having heard some excellent folk renditions of Waits songs, ie Fay’s “Briar and the Rose”, Spiers and Boden doing “Innocent When You Dream” and Heidi Talbot’s interpretation of “Time” I was captured straight away and noted it for the diary.  Bright Phoebus is a collective of musicians mainly around the Sheffield area.  Tonight’s musicians were Roy Bailey, Martin Simpson, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Andy Cutting, Jess Arrowsmith, Sharron Kraus, Rowan Rheingans, Sam Sweeney, Andy Seward, Rob Harbron, Neil McSweeney and Richard Hawley.  It was a very hot night both musically and temperature wise, my car dashboard read 28C as I approached Greystones late afternoon.  I was in time to hear part of the sound check and it did sound very good indeed.  The  Back Room at Greystones, Sheffield was so hot that the room had fans with bowls of ice in front of them blowing into the audience.  Free water was also dispensed in an attempt to keep everyone cool.  A couple of things Greystones lacks is decent air conditioning (how many times is it needed in Sheffield?) and some decent stage lighting.  Anyone not at the centre of the stage is almost invisible.  The idea for this show came from the 2012 Shrewsbury Folk Festival where Fay and her band The Hurricane Party performed “The Briar and the Rose”, a song from Tom Waits 1993 album The Black Rider.  A suggestion was made about an album of Tom Waits songs.  Fay’s partner being Jon Boden who is an unashamed Tom Waits geek could supply lots of advice and to him it was a labour of love.  Andy Bell the sound engineer was credited by Fay as doing most of the work in getting everyone together and making it happen.  Bright Phoebus will be touring this show at this summer’s folk festivals and hopefully in due course a CD will emerge.  On tonight’s showing I, for one, really look forward to that.  There was little evidence of the familiar gravelly Tom Waits tones that we usually attribute  to these songs, not that there is anything wrong with Tom’s voice.  The nearest to that was Richard Hawley’s fairly rocky interpretation of “Gun Street Girl”.  There were glorious harmonies at times and a far more ‘folky’ arrangement of the songs than the originals.  What really shone out was the fact that all the artists, especially Jon, had a deep respect and reverence to the Waits song book over the years and that this night was definitely not work for them, the enjoyment and enthusiasm was plain to see and hear.  I’ve often heard Martin Simpson say “I love my job”, that was very evident tonight, not only for Martin but for everyone involved in this show.  One of the wonderful things about this show was the sheer range of Waits covers performed.  Songs taken from 11 different CDs starting with 1973’s Closing Time to 2006 Bawlers were given a folk twist.  Many who are put off Tom Waits by his voice will probably be taken by these versions.  The musical influences and styles on show were well outside the traditional folk style.  Martin Simpson was playing electric, Sam Sweeney was giving a drum kit a serious workout.  Fiddles contributed to semi classical string quartet style to almost gypsy dance music.  The evenings proceedings were started by a solid solo performance by local Neil McSweeney who then brought on Bright Phoebus members Andy Seward on bass and Sam Sweeney on fiddle/drums to accompany him.  After a short ‘cool down’ break.  Unofficial MC Roy Bailey sang “In the Neighbourhood” from Swordfish Trombones.  Roy then introduced Sharron Kraus who performed “Another Man’s Vine” (Blood Money).  The on stage members fluctuated according to the song.  Mostly ever-present were Martin Simpson playing electric guitar and performing some biting slide guitar throughout, Andy Cutting playing, as ever, immaculate melodeon and Andy Seward on double bass.  Rob Harbron played both keyboards and squeeze boxes. Jon Boden played fiddle and guitar.  Even a banjo or two made an appearance.  Serious Tom Waits fanatic Jon Boden was next lead vocalist, admitting he was spoilt for choice for drunken pub ballads performed “Jersey Girl” (Heart Attack and Vine), a song known to most non Tom Waits fans due to a certain Mr Springsteen having included it in his set list.  The first set was relatively gentle compared to the second.  Next song was “Little Trip To Heaven” (Closing Time) beautifully sung by Nancy accompanied by Jess Arrowsmith, a simple arrangement with Nancy playing autoharp.  Nancy described this as ‘fluffy’ Tom Waits.  Tom Waits never sounded like that no matter how much you’ve had to drink.  Jess then took lead vocals on “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” (Bawlers) ably assisted by what amounted to a string quartet of fiddles.  Lead vocals then switched back to Nancy for “Whistle Down The Wind” (Bone Machine).  The relatively short first set was brought to a close with a good audience participation in “Hold On” (Mule variations) with Rowan Rheingans taking lead vocal.  Roy gave everyone a few minutes to go and cool down, get a drink and get ready for the second much longer set.  Fay got the traditional raffle underway.  After all what’s a folk night without a raffle?  Roy then tried to get everyone seated to start the second set.  Guest Richard Hawley kicked off proceedings with a superb rendition of “Gun Street Girl” (Rain Dogs).  If the first half was gentle then this was a change.  Lots more volume with Martin playing seriously good electric slide guitar, a change from his usual style.  Sam Sweeney was pounding the drum kit  doing a fair imitation of John Bonham .  Opening act Neil then kept up the pace with a rousing version of “Cold Cold Ground” (Frank’s Wild Years) featuring, some superb accordian playing from Andy.  Next was a lower tempo “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)” (Closing Time) from Sharron with Jon Boden giving (mainly wrong) information about the song and album it came from, he did sound very confident about his facts though.  He made up for that with some great fiddle playing.  Many accusations of geek from Martin Simpson at this point.  In true folky fashion the audience joined in with the choruses.  James Fagan then joined the stage commenting on Australia’s loss of the first Ashes Test and celebrating that Tom Waits even wrote songs for Australians.  James kept up the lower tempo ably assisted by genius Andy Cutting on “Town With No Cheer” (Swordfish Trombones).  James said there was an Australian parody of this song envisaging the worst conceivable Australian disaster – A town with no beer!  James introduced Fay who gave the background to this project before performing with Jon a beautiful version of “Briar and the Rose” (The Black Ladder), squeeze boxes, fiddle and bass being the accompaniment.  This got a superb reception from the audience.  Next vocals were from Martin Simpson who managed to put his own unique stamp on “Day After Tomorrow” (Real Gone).  One of Martin’s gifts is to put his own style on any cover songs he performed, this was no exception. Jon next, getting the audience, who didn’t need much encouragement, to join in with “Rain Dogs” from the album of the same name.  Sam’s drums and the rest of the band gave this the Waits jaunty feel but more folky than the original.  Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr playing superbly on this song.  The shows starter Roy Bailey played the last song of the set.  He did admit to feeling a bit odd to be a 78 year old singing a bouncy version of  “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” (Bone Machine), more the traditional Martin Simpson guitar on this one, great and enthusiastic singing both from the band and audience.  They weren’t going to get away without an encore and I’m surprised they got away with just one.  Jon led the band and audience in a rousing version of “Come On Up To The House” (Mule Variations) taking the time to inform the audience of some of his favourite Tom Waits lines.  Roy brought the proceedings to a close in his own inimitable manner.  It was a superb night, enjoyed by audience and band.  Bring on the festivals and also the CD.

Great British Folk Festival 2013 | Butlins, Skegness | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.12.13

Whilst the summer festivals offer us folkies the chance to don silly hats and polka dot wellies, the annual Great British Folk Festival at Butlins, Skegness provides a colourful feast of striped scarves and fluffy ear muffs.  For the last four years, this nippiest of winter gatherings has been something of an oasis, shimmering in the tinsel-decked early onset of Christmas and prompting many of us to wake from our hibernation, trim our bushy beards and head to Billy Butlin’s flagship holiday camp for three days of real music.  And, like an advent calendar full of chocolate, the festival line-up offers a few tempting treats for each of the first days of December.  This year, the Skyline Pavilion at the centre of the camp became a selection box of must-see musicians, many of which pushed the boundaries of what we refer to as folk music.  To those who have managed to retain an open mind in this world of borderlines, walls and convenient little boxes, it’s refreshing to see folk sweetheart Cara Dillon on the same bill as punk swashbuckler Ed Tudor Pole.  It’s also a tonic to note the inclusion of Slim Chance – a pub-rock band whose five members were all fortunate enough to work with the late, great Ronnie Lane – and singer songwriter Judie Tzuke – best known for her 1979 hit “Stay With Me Till Dawn” – each of whom shared the bill with folk festival favourites Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Jim Moray.  After a solo opener from the ever-pleasing Moray in Reds on Friday night, the legendary Scottish songbird Barbara Dickson gave a powerful, band-backed performance of such songs as her 1980 hit “Caravans”, Lennon & McCartney’s “Across the Universe” and a selection from her new album and tribute to Gerry Rafferty To Each and Everyone.  She was followed by alt-country band Ahab who, despite getting a little over-miffed with a faulty DI unit, gave a typically energetic and entertaining performance before we all sloped off to our chalets for a bit of kip.  After a hearty breakfast in one of the many fine food outlets on site, the tightly-bound winter festival-goer was offered a choice of shows that spanned no less than five venues.  In The Front Room, Bournemouth singer songwriter Annie Winter raised a few appreciative eyebrows with an agreeable mix of self-penned songs and covers whilst, in the Skyline Pavilion, the Moulton Morris Men provided the festival with a welcome performance of traditional English dance.  On the main two stages, however, one was able to flit between performances from Judie Tzuke and her daughter, Bailey Tzuke, who held the early afternoon crowd tightly with her gently mesmerizing self-penned songs.  The Tzukes divided a single set to provide the festival with two of its best performances, leaving the audience wanting much more from each songstress.  Over on the Centre Stage, former Big Country member Bruce Watson and his son Jamie entertained with a stripped-back acoustic set of lyrical gems such as “Hollywoodland” and “Dakota Sunset”, the latter painting a picture of the infamous New York building where John Lennon was killed in 1980.  Afterwards, whilst Jim Moray and the Skulk Ensemble electrified the stage at Reds, Ed Tudor Pole’s equally outlandish and outstanding acoustic performance of such punk classics as “Swords of a Thousand Men” and “Throwing My Baby Out With The Bathwater” was the perfect conclusion to a vibrant afternoon of music.  After dinner, an Open Mic session in Jaks provided a warm-up for a night of wide-ranging shows.  In Reds, Cara Dillon’s typically ethereal presence gave way to a high-octane closing set from fusion band Edward II.  A distinct highlight of the weekend, EII’s infectious blend of folk and reggae managed to lift both spirits and bodies.  And whilst joyful jumping ensued in Reds, the Centre Stage line-up was concluded with a retrospective set from the Strawbs.  Their engaging ‘history of the Strawbs in a dozen songs’ was preceded by a most endearing and meditative set from Take 3, consisting of Jacqui McShee, Gerry Conway and Alan Thomson, as well as a startlingly jubilant singalong with The Springfields.  With original Springfields member Mike Hurst at the helm, the harmonic three-piece entertained with songs such as “I Only Wanna Be With You”, “Georgie Girl” and “Cottonfields”, giving the audience an opportunity to sing and reminisce unashamedly.  The final day of the festival brimmed with headliners and, consequently, a few unfortunate clashes.  Before Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span commanded their respective stages in what could be described as a right royal folk-off, The Blues Band’s Gary Fletcher teamed up with Feast of Fiddles member Tom Leary, providing a blues alternative to Irish psychedelic folk duo Tir Na Nog, who injected the festival with their unique brand of Celtic mysticism.  This reviewer was left with no choice but to jump between the two like a folk festival flea before North-east songwriters Billy Mitchell and Bob Fox managed to pin me down with a genial duet performance of typically engaging songs and banter.  Later in the evening, Somerset-based songwriter Reg Meuross managed to do much the same with his crowd-charming set of softly captivating self-penned songs and affable wit whilst Martin Joseph and Luke Jackson entertained the crowd on Centre Stage.  And after a set of both beautifully sober and gloriously madcap songs from Richard Digance, St Agnes Fountain brought a little Christmas magic to Reds with their take on such carols as “I Saw Three Ships”, “Deck the Halls” and “Little Town of Bethlehem”, each lovingly embraced by the voices of Chris Leslie, David Hughes, Chris While and Julie Matthews – proof in the Christmas pudding that Skeggy is the place be if you want to end your folk year with a bit of magic.

Folk Alliance Toronto | Nick Lawson | 23.02.13

On 17th February I decided to go to the Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto.  On 20th February I was there.  Plan A involved a flight via Philadelphia, but that fell through because I could not get US travel authorisation in time.  Instead I flew via Frankfurt, where I got lost (the airport is huge) and almost missed the connection.  Thanks to Lufthansa, I made it.  Toronto is a good location choice.  Canadians are very friendly and welcoming. It seems tautological to describe Toronto as ‘canadian’, but that conveys the sense I had of wandering around downtown Toronto, even late at night, without feeling at all apprehensive.  It would have been mistaken to be confined within the event.  Having travelled 3,500 miles it would be remiss not to spend some time looking around.  I did go off site to the legendary Cameron House for a two hour gig by David Celia.  Canadian advice was to take the subway, because ‘it’s quite a walk’.  Fortunately, I took the thirty minute walk.  You do not see a city by riding the subway, and I would have missed some fine old colonial buildings.  First and foremost the Conference is a trade event for anyone in the Folk/Americana music business.  Artists show off their wares in twenty or thirty minute showcase performances; agents and promoters see what’s on offer; logistics people meet potential clients; and, there are sessions on hard business matters.  Everywhere you look people are networking like mad.  I was not there as a Conference delegate in any business capacity, except maybe as a professional audience member.  Perhaps the bottom end of the musical food chain, but without an audience the whole edifice crumbles.  I was there because the offshoot of all this business activity is that there is a phenomenal amount of talent and music to be experienced, and many of the sessions are open to the public.  However, even I got networked – in the lifts, in the food queues, walking in the corridors – by people wanting to press CDs into my hands or wanting to exchange cards.  Open session official showcases took place in hotel function rooms, and were crowded though informal.  Private showcases were organised by delegates who wished to organise them.  They were held in hotel bedrooms with audiences ranging from two or three to around twenty, and were very informal.  These were generally only open to Conference delegates. Walking down a corridor where every room is running a showcase is akin to being a child in a candy store.  The impossibility of choosing who to see is familiar to all festival-goers. I tended to make my way to the series organised by Rebecca Kemp (On Tour Logistics), a well known tour manager of this parish.  One way or another, she had persuaded many fine artists to appear.  There were many old favourites who I was keen to see again.  But, the real thrill is to discover new and exciting artists such as the aforementioned David Celia (Canada).  Other artists to watch out for include Jeremy Fisher (USA), Braden Gates (Canada), Kim Wempe (Canada), Michael Johnson (USA), Dietrich Strause (USA), Ariana Gillis (Canada), Old Man Leudecke (Canada), Melissa Ferrick (USA), Angel Snow (USA), Robby Hecht (USA) and Grace Pettis (USA).  The wealth of talent on display was astounding. There was a great mix of artists, though naturally most were Canadian or American.  There was UK representation, including Lucy Ward from Derbyshire, whose old folk tales took the imagination of audiences, the Coal Porters, Martyn Joseph, Jim Moray and Rachel Sermanni. Some features would be familiar to any festival-goer.  The usual lack of sleep was turbo charged by jet lag.  Perhaps a less familiar consequence of having 1,000+ Folk and Americana musicians in one place was the amazing variety of styles of facial hair.  There was anything from neat and trimmed (that’s me!), through waxed moustaches to regulation full ZZ Top presentations.  Conference highlights are difficult to pick out because musically I had some feeling of what heaven is like, or how it ought to be.  But, there were unplanned and serendipitous events.  For example, witnessing an impromptu jam session by The Hot Club Of Cowtown, augmented by other unidentified but very talented musicians.  This happened in the hotel lobby at half past midnight with an audience of about ten.  I know people who would pay good money to such a performance.  The non-musical highlight occurred during my visit to The Cameron House.  In a small bar 3,500 miles from home, in an audience of about thirty, I knew no-one but the artist, and I only knew him since the day before.  In conversation with the guy sitting next to me, he had no difficulty accurately and quickly placing my accident.  He was a 30+ actor who gave me no clue, because he had a Canadian accent.  Turns out he knew my home town of Hull very well.  Although he had been in Canada since he was 8 his parents emigrated from five miles up the road from my home.  What are the odds?  Next year, anyone fancy a trip to Kansas City?

Sweet Gum Tree | The Snakes You Charm and The Wolves You Tame | Album Review | Dreamy Bird | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.01.14

Although Arno Sojo’s emotive vocals may divide listeners at the start of his debut solo release The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame, it’s highly likely that a union of satisfied listeners will form as the album progresses.  What begins as a pretty standard, perhaps slightly overblown pop record soon evolves into a captivating, layered showcase of the French songwriter’s craft.  Indeed, a close reading of Sojo’s lyrics provides something of a revelation – here we have a wordsmith whose poetry could easily stand alone.  Lines such as ‘Culminating in a white room bathed in light / Along pillow conversations slowly they entwined / Her golden curls, his copper hair’ (“New Rays”) and ‘Somewhere the cold would not penetrate / A shelter made of trust that grief could not infiltrate’ (“November Daughter”) exemplify the sinews and flourishes of Sojo’s lyrical prowess.  Remarkable, then, that the dexterity of Sojo’s pen is only illuminated by the lavish and somewhat dreamy nature of the music.  A lush orchestral backing lifts each song on this record to dizzying heights, along with Sojo’s crisp and ornate acoustic fingerpicking.  The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame is a high-quality collection of thoughtful ballads set against an incandescent backdrop of swirling string arrangements and delightfully languid chamber pop.

Trio Gitan | Eastern Horizons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.14

Once again the Trio Gitan has delivered another atmospheric showcase of world music. Eastern Horizons froths with masterfully rendered instrumental improvisations on Hungarian dances, boleros, Klesmer and Celtic blues with a few vocals thrown in for good measure.  The interplay between the accordion of Paul Carroll and the violins, guitars and various other stringed instruments of Jack Burge and Andy Lawrenson provides the real impetus to give this album a spin, especially on such tracks as Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” (that well known South Bank Show theme), Django Reinhardt’s “Troublant Bolero” and the charming Parisian tune “Au Vieux Bal Musette”.  Leaping dexterously from European folk jazz to traditional Celtic reels, from classical pieces to twenties blues, Eastern Horizons is an album that oozes with the versatility that the Trio Gitan possesses in bucketfuls.

Andy Revkin and Friends | A Very Fine Line | Album Review | Very Fine Lines | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.01.14

Here we have an album from one of America’s leading writers of scientific and environmental non-fiction.  Now, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.  And yet, after hearing the first few tracks on Andy Revkin’s A Very Fine Line, I feel comfortable enough to assert that it works.  Just as Joni can sing “Both Sides Now” and paint the most exquisite oil paintings, so Andy Revkin can write The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest and record an album of sweet and often humorous Americana songs.  He’s done so with a little help from his friends – Dar Williams appears on “Arlington”, mandolin master Mike Marshall plays on “Song for Lisa” and the great Bruce Molsky fiddles about on “Black Bird”.  However, notable friends aside, what really stands out on this record is Andy Revkin’s authentic and emotive rootsy voice.  The songs themselves showcase Revkin’s expertise as a writer of lines that go straight to the heart.  Themes such as mining tragedies, American automobiles and even humanity’s energy choices are all addressed here, each handled with the care of a seasoned folk musician – it’s astounding to think that this is Andy’s debut album.  So, move aside New York Times – Andy’s journalistic home between 1995 and 2009 – here we have a most versatile and original American voice who, whether it be via page or speaker, really ought to be heard.

The Claytones | Reserva | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.01.14

With regular airplay courtesy of Bob Harris and other advocates for bluegrass in the UK, Canadian four-piece The Claytones are fast becoming a notable country name on this side of the Atlantic.  The release of their second album Reserva has helped cement their reputation thanks to the band’s writing talents, expertly chosen covers, harmonies that could seal potholes and an outstanding vocal performance from lead vocalists Kelly Prescott and Anders Drerup.  On “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”, the creamy blend of these two breathy voices makes for a striking listening experience.  Similarly, a generous shot of magic is injected into Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and traditional Irish song “Lily of the West” on this exquisitely produced album.  As well as gentle love songs such as those aforementioned gems and the delicious “Draw The Drapes”, the album also comes complete with a number of bouncy bluegrass mic-stand wobblers such as “I Told My Pillow” and the beautifully infectious “Look My Way”.  With this robust follow up to 2012’s Lake In The Night, we’re sure to hear lots more from The Claytones, and we’re better off for it, too.

Various Artists | Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War | Album Review | Ato Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 20.01.14

Just as the Coen brothers return to the mainstream a palpable interest in American folk music with the arrival of their film Inside Llewyn Davis, along comes a thirty-two track double-disc collection of songs from the country’s Civil War.  And what a treat it is, especially when you consider the quality of the voices and fingers that deliver these antique songs of war’s trials and tribulations to young and old ears alike.  Bluegrass stalwarts Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley are in attendance along with big country names such as Vince Gill, Steve Earle and Dolly Parton, each with their own heartfelt versions of “Dear Old Flag”, “Just Before The Battle”, “Mother” and “Listen to the Mockingbird”.  Mandolin master Chris Thile donates his take on the Federal song “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel”, featuring a slick guitar and vocal from Michael Daves.  There are also arresting contributions from Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pokey LaFarge and blues legend Taj Mahal, all helping to make this collection the epic that, given the subject matter, it ought to be.  Marking 150 years since the end of the American Civil War, Divided And United: The Songs Of The Civil War is the brainchild of Randall Poster, musical supervisor on such productions as Boardwalk Empire and Skyfall, and presents one of the finest anthologies of American folk and country you’re ever likely to hear.

Stacey Kent | Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.06.14

Described by Jamie Cullum as having been “quietly sitting on top of the world of jazz vocals for many years”, Stacey Kent is currently engaged in a mammoth tour which has seen her stand quietly on various stages throughout five continents.  She is introducing the world to her quietly stunning new album The Changing Lights which further explores Kent’s effusive love for all things Brazil via the compositions of Vinicius De Moraes, Newton Mendonça and Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Along with drummer Josh Morrison, bassist Jeremy Brown, pianist Graham Harvey and saxophonist, flautist, guitarist, arranger and husband Jim Tomlinson, New Jersey’s foremost jazz songbird arrived at Scarbrorough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre this evening to give a performance which was as warm and amiable as the salty June air outside.  Where the spotlight would more commonly find an Ayckbourn farce, Stephen Joseph’s theatre-in-the-round provided the perfect stage for a gently enchanting tour of Brazil’s musical heritage.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the muffled sound of Scarborough’s seagulls circling the theatre’s imposing Art Deco tower, tonight’s show could well have transported the audience to the foot of Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain, where hundreds of English football fans are currently drowning their sorrows having seen their team drop out of the World Cup.  Stacey confessed, thankfully, that her interests were more with music than football and illuminated each song with accounts of her recent visits to the country that inspired the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto.  A fourteen year old Kent would discover her love for Bossa Nova upon purchasing this groundbreaking jazz album at New York’s Tower Records on 66th and Broadway – and it’s a love that has survived long enough to inspire tonight’s show.  Renditions of Jobim’s “Waters of March” and Mendonça’s “One Note Samba” were mingled with new compositions by Tomlinson and author Kazuo Ishiguro such as the brilliant encounter in a French restaurant entitled “Waiter, Oh Waiter” and the album’s title track “The Changing Lights”.  There were also performances of highlights from Stacey’s back catalogue such as “The Ice Hotel” from 2007’s Breakfast On The Morning Tram and the Astrud Gilberto classic “Dreamer” from Stacey’s 2011 live album, Dreamer In Concert.  Equally silent and bewitched, the Scarborough crowd were treated, this evening, not just to Kent’s confident yet gently innocent vocals and heavily pregnant pauses between verses, but also to the delicate tip-toeing of Jim Tomlinson’s sax notes and sinuous flute lines.  Both husband and wife dabbled nonchalantly in some impressive Bossa Nova guitar playing whilst Graham Harvey explored the possibilities of just about every jazz chord on his grand piano. Jeremy Brown seemed to distort the darkness as he plumbed the depths of every double bass note and Josh Morrison’s inventive exploration of his modest drum kit was, at times, explosive – not least on De Moraes’s “Samba Savarah”, which closed the show on an energetically euphoric note.

Dr. John | Ske-Dat-De-Dat… The Spirit of Satch | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.08.14

Fifteen years have flown by since Dr. John – the legendary New Orleans night-tripper – released Duke Elegant, his twelve-track celebration of the music of Duke Ellington.  This year, the Doctor tips his hat to another legend, this time saluting that hero of New Orleans jazz, Louis Armstrong.  Beginning with a haunting gospel re-imagining of Wonderful World, Ske-Dat-De-Dat… The Spirit of Satch presents a thirteen-track sashay through music made most famous by Armstrong.  Thanks to Dr John’s panoramic musical prowess, a funkadelic stab at “Mack the Knife” gives way to a bewitching zydeco version of “Tight Like That”.  And just when you think a sassy big band will return these jazz classics to a more traditional realm, the good Doctor steers the album back into that unique swamp of angular New Orleans funk.  On such universally familiar songs as “World on a String” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, Dr. John serves up a steamy gumbo of funk and soul, accompanied here and there by the delicious vocals of Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland and the Blind Boys of Alabama.  It’s an album of night jazz and hoodoo soul that, in true Mac Rebennack style, froths with candle-shaking excitement. Satchmo would be mighty proud.

Diana Krall | Wallflower | Album Review | Verve | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.01.15

A quick glance at the track list on Diana Krall’s latest LP reveals two things.  Firstly, that Wallflower – Krall’s twelfth studio album since her 1993 debut – is a collection of cover songs and, secondly, that the reigning Queen of contemporary jazz vocalists is a sucker for a good melody.  Amongst the songwriters represented on this typically languorous and markedly understated album are Gilbert O’Sullivan, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Neil Finn and a further handful of respected melody makers.  In placing Krall’s gently devastating piano at the forefront of the album, along with the sultry, smoky vocals we’ve come to know and love, Wallflower ushers each of these gorgeously crafted songs into the spotlight, adding a silvery lining to each with a lush string backing.  Even the well-trodden lines of John/Michelle Phillips’s “California Dreamin’” and Taupin/John’s “Sorry a Seems To Be The Hardest Word” are given a bold outline on this delicately respectful tribute to the songs Krall first heard on vinyl.  But, far from being the usual jaunt through modern standards, Wallflower presents some surprises.  Krall’s pick of McCartney, for example, is the beautifully haunting “If I Take You Home Tonight”, a previously unreleased song from the pen of the former Beatle, left over from the “Kisses On The Bottom” sessions of which Krall was a part.  And then there’s the title track, a lesser known Bob Dylan song that was written in 1972 but only released on a later collection of Bob’s bootlegs.  With a little help from appearances by Bryan Adams, Blake Mills and Michael Bublé, Wallflower presents Diana Krall at her most sincere.  Here is a jazz artist let loose, for the most part, in the LP boxes of her youth, delivering covers of songs that are clearly achingly close to her heart.

Terje Isungset and Arve Henriksen | World of Glass | Album Review | All Ice Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.01.15

Ever since Sun Ra landed on the planet, jazz has held its arms wide open to experimentation.  Pioneers of the avant garde such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and the aforementioned Ra erected the dome under which notable musicians such as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith were free to tinker with this constantly evolving music.  Today, it’s hard not to lay your fingers on examples of experimental jazz as you grope along the shelves in you local record shop or glide leisurely through Spotify or iTunes.  Nine times out of ten, it seems that the latest jazz outfit to erupt from London, Oslo, New York or Berlin are either heavily influenced or a physical embodiment of the spirit of the avant garde.  Terje Isungset is a Norwegian composer and percussionist who has been steadily pushing the boundaries of modern jazz since his arrival on the scene in the mid-1980s. And ever since the release of his debut solo album, 1997’s Reise, we’ve been able to decorate our ears and interiors with the engrossing improvised soundscapes of this formidable sonic artist.  Terje’s latest adventures in sound see him, once again, teaming up with fellow Norwegian Arve Henriksen; a like-minded trumpeter and vocalist who manages to induce a meditative state with the distinctive flute-like tone of his trumpet and soaring soprano voice.  Putting the two together is like shutting Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock in a room and seeing what happens.  World Of Glass, with its concoction of sprawling drones, tinkling percussion and sinuous, seemingly ancient improvised lines of melody, presents a gallery of paintings for the ear.  Tracks such as “Cave”, “Optical Density” and “Silica”, with their wide soundscapes of exotic, reedy trumpet and what sounds like someone treading a path of broken glass, are serene pools in which to dip one’s otherwise cluttered mind, while “Looking Through” and “Crystal Clear” usher the listener into a landscape of ice with their liquidy bells and vibraphones.  Jazz has come a long way since its inception, but if it continues to offer sonic spaces such as World Of Glass, it will, thankfully, provide a refuge for those of us who often look to music for its calming influence.

Grassroots | Chamber 3 | Album Review | OA2 Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.01.15

It would seem the Seattle drummer and record label entrepreneur Matt Jorgensen can do no wrong. As bandleader, sideman, producer and even founder and co-Artistic Director of Seattle’s Ballard Jazz Festival, Jorgensen oozes a sincere passion for his music.  It’s a passion that has earned him a distinct identity on the North American jazz scene and respect around the world.   As 2015 arrives, Jorgensen has teamed up with guitarist Christian Eckert and saxophonist Steffen Weber for a second offering from Chamber 3.  The trio’s first album, Chaos And Structure was recorded live during a three night residency at the Jazzhaus in Heidelburg during January 2010.  Grassroots, their latest release, sees the band exploring their own compositions, along with an ethereal take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, in a studio setting.  And, this time, leading Seattle bassist Phil Sparks is along for the ride.  The result is a nine-track conversation between four fine instrumentalists, each with something sincerely interesting to say.  Jorgensen’s drums keeps the conversation tightly packaged, though not suffocatingly so, while Weber, with his controlled sax lines, and Eckert, with his consistently effervescent guitar breaks, are constantly engaged in a lively discussion.  One should also heap praise upon Sparks whose subtle bass, now and again, breaches the surface with the grace and majesty of a humpback whale.  There is a relaxed energy in the fibre of Grassroots that embodies this brand of jazz.  It’s a tamed fervour that only comes from a genuine respect for the communal handling of rhythm, musical themes and improvisation.  If you’re looking for quality chamber jazz this new year, look no further.

Troyka | Ornithophobia | Album Review | Naim | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.02.15

If you’re not familiar with the London-based jazz outfit Troyka, you’ll probably be better acquainted with its parts. Kit Downes  perhaps the most lauded British jazz pianist of recent years – sits at the organ while dazzling guitarist Chris Montague and detailed and dramatic drummer Joshua Blackmore make up the rest of this robust threesome.  Hot on the heels of such dynamic combos as Polar Bear and Portico Quartet, Troyka present an angular, clockwork funk that, were it not for the delicate precision evident in each spiky track, could very easily cause some damage to the inner ear.  Ornithophobia is the band’s third studio album – their first for the Naim label – and presents their most spirited work to date.  With nine highly-charged tracks, the band weaves gleefully through soaring soundscapes such as Seahouses and Bamburgh – both evocatively named after equally inspiring Northumbrian locations – and complex, polyrhthmic post-dance numbers such as Magpies and Ornithophobia.  There’s even a post-apocalyptic vignette in “Thopter”, interspersed with the eerie sound of a faux radio broadcast, which musically explores the terror of pandemic bird flu.  While Kit’s tasty organ provides a path through this kinetic landscape and Chris’s bewildering guitar breaks populate the scene with animated wildlife, the engine that transports the listener is fuelled by the startling rhythms of drummer Joshua Blackmore who, for this reviewer, manages to leap from the album’s surface higher than any of his fellow musicians.

Ma Polaines Great Decline | Got Me Out of Hell | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.02.15

In places, this album sounds like a young Billie Holiday gate-crashing a Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones recording session circa 1983, complete with clanking industrial percussion and Bohemian accordion flurries.  Beth Packer (vocals and accordion) and Clinton Hough (guitar, piano and Percussion) create an utterly compelling soundscape here, with one or two moments of sheer beauty, “Small Town” for instance, featuring one of Packer’s most convincing vocal performances.  Numb is the only song here that pre-dates the band’s inception in 2011, a slumbering blues that should only be played after midnight and preferably on a weekend, while the title song “Got Me Out of Hell”, provides us with a burlesque cabaret sideshow, that feels slightly dangerous yet deliciously tempting.  Joining Packer and Hough on this the band’s debut full-length release are Jon Gillies on sax, Chris Clavo on double bass and Nick Rye on percussion and piano.

Krossborder | Kompilation Vol. 2: The Best British Blues | Album Review | Krossborder 2015 | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 09.04.15

Voted as album of the month January 2014 by the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association, the first volume of Krossborder’s Kompilation: The Best British Blues, which featured tracks by such British blues artists as The Idle Hands, Tom Gee Band and Jackson Sloan, was very well received by critics, DJs and blues fans alike.  A year on, and Krossborder Rekords have furnished us with another generous helping of hard-edged electric and acoustic blues from new and established artists.   From “Get It Back”, its gutsy opener from 33 year old Leicester-born bluesman Jack Hutchinson to the lingeringly moody “Passion and Pain from the sadly disbanded Bare Bones Boogie Band, this second compilation provides a spirited, almost embarrassingly good answer to the question ‘do Brits get the blues?’  Other artists represented include the Robin Robertson Blues Band, Paul Lamb and Chad Strenz, Split Whiskers and London’s Andy Twyman, whose sparse, harp-led and, frankly, hilarious “I Eat Pot Noodle With a Plastic Fork” stands out as one of this compilation’s best.

Nathaniel Talbot | Swamp Rose and Honeysuckle Vine | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.16

Nathaniel Talbot’s biography sounds almost as charming as the music he makes.  The singer songwriter runs a farm on Whidbey Island, in Washington State’s Puget Sound, where he works sixty hours a week to provide the Pacific Northwest with its organic vegetables.  When he’s not elbow deep in the earth, however, this fine wordsmith, singer and guitarist ploughs a very different field indeed, exposing his musical roots and harvesting songs for albums such as Swamp Rose And Honeysuckle Vine, his latest release on Portland, Oregon’s Fluff and Gravy Records.  While we can easily make a comparison to James Taylor upon hearing Talbot’s high, honeyed voice and gently arresting finger-picking, it soon becomes evident that a different kind of craftsman is at work here.  The poetry of such songs as “Able Man” and “Swamp Rose” and “Honeysuckle Vine” has all the earthy power of Seamus Heaney, AE Housman and Robert Frost.  The instrumentals scattered amongst these lyrically impressive songs also expose the touch of an artisan, “Winter’s Edge” and “When the Wind is Right” are almost painterly, with guitar, fiddle and dobro providing brushstrokes that often succeed in telling stories better than any lyric could.   With this, his fourth release, Nathaniel Talbot delivers a fresh basket of nourishment from what seems to be a fine crop of original songs and instrumentals indeed.  The album provides an invigorating glimpse of the contemporary North American folk landscape with its wide and sprawling sound and tangling briers of sweet melody.

Boreas | Ahoy Hoy | Album Review | Isle Music Scotland | Review by Phil Carter | 27.01.16

Sea-themed albums have been in abundance over recent years, and therefore the temptation was to regard this album as just another redressing of a well trodden musical route.  How wrong that would be, as this debut studio album from the Scottish and Norwegian collaboration is a uniquely blended sound-scape of cultural influences that explores the musical traditions of both countries.  The album gathers momentum and grows in intensity from the sparser opening compositions “Sidvoss” and “Silley” that conjour up a musical image of the land awakening as dawn breaks and the sun rises and the populous stir in their beds prior to embarking on their daily toils of on or around the sea.  Alongside the band’s own compositions, there is a beautiful interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s “North Sea Holes (Come All Ye Gallant Fishermen)”, a song that was originally featured on the Radio Balladsalbum Singing The Fishing.   On the track, stunning vocal harmonies from Lori Watson and Rachel Newton overlay the musical seascape to produce one of the finer moments on the album. The instrumental combination of Hardanger fiddle (Brett Pernille Froholm), Scottish Harp (Rachel Newton), Chromatic Accordion (Irene Tillung) and Scottish fiddle (Lori Watson) creates a magical chemistry that is very apparent on this track, and it is no surprise that the band have chosen to release this track as the single from the album.  The generally reserved mood of the album is uplifted by the track “Happy Set”, comprising of a medley of four tunes.  “Braw Sailin” is a song collected from Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ and has received previous attention from Kris Drever and Old Blind Dogs respectively.  The musician’s approach to the cultural originality of their homelands of Norway and Scotland is ably demonstrated during the last three tracks on the album, climaxing with the beautiful “Lullaby”.  Ahoy Hoy is a beautifully produced album borne out of a remarkable collaboration between musicians from two countries and that mixes traditional and contemporary influences that both identifies the differences and also the similarities between the two cultures.

Ravi Coltrane Quartet | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 11.03.15

When it comes to pedigrees, Ravi Coltrane could, surely, be described as a bona fide jazz purebred.  His mother was the renowned multi-instrumentalist Alice Coltrane, whose early-1970s Impulse recordings laid the foundation for later experimental and fusion jazz releases.  His father was none other than the modern jazz behemoth John Coltrane, an artist who reformed and redefined jazz in the mid-1960s with LPs such as A Love Supreme and Ascension.  Before his untimely death in 1967, Coltrane Snr. broke so much ground in jazz that the entire landscape was changed forever.  Ravi was not yet two years old when his father succumbed to cancer at the age of forty.  Fortunately for us, Coltrane Jnr. had, evidently, already been infused with that unique prowess for jazz that blends complex avant-garde curiosity with a highly attuned spiritual sensibility.  Ever since his emergence as sideman for Elvin Jones in the early 1990s and his breakthrough as leader on 1998’s RCA release, Moving Pictures, Ravi has been pushing the boundaries in true Coltrane style, whether wielding a sax or turning the dials as producer.  His appearance in Leeds this evening provided a first glimpse for many of the Howard Assembly Rooms’ attentive audience.  Usually confining his UK appearances to the more established jazz venues of London, Manchester and Glasgow, Ravi began tonight’s concert by assuring his Yorkshire fans that he was glad to head off the beaten track.  Lucky for us, Ravi had brought with him a superlative group of musicians.  Pianist David Virelles provided an equally studious and adventurous delivery of uncanny chord structures and always startling improvised solos.  Bassist Dezron Douglas seemed just as captivated as the crowd with tonight’s performance as he laid a confident and earthy bass-line beneath each number.  Drummer Jonathan Blake gave, perhaps, the most dazzling performance of the quartet, appearing to draw a series of complex, angular shapes across his kit throughout.  Beginning with a finely-woven improvisation on the classic “Bird Food”, Ravi and his band led us through a selection of thundering freebop renderings of compositions by such artists as Ornette Coleman and Billy Strayhorn as well as a generous selection of the band’s self-penned works.  Drummer Blake’s own piece “Homeward Bound” shimmered with a collage of American landscapes and offered its author the chance to test the Assembly Room’s curves with a chest-beating drum solo.  Ravi’s own compositions, such as “Marilyn & Tammy” and the resplendent “The Change”, “My Girl” offered this quietly reflective saxophonist the chance to enchant his audience with the meditative melodies that made his 2012 Blue Note record Spirit Fiction such a joy to hear.  With a stirring encore, demanded by this delighted Yorkshire audience, Ravi and co. left us with the distinct feeling that he’ll be passing this way again in the future.  He will, of course, be most welcome.

Judith Owen and Band | The Met, Bury | Review by Keith Belcher | 12.03.15

If I attend a better show this year for £10 I will be both highly delighted and amazed. Judith Owen on vocals and keyboards, promoting her 10th Studio album Ebb And Flow with a backing band of living legends Russell Kunkel on drums and Leland Sklar on bass and Pedro Segundo on percussion.  Russell and Leland contributed to just about every major album in the 70s and their session work and performances since would require several pages to document.  Judith has toured with Richard Thompson (1,000 Years of Popular Music) amongst others and is in that elite club of personalities who have appeared in the Simpsons TV show as herself.  Support was from Leicestershire based duo The Daydream Club (Paula and Adam).  With Adam playing guitar and Paula occasional drums they provided a great opening.  Their songs had a surprisingly full sound with very catchy rhythms from just percussion and acoustic guitar.  Beautiful harmonies complemented Paula’s soaring voice as they performed songs from their CDs Overgrown and Found starting with “Fear Of Wolves”.  This is  one of their oldest songs about overcoming fears, in particular Paula’s early fear of being on stage on stage.  Going from rocky to very quiet.  A complete pace change to very mellow with award winning song “Just”.  Lengthy chats between songs proved that on stage nerves are a thing of the past for Paula.  It was great to hear a support band introduce each song and be so self assured on stage.  Audience participation was required for “Little Things” which the enthusiastic Bury Met audience ably supplied, Adam taking lead vocal for this song.  A master class in sustaining a note, one of the longest I’ve heard in this genre on “Saltwater”, a song about Adams proposal to Paula, it took over ten years of being together consequently Paula had a few words on the matter!  They finished their set with the title track of their latest release Found, again driving drum beat with very able guitar and vocals, nothing one pace about this band.  They left the stage to great applause even a few ‘Hurrahs!’  I think they won a few more fans during the night.  When you have a pair of living musical legends in your band you take a little time at the start to introduce them.  So it was for Russell Kunkel and Leland Sklar.  Pedro Segundo also got a lengthy introduction.  Judith is certainly not short of things to say.  Many songs and chats were quite lengthy but well paced, tongue in cheek, sarcastic at times but humourous and never boring.  She played with, teased and bated the audience, even berating them at times for not getting the punch lines of her jokes and threatening to bring out the defibrillators at one point.  She explained that when making this album she wanted to go back and get the real sound of the 70s.  Hence the use of  these musicians along with Waddy Wachtel who was billed but didn’t appear, no explanation given.  The playing by all musicians throughout the night had that magical feel of simplicity that can only ever be achieved by the very, very proficient.  Throughout the night she performed Ebb And Flow in its entirety.  “Train Out of Hollywood” was the first song played and is also the albums opening track.  From the first immaculately played bass notes we knew we were in for a treat.  A light jazzy feely that was so reminiscent of 1970s Steely Dan and Joni’s adventures with Tom Scott.  The sound in the Met is always wonderful but tonight it was exceptional.  A brief introduction and then into “I Would Give Anything” which evoked memories of Carole King’s song writing and delivery.  A very slowed down sexy cover of Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” followed but with a huge difference, transforming it from a male anthem to being sung from a female perspective which was exactly the aim.  As Judith said “I like to take the cod out of the piece”.  Judith then required a few whoops from the audience as she mocked Californian audiences.  Whooping was a continued theme throughout the night.  A song of friendship “Under Your Door” based on her own experiences of clinical depression was performed as a keyboard/bass duet with Leland, “You Might Just See The Light Under Your Door” expressing hope in dark circumstances.  A latin beat song about love with haunting vocals followed, aptly called “About Love”.  Another cover on the album is James Taylor’s “Hey Mister That’s Me Up On The Jukebox”, again this had Judith’s own interpretation taking the point of view  of someone who was very happy with life having passed through being sick of it all.  The subtlety of the keyboards, bass and drum interplay was just wonderful, it all sounded so effortless.  Judith’s vocal expression shining throughout the night.  As well as the entire album Judith performed covers of Carole King’s “It Might As Well Rain Until September” and another total re-interpretation of “Summer Nights” from Grease.  The set was finished with a bossa nova style “Some Arrows Go In Deep”.  Feigning surprise the encores started with “Song Of An Immigrant” from Emotions On A Postcard relating this to her Welsh roots when moving to America.  Two more covers followed, a very jaunty “Jeans On” finishing with The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, Pedro whistling his version of a Blackbird, interesting in that keyboards replaced the usual acoustic guitar opening.  Needless to say there was a very appreciative audience who will be hoping that Judith and Band make it back soon as promised.  After the show Judith and the band appeared to chat and sign.  A rather nice touch about the CD is that unlike a lot these days it is well packaged with a booklet containing all lyrics.  A welcome return to a standard seemingly lost in this increasingly digital age.  As you can imagine there were queues of drummers wanting to chat to Russell and a similar queue of bassists surrounding Leland.  Lots of photos were taken.  After all its not every day you get to see and chat to musicians of this standard and background.  I believe a Bob Harris Radio Show session had been recorded a day or so before this show so there is that to look forward to in the near future.

Angel Snow and Ben Glover | The Live Room, Caroline Social Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 15.03.15

No CDs to sell at the Merch Desk at the start of a live gig indicates either bad planning or a very popular tour.  Angel Snow had sold out by the time she and Ben got to Saltaire, it wasn’t down to lack of planning.  Only a few of her EPs were available and they went very quickly. Angel taking orders and offering to personally post out CDs to those disappointed fans wanting a CD.  A good size crowd for Angel and Ben.  Both artists are Nashville based although Ben’s accent gives away his Co. Antrim roots.  Both are already well respected songwriters.  Angel had  three songs recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station on their Paper Airplane CD.  Ben shares song writing credits with, amongst others,  Mary Gauthier and Gretchen Peters.  It was a shared dual headline bill.  The opening set saw Ben and Angel on stage together but performing songs alternately.  Accompanying each other on the occasional vocal harmony but generally introducing and playing their own songs.  Both have distinctive styles.  Angel was relatively new to me.  I had heard her songs played on radio and in particular a Bob Harris session last year and also the televised House Party at Beth Nielson Chapman’s House.  I’d previously seen Ben supporting Mary Gauthier last year.  Angel opened the proceedings with a fine performance of “Coals and Water” from the CD Angel Snow.  Subtle guitar style and a very pure, piercing voice with a wide range and  to me also reminiscent at times of  Beth Orton.  Ben then followed with “Too Long Gone”, a song co-written with Mary Gauthier from his latest CD Atlantic .  Ben’s voice reminds me of a combination of John Smith and David Gray with heady overtones of early Ryan Adams.  Their guitar styles nicely contrasted.  Ben being far louder and more powerful, Angel having a quieter, more subtle approach.  A second song from Angel then Ben followed with another Mary Gauthier co write “Oh Soul”, a song based on Robert Johnson, with Angel adding very pleasant and delicate harmony.  Angel again with “Lie Awake”, a powerful vocal, quite different than Alison Krauss’s cover version on Paper Airplane although Alison’s voice can soar to places most mere mortals can only dream of.  This format continued for the rest of the set with both artists commenting (favourably) on each other’s songs.  Both artists relaxed and assured enough to be quite humorous in their between song introductions and banter, even talking about a run in with a waitress earlier in the evening.  Ben has some beautiful lyrical touches, a great example being performed in the first set in “The Ballad of Carla Boone”, ‘She blew in like a thunderstorm with a heart’, a weather reference worthy of John Hiatt’s ‘She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front, His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes’.   The set concluded with a new song “Sweetheart” from Ben’s forthcoming new CD.  This was an upbeat gospel style song very ably assisted by Angel’s vocals.  Ben getting the very attentive and polite Saltaire crowd to join in with the chorus.  I should say that for artists with great lyrics the Live Room is generally a delight with crowds being respectful, quiet and attentive.  This may possibly be a little too quiet and therefore unnerving for some of our American visitors.  They are generally used to lots of yells throughout the songs or following any instrumental break of more than a few notes but superb if you enjoy listening when you go out for the night.  The second set saw Ben solo for two songs.  His opening song “Whatever Happens Will” is no doubt his most lucrative song to date, having been used by a well known international thirst quenching soft drink company for an ad campaign in South America.  A chilling murder ballad, “Blackbirds” co-written with Gretchen Peters followed.  Lyrics like ‘I left you lying there like rotting fruit upon the ground’ gives an indication of the songs mood.  Angel then replaced Ben on stage singing  two songs starting with a song based on her father called “Disguises”, this was followed by “I Need You” from her EP.  Both songs being pretty low key and following the murder ballad very well.  “I Need You” drew a Leonard Cohen comparison from Ben for the line ‘I need you like raw knuckles in winter’, great praise indeed.  Ben then joined Angel on stage and they continued alternating songs like the first set.  A rousing “Sing a Song Boys” from Ben changed the mood following the opening songs.  The remainder of the set consisted of songs from Atlantic, Angel Snow and Secret.  A delightful duo rendition of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” finished the set.  Of course they were called back and performed a cover of U2’s “All I Want Is You” and very good it was too.  With the harmonies on display during the song and the encore one wished there had been a couple more full collaborations but that might be termed being greedy.  A superb night, great atmosphere, lovely attentive and respectful crowd and excellent sound.  The Live Room goes from strength to strength.

Emily Barker and Gill Sandell | The Met, Bury, Lancs | Review by Keith Belcher | 27.03.15

A sell out crowd at Bury Met, Studio Theatre for Emily and Gill with support from Northern Irish singer Ciaran Lavery.  With no announcement or introduction Ciaran Lavery walked to the microphone and sang the Tom Waits song “If I Had to Go” acapella style smoothly segueing it by guitar into another song which had the same feel.  His deep husky voice demanding complete attention to the point where you could have heard an ice cube swirling around a glass.  Audience attention fixed we got a brief self intro before he launched into Dylan’s “Copper Kettle”, albeit a lot slowed down and more in keeping with a Tom Waits/Ryan Adams version than the song from Self Portrait.  A Dylanesque style harmonica intro into Ciaran’s song “Shame” from his debut album Not Nearly Dark followed.  Shame has had several million streams on Spotify.  In addition to that Ciaran is also currently on Radio 1’s playlist with his collaboration with Ryan Vail “The Colour Blue”.  Ciaran was relaxed and very quietly spoken in between songs being appreciative of the attentive audience and mainly telling stories rather than selling himself.  He performed his own compositions “Little More Time” from Not Nearly Dark then a wonderful new as yet unrecorded song “Tell Them All” which along with others will hopefully be released later this year, featuring some great lines of advice from his father “Never raise a glass to someone’s sorrow, you never talk about tomorrow”.  Ciaran says he is bad at self advertising but talent like this really deserves to be heard and promoted.  With the amount of on line attention he is enjoying word is obviously getting around.  His website says ‘Alt-folk troubadour Ciaran Lavery has channelled the quiet despair of isolation into timeless songs of beauty and heartache’.  It is an accurate quote.  Ciaran played “Left for America”, the opening track from his latest EP Kosher, another song that has been streamed by the millions.  As with the set’s opening song an unannounced acapella version of Bonny Prince Billy’s “Careless Love” closed the set to very appreciative applause.  Certainly a  name and talent to look out for in the future.  He is being tipped by many for great things.  Check out Ciarans website for examples of his material.  After the interval Emily  introduced and herself and Gill Sandell.  For me this was the first time of seeing Emily and Gill without the full Red Clay Halo so a different , more stripped back feel to the songs without Jo Silverston’s Cello and Anna Jenkin’s Violin and Viola.  From memory the last time they played Bury was 2011.  Gill on Accordion, guitar and flutes and Emily on guitar, harmonica and stomp box produce a full sound.  I always think the more stripped back the song the more the lyrics can come to the fore, less distractions.  The show started with “Little Deaths” followed by the by the well known and multi award winning “Nostalgia”, the theme tune for TV’s Wallander featuring Kenneth Branagh.  Emily talked about her forthcoming album The Toerag Sessions which features some re workings of songs from Emily’s first band The Low Country.  Songs from all Emily’s past albums were played.  The first song featured from The Toerag Sessions was a song about Emily’s Grandfather, “Lord I Want an Exit”, nicely duetted vocally by Gill and some very pleasant harmonica from Emily.  Another Grandfather inspired song “Letters” from Dear River followed with Emily switching to electric guitar.  A brand new song “Stockholm Down Below” co written with Eric Palmqwist featured Gill on Accordion, Emily having written most of this song on the plane to Stockholm while seeing the beautiful frozen Swedish landscape from the air.  It should appear on a solo project later in the year.  Last year Emily wrote the soundtrack for Hec McAdam, a film starring Peter Mullan and Keith Allen.  The film’s theme tune “Anywhere Away” is  another from The Toerag Sessions, it tells the story of Hec McAdam and his exploits mainly between Glasgow and London.  Another family inspired song from Emily’s childhood, a cover of Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest”, it apparently being one of the few songs that Emily’s full family all liked particularly on 12 hour Australian car journeys.  Total change of pace after that with the upbeat tempo of “Blackbird” from Photos, Fires, Fables.  The rocker of the night was “Ghost Narrative”, which was inspired by a conversation and walk with a native Australian.  This was followed by what is pretty much a tradition for Emily’s support artists.  Ciaran was welcomed back to the stage to take part in an argument with Emily in the ‘light hearted murder ballad’ “Fields of June”, each singing alternate verses.  Ciaran produced a very spirited male role for the song, Gill’s Accordion romping along with Emily’s guitar and harmonica and the combined vocals.  The show proper finished with “Disappear” which is always a crowd favourite, again this stomped along in very upbeat fashion.  The first encore was a much slower “Homefires” a new song written in Nashville for a project with Amy Speace and Amber Rubarth, all recorded around one mike in true bluegrass fashion.  Again it is hoped for release later in the year.  This was performed by Emily on guitar.  Gill was then welcomed back on stage.  They had a chat about their tour so far and finished the night with a rousing version of “Calendar” from Almanac.  Although not featured on the night Gill Sandell’s own music is well worth checking out.  She has a new CD Walk Away, Walk Away with Chris T-T.  An excellent night and as always when Terry is at the board excellent sound quality.  Little wonder that The Met , Bury is such a popular venue for artists and audiences alike.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker | The Live Room, Caroline Social Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 29.03.15

A very cold Yorkshire night saw a sizeable crowd attend the Live Room to see double Folk Award nominees Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker make their first appearance in Saltaire.  Josienne and Ben are nominated for BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2015 Best Duo and also for Best Album with Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour.  A special treat for the night was that they were not performing just as a duo.  They had their own string section with the very talented Jo Silverston and Anna Jenkins on Cello and Viola.  Jo and Anna having toured with amongst others, The Unthanks and more lately Emily Barker (as two thirds of The Red Clay Halo).  Ron and Hilary, the promoters, saw Josienne and Ben at Bury’s Homegrown Folk Festival in 2013 and have been trying to get them to The Live Room since.  On Sunday’s showing let’s hope we don’t wait another 18 months or so for a return visit to our area.  They performed two sets and started the show with Sandy Denny’s “An Old Fashioned Waltz”.  Some people might regard covers of Sandy Denny songs as tantamount to sacrilege but Josienne certainly did justice and much more to the song.  She has a beautiful, pure, powerful wide ranging voice which can cut through the room and stop you in your tracks.  Ben is a very accomplished mainly finger style guitarist who provides intricate and sometimes delicate backing to Josienne’s voice.  Both are classically trained as are Jo and Anna and it really showed.  Jo and Anna’s contributions throughout the night not only demonstrated how musically proficient they are as individual players but also what a good job Ben had done with the string arrangements.  Virtually all communication with the audience was done by Josienne who left the audience in no doubt that most of her songs were miserable and sad and that was exactly what was intended.  Self professed melancholy being the order of the night.  They  delighted in the unique decor of the Live Room wanting the curtains thrown back to display the ‘shiny sparkly stuff’ urging the audience to take lots of photos.  For me the low level lighting and inadequacies of my camera prevented this somewhat.  Every song was well introduced and explained which is something I really like from a band whose material is relatively new to me.  The first set continued with a Burns song “My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose” before we got one of Josienne’s own song which continued the floral theme “It Would Not Be A Rose”.  The remainder of the set comprised covers, Trad songs and their own compositions.  A new as yet unrecorded song “Sweet The Sorrow” which featured a beautiful string opening from Jo and Anna and the opening track from their first CD After Me.  The songs varied from an almost Elizabethan production of “Queen of Hearts” with Josienne also playing a recorder introduction.  This version with the guitar, voice and strings beautifully interweaving differs greatly from either Martin Carthy (1965 and 2014 with Eliza) or Unthanks (2011) versions.  To close the set they veered away from Folk to  the pop standard “You Always Hurt The One You Love”.  Also sandwiched in there was an almost Chamber Music like  cover of Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind” which Josienne described as being about her.  Being a huge Gillian Welch fan I admire anyone who can perform Gillian Welch covers and actually add something to them.  Before the interval which was described as a red wine and valium break Josienne did advise the audience that it was no use coming up to her and asking for cheerier songs, someone always does it but it just wasn’t going to happen.  I think most people went to the Merch desk to buy using Josienne’s words the ‘bleak but impressive material’.  The second set started with  more of their original material starting with a song from Fire And Fortune “Anyone But Me”, a ‘psycho ballad’ song about jealousy and paranoia to maintain the ‘happy theme’.  From the potential award winning Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour came “Mainland” and  “The Tangled Tree”, a eerily captivating song about the passing of time.  They then changed mood and language by moving onto an Argentinean song “La Cancion de las Simples Cosas” with Ben playing flamenco style guitar and then into a magnificent version of Sandy Denny’s song about Mary Queen of Scots, “Fotheringay” from what I regard as Fairport’s best album 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays.  No end to the culture as we then got Elgar’s “As Torrents in Summer” beautifully sung by Josienne with Jo and Anna shining on Cello and Viola.  Not content with covering Sandy Denny Josienne also covered June Tabor and Nina Simone songs.  Throughout the show Josienne kept up a great humourous banter with the audience as well as chiding Jo for playing a semitone too high on a previous night and Ben who was blamed for ‘forgetting’ a guitar strap.  All obviously good natured and well received by the crowd who were very enthusiastic, attentive and receptive.  The encore was a Nina Simone cover of “For All We Know”.  If indeed the nature of the songs and music were, in Josiennes words ‘miserable and unhappy’ then obviously the crowd like me were a crowd who appreciated miserable and unhappy songs when well performed by a great singer and very capable musicians- sounds like a definition of a good Folk audience.  Last years Best Duo winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin also appeared at The Live Room before winning their award and they also performed a Gillian Welch cover, fingers crossed it’s a happy omen for Josienne and Ben at the awards ceremony at Cardiff in late April.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman | The Met, Bury, Lancs | Review by Keith Belcher | 02.04.15

Hattie Briggs, a former nominee for BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Singer stepped away from the second year of a Russian Degree at Oxford in 2014 to pursue a musical career.  Her first full CD Red And Gold was released on April 6th. Tonight she performed several songs from the CD accompanying herself on guitar and keyboards.  Although the keyboards and guitar were very good the outstanding aspects were both as Hattie’s voice, powerful, soulful and beautifully clear and crisp and her song writing.  Wearing a hat that obscured half her face she made a very self assured and confident entrance, introducing both herself and the songs.  She opened with her new single “A Beautiful Mind” also from Red And Gold.  A song about Pete Seeger, inspired by a Peggy Seeger remark about Pete saying “I don’t write the songs, I only write them down”.  A change of inspiration for the next song “Old Eyes”, this time the inspiration being her dog, beautiful lines for such a young song writer, ‘Old eyes, it’s like staring into cloudy skies, and you’re all worn, you lie so still when the day is done’.  More self-penned songs from the CD followed alternating with guitar and keyboards, the CD versions having fuller accompaniment.  “Pull me Down”, an early song about fears of the music industry further demonstrated her song writing talent, ‘If I get up high, if I get up late, if I change the numbers on my number plate, well I’m not the same, am I’.  Hattie finished the set with a beautifully delivered cover of Sting’s “Fields of Gold”, Eva Cassidy’s version on Songbird the definitive one for many being the inspiration for this.  Eva’s brother Dan plays and co produces the track on the CD.  A very impressive set, hopefully a bright and promising future to come.  With no break in proceedings Kathryn and Sean, former Folk Best Duo came on stage.  Setting  the tone for much of the night with a traditional song “Child Owlet”, also the opener on their new CD Tomorrow Will Follow Today.  Featuring those ever popular folk music themes of incest, betrayal and being torn apart by wild horses.  Changing the mood with an own  song “52Hz” about a whale who sings in the wrong key and therefore can’t attract a mate.  This was the night the 7 way political debate took place on TV so a song aptly titled “Down Dog!” about flawed political ambitions, ‘with the best education that money can buy, climbing the rungs of the ladder, stepping on fingers and pushing aside’.  A very spooky, “Huldra” from 2012’s Hidden People followed, sung acapella with reverb and echo by Kathryn based on a Norwegian folk legend, this song being far more gruesome than the opener.  Two traditional songs followed, quite bawdy with lots of double entendres.  The mind boggled at their stories of performing “The Lusty Smith” to their local school’s seven year olds, many of the teachers no doubt feeling somewhat uncomfortable.   The set was finished with a song “A Song to Live By”, so popular with listeners that they have made greeting cards from the lyrics.  The second set opened with “Tomorrow Will Follow Today”, basically a heartfelt plea to their daughters on how to live their lives.  Throughout the show Sean played guitar with Kathryn singing, playing flute and small clarinet and taking off her shoes each time she played the keyboard.  Another song followed from the new album, “La Moneca (Queen of the Island of Dolls)”,  a true story about a Mexican doll collecting hermit.  Going into the back catalogue we had more double entendres with “The Buxom Lass”, from the imaginatively titled Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman 2.  Sean being very careful not to look at Kathryn while announcing this for fear of a ‘Travel Lodge Kicking’.  A moving song “The Ballad of Andy Jacobs” based on Kathryn’s remembrances of the deep effects of the Miners Strike on her home community.  The lyrics now residing in Barnsley Town Museum.  Two more traditionals followed, the latter being the very saucy Tudor song “The Banishing Book”, Kathryn having cleaned up this rather racy song, it being so ribald, ‘She opened wide her banishing book and laid her leaves apart’.  They apparently have an offer to perform this in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court bed chamber.  A clarinet intro took us into the last song proper of the set, “Rusalka”, a song about an evil Russian mermaid written to educate their daughters that not all mythological mermaids are lovely like Disney characters.  For an encore we had “The Wisdom of Standing Still” from Hidden People an apt song to finish the night, all about taking a moment to stop, think and appreciate the world, ‘Sit down, Take a Deep breath, forget about climbing your hill’.  An excellent night’s entertainment.  I was so glad I didn’t stay in for the political debate.

Anna and Elizabeth | The Shakespeare, Sheffield | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.05.15

As strange as it sounds, it transpires that there are few more enchanting things to do than spend an evening in Sheffield with the crankies.  And by Sheffield I mean The Shakespeare Pub on Gibraltar Street, and by ‘crankies’ I mean the hand-woven storytelling tapestries of traditional Appalachia.  At the crank this evening, as well as the banjo, guitar and fiddle, were Appalachian duo Anna & Elizabeth, two young artists who defy both youth and modernity to introduce the old music and traditions of Virginia to 21st century audiences.  Anna Roberts-Gevalt, a New Englander entrenched in the music, history and storytelling customs of the eastern American mountains, provides tender renditions of the music plundered from visits to various archives as well as Kentucky musicians and their families.  Smaller in stature, but with a voice so powerful it could carve deep gorges through the blue mountains of her homeland, Elizabeth Laprelle seals the duo’s authenticity with her years of musical experience, the very essence of Rural Retreat, Virginia coursing through her veins and vocal chords.  Tonight’s concert in the upstairs room at The Shakespeare gave this most captivating of duos the chance to enchant their South Yorkshire audience – a crowd consisting of enthralled listeners and well-known folk musicians alike – with a selection of songs from their two albums, Sun to Sun (2012) and Anna & Elizabeth (2015) as well as the occasional crankie-led retelling of equally haunting and beautiful ballads from their native home and even a little bit of clog dancing, courtesy of Anna.  With no PA to complicate matters and a warm and casual demeanour, this multi-talented pair of twentysomethings took to the stage with their few shared instruments and lamp-lit, tapestry-loaded, wood-frame crankie box to perform such folk songs as “Goin’ Across the Mountain”, “Greenwood Sidey” and “Don’t Want To Die In The Storm” with an exuberant accompaniment from the keen singers in the audience.  And although much of tonight’s performance consisted of frankly entrancing crankie ballads such as “The Devil’s Nine Questions”, with its vibrantly coloured tapestry slowly stuttering through the box, as well as the heartfelt tale of “Lella Todd”, complete with silhouettes on rustling paper, the duo seemed equally adept at bewitching their audience with their choice of musical material, not least Connie Converse’s ethereal “Father Neptune”, a charming highlight from their latest album, and delicately-rendered traditional songs such as “Swing and Turn Jubilee” and “Sinking In The Lonesome Sea”, each revealing the power of frailty in these authentic Appalachian voices and the arresting beauty of mountain melodies.  By unapologetically splicing together the music and storytelling traditions of Appalachia, Anna & Elizabeth appear to have introduced a unique genre of folk performance to these shores, and one that nestles comfortably into the material which our folk scene is currently importing from America via the likes of Anais Mitchell, Jenni and Billy and Diana Jones.  Tonight’s show delivered a generous helping of Appalachian story and song to an appreciative folk-thirsty Sheffield crowd and, with any luck, that same thirst will tempt Anna & Elizabeth back again soon.

Stefano Bollani | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.05.15

The curtains were left wide open at the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds this evening, allowing the slowly falling dusk to accompany the otherwise unaccompanied Stefano Bollani.  The Italian pianist appeared in front of an awestruck Yorkshire crowd tonight as part of his current world tour, which sees this most respected of musicians perform his eloquent brand of jazz alone, at both Steinway grand and Rhodes electric piano.  Straddling his seat to reach both instruments with an impressive gape and what must be an elaborately subdivided musical brain, Bollani stirred his renditions of eclectic choices from King Crimson and Frank Zappa to incidental music from Rosemary’s Baby and selections from his own pen, each with equal amounts of classical precision and adventurous improvisation.  Surprising and delighting his audience seemed effortless for Bollani, whose mischievous mix of crushingly beautiful jazz and the almost buffoonish persona of a Pierrot lent tonight’s show a captivating touch of all-round entertainment, something that is so often lacking at jazz concerts.  If it wasn’t for the exquisite rendering of each composition, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire performance was unrehearsed.  With subtle slapstick, Bollani switched between instruments, performing percussive interludes using the body of each instrument and even the rhythmic sensitivity of a live amp lead to segue between songs.  Striving to perform a tender Italian love song, complete with over-pronounced and hilariously spluttered lyrics, Bollani even managed to make us believe that one of his hands had suddenly taken on a life of its own, first appearing to stab the melody with incorrect notes before seducing its owner by unbuttoning his shirt and caressing his chest and face.  Needless to say, the audience erupted with laughter.  After ninety minutes of unbroken performance, Bollani was encouraged by cheers and whistles to return to the stage for a ten minute encore of music suggested by the audience.  With pen and paper, he listed the requests before plunging emphatically into a medley of compositions by The Beach Boys, Queen, Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichal and Prokofiev, complete with the entirety of Frank Zappa’s “Bobby Brown Goes Down”.  Teetering on the edge of a half-tilted piano seat, with the dusk finally reaching a rich dark blue in the high windows, Bollani concluded an effervescent show with an example of just how beautifully intricate jazz improvisation can be.

Simpson, Cutting and Kerr | The Met, Bury | Review by Keith Belcher | 12.06.15

This show had been eagerly anticipated by the Met crowd and had been a sell out from early days.  Not surprising for three performers with more Folk awards between them than possibly any other band. I would be very surprised if their CD Murmurs is not a leading contender for Folk Album of the Year at next year’s awards.  It was my third show of the tour so it is a reasonable assumption that I was enjoying the tour.  A pretty hot and sticky night although not in the same league as Saltaire a week or so earlier.  With no introduction other than the usual intricate guitar tuning, very restrained tonight for Martin, I might add, they launched into “Dark Swift” and “Bright Swallow” with Martin taking lead vocals.  A song inspired by Martin’s visit to Slapton Sands, Devon, seeing the first swallow of spring and commentary on the hushed up wartime naval exercises which resulted in numerous American losses.  Martin deftly including his obvious love of nature in what was the first of many bird references.  A brisk version of “The Richmond Cotillion” followed effortlessly and beautifully performed by the three musicians.  Andy and Nancy merging the sounds of box and fiddle around Martin’s guitar.  Nancy’s turn next with a song “Not Even The Ground”, a love song which evolved into an ecological anti fracking protest “And There’s Nothing On Earth Men Won’t Plunder, Not even the Ground At Young Lovers Feet”, merged with this was a delightful Andy composition “Two Ladies” with beautiful and delicate intertwining of all three instruments.  Back to Martin and the first Banjo appearance, a beautiful instrument recently made for Martin by Jason and Pharis Romero.  A traditional American song “Ruben”, with Martin on lead vocal and again sensational playing.  No instrument remains dominant for long, all taking their turns in harmony and lead.  Keeping with the American theme we were treated to a revamp of a Northumbrian Pipe tune “Lads of Alnwick” done American style with banjo and not a pipe in sight, it worked very well.  A relative rarity for the next tune with an Andy Cutting introduction to his own tune “Seven Years”, a slow waltz which ranks up there with many of the most beautiful slow airs more commonly found in Scottish music.  There really is nothing to say about the standard of musicianship other than it remained sublime throughout.  Changing the pace from waltz to a rock rhythm for the Watersons classic “Some Old Salty” with a funny intro from Martin about a Martin Carthy phone call.  I could go on and on about how good Nancy’s fiddle or Andy’s box playing or Martins guitar was but just take it for granted, it was way above superb all night.  Martin took lead vocals with Nancy providing an accompaniment.  Another Nancy composition, “Hard Song” from Nancy’s solo album Sweet Visitor was next.  This song inspired by the Clean Clothes campaign and the Rana Plaza disaster.  The highlight, to me, of the first set and possibly the night took us to the interval.  Possibly THE broken token ballad “Plains of Waterloo”, well timed for the current Waterloo anniversary.  Martin gave a detailed introduction detailing the modality changes from minor to major to minor.  In stark difference to June Tabor’s acapella 1976 version  on Airs And Graces Martin starts the tune with slide guitar before his vocals and Andy and Nancy’s instruments join in.  The tune was so catchy and haunting I heard several people whistling it during the interval.  Not content with the music and ornithology tuition in the first set Martin opened the second set with a brief history lesson concerning “Fair Rosamund”.  As he often quotes ‘You don’t get this at a Black Sabbath gig!’  A very precise and delicate guitar intro with bowed viola and box filling in all the background spaces beautifully before Martin’s vocals started the song.  A superb Jim Causley song “Angel Hill” followed, this song based on the poems of Jim’s distant Uncle Charles Causley.  Martin termed the arrangement of this song a new genre “Morris Noir!”.  A very upbeat version of The Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’” followed Martin’s comical introduction.  As throughout the show more delightful interplay between all the musicians, with these three on stage the musical quality is consistently of a high level.  Changing the tone with their 7 inch vinyl single song “Dark Honey”, another Nancy nature song, the title based on the conception that inner city bees are creating dark honey due to sipping coke rather than nectar.  The song isn’t just about bees.  A couple of tunes, “Gather The Owls” from The Elizabethan Sessions project and the traditional “Train On The Island” led into another Martin bird inspired song “Toy Soldiers”, his long standing love of nature and political convictions quite evident in this song.  Nancy then introduced and sang a very different quite high paced arrangement of “The Cruel Mother”.  “Broomfield Hill” led to the inevitable and well deserved encore, the American traditional, “Boston Smuggler” which closed an evening that flew by all too fast.  The standard of musicianship never flagged throughout the evening.  This was, as Andy Cutting said, an inspired suggestion by Martin’s wife that they team up and tour as a trio.  If you are going to have  a travelling sound engineer on tour with you then why not have the album’s producer Andy Bell who did a wonderful job at every show I saw.  As said earlier I am certain the album Murmurs will be a strong contender for Folk Album of the Year at next years Folk Awards.  The deluxe version has more tracks and they are not just fillers, well worth investing in that version if you are going to purchase.  I would be very happy if a second volume came along but with all three having so many other involvements it may be a while.

The Railsplitters | The Live Room, Caroline Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 14.06.15

‘Is the standard here usually that high?’  A question overheard at Saltaire between sets of The Railsplitters 16th gig of their 21 dates in 23 days first UK tour.   The band, formed in 2012 were originally a 4 piece, they found fiddler Christine King making them a quintet.  All members are  currently Colorado residents.  Their music has  bluegrass roots but goes way beyond the Bluegrass genre although that ‘high lonesome sound’ is ever present.  Jokingly on stage they listed the various offshoots they encompass – Newgrass, Popgrass, Sambagrass, Rockgrass, Countrygrass, Doo-Wop Grass, Crosby, Stills & Grass and as one person in the audience shouted out ‘Laughing-grass’.  Guitarist and lead singer Lauren Stovall, described as ‘the tiniest person on stage’, has a huge voice delivering powerful and very soulful vocals.  All members  take  on  vocal leads as well as providing great harmonies.  Dusty Rider (his real name!) is a seriously mean banjo picker performing banjo licks that are up there with the best.  Peter Sharpe matches him on mandolin throughout.  Striking moves and bass playing from upright bassist Leslie Ziegler and a very talented fiddler Christine King complete the very talented line up.  Before the show they sampled West Yorkshire curry and after being delighted by the local offerings said they would have to revaluate Indian food in America.  They opened  with an upbeat “Sweet Little Miss” from their new CD The Faster It Goes.  This gave the audience a good taste of the treats ahead with great vocals from Dusty and Lauren and edge of the seat instrumental licks from all members.  “Spray” followed, a bluegrass instrumental from their first CD aptly titled The Railsplitters.  “Tilt-a-Whirl”, named after a ride at their local fair inspired the title of their latest album.  Following the ride the song gets faster as it progresses gradually coming to a halt, starting off with great harmonies it features some very impressive playing.  In true bluegrass style all members got to show their enormous individual skills throughout this tune.  Earlier video clips of the band show them performing in traditional  bluegrass style around one mike but tonight they had five on stage- who says Yorkshire is a tight place?  Most of their material is original.  The writing being very ably shared by all members.  Two notable covers in the first set were Buck Owens “Act Naturally” which had been treated to a great revamp and a Tony Rice cover “Carolina Star”.  Christine and Dusty also play in a Buck Owens tribute band.  The set was well paced, great vocals, driving rhythms and dance tunes as well as slower delicate instrumentals such as “The Estuary”.  The first set concluded with a Dusty tune “It’s a Little Late” which started with shimmering mandolin and banjo with some very interesting descending scale vocal harmonies, Christine chopped the fiddle for great percussive effect.  Their interplay was really excellent.  Only their latest CD was on sale as the first had sold out earlier in the tour.  Set two opened with a Carter Family song “Please Don’t Leave Me Any More Darlin’” performed with a beautiful acapella five part harmony, Samba grass instrumental “Goosetown” followed.  Some very innovative and fast banjo picking in “Planted On The Ground” with vocal lead exchanges as well as tempo changes throughout the song’s conversation.  A Doo-Wop grass song “Tell Me” had a catchy groove punctuated and led by the upright bass with Christine’s fiddle soaring away.  Trad song “The Cuckoo” kept the pace moving.  Again instrumental licks abounded in this tune with some superb and flawless  playing from everyone.  A slow dance tune “Boarding Pass” changed the pace but not for long when Peter’s mandolin led into “You”.  Dusty took lead vocals on “The Bright Sunny South” which fairly romped along ending the show.  The encore “Jackson Town”, a song about Lauren’s home town finished a  night which flew by all too quickly for the  very enthusiastic and receptive audience.  They expect to be back in the Spring, hopefully stopping over in Yorkshire.  Answer to question at the start.  A resounding ‘Yes’.  Saltaire standards are high and getting higher as both The Live Room and Saltaire Live shows put Saltaire firmly on both audience and artists maps.

Chris Wood | The Met, Bury | Review by Keith Belcher | 19.06.15

It was a small but very happy crowd that enjoyed  Chris Wood’s performance at Bury Met.  Chris was obviously delighted with the sound and seemed in very mellow, soulful mood as he launched into a varied set list including many new or unrecorded songs as well as some old favourites.  Easily enough material for a new CD (hint, hint).  Many of the new songs are works in progress and don’t even have titles.  The opening song, a new one with a refrain ‘The Flail Came By Today’ set the tone for the night.  Chris seemed very relaxed, and somehow, to my ear, all the songs seemed slower, more mellow than usual.  The opening song apparently was originally composed with distorted electric guitar backing which was not the case tonight.  He followed that with a laid back version of “None The Wiser” from the CD of the same name.  When he likes the sound in a venue we usually get guitar flourishes at the end of songs – there were many during the night.  A grown-up love song “The Sweetness Game” also from None The Wiser followed.  Does anyone write better grown up love songs?  An interesting introduction to another new song, still untitled, but possibly “Margate 3 Faversham 0” or “Only a Friendly”, questioned the educational standards of folk audiences and their liking (or dislike) of football.  The song, about non league football, raised more than a few laughs throughout the audience.  The only other decent football folk song I have heard is Megson’s “Longshot”.  Two songs about his daughter followed, the first was “Hard” from the CD The Lark Descending, tells of his daughter at six years old.  The second was another new one with a now grown up daughter living in an upstairs flat with a mad landlady, the title of this maybe “This Love Won’t Let You Fail”.  This song will evoke feelings for all those who have seen their children grow and leave home.  Some beautiful and delicate guitar work throughout what may be termed an empty nest syndrome song.  Next was a traditional song taken from the Dock Boggs catalogue, “Bright Sunny South”, usually performed on banjo but working very well with Chris’s guitar accompaniment.  The very distinctive and beautiful guitar opening to Chris’s questioning and very personal take on William Blake’s “Jerusalem” followed, surely one of the most inspired recent interpretations of a classic.  We had a long chat from Chris discussing democracy, pensions, festivals and the interval music amongst other things before another grown up love song, “My Darling’s Downsized”, from Handmade Life, took us to the break where we were treated to Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes version of Tom Waits’ song “Down, Down, Down”.  Chris started the second set mocking our Northern accents with a  statement ‘I love all that accent shit all you lot do’.  Retorts about his Kent estuary twang were heard.  This led into discussions of Dick Van Dyke’s Mary Poppins cockney accent before some enlightened soul suggested that Chris perform the very superb “Summerfield Avenue” from Trespasser which he did and to quote “Summerfield Avenue” lyrics ‘this was a wonderful time’.  Following that theme came another new (unrecorded) song about ostensibly Chris learning to swim at Margate swimming pool, untitled but a possible title could be “All The Noise” was “Coming From the Shallow End”.  Another song from Trespasser, Sydney Carter’s “John Ball”, followed a conversation about a meeting with Sydney Carter’s son described as an anarchist neurosurgeon, this time including a passable take on a Northern accent.  Yet another new song, possibly titled “So Much To Defend” touching on issues like zero hours contracts, fund raising, gym attendances and an immigrant fishing for supper on Canary Wharf with four rods.  This song must surely be a contender for Folk Song of the Year, if Chris gets around to recording it.  I really don’t think many others have his observation or touch with normal, contemporary issues.  In tribute to Martin Carthy, Chris then performed “Fable of the Winds”.  There was unusually, a funky introduction and interludes to the  deft political commentary Caesar which I always associate rightly or wrongly with Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” for the Mr Jones references.  Chris then took another request for a song he claimed not to have sung since it was recorded.  If so he managed “The Farmer” from Albion very well.  I mentioned that I thought Chris was in very soulful mood.  This proved the case as he sang Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion”, not a song that one usually associated with a former Folk Singer of the Year, although he has done it several times before.  Somehow with Chris singing it in his distinct style the lyrics leap to the fore.  Chris finished the show with another unrecorded and relatively new song  a very personal “More Fool Me”, with a dig at the ‘YouTube, for free, spotify generation’.  We had numerous guitar flourishes to finish the show.  As I mentioned earlier this was a small audience, the Met was surprisingly only about a quarter full which was a real shame and a tragedy that so many missed out on what was a truly wonderful concert.  Chris really enjoyed himself.  The sound was sublime with Chris giving enormous thanks to Terry at the sound desk who did a wonderful job.  With the several new songs performed tonight and others like the two wonderful songs written for the BBC Olympics Radio Ballads “Danced Like On the Grass” (about Olga Korbut) and “Masterpiece” (1972 Olympics tragedy) there is surely enough material for a new CD.  The new songs really need to be heard by a wider audience.  Chris will be touring nationwide including Oop North and Scotland in the Autumn.  Well, well worth seeing a master craftsman at work if you get the chance.

Dick Gaughan | The Live Room, Caroline Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 12.07.15

A welcome return to Saltaire for veteran Leith troubadour Dick Gaughan.  Dick being one of The Live Room’s first  guests back in June 2012.  Over two sets Dick delivered a set list of many old favourites.  Songs of philosophical, political and sociological commentary, written by himself, Robbie Burns, Johnny Cash and others.  It’s not often that many folk artists dedicate songs to George Gideon Osborne but that was the case with “Shipwreck”, the second song performed.  The statement ‘The great only look  great because we are on our knees’ possibly indicates the politics of the song.  First was “Keep Looking at the Light”, written about the last Miners strike.  The voice might not have been as strong as in the past but the strength, quality and conviction of  the songs still came through loud and clear.  The introductions to the songs were generally lengthy, giving a detailed background to the songs history and giving Scottish and Irish history lessons at the same time.  Sandwiched between the songs Dick played the instrumental “Slievenamon (Mountain of the Women)”, a traditional Irish lament more often performed on fiddle.  “Why Old Men Cry” commented on the similarity on the looks of the faces of old miners who had their industry taken away and WW1 veterans.  This song initially having been written after a visit to the graveyards at Ypres but finished when seeing the devastation the loss of an industry and a way of life caused.  Dick finished the first set with his own song “A Different Kind of Love Song”.  More strong political commentary including the very powerful “Whatever Happened”, a biting commentary on how the 60s/70s generation lost their way and less contemporary but just as relevant “Both Sides The Tweed”.  Dick’s favourite Burns song “Now Westlin’ Winds” took us more into nature and its beauty.  Two songs segued together about the injustices suffered by native Americans led to the encore, Johnny Cash’s “Apache Tears” and Dick’s own “Geronimo’s Cadillac” with  great audience participation.  Dick finished the evening with in his words ‘the most optimistic song I know’, Ewan MacColl’s “The Fathers Song”.  Dick left the stage to great applause, many pausing to thank the great man on their way out.

Chris Wood | The Live Room, Caroline Street Social Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 02.10.15

In the space of five days the audiences of the Live Room have been treated to the best of song writing from both sides of the Atlantic.  Last Sunday American master songwriter Danny Schmidt and his wife Carrie Elkin gave a two-hour treat of the best of American folk.  On Friday the Live Room audience was privileged to see the return of Chris Wood, possibly the best song writer in English Folk music.  A privilege it really was.  Opening  by emulating the sound of Church Bells on guitar and quoting Martin Carthy as saying and I paraphrase ‘the loudest sound heard in the land used to be church bells’.  Chris is a very accomplished guitarist, his precise, deft style perfectly suiting his songs.  Reminiscent in some ways of the great Martin Carthy at his best.  Of late, he told the audience, he has taken to favouring ‘dead’ strings, preferring the sound.  Chris paid homage to Martin several times throughout the night, citing him as one of his greatest influences.  The bells served as an intro to “A Cornish Young Man”, a song learned by osmosis from Martin.  Chris then proceeded straight into the very observant “None The Wiser” and the beautiful “Sweetness Game”.  Audience fully engaged and listening avidly we were then treated to the first of several new songs.  Possibly to be titled “This Love Won’t Let You Fail”, with University terms beginning, a timeous empty nest song featuring Chris’s daughters top floor flat and life away from the nest.  A very beautiful and poignant song directly from the heart.  How many other writers can weave Hoover adverts into their songs?  Mood change completely with another new song possibly to be titled “Margate 3 Faversham 0”.  Somehow I think not if he wants continued entry to Faversham Football Club.  This song at times being both amusing and insightful was about minor league football.  A veritable pleasure after the (to my mind) consistently embarrassing  behaviour of Premier League prima donnas.  Performed with the help of a strip of Earl Grey tea bag packaging inserted in the guitar frets to produce the sound Chris wanted.  I’ve seen similar done for a Caribbean song by the great jazz guitarist Martin Taylor.  Chris finished the set with the very wonderfully happy and romantic love song for adults who have been around the block a few times “My Darling’s Downsized”, so different than many trite love songs and even features the word Chitting.  Not many songs can claim to do that. Chris had even chosen the interval music which started with Southside Johnny & the La Bamba Big Band performing Tom Waits “Down, Down, Down”.  You couldn’t really get more musical contrast apart from the obvious fact that Tom and Chris are immensely talented writers.  The second set opened with another new one possibly called “The Flail Came By Today” with some very inventive guitar breaks which would lend themselves to electric guitar.  Two very different ‘Chorus’ songs were next.  “John Ball” and the very different and stark questioning take on “Jerusalem”.  In Chris’s words a 4AM version of the song, the arrangement springing to mind after reading the William Blake poem without the Sir Hubert Parry music.  In my opinion the really, really  good stuff was next.  Two new songs possibly titled “From The Shallow End” and “So Much To Defend”.  “From the Shallow End” is Chris’s vivid remembrances of learning to swim  at Faversham baths, done very much with the same insightfulness as “Summerfield Avenue”.  It took me back many years to when I learned to swim in similar circumstances.  To my ears the evenings highlight was “So Much To Defend”.  You could have heard a pin drop and the applause was justifiably prolonged and deafening.  The audience hanging on every word.  For what must have been a first hearing for many in the audience the response was astonishing.  The song covers so many topical issues with searing insight and observation and assuming it will be recorded must surely be a contender for Folk Song of the Year.  The closing images of Tomas, fishing with four rods in the Thames to catch fish for his family to eat while the sun sets on Canary Wharf is immensely powerful and lingers in the mind.  No let up in social commentary as we were taken straight into possibly the most powerful rendition of “Hollow Point” I have seen Chris perform (and I have seen many).  He mentioned it was the 10th anniversary of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by The London Metropolitan Police at Stockwell Station which gave further gravity to the song.  Again the audience attention and subsequent applause was tremendous.  Two covers followed.  A jaunty version of Ronnie Lane’s “The Poacher” and a cover of Martin Carthy’s cover of Keith Christmas’s “Parable of Wings”.  Both superbly performed and leading into the final song of the evening “More Fool Me”.  “More Fool Me” is not new but is still unrecorded.  It is a commentary about  the ‘For Free’ society that abounds via the likes of Spotify and YouTube.  Chris left the stage to rapturous applause having had a great evenings dialogue with a very attentive audience.  He obviously enjoyed himself very much as did the spellbound audience.  Let’s hope for a new CD release  and another return visit to The Live Room in the future.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin | The Live Room , Caroline Street Social Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 30.10.15

After the applause for Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin had finally died away you would have heard lots of comments like superb, wonderful, fantastic and more than a few Wows.  All justified and deserved.  The occasion on a sub tropical Yorkshire night (seriously!!!) was a celebration in many ways.  It was the clubs 100th gig, The Live Room had just won Outstanding Live Music Promoters 2015 in the  Yorkshire Gig Guide Grassroots Awards.  Phil and Hannah were also the first artists to appear three times.  The hall had silver, helium balloons spelling out 100 and free drinks and nibbles were supplied by Ron and Hilary.  A party atmosphere was supplied by artists and performers.  Events were started by a solo outing for Nick B. Hall, possibly better known as one half of the duo Plumhall.  His other half, Michelle Plum was in the audience enjoying Nick’s solo performance.  Nick very ably commanded the stage on his own.  Starting with a new song “South for Glory” and then following with songs from Plumhall’s first CD Thundercloud, the Hall Brothers back catalogue, traditional Bob Dylan cover.  Demonstrating great stage presence Nick quickly got audience participation with a  song about the Yorkshire Dales “How Deep Is This Valley”.  Powerful vocals and great guitar technique throughout demonstrating why in the past he had been lead guitar for Magna Carta.  Nick got the very attentive crowd fully warmed and in the mood for a celebration.  Nick finished his set with a powerful Plumhall song “Never Forget My Name”, the song being about slavery , strong lyrics and at the end you also felt for his guitar strings as they were being worked overtime.  Again it was obvious from audience response that the party mood was in gear.  Phil and Hannah took the stage opening with title track of their new CD Watershed.  The CD features a full band but the duo performances were so breathtaking so I would love to see the full band performances.  Opening song featured Phil on harmonica and stomp box with Hannah playing banjo.  It’s difficult to categorise Phil & Hannah.  They won Best Duo at the 2014 Folk Awards but there are hints of  many genres in their music.  A Folk root but spreading out in all directions from that root.  Their playing seems effortless and can be delicate or so driving that if your feet aren’t tapping you are either severely over medicated  or not conscious.  The first set featured songs from several CDs with Phil playing harmonica, stomp box, beat box and Dobro and Hannah on Banjo and Fiddle.  Both shared lead vocals and harmonised to great effect.  Phil got the feet tapping and hands clapping with a solo performance of “Underground Railroad” from Singing The Bones or Live At Calstock.  In keeping with Nick’s earlier song about slavery this tune was inspired by the escape routes used by slaves.  A very gentle Irish lament  on Dobro preceded a song about a gardener who continued gardening after her death, “Miss Wilmott’s Ghost”.  I can’t think of many other artists who play laments or even English folk on Dobro but that just emphasises the unrestricted nature of their music.  They changed the tempo completely to finish the set with  a dedication to Ron and Hilary, a very driving song “Tonight” featuring Phil on Harmonica and Stomp Box and Hannah producing some great bowed two string effects on Fiddle.  The second set opened with two songs from Mynd , the very delicate “Silbury Hill” and “Song For Caroline Herschel” before an instrumental “Attingham Waltz/December”.  The instrumental gave both full range to demonstrate beautiful interweaving  of the Dobro and Fiddle again taking them to a new realm of Folk, similar in some ways to the interplays demonstrated by the late messrs Renbourn and Jansch in times long gone.  As well as their own excellent compositions Phil and Hannah are not averse to a cover or two.  The first being Gillian Welch’s “Wychita”, very ably sung in harmonies and musicianship that David Rawlings and Gillian Welch would appreciate.  Lead instrument effortlessly shifting from Dobro to Fiddle and back again.  The pace and party atmosphere really went into gear and overdrive  with the final three songs of the set.  A solo “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” by Phil on Harmonica and Beat Box, barely pausing for breath this went into “The Nail Makers Strike”, again Harmonica and Beat Box with Hannah playing some energetic Fiddle.  At this point a Conga Train circulated the room.  Not easing back on the throttle they finished the set with “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” which started based on Alison Krauss and Union Station’s version but has evolved way, way beyond the original.  The Dobro and Fiddle interplay reached new heights on this performance with what looked like Phil urging Hannah on to play faster and faster as they built a crescendo that had you wondering just where they would take it.  It was obvious that as well as the crowd Phil and Hannah were really enjoying the night.  What do you do for an encore after exhausting the audience, simple, play a sublimely beautiful cover of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes”, one of those songs that haunts your mind long after the last notes have finished.  In stylish manner Phil finished with a very nice flourish of harmonics.  An amazing night, perfect for celebrating the 100th gig, 3rd appearance and Outstanding Promoters award.  Here’s to the next 100 gigs and the fourth appearance.  Well done Ron and Hilary.

Sam Baker and Carrie Elkin | The Met Bury, Lancs | Review by Keith Belcher | 01.11.15

Anyone attending a Sam Baker gig without prior knowledge of Sam might wonder just what they were witnessing.  The man on stage describes himself as the worst guitarist to ever stand on a stage and his talking style of singing isn’t going to get many choirs interested.  Most of ‘the rules’ of stagecraft are broken or just simply ignored.  The conversation on stage goes beyond the absurd and then a bit further.  He can and does spontaneously go off on a tangent that only the best stand up comedians can match.  What he does better than most though, is write stories and poetry in the form of songs.  He has been compared favourably to John Prine and Townes van Zandt.  His minimalist guitar style and voice perfectly suit his songs.  For the uninitiated Sam is a Texan.  In 1986 he was on a train in Peru.  A terrorist bomb  planted in Sam’s carriage exploded leaving Sam severely injured, killing many of the people around him.  In particular a young German boy whose mother and father were killed instantly but the boy, sadly took hours to die.  After five days during which time gangrene and kidney failure had set in Sam was flown back to the States, receiving numerous operations to  repair a severed artery, brain damage, blown in eardrums  and severe damage to his left hand .  He had to learn to speak and do most things again.  He couldn’t remember words.  His speech patterns differ from most peoples to this day.  For a while Sam sank into pain meds and alcohol.  Writing and a realisation that life is a gift led Sam to release Mercy, the first of a trilogy of CDs in 2004.  Mercy featured the song “Steel”.  It was this song that started his writing career with the lines ‘Sitting on the train to Machu Picchu, the passenger car explodes, not enough time to say goodbye, not enough time to know’.  The second CD, Pretty World featured “Broken Fingers”, the story of the young boy and Sam’s memories ‘Forget his face?, of course I don’t, etched like a crystal vase, these broken fingers, some things don’t heal, I can’t wake up from a dream, when the dream is real……’  Sam has established a hard core following.  When he used Kickstarter to raise funds for his last CD he probably broke all records in how quickly the money was contributed.  Money was refused after two weeks into the campaign.  Sam has toured solo, as a duo and also a trio but tonight he was accompanied by long time friend Carrie Elkin, wife of great song writer Danny Schmidt.  Unlike Sam, Carrie’s voice has tremendous range and is so powerful she hardly needs a microphone.  The tour was titled Love Duets.  With a few exceptions most songs were probably not what most people would regard as love duets.  They opened with a cover of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s “Love Hurts”.  For the most part the instrumentals were supplied by Sam.  Sam taught himself to play the guitar ‘the wrong way around’ as his fingers are so gnarled on his left hand he couldn’t make the chords but could hold a plectrum in that hand.  Needs dictated that he reverse hands to play.  It’s a very sparse style of playing but Sam’s songs are also sparse in words but so rich in imagery and storytelling that the guitar style and even the halting singing works perfectly.  Sam has a tendency to go off track and I mean really WAY off track.  Sometimes I don’t think even he knows where his thought processes are going.  His on stage companions are used to it and go with the flow.  Any other course of action would require therapy at the end of the tour.  That was definitely the case tonight but it is that aspect of Sam’s shows that most diehard fans love.  Only one new song in the first set “Daddy’s Lucky Little Charm”, a Vietnam vet story about, amongst other things, the adrenalin rush of warfare.  Two songs that I really rate as love songs featured in the set.  Waves, a great audience favourite, is a real tear jerker making people reach for their tissues many times.  “Isn’t Love Great” is a touching, humourous genuine love song featuring  a woman with a limp whom her husband calls a gimp.  The set finished after a strange conversation involving gingerbread houses, unicorns and platinum squirrels (I said he can go off track!) with the beautifully performed but immensely sad “Odessa” which is always preceded by Stephen Foster’s 1854 Civil War song “Hard Times”.  Standing several feet away from the microphone Carrie sings “Hard Times” before and after Sam sings the song.  “Odessa” is particularly haunting story about a rich oil boy who kills the girl he loves in a car crash and leads a very lonely life afterwards.  They finished the set promising us that we would think the first set happy when we heard the second.  Even sadder was what they promised and they certainly delivered on the promise.  However, despite the promise everyone came back for the second set.  Another cover to start, this time John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness”.  A beautiful song, although possibly over used as it features in many artists set list.  Even the upbeat songs “Ditch” and “Moses In The Reeds” concerned a crazy wife and drug addiction.  There were elements of humour in “Ditch” as the crazy wife thought she was Taylor Swift’s twin, having been separated at birth.  “Ditch” and “Orphan” got as close to a sing along as the show allowed.  The levity of “Ditch” and between song banter contrasted dramatically as Sam told his story as a precursor to “Broken Fingers”.  I have heard “Broken Fingers” many times but somehow tonight it seemed to suck the energy from the room.  It is an immensely personal and sad song that, along with “Waves”, audiences will never allow Sam to drop from his shows.  Carrie took solo vocals on “I Know It’s Hard” and lead vocal on a beautiful but very sad rendition of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”.  Two well deserved encores neatly flowed together “Pretty World” and “Go In Peace”.  Sad songs they were but never miserable and always spiritually uplifting.  For anyone interested in hearing more about Sam and his songs I can recommend the wonderful interview by Terry Gross on NPR accessed by the link below.  If you get the chance to see him live it is an experience you will probably never regret.

Melrose Quartet | The Live Room, Caroline Street Social Club, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 13.12.15

A very wonderful performance by the Melrose Quartet on Sunday night rounded off a superb year of music at The Live Room, Saltaire.  The audience, already treated to complimentary luxury mince pies and chocolates, enjoyed a master class in vocal harmonies by the Melrose Quartet.  The Quartet, named after the Street in Sheffield where all four members live comprises Nancy Kerr, partner James Fagan and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith.  They have been close friends for many years and the understanding and rapport those years have brought was very evident in the music they performed.  When writing a review of these artists I realised the inadequacy of my knowledge of musical terminology.  All four play instruments and sing , Nancy and Jess play Fiddles, Richard the Melodeon and James both Guitar and Bouzouki. Although the playing was superb; for me it was the strength, arrangements and intricacies of the harmonies that really delighted, thrilled and captivated.  Much of the material was performed Acapella but with Canons, Chants, Counterpoints, Refrains and Rounds and much more.  I would imagine one of their performances could form the basis of a whole term of musical lectures.  The beauty of the performance meant that it was just so enjoyable that the two sets  were over all too quickly.  I am sure the audience could have treated their ears to more of the same for several more hours without tiring.  The word Synergy can be an overused term but for tonight’s performance it was most apt.  They all fed off each other to produce a very energetic and powerful sound- the sum definitely being greater than the individual components.  James, sporting a festive tie,  started the show with “The Death of Nelson” from their only CD Fifty Verses.  This gave the audience a taste of what was in store.  An  a cappella “Wedding Bells” with chorus emulating a peel of bells followed with beautiful four-part harmonies.  “Tom Tolley’s/Lucy’s Two” were performed with enough energy, if the whoops and yells were anything to go by,  to satisfy the Morris Dancers in the crowd.  The title track of the CD was next with Nancy weaving in Norse mythology references to wolves swallowing the sun. I always appreciate so called Pagan references at this time of year.  Richard, also wearing festive tie led on “Ware Out Mother” again a cappella.  Richard demonstrating an almost sub sonic bass voice throughout the show.  Many of the songs performed were written as gifts for each other and friends.  We were treated to carols in  each set.  An a cappella Sheffield version of “The Holly and the Ivy” with Jess taking the lead led to a very rousing set of tunes to end the set.  In homage to Christmas James started the second set with a story about son Hamish overturning their first Christmas tree.  This took us into “When You Were Born” and another rousing set of tunes.  There were some new songs “Pilgrimage”, a Jess composition inspired by recruitment adverts after visiting Belgium.  “Hand Me Down”, written by Nancy for Richard and “Anthem of a Working Mum”, written by Jess for Nancy.  They performed a superb version of “Come and I Will Sing You (The Twelve Apostles)” but it was so much faster than the CD  version that it seemed akin to Scottish mouth music.  A version of “While Shepherds Watched” with a tune better known as “On Ilkley Moor Bar T’At”.  According to tradition “On Ilkley Moor” was a spoof version of “While Shepherds Watched” composed by a Halifax Choir on a Church outing to Ilkley.  Whatever the truth, the version was superb.  All too soon following a set of Polkas the set came to an end.  Thankfully we were treated to two encores.  The first an a cappella “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” led by Jess.  A fully orchestrated and rousing “John Ball” just to remind us at this time of year that all men were created equal finished the show.  The only disappointment for me was that there is still only one album and therefore nothing new for my Christmas present list.  However when you consider the huge range of projects that all members of this band are involved in we should be grateful for Fifty Verses.  They did hint that a new CD may happen next year.  Let’s hope so.  The Live Room has gone from strength to strength over the last three years winning the 2015  Yorkshire Gig Guide award for Outstanding Yorkshire Promoter.  James and Nancy mentioned that this was a gig venue that has really gained a great reputation.  Next year’s January programme already features both Rod Picott and the musical genius Tim O’Brien, presumably taking a break from his almost permanent residence in The Transatlantic Sessions line up.  Many thanks to Ron and Hilary for all the wonderful music they have brought to Saltaire this year. 

Chris Wood | The Art Club, Bath Street, Glasgow, Celtic Connections 2016 | Review by Keith Belcher | 16.01.16

In the past I think Chris has had some concerns about his acceptance north of the border.  Tonight’s audience certainly gave Chris a very warm Scottish greeting, leaving him in no doubt that he was both appreciated and welcome.  His backdrop at the prestigious Glasgow Art Club was one of the grandest fire places I have seen outside of a stately home.  Lighting was almost non-existent.  I did think, for one moment he was going to come out with the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to be a member of any club that would want him as a member but he refrained.  He seemed in good spirits and unusually opened the show by thanking the sound person, a task usually reserved for the end, joking that it would serve well setting the bar high at the start.  This gave a good indication that Chris was happy with the sound on the night.  He opened with an almost whispered “Cold Haily Rainy Night”, keeping the lyrics and sound low as the song is, after all, about someone trying to quietly gain secretive entrance to a lady’s bedchamber.  “C’mon you remember” he joked to the audience.  A change of pace and era followed with his travelogue “None The Wiser” followed written on the 2-month tour where he was Joan Armatrading’s “bitch”, his words not mine.  A wonderfully true and witty observation on life as seen on the tour.  His guitar style on this song emulates the rhythm of wheels on the road.  Joking about his missed market opportunity he sang one of his grown up love songs, the very beautiful and poignant “Sweetness Game”.  A good sign of Chris’s happiness with sound is the speed he plays and sings.  The better the sound, the slower and more extended the phrasing, this was evident tonight.  A new as yet unrecorded song next, about another market opportunity, minor league football, a subject in his opinion not widely appreciated by his audience.  Possible title could be “Margate 3 Faversham 0” or “Only a Friendly”.   Nevertheless, his acute observation of the commonplace and ability to put it to song is wonderful.  He mused, to the amusement of the audience, on how anyone could have writers block with the current world around us.  Another new song, a follow on to “Hard”, written about his daughter fell in his category of ‘empty nest songs’.  This song, possibly titled “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” reflects on his grown up daughter, her flat, her mad landlady, part time employment, second hand hoovers and more insightful observations that Chris Wood excels at.  I’ve heard this song a few times and love it, judging from the applause so did the rest of the audience.  Taking a risk Chris performed his version of the unofficial English National anthem “Jerusalem”, where he questions rather than makes statements without the strident Sir Charles Hubert Parry tune.  A very funny impersonation of Billy Bragg doing the song preceded his version, he strayed briefly into political discussion, possibly testing his ground.  The audience listened intently and the applause was great.  A total change of tempo and weight brought the set to an end with Ronnie Lane’s very jaunty “The Poacher”.  I overheard many discussing the songs during the interval.  Always a great sign for a songwriter.  The second set opened with a supposedly true story, the traditional “Lord Bateman”.  This was followed by the modern true story of Jean Charles de Menezes in the chilling song “Hollow Point”.  A rambling chat about autodidactism and the origins of Chris’s guitar followed the huge applause for “Hollow Point” and long distance walking.  The connection being that the next song, another as yet unrecorded song.  This was another travelogue of observations from a long walk starting at Tower Bridge.  I would imagine this song will be titled “So Much to Defend”.  Definitely my favourite song of the last year.  Who else covers topics such as cooking sauces, zero hours’ contracts, using skype, yoga nights, take away food, gyms, fund raising charity runs and much more so eloquently in one song and with such a catchy tune that it could well eventually be covered by many others in many styles.  He really should record and release this song (hint, hint!).  Ray Davis of the Kinks was always regarded as the poet of the common man.  I think his title has been usurped by Chris Wood in recent years. A massive amount of applause followed this song.  A fair amount of banter was exchanged about ‘upper’ songs before his other ‘happy song’ – “My Darling’s Downsized”, another grown up love song, raising more than a few chuckles.  “Spitfire” was repeatedly requested and eventually played.  I haven’t heard him do this for a couple of years so it was a great treat.  For anyone not familiar, Chris emulates the sound of the Spitfires engines while singing.  A wonderful song.  Before what is his usual finale Chris talked of the difficulties of an English folk singer playing in Scotland.  On the evidence of tonight’s reception, he need have no more fears about being welcome.  The ever so slightly Country and Western “More Fool Me”, another unrecorded song officially finished the set.  Those wishing to record his shows on their phones to put on YouTube should take heed of the lyrics.  The crowd were not going to let him leave without an encore and what we got was Chris’s take of Martin Carthy’s version of Keith Christmas’s “The Fable Of Wings”.  This is a song he has taken to playing a lot just recently.  I have said a lot about Chris’s song writing but I really shouldn’t neglect his sparing but superb guitar style.  It’s mainly delicate and seemingly restrained but couldn’t match his songs better.  The notes in a similar way to Martin Carthy accentuate his words.  On the evidence of the night he need have no fear about future Scottish visits.  Perhaps a tour to launch a long overdue album of new songs.  I hope so in the near future.  If there is room for one cover on any new CD then Chris’s take on Smoky Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” would be a good contender.  A whole new genre of Folk Soul! (Not performed on the night).

The Ballads of Child Migration | New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall | Review by Keith Belcher | 19.01.16

This was the live show of October 2015’s album Ballads Of Child Migration.  The album was originally commissioned for the current V&A exhibition On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants.  Audio and visual clips were from an Australian film, as yet unseen in the UK, The Long Journey Home directed by Emily Booker, based on the book The Forgotten Children by David Hill.  The many new songs and music cover not only emigrants to Australia but also Canada; commemorating a chapter of our recent history that many would have liked to remain ‘kept quiet’.  The songs and narration deal with the enforced migration and in some cases subsequent ill treatment of the more than 100,000 children who were sent unaccompanied to the colonies and Commonwealth between 1869 and as late as 1970, with many never to return.  That is not a typo it really did continue until 1970!  Government schemes sent children aged as young as 3, without their parents’ consent or knowledge, overseas for official promises of a better life.  Some fared well finding good loving homes but in many cases, abuse and loneliness was common and systemic.  Many were used as cheap labourers or servants in remote outposts.  Brothers and sisters were often separated and told their parents and siblings were dead.  The majority of the children, over 90,000 were sent to Canada.  The migration to Canada of children under 14 was banned in 1924.  Organisations then turned their efforts mainly to Australia where more than 7,000 were sent until the late 1960’s.  This disgraceful and shocking chapter of or history finally got recognition and an apology from then PM Gordon Brown on 24th February 2010.   For some reason, possibly the uncomfortable subject matter which could cause one to question so called men and women of God, philanthropists and our leaders, the show didn’t sell as well as expected.  A friend commented on the fact that the photographs of the children at the time were very familiar and it could have been us!!  The audience can always sense whether the artists performing are moved by subject matter and it was very obvious that everyone on stage was and had been moved by the stories they were telling in song, tune and narrative.  At the last minute it was moved from the very large Concert Hall to the smaller New Auditorium.  The house band was the first on stage.  Boo Hewerdine, Kris Drever, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Andy Cutting and Andy Seward.  Not a bad line up by anyone’s standards but it didn’t end there.  Narrator Barbara Dickson introduced the show and house band.  The first performers Chris While and Julie Matthews, ably backed by Barry Coope and Jim Boyes, all Radio Ballad veterans told the story of many leaving for Australia in a song “Small Cases Full of Big Dreams”, the title really says it all.  The lyrics were moving, ‘With a lie for most of their lives they’ll believe, They’re bound for paradise, for better lives, Small cases full of big dreams’.  The house band provided a haunting backdrop with Mike McGoldrick’s whistles merging beautifully with Andy’s box and John McCusker’s fiddle.  Next on stage were Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow and Jez Lowe. Jez must be one of the main ‘go to guys’ when a project like this is considered.  Before they performed Barbara gave more information about how the schemes had the approval of the Governments over the years, the Church, philanthropists and even the Royal Family.  The first of the audio visuals was presented before the next song.  Throughout the show there was a large screen situated above the performers which showed actual footage and audio clips from the now quite elderly children who were shipped abroad.  They told of the promises they were made.  Jez took lead vocals on “Barnado’s Party Time”.  A brisker number illustrating the bright promises made to the children.  Barnado’s Party was a suitcase label that adorned the cases of many young migrants.  “10,000 Miles” had wonderful harmonies lead by Barry and Jim, it told the story of many Scottish children sent to Canada.  This song was an addition for the night and didn’t feature on the album.  Barbara commented on Britain’s history of using emigration as a cheaper alternative than the cost of the Work Houses.  John Doyles song “Liberties Sweet Shore”, performed by Kris Drever eloquently told the tale of those sent forcibly to Quebec, making the point that in many cases passage was paid for by landlords as it was cheaper than paying work house costs.  ‘Two pounds a head for the passage, With ease our landlord surrendered, And wiped his hands clean as he tendered, From a distance he watched us go’.  A song I have heard John perform many times but never with the superb set of backing vocals that Kris called on for this performance.  Again a very haunting instrumental backing.  John McCusker is surely one of the best composers of bitter sweet melodies.  It has always eluded me why John Doyle never performs this or other of his songs while playing in Transatlantic Sessions but that’s another matter altogether.  Jez paraphrased the phrase ‘Sending Coals to Newcastle’ with a song about the Snow family, “Snow to Nova Scotia”.  Mike McGoldrick put down his pipes and whistles and played the Bodhran for this.  When you have John McCusker sitting next to you playing the whistle you can do that!  Barbara told with aid of an audio visual about the ideas that a brand new start severing all ties with previous life was often thought best.  This involved separating siblings and even placing them in different countries.  Chris and Julie sang their own composition, the very moving “Pinjarra Dreams” which told tales of separation and loneliness.  ‘Now I labour on the land, just an unpaid hired hand, And the burning sun it shines from morn till night, No mother’s loving arms, no father’s tender charms…’  Barbara then told of the lies some of the children were told before leaving to give them an expectation of ‘sunshine and roses’.  “Landfall” followed with Jez taking the vocal lead, a story of the joys and expectation of landfall after the ocean journey.  Over the years Jez has contributed greatly to this and many radio ballads with deftly written songs of social commentary.  Barbara with audio visual aid talked of the Church’s role in migration.  The Glasgow Youth Choir in suitable period dress assembled at the back of the stage to aid with the hymn “Whither Pilgrims Are You Going”, telling of going to ‘the better land’, many children were ‘encouraged’ to sing hymns at the dockside before boats embarked.  It told of how ‘Christ is waiting to receive us in that bright and better land’.  On that thought the first half ended to tumultuous applause, the audience having plenty to talk and think about during the interval.  A beautiful John McCusker composition “Leaving All We Know” opened the second half.  John’s fiddle and melody lines beautifully augmented by Andy’s box and later by Mike’s flute.  This was a refreshed version of a tune John wrote for his masterpiece Under One Sky which is (in my opinion) a CD every music lover should have in their collection.  Everyone waited for the final notes to fade before applauding.  Another moving audio visual followed telling tales of children arriving at remote destinations in Australia, many realising they were no longer in transit and this was it for the foreseeable future.  Julie’s song “Alien Land” with opening and closing notes from a didgeridoo played by guest Johnny MacAdam and sung by Chris and Julie with harmonies from Belinda and Heidi described the exiled orphans’ feelings, ‘Am I forsaken, am I forgotten, all hope taken of ever going home, What did I do, why was I damned and banished here to this alien land’.  A report from the 1870’s told that many emigrants were felt to have ‘bad blood’ and had become ‘plague spots in the areas’, hmm does that sound familiar?  Jez led on “Tainted Blood”, aptly exploring this point, ‘I saw three ships sailing high and tall, Beware that tainted blood’.  On this song Andy Seward swapped double bass duties with Kris Drever to play banjo.  The abuse in the name of religion and use of beatings to ‘purify the soul’ was dealt with next, one 13-year-old emigrant was beaten so badly his back was broken by a cane.  Regular beatings for minor causes were not uncommon.  His crime – oversleeping and being late for dairy duties!  “Devil’s Heart” sung and written by Chris and Julie sang of the evil men and women involved as the children’s answers to the hymn “Whither Pilgrims Are You Going”, ‘and now I lay me down to sleep and pray to God my soul to keep, But the one who answers in the dark, Is a holy man with a devil’s heart’.  A brutal institution in Freemantle run by the Christian Brothers which was built by the labour of children of all ages was the subject of a song by Boo Hewerdine and Kris Drever.  Lives were controlled and regulated by the Village Bell and the bullies.  “Village Bell” the name of the song.  Boo emerged from behind his music stand for this song.  Many of us hadn’t really seen him until this point.  Along with Jez, Boo is also one of the ‘go to guys’.  His prolific sing writing ability aptly displayed here.  Heidi and Belinda followed with a song “Two Mothers”, inspired by the film Oranges And Sunshine by Jim Loach.  Although the song is not on the CD it can be found on Belinda and Heidi’s CD The Hum.  Michael McGoldrick played Uilleann pipes for additional atmosphere.  An audio visual detailing the scars both mental and physical followed, this was particularly upsetting for many and Barbara was visibly moved by the film clip.  This was followed by a guest appearance by Eddi Reader both playing accordion and dueting with Boo on his very moving composition “The Man (Woman) That I Am”.  Next was a poem written over a hundred years ago by a returning migrant and set to music by Belinda and Heidi “Why Did I Leave Thee?”  The acknowledgement and apology from Gordon Brown followed.  Having seen this show, I along with probably most of the audience was more moved than when he made the statement back in 2010.  After that clip Barbara thanked everyone as well as inviting them back on stage and joined them in singing, much to the delight of both audience and cast, the reprised “Small Cases Full of Big Dreams”.  It would be safe to say that not only members of the audience were visibly moved but also many members of the cast who must have gone through a whole gamut of emotions during their involvement and research on this project.  The applause went on for some time, the discussions about the subject matter even longer.  This was a very memorable and moving night.  The relatively small audience who witnessed it were truly privileged.  Let’s hope that it can be performed again and visually recorded so that others can see and hear and realise this all happened not that long ago.  Thanks to Kit Bailey for the set list at the end of the show and Bryan Ledgard for the stunning audio visuals.  The CD in booklet form contains much more information on the topics covered by these songs as well as the song lyrics and the composer’s thoughts about the songs and their inspiration.

Mulatu Astatke | Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.02.16

Mulatu Astatke’s Peace, Love and Ethio-Jazz Tour brought the seventy-two year old pioneer of Ethopian jazz to the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds this evening for a thundering ninety minute set.  The revered vibraphonist brought with him a slick ensemble of seven musicians to wow the packed Yorkshire concert hall with a series of mostly self-penned compositions from an artist who, since erupting onto the scene in 1963, has not only carved a musical niche entirely of his own but has also collaborated with the cream of world music, including Mahmoud Ahmed and Duke Ellington, during his fifty-two year career.  Tonight, however, the focus was on Astatke’s unique Ethio-Jazz sound, led fiercely by Mulatu’s sinuous, resonating vibes whilst the engine of Alex Hawkins’s deep chunks of piano, John Edwards’s organically fluttering bass, Danny Keane’s beautifully nasal cello and Tom Skinner’s confidently steady drums rumbled with perpetual excitement behind.  That spreading liquidity of sound was dappled throughout with the physically demanding percussion of Richard Olatunde Baker who, during “The Way to Nice”, held the audience in a bubble of enchantment as he beat a solo path with his bongos and congas towards a haunting outburst of African chants.  Providing the jagged edge on the machine of Astatke’s impressive ensemble were trumpet wizard Byron Wallen, who swapped brass for conch to calm the erratic fervour of the wonderful Chik Chika, and London-based saxophonist James Arben who, like his fellow musicians at this evening’s consistently inventive concert, revelled in pushing his instrument to its very limits in order to explore the possibilities of its sounds.  But whilst most of tonight’s performances had the audience captivated with frenetic rhythms and improvisations, peaking with a gob-smacking energetic solo from bassist John Edwards during “Chik Chika” which could easily have seen off a less robust instrument, it was, perhaps, “Motherland” – Astatke’s meditative hymn to his native Ethiopia – that prompted a standing ovation at the show’s climax.

Blue Rose Code | The Live Room, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 04.03.16

Following Angel Snow and Matthew Perryman Jones the second great gig in a week at The Live Room saw a return visit of Blue Rose Code (aka Ross Wilson).  Last year Ross was accompanied by Lyle Watt on Guitar/Mandolin and Graham Coe on Cello.  Changes this year saw a Ross with Lyle now titled ‘Wild’ Lyle Watt and his drummer John Lowrie, playing not drums but Keyboards and Accordian and earning the title ‘Jazz Fingers’ from Ross.  As it was official launch day for Ross’s new CD, And Lo, The Bird Is On The Wing many of the songs played were from the new release.  Ross has often been compared to John Martyn and Van Morrison so not surprisingly there was a wide diversity of tempo and mood.  Some of ‘Wild Lyles’ guitar licks were worthy of comparison with John Platania furthering the Morrison comparisons.  It was obvious from the start that both Blue Rose Code and the Saltaire audience were going to have a great night.  With Lyle and John remaining seated throughout the gig Ross virtually bounced about the stage demonstrating both the range and power of his voice by moving in and away from the microphone for effect.  Blessed with a wonderful voice that ranges from a sensual whisper to an angry growl Ross started the night with an extended jazz-tinged “In The Morning Parts 1 and 2” (and possibly 3) from the new CD.  A swirling piano intro from John and wonderful use of Ebow from Lyle to finish the song.  During the night Lyle’s use of Ebow was possibly the best I have ever heard.  Most of the songs in Set 1 were from the new CD.  “Come The Springtime” from debut album North 10 neatly segued into Hugh MacDiarmids poem Scotland with Ross jokingly commenting on his the slick professional arrangement.  “Pokesdown Waltz”, surely a contender for best break up/Divorce song of the last few years had a touching refrain of ‘My One Wish is I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye’.  Not content with playing new songs from the CD Ross sang an even newer unrecorded song “Sandaig”, named after the house of close friends in the North of Scotland .  Ross finished the set with “Oh North” from Ballads Of Pecckham  Rye.  A song about the joys of travelling north, an alien concept to many southerners but there we go.  Another poem put to music opened the second set Acquainted With The Night by Robert Frost.  Again very ethereal use of Ebow and guitar creating an atmosphere that reminded me of John Martyn’s “Small Hours” from One World.  The transition to “Silent Drums” was pure John Martyn.  There were many more familiar songs from earlier CDs in set 2.  From Westeros to Nova Scotia and the immensely well received “One Day at a Time” and “Ghost of Leith” all featured.  The musicianship on the night was tremendous.  Ross half joked that it would be wise to get Lyles signature on CDs, on this gigs performance he wasn’t kidding and if Johns main instruments are drums then I would love to see him live playing them as his Keyboards skill was quite something.  The last song in the show the  energetic Julie was announced to audience dismay but Ross responded with a knowing wink.  Lyle played some wonderful Mandolin and the song had great audience participation in the closing chorus.  A solo Ross took to Keyboards for the first encore song, a beautiful and sensitive song possibly titled “I Don’t Know How To Be In Love” which was followed by a full trio rendition of “Grateful” weaving “Shipley” into the verses.  Both Lyle and John demonstrating their musical chops during this song.  It was very obvious that both the band and audience  had a great time.  Ross stated that the Live Room was  a truly great venue and he paid further tribute to the audience by saying it was obvious the audience were discerning and genuine hard core music fans.  And Lo…., is the third Blue Rose Code full length CD and they just keep getting better.  Ross knows he will be welcome back for a third visit.

The Coven | Slaithwaite Civic Hall | Review by Keith Belcher | 05.03.16

My first journey to Slaithwaite (pronounced Sla’ Wit) was an interesting one.  Lots of very serious gradients, both up and down, before eventually reaching the town which is situated in the Colne Valley, West Yorkshire.  There was running water on the roads and the temperature was just above freezing.  I don’t actually pray but was fervently hoping it didn’t freeze during the show as getting home again might be somewhat difficult.  This show, the third of ten,  was inspired by International Women’s Day and the artists had decided that the would stretch one day to 10 and do a short tour.  Those involved in order of appearance were Grace Petrie, locals Belinda O’Hooley with partner Heidi Tidow and finally Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew otherwise known as Lady Maisery.  The first thing to note was that no act was the headliner, this was a show of equals.  Grace opened, followed by Belinda and Heidi and then Lady Maisery.  Second set saw a reverse running order.  Of course there were some collaborations along the way.  All came on stage at the same time and stayed there throughout.  Hannah James looked to be enjoying herself so much I think she would have been happy to pay for the privilege.  The Nook Brewery from Holmfirth had played their part by brewing a special ale called Coven Beer.  Belinda quipped they had all contributed a lock of hair for the brew.  More on that later.  Grace introduced herself as a Left Wing Protest Singer, think young female Billy Bragg with far more attitude and possibly more humour.  She performed three songs solo on guitar, one angry, “I Do Not Have The Power To Cause a Flood”, her one and only happy “Ivy” and one sad, “Iago”.  “Ivy” told the story of hurriedly leaving Glastonbury in 2014 to be present for the birth of her niece Ivy.  A heartfelt ‘Thanks for not coming during Dolly Parton’ was a memorable line.  Grace then introduced Belinda and Heidi who opened with “The Hum” from the album of the same name.  This was inspired by a house purchase which fell through when the prospective buyers realised there was a constant hum of industry.  Nice modulating harmonies employed throughout.  Another song from the same album followed “Two Mothers”, inspired by Jim Loach’s film “Oranges and Sunshine” concerning enforced Child Migration.  It also features on the very excellent album Ballads Of Child Migration.  A very new fast paced song called Tour de Force inspired by Maxine Peake’s play about legendary local champion cyclist Beryl Burton.  This also featured the first collaboration with  everyone joining in, backing vocalists aptly titled The Berylettes for the evening.  So from Grace’s solo voice to  two voices and now onto three as Lady Maisery started with “Katy Cruel” from Mayday.  Hannah commented how excited she was which prompted a quip from Belinda about having a restraining order on Hannah.  Throughout the show there was much humour, at times everyone on and off stage was laughing.  I wish all shows had such obvious enjoyment from both on and off stage.  Those who have seen Belinda before will know her sometimes dry, humorous asides but tonight she was in exquisitely good form.  Her humour contrasting with Grace’s more direct style.  Lady Maisery play various instruments, Hannah on Accordion, Rowan on Fiddles and Hazel on Harp and Leg-Bells with outstanding three part harmonies.  They use an old style of singing called Diddling or Tune singing, not found so much in Britain these days but still used in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  Following “Katy Cruel” was “Honest Work”, about Sweatshops, thought to be a Todd Rundgren song.  The harmonies on this were just sublime.  A couple of Diddling tunes followed, Bagpipers and Sheila’s 70, the complex vocals and Accordion made this a quite joyous sound which brought more than a few appreciative yells from the audience.  The first real collaboration of the evening brought the set to a close.  Inspired by a female textile workers strike a pizzicato intro led into Rowan leading on “Bread and Roses”.  The, at times, six-part harmonies on this were just delightful.  The line ‘As We Go Marching’ building to a crescendo before switching back to Rowans solo vocals.  The humour continued into the second set with Rowan commenting that she could taste Belinda’s fringe in the beer, Belinda quipping back that she had just found a nit.  Lady Maisery sang “Sing For The Morning” to open the music.  Followed by Leon Rosselson’s very powerful “Palaces of Gold”, a song inspired by the Aberfan disaster.  A very tragic tale told with beautiful acapella harmonies. A very different version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” followed, ‘Is she here?’, quipped Rowan, ‘No , she lives in Linthwaite’, a local joke, Belinda replied.  Next up was Grace who chatted about her continuing failure to sing at Whitby Folk Festival before launching into “A Revolutionary In The Wrong Time” which has the great line ‘I tried selling out but nobody bought’.  I think the biggest laugh of the night came when Grace simulating a hot flush, undid her shirt to reveal a Jeremy Corbyn T Shirt in Superman colours and style.  Possibly one of the few times that  Jeremy has been made a sex symbol as Grace joked about questioning her sexuality.  When the laughter had died down Grace changed mood and sang the anthemic “Farewell To Welfare”, written in 2010 but sadly just as relevant now.  Some great lines in this song eg ‘What’s the use when they are all cut from the same Eton silk?’.  Resounding applause in Slaithwaite for this song.  “If There’s A Fire In Your Heart” finished off Grace’s mini set, this time joined by everyone on stage, the six-part harmonies nicely working with Grace’s more strident style, especially at the end.  Belinda and Heidi sang the very dark, atmospheric and eerily beautiful “Between The Bars”, led by Belinda’s subdued Piano and laced with soaring and powerful reverb and echo effects from Belinda as Heidi took lead.  An anti war song dedicated to the late, great Tony Benn, “Like Horses”, followed before a collaboration from everyone on “Coil And Spring”, a co-write with Boff Whalley being a tribute to Pussy Riot.  Two encore songs brought the show to an end. The first “Quitting Time” by The Roches and then a possibly impromptu “Never Turning Back” performed acapella, off mike at the edge of the stage.  One of those increasingly very rare events where it was truly obvious to all that the artists on stage enjoyed themselves just as much as the audience.  Would that the Brewery or someone could have bottled this show, it would be a real tonic.  A really great night , made all the better by there being no ice on the hills for the journey back home.

Hamish Napier | The River | Album Review | Strathspey Records | Review by Phil Carter | 22.03.16

Hamish Napier was born and raised on the banks of the River Spey in the village of Grantown-on-Spey in the Scottish Highlands. Hamish and his family had always had a natural affinity for the mile long stretch of the river that flowed past his childhood home, where one of his brothers fished it, and other canoed it, his Uncle Sandy photographed it and his mother painted it.  So no surprise then that Hamish decided to write an album of music based on the river.  The work was commissioned to be recorded and performed by the Celtic Connections ‘New Voices’ project, and was performed at this year’s festival in January to huge acclaim.  Hamish himself was one of the busiest men in Glasgow over the festival period, performing on no less than nine separate occasions ranging from shows with The Gathering Stream, Ceol Mor and brother Findlay’s group The VIP’s.  The River is a musical portrait of the natural and human life that has evolved in and around the Spey over the years.  There is a wide variety of musical styles in evidence on the album which gives an overall feel of creative energy and vitality, with sounds ranging from funky/electro-jazz as on the track “Floating” to Scottish jigs on “Spey Cast” to the panoramic swarming sound of wind instruments on “The Mayfly”.  The River is a beautifully composed album and will bear repeat listening without danger of becoming over-familiar or uninteresting due to the enjoyable complexity of its musical structure.  The quality of musicianship is top-drawer throughout the album, with Hamish assembling an accomplished band of players that includes Sarah Hayes on alto flute and James Lindsay of Breabach on double bass with the stand out track on the album for me being the dark melodies of “The Drowning of the Silver Brothers”.

Breabach | Astar | Album Review | Breabach Records | Review by Phil Carter | 24.03.16

Astar is Braebach’s fifth release since their arrival on the Scottish folk scene at Celtic Connections back in 2005.  They’ve travelled a long way since then, in more ways than one and the inspiration for the music on the album has come from the people, places, venues and festivals they have encountered on their extensive travels around the globe.  These very experiences have brought about a new multi-dimensional sound to their music, borne out of the influences of the different cultures they have been subjected to.  Musicians from Quebec, Norway, Australia and New Zealand have been invited to contribute to the album under the guidance of producer Greg Lawson.  I’ve lost count of the number of festivals I’ve attended where both Breabach and Le Vent du Nord have been appearing on the same bill, and it is a joy to at last hear them in direct collaboration, albeit just for the one track “Les Pieds Joyeux”.  In spite of the culturally eclectic feel to Astar, the trademark Beabach sound shines through and the band once again prove their pedigree and justified recognition as being amongst some of the finest and most gifted musicians currently operating within the field of Scottish music today.  Look out for Breabach at various locations on the summer festival calendar, where they have just been announced on the bill at the renowned Cambridge Folk Festival.

Dallahan | Matter of Time | Album Review | Dallahan Music | Review by Phil Carter | 25.03.16

Dallahan are one of the most exciting happenings on the current Scottish music scene.  Their combined blend of traditional musicianship originating from their respective homelands of Scotland, Ireland and Hungary results in a musical tapestry that is both dynamic and refreshingly original.  Their 2014 debut album When The Day Is On The Turn was highly praised by the public and music press alike, and on the back of the album the band has sent the last eighteen months touring heavily as well as spending time in the studio preparing the follow up Matter Of Time, to be released in April 2016.  Matter Of Time is evidence of the band developing and expanding upon their core musical influences, becoming more ambitious and complex in their compositional skills. Stand out tracks are the set of tunes named “Harbour Of Polperro” which alongside the excellent Dutch Courage features the wonderful Ullieann pipes and whistle playing of Jarleth Henderson.  Away from their own compositions, the band’s interpretation of the traditional classic “Stretched On Your Grave” produces another stand-out moment on the album, indicating further evidence of Dallahan’s growing confidence and creative abilities.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc | Deliverance | Album Review | NFB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 28.03.16

Second album from the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc which sees the fiddle trio from Norway, Sweden and the Shetland Islands secure their reputation for delivering a gripping and unique blend of fiddle music.  Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFB) are Olav Luksengård Mjelva (Norway), Anders Hall (Sweden) and Kevin Henderson (Shetland Islands), with each of them regarded as leading exponents of their respective traditions.  Deliverance is a beautifully constructed collection of traditional fiddle music mixed in alongside the group’s own compositions with a firm focus on the rich traditional fiddle music from where they each belong.  The group have developed a sound that has been described as “unique”, “meaningful”,”intense” and “invigorating”.  The album includes much evidence of NFB’s clever use of harmonies, rhythm, riffs & bass lines that together produces a sound that belies the source of the sound produced from just three fiddles.  The foundation of the music is the chemistry that occurs when the three come together and seldom can three fiddlers have sounded so well matched as the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.  Local interest in the group comes in the form of Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson, long time member of The Boys of the Lough and more recently a member of the dynamic Session A9.  The compositions on Deliverance are sufficiently varied in style to make the album an interesting and extremely enjoyable experience, and the focus never drifts throughout the album’s ten tracks.  The  album is beautifully produced, crystal clear, well balanced with artwork that makes it one of the nicest album covers of the year.  Kevin Henderson’s composition “Talons Trip to Thompson Island” opens the album, which is a wonderful tune composed in the summer of 2013 after Kevin’s week of residency as a teacher at the Boston Harbor Fiddle School.  Other stand out tacks are “The Hen Hunt”, “Hjaltaren”, “Deiverance (Befrielsen)” and the exquisite “Halls Lilla Vals (Halls Little Waltz)” which is a stunning piece of music.

Paul McKenna Band | Paths That Wind | Album Review | PMB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 01.04.16

Since being awarded the title of ‘Best Up and Coming Artist of 2009’ at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, the Pau McKenna Band have gone from strength to strength captivating live audiences throughout the USA, Canada and Europe. Paths That Wind is the band’s fourth studio album, produced by John McCusker and released to celebrate their tenth year together, the album is a pleasing collection of songs influenced by the band’s experiences of being on the road and their time spent living in America.  The band have also included versions of songs by Alister Hulett, Peggy Seeger and Jim Reid which balanced with their own compositions span out the album so well.  Stand out tracks amongst the band’s own compositions are “Long Days”, “Tipping Point” and “The Dream”.  I remember seeing Paul and the band playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival back in 2011 for the first time in their own right following a previous appearance a couple of years before  as part of the Brian McNeill sessions.   The youthful exhuberance of the Paul McKenna Band playing Scottish music with such a passion was a real joy to see, and even back in the early days demonstrated a maturity beyond their years.  Their music, while steeped in the tradition is an exciting sound  created through outstanding vocals, driving guitar and bouzouki, intense fiddle playing, a warm pairing of flute and whistles and dynamic bodhrán and percussion.  This is indeed a very good album, with a carefully crafted signature sound that allows the Paul Mckenna Band to stand proud of the crowd.

Jim Causley | Forgotten Kingdom | Album Review | Hands On Music | Review by Phil Carter | 16.04.16

Five times BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominee Jim Causley is a singer/musician who is passionate about traditional song, and particularly that of his native West County.  Jim Causley’s brand new, and fifth solo album Forgotten Kingdom, marks a ten year period since his debut release Fruits Of The Earth back in 2005.  Interestingly, it is also Causley’s first album that comprises of entirely self-written material.  The first three albums were made up of traditional songs, and the fourth Cyprus Well consisted of poems from his late relative Charles Causley set to music by Jim.  Despite Causley’s profession of love for his native West County, this is the first album he has recorded on home soil.   He has also assembled some of the finest Devonian musicians to work with him on the album, including James Dumbleton, Nick Wyke and Beckie Driscoll, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, Show of Hands, Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston, Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman and Jackie Oates……….that’s some backing band!  Causley’s native West County is a major influence on the writing of the songs for the album, including one of the highlight tracks “Pride of the Moor” which celebrates the tin mining industry of Dartmoor.  The music on the album is far ranging in style, and encompasses anything from the mediaval to bluegrass and 1930’s music hall to string quartet accompaniment. Jim Causley has also been regarded as a consummate musician, and his traditional vocal style and accomplished accordion playing are widely acknowledged to be the benchmark for the genre.   Forgotten Kingdom certainly demonstrates Jim’s virtuosity throughout all of the fifteen wonderful compositions contained on the album, and probably does so better than on any of the previous four albums, good as they all are.  This is an album that sees Jim Causley opening up on his talents and skills not just as a musician, but for the first time as a gifted composer of words and music.  Forgotten Kingdom is destined to become a folk classic, and I offer this comment without any fear of exaggeration.  It is quite simply a wonderful celebration of the joy of playing your own music alongside good friends who all share the same affinity for their native influences.  To produce such a fine collection of self-penned songs and music at the first outing is quite remarkable, in spite of the collective view that Causley has for a long time been a fully paid up member of the younger folk establishment.  Maybe I’ll leave the last words to Causley himself, ‘I realised’ says Jim, ‘that as a (largely) traditional singer I have been singing other people’s words for a very long time and decided it was about time I started singing some of my own!’

John McCusker | Hello Goodbye | Album Review | Under One Sky Records | Review by Phil Carter | 17.04.16

John McCusker celebrates twenty five years as a professional musician with the release of his first solo album in thirteen years, Hello, Goodbye.  The album is the first to be released on McCusker’s own record label Under One Sky Records, as well as being the first album to be recorded at his brand new state of the art studio built at his home in the Scottish Borders.  The album was conceived and written while McCusker was touring the globe as a member of Mark Konpfler’s band, an association he has held since 2008, and some of the song titles, such as “It’s a Girl, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz” and “Tune for Nana” suggest he may well have been yearning for his home and family while out on the road.  Needless to say, McCusker has gathered together a stellar line up of musicians to work with him on Hello, Goodbye, including fellow Knopfler band member Michael McGoldrick, long standing friends Andy Cutting and Ian Carr, Phil Cunningham and Heidi Talbot.  Hello, Goodbye provides evidence of a real cross-section of musical styles that McCusker has embraced throughout his twenty five year involvement in Scottish folk music, and brilliantly illustrates the creative boundaries he has used to chart his journey along the way.  The album has certainly been worth waiting for, and is a fine reminder of McCusker’s unique and beautifully sensitive playing style that has become his trademark since his more raucous apprenticeship days with the Battlefield Band.  It’s an album to savour, and for me one that will not wander far from the CD player over the coming months.

Nikki Talley | Out From The Harbor | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.04.16

While the Adeles, Swifts, Winehouses and Gouldings of the world have stretched the boundaries for emerging female vocalists over the past decade while keeping the flames of Carole King, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield brightly burning in the mainstream consciousness, it has to be said that some of the most exquisite vocalists of the generation belong to the Americana scene.  For those of us who have been lucky enough to find them, the voices of Sarah Jarosz, Anais Mitchell, Rachel Ries, Diana Jones and Aoife O’Donovan represent an era of truly exceptional singing and storytelling which often goes beyond the sometimes superficial, mass-produced music of your everyday arena artist.   Nikki Talley is another name that can be easily added to this tantalising list.  Having clocked up two hundred thousand miles as a touring singer songwriter and releasing two positively spellbinding albums – 2010’s Beautiful Charmer and a live album in 2012 – Nikki released her third album, Out From The Harbor in 2015, once again delivering a collection of evocative acoustic-based country songs, but this time coming down from the mountains to explore river and sea for what is a somewhat watery album.  In other hands, “Go Out on the Water” could well be a shimmering Nashville hit, sounding its delicious melody from every car radio, but Nikki keeps the song grounded with a sparse arrangement of gently strummed acoustic guitar and understated pedal steel, with all the grace and elegance of Emmylou. And when Nikki feels the need to fill out her heartfelt songs with full band backing, such as “Caroline” and “Travelin’ On” the results hark back to the mid-90s albums of Shawn Colvin or Tracy Chapman, where the songs are cleanly presented, entirely nourishing and never overcooked.  Then there’s “Gracie Blue”, a maritime folk song in the tradition of Anne Briggs; something Talley pulls off with astonishing panache and impressive adaptability.  What rings throughout this album is a sense of respect for the songs at hand; a sense which gives the whole record a varnished quality, as if it were something to keep and treasure forever.

Kronos Quartet | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.05.16

It must be twenty years since I first heard Kronos Quartet. Back then, a teenage me thought he’d struck gold as the Quartet’s 1993 collection Short Stories, borrowed from my local audio library, began filling my bedroom with some of the strangest and most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.  Here was a string quartet for whom strings were just one part of the performance.  Indeed, the entire first track on that album is made up of percussive typewriter noises, adding another dimension to the album’s cover art; a vintage Underwood typer engulfed in flames.  Since then, I’ve become very familiar with the boundless invention of San Francisco’s foremost string outfit. Their recordings have explored the music of such respected composers as Philip Glass, Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki as well as breathing new life into the works of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Jimi Hendrix and, more recently, Pete Townshend.  The Quartet has also continued to collaborate with such eminent artists as Terry Riley, Kevin Volans and Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq, further demonstrating their multifaceted approach to world music and, indeed, sound itself.  Tonight, the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds played host to two sets from Kronos Quartet and what the Quartet describes as a ‘bounty of new compositions and arrangements’ collected since their last tour.  Bathed in ambient blue light, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba along with viola player Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang lulled the audience into a state of meditative silence as they opened with a delicate rendering of “My Desert, My Rose”, composed especially for Kronos Quartet by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov.  This ethereal piece gave way to the jagged edges of Satellites by Garth Knox which required that the musicians leave the comfort of their four strings to explore the sonic capabilities of their bows, swished through the air above them with meticulous thrust.  The Quartet’s old friend Terry Riley was represented with a performance of his “One Earth, One People, One Love” from Sun Rings, composed for Kronos by the master of modern minimalism.  The piece, which uses sound samples of readings by poet Alice Walker and Apollo Astronaut Eugene Cernan, demonstrated that the Quartet isn’t shy when it comes to utilising technology in its otherwise organic performances.  Such an approach was explored again in tonight’s closing performance of Donnacha Dennehy’s “One Hundred Goodbyes” which incorporates haunting abstracted recordings of Irish singers from almost one hundred years ago.  Although the Quartet’s dazzling rendition of Pete Townshend’s “Baba O’Riley”, recently performed on the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland, inspired rapturous applause from tonight’s appreciative audience, the unquestionable highlight of the show was a performance of Seiche, a piece especially composed for the Quartet’s current tour by folk musician and member of Lau, Martin Green.  There was a sense of wonder rippling around the room as Harrington and Yang departed from their traditional instruments to play a pair of Kronoscillators, devices constructed by Green and involving stretched metal slinkies and electrified liquorice tins.  When struck with vibrating tuning forks, the slinkies produced a sound not unlike that of sparking electrical points as a tube train rolls into its station or, perhaps what the composer was going for, the sound of undulating waves beneath the surface of water.  A genuinely arresting few minutes in a wonderful evening of awe-inspiring music.

Ray Hearne | Umpteen | Album Review | No Masters | Review by Phil Carter | 07.06.16

Third album in fifteen years from the South Yorkshire songsmith, and it’s a delightful and beautifully crafted piece of work.  Ray Hearne could never be labelled prolific and Umpteen happens to be only his third album in fifteen years, but commercial gains have never featured heavily in Ray’s ethos.  Instead the emphasis has always been on the quality of his craft and in creating a single body of work that will only be free to see the light of day when the process of honing and polishing has been completed.  As an artisan songwriter in the truest sense, the melodic accompaniment to the song is probably secondary to Ray’s love of words, and so the tunes are simple and often borrowed from the traditional canon leaving the words of the songs to flourish unfettered and to breathe freely.   As an example, the opening song on the album “Moonpenny Hill” has been a work in progress for over twenty years, stored in Ray’s subconscious song library, visited occasionally before being placed back on the metaphorical shelf.  This song in particular has lain dormant for the time-span of the two previous albums, as the first release Broadstreet Ballads appeared back in 2001, and The Wrong Sunshine in 2010.  However, the endearing quality of Ray’s songs is his ability to tell the story, and stories are not susceptible to the ravages of time and so the songs appear as fresh as the day they were first conceived.  The basic raw material for Ray’s writing is his fascination for observing everyday life, which by the use of carefully constructed wordplay he then distils into vignettes of rich imagery.  Take the song “The Hall of Fish”, which Ray explains in the sleeve notes came about as the result of a holiday to Brittany in 2003.  There the family would sit with lollies and wine opposite Las Halles aux Poisson.  Later Ray learnt that 15,000 people had died in that summer’s heatwave.  Then there is the song “The Kid Who Killed the Milkman” which relates the harrowing events of a barbaric act of murder that occurred in Sheffield as recently as 2003.  It is a dark and poignant song made more so by the accompanying melody “Slieve Gallen Brae”.  Each of the fourteen songs on the album has its own story to tell which Ray embellishes with its own unique structure and style.  That’s what makes this and Ray’s previous two albums so special, in that due to the deep well of subject matter he draws from, there is no danger of the songs morphing into a single common entity.  On this occasion I will refrain from the usual practice of highlighting particular tracks on the album, as is would be unfair to detract the potential listener’s attention away from any of the fourteen songs contained on Umpteen.  It should be mentioned that Ray has engaged the services of some fine musicians and singers to support him on the album, including Jude Abbott (who also did the cover design), Belinda O’Hooley, Greg Russell, Ciaran Algar, Ciaran Boyle and daughters Emily and Rebecca Hearne with the album engineered and produced by fellow No Masters colleague and ex-Chumbawamba member Neil Ferguson.  I would encourage anyone who may be new to Ray Hearne’s work, or indeed anyone who is already familiar with his music to give this album a listen.  It is a master class of social observation songwriting and as with all good folk music will be as relevant in thirty, forty or seventy years time as it is today. 

Ninebarrow | Releasing the Leaves | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 08.06.16

Dorset based duo Ninebarrow bounced onto the national folk scene in 2014 with their highly acclaimed debut album While The Blackthorn Burns which demonstrated their refreshingly new and innovative take on the folk tradition.  Their second album Releasing The Leaves sees Jon Whitley and James LaBouchardiere further developing their exquisite pitch-perfect harmonies and instrumental arrangements employing a plethora of musical instruments including reed organ, ukulele, tenor and octave mandola and enhanced by the duo’s beautiful string arrangements, delivered by Lee Cuff on cello and Joe Limburn on double bass.  This is an album of various shades, from stripped back simplicity to spellbinding complexity, dark corners to refreshing optimism.  The eleven tracks embrace all that the duo is about, including their love of landscape, history and British folklore.  On the strength of their first two releases, Ninebarrow are certain to become a recognised force in English folk music.  Watch this space.

Fraser Anderson | Under The Cover Of Lightness | Album Review | Membran | Review by Phil Carter | 09.06.16

I’ve followed the creative progress of Scottish songwriter and singer Fraser Anderson since back in 2004, when he relocated his family to rural France and eventually released his cottage industry produced debut album And The Girl With The Strawberry.  He wrote the songs on the album while working in kitchens and on building sites, scraping together a meagre existence while holding tightly onto his dream of seeing his songs played out on a bigger stage.  Fast forwards to the present day, and in spite of Anderson releasing two more albums since the debut recording, he has largely flown under the radar in the UK, despite receiving glowing recognition from Bob Harris for his second album Coming Up For Air, which he described as ‘truly beautiful’ and invited Fraser to record two sessions for his BBC radio 2 show.  Anderson moved back to the UK on 2014, basing himself in Bristol, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, he set to work on this newly released Under The Cover Of Lightness. The new album is a more mature, sensitive and yet far more complex and courageous work than his previous three releases.  The songs benefit from a much more layered style of production, losing the abject sparsity of his previous work, and which move confidently betwixt theme and mood with gorgeous female harmonies and gentle orchestrations floating the ear between Damien Rice and Portishead.  Standout tracks include the closing song on the album Rising Sons, the smooth jazz feel of “Simple Guidance” and the beautifully plaintive “The Wind And The Rain” backed with understated cello, fiddle and double bass and seasoned with some exquisite flute and Hammond organ work.  Under The Cover Of Lightness should be the springboard that affords Fraser Anderson a much wider audience base.  A beautifully crafted album of songs that hundreds of people have already pulled together to help the world discover this unassuming and long understated songwriter.

ALA.NI | You and I | Album Review | No Format! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.06.16

After ALA.NI’s brief performance on Later with Jools Holland last year, anticipation for the London-born vocalist’s debut album has had time to grow into something hardly bearable.  No wonder, when this stunning young artist’s voice sits comfortably amongst those of Billie Holiday, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Allison Russell, while retaining its own gentle flavour.  You And I does more than enough to satisfy those for whom the wait has seemed like an epoch. Indeed, there are moments when one feels a little spoiled.  Take, for instance, the understated magic of “Suddenly”, a track that would have been enough of a treat, even without the delicious choir of harmonies that, like many of the songs here, preserves the track in its own exquisite amber.  Similarly, “Roses & Wine” has all the spare and simple beauty of a thirties Billie Holiday cut but blossoms into something that would fit nicely on any Kate and Anna McGarrigle release.  And it’s within this territory, perhaps, where the album will find its most loyal followers.  There’ll be many a music mag licking and sticking the “Jazz” decals on You And I, but this powerfully sweet record succeeds in transcending labels, focusing instead on the delicate delivery of, above anything else, the love song.

Evie Ladin | Jump The Fire | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 16.06.16

About a year ago, Oakland California-based musician Evie Ladin Band holed up in a damp, dark cabin in the woods with no phone, no internet, with only a woodstove and her instruments for company.  She wrote, wrote and then wrote some more and emerged with the bones of her third release, ready to garnish with the necessary embellishments courtesy of her trio, the Evie Ladin Band. It’s been five years since Ladin released her debut solo album, and since then, the trio has become a tight unit with Ladin on lead vocals, clawhammer banjo and percussive dance helped by Keith Terry on vocals, double bass and percussion, and Erik Pearson on vocals, guitar and banjo.  This latest release Jump The Fire is a true reckoning of the trio’s ongoing collaboration.  The album is a beautifully paced collection of Ladin’s original Appalachian styled folk songs in addition to a handful of inventive, but not over-elaborate interpretations of traditional songs.  Two tracks that perfectly illustrate the scope of styles present on the album are “Coo Coo” a song based on the traditional English folk song “The Cuckoo” and the wonderfully laid back self-penned “Only You”.  This is old time music at its authentic best, and this latest release should ensure that the Evie Ladin Band cement their reputation for high quality musicianship and for their willingness to take a refreshingly innovative approach to maintaining the Appalachian music tradition.

Alexis Taylor | Piano | Album Review | Moshi Moshi Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.06.16

Back in 2008, an album hit the charts that seemed to reinvent electronic pop for the new millennium.  Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark, the London-based band’s fourth record since forming in 2000, was received with glowing appraisals from general listeners and critics alike, attracting ears from lovers of a wide range of genres, not just those chart-consuming, iPod-toting kids of the new century.   The secret of the album’s success?  Well, while the innovative electronic sounds, infectious rhythms and slick musicianship made for an impressive production, it was, most likely, Alexis Taylor’s gift for melody that put this album on so many shelves that year. Indeed, behind the hypnotic glare of electronica, listeners could easily detect the influence of such melodists as McCartney, Nillson and Bowie, made all the more enjoyable thanks to Taylor’s honeyed voice.   Fortunately, Taylor has had the good sense to place the spotlight firmly on melody for his latest solo outing, Piano, by recording a melancholic selection of covers and originals.  And, to help intensify the emphasis, the album contains nothing but piano and vocals (as well as a bit of acoustic guitar on the final track).  A highly personal album, and one that invites the listener to a private recital by this fine musician, Piano contains minimalistic versions of songs made famous by Crystal Gayle “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and Elvis Presley “Crying in the Chapel” as well as a new version of the Hot Chip song “So Much Further to Go” which references Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  The result is a deeply introverted performance that makes hymns of pop songs and an exquisite, sweet gospel singer of Taylor.  It’s an emotional outpouring, reportedly inspired by the recent death of a friend, and an album that proves, again, that heavy production and layers of instrumentation are superfluous when it comes to the power of a damn good melody.

Ben Wendel | What We Bring | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 2.08.16

Anyone experiencing the music of Ben Wendel for the first time via this new release from the Canadian-born saxophonist might wonder where he’s been all their life.  In fact, it may be less arduous to query where he hasn’t been. Since the late 90s, Wendel has been busy honing his sound via a wealth of appearances on other people’s recordings.  He’s played with distinguished pianists Tigran Hamasyan and Dan Tepfer and bassist Todd Sickafoose as well as such mainstream acts as Good Charlotte and Jason Mraz.  He’s also served tenures with the Dakah Hip-Hop Orchestra and Daedelus.  But it was his time with American fusion outfit Kneebody that moulded the Ben Wendel we know today.  Even the greenest of jazzer will note the exquisite quality in Ben’s playing on What We Bring, his third outing as leader, especially during the more effervescent moments of “Amian”, “Spring” and “Solar”; tracks which also showcase the talents of Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and the incredibly inventive Henry Cole on drums.  While it’s enjoyable to look for clues to the inspirations behind these eight superb tracks, with each one being dedicated to past jazz masters such as Coltrane and Jamal, the overarching attraction of this album lies within Wendel’s own striking artistry.

Madeleine Peyroux | Secular Hymns | Album Review | Impulse! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.08.16

It’s been twenty years since Madeleine Peyroux’s first release made us all wonder if Billie Holiday had been returned to us.  Once we’d gotten over the shock of it and realised that Madeleine was, regardless of similarities, very much a talent in her own right, we were thankfully assured that the 21st Century wouldn’t be leaving fine, heartfelt vocal jazz behind.  Madeleine Peyroux continues to water the roots of jazz and blues with her steady string of albums, not least on Secular Hymns, her latest collection of songs that call upon a ‘spiritual humanism’ at work in Peyroux’s deliciously soulful sound and selection skills.  While the album was recorded live in a church and the songs have a hymn-like quality to them, there’s no religion here.  These are songs of real life, of inner light, love and loss.  If you’re still looking for similarities, you might find more Bessie than Billie on this latest album, especially on songs such as Willie Dixon’s “If The Sea Was Whiskey” and the traditional “Trampin”.   There’s even a little Townes Van Zandt “The Highway Kind” and Tom Waits “Tango Till They’re Sore” here, proving once again that Madeleine Peyroux, even at her most intimately introspective, is an artist whose ears and heart are always wide open.

The Bills | Trail of Tales | Album Review | Borealis Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.09.16

Fresh from the west coast of Canada comes another tantalising taste of The Bills, a quintet of gifted musicians who have been quietly carving their own niche in their beautiful country’s roots music scene over the last decade and a half.   Trail Of Tales is the band’s fifth release since 2000’s The Bill Hilly Band and, once again, we’re treated to a generous helping of effervescent folk strummers such as “Trail of Tales” and “Hittin’ The Do” as well as serene, jazz and classical inspired whistle-alongs such as “Pebble Beach”, “Mando Coloured Glass” and the brilliant “Happy Be”.  And whether its tranquil instrumentals, driving stompers or rousing gospel harmonies that you’re after, this new record will delight you throughout.  For the first time in the band’s career, this new album features contributions of self-penned songs from all five members, which helps establish the album as The Bills’ most textured to date. It’s also the closest the band has come to releasing an album that would satisfy the mainstream, with such pop-infused songs as the infectious “Jungle Doctor” and the Beatle-esque “Lullaby for Elephants”.  For established Bills fans, however, there’s plenty to be thankful for, not least the welcome feeling that this is a band that’s still churning out the good stuff after all these years.

Federico Bonifazi | You’ll See | Album Review | Steeplechase | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 20.09.16

There’s a generosity at play on You’ll See, not simply in the way that young Italian pianist Federico Bonifazi allows his fellow musicians to steal much of the limelight, but also in the unadorned, somewhat raw disclosure of every sound on this wonderfully intimate record.  Consider Eric Alexander’s tenor sax, for example, which remains unrestrained, bone-dry and sans vibrato throughout.  There are moments when Eric leads the way while Bonifazi’s piano sits considerately underneath, albeit comfortably close to the mic.  Percussive and warm on every track is John Webber who provides a masterclass in engaging basslines while Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the sextet that made Kind of Blue, offers one his finest performances in what is, remarkably, his eighty-eighth year.  There’s nothing overly fancy here, just eight utterly enjoyable straight-ahead recordings from a quietly confident quartet with a shared generosity of spirit.

Scarborough Jazz Festival 2016 | Scarborough Spa, Scarborough | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.09.16

‘Come kiss me quickly, we might not have long before all this is washed away,’ so Liane Carroll sings on “Seaside”, perfectly encapsulating the temporary joy that is a trip to the coast.  It’s something with which most of us Brits are familiar, considering that the vast majority of us still lug buckets and spades to our nearest stretch of beach on a regular basis.  Perhaps it has something to do with our very British love for small pleasures, brief flirtations with simple amusements and the concentration of a variety of entertainments in one place and time.  Some of us are content with our penny arcades and crazy golf while others find delight in an ice cream cone and a well-located bench. Some build sandcastles and fly kites whilst others get their kicks from surfing and swimming in the cold, grey sea.  And then there are the pleasure domes, the theatres, spas, bandstands and ballrooms where comedy and tragedy are delivered to day trippers via plays, music hall routines, concerts and recitals a plenty.  We do like to be beside the seaside and, thanks to the organisers of the annual Scarborough Jazz Festival, even us jazzers – sticklers as we are for good music and quality performances – can revel in the variety that this salty wonderland has to offer.  From Friday to Sunday, the festival, now in its fourteenth year, doesn’t just boast a wealth of good jazz, but a wide and diverse programme of jazz to suit all tastes. Big bands, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, vocalists, saxophonists, pianists, harmonica players, bebop, fusion, world rhythms, experimental and traditional jazz; it’s all in there somewhere, delighting, sometimes bewildering but always entertaining the large and appreciative crowd that flocks to the festival each year.  

For the more adventurous jazzer, the festival couldn’t have kicked off with a better performance than the one given by Artephis, a Jazz North-sponsored quintet of twentysomethings eager to share its forward-looking brand of jazz with the excited Friday lunchtime crowd.  Aaron Wood’s thoughtfully experimental trumpet and flugelhorn solos revisited the exploratory improvisations of a Big Fun-era Miles Davis, each note enjoying the interplay of ambient acoustics and pedal-processed reverb, whilst the band’s lynchpin James Girling painted a wide and impressive background with his electric guitar.  And whilst the band’s Miles Davis and Thom Yorke-inspired tone poems created some rather pleasing vistas throughout the set, particularly during Girling’s self-penned “Chagrin”, there were several moments of exquisitely sparing beauty, thanks in part to Ali Roocroft’s warm and considerate piano.  Astutely imaginative jazz was well represented this weekend with Malija and Trish Clowes & Gareth Williams providing two unmissable performances.  The drummerless trio Malija consists of Polar Bear saxophonist Mark Lockheart, Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby and the ever-inspiring Liam Noble on keys.  Almost a year since the release of this super-group’s superlative album The Day I Had Everything, Malija effortlessly hypnotised the Saturday evening audience with a set of wonderfully angular, speculative vignettes such as “The Pianist”, with its strangely ominous chugging piano chords and bluesy sax flourishes, and Hoiby’s creeping, soft-footed “Wayne’s World”.  Whilst Noble’s solos saw the pianist visibly searching the length of his keyboard for ornate methods of arriving at Mozart-like cadences, Lockheart’s ribbony improvisations floated serenely a few feet above, with Hoiby’s equally explorative bass lines expertly gluing the outfit together.  Pianist Gareth Williams is a friendly face at the festival and this year he introduced the Scarborough crowd to saxophonist Trish Clowes who has been busy making a name for herself with a handful of stunning albums over the last few years.  Clowes and Williams brought that all-too-rare piano/sax sound to the Spa on Friday evening and, with it, a few genuinely arresting compositions.  Clowes’s “Pfeiffer and the Whales” conjured up a sonic illustration of a whale watching trip she recently enjoyed with her husband, with the young musician’s soprano saxophone perfectly replicating the bewitching sound of whale-song as Williams fed faultless, watery improvisations into his piano.  The duo were able to complement their mostly cerebral jazz with some nice banter between tunes, with Gareth’s engaging wit shining through as usual.  A mainstay of jazz in general, and certainly of this festival, the saxophone made regular appearances throughout the weekend, most notably during sets by Alan Barnes and Dave and Judith O’Higgins, familiar faces on the local jazz scene and musicians who consistently pump masses of quality into this festival each year.  Barnes/O’Higgins & The Sax Section, who played a rousing set on Saturday afternoon, delighted listeners with their sax-powered machine, helped along by the non-flashy mastery of drummer Sebastiaan de Krom and sinuous basslines of Adam King, not to mention another fine appearance from pianist Gareth Williams.  British born LA sax man Benn Clatworthy played an impressive set on Friday afternoon which was just as sharp and smart as the musician himself, who arrived on stage looking like a Mad Men cast member in his crisp grey suit and magenta tie.  Whilst Rod Young scoured each nook and cranny for some intriguing drum fills and pianist John Donaldson and bassist Simon Thorpe were given plenty of room to explore their own seemingly limitless prowess, Clatworthy seemed to empty his very soul into his sax to produce some surprisingly delicate melodies.  His version of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere” was unlike the usual jazz readings of the piece, with some interesting repositionings of melody and a dreamlike mood that was sustained throughout.  Clatworthy also performed a strikingly original version of “Limehouse Blues”, founded unconventionally on an attractive minor key.  Australian tenor saxophonist Brandon Allen called upon some golden age be-bop to close the festival with a straight-ahead powerhouse performance on Sunday evening.  His sextet, featuring Nigel Hancock on alto, Mark Nightingale on trombone, Ross Stanley on piano, Sam Burgess on bass and Ian Thomas on drums, performed a powerful version of Stanley Turrentine’s “Don’t Mess With Mr T” which featured a searing Hammond solo by Ross Stanley, as well as a sprightly reading of the Bricusse/Newley classic “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which Allen dedicated to the recently departed Gene Wilder.  The moment the sax took centre stage, however, was during Saturday night’s Charlie Parker on Dial; a stage documentary headed by pianist Alex Webb.  The show, which took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Parker’s 1946-47 stint with the American bebop label via music and screen projections, showcased the talents of alto man Nathaniel Facey whose somewhat nonchalant approach added further power to his staggeringly sweet sound.  Big band fans didn’t have time to find disappointment during the weekend’s line-up, with two of the very best bands on the scene performing rousing sets.  The Abstract Truth Big Band paid tribute to Oliver Nelson’s classic 60s album with an energetic performance of consistently daring arrangements of those solos by Hubbard, Dolphy and Nelson we’ve come to love.  Like the Charlie Parker on Dial set, however, this tribute to great jazz of the past was executed with a forward-looking approach that made each composition seem fresh and vibrant.  On Saturday afternoon, the SK2 Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Dave Tyas, brought the unique sound of the late Stan Kenton to Scarborough with arrangements of the great band leader’s finest selections.  The muscular eighteen-piece outfit almost blew the roof off the Victorian Spa, whilst solos from lithe trombonist Ellie Smith and razor-sharp trumpeter Neal Morley left some of the crowd standing in ovation.  Despite festival organiser Mike Gordon’s recent remarks on Radio York concerning his wishes to keep Scarborough from becoming a world music festival, there were robust arguments this weekend to maintain a world flavour at the festival, not least in performances by Vula Viel and Pan Jumby.  The latter act delivered a red hot set of steel pan-infused jazz to the Friday afternoon audience, with Dudley Nesbitt proving that a single steel pan can fill an ornate English seaside theatre to the brim with Trinidadian calypso.  Nesbitt’s tight band had everyone bobbing around in no time, perhaps providing a little practice for Vula Viel’s high-energy performance on Sunday afternoon.  Whilst the rest of the country were tucking into their Sunday dinners, Scarborough’s South Bay was being shaken to its core by a band who call upon the tribal rhythms of Upper West Ghana to create some of the most passionate fusion jazz you’re ever likely to hear.  While George Crowley braved a sprained ankle to impart some nifty sax licks and drummers Dave De Rose and Simon Roth sparred tirelessly at stage left and right, Bex Burch all but destroyed her self-built Gyil – an African wooden xylophone – with a performance that left every photographer with a roll full of blurred images.  Selections from the band’s wonderful 2015 album Good is Good, such as “Zine Dondone Zine Daa” and the infectious “Yes Yaa Yaa” were recreated perfectly and sewn together nicely with the ethereal synth of Dan Nicholls.  For the lovers of vocal jazz amongst us, this weekend’s bill had been lovingly peppered with some of this country’s finest singers.  New York-based pianist Alan Broadbent performed a sumptuous set of original compositions with British vocalist Georgia Mancio.  The duo have been engaged in a transatlantic writing relationship for the past few years and, during this weekend’s performance, several pages of their ‘songbook’ were shared with us including such beautiful songs such as “The Last Goodbye” and the tongue-twisting “Someone’s Sun”.  On Saturday, the festival welcomed the ever-jovial Nicola Farnon whose Sheffield-based trio performed a selection of buoyant standards.  Nicola’s warm, husky vocals breathed new life into such classics as “Frim Fram Sauce” and “Moonlight in Vermont”, whilst her performance of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” left the crowd awestruck.  Perhaps the most memorable and genuinely moving moment of the festival came during the set of one of this country’s most treasured vocalists.  Liane Carroll performed a laid-back set of crowd pleasers, showcasing her dazzling piano skills (a distinctly impressive talent she, remarkably, downplays) as well as her soaring vocals on Sunday evening.  Her solo performance was coloured by her reliably pleasing selection of songs including “Bring Me Sunshine” and the wonderful “Seaside” from her latest record, as well as “The Nearness of You” and an arresting version of Artie Butler’s “Here’s to Life”, the song Carroll played to her mother just one hour before she passed away.  A beautiful tribute to an admirable lady, and a fitting close to a truly outstanding and humorously engaging set.  The original Scarborough Spa was built around the source of the town’s famous spa waters; a spring that was said to have healing powers and which gave birth to the very idea of the seaside resort.  Nowadays, the local council suggest that visitors don’t try to drink the water that flows from Oliver’s Mount, down the cliff and into the grey North Sea.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t come to Scarborough, especially at the end of each September, to find rejuvenation in the trickling sound of piano, the flowing streams of sax solos and the deep froth of a good bass.  The Scarborough Jazz Festival provides a weekend of diverse jazz performances, tinged with a feeling of being on holiday and a general atmosphere of fun and relaxation.  It is a continuing credit to its organisers, its staff and its musicians.

Joey Alexander | Countdown | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.09.16

If you were to jump randomly into Countdown, the latest release from Bali-born pianist Joey Alexander, you’d have a pretty good chance of hearing a line of improvised piano charged with enough invention and emotion to melt steel.  And once the molten metal is happily bubbling away, prepare to have your mind blown by the fact that this staggeringly dexterous musician is just thirteen years of age.  That’s right; this dynamic, passionate music – surely the work of a seasoned old jazz musician – is coming from the heart and fingers of someone who isn’t even old enough to remember the Concorde.  But forget Alexander’s age for a second (an easy task, given that Countdown, this young artist’s second release, is such a mature work) and bask in the sonic delights of a tight, conversational trio, led but not dictated by a pianist who never uses his technical gifts to enthral his listener without consulting the emotional sentiment of the composition in hand.  Unlike countless other dazzling wunderkinds, there’s thoughtful expression in Alexander’s playing that lends Countdown its colourful palette and allows the delightfully inquisitive rhythms of drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and tangy basslines of Dan Chmielinski or Larry Grenadier, depending on tracks, to shine through with ebullient freedom.   From the steady acceleration of the Latin-infused “City Lights”, via the warm gospel of “Sunday Waltz”, a buoyant take on Monk’s “Criss Cross”, a meditative reading of “Maiden Voyage” (by Joey’s champion and friend Herbie Hancock and featuring a lovely soprano sax from Chris Potter) to the devastating solo beauty of “Chaplin’s Smile” and compelling rendition of Wynton Marsalis’s “For Wee Folks”, Countdown is a prismatic album that demands to be played and played.

Jim Black Trio | The Constant | Album Review | Intakt Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.10.16

From the opening bars of “High”, in which a tranquil nasally bass lays the foundations for this suite of ten new compositions, a perpetual melody and theme starts to take shape.  It’s a melody passed amongst these adventurous, textured compositions with great reverence, but with a fragility that points a spotlight on the dexterity of this progressive trio.  Seattle-born Jim Black is a well-known and well-respected drummer and bandleader who has, over the last two decades, cut an impressive niche for himself.  His style is energetic, unpredictable and forward-thinking; three adjectives which could easily be applied to The Constant, which sees Black playing with acclaimed Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder and outstanding New York bassist Thomas Morgan.  Together, these inventive players whip up a storm of a record thanks to the gut-churning depths of Stemeseder’s piano on “Chinchilla”, the organic, searching basslines from Morgan on “Song E” and the inventiveness of Black’s percussion, which goes from tinkering to tempest in the blink of an ear.

The Peter Edwards Trio | A Matter of Instinct | Album Review | Edwards Music Productions | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.11.16

Trinity Laban Conservatoire graduate and BBC-championed musician and composer Peter Edwards has earned a great deal of respect from critics over the past few years, especially after the release of his trio’s 2014 LP Safe And Sound.  But it’s with A Matter Of Instinct that this Tyner-esque pianist comes of age with a collection that includes quick footed sambas, some deliciously angular funk and fizzing soul.  Edwards is joined by Max Luthert, whose bass remains considerate throughout, and artful drummer Moses Boyd, who manages to keep his fellow musicians tightly bound from the get go. But it is, without any doubt, the delicate finger-walks of the trio’s pianist – bathed in the exquisite production of the legendary Tony Platt – that urges the listener to lean in.   Amongst the sprawling beauty of “Loved Ones” and “Down But Not Out”, as well as the title track which sees Edwards turn to the gorgeous Fender Rhodes electric piano, lies the album’s show-stealer “The Runaround”; a moment of quirky elegance which showcases Peter’s ability to make a rest seem even more interesting and alive than some of the notes themselves.  It’s a triumph of an album from a constantly engaging piano trio.

Southern Tenant Folk Union | Join Forces | Album Review | Johnny Rock Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 08.11.16

There’s an immediate warmth about STFU’s 7th album that draws the listener in, allowing you to draw warmth from the glow of their humanity in the face of the bleak world outside.  While the musical eclecticism is there, mixing Celtic, Americana, bluegrass and folk influences into a soul nourishing whole, the lyrical content is focussed, with political commentary reflecting the album’s title throughout.  Join Forces reflects the anger, despair and sheer disbelief the band feels at the current state of the world – albeit apparently written and recorded pre-Brexit and Trump – and the wish for people to come together to oppose the growing forces of negativity – so titles like “What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul?” and “Our Revolution Will One Day Come” are probably even more prescient than they realised at the time of recording.  Despite the concern expressed in the lyrics, this is an album with an overall positive feel – yes, the vocals of Rory Butler can have elements of wistfulness and melancholy but there is a generally positive feel to the songs and moments of sheer beauty when the voices of band members combine.  Musically there is some notable wizardry, with the banjo of Pat McGarvey and the violin of Katherine Stewart particularly deserving of mention but the dexterity is always used to serve rather than dominate the songs and is all the more enjoyable for that.   As a newcomer to the band, there’s enough here that relates to musical favourites that influences can be spotted and enjoyed, while kindling a desire to investigate their back catalogue and the opportunity to see them live. Nice!

Red Tail Ring | Fall Away Blues | Album Review | Earthwork Music | Review by Kev Boyd | 20.11.16

Originating out of the fabulously-named Kalamazoo, Michigan, Red Tail Ring are the acoustic duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp who play a mix of original songs, reworkings of contemporary pieces, and traditional ballads on guitar, fiddle and banjo.  Fall Away Blues is their fourth album and is full of their characteristic close harmonies, tasteful arrangements and sparse instrumentation.  There’s an integrity to their playing that is evident in the unpretentious approach of their arrangements and that works equally well with traditional material and their own compositions.  The deep-felt sentiments of something like “Gibson Town” – their powerful account of a tragic 2016 mass shooting in their home town – benefit from being presented in this unassuming fashion as much as the traditional “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” or the Sacred Harp reworking “Wondrous Love”.  The three traditional songs and one tune blend effortlessly with the self-written pieces and it doesn’t hurt that the playing throughout the album – whether on guitar and fiddle or twin banjos – is precise and unobtrusive and the vocals are heartfelt yet understated.  Perhaps the standout original song is the title track, played on guitar and fiddle with Laurel’s lead and Michael’s harmony vocals perfectly signposting the song’s sense of resignation coupled with a determination to overcome adversity.  It would be a pity if Red Tail Ring were grouped into that redundant category of ‘Americana’ as their repertoire and overall approach is much too distinctive for such an oversimplified term.  Here is a duo writing sincerely-felt original material that plays off a deep understanding of old time American traditions. They may look to the past for their musical inspiration – and when they do they pay it due respect – but they have a contemporary touch that breathes new life into old traditions and both re-invents and re-energises them.

The Gentle Good | Ruins/Adfeilion | Album Review | Bubblewrap Collective | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.11.16

This is a classic album in the making, a perfectly sequenced set of heart felt songs and tunes, think Bryter Later, Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon or John Martyn’s One World.  It is mood music, evoking dripping water off leaves, ancient forests glimpsed through old windows.  Like its title suggests, it is both traditional and timeless, looking back and looking forwards.  A ruin that feels like it has always been here and always will, crackling with a sense of the past, dismissing the transient obsessions of the now and setting its eyes firmly on the future.  Gwen Lliw’r Lili, a stately slow piece on harmonium opens the album.  As 19th century Welsh traditional piece it establishes context and an atmosphere.  “Pen Draw’r Byd (The Far Side of The World )”, a twisted love song, follows, with intricate classic finger picking guitar and lots of nods to John Renbourn or Jackson C Frank.  Mention is due here to the sheer quality of the recording at Stiwdio Felin fach, across the whole album the instruments always sound rich and real.  “Pen Draw’r Byd”’s welsh vocal builds into a duet with singer harpist Georgia Ruth.  Voices and strings blend into the same swirling electro folk inhabited by the excellent Mishaped Pearls or kora / guitar band Stranded Horse.  “Rivers of Gold” is a sensitively delivered ballad, very much in the tradition of Dylan, Bert Jansch or Ralph McTell with a harmonica break straight out of Midnight Cowboy.  On “Y Gwyfyn” guitars and spare drums are given space to breathe while the strings build rather than dominate.  This approach typifies the restraint of the album, with the Mavron Strings’ tasteful and pastoral arrangements evoking Robert Kirby’s work for Nick Drake.  Opening with ambience and a plantif saloon piano the title track overflows with a brooding atmosphere.  If this was a film we would be tracking through an empty house from an Andrew Wyeth painting, curtains blowing, while a solitary figure dances lost in the moment.  This is filmatic music with piano motifs tied to the rising pace of the falling rain we can hear, till it merges into an entirely unexpected, but perfectly phrased jazz, arrangement.  A splash of Oliver Nelson meeting Michael Nyman, and we are in a Philip Glass / Godfrey Reggio travelogue flying over an expansive landscape.  “Suffer the Small Birds” (a deliberate Shakespeare misquote) evokes the exotic phasing of Pentangle, jazzy percussion, flying fingers, virtuosic guitar and hypnotic vocals.  Again paired vocals with Georgia Ruth are perfect.  Gareth warns us to keep a close eye on the details and inside sweetly perfect music he makes a sharp political point.  Politics and a call for humanity are central to Bound for Lampedusa, Bonello’s despairing response to the African refugee crisis.  His despair is wound into a lullaby, a beguiling guitar part, a whispered crooning vocal and perfect strings.  The trumpet when it comes, is strangely reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s we have all the time in the world, It is that timeless.  “Un I Sain” is that winding guitar piece that you can’t help but stop and listen to, again there are musical nods aplenty to the playing and phasing of Renbourn, Gordon Giltrap and Al Stewart.  “Fisherman” is a reflective lament on transience and another beautiful duet with Georgia Ruth.  Gareth Bonello’s vocal phasing is relaxed and well-worn like Leonard Cohen at his melancholic best.  We end as we came in with layers of harmonium and vocal that swirl in “Merch Y Morfa”.  A snatch of curlew across the water evokes a terrific sense of place, lingering as the track fades away leaving you wanting more.  This is an album you will play again and again.  Musical bookending it with the harmonium invites you to leave it looping like a pastoral earworm.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry | Shine a Light | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl)| Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

There is so much that is evocative and intriguing about this collection, from the cover with its graphic based on a Union Pacfic Streamline train and Futura styled 1920s lettering, to the title, a quote from “The Midnight Special” and a line rich with suggestions of discovery and insight.  That the collection is tagged ‘field recordings from the great American railroad’ places us in direct contact with folk song collectors and those mid twentieth Century Folkways Recordings, selflessly discovering and documenting.  The sepia photo of Bragg and Henry reads like a 30s Walker Evans snap, Bragg is an English bloke in a flat cap and Joe Henry has a touch of swagger, thumbs in his belt and hat pushed back like a 19th Century gunslinger.  That they pose fan like under a station info sign just emphasises that this is a musical travelogue.  A Journey by two journeymen travelling through a landscape made from the past revisiting the songs that tell its story.  Sadly the excellent sleeve notes, that attempt to illuminate the songs by explaining where each was recorded and giving rich context on the tracks, don’t document the genesis of this project.  That, we are left to surmise.  Among the indigenous Australians a songline is an established track across the land that a knowledgeable traveller is able to navigate it successfully by recounting the words of the song.  Like those historic blue plaques recording historic events in specific locations we attach significance to locations.  Who hasn’t been fascinated by Paul Simon recounting that he wrote “Homeward Bound” on Widnes Station platform.  So the idea that you can gain insight by performing in a historically appropriate and sympathetic place is an excellent one.  The songs and the performances have an extra resonance or dimension because of where and how they are performed.  That the recordings are ‘warts and all’ and made in the field, laid down in moments between trains is fascinating.  Lots of artists and albums have been enriched by sound effects, some sonically sculpted to create a condensed psychedelic experience like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon or the ambience of a lakeside shore on John Martyn’s Small Hours.  Here the ambience gives a sense of place, a gritty realism, to the recordings.  The slamming of freight doors perfectly placed in the middle of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” creates a rich atmosphere and with its endless echo illustrates the size of the space they are recording in.  Station announcements aren’t scripted or edited like concrete poetry, they are grainy textures behind the main action.  It is to the credit of Bragg and Henry, and we wouldn’t expect anything less, that despite the familiarity of the material that they avoid a hokey, encore delivery.  Singing to the trains and the landscape they deliver the songs with integrity and sincerity.  Stand out tracks are the opener “Rock Island Line”, after the obligatory distant train whistle Henry and Bragg divide the vocals, picking out different lines and coming together on the chorus.  Listen to that spooky guitar and Bragg’s otherworldly vocal on “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.  “Lonesome Whistle” is actually recorded in a sleeper on the train, the size of the space adding an intimacy to the recording with its Tex-Mex guitar and rumbling duet vocals.  Any imperfections in the recording, like old denim jeans or patina, just adds to the charm.  While you would think, with respect, that Joe Henry would be more suited to songs about the American Railroad, Billy Bragg gets inside the lyric of “Waiting for a Train” and manages an excellent yelp ad yodel that wouldn’t shame Jimmie Rodgers.  “In the Pines” is an example of where the two vocals blend with Joe Henry’s higher register and Bragg’s lower, becoming one voice, ringing out every bit of emotion as they vocalise between verses.  It is testament to the strength of both performers that we can still be grabbed by their interpretations of a well-established song like John Hartford’s “Gentle on my Mind”.  Here and on “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry’s excellent vocal and a lovely guitar part leads, while Bragg’s vocal rumbles a bass part, in a way that is captivating.  Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” shares the same spirit as those earlier rail riders being a 1960’s lament about air flight.  Even if you have heard these tracks before, and I think that you have is part of the point, the performers and the performance make you listen again and I think that is definitely the point, of the album and the folk tradition.  This album presents limitless possibilities for future marriages of song and significant locations. A tour is already underway.  But knowing the fertile inventive minds of both Bragg and Henry I suspect they won’t be as easily pinned down and if there is another meeting it will be as left field as this one.

Coope Boyes Simpson | Coda | Album Review |  No Masters | Review by Ian Taylor | 28.11.16

For the last twenty-three years, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson have produced album after album chock full of socially conscious songs, steeped deeply in the folk tradition and delivered with face-slapping a capella harmonies.  Coda, their tenth album continues that sequence; fifteen songs, a mixture of traditional, self-penned and covers, conveyed with rich, honeyed three-part harmony.  Topical subject matter includes the Iraq War, the fishing industry, Palestine, mass migration and the environment, all sensitively handled, passionately sung and compassionately argued lyrically, such that it would surely be impossible to disagree with any sentiment.  Fine interpretations of Michael Marra’s surreal gem, Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar”, and Boo Hewerdine’s “The Man That I Am”, written for the Ballads of Child Migration project that both acts were involved in, complement the self-penned material perfectly, as do versions of traditional songs “Napoleon’s Dream” and “Flandyke Shore”.  But the album’s highlight has to be its closing track, “Anthem For A Planet’s Children”, Jim Boyes’s lyrics to Hans Leo Hassler’s hymnal tune are self-evident truisms to those of us with a social conscience of any kind.  That they have to be re-stated in these turbulent political times has to be the saddest indictment of modern society. This sentiment is rendered all the more poignant in the knowledge that, as its title suggests, Coda will be Coope, Boyes and Simpson’s final studio album.  Their 2017 tour and festival appearances will be their last together. The trio have made a vital contribution to the British folk canon and their legacy will be one of humanity, compassion, and fine, fine music.  It will be sad to see them go, but I suppose, at least, there are some Young’Uns waiting in the wings to take on the a capella kings’ mantle.

London Klezmer Quartet | To the Tavern | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 28.11.16

For newcomers to the term, Klezmer refers to a form of music associated with Eastern European Jews but while eminent musicologists may debate and indeed argue over the exact roots of the genre, the more sensible amongst us will just listen and enjoy.  Having first played this album in a car full of musicians, the review quickly took on a life of its own.  While acting as an introduction to Klezmer to several of the passengers, it met with immediate and universal approval, which is not necessarily the case with all vehicular located listening choices.  The comments received echoed and confirmed everything that may already have been written or said about the five people who make up the quartet (check out their website maths fans).  From the virtuosity of the individual members to the quality of the arrangements, the vibrancy of the performances, the whole album was a shared delight and went on a quickly requested repeat.   The latter point is worth exploring, in that the album lasted much of the journey from a meeting point in Warrington to downtown Oswestry, comprising 17 tracks (albeit containing a welcome reprise of first track, Dobridden, at the end), reflecting the Klezmer experience in all its moods – from sorrow to exuberance, despair to joy, with room for playfulness and humour.   Highlights are almost too many to mention but the perfect timing of “The Summertime Waltz” was much admired and Susi Evans drew particular praise for her clarinet contribution to “The Inn Keeper’s Wife” and her foot tapping part in “Clackety-Clack Bulgar” as both brought expressions of delight from the back seat.  The LKQ are 8 years young, have a deservedly worldwide presence and this, their 4th release, is ostensibly a concept album, telling the story of a klezmer band’s 24 hours in a small town, although we will have to take their word for it.  Where songs feature vocals, Indra Buraczewska delivers with both depth and beauty but the lyrics are impenetrable to those of us with a restricted linguistic range – not that this detracts from the overall experience.  There is even a jazz tinged intro that just hints at the arrival of Tom Waits but his non-appearance is quickly overlooked as the music flows ever onward.  A more lyrical companion described the album as containing ‘music the texture of twilight’ and while that meaning may be equally obscure, it does sum it up perfectly.  Take some friends for a drive with the London Klezmer Quartet, if they don’t thank you, find new friends.

Methera | Vortex | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.11.16

The commingling of classical and traditional folk music has given us some fine work over the years but never so pleasingly rendered as Methera’s Vortex.  The release of this stunningly presented nine-track instrumental album marks ten years of the four-piece string ensemble and, as the hand-painted text inside the package suggests, we’re once again treated to “a halo of music” complete with delectable “curlicues of sound”.  Indeed, it’s hard to resist plundering a well of poetic adjectives when trying to describe Methera’s third release.  The quartet consists of cellist Lucy Deakin, viola player Miranda Rutter along with fiddlers John Dipper and Emma Reid.  Each player delivers a wide understanding of the traditional music of Britain, Sweden and other lands, which plunges what is essentially a classical string quartet deep into an earthy, root-entangled sound.  Think Haydn with dirty fingernails.  The album presents a tapestry of scenes from a range of traditions including the folk tune “Rising Sun” from John Offord’s great English collection, a set of Celtic jigs including the Shetland tune “Da Shaalds O’Foula” and the “Irish Old Favourite” as well as self-penned pieces such as Lucy Deakin’s enchanting “The Fox” and Emma Reid’s life-affirming “Lilly”, each tune further illuminated by informative liner notes.  Produced with tender care by musician, composer and producer Robert Harbron and reflecting the “inward-facing circle” which has become Methera’s trademark performance setup, Vortex is an album that insists on pulling us into its rich spiral of sound and sentiment.

Sara Watkins | Young in All the Wrong Ways | Album Review | New West Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

Sara Watkins first came to my attention as vocalist and fiddle player with the feel good American Bluegrass band Nickle Creek, With Nickle Creek on indefinite hiatus Sara Watkins has pursued an always interesting solo career.  Three releases in and Young In All The Wrong Ways shows how far Sara has travelled from her beginnings.  The opening title track starts gentle with her excellent voice close to the mike, but a guitar riff straight off Hozier’s 2014 Hozier album and a drum sound Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham would be proud of quickly offers great light and shade.   “The Love That Got Away” is a great classic ballad, again showing Sara’s depth as a vocalist with a sparse arrangement that gives her room to shine.  “One Last Time” is more firmly looking back to her Bluegrass beginnings.  “Move Me” is a great track, one of the album’s big hitters, with a vocal like a raucous Sheryl Crow or Lucinda Williams and a great Southern Soul groove you can imagine will sound amazing live.  Great guitar too, raw like Liege And Leif era Richard Thompson.  Would be great to hear this band stretch out like this more often.  “Like New Year’s Day” is as sparse and textured as a Blue Nile anthem.  It opens with a pulsing keyboard and a heartbeat drum that creates intimacy and draws you in, creating a foil for one of the albums shine out vocals.  Again this is confessional Lucinda Williams territory, perfectly evoking the early morning reverie the lyric describes.  The intimate wee small hours vibe continues with “Without A Word”.  String bass, brushed drums, period Hammond organ and distant strings create an atmosphere that perfectly contains the vocal.  Puts me in mind of Van Morrison on 1970’s Into The Mystic, like the rest of the album everything is so balanced and perfectly poised.  “Tenderhearted” the album closer has a vocal stretching towards Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball, the voice is that pure and demanding of attention with the best left till last.  It’s a short album, textured but paired back, rich but distilled with lots of flavours in the mix.  At the end it leaves you, as the best do, wanting more.

The Revellers | Skeletons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 29.11.16

If the name of the band isn’t sufficient to hint at a major influence, the fact that their publicity material features a ringing endorsement from Mark Chadwick will serve to confirm where the band is coming from.  That said, they are not slavish copyists, they do bring enough of themselves to the party to make the results an interesting listen.  Fusing rock and folk, with a large dose of the former and instrumentation from the latter, the results are a coherent high energy fusion of elements of heavy metal, punk and tradition that belies the fact that all seven members enjoy both joint and individual writing credits.   Based in the Shetlands, they have attracted a devoted following that has translated into considerable attendances at their gigs, which one can easily imagine create a powerful shared experience, the like of which bands such as Ferocious Dog, The Leylines and the more punk folk oriented Headsticks are currently offering on the mainland.  There are quieter, more reflective moments, though we have to wait until track seven “Gallows Hill”, although the finale does see a return to the higher octane end of the spectrum.  If I have a criticism, it is that occasionally there are so many musical ideas fighting for space that the major thread of a song can get a little lost, straying a little into what could be considered prog folk, with the songs extended to accommodate this, though at the same time, their inventiveness has to be applauded and the contributions of fiddle and banjo are worthy of particular mention – with the violin element being somewhat reminiscent of metal-folk pioneers Skyclad and the banjo of Lewie Peterson adds an extra dimension.  If you like your folk-rock to be of the decidedly rock-folk persuasion and perhaps have come to folk from a background in noisier genres and fancy a mandolin driven pogo or even a little headbanging with a celtic feel – this could well be the band and album for you.

Martha Fields | Southern White Lies | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 30.11.16

Martha Fields is a Texan, currently resident in France, with deep Appalachian roots and an impressive grasp of the central tropes of American roots music. Southern White Lies is her second album but you’ll need to search under her former pseudonym of Texas Martha to find her first. With this name change came a distinctive revision in musical policy, so while her earlier release explored the classic sounds of Texan Honky-tonk, Southern White Lies reaches back to her ancestral and musical roots in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  The songs deal with some deeply personal issues and dark emotions but there’s also room for the occasional burst of good humour.  Fields has gathered together a terrific band of acoustic musicians to realise this new material. The core ensemble of violin, bass fiddle, dobro and occasional mandolin reveal exceptional musicianship throughout a combination of old time bluegrass, country, and blues styles and Martha’s rough-hewn, careworn vocals sit powerfully atop the sweet string band sounds.  The combination should perhaps jar but on the rare times it does it’s by design and to the benefit of the material.   At the core of this collection are three original songs that trace the American working class experience through the album’s two significant geographical locations – Appalachia and Texas.  The title track rails against pandering politicians and the creeping capitalism represented by the paradigm of ‘big box’ stores obliterating the ‘mom and pops’.  “Do As You Are Told” is the moving story of one Letha May Fields, born one of ten siblings in the 1920s and whose refusal to adhere to the prevailing patriarchy led to an untimely and undignified end.  “American Hologram” is a powerful indictment of the redneck culture’s tendency to go against its own self-interests at the bidding of conservative ‘blue dog democrats’.  There’s a justified sense of righteous indignation evident both in the lyrics of these core tracks and in Fields’ delivery.  As with any great album, where there’s light there must also be shade. Janis Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “California Blues”, amongst other notable examples, offer some relative respite from the intensity of the core tracks.  The Methodist hymn “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” is the perfect vehicle for Martha and band to demonstrate their mastery of the classic high lonesome style.  The album’s only negative quality is in its running order which tends to sandwich the faster songs in the middle with the slower tracks at the beginning and end.  It’s a pity because there’s a five-star album desperately struggling to escape this awkward programming.  That said, taken as a collection of individual, exceptionally realised songs, or better still experienced on shuffle mode where the slower tracks have a decent chance to breathe between the more up-tempo numbers, Southern White Lies is an engrossing and thought provoking album of fine American roots music.

Merry Hell | Bloodlines | Album Review |  Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 01.12.16

Merry Hell have a solid track-record of releasing undeniably anthemic songs and Bloodlines continues the trend of catchy hooks, positive messages, and foot-tapping sing-along choruses. From the opening notes of the album it’s obvious you’re listening to Merry Hell.  Bloodlines is without doubt the most well produced and polished Merry Hell album so far.  With wailing electric guitar and stomping drums they feel ever closer to the Celtic punk of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl; it’s a sound you’d definitely associate more with a good pub than a folk club – but these are well thought through arrangements and productions, smooth and warm, you can hear the love that has gone into the making of these songs.  Elements of this album definitely feel softer and more reflective than their previous works.  This isn’t just pub fodder; it’s well produced, well written, and beautifully presented.  The packaging and artwork is beautiful too.  Seven different lyric writing groups (John Kettle, Virginia Kettle, Bob Kettle, Bob Kettle & Lee Goulding, Bob Kettle & John Kettle, Neil McCartney, Lee Goulding & Virginia Kettle & Bob Kettle) contributed to the 13 track album and it hangs together exceptionally well.  Virginia’s songs are the ones that resonate the strongest with me, but it’s clear that the sound of the band draws strongly from the input of all the members.  It’s an effective way of adding variety to the mix.   The message from Merry Hell is one of hope, of unity, of standing together.  2016 has been a year of racial division and political disharmony and Bloodlines seeks to shine some light into that situation.  We need each other now is more than just a catchy hook and an opening song, it’s the message at the core of the album.  With all that said I can’t help but acknowledge that Merry Hell generally feel like they write songs for their live performance first, and the home listening experience second.  The hooks and repetitiveness are writing modes that excite large crowds into dancing and singing along rather than necessarily translating perfectly to the home listening experience.  It’s not that they don’t work; but there’s still room for that final level of refinement that could elevate Merry Hell to the chart topping heights of The Beautiful South and Chumbawamba.  I’d happily say this is the best Merry Hell album yet, it’s addressed some of the production qualms I had with The Ghost In Our House; but I’m still looking forward to the next one.  More than that though I’m looking forward to finally seeing Merry Hell performing live, if this album is anything to go by it’ll be a brilliant night!

Emily Smith | Songs For Christmas | Album Review | White Fall Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.12.16

Since winning BBC Radio Scotland’s Traditional Musician of the Year in 2002 Emily has produced a series of delightful albums that blend traditional and contemporary material in a beguiling way.  She appeared in season four of The Transatlantic Sessions, BBCs excellent series of collaborations between folk and country musicians from both sides of the North Atlantic.  Listening to this fine album, it is those TV shows, with American country and acoustic meeting Celtic and UK folk, that come most strongly to mind.  From beginning to end Songs For Christmas evokes those sets of musicians performing in an isolated house surrounded by the fiercely beautiful Caledonian landscape.  Emily Smith’s vocal is very much the star of the album and like The Transatlantic Sessions, it manages to be very Scottish and have that Appalachian crystalline beauty. The album opens with “Find Hope”, Emily’s own composition, which sets the scene and introduces the theme of hope of Christmas.  There is a lightness of touch on the playing and arrangement and a spryness that recalls Alison Krauss.  “Christ Has My Hairt, Ay” continues the intimate feeling with lovely band passages that alternate with the voice coming to the fore for the verses.  Show of Hands’ 2006 sharp anthem “Roots”, decries our lack of a shared language of song, as family singsongs round a piano and more recently the folk revival of the 60s retreat behind us.  While it is hard to disagree with the sentiment, Christmas songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are a strong example of a feel-good music that is in the marrow of many of us.  Maybe if we could invest the same spirit that floods into Christmas and spills over into the whole of December into other festivals, then we would have many more shared songs and a reason to sing them.  Emily’s version is a thing of beauty; great guitar, understated percussion and spectral vocals between the verses strip away memories of Carol singers and make it something new.  With a tune that recalls The Albion Band’s “Poor Old Horse”, “Heard From Heaven Today”, slows the tempo down and builds an evocative atmosphere as does John Doyle’s wonderful benediction “Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight”.  Showing the long relationship between Folk and the festive album or at least seasonal songs, “The Blessings Of Mary” is oft recorded.  Maddy Prior and June Tabor featured it on the first Silly Sisters album, Coope Boyes Simpson and others recorded it on their Voices At The Door album, Oxford’s “Magpie Lane” on their festive album Knock At The Knocker Ring At The Bell, The Albion Christmas Band recorded it twice on their Snow On Snow and Tradition albums.  Kate Rusby, certainly no stranger to the possibilities of festive folk, recorded it on her Christmas album While Mortals Sleep and the Live At Christmas DVD.  Here Emily Smith takes it at a brisk pace with a delivery that contrasts the sombre lyric, again the band plays with passion and energy.  “Silent Night” is a lullaby, a soothing tempo, honey vocals as warm and seductive as a hot toddy with a jazz violin that is very Hot Club Of Paris.  The final trio of songs are reflective, thinking about those absent and looking back on time spent.  “Santa Will Find You” carries the jazzy chords on behind a vocal washes over you, part Nancy Griffith and part Diana Krall.  “The Parting Glass” strips everything away but Emily’s evocative vocal wrapped in atmospherics and an emotional violin.  A beautiful contemplative end to an album of Winter beauty.  Roaring down through the Blue Ridge in summertime Virginia with the top down, the Americana elements might perfectly match the scenery and the mood, but listening to it in December, curtains drawn against the dark and the stove glowing it matches the mood perfectly.  There is a fine tradition of music recorded for and about the Christmas season both inside and outside the Folk tradition.  70’s anthems from Wizzard and Slade, feel good singalongs like “Fairytale of New York”, Lindisfarne’s “Winter Song”, Jethro Tull’s “Christmas Song” and Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” that evoke the melancholic side of the time of plenty that exists for some.  Alongside all of those this is a fine fireside late night companion, an excuse for a glass which by turn, up lifts you, makes you think, makes you smile and finally leaves you with a warm glow. ​

Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton | Symbiosis | Album Review | Great White Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.12.16

There is simply no other word which better describes the new album by Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton than the one they chose for its title.  Symbiosis presents nine tunes which perfectly demonstrate the magic that happens when two musicians find a deep connection through their music.  And although these seasoned performers have each forged a reliable reputation individually, playing with the likes of Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean and Capercaillie over the years, its hard to imagine wrenching the two apart, especially after hearing such tracks as “Smiler” and “Fourth”.  Take the latter, where the melody lines flow rapidly and resolutely in unison through each musician’s whistle before suddenly diverging into equally fascinating and exciting harmonies; this, like most of the tracks on Symbiosis, is the kind of Scottish traditional music which demands the hearts and souls of two interdependent players.  It’s no surprise to discover, after hearing such a suite as Loch, consisting of Ainslie’s exquisite “Love of the Loch” and Tom Gibbs’ foot-tapping “Gibbo’s Number 1”, that this Scottish duo have been making music together since the age of twelve.  Ross and Ali have chosen for their heartfelt debut an impressive line up of musicians.  While the two old friends dazzle on pipes, whistles, guitar, cittern, banjo and harmonium, the Treacherous Orchestra’s Duncan Lyall earths the electricity of the album with his dependable bass while renowned percussionists Martin O’Neill and Gus Sicard provide some slick bodhran and snare.

Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer | Great Shakes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.12.16

Session Americana are a Boston based band who have been playing together since 2003, Jefferson Hamer, because of his album with Anais Mitchell is slightly better known in the UK, but don’t be put off by a low profile, there is much here to reward the listener.  A languid, west coast early 70s vibe permeates this album.  The playing, the warm atmosphere with its suggestion of valves and well-worn vintage guitars, harmonised vocals time stamped by people like The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, create a definite sense of time and place.  Don’t be wrong footed by the sensible, affable looking bunch on the cover, there is more going on than that candid shot would first suggest; something a little more woozy, weatherworn and dark would be required, for it to ‘do what it says on the tin.’  Opener “One Skinner” occupies the same ‘end of the party – one more till bed’ space as Ryan Adams and Neil Young at their most delightfully dilated.  “Helena” has some beautiful vocal harmonies, with a wonderful harmonica break and a guitar part at the end that could be ‘old shakey’ himself.  “Bumbershoot” is a little more contemporary with an interesting time signature against a great gnarly organ part and those layered vocals that Crowded House did so well.  Apparently a Bumbershoot is a 19th American term for an umbrella.  “Big Mill In Bogalusa” has that great ‘whisky vocal’ that Dr John and Tom Waits inhabit so completely.  Deep South imagery abounds, again there is some nifty guitar and wonderfully dirty harmonica.  If your musical reference points include Robbie Robertson circa “Crazy River” then you’ll hit repeat on this track and turn it up for the massed voices at the end.  “What Are Those Things” is more acoustic Americana, the guitar riff nods to Johnny Cash’s “Man Comes Around”, heartfelt vocals recall Dylan and Tom Petty.  “Tired Blue Shirt” is something else. The ambience and bass intro could be Massive Attack doing Country and becomes one of those atmospheric loops you could listen to forever.  The vocal when it cuts in is filtered and layered like the nu-country electronica of Jim White and the observational lyrics of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.  This song just oozes melancholic regret.  “Great Western Rail” is all about the vocals and the pictures they draw.  Poignantly given its timing, over a wonderfully late drumbeat the spirit of Leon Russell inhabits this track.  “Mississippi Mud”, as the title suggests is a fine piece of Southern Soul, an ode to the vagaries of a mighty river.  The track gets into a great classic 70s groove with layers of percussion and a snaking guitar.  The tempo change and Grateful Dead guitar solo at the end suggests a band who can really stretch out live.  “One Good Rain” has vocal harmonies the Eagles would have been proud of.  Tight playing and metaphor laden lyrics build the atmosphere of an anthem.  The album closes with “Barefoot Sailors” again the writing is wry with the weary reflection of a drinking song.  Beautiful vocals paint vivid timeless pictures over an undercurrent of melancholia and regret. Having created such a pervasive atmosphere, the track just rolls on. If this isn’t a folk song it soon will with a thousand acoustic cap wearing troubadours strumming it for small change.  They should send a copy to James Taylor, he’d snap it up.  While aware of a rich musical past, this is no tribute or pastiche. Its rich palette is evocative and embracing and suggests that real greatness in terms of profile and sales is very close.​

Michael Chapman | 50 | Album Review | Paradise of Bachelors | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

Michael Chapman is a survivor, a Fully Qualified Survivor, his legendary second album, released in 1970, would have us believe.  An Art College Photography lecturer, who’d paid his way through University by playing jazz guitar, Chapman found himself in rainy Cornwall in 1966.  Broke, with only petrol money for the trip home, he paid his way into a Folk Club by playing for half an hour.  This led to a summer residency and a phone call explaining that Mr Chapman would not be returning to teach in September. The rest is, as they say, history.  Spotted by Ralph McTell, he was eventually signed to the very hip Harvest label, EMI’s late 60s attempt to grow its hair.  Rainmaker a mix of virtuoso guitar and melancholic folk blues was followed by the fore mentioned Survivor, John Peel’s album of the year and the recording debut of Hull gardener Mick Ronson, brought to David Bowie’s attention by the album’s producer Gus Dudgeon.  It also contained “Postcards of Scarborough” the song that was, in terms of radio play and exposure, his hit.  The fact that it is a favourite of Shelia, Peel’s wife is obviously mere coincidence.  Two more albums for Harvest led to a more electric 70s period with Decca, playing with Rick Kemp, Keef Hartley, Rod Clements, Camel, Dave Mattacks, BJ Cole the list is endless.  Through the 80s, 90s and 21st Century a constant flow of albums and projects followed, Playing Guitar The Easy Way an instructional guitar album, Heartbeat an album length instrumental piece, the Americana albums, exercises in travelogue.  Of course the gigs continued continuously after that Cornish debut. Indeed in July 2016 Michael celebrated his 50th annual appearance at Botallack, where sheltering from the wet he jumped off the 9 to 5.   To call 50, on the American Paradise of Bachelors label, a comeback, would be to suggest that he ever went away.  There was no period of running a vintage guitar shop, driving trucks or managing a pub.  If anything it was us that went away, while Michael carried on being Michael.  Whether that is a sign of vision and someone following an ever shifting muse, or typical Yorkshire bloody mindedness is a matter of opinion.  He would laugh, take a mouthful of heavy red wine and dismiss it as being difficult.  It is to Michael’s credit that he has stayed true to himself, while someone else is in the producer’s chair and while this is very much an ensemble album, that singlemindedness and character runs through every note of this excellent album.   50 notes the number of years he has been on the road, the length of his ‘marriage’ to Andru, muse and fellow conspirator.  It was also intended to mark the number of albums he’d recorded, till it was pointed out to Chapman that if you include studio, live, library albums of incidental music and archival compilations, then his 50th new album was in 2010.  However its titled, 50 is a milestone, marking a period of resurgence of interest in Michael Chapman.  Championed by long time fans like Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and name checked by a whole host of new American musicians including William Tyler, Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose this is very much his time.  In the last two years Chapman has released an instrumental album Fish another high water point, a shared release of songs with “Hiss Golden Messenger”, an album of improvised instrumentals inspired by his heroes and has an album with Israeli Ehud Banai (another lifelong Chapman fan) lined up for spring 2017.  In the UK it has been a slower burn with his material recorded by Show of Hands while Supergrass, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and Ben Watt are among the people who have name checked Chapman in print.  50 is Michael Chapman finally making an American album, earlier albums have been released in America to great acclaim, Savage Amusement in 1975 was produced by US musician and songwriter Don Nix, with some overdubs at Ardent in Memphis.  But after 48 years this is recorded at Black Dirt Studio in New York State with Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles (Pelt, The Black Twig Pickers), Jason Meagher (The No Neck Blues Band), and James Elkington ( American by location if not birth)  who has played with Jeff Tweedy among others, gathered around him.  Chapman’s most American of releases also represents a surrender of control with Steve Gunn producing and players chosen to do what they do best and not just to be session players, this is very much a group piece.  “Spanish Incident (Ramon and Durango)” a road song and a recollection of time wasted, opens the album.  An up-tempo insistent riff is carried by Chapman’s guitar, banjo and a jangling piano. A strong opener this is a rare gem, Chapman that you can dance to.  The lyric is part anecdote with a strong sense of place, religious imagery and even a nod to Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”.  While a number of the tracks are revisits of older material, standards if you like, that Michael ever the jazzer, like an acoustic wielding Miles Davis, reinterprets with different players, “Sometimes You Just Drive” is a new song.  By any measure it is a corker, with imagery inspired by the floods in Carlisle.  But like a classic blues the writing is deeper and wider.  The title suggests a resignation that many things are out of our control, that life just isn’t fair and that battered by time, by circumstance and adversity we are all lucky to be here.  Bridget St John, collaborator, friend and touring partner since Deal Gone Down in 1974, delivers a perfect vocal on this track, part gospel call and response, part sonic foil, it adds to the other worldliness.  Water and bad weather are vividly suggested by the guitars that fade in and out behind Chapman’s acoustic.  “The Mallard” is an ode to one of Michael’s other obsessions, trains.  Written in York Station, lifelong obsessions are woven together, with imagery that includes steam, love and 1940s music as Texan Jazz Trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden gets a name check.  Earlier versions of this track, first recorded in 1995, were exercises in space with the riff and bass notes acting like an earworm.  Here it is all about the ensemble, that characteristic Chapman riff is still there but given the number of excellent players on the album it is all about the guitar.  Three or even four, players and parts weave around the vocalists, layering and texturing like a string big band, but never smothering.  The last couple of minutes and we are off into 70s Floydian territory.  A guitar riff that is part ‘buskers stomping foot’ opens “Memphis In Winter”.  A life and death mid-winter drive into and through the southern city, inspired this bitter anthem.  Written even before hurricane Katrina, the dark lyric shatters the myth of prosperity for all in the American dream.  Reality is compared to the myth of Hollywood, as a film prop plane is held up and found wanting.  We are battered by the pace, the imagery and some of the angriest electric guitar on the album.  With an acoustic riff that recalls “Postcards of Scarborough” and dirty 70s boogie guitar “The Prospector” is another layered song.  Written about a visitor setting up the mine off the Chapman’s Farm drive, it details a succession of drunken visitors to the kitchen table.  Maddy Prior who recorded the song in 2011 talked about Chapman’s ability to mix micro and macro when writing and called it anthemic.  It starts as a wobbly acoustic ditty but the chorus of huge sounding electric guitars give the piece an intensity and you find yourself repeating the track and turning it right up.  Interestingly despite a span of 36 years the imagery just flows and echoes between “The Prospector”, “Sometimes You Drive” and “Memphis In Winter”.  “Falling From Grace”, a song about a falling out and a period of separation, dates from the 1980s.  Here it is reworked with different chords, but is still a classic Chapman song of regret, with him identifying and inhabiting his role of the outsider looking in.  It was captivating thirty years ago and remains so now.  The tune is split between Michael’s guitar and a keyboard motif as the instruments shimmer around him.  “Money Trouble” is a new song, another insistent banjo part and an amalgam of classic Chapman tunes with the quick fire truisms and life lessons peppered throughout.   “That Time Of The Night” was famously covered by Lucinda Williams in 2012, a fact that Michael, a huge fan, is fiercely proud of.   The pedal steel, languid tempo perfectly and hesitant piano suit Chapman’s delivery of this bottle half empty song perfectly.  Against the textures and layers elsewhere there is space and light here on another album highlight.  In the early 60s, earning summer money, while at Art College, Chapman worked on the Mexborough estates of North Yorkshire as a woodsman.  Slack time was spent writing classics like “In The Valley” and “Among The Trees”.  This period also explains a lot of the rural imagery in early songs by someone raised in Hunslett Leeds, an area not known for its wooded vistas.  A little later in the 70s Ehud Banai in Israeli retreated to the isolation of Rosh Pina and armed only with a cassette of Chapman’s Rainmaker focused on refining his guitar playing.  When they met, playing and touring together decades later, Michael was taken to Rosh Pina, Ehud’s In The Valley and this gently looping moody instrumental is his reponse to the scale of the biblical landscape.  “Navigation” the album closer on CD and digital versions of the album is another Chapman classic.  A swirling woozy ambience washes over a lyric that uses bad weather and adversity as a spring broad to ponder life. Space and a wobbly iconic Chapman guitar define the song as the album slow fades to a close. Footnote quiet nights are not usually what you get in the company of Mr Chapman and the reference is ironic.  Paraphrasing JWM Turner this album could have been called Wind, Weather Wine, Love and Regret.  For long time Chapman fans it is a bringing together of everything that he does so well, all the things that represent the best of Michael.  For more recent arrivals, this album represents so many of the reasons why he has been so vital for the last fifty years and will leave them scrambling for the huge back catalogue.

Johnny Coppin | All on a Winter’s Night | Album Review |  Red Sky Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 10.12.16

Blessed with a voice as crisp and clear as a frosty morning and with sufficient depth to give it the warmth of a welcome glass of mulled wine, Johnny Coppin delivers a set of seasonal songs to accompany your festivities.  Based on the content of his concerts of the same name and currently on tour, both the event and the album features a selection of songs that reflect his self-professed love of the midwinter period and the music associated with it – as evidenced by his three previous Christmas related offerings.  The album combines self-penned songs, such as the title track along with classics of the winter time, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “In The Bleak Midwinter”, a song and arrangement for which Johnny is perfectly suited.  In addition, and as befits a connoisseur of the songwriter’s art, there are carefully chosen more modern inclusions, with Blowzabella’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, Nigel Eaton’s “Halsway Carol” a shining example of this.  The musical delivery is also rounded out with contributions from musicians including old Decameron band mates Dik Cadbury and Geoff March.  For those coming new to Johnny, and while comparisons are odious, an excellent, if somewhat unexpected point of reference would be a quintessentially English John Denver, though drawing vocal purity more from the air of the rolling Cotswolds than a Rocky Mountain High.  Trivia fans might note that both artists were formerly students of architecture!  The overall feel of the album is one of time well spent in good and relaxed company as the nights draw in and one would expect that to be the case when the songs are presented live at his shows.  There is much to reflect the spiritual origins of the Christmas period and for those who might quibble about that in terms of the inevitably Christian focus, there are also nods towards other traditions with recognition of the solstice.  In terms of feel, there is the engaging aspect one would expect from Johnny, inviting the listener to draw nearer and enjoy but there are also elements to both raise and rouse the spirits, with “Welcome In Another Year” drawing an increased pressure on the accelerator pedal during the car located first listening of the CD.  As either a reminder of a live event or an accompaniment to a convivial evening with gentle-folk, this is a sure-footed and enjoyable performance all round.  As a quick aside, for those who may have had their interest in Johnny piqued and are looking for a less seasonally related collection, with this year and 2017 seeing the 80th anniversaries of the start of The Spanish Civil War and some of the major atrocities, Johnny’s collaboration with Laurie Lee is worth investigating.  The poems, songs and music take us through the work of the “Gloucestershire Boy”, whose descriptions of Spain before and during that turbulent period in “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” and “A Moment of War” are as powerful, poignant and evocative as those of his Slad Valley childhood.

David Simard | The Heavy Wait | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

From the offset this is a very intense album.  David Simard’s delivery is considered and authoritative, there is space and emotion in everything he does here.  The album is called The Heavy Wait, a phrase which apparently became a mantra from the first session onwards.  It could also refer to that stretching of time and space around every note on the record.  The title and the space since Simard’s last record and his delivery suggests that every line, each note has been refined, and carefully considered.  Paired back, distilled down to an intense essential essence. The Heavy Wait opens on “Cat’s Cradle” with a skeletal picked and strummed electric guitar laying down a sparse tune.  Lap Steel and percussion join in, but all this is ambience and mood lighting for the real star which is David Simard’s voice.  Clarinet and bowed bass create a jazz torch song over which the vocals are compelling.  The lyric talks about denial and rejecting pleasures as if the singer is involved in a process similar to the song.  The space and the considered delivery recalls melancholic 60s vocalists like Scott Walker.  That cracked bass rumble recalls the 50 styled delivery of Richard Hawley, or on tracks like “Good Clean Water”, classic singers like Roger Miller, Leonard Cohen or even Lonnie Donegan.  Cohen for his rumbling note rather than just as a lazy knee jerk reference because he is a Canadian.  David Simard’s voice swoops and yelps, creating songs that are intimate and timeless drawing you in, as you hang on every syllable.  The retro vibe is there on the faster tempo “The Guitar Player”, brushed drums spit out a frantic pattern with a chiming fifties styled guitar and a vocalise / guitar solo that nods to “Ghost Riders In The Sky”.  Again the vocal, like a male Imelda May whoops and rumbles through the song.  The Line slows it down again, sparse funeral drums and a beautifully crooned vocal, drawled in an affecting way that is atmospheric and emotional.  “I’m Bad” has a tempo and delivery that brings to mind the stretched tight qualities of Hank Williams’ classic road song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.  The lyric is pure melancholic drifter troubadour, you can imagine him sprawled on a motel double bed, cowboy boots on, strumming on a guitar, staring out of a huge picture window between faded curtains.  The arrangement is perfectly stripped back so the occasional strums of Simard’s electric fill the room.  This intense self-depreciating song is one of the highlights of a strong album.  “La Dee Da” continues that dark vibes, the tempo stretches time and the rumbling vocal with its yodel refrain draws you in. Simard’s delivery lends some sharp lyrics even more depth and pathos because of his impeccable timing.  ‘She’s a modern girl with a vintage feel’ seems to typify the mood and the attraction of the whole album.   “Superior” is another smouldering Folk Jazz piece, a beautiful ascending bass line, hesitant icy piano that is pure Bill Evans and a lap steel whose echoing call suggests the endless frozen landscape.  The vocal soars and falls, painting bleak pictures as much with its sound as with the words Simard forms.  “Said Too Much” is a lullaby. a song about a song, beautifully crooned over possibly some of the most perfect playing on the album, it stops abruptly, setting up the dramatic next track.  “Take Me In” opens with some wonderful primitive guitar, the mic right in the amp speaker to pick up every buzz and last piece of ambience.  The doubled tracked vocals with David and Brie Nelson, hesitant and charged are sublime, part Chris Isaak part Mark Hollis one time Talk Talk singer at his stripped back best. “Rorschach” the final track unconsciously channels Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” with its lyrical lady reference in the first line.  The lyrics are surreally descriptive, observational and rich.  Just as you wonder how much further Simard can push that guitar playing he puts it down and leaves it alone.  On “Rorschach” the sound separates this track from the rest of the album, the voice carries the tune over piano accents and a bass heavy rhythm.  Without the guitars the tempo and atmosphere suggests Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue.  Layered echoing brass that is more Specials “Ghost Town” than folk blues just leaves the albums inventive side till last, suggesting that Simard has a lot more yet to reveal.  Richly rewarding, with multiple layers of sound rather than orchestras of musicians, so you can hear the space, this is an album that bears repeated visits.  Play it loud, play it often and take the time to listen.

The Western Flyers | Wild Blue Yonder | Album Review | Versa Tone Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.12.16

Almost forty-two years have passed since the great Bob Wills shuffled off this mortal coil, but his departure didn’t, in fact, signal the end of western swing, the genre of music of which Mr Wills was the undisputed king. In fact, the heart of that toe-tapping, soul-cleansing style still beats healthily through the music of such revivalists as the Hot Club of Cowtown, Lyle Lovett, The Quebe Sisters Band and The Western Flyers, a trio whose meticulous rhythms and driving old-time strut have been lovingly preserved on Wild Blue Yonder.  This constantly zestful collection of thirteen swinging tracks was recorded using early Neumann, Telefunken and RCA ribbon microphones along with period tube pre-amps to give the whole thing a truly authentic, old-time feel. Joey McKenzie’s chugging guitar sounds eighty-years old, and all the better for it, while Katie Glassman’s fiddle and Gavin Kelso’s upright bass flit and weave between the speakers like a pair of Texas Coral Snakes.  The repertoire is authentic, too, with such well-known numbers as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tennessee Waltz” receiving the Western Flyer treatment.  And while the slick musicianship shines on this richly entertaining collection of songs from the thirties and forties, it is perhaps Katie Glassman’s voice that makes Wild Blue Yonder protrude from the shelf.  Her sweet yet weathered vocal on “Never No More” is nothing short of a treat, as is Joey McKenzie’s on “I’ll See You In My Dreams” which concludes the album in style.

Julia Biel | NCEM, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.12.16

As each of York’s twinkling streets and snickelways bustled with festive celebration this evening, one of this country’s most exciting young voices was concerned with entangling itself amongst the medieval rafters of St Margaret’s Church, better known as the National Centre for Early Music.  Julia Biel’s hypnotic vocals have earned her much praise over the last decade, with The Independent calling her ‘the best British vocalist to emerge in an age’, and her charming delivery of mainly self-penned songs provided, perhaps, one of this evening’s most warmly enchanting events that the tinsel-decked city had to offer.  The singer-songwriter’s second album Love Letters And Other Missiles was released to great acclaim in 2015, earning her a MOBO Award nomination, and her third release is set to appear in the new year.  Tonight, Julia delivered an impassioned performance of songs from her two albums, along with a selection of new compositions, with Ayo Solawu on drums and Biel’s partner Idris Rahman on bass.  Aside from her fine singing, which blends the raw earthiness of Billie Holiday with the sweet and soaring improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald, Biel is an impressive pianist and guitarist who lays her daringly acrobatic vocals on top of some rather exquisite jazz chord structures.  But whilst the temptation to label this young singer songwriter as a jazz artist is strong, it cannot be argued that Biel’s repertoire and, indeed, the trio’s delivery is very much entrenched in soul.  Songs such as “Who’s Gonna Comfort Me Now?” and Biel’s adventurous take on Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” provided two examples of this trio’s dexterity when it comes to foot-tapping soul whilst Emily, inspired by a rather creative six year old niece, explored the kind of sunny pop sound that has kept the likes of Ben Folds and Ed Harcourt in business for years.  Indeed, after hearing the infectious melodies of such devastatingly beautiful songs as “You Made Me Write a Love Song” and “Hymn for the Unknown”, one cannot help but wonder why Julia Biel isn’t the household name it should be.  During this evening’s second set, Julia had the good sense to cover the bewitching Coots/Gillespie song “You Go To My Head”, made famous by Billie Holiday back in 1938.  With a voice clearly inspired by Holiday, Biel’s sultry reworking of the classic jazz standard contained a number of curious melody quirks that succeeded in complimenting the already intoxicating nature of the song.  Biel’s willingness to pepper her self-penned set with established compositions that clearly suit her unique voice is something one hopes she’ll continue to do as her prowess and, indeed, reputation as a fine songwriter grows.

Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow | Thorganby Village Hall, Near York | Review by Keith Belcher | 23.12.16

Winterfolk – Winter Songs and Carols, an alternative celebration of Christmas, supported by The Lennanshees.

Belinda and Heidi last played Thorganby in October 2015.  It’s a lovely and very welcoming venue so I was pleased to see a return this Christmas.  The crowd this year had obviously heard about last years appearance  as numbers had increased almost threefold despite the best attempts of Storm Barbara to keep people snug at home.  The Lennanshees opened, three ladies, Bella, Maria and Tracey performing, with the exception of the occasional ukulele, acapella.  They specialise in ‘spine tingling melodies to warm your heart’.  They certainly lived up to that description.  Although they are York based I had never seen these before, a mistake I intend to rectify in future.  Their name is derived from a malicious faerie in Celtic Folklore.  There was absolutely nothing malicious about the beautiful harmonies they sang to a rapt, spellbound audience who listened intently to every word.  Opening with “The Coventry Carol” moving swiftly through excellent covers of songs by Anne Briggs, KD Lang, Sinatra, one of my favourite songs of all time, John Martyn’s “May You Never” and one song of their own “More Time” which compared very favourably to the wide range of covers.  Their short but very sweet set ended with Kooks as a tribute to David Bowie, one of the many great artists who have passed over in 2016.  They left the stage to considerable applause and I am fairly certain the audience would have liked a lot more.  Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow have had, by anyone’s standards, a very successful year.  Cambridge and Glastonbury appearances, rave reviews for new album Shadows, nominations for Best Duo, the praises have been many and well deserved.  Live they are superb, shows which cover the full spectrum of emotions always performed with warmth and obvious enjoyment.  They have an ever growing dedicated, knowledgeable and very friendly following.  This tour was billed as ‘an alternative celebration of Christmas’.  Some songs were traditional, some jolly, some funny, some serious and some that brought tears in the eyes of the audience.  They managed to evoke aspects of Christmas that are neglected in many shows.  Christmas after all is not just about Santa, baby Jesus or the annual celebration of over indulgence.  It can be a time when memories, either painful or pleasant or both are brought to mind.  For many people it can be a lonely occasion.  Times past can be remembered or longed for.  A gentle piano introduction led into “The Last Polar Bear” from The Fragile, an endearing love story between the last Polar Bear and a patch of snow.  Winter scene set, they moved onto the more up tempo “Colne Valley Hearts” from Shadows, a song about their love of their home place and its people.  Even more up tempo was “Three Drunken Maidens” from Summat’s Brewin’  described as ‘The Works Christmas Do, 200 years ago’.  A complete change of mood followed with the traditional “Wexford Lullaby” sung acapella, performed off microphone at the front of stage.  Still off microphone but with accordion Belinda sang “Whitethorn”, a truly sombre and harrowing song I haven’t heard her perform since her days back with Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (now The Unthanks).  It tells of Belinda’s Great Grandmother in County Sligo.  Many children of her 17 times pregnant ancestor were buried under a White Thorn bush.  To be buried in Church grounds you needed to have been baptised.  To be baptised you need to be born or live long enough for baptism.  Seamlessly Heidi took this into a very slow and haunting “Stille Nacht” in German before singing the English version “Silent Night” also.  Unbidden the audience spontaneously joined in with Belinda and Heidi’s beautiful harmonies.  Continuing the Christmas theme and a (their words) brief respite from despair with Richard Thompson’s “We Sing Hallelujah”, another song also accompanied by the audience.  The usual kazoo duet made its appearance at the end of this song.  Back behind the keyboards and microphones they sang “Blanket”, a song about orphaned elephants in Kenya.  Belinda and Heidi have always produced great harmonies but they now seem to have taken the art to a new level altogether.  There are many intentional dissonances which with their intricate arrangements and phrasing produce very moving passages in their songs.  A very rousing audience involved version of “Summat’s Brewin’” finished the set.  A celebration of the spirit of the small, inspired by extensive research of the many micro breweries around Yorkshire.  Someone had to do the research, Belinda and Heidi, obviously reluctantly, agreed to undertake the task.  A  lively but serious celebration of diversity and social commentary song, “Made in England”, opened Set Two.  This song I find reminiscent and just as powerful as Billy Bragg’s “Half English”.  A return to the Christmas theme next with Steve Ashley’s “Fire and Wine”, interesting rising and falling scale harmonies, stretched notes and tempo changes make this a powerful song.  The very poignant and moving “Calling Me” from The Fragile evokes the passing of seasons and time.  Belinda’s keyboards empathising  yet contrasting beautifully with Heidi’s vocals.  Lifting the now almost sombre mood was a ‘Bolly’s Juke Box Section’ which was essentially Belinda taking her accordion to stage front and requesting and performing any requests that were made.  Following the previous song it was not surprising that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was first choice.  It lifted after that with a selection of well known Christmas songs, all of which had great if not always correct help from the audience.  It was like a sing song after hours at the pub, great stuff!  No let up in pace as they launched into “Beryl” their tribute to Beryl Burton, described by their heroine Maxine Peake as one of the ‘criminally ignored people from our history books’.  From Shadows, this song really pedals along as is fitting for a song about a champion cyclist.  I am always reminded (not that I am old enough to remember) of the type of piano used for silent movies.  Not easing back on the throttle came “Gentleman Jack” with its usual splitting of audience into Team O’Hooley and Team Tidow for synchronised singing with the song finishing  on a huge crescendo of sound.  The song is about Anne Lister, a Yorkshire woman of high birth who instead of following convention and  marrying away her wealth and independence chose an entirely different way of spending her time.  The lyrics tell you all about her secret life.  Slowing the pace down Belinda performed her solo piano piece Shadows, fully demonstrating just how good a pianist she is.  On the CD it was recorded on a Steinway grand piano at Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth.  It is an exceptional piece of music.  The last song proper of the set was the oft recorded “River” by Joni Mitchell.  Normally I despise Joni Mitchell covers but this was superb, it has more passion than the original.  The deft re-arrangement adds so much more to the song.  Some slight lyrical changes ‘She loved me so naughty’, somehow made all the more powerful by the Northern vowels.  Most effective, to me , however, are the harmonies that swirl around the line ‘I would teach my feet to fly’.  Somehow the lyric just takes off and soars away, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.  Of course there was an encore and for me this was the most powerful and emotional part of the evening.  The relatively rarely played “One More Xmas” from Silent June.  I confess this is a song that has escaped me in the past but for anyone who is remembering different times at Christmas it is just so meaningful.  ‘I just want to be little and spend Christmas with my mum, I don’t care what it means, I’m not concerned if it’s wrong, I just want one more Christmas with my Mum’.  To really finish the show they went straight into a slow piano introduction to one of the best arrangements of “Fairytale of New York” I have ever heard.  As with “River”, so much was added to the song.  Their harmonies have evolved to a wondrous level, getting ever more challenging.  A wonderful concert that left the audience, many who were O’Hooley and Tidow virgins, buzzing before setting off home.  Thankfully Storm Barbara had done the decent thing and subsided.  A really great night.  They have much lined up for 2017 including shows with Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie as The Coven as well as song writing workshops.  If you haven’t seen them yet then you owe it to yourself to do so soon.

Louise Bichan | Out Of My Own Light | Album Review | Swanbister | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.12.16

Out Of My Own Light is a demonstration of the rude health of contemporary Folk and Acoustic music.  It is a calling card from a set of stunning musicians and an indication of names to watch closely in the future. Louise Bichan’s amazing album is also a nightmare for anyone who ia thematically inclined when it comes to their music, once you have finally taken it out of the CD player where do you put it, is it Celtic, Nu Folk, Neo Folk, Ambient, Jazz, Electronica, Classical Music, Chamber Music, Soundtrack Music. Short answer it is all of those and more.  In 1950 Margaret Tait aged 25 left her native Orkney, travelling to and across Canada.  Margaret’s Uncle had emigrated to Canada at the turn of the Century, marrying and bringing up a family.  In the years after World War Two Margaret Tait found herself restless, at a crossroads in her life and used travel far away from home as a chance to reflect. In 2013 Louise Bichan, embarked on a sentimental and musical journey retracing her grandmother’s footsteps on the same trip.  The result, premiered at Orkney Folk Festival in 2015 is this album, a suite of beautifully wrought pieces drawn from both women’s travels, family recollections and Bichans careful study of her grandmother’s diaries.  This plays out like a modern BBC Radio Ballad, a sense of time and place and a sense of pride run right through it.  Sketching with sound in a way that is truly cinematic, slow notes drawn out of a fiddle open the album, suggesting the large open landscape of Quoyburray and Tankerness on Orkney.  Listening with the CD cover close by, the sound and images mesh, creating a terrific travelogue.  The huge bass sound 30 seconds in, is an early hint that this is music that won’t be easily pinned down. Quoyburray sets the scene.  “For Myrtle” starts to introduce the characters in this set of personal stories and recollections.  “For Myrtle” opens with a stately vocal, poignant and solemn like a church reading as Louise Bichan reveals her strong connections to family and place and shows the deep connection between the two.  Skittish piano, electronics and bowed cello swirl with the widescreen beauty of ECM recordings.  Close your eyes and the pictures flood in.  Wind, weather are monumentally proportioned around us, until Signy Jakobsdottir’s beautiful percussion suggests footfall and we are moving through the landscape.  Sydney the Pilot and Ian introduce other players in Bichan’s musical expositions around her Grandmothers tale, with the music revealing characters and something of Margaret Tait’s dilemma in the choosing.   “Out Of My Own Light” is a wonderful phrase that reveals the sharp mind of Margaret Tait, her restlessness and how constrained she felt.  The quote “I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here” draws a picture of someone who felt limited, unable to see or think clearly. It’s an evocative image that demonstrates how a person and their situation can become intertwined, so problem and solution are knotted together.  Being there she casts a shadow which obscures possibilities and prevents her from seeing a clear way forwards.  The title piece of the album is stately chamber music, evoking travel and turmoil with savage beauty.  A crackly voice from the past breaks the track, a literal sample of Margaret’s radio appearance in Canada.  Tension builds through the track and I like to think within the narrative that the huge electronic swell after the radio voice marks a moment of revelation.  “The Ascania” is a playful interlude named for the ship that transported Margaret Tait on her travels.  CBC Winnipeg mixes the excitement of Tait’s and Bichan’s Canadian journeys, meeting old family and then after a Philip Glass like motif the Canadian Radio broadcast again this time correctly placed in the narrative.  Like “For Myrtle” this is a musically rich track, layering upbeat folk against more reflective passages. Hearing Bichan and her band play around and with her grandmother from 1950 is very moving.  It is fitting that Margaret Tait who is woven so completely through this album appears physically as a message from the past in her own story.  “Margaret’s Walk to the Pier” is another cinematic piece, emotive fiddle plays over bird song and ambience building to a simply wonderful piano conclusion.  Jennifer Austin’s piano is one of the stars of this whole album.  The lighter touch in “Flying Farmer” reveals without too many spoilers who the girl plumed for in the end.  “Swanbister” with its rolling piano and dance tune rhythm, titled for their marital home on Orkney, brims over with a feeling of future potential and happiness.  It is not coincidental that Louise Bichan’s label is named after Swanbister.  The album closes with Margaret Tait’s CBC recording in full.   There is a sense that Louise Bichan is only just scratching the surface, that there is so much more could be said about the remarkable Margaret Tait and her family, if this isn’t a BBC documentary very soon then there is something very wrong.  We have heard the music we want to see the places. Expect much more from Louise Bichan, Jennifer Austin, Signy Jakobsdottir, Su-a Lee, Duncan Lyall and Mie Vass.

Becky Langan | Parallel Paths | EP Review |  Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.12.16

Sky Arts Guitar Star ran for its second season in 2016. While structurally similar to shows like The Voice and X Factor, Guitar Star was built around the often virtuosic prowess of its contestants, in a way that TV reality shows frankly often aren’t.  The guitar was very much the star. For me the overall stars of the 2016 shows, although not the ultimate winners were the acoustic players Haythem Mohamed and Becky Langan.  Becky is a 24 year-old guitar player from Rochdale in Lancashire.  Parallel Paths is her first self-released EP of guitar work.  From the opening track Aurora Becky uses the whole of the guitar with a percussive rhythm of taps and beats on the body of the acoustic running behind the melody carrying us through the track.  “A Lucid Dream” opens with some left hand work that is very evocative of Michael Hedges’ Wyndham Hill albums.  There is a terrific sense of space, particularly behind the huge low notes as if Langan is playing the whole room.  Becky never overplays or gets too busy, her sense of timing is excellent and the beat pulses through.  On the slower paced “Breeze” the density of the playing builds after a sparse atmospheric start to a middle where the notes fly and collide before falling away again.  On “The Puzzle” it is Langan’s physicality with the guitar that is the star as over a pulsing rhythm she beats a huge bass note out of the body of the guitar while both left and right hands hit the strings to create a web of high notes and accents.  “Fight Or Flight” opens with some John Fahey like runs over the strings before a flamenco like percussive playing takes over with finger taps snapping like castanets.  A slow burning EP from a talented and hypnotic player who deserves to be as all over peoples’ collections as she is all over her guitar.

Robyn Stapleton | Songs of Robert Burns | Album Review | Laverock Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.01.17

Robyn Stapleton was BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician in 2014, releasing her debut album in 2015.  Brought up in South West Scotland, Robyn traces her introduction to singing, to the poetry of Robert Burns.  Her sleeve note introductions to each track explain her personal connections to the chosen songs and gives some insightful context.  Unsurprisingly given her reputation, listening to The Songs of Robert Burns the first thing that strikes you is the purity of her voice.  It has a beautiful crystal quality rather than an earthy folky burr.  Robyn’s voice against the drum and fiddle of “Comin’ through the Rye” or the piano of “Westlin Winds” is very much the star here.  It gently but firmly demands your attention, as you are drawn in to every nuance and swoop on “Ae Fond Kiss” or “Westlin Winds” with the accompaniment swelling to fill between the verses.  Having said that, “I’m Oer Young” contains a fine set of tunes and the playing is snappy and engaging with an infectious rhythm building through the track.  “The Slave’s Lament” is wonderfully moody with Patsy Reid’s mournful viola and Stapleton’s rising and falling voice building a hypnotic atmosphere.  One of the many things that are excellent about this album is the recording and production, there is tasteful restraint throughout, with singer song and musicians all given room to breathe.  Special mention for the unaccompanied singing on “John Anderson My Jo” which is atmospheric and captivating.  The space on “The Slave’s Lament” and the understated guitar accents on “Ca’ the Yowes” are masterpieces of minimalism, burnishing but never detracting from Stapleton’s commanding voice.  Throughout The Songs of Robert Burns the arrangements and the performances are less folksy and more considered, this is a contemplative album rather than a rollicking good time, as typified by the stately “Auld Lang Syne” a piano and voice piece that closes the album.  A quietly intense, personal and emotional journey, an intimate celebration of Robert Burns and an exercise in quiet intensity from all involved.

Alistair Anderson and Northlands | Alistair Anderson and Northlands | Album Review | White | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.17

Many will know musician Alistair Anderson as a stalwart of the international folk scene.  Over the last five decades, the concertina player and Northumbrian piper has toured his blend of traditional and contemporary Northumbrian music across the world, originally as part of The High Level Ranters but, most often, as a solo artist and frequent collaborator as both performer and composer.  Others will know Alistair as the founder of the Folkworks organisation which has helped to revolutionise folk music with its popular series of annual summer schools at the Sage, Gateshead.  It was at the Folkworks Youth Summer School during the 1990s that Anderson first encountered the young musicians who join him on this stunning new record which presents a picturesque ramble through traditional 18th century tunes, several North Country jigs and reels and a few new compositions, too.  Sophy Ball provides the slick fiddle, which is never more nimble and enthusiastic than on Risty Gulley or more deeply melancholy than on “The Snow it Melts the Soonest” which features a heartfelt vocal by flautist and singer Sarah Hayes.  And whilst Hayes – best known as a member of Glaswegian band Admiral Fallow – provides equally sincere lyrics on “I Drew My Ship Into the Harbour”, partly inspired by the version by Shirley Collins, and on Jez Lowe’s thundering “Taking on Men”, she also brings to this record a tastefully warm-toned flute which flourishes from track to track.  The backbone of this fine album, however, is Ian Stephenson’s acoustic guitar which shimmers crisply throughout, along with his double bass and piano which help flesh out the sound; and it’s a sound that has been carefully mixed by Ian, who produced the album, to ensure that each instrument is clearly defined.  And whilst Alistair Anderson dazzles with some of the most gorgeous sounding concertina playing and piping you’re ever likely to hear, he never places himself anywhere other than firmly within the unit.  Alistair Anderson & Northlands is an album and, indeed, an ensemble that insists upon unity, deep connection and riveting interplay.

The Carrivick Sisters | 10 Years Live | Album Review | Self Release| Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.01.17

“We’ve been playing publicly and releasing CDs for ten years, so this is a celebration of all that!” begins Laura Carrivick in her introduction to this live recording, made at the stunning Convent, Stroud back in October 2016.  It’s difficult to accept that these highly talented young twins from Devon have been delivering fine performances and albums of American-tinged folk music for a decade, especially given that the sisters sound as fresh and enchantingly unspoiled as they did back when they were busking on the streets of the South West.  Indeed, even after taking the British bluegrass scene by storm as part of the award winning combo Cardboard Fox, it’s the retention of their natural, uncluttered delivery that gives this duo an authenticity that keeps us coming back for more.  Thankfully, Laura and Charlotte have had the good sense to mark their ten year anniversary as a professional folk duo by laying down a selection of choice covers and originals that keep the performance rattling along very nicely indeed.  From the album’s opening track, a delightful cover of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”, it’s clear that the girls are going to keep us engaged and, with Joni Mitchell’s “River” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” soon cropping up, our hopes are more than satisfied. There are, of course, some exceptional original tunes in the mix such as Charlotte’s “Crate 223”, performed for the first time here, and Laura’s nimble “Piggy Bank”.  Featuring some slick guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle, as well as those sweet sibling harmonies, this celebration of ten years’ hard work provides both a celebration for us established fans and a charming introduction for those who are just discovering The Carrivick Sisters.

Police Dog Hogan | Wild by the Side of the Road | Album Review | Major Tom Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.01.17

Formed in 2009, Police Dog Hogan are a hard-gigging, riveting band, full of personality and presence.  With a string of festival appearances and a Bob Harris session under their collective belts, they are deservedly going places.  Hopefully this excellent CD will take them a stage closer.  It may be that Police Dog Hogan are victims of their own surreal name, it’s wonderful back story and their Banjo player Tim Dowling’s self-deprecating recanting of their rise in his Saturday Guardian column.  It may be that they are having to work hard to be taken seriously.  But Police Dog Hogan are better than the caricature Dowling presents and a more serious proposition than their tale of the over-zealous PD Hogan would make it seem.  There are many moments on this album where they reach for and firmly grasp the crowns of Show Of Hands and Bellowhead.  Steely Dan were named after a fictional psychotic sex toy and that ultimately didn’t do them any harm, so what’s in a name.  “Tyburn Jig”, the opening track, is a wonderful old school folk rock, tale of a hanging, song.  It roars along and is literally a jig that will have audiences swirling at gigs.  The ballad flows organically into a lovely violin bass duet at its end.  “Dixie” is an observational song that you’d write from the bar with a glass in one hand, wry and dark, a lyric that would sound perfect on Mark Knopfler’s lips.  Devon Brigade is a more intimate arrangement and a wonderfully evocative postcard from someone at the front in WW1.  Beautiful guitar parts run through this track.  By keeping it small scale, as a Devonshire teenage farm hand writing home, it all seems so achingly real.  James Studholme’s vocals are brilliant, his ‘been there bought the T Shirt’, lived in quality, gives gravitas and sincerity.  “In the Country” is an upbeat rouser of a track, with nifty piano and some interesting vocal harmonies that you know will just come alive on stage. All You Know about Love is another ‘elbows on the bar’ song, but the melancholic lyric is lifted by some engaging and beautiful playing.  “Let My Spirit Rise”, possibly one of the album highlights, brilliantly evokes the music and oblique lyrics of Paul Simon and the mood of Gershwin’s “Summertime”.  There is a wonderfully spiritual quality to the rich lyrics and their delivery that drips Southern Soul.  This track could have been laid down at Muscle Shoals, Alabama rather than somewhere in southern England. Someone should play this to Van Morrison.  “The One on the Left” is a wry reflective country song.  “Our Lady of the Snows” builds a beautifully melancholic atmosphere all swooping violins and cello a simple ballad lyric and a great chorus, another album highlight.  Police Dog Hogan are a huge eight-piece band, which gives them a wide palette of musical possibilities, this is a good thing.  The fact that they let the song dictate the arrangements and can also exercise restraint is also a good thing and a real strength. After the brooding restraint of “Our Lady of the Snows”, as intense as the moment before a storm, comes the full on hoedown of “East Nashville Back Porch Fix” (I’m sure there is a band joke in there somewhere).  A wonderful rollicking ‘story of a band’ song, like Fairport Convention’s “Angel Delight”.  With some superb Duane Eddy guitar licks.  Ready and willing indeed.  Final track “Fare You Well” lays a slower reflective groove down, personal lyrics of Cornwall over a rolling beat with a great Celtic vibe and a superb anthemic closer, like an encore of an old classic with an instrumental coda to catch you out.  Seek out this album, there is much here to reward repeated listening, folk rock, country rock, acoustic brooding ballads on a bedrock of interesting and sparky musicianship.  If the album isn’t enough hen check out the band on their live dates they are as musically rich and lively on stage as they are on record.

Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum | The Space Between | Album Review | Edition Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.01.17

When two of the finest British jazz guitarists come together to record at one of this country’s most inspiring studio environments, it’s not surprising that the resulting album is a veritable masterpiece.  The Space Between is the second collaboration from Manchester guitarists Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum and, like 2014’s Beholden, we’re once again gifted with an album that surpasses the simplicity of its making to enthral its listener with some of the finest soundscapes committed to disc.  It helps, of course, that this is not just a recording of two incredibly artful guitarists – Walker on electric and McCallum on acoustic – but one that experiments with subtle yet stimulating electronic sounds without ever sacrificing the grounding beauty of melody and theme.  Whether in the renderings of Stuart McCallum’s own compositions such as the spacious “Moment Us”, or the melancholic Bacharach classic “Alfie”, The Space Between presents a perpetual dream-like imagining that exists somewhere between reality and reverie.  From track to track there is a liquidity that, when running over the rhythmic stones of “And Finally” and “Sky Dancer” and reaching the tranquil deltas of “As the Trees Waltz” and the standard “My Ideal”, never abandons its mesmeric course.  The pleasant flow of the album is, perhaps, helped by the fact that it was brought to life in the Wood Room at Wiltshire’s Real World Studios, a warm and inviting space that offers a mellow environment where both musician and instrument can, evidently, push their boundaries to astonishing extents.  Whilst it was always going to be a superlative second offering from Walker and McCallum, the surprises that are delivered with each spin of this nine-track disc give The Space Between something of an evergreen quality, not least the overwhelming surprise that this album is markedly better than anticipated.  And you really can’t ask for more than that.

Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola | Widdershins | Album Review | Dell Daisy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.01.17

You get the distinct feeling, with Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola’s latest outing Widdershins that you’re in earshot of a fascinatingly impassioned conversation.  And there’s no need to eavesdrop; on the contrary, the tête-à-tête is going on right under your nose, brazen as can be, without ever concealing itself behind closed fingers and breathy whispers.  Sarah-Jane’s fiddle, a sprightly, female voice, leaps and dives over the surface of Juhani’s deep and sagacious acoustic guitar, the two often intertwining for moments of delicate respect and glistening, limpid kinship.  And both voices are articulated with tongues of solid silver; Juhani moves crisply from chord to chord, note to note whilst Sarah-Jane manages to retain all the seductive expression of heartfelt Scottish and Norwegian folk music whilst reaching the speckless agility of a world class symphony violinist.  Sarah-Jane Summers is, of course, a member of Scottish quartet Rant and the founder of Norwegian-Scottish outfit Fribo as well as a well-respected music teacher, whilst Juhani Silvola is one of Norway’s foremost musicians, composers and producers.  Just like it says on the tin, Widdershins is an album that goes against the grain, constantly pressing against the boundaries to reach moments of genuinely fearless ambition.  So whilst “Silver Spring Wheel” may well be a jaunty little tune on anyone else’s album, on Widdershins it becomes a mesmeric, flickering dance that, towards its final bars, melts into a barely audible flutter of plucks.  Similarly, on “Vaajakosken Maija”, a delightfully tranquil tune rolls towards a truly haunting conclusion, courtesy of Sarah-Jane’s mournful, weeping fiddle.  The album culminates in a fiery exchange with “Spike on a Bike”, a tune that puts so much demand on both guitarist and fiddler that you’re left with little else to do than to hold your breath.  With its exhilarating pounding of both fingerboard and fretboard, this album closes on its knees, begging to be played again and, quite possibly, again.

David Youngs | In Between Silence | Album Review | Asana | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.01.17

David Youngs is a melodic, quirky and an always interesting guitar player, if me telling you that isn’t enough, then it should be abundantly clear by the end of this his latest album.  From the first notes of “Where Memories Go” the opener, a combination of his technique and his ability to weave in the unexpected holds your attention.  “Where Memories Go” is a brave nine minutes long, but there is no plodding, or sense that it overstays its welcome.  For the first few minutes, a percussive attack, that recalls Michael Hedges, is melded with wonderful melodies that evoke the pastoral acoustic early Pat Metheny.  Little touches of effects and sparkle fade in and out.  The final section builds around a wonderful folk finger-picked motif that is cinematic in the way it creates an atmosphere and a sense of space.  “And So it Goes” is wonderful twister with some very rhythmic percussive playing that is compelling, but restrained without any of the histrionics that can creep in.  What marks David Youngs out, is the way that he can musically change gear in the middle of a piece, as he does with the middle section of “And So it Goes”, so maintaining your wonderment right up until the last resonating string fades away.  “Mutster” is an older piece with a wonderful folky feel that brings to mind the dancing fingers of John Renbourn.  But again some very dubby studio flourishes with reverb keep you guessing up until the end.  “To Catch a Star” is an exercise in balance, with the ying of some very trippy percussive playing balanced by yang passages all about space and the picking of the strings.  “Chevrons Apart”, taken at a slower more contemplative pace, is a piece about distance and the space between people.  Just when you thought it was all about the darting fingers, Youngs, builds an emotional tension by slowing the tempo right down.  “Pieces of Me” is a wonderfully simple melody with some wonderfully flourishes thrown in just before a demon passage of phasing that sounds disturbingly like a cassette getting wrapped round the inside of your player – a little retro torment for those of us old enough to remember the hell of the tape.  “Mono No Aware” continues this contemplative eye of the storm with a drifting languid melody.  “Troisieme” is a track composed using a dropped tuning introduced by Michael Hedges and as a kind of homage, some of flourishes are dropped in at the start, before the track builds into a frenzy of picking that breaks, with some tape devilment as a gear change.  “Pearls”, a title that I like to think nods to David Youngs’ ability to reveal his playing in layers, evokes the rambling French Chateau where it was written, the notes and spaces suggesting long corridors and wooden floors.  The final track “Katy”, Again book ends the album as confidently and comprehensively as “Where Memories Go”.  This final piece is all about space, allowing you to lose yourself in the space between the low bass notes and the chiming melody picked over the top.  Enthralling and shifting, just when you think you’ve got him figured out, a percussive thump on the guitar body or a temp shift calls a change in this six stringed, ‘acoustic guitar barn dance’ of a player.  An album and a guitarist that you can fall into, so time just slips away.

Victoria Klewin and the True Tones | Dance Me to Heaven | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.01.17

Forgive the brazen cliche but Victoria Klewin could sing the phonebook and make it sound gorgeous.  And when she’s finished with that, she could make a start on the charity bags that also come through the door, along with the adverts for double glazing and new driveways.  Thankfully, the Bristol-based vocalist has got her own compositions to play with and, on Drive Me to Heaven, Klewin lovingly drenches each song with a voice so superbly fluid that it’s easy to miss what’s going on behind her.  Listen more closely, however, and you’ll hear the fiery chords of a molten Hammond organ, a tastefully chunky piano, a mischievous bass, sweetly nimble guitar, some white-hot percussion and sassy brass.  And as the band’s sound moves gracefully from stirring soul to smoky jazz, from rousing gospel to saucy funk, it becomes clear that voice and band are, in fact, tightly pinned together thanks to impressive musicianship and Klewin’s vocal agility.  Here is a vocalist with a rare reverence for her material, whose prowess as a singer is not marred by a need to be overly acrobatic.  Instead, energetic numbers such as “Can’t Help Myself” and “For the Good of Myself” are shimmeringly slick whilst the slower, more sensual songs such as “Not All That Glitters” and “Dance Me to Heaven” sit confidently within the tight control of this impressively masterful outfit.

Country Lips | Till the Daylight Comes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.01.17

The recent resurgence in good old fashioned honky-tonk has delivered its fair share of pleasingly twangy albums over the last few years. Sam Outlaw’s Ry Cooder-produced album Angelino saw a breath of fresh western wind blow through the country scene last year, as did Canadian cowboy Daniel Romano’s last few releases, each of them nodding respectfully in the direction of Gram Parsons.  With Till the Daylight Comes, the eight-piece Seattle band Country Lips slide a taste of genuine boot-stomping Americana along the bar, with songs of gritty love, imprisonment and hard drinking bubbling at the rim.  But far from being predictable, Till the Daylight Comes swings nimbly from accordion-driven drinking songs such as “Reason I’m Drinking and Bar Time” to the lovelorn Parsons-inspired “Only Here Long Enough to Leave” and the beautifully melodic waltz “One Farewell”, each as authentic in their sound as they are inventive with their lyrics.  The result is an album that keeps both boot and mind engaged throughout.  You get the distinct feeling, with this album, that the ghosts of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are seated just a few stools down the bar, beaming behind their bourbons at the thought that outlaw country is still alive and well.

The Blue Aeroplanes | Welcome Stranger | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 18.01.17

The Blue Aeroplanes are a curious beast.  A kind of Heinz 57 dog of a band. Whatever type of canine you like there is a bit of that in there somewhere and what emerges is something highly individual and much greater than the sum of the parts.  Not that the band don’t have an impressive pedigree, stretching back over 30 years and name checked as influences by the likes of REM and Radiohead.  Their first album in approaching 10 years manages to be a favourite movie kind of a disc.  There is much to be enjoyed but subsequent listens yield new pleasures on each occasion.  There is an overriding feel that on the face of it makes little sense, combining the muscularity of Primal Scream in their pomp with the whimsy and charm of the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Jonathan Richman.  Chief pilot Gerard Langley delivers lyrics that combine a sense of the profound with the suspicion that they may mean something completely different, in a semi-sung semi-spoken mould that marries the unlikely couple of John Otway and Mark E Smith.  In addition to the above you can find traces of just about anyone you have ever enjoyed from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Johnny Thunders and Elvis himself is name checked if not exactly referenced and this is followed a couple of songs later by perhaps the most traditionally structured song on the album where Langley gives way to the female vocals of Bec Jevons in a tune harking back to the likes of Elastica and other classic early 90s female lead combos.  In turn this is followed by the quieter more reflective side of the band which becomes more apparent in “Here is the Heart of all Wild Things” a song that would not disgrace Captain Beefheart’s twisted pop classic Bluejeans and Moonbeams.  On this form let us hope that the Aeroplanes do not leave it the best part of another decade before giving us a new set but in the meantime, for those coming new to the Bristol outfit, there is an extensive back catalogue to be investigated and enjoyed.

Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith | Night Hours | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Mary Andrews | 21.01.17

When you start playing Night Hours you’re greeted with a 22 second recording of the nocturnal sounds of Bristol – punctuated by the low bass-heavy heartbeat which continues into the title track.  It’s the first glimpse of the boldness that flows through this album.  With Jimmy Aldridge on vocals, banjo and fiddle and Sid Goldsmith on vocals, guitar, double bass and concertina (with additional support from James Gavin, Tommie Black-Roff and Dominic Henderson) there’s a refreshing variety of sounds throughout the 11 songs yet they hang together with ease.  There may be nothing particularly ground breaking about their delivery of “Willie O’the Winsbury” – but it’s still right up there with the best of the recorded versions I’ve heard.  Importantly it’s the contrast of the traditional with the modern that lends Night Hours much of its strength.  Amongst the traditional songs on the album Shallow Brown is sung with great power and emotion and “Mary and the Soldier” showcases Sid’s traditional vocal styling at its strongest.  “Along the Castlereagh” is another revelation, beautifully performed and delivered.  This album showcases the diversity of the folk tradition in a way that opens folk music up to far wider audiences.  Don’t think you like folk music?  Listen to this!  There’s something for everyone.  The true and undeniable strength of this album lies in the insightful original songs.  “Night Hours” tells the story of the night workers that keep cities running – “I’m here when your thoughts are not” – while “Moved On” explores the plight of the residents of Newham that were essentially priced out of their own homes – “I’m not worth the land that I live on, but I’ve lived here for all of my life” – both stories and songs are poignant and wonderful.  The production and arrangement of the title track in particular is something that the duo should be extremely proud of.  When they perform it live it is still a powerful piece of well delivered song writing, but the subtle embellishments and the care that has gone into crafting the production of the album version elevate the song to a whole new level.  There’s a common theme that seems to run through the lyrics and stories of men finding their place in a land owned by landlords.  Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith are finding their place in the world, and I hope that the world encourages and inspires them both to keep on writing – because if it does then we might get a whole album of original songs from Jimmy & Sid, and that is something I am very much looking forward to!  Go and buy this album.

Rab Noakes | The Treatment Tapes EP | EP Review | Neon Records | Review by Ian Taylor | 24.01.17

The launch of Rab Noakes’s last album, the excellent I’m Walking Here, released in 2015, had to be delayed as a result of his being diagnosed with tonsillar cancer early in that year.  Characteristically stoic and defiant however, the Fife singer-songwriter vowed to deal with the condition head on, rather than wallow in self-pity or give in to the ‘brave battler’ tabloid language that invariably surrounds the hideously random disease.  With the support – both emotional and practical – of his wife Stephy Pordage, he saw off the rigours of thirty radiography and two chemotherapy sessions which understandably rendered him inactive musically for several months.  Thankfully, he has made as full a recovery as he dare claim.  As Noakes says though, “When something like this happens to the likes of me at least I know I’ll probably get a couple of songs out of it.” If that sounds flippant, he continues, “Truth is though, it’s what we do creatively.  We utilise experience and observation of, and response to, life’s ingredients, add a helping of imagination and deliver a work”.  Which is exactly what he has done with The Treatment Tapes.  The EP comprises six songs written during, and/or inspired by his period of enforced inactivity.  “Fade (To Shades of Black)” opens the EP, a solo voice and guitar piece very much in the style of latter Noakes work, such as that on I’m Walking Here, with a delightfully mellow and rich tone to his guitar and a lyric about “..not wasting time, getting up and doing things, being in the moment”.  Then comes “By the Day (One More Shave ‘n’ Haircut)” which is perhaps a little more explicitly autobiographical, documenting the sequence of events from diagnosis (“Breaking news in the afternoon, one more thing that’s happening too soon”) to treatment (“The whole affair seems like a sequence of dreams, fuelled by potions, tablets and creams”).  Noakes adds his own backing vocal and there’s a little percussion which helps drive the song along and tempers its initially gloomy, but ultimately hopeful message.  Mindful is significant for Stephy being given a writing credit.  They wrote the words jointly to a tune that had been around since a US holiday in 2013.  Anne Rankin’s oboe gives the song added poignancy.  “Stay vital, like vinyl” seems an extremely appropriate sentiment in the context.  “That Won’t Stop Me” reflects Noakes’s defiance in facing his disease.  His fingerpicking blues guitar playing and Stu Brown’s percussion a perfect foil for the ambiguity of the lyric.  “I Always Will” is a love song pure and simple, celebrating the reciprocation inherent in the process of tackling an illness as a couple.  The opening riff almost sings the words “I’d do the same for you”, and you just know that he would.  Finally, “Water is My Friend” might literally reflect the necessity of hydration in the treatment process, and the mantra that emerged as a result, but it’s also laden with prosaic social commentary: “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough, while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”.  It’s an upbeat end to what could have been an utterly depressing listen, but in fact even taken superficially is a worthy addition to Noakes’s body of work.  When you know the context from which it emerged, it is all the more remarkable.

Manran | The Two Days | Album Review | Manran Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.01.17

From the stylish cover of the album and the moody band shot inside, to the opening Guitar and Uilleann Pipes on Fiasco, An Da La – The Two Days first track, this is an album that just crackles with cool sophistication.  The instrumentation and much of the music may be firmly within the tradition, but the delivery and feel are, to these ears, very 21st Century.  Like The Afro Celt Sound System, The Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty or Martin Swan’s Mouth Music, as John Martyn said of his 1970 electric sonic experiments, “the needle is new and the patterns are old”.  While keyboard textures are threaded around pipes, guitar and frisky percussion, the energy and the sprit are true.  “Trod” is a storming electric track that crackles with power behind a hypnotic Gaelic lyric.  On a dark song about over indulgence the band are tight with some head down rocking passages against vocal parts that recall early Clannad, but all with a gritty rawness and no folk ‘tweeness’ in sight.  Inspector is a more straight ahead set of dance tracks that showcase the tight rhythm section and the sheer drive and attack of Ryan Murphy’s Pipe playing, you can imagine the crowd being driven wild to this track.  That Manran are looking outwards is clear by their choice of Pandora by the excellent Canadian songwriter and performer David Francey.  The thoughtful song is a tempo break after the tunes and its consideration of the impact of the modern world and technology is timely.  Like the album’s title track, it’s also a further indication of Manran’s intent to be both current, in the moment and the latest part of a long shifting tradition.  Sadly not that there is anything new in social comment or protest.  “Parallels” is the other side of Manran, infectious dance music, a hard edged drum and bass rhythm with skittish pipes over the top, you can feel the sweat drops fly.  “Autobahn” has more of a slippery time signature, any appreciative moves would have to be more considered than the old school punk pogo-ing to the previous track.  An interesting bass line underpins turns by accordion, the pipes and Ewen Henderson’s vocals.  “Fios” is an anthemic song that tells of the 19th Century Islay clearances.  After an acoustic troubadour start the impassioned vocal is underpinned by wonderfully gritty keyboards, and a rhythm that sounds like a call to arms or thousand marching feet.  As with so much of this excellent album, the arrangement is always interesting, instruments build, swell and fall like an angry sea, providing light and shade.  Rising out of the keyboard sea swell at the end of the previous track the Alpha tune set shifts from atmospheric keyboards into a fine Pipes duet ending in another piece of puirt a beul, mouth music, the vocalisation of instrumental music.  Celtic BeBop.  This is another excellent element of Manran’s music.  Alone is their take on Ben Harper’s Americana spiritual.  Craig Irving’s vocal is more strident than Harper’s, with none of his hesitant vulnerability, in Manran’s capable hands this is a life affirming song of hope.  “An Da La”, the title track, is an album highlight among many highs.  Thoughtful lyrics cutting between Gaelic and English run over keyboard and pipe airs.  The lyrical parallels with current affairs and illusions to American Presidential elect are deliberate.  The album closes with “Hour” a set of jigs and pipe reels.  “Lochan na h-Achlaise” the second tune opens with some almost dubby fiddle playing and a Bass part that is more Clash than Celtic.  Great Torrington in North Devon inspires the last breakneck roaring highland reel indicating that it’s all about the delivery rather than the just the material.  But then given that Manran have already drawn in American Gospel Folk Blues and Canadian Social Protest, this should be no surprise.  This is an album that veers sharply from slow burn and smouldering to raging inferno, by a band whose music has the attack and musical vim of Stiff Little Fingers tempered with grace and delicacy.

Andrea Terrano | Innamorata | Album Review | Atlantic Jaxx | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.01.17

There’s a crystalline clarity in Andrea Terrano’s playing that draws you into the music like ripples on water.  Indeed, the watery metaphors could easily be stretched further.  Each track on the London-based Italian/Russian instrumentalist’s latest album Innamorata is rich in sun-dappled reflections and flashes of brilliance.  The word “innamorata” is Italian for “in love” and if you weren’t already in love with the liquid notes of a sweetly played Latin guitar, then you soon will be.  The album gently laps at the ears with its opening track Woodlands before a tide of arresting images rises.  “Autumn Symphony” is a lively, life-affirming piece, helped along by energetic yet delicately controlled percussion whilst “Our Story”, drenched in lush string arrangements, tugs powerfully at the heart.  And, every now and again, we cut to a sun-drenched drama unfolding in the traditional chord structures of emphatically strummed flamencos as if the whole record has opened up to reveal a beguiling system of roots.  This constantly captivating album has a filmic quality that is never more apparent than in the final track “Cinemotions” that gives producer Felix Buxton, of Basement Jaxx fame, the chance to sew enchanting little sequins of sound into the fabric of the piece such as a cricket’s chirp, atmospheric humming and drip-drops of electronic pulses, each helping to embed Terrano’s sparkling melodies within the romanticism of the whole album.

Emmet Scanlan and What the Good Thought | These are the Dreams, This is the Life ! | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.02.17

The best EPs always offer an appetising sampling of an artist’s style and, given that Emmet Scanlan and What The Good Thought are an independent outfit whose self-penned material is diverse and constantly shifting, their latest five-track release is a comely assemblage of approaches to quality song writing.  Opening with the throbbing Chilli Peppers-esque “Over Again”, which showcases both Scanlan’s soulful vocals and the taut musicianship of the band, the mood is recast with the little jungle swing number “You Know Who Knows”.  And whilst “Bless the Weather” lays a sweet nursery rhyme melody against a wallpaper of world rhythms, “In Love and Falling” is a delicate front-porch love song that is repeated via an equally lovely “Cinematic Version”.  Limerick’s Emmet Scanlan is joined here by an international band of merry musicians with Sweden’s Peter Akerstrom on guitar, Italy’s Alan Preims on percussion, Scottish cellist Nicola Geddes and fellow Irish musician Cathal Doherty on bass.

James McArthur and the Head Gardeners | Burnt Moth | Album Review | Moorland Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.02.17

James McArthur graduated from playing drums with Paul Weller to striking out as an acoustic troubadour.  Burnt Moth is his second album.  There is a wonderfully intimate lo-fi feel throughout.  The arrangements and McArthur’s vocal delivery recall early 70s Heron or Magna Carta.  A more contemporary reference point with be 4AD’s Mojave 3 or Neil Halsted’s solo work.  “14 Seconds”, the album opener pairs his finger picked guitar with a mournful pedal steel and some lovely strings.  “What the Day Holds” continues the intimate acoustic vibe, with a great passage where the layered guitars and strings spark off each other.  “No Door” has some beautiful guitar picking against a great country fiddle line, it could all be lifted off an early 70s Bert Jansch album.  “To Do” is a duet with Samantha Whates around a delicate piano part.  Aching delicate it sounds like the theme tune for a Scandinavian Detective Drama, you can image it playing as the camera drone swoops across unending grasses under a brooding sky, panning past while our flawed main character stares moodily into the middle distance.  “Bluest Stone” features striking guitar and mandolin parts that nod ever so slightly to Led Zeppelin and their “Battle of Evermore”.  But with James McArthur the effect is bucolic rather than histrionic, as the music draws you in and surrounds you.  “Twice a Day” and “Evens on Green” continue the layered guitars and at times feel like Genesis on Trick of the Tale with its vocal refrains on “Entangled” or David Gilmour’s country lap steel on Meddle Era Pink Floyd track “Fearless”.  An album of warm intimate songs.  A delicate voice wrapped in layers of guitar, pedal steel and sympathetic strings creates an atmosphere that is inviting and enveloping.

Southport Jazz Festival 2017 | Royal Clifton Hotel, Southport | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.02.17

The Southport Jazz Festival, held annually at the Merseyside town’s Royal Clifton Hotel and now in its thirteenth year, was kicked off in style on Thursday evening with an early performance by The Weave who welcomed a small crowd of keen jazzers before the festival proper was launched the following afternoon.  Unfazed by the responsibility, the commanding Liverpool sextet, led by trumpeters Martin Smith and Anthony Peers, impressed with startlingly quirky melodies that weaved around each other with the graceful complexity of a double helix.  During such numbers as “Caresser Caress Her” and the irresistibly bouncy “The Pogo”, Peers’s trumpet threw a series of fascinating shapes as Smith, a member of beloved Liverpool punk jazz outfit The Wizards of Twiddly, coloured inside and outside the lines. There was a palpable warmth radiating from The Weave as solos were pinballed from player to player with nods of approval and the occasional appreciative tap on the shoulder.  And whilst pianist Rob Stringer laid thick garments of piano underneath each original composition and Anthony Ormesher’s guitar picked out some dazzling chords and solos, bassist Hugo Harrison and drummer Tilo Pirnbaum fuelled the band’s engine with toe-tapping funk and tropical rhythms.  Perhaps the highlight of this, the first concert of the weekend, was Smith’s self-penned “Our Fathers”, inspired by his and dedicated to everyone’s dad.  With its haunting melody and Peers’s achingly delicate muted trumpet, a distinct reverence settled comfortably amongst the crowd.  It was a fine way to begin the proceedings.  Friday afternoon saw the arrival of more jazz fans to Southport’s Promenade in time for the official opening show.  Jam Experiment is an irritatingly young band of impressively dexterous musicians.  Their unblemished youth, however, appeared to be where the irritability ended as the London-based quintet rattled the ornate white panels of the Royal Clifton’s Windsor Suite with two sets of original compositions.  Toby Comeau’s milky electric piano smothered the stage from “Enough for Me” onwards, picking up a little grit as the show rolled along.  Joe Lee’s bass experiments were usually subtle but no less powerful than the fiery drumming of Jonathan Mansfield.  And whilst Rory Ingham’s trombone solos moved effortlessly between warm, furry notes and fat, filthy blasts, Britain’s answer to Michael Brecker, the multi-talented Alexander Bone, hypnotised the crowd with his alto sax, mini synth and blazing Akai Electronic Wind Instrument.  After showcasing a staggering repertoire of self-penned compositions such as the smouldering “First Day” and angular Rory Rogers, the band performed a considerate rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”, the only cover on their extensive set list.  Later, Liverpool’s Jez Murphy led the mighty Swingtime Big Band in a performance that featured vocals from the band’s regular singer Emma Holcroft and guest Clare Teal.  As the first row, seated a hazardous foot or so away from the band’s plumbing, remoulded their faces and straightened their hairdos, Emma Holcroft’s alluringly smoky vocals wound around the melodies of “What a Difference a Day Made” and “Something’s Gotta Give” before renowned singer and broadcaster Clare Teal delighted the tightly-packed crowd with her northern wit and reedy tone.  Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan” were performed with more than a nod to Ella Fitzgerald as Clare pointed out that 2017 marks one hundred years since the late singer’s birth.  And if there had been enough room for it in the crammed-to-overflowing Balmoral Suite, perhaps Ella’s ghost would have been spotted amongst the suitably satisfied crowd.  Friday evening was topped off with a performance that widened eyes and mouths all around the Windsor Suite.  Since forming in 1999, Trichotomy have been described as one of the most inventive ensembles in contemporary jazz.  Utterly absorbing and fiercely ambitious, this fine Australian trio delivered a set that rivalled the heavy west coast rain and winds outside with its indefatigable passion and drive.  There were moments of tranquillity during such self-penned compositions as “It’s Strange Coming Back” and the haunting “Past Tense”, especially within the interplay of Sean Foran’s liquidy piano and Samuel Vincent’s plucked and bowed bass, but the late set was at its most intoxicating during performances of Junk and the strikingly experimental Semi-Quasars, both taken from the trio’s forthcoming release Known Unknown, which gave drummer John Parker the opportunity to bedazzle the audience with a range of live samples and loops.  Trichotomy are a thoughtful, melancholic piano trio of musicians who harbour a keen urge for sonic exploration and subtle, unimposing experimentation and their Southport performance was one that many of us will not forget in a hurry.  Saturday’s schedule got underway mid-morning in the Windsor Suite with an uncompromising straight-ahead set from the Seamus Blake Trio.  The New York-based tenor sax man drew some pretty complex lines over Ross Stanley’s undulating Hammond organ and James Maddren’s blustery drums, but never to the detriment of melody or mood.  Like the great Sonny Rollins, Blake possesses an impressive faculty for pushing a tune to its very limits without ever punching a hole in the soul of the piece and he did so with gusto during such numbers as “The Song That Lives Inside”, written for Sue Mingus, and a sprightly reading of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me”.  Surely one of the highlights of this year’s diverse festival was the performance given by The Train & the River in the Balmoral Suite on Saturday afternoon.  The brainchild of trombonist Jeremy Price, The Train & the River took the uniquely bewitching sound of one of Jimmy Giuffre’s legendary trios as the basis for a tastefully sparing exploration of self-penned and more well-known jazz pieces.  For anyone familiar with Giuffre’s ground-breaking trio consisting of guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, the magic created on stage by Birmingham-based reedsman Andy Panayi, guitarist Jez Franks and the aforementioned Price was nothing short of a gift.  Beginning with an impeccable rendition of “The Train & the River”, famously heard in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the trio also made stops at compositions by Thelonious Monk and Mike Gibbs amongst others.  And whilst the studious and restrained guitar, sax/clarinet/flute and trombone allowed the trio to explore sprawling natural and urban landscapes, the fourth member of the trio was the silence that perforated each piece with aching, pregnant pauses.  While dinner jackets were donned for an evening meal with Liane Carroll and Jamie Safir in the Windsor Suite, the Balmoral Suite hosted one of this year’s guaranteed crowd-pleasers.  Saxophonist Derek Nash has led a long and illustrious career with many an ambitious project under his belt.  For this year’s Southport Jazz Festival the distinguished sax man brought his Acoustic Quartet, along with a selection of saxophones in all shapes and sizes, for a performance of well-known compositions including a swinging version of the Fain/Webster classic “Secret Love” and an assertive meshing of Count Basie favourites “Lil’ Darlin’” and “Cute” as well as a deft reading of Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond’s arrangement of “All the Things You Are”.  With the reliably steady and melodic bass of Geoff Gascoyne, the lilting piano of David Newton and dynamic drums of the revered Clark Tracey, Nash dredged his soul for some monumental baritone, tenor, alto and soprano solos.  Saturday came to a close with a visit from French trumpeter Fabien Mary who, at the age of only thirty-eight, is one of the most respected young musicians on the scene.  It’s easy to see why.  With a crystalline trumpet and a rhythm section consisting of Hugo Lippi on guitar, Fabien Marcoz on bass and the unflagging Steve Brown on drums, Mary’s late night performance provided a masterclass in cool.  Though it was refreshing to see a quartet set free from the shackles of mic stands, cumbersome PA equipment and pages and pages of manuscript, it was the uncluttered musicianship of this sharply-clad quartet, especially during spirited renditions of Grant Green’s “Jean De Fleur” and Kenny Dorham’s “Philly Twist”, that sent us all off to bed feeling invigorated and fulfilled.  Sunday morning was ushered in via the laid back charm of vocalist Ben Cox and his band who performed a selection of familiar songs and several original compositions.  Having released their second album Round and Round back in October, the young quintet impressed the early crowd with the gorgeous “Cathaleen”, written and arranged by the band’s pianist Jamie Safir who widened the landscape of each piece with wonderfully evocative improvisations, as well as “Round and Round”, a delightfully sweet song which Ben wrote as a birthday gift for his niece.  As well as injecting new life into a series of covers such as piano/vocal renditions of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy” and a rousing gospel blast of the Holland–Dozier–Holland classic “How Sweet it is to Be Loved By You”, the band re-worked the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” with an ambition that paid off beautifully.  And if such inventive re-imaginings of well-known songs wasn’t enough, the Ben Cox Band treated the audience further in the second half by inviting beloved vocalist Liane Carroll to the stage for an ebullient version of the Edison/Hendrix standard Centrepiece.  Having appeared there with The Train & the River the previous day, trombonist Jeremy Price returned to the Balmoral Suite on Sunday afternoon with a much larger ensemble.  Making their way to the stage via a sassy, brassy parade, the Birmingham Conservatoire Ellington Orchestra delivered a selection of the Duke’s finest including a wonderfully evocative rendering of “Half the Fun” from Ellington’s 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder and the languid “Flirty Bird”, featuring some seductive slurred brass and tip-toeing piano.  Clarinetist Sam Wright dazzled with a nourishing solo during “Idiom 59” and pianist John Turvill was recruited for a stunning reading of Ellington’s mighty “Far East Suite” in the second half.  The big sound continued into the evening, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, with festival stalwart Alan Barnes and his octet.  Consisting of fine players Bruce Adams on trumpet, Karen Sharp and Robert Fowler on saxophones and clarinet, Mark Nightingale on trombone, David Newton on piano, Simon Thorpe on bass and Clark Tracey on drums, the Alan Barnes Octet helped to glide the festival safely into harbour with typically engaging, textured sax lines from the band’s well-respected leader.  The mid-evening show provided a taste of the quality to come as the Dixon Walker Chisnall Quartet, albeit without Lee Chisnall due to a shoulder injury, concluded the weekend’s imposing line-up in an almost boastful manner later on.  Saxophonist Iain Dixon, guitarist Mike Walker and replacement pianist Malcolm Edmonstone (of Walker’s Madhouse Band), each highly respected heavyweights on the contemporary jazz scene, were joined by bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Brown for a show that reminded the Southport weekenders just why we love this music and return to the west coast each winter for a nutritious portion of damn fine jazz.  The success of this year’s festival lands firmly at the feet of its new director, the ever enthusiastic and extremely organised Neil Hughes, who has taken the reigns from Geoff Matthews and managed to sustain the latter’s dedication to live jazz in Southport.  After four days of outstanding performances, impeccable scheduling and warm hospitality, it seems pretty certain that most, if not all of us, will be back for a fourteenth festival in 2018.

James McMurtry UK Tour | Various Venues | Review by Keith Belcher | 06.02.17

Greystones (Sheffield), Oran Mor (Glasgow), The Cluny (Newcastle), The Maze (Nottingham) and The Brudenell Club (Leeds) Support Alice Drinks the Kool Aid (all gigs) Nathan Bell – Glasgow Only

“The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation…” – Stephen King

“James McMurtry writes songs filled with characters so real that you’re sure they’re going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes.”  – Voice of America

OK, it should be obvious that I like James McMurtry.  Five shows in six days.  It would have been six from six but I missed out Manchester as I don’t like the vaccinations on the Yorkshire border, driving to or parking there and am not over keen on most venues either.  He is not a prolific visitor to our shores.  This was his third UK visit.  He first toured in January to February 2009 with The Heartless Bastards, who included the late, great Ian McClagan on keyboards.  That was quickly followed by a shorter tour later that year in October 2009.  This year he undertook a gruelling 31 dates in 31 days UK and European tour with band members Tim Holt – Guitar & Accordion, Cornbread – Bass Guitar and Darren Hess on Drums.  If you want a warm engaging stage personality, bantering freely with the crowd, smiling and cracking jokes throughout then he is NOT for you.  If you like possibly the best lyrics  in rock, delivered clearly and audibly backed by a hard driving rock and roll outfit with great melodies and rhythms and about 2-3 minutes of dialogue per set then you might like him.  Greystones, Sheffield was my first gig of this tour.  It seemed pretty well sold out which surprisingly was not the case for all venues. Most venues were very loud, had good balanced sound, lighting was passable in some and dismal in most, audiences were all appreciative.  The performance was powerful and driving throughout the tour.  It is stuff you can dance to should the mood strike.  Even my aged limbs twitched throughout the shows.  McMurtry and band manage the rare feat of achieving driving rock and roll music with the most scathing but at times intense, personal and insightful lyrics which are always uppermost in the mix.  The song and story are always the main ingredients but the music is a great side dish.  Like most ‘cult’ artists the audiences knew their stuff and were very familiar with both his personality and his songs.  McMurtry lyrics, in many cases are delivered with pure venom by a scowling master of the craft.  “You can’t unclench your teeth, To howl the way you should, So you curl your lips around, The taste of tears and the hollow sound, That no one owns but you, No one owns but you”. (Ruby & Carlos)  Unusually, in my experience, from a touring American artist, the set list was exactly the same each night.  Even more unusual was that it was in exactly the same order.  The sparse minimalist dialogue was also almost identical each night.  Slight variations in that Glasgow had less songs and also had a set from Nathan Bell.  Occasionally he didn’t do an encore.  The audience at Sheffield probably shouted more requests than other venues but these were basically sneered at and turned aside.  He really doesn’t do the warm engaging thing with his audiences!  At most venues he sarcastically compared the atmosphere to a library rather than a bar!  As I said, a warm, endearing and engaging stage manner isn’t his thing or if it is it isn’t apparent to most onlookers.  I gather from friends that the sets at London and Norwich were also identical.  He did however, change the encore of “Lights of Cheyenne” to “Peter Pan” at a Dutch gig in Hoorne.  On his 2009 tours I remember him remarking his real job was being a Beer Salesman.  That in part was very true for his support act this tour.  Support for the UK was Alice Drinks the Kool Aid.  A three-piece blues based Chicago band fronted by Guitarist and Vocalist Tony Magee with Drummer Jim Widlowski and Bassist Alan Berliant. Tony is the owner of Lagunitas Brewing Company and during the tour he was giving away free Lagunitas beer (An American IPA 6.2 ABV), which not surprisingly went down well, after some initial suspicion.  Possibly this was a beer sales promotion tour.  Some people seemed to like their sound but I am afraid they did absolutely nothing for me.  Alan and Jim seemed very competent musicians but their groove based riffs at time seemed very dated and lost a lot of coordination and coherence.  Support at Glasgow also included Nathan Bell but more on him and Glasgow later.  The McMurtry sets generally opened with a brief McMurtry style greeting, “How You Doin’? Good to See You” and then James, Cornbread and Darren were straight into the music with Bayou Tortous from the 2008 album Just Us Kids.  The Just Us Kids album was without a doubt his most political album with songs like “God Bless America”, Cheney’s “Toy and the Governor”.  “We Can’t Make it Here” from the 2005 album “Childish Things” probably being his strongest political statement.  It was fairly obvious early on in this tour that the fans were expecting political statement with some requests for “Bannon’s Toy” (based on Cheney’s Toy about Bush being a Puppet for Cheney), particularly after the recent ascension by the Orange One.  No political engagement was forthcoming from the Band.  In fact there was very little spoken engagement with the audiences of any kind.  They let the songs and music do the talking.  I doubt that on stage dialogue amounted to more than two or three minutes each gig and to be honest, it was near enough the same phrases night after night.  “Red Dress” followed, this song from both 2004’s Live in Aught-Three and 2002’s Saint Mary of the Woods.  Surely the only rock song to quote Winston Churchill’s address to Bessie Braddock.  A very brief chat then straight into the unrecorded “What’s the Matter”.  “Just Us Kids” followed which has such a casual, almost Tom Waits-like throwaway line, “It’s a Damn Short Movie, How’d We Ever get Here”, it’s not “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” but probably as pertinent about age catching up with you when you least expect it to.  Tim Holt then joined the Band on stage to play Lead Guitar and accordion.  Songs from 2015’s Complicated Games followed.  An album of deeply introspective, personal songs demonstrating his wonderful way of detailing relationships.  A true storyteller.  His father, Larry McMurtry is responsible for screenplays to Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Brokeback Mountain so there are strong literary genes in his bloodline.  “How’m I Gonna Find You Now? Copper Canteen” featuring the great lines “We Grew Up Hard, And Our Children Don’t Know What That Means, We Turned Into Our Parents Before We Were Out Of Our Teens”, “You Got to Me” and “Ain’t Got a Place” followed.  A brief break from that album to “one we sing in Church”, a superb rocking version of perennial crowd favourite and multi versed Choctaw Bingo, again from Aught Three and Saint Mary of the Woods.  Back to the latest album for a solo, acoustic guitar version of “These Things I’ve Come to Know”.  In his approximation of a joke he quipped that the next song “Painting by Numbers” from 1989’s debut album Too Long in the Wasteland as meant to be his first ‘Radio Hit’.  It did get to 33 in the Main US Rock Chart but sadly his career as a radio hit maker was never really going to happen.  “Every Little Bit Counts” from 1998’s Walk Between the Raindrops moved nicely to “another Church Song”, “Childish Things” with, besides the obvious St Paul/Corinthians reference, the great opening lines, “Aunt Clara kept her bible right next to the phone, In case she needed a quote while she talked to someone”.  From the same album came Restless before the stunningly visual tale of dreams not achieved and the dangers of self-delusion “No More Buffalo” from 1997’s It Had to Happen.  To finish the set he offered the usual invitation to see him at The Continental Club in Austin, Texas if you happened to be there on a Wednesday night (isn’t everyone?)  Another crowd favourite “Too Long in the Wasteland” finished the set proper.  At most gigs he reappeared to do a solo encore of “Lights of Cheyenne” from Live in Aught-Three.  Although the set lists and for a huge part the dialogue were identical the instrumental licks and performances did vary.  The band was extremely tight throughout the tour, Tim, Cornbread and Darren all trading riffs and working off each other.  Let’s hope he doesn’t leave it another 7-8 years before returning.  Sound varied around the gigs.  Personally I thought Leeds and Sheffield had the best sound and Nottingham by far the worst.  It was so loud and bass heavy at Nottingham that I felt I had had a sonic massage by the end of the night.  Beer glasses were vibrating off tables!!  Unlike the 2009 tours the man “shamelessly promoted himself” (his words) at the Merch desk after the show.  He even posed for some selfies and was smiling.  Perhaps time mellows all.  His usual farewell was “In the meantime tip your bartender, be nice to the doorman, Be careful getting home and if you don’t, be nice to the nice Officer”.  I suspect Glasgow was meant to be James McMurtry supported by Nathan Bell or even a double header.  Last time in 2009 he was supported by David Olney accompanied by ace guitarist Sergio Webb who did an amazing set.  However this year, Alice Drinks the Kool Aid did a slightly shorter than usual set followed by Nathan Bell.  This meant McMurtry’s set was shortened.  I had not seen Nathan live before and he was a revelation.  This was his Scottish debut appearance and he came on after a loud set to a very noisy crowd and managed with the aid of just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, a sparkling personality and a very strong voice to quieten the audience with his first song “All That You Carry”, even joking about having no beer to give away!  He engaged knowledgably about football (our version) and pulled no punches with his opinions of The Orange One before launching into “Raise Your Fist” which is dedicated to Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman, famous for their Human Rights Salute at the 1968 Olympics.  If he didn’t have the audience before he certainly did afterwards.  His songs, to me, were somewhere between early Darrell Scott and Bruce Springsteen especially Jesus of Gary, Indiana.  He was funny while relating a geography lesson on the UK given to a fellow American who didn’t have a clue.  His guitar work way above good on “North Georgia Blues”.  Hard Weather followed, a song from a forthcoming album aptly named Love Fear – 48 Hours in Traitorland keeping with the theme of the average working man in current times.  “Rust” was particularly powerful.  To keep with his soccer analogies one reviewer put some of his songs in the Clarke/Van Zandt/Cash and Peter Rowan leagues and I would agree.  His two remaining songs were just as well received and also just as powerful.  Definitely a person to keep an eye out for.  It would be an understatement to say the audience who, even though awaiting James McMurtry, wanted more.  They would have liked a whole lot more.  I was lucky enough to see him again later that night when he made a short appearance at The Late Night Sessions at The Drygates Brewery where he played some different songs and went down just as well as his Oran Mor appearance.  I will certainly keep an eye out for his shows later this year.

All lyrics quoted were written by James McMurtry.

Geoff Lakeman | After All These Years | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 06.02.17

Few people record debut albums at the age of 69 and of those that do fewer still are likely to produce a work of such charm and confidence as After All These Years.  Geoff Lakeman is perhaps best known as the patriarch of a folk dynasty of sorts, being the father of immensely successful Sam, Sean and Seth Lakeman and father-in-law to the equally illustrious Kathryn Roberts and Cara Dillon.  Geoff has played in the family band with his sons and their mum Joy but until his recent retirement after 50 years as a Fleet Street journalist he’d been content to stay in the background.  Encouraged by his family – Sean produces and plays guitar on After All These Years while Seth plays violin and viola and Sam piano – Geoff has struck out with an album of Cornish songs, traditional favourites and a couple of self-penned originals. Despite there being a number of acclaimed guests dotted throughout the thirteen tracks it’s Geoff’s mature yet smooth voice and distinctive duet concertina that dominate the album.  These may be best demonstrated on the entirely solo “Ye Lovers All” and “Bonny Irish Maid”, both from the Irish ballad tradition and both highlighting his pleasant vocals at their relaxed, conversational best.  Other traditional pieces are the lovely Cornish version of “Green Cockade” and the Aussie transportation ballad popularised by Bert Lloyd, Jim Jones.  The latter includes subtle fiddle accompaniment from Seth Lakeman but perhaps the most welcome guest on the album is Nic Jones.  Now a near-neighbour of Geoff’s, Nic contributes some fine chorus singing to a great version of Reg Meuross’s “England Green, England Grey”.  The general mix of songs is handled well.  A couple of broadly political pieces like Roger Bryant’s “The Farmer’s Song” about several generations of family farming coming to an unhappy end, or Geoff’s own “Tie ‘Em Up’ which tells of the difficulties faced by West Country fishermen, sit easily among the more light-hearted contributions like “When The Taters Are All Dug” and Geoff’s own “Doggie Song” which laments the banning of dogs from Cornish beaches. Given his lifetime of experience and active involvement in his local folk scene and considering his significantly more celebrated offspring it may not be too much of a surprise that Geoff Lakemen has assembled a collection of great songs and persuaded a number of his accomplished friends and acquaintances to help him realise them.  What is perhaps surprising to those of us who hadn’t previously appreciated his talents is the depth of quality to Geoff’s singing and playing throughout this collection.  Every track oozes charm and likability in a way that’s unusual for any album, but for a debut release – whatever the circumstances – it’s extraordinary.

Dietrich Strause | How Cruel That Hunger Binds | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.02.17

Dietrich Strause is a difficult man to pin down, on this album his music is informed by Americana, Alt Folk and early jazz but it is all filtered through a gauze of strangeness.  At times he evokes the absinthe melancholy of Madeline Peyroux, at times his singing is right there with the best of The Fleet Foxes, upbeat but chilling.  “The Beast That Rolls Within” the opening track has ambience and an Alt-Folk feel of The Low Anthem or The Great Lake Swimmers.  Strause’s vocal rings out over a very rich mix of guitar and electronics that swirl around him.  The lyrics are full of Americana references that add to the folk feel.  “Lying in Your Arms” lifts the tempo and the mood with a brass heavy chorus that sounds like Neil Hannon and the Divine Comedy.  There are no music credits on the album so we are left to assume that Strause, a music college trumpet major who left to pursue  an interest in guitar is providing all the layered textures of guitar, organ and brass himself.  “Pennsylvania” after “The Beast That Rolls Within” is an album highlight.  The lyric and vocal again have a Baptist hymn quality that recalls the best of The Fleet Foxes, but with a wonderfully woozy New Orleans Jazz intro that leads to beautiful double bass, piano and a plaintive layered vocal.  “Home From the Heartland” is a strong anthem of a track, another high point, the lyrics rich with religious imagery just ooze atmosphere and class.  Strause’s vocals shine through on this track, testifying over a dirty jazz Hammond part and some sparse but tasteful backing.  “Around the World” is a darkly beautiful track of regret that suits Strause’s melancholic delivery perfectly.  It opens with a twisted harmonium part and a clarinet part that would make Sidney Bechet smile with the music building and swelling through the song.  “Boy Born to Die” is all about the layered guitars, with a plucked electric part that recalls the clipped electric Gibson of Michael Chapman, but still those dark sinister brass parts twist the song into something else.  “So Long So Far” starts as a dark lullaby drifting through an alcoholic or drug induced haze giving way to an upbeat section with a dirty saxophone part that smoulders like the best of Morphine and Dana Colley, an almost guitar wig-out and ending with more New Orleans chamber jazz.  “The World Once was Turning” arrives with a wonderfully evocative percussion loop, if Tom Waits had come in on the vocal he would not have sounded out of place, it is very much that kind of sonic space.  This is another wonderful song of regret that builds and just as you are wondering what next it stops, I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.  The album is short, the songs are short, perfectly formed but short, often leaving you wondering what next.  The album was recorded in seven days in a farmhouse studio in Maine that shortness of time may be responsible in part for the brevity, perhaps that’s part of their charm and appeal that they are perfect, beautiful and fleeting.  Like bubbles in 17th Century Vanitas paintings of Pieter Claesz or Harmen Steenwijck the tracks are arresting things of beauty that hold your attention completely while they are with you but all too quickly they are gone and that is very metaphorical.

Siobhan Miller | Strata | Album Review | Songprint Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.02.17

From the first note this is a considered album that smoulders with class and sophistication.  Siobhan Miller’s voice is set against sympathetic backing from a stellar cast from folk’s who’s who.  Kris Drever, Aidan O’Rourke from Lau, Ian Carr and Phil Cunningham, along with many others, provide always interesting support.  The band, however adroit, are foremost a foil to a jewel set in a ring, as Miller is very much the star here, with her pure voice consistently shining through on tracks like “The Sun Shines High”.  Siobhan talks about her desire to pay tribute to established performers like Sheila Stewart, Dick Gaughan and Pod Paterson.  Two of the strong performances on the album are “What You Do With What You’ve Got” and “Pound a Week Rise”, songs recorded and often played live by Gaughan.  Siobhan’s delivery on “What You Do With What You’ve Go” steers well clear of Gaughan’s vitriol, recalling more closely Si Kahn’s warm upbeat original.  But Miller’s pure and beautiful voice finds the hope and joy in the song and with an upbeat chorus, it really crackles.  Stand out tracks include Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”, performed here with a slow considered tempo, a great fiddle part and Admiral Fallow front man Louis Abbot’s second vocal perfectly complimenting Miller’s.  The band is restrained here, stepping up between the verses with the voices shining through on the chorus.  Ed Pickford’s “Pound a Week Rise” drives along, the guitar and bass replicating a clapping stomping foot folk club rhythm.  In this time of ‘pie in the sky’ politics the lyrics and Siobhan Miller’s delivery seem very poignant.  The arrangements on “Unquiet Grave” and “Thanksgiving Eve” demonstrate the strength and closeness of the players.  The album was recorded with the band putting down whole takes together, natural atmosphere no click tracks and that shines through.  “Unquiet Grave” is acid folk, stripped back to arresting vocal and guitar.  “Thanksgiving Eve” is a jazzy shuffling rhythm where the drums and bass blend with layered vocals and the awesome fiddle of Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke.  It all blends together perfectly.  “The Month of January” is a well-represented traditional song, Frankie Anderson performed it on her 1976 Topic album, June Tabor recorded a stark version on Abyssinians in 1983.  Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s version on Fire and Fortune in 2012 was similarly chilling and gothic.  Siobhan Millers’ singing of the cautionary tale, despite the bleak lyric is warmer as she turns each syllable into beautiful music, before Tom Gibbs’ insistent harmonium lifts the mood completely.  “False False” is another chilling tale of life’s betrayals, it is also another album highlight.  Miller’s voice just soars, the violin wrings at your emotions and it is all accented by Louis Abbot’s inventive drum part.  “Bonny Light Horseman” is another track where Miller’s voice just pours out in all its glory over some tasteful country tinged Bouzouki and Guitar picking.  “The Ramblin’ Rover” closes the album, a storming number, it’s an ‘us against the world’ song.  One of the few mentions of colitis within the folk tradition and its recounting of the widespread bollockitis disease should ensure the album gets one of those parental advisory stickers.  It all guarantees you end this excellent album with a smile on your face and reaching for the repeat.  Highly recommended

Esteban Alvarez | Tico Groove | Album Release | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.02.17

With his album Tico Groove, Costa Rican pianist Esteban Alvarez has served up an especially nourishing dish.  The Steinway Artist nominee and Akademia Award-winning composer invites us in for a notably intimate performance of ten seductive instrumentals, each infused with Latin flavours that may equally settle relaxingly on the ear or insist upon a dance.  The urge to get up and oil one’s hips is never stronger than on tracks such as the uplifting “Caballito Nicoyano/Ticas Lindas”, featuring some fiery flamenco guitar from Jose Manuel Tejeda and the infectious rhythms of percussionist Ignacio Berroa, as well as the charmingly buoyant “Pasión”, featuring the supple clarinet of Dr. Richard Shanley and his wife, Hellen, on flute.  Resting, for the most part, on the dependably lithe double basslines of Lynn Seaton, Tico Groove is an album on which Alvarez’s searching and perpetually inquisitive piano is just one of the multitude of fine flavours.  And whilst the dish is at its most tasty during the full-band performances, the arresting solo piano piece “Amor de Temporada” reminds us who’s head chef and where we should be directing our compliments.

Sean Taylor | Flood and Burn | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.02.17

Sean Taylor is a London based Folk Blues performer.  He is a master with the guitar and has a voice that seethes with presence and power.  Flood and Burn is his eighth album since Corrugations in 2007, Sean is never less than very good on record, but since hooking up with Mark Hallman in Austin Texas he has found his unique voice and an excellent foil.  Flood and Burn is a perfect starting point to discover Sean Taylor, especially as time may decide that this is his strongest album in a 10 year recording career, certainly feels that way now, till the next one anyhow.  “Codeine Blues” the album opener is a superb track.  It opens with jazz piano and a huge saxophone with its keys flapping, breathy and expansive like Jan Garbarek in mid flow.  Sean’s vocal evokes a 21st century John Martyn, slurring and bending, snaking round the notes like a third instrument.  Add a sublime second vocal from Jaimee Harris, a testifying Hammond Organ and the track just soars.  It reads like a heartfelt love song as Taylor likens his love to a drug.  The title however suggests a darker affair like Van Zandt’s “Waiting Round to Die” where Townes finally finds one friend that won’t desert him in his final hours.  If this track with its anthemic ‘beautiful day’ riff doesn’t end up on a million, coffee table hip compilation CDs there is something very wrong with the universe.  Walk With Me, Sean’s excellent fourth album was recorded in Dublin with Trevor Hutchinson from The Waterboys.  Sean’s Family are Irish and he connected with the spirits of Yeats, Wilde and Yeats while there.  There is some of that Irish lyricism in “A Good Place to Die” as the rich fast paced vocal brings Mike Scott, of The Waterboys, enlightened streams of consciousness to mind.  Sean revels in the romantic lifestyle of the journeyman troubadour and the lyric bubbles with timeless folk blues references.  Sean bends and shreds a killer electric guitar too, he may be name checking his Gibson acoustic.  But he does it while furrowing his face and pulling a solo that is pure Gilmour.  “The Cruelty of Man” has a beautiful jazz vibe, brushes, smooth guitar and a perfect muted trumpet, but like the best of Simon & Garfunkel, there is a fist in the smooth jazz velvet glove, as Taylor grapples with the iniquities of the world and the cruelty of man.  “Troubadour” is another anthem to the journeyman musician, sweetened with a glorious pedal steel.  “Run to the Water” is a blues anthem from its compressed lead vocal, the shimmering electric guitar and Taylor’s ‘Charlie Musselwhite’ harmonica stabs shadowed by Andre Moran’s fine slide.  “Life Goes On” is another album highlight, where a heartfelt but slight lyric is given depth by Sean’s superb voice, proving he could sing a shopping list and it would be sublime.  Here he is soulful like early 70s Marvin Gaye.  Long time collaborator Hana Piranha features on violin.  Title track “Flood and Burn” is a Blues standard in the making, that if stuck under the noses of Ben Harper or Eric Bibb would make huge waves of interest in Taylor the interpreter and songwriter.  “Beauty to the World” is another album highlight, it crackles from the first moment of Taylor’s wonderful picked acoustic.  The vocal is another slurred, slippery masterstroke, with the lyric and the delivery evoking that 2am bottom of the bottle moment when through the glass you glimpse perfection.  Taylor and Hallman layer guitars around the vocal, the wobbly piano is a sonar ping through the alcohol fog and everything is just perfect.  What you hear on this track is he sound of the two guitar players having a great time, lost in the joy of playing.  “Bad Case of the Blues” features a wonderful Tom Waits Leon Redbone Vipers lounge vocal as next to you in a late night bar, Sean Taylor whispers secrets into your ear, while Hana Piranha leans in with a ‘Grappelli on drugs’ jazz violin part.  Sean Taylor’s take of “Heartbreak Hotel” manages to own the well visited classic.  From the John Lee Hooker steal riff at the star, through the tempo change, the slap guitar riff and the train harmonica he makes it his own.  Superb duet with Eliza Gilkyson too. Longtime live and album collaborator Danny Thompson plays on “Better Man” the final track.  His cathedral sized Double Bass sound opens the track and his stops and slides punctuate the track adding still more gravitas to Taylor’s vocal.  Wonderful English dance music is evoked by the interplay between the guitar and double bass, imbibing the track with a Pentangleness if there is such a thing.  The song is a love song, to a lover or to us the listeners, the troubadour’s audience and describes how we lift and make him a better man.  Listening to this album on repeat through headphones I’d like to assure Sean it’s a two way thing, his voice, his guitar, his music, his often spiritual lyrics carry the listener to better places and better spaces.  Turn it up for Hana’s violin on this track and lose yourself in that too.  Final mention for the sequencing of the album, as the fading piano chord at the end of “Better Man” blurs into the start of “Codeine Blues” if you have the album on repeat.  Further indication of the subtlety, layering, care and grace that’s gone into this album.  Buy this album if you are a fan of Sean Taylor, buy this album if you are a fan of intelligent folk blues music that transcends genres, buy this album if you want to be ahead of the beard stroking list making critics, as this is surely going to feature large in those end of year ‘best of’ lists.  “Oh yes Flood and Burn, excellent isn’t it, bought it when it came out, played it to death, made me a better man”.

Mike Grogan | Too Many Ghosts | Album Review | Poacher Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.02.17

Too Many Ghosts is Mike Grogan’s third album and his fourth release.  It follows a significant gap after Make Me Strong, his last album.  Clearly Mike has spent the time playing and reflecting, as there is a significant shift and refinement, that much is obvious from the first moment of the first track.  The wonderfully rich voice that gave us “The Light of the World” on Make Me Strong is still there as is his fine fingerpicking guitar, but there is a swagger, a presence, that lifts the whole album.  “Show Them What Love Can Do” just smoulders and burns.  It opens with a chorus vocal and a Phil Beer’s fiery violin, but quickly builds to a sound that is more Elbow and Guy Garvey than Festival Folk Tent.  You know that the infectious chorus is going to sound amazing picked up by a large beery crowd part way through a set as the sun is going down.  The violin is joined by an express train guitar and the song dissolves into that chorus and you know it will last forever at the end of a gig.  “Let Me Feel the Rain” is a perfect adult pop song, after a beer, if this came on the jukebox most people would agree that it’s an excellent song and swear blind that Robbie Williams has found his mojo again.  Mike croons and pulls at your heartstrings like the best of the old school crooners.  Wonderful keyboards on this track and through the album by John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, a man with real studio chops.  The title track turns the acoustic folk back up with mandolin trills and gentle swells of accordion, but Mike makes it timeless by laying down another killer perfectly paced ear-worm chorus duetting with Miranda Sykes.  The Way continues the folky vibe, heartfelt lyrics, tasteful percussion and a perfect stripped back middle section of voice violin and piano.  Powerful chorus is provided by The Green Man Folk Club in Alton, proof that Mike Grogan is the pied piper when it comes an infectious singalong.  I wonder if he tapes all his gigs for the next album, just in case. Jokes aside perhaps the strength of the material and his delivery is that it is all road tested and as familiar as a vintage Martin D-28.  “Big Ships” is one of those hairs on the back of the neck songs.  It opens with some atmospherics and violin that place it in Show of Hands’ territory and Grogan’s warm weathered voice paired with a rolling violin makes an excellent job of it.  If you are going to record with Mike Tucker, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes then Show Of Hands are the elephant in the room.  I don’t think it diminishes or demeans what Grogan does with his fine song writing and strong voice to make the connection.  “Hallelujah” is a fine song that recalls the intelligent contemporary rock music of Elbow and includes some particularly poignant lyrics.  “Underground”, like much of the album, is a collision of old and new, a wheezing pump organ opens the track but is joined by a looped chorus and a pulsing electronic beat and a wonderfully Floydian vocal from Miranda Sykes.  Mike’s lyric draws on mining imagery and paints a powerful picture, amplified by some very intelligent backing.  The track is supremely evocative, the spirits of Tin Miners, Colliers, First World War Sappers and blitz scarred civilians are all crouched terrified in the dark with us.  Perhaps we are all, in some way trapped and in a time of darkness.  A perfect song, a folk song for the future and very much like Mike Grogan, screaming for wider exposure.  If they ever film Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams Tunnels series of books, here is the theme music. Heaven Is Here and Goodnight end the album in an upbeat pairing.  “Goodnight” especially is heartfelt, a stripped back voice and guitar joined by piano and accordion.  With more than a nod to Dylan’s “Forever Young”, it sounds like a benediction, written to close proceedings as an encore after a fine gig.

Dipper Malkin | Tricks of the Trade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 18.02.17

Dipper Malkin are the duo of John Dipper and Dave Malkin.  Dipper could most recently be found playing fiddle with the Methera string quartet and is a veteran of the English Acoustic Collective alongside Chris Wood and Rob Harbron while Malkin was a founder member of electro-trad ensemble Tandem.  With this pedigree it’s perhaps unsurprising they are collectively exploring imaginative and challenging ways of interpreting largely traditional repertoire.  Dipper plays the rarely-heard (in folk music circles, at last) baroque instrument viola d’amore which offers the opportunity for him to experiment with unique tunings and explore the rich and varied timbre of the instrument that comes to define the sonic mood of several tracks on Tricks of the Trade.  Malkin’s guitar is equally prominent on a number of traditional and original pieces.  In fact, the musicianship throughout this album is impeccable and there’s a clean, unfussy sharpness to the production that emphasises the exquisite execution.  There could perhaps have been a better balance of songs to tunes as on the best of the three songs, “All Things are Quite Silent” there’s a quiet resignation to Malkin’s vocal delivery that perfectly suits the material.  It might have been interesting to hear the duo bring a similar sense of imagination to the rich English song tradition as they do to the traditional tune canon.  That being said, it’s hard to fault an album of such high standards in both arrangements and performance.  Dipper Malkin set out to make an album equal in artistic value to contemporary classical music and in accomplishment to improvised jazz and I guess the experts in those genres would need to comment on how successful they might have been.  What I can say is they have achieved is an album of largely traditional English instrumental repertoire played on acoustic instruments to an incredibly high standard.  There are no gimmicks, relatively few noticeable overdubs and just a couple of brief and tasteful cameos by guest musicians.  There is, however, a tonne of skill and ingenuity in what turns out to be an album of quiet beauty.

Daria Kulesh | Long Lost Home | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 19.02.17

Fascinating and enjoyable in equal measure, the title of the Russo-Anglo chanteuse’s album cannot be separated from the stories that make up the songs in a collection that is exotic in voice, instrumentation and subject matter.  To mix geography and metaphor, the writer could rightfully be described as the Scheherazade of the Steppes.  Within the album the political and the personal are intertwined, along with social and historical commentary, no more so than “The Moon and the Pilot”, combining personal history, the futility of war, Stalinism and its effect on Ingushetia – the country of Daria’s origins, an ancient and proud land between Europe and Asia that became a Soviet state, from which it appears the people have not yet recovered.  For all that, it is a song of beauty, tragedy, love and depth, featuring haunting, occasionally soaring vocals and has rightfully received much airwaves love over the months preceding the release of the album.  It is the mixture of the subject matter, the writer’s intriguing voice that has hints of her Russian roots, adding a quality of enigma to a delivery that is as crystal clear as the mountain streams of her ancestors.  All these positives make the album step outside anything that could be described as the mainstream and so in my wilder musings and the more fertile corners of my imagination this album is a rediscovered ‘70s classic, the product of a captivating yet mysterious singer-songwriter, an artefact in its gatefold sleeve so resplendent that its place between Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band only served to highlight its attraction and the number of layers within the package.  The presence of background and explanatory notes in the booklet is both welcome and adds to the enjoyment, in which the exotic nature of the album is underlined by the inclusion of “Distant Love” a traditional song translated from the original Ingush but presented as a bilingual experience.  “Dance like a God” combines both allusion and description, serving to highlight the literary element of the album with metaphor and allegorical elements there for the unravelling and no more so than in the final song.  A CD for everyone, except perhaps unreconstructed Stalinists, listen digest, enjoy, then buy your own Shruti box and see were that will take you.  As a small aside, for those unfamiliar with Daria, she is also a member of the band KARA who recently welcomed Pete Morton to their ranks and are also more than worthy of your interest.

Carol Fieldhouse | Linen | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 25.02.17

Linen is a beautifully presented debut album, the artwork is soft and stylish, with welcomed liner notes.  The whole album is written (or co-written) by Carol Fieldhouse with the exception of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, a brave choice of cover.  The album has been beautifully produced by Boo Hewerdine and the production and performances are hard to fault.  This is certainly a well put together release.  The guitar is beautifully played, the vocals are well delivered and the mixing is perfect.  “A Little Piece of Land” has a distinctly John Denver feel to it, beautifully sung, arranged and written it could be a song straight out of 1970’s Colorado if it weren’t for the references to rural mobile phone and broadband black spots.  It’s a lovely start to the album.  The other stand out track is Billy Marshall a song written about the Galloway ‘King of the Gypsies’.  It’s the most produced track on the album, driven along with the assistance of Neill Macoll, Boo Hewerdine and Evan Carson.  The rest of the album is… well, it’s just a bit too easy to forget.  There’s little wrong with any of it… there just wasn’t much that really caught my interest.  There’s a lot of introspective, very similar feeling songs that don’t particularly go anywhere.  Slightly jazzy middle-of-the-road singer songwriter material.  It’s the kind of stuff that a writer needs to get out of their system so they can get on and write the good stuff.  One of those songs, maybe even two, would be absolutely fine.  As it is, they just blended together.  I had high hopes for the cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  It’s well sung.  It’s well produced.  It’s something I’m sure I’d enjoy if I heard it performed live… but it didn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the way I might have hoped.  If this were a single, or possibly an EP, it could have been a triumph.  Carol Fieldhouse has proved herself more than capable with this debut and to that extent we’re looking forward to the 2017 project ‘Hill’, if she can capture some of the quality she achieved with Billy Marshall and A Little Piece of Land it’ll be a project well worth taking note of.

Chris Wood | So Much to Defend | Album Review | RUF | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.03.17

William Blake, in the oft quoted opening verse of “To See a World” talks about taking the time to look at, and find the sublime in the small and ordinary.  “To see a world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower” Philip Larkin, grumbling poet, had the gift of being even to mine through the ordinary to find the extra ordinary and that is very much what it feels like Chris Wood is doing here.  The delicately picked and strummed acoustic of tracks like “The Cottager’s Reply” or “Come Down Jehovah” from 2007’s Trespasser, via rawer tracks like Hollow Point from 2009 has evolved or mutated.  Chris himself talks about a musical journey in the notes of None the Wiser from 2013 and his love affair with an Epiphone guitar and the Hammond Organ.  None the Wiser to these ears is the transition album, the imagery in the lyrics shifts to more contemporary and the sound becomes more electric and soulful.  That deliberate disconnect where dark lyrics are wrapped in beautiful folky acoustic guitar, to a degree falls away.  Wood’s website describes that album as the sound of a pub band singing the hymns and anthems of a disaffected people.  It is this spirit that 2017’s So Much to Defend bubbles with.  It’s the modern folk song of Billy Bragg.  But, like Bragg So Much to Defend is never a bleak listen, Chris Wood’s soulful and real voice is warm and comforting, adding to the lyrics warm glow.  The title track opens the album with a simple guitar and percussion backing and a rich stream of consciousness lyric.  A number of short stories beautifully intertwine as we peek into a set of unfolding lives.  Like Blake, Wood looks hard at the ordinary and in 21st Century Britain’s adversity finds beauty.  Words flow and his mastery is such that it feels effortless and without artifice.  In every life, Wood shows that despite difficulty, there are beautiful moments and there is always something to defend.  First world problems, popular culture references even nursery rhymes catch Wood’s eye or ear and are woven into what is a future folk song.  Chris Wood’s Art School teacher criticised him as having “a remarkable eye for trivia”.  Their loss is very much our gain, under the singer’s gaze nothing is trivial, rather his songs are shot through with poignant detail that makes their stories real.  “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” is a love song for those leaving home and the parents watching them wobble off with life’s training wheels still attached.  It is shot with an aching soulfulness that is Curtis Mayfield singing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.  Underpinning it all, under the observational narrative, is a parents’ love and a heavenly Hammond Organ.  “Only a Friendly” is another love story, the love for the familiar and the real.  Chris Wood observes ordinary life sharply with a Shakespearean sense of the larger than life and a touch of Tom Sharpe’s bawdiness.  The clipped electric guitar is joined by a banjo and wry poetry ensues.  Agriculturally a Flail is a tool for separating grain and husk, wheat and chaff and body and flesh as a gladiatorial weapon.  Here in “The Flail”, a brutal little ditty, it’s a metaphor for brutal indiscriminate change as ordinary people are thrown about and cast aside.  This theme continues in “1887”.  The track is a setting to music of one of AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems.  1887 was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  Here Wood wryly demonstrates that it’s the ordinary individuals, through faceless sacrifice who save the Queen.  “Strange Cadence” is built around a hypnotic looping guitar riff and a mournful flugelhorn that is pure Jon Hassell along with “The Shallow End” it deals with our ability to delude ourselves, to be dazzled and distracted from the important issues.  Like “So Much to Defend”, “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” and “Only a Friendly” Wood uses his observation of the small details as a way of pulling back the camera and reveal the big issues in a way that is powerful and engaging.  In “More Fool Me” the joke is very much on Chris Wood as he documents the end of the traditional music business and with it the life of the gigging troubadour.  This is the way the world of the musician ends, not with a bang but with a wry smile and a sea of raised camera phones watching the performance for the audience.  “You May Stand Mute” is a song originally written in 2009 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species.  Time has twisted the lyrics slightly some of the Darwin references are gone and fossil shells have become phosphor shells and human bombs as contemporary Chris Wood poignantly ponders faith how it connects and divides.  So Much to Defend is an album that tackles difficult issues and difficult times head on, but Chris Wood’s skill as a lyricist and ear for detail and his sometimes cracked but always warm and compelling vocal means we are enlightened and we are lifted rather than