The night Jimmy Page asked if he could hang out with me

Of my 16 year stint in full time politics as an elected member of the London Assembly, holding first Ken Livingstone then Boris Johnson to account, most of it was never particularly glamorous. But occasionally I did get to meet the odd rock star or two in my line of work: Bob Geldof, Brian May, Dexy’s Kevin Rowlands and, yes, Jimmy Page.

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It was the evening before the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and there was a reception at the Mansion House in the City of London. I arrived at exactly the same time as Jimmy Page (who had performed at the Closing ceremony of the Bejing Olympics you will recall but didn’t have any formal role in the London Games). Of course, I recognised him, introduced myself to him, got him to autograph the back of my invitation and got chatting to him. As I’d been to loads of these things before as we walked up the stairs I helpfully explained the set-up and all the archaic rituals you went through. I didn’t want to monopolise his company all evening and assumed that he’d have plenty of people he wanted to chat to, so once we’d got past all the flunkies and the formal introductions and the rituals I shook his hand and let him get on with the rest of his evening.

Two minutes later, he’s back: “Well Darren,” Jimmy whispered, “I don’t really know anyone here, do you mind if I hang out with you for the rest of the evening?”

What a lovely, unassuming man and what a relaxed, fun, brilliant evening we had. I said I’d introduce him to some of the other people there but first we had a long chat about the making of Led Zep IV, about the state of the modern music industry, about his old cottage by Loch Ness, about bands and musicians we both admired and about many, many other things. I asked him what he was currently working on: “Don’t say anything to anyone yet but we’re putting out a DVD and CD of the reunion concert we did at the O2. It’s coming out in a couple of months. That’s been my main project at the moment but keep it to yourself.”

Other people joined up with us at various points during the evening (including Boris Johnson’s Environment Deputy, Matthew, another big Zep fan). But I kept my promise about the Celebration Day release and never said a word to anyone until the official announcement. We stayed until the end and as one of the waiters was clearing up after us, he quickly pulled a Led Zep CD out of his pocket and asked Jimmy to sign it, which of course he did.

I will always have fond memories of the night I let Jimmy Page hang out with me. And the surreal nature of that memorable request will probably stay with me for a good while yet.

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Review: The Hendrix Flat at 23 Brook Street, London

One of the things that has long frustrated me about London is how little effort it puts into celebrating it’s rock ‘n’ roll heritage (certainly compared to Liverpool). This is in spite of London being (after Memphis the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll) probably the most important city on the entire planet in terms of rock history when one considers the number of globally influential bands who either formed in this city, built their reputation in this city or recorded in this city.

Hopefully, things are starting to change and that’s why, I was delighted to see Jimi Hendrix’s flat at 23 Brook Street, where he lived between July 1968 and March 1969, being restored and opened to the public this year.

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By a quirk of fate it’s right next door to the home of George Frideric Handel who live here between 1723 and 1759 . Fr years the old Hendrix flat had just been used as a storage annexe but now both homes are open to the public as part of a single visitor attraction.

The first part of the tour is the Handel house. It was interesting to find out more about the man, his music and his home.

I confess to not knowing a huge amount about Handel, prior to this visit. In fact, this quote from Hendrix in the later part of the exhibition sums it up nicely for me:

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The second part of the tour starts with an exhibition, devoted to Hendrix, on the third floor of number 25 which includes his acoustic guitar, stage-wear and other displays. It was really fascinating to learn more about his early career in the segregation-era US, prior to being discovered and brought to London for his big breakthrough by manager Chas Chandler (who would go on to manage some more heroes of mine: Slade).

After the initial exhibition you then walk through into number 23 and enter the Hendrix flat itself. In the modest sized flat the largest room which was Hendrix’s living room-cum bedroom has been lovingly restored with exact replicas of furniture, soft furnishings and a whole bundle of belongings he had in the flat at the time, including all the records Hendrix had in his collection there.

The website for the house gives some useful background:

The flat on the upper floors of 23 Brook Street was found by Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham from an advert in one of the London evening newspapers in June 1968 while he was in New York. He moved in briefly in July before returning to the United States for an extensive tour. He spent some time decorating the flat to his own taste, including purchasing curtains and cushions from the nearby John Lewis department store, as well as ornaments and knickknacks from Portobello Road market and elsewhere. He told Kathy that this was ‘my first real home of my own’.

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It really felt like walking straight into a slice of late 60s life and because so many photos exist of Hendrix in that flat, they have been able to do an amazing job on recreating it exactly as it was. It was a weekday and wasn’t hugely busy when I visited and the experience was made all the more fascinating by a lovely and amazingly helpful and informative guide. She was one of those rare people who seem to confound the old saying about the 60s by both remembering them (in great detail) and being there. She had loads of information to share, both on the recent challenge of restoring the flat and of Hendrix’s day to day life in it back in the late 60s, not to mention talking me through his life on the road and his many musical influences as we knelt on the floor and flipped through his recreated record collection together: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, lots of old American blues recordings and many more.

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For anyone interested in rock history who wants to get that bit closer to the life of Mr James Marshall Hendrix then the Hendrix flat is a must-see on any visit to London.

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Visit the Handel and Hendrix House website here

John Cooper Clarke & Hugh Cornwell, Kentish Town Forum 29/11/16

“The most surreal gig I’ve ever been to”

Most gigs I go to I either have a reasonable idea what to expect or know exactly what to expect. But ex-Strangler, Hugh Cornwell and Manc punk poet, John Cooper Clarke, on stage together with the latter singing – actually singing – I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Initially, when I saw the tour advertised and booked tickets I had simply assumed that it was a double headliner tour with both of them doing a set each. But no, they are both on stage together with John Cooper Clarke singing…

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To big cheers Cornwell and Cooper Clarke walk on stage with their band and immediately launch into Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. Now had I tried to guess what tonight had in store for us John Cooper Clarke crooning Presley would not have been anywhere on my list. But there’s plenty more: Jerry Leiber and Phil’s Spector’s ‘Spanish Harlem’, Macather Park ‘someone left the cake out in the rain..’, John Leighton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me, ‘Love Potion No. 9.’ It’s a veritable celebration of late 50s/early 60s pop culture and it is, my gig companion for the evening whispers to me, “the most surreal gig I’ve ever been to.”

Sound-wise the band really gets into the vibe of the era, particularly when it came to the gloriously eccentric ‘Johnny Remember Me’ which channels the other-worldly weirdness of Joe Meek’s original production to the full. John Cooper Clarke has a magnetic stage presence, some hilarious between song banter, combining absent-mindedness, self-deprecation and biting sarcasm in equal measure, and a just-about-passable singing voice. As they leave the stage to huge applause I think to myself it’s not a spectacle I’d want to go and see very often but I’m really glad I’ve witnessed it at least once.

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We’ve got the great Hugh Cornwell here though, and so I’m hoping, really, really hoping he’s going to come back on and rattle through a few Stranglers classics while he’s here, too.

Cornwell and band are soon back on stage, Cornwell telling us that this was only the third time that Cooper Clarke had sung in public in his entire life. “Now it’s up to me to try and lift it back up…”

He launches into ‘Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit’ from his 1999 solo album, followed by a brilliant ‘Nice and Sleazy’ with the bass pumping loud and sleazy just like it should. We all get the chance to sing along to ‘Walk On By’ as well. And then Cooper Clarke is back on stage back in normal punk poet mode to give us ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ and ‘36 Hours’ with great backing from Hugh and the boys. Cooper Clarke stays on stage to take lead vocals on a raucous ‘No More Heroes’. At this point two guys at the front start pushing and knocking everyone over. Yes, this may have been great when you were slight, skinny, adrenalin-pumped 16 year olds, but now you are beer-bellied blokes in your mid 50s you just come across as selfish, obnoxious arse-holes. The women around them rightly give both of them a huge bollocking. Never mind, it’s still a great song and a great end to the set before we get them all back on stage for a final encore of ‘Get a Grip on Yourself.’

Surreal. Just surreal.

http://www.hughcornwell.com/
http://johncooperclarke.com/

Setlist:
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Folk rock: album review – Green Diesel ‘Wayfarers All’

My review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Formed in Faversham in Kent seven years ago, Green Diesel trace their musical influences back to the golden era of late 60s/early 70s British folk rock, to bands like Fairport Convention and the Albion Band. Indeed, it could be argued that this album sounds more like the direct offspring of the iconic albums from that period than perhaps the output of the Fairport of today does.

Green Diesel do folk rock and they do it superbly well. A rocking rhythm section and some lovely electric guitar licks blended with a good range of traditional instruments and some beautiful vocals – all of the essential ingredients for a great folk rock album are there, not to mention a great selection of songs and tunes.

Wayfarers All, the band’s second album following their 2012 debut Now Is the Time, contains a mixture of original and traditional material. Unless one was familiar with the traditional songs it would not be immediately obvious which songs fell into which category, a mark of both the quality of band member Greg Ireland’s song-writing talents, together with the ability of the band to put their own consistent musical stamp on the songs and tunes they perform.

To Kill the King opens the album, one of five tracks written by Ireland, and it demonstrates the vocal, instrumental and song-writing talents of the band nicely. Lead vocalist and violinist, Ellen Clare, has a clear but engaging folk voice that’s perfect for this type of material. Of the traditional material, the band do beautiful versions of Mad Tom of Bedlam and May Song.

Another thing that is always pleasing to to hear on any folk rock album is a mix of female and male vocals. And Wayfarers All doesn’t disappoint in this regard either. Lead guitarist Matt Dear takes the lead vocal on his own composition, A Fisherman, Once; while the band’s arrangement of Oak, Ash and Thorn, with its beautiful choral singing from the whole band punctuated by pumping electric bass, puts one in mind of early 70s Steeleye Span.

All in all Wayfarers All is a hugely enjoyable album. An up and coming band who deserve to be much bigger, let’s hear it for Green Diesel and this enchanting slice of classic English folk rock.

Released July 2014

https://www.facebook.com/greendieselfolk/?ref=br_rs&qsefr=1

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Talking Musical Revolutions with Zoë Howe at Kino-Teatre, St Leonards 24/11/16

My review was originally published on The Stinger independent music website here

Rock writer, Zoë  Howe, who has produced acclaimed biographies on the likes of The Slits, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Wilko Johnson, Lee Brilleaux and Stevie Nicks, dropped in at St Leonard’s’ Kino Teatre on Thursday to talk about her experiences writing those; and also about her latest book, Shine On Marquee Moon, her first work of fiction.

Shine On Marquee Moon, named after the iconic Television album, follows the adventures of a fictional 80s new romantic band, Concierge, who are enjoying something of a modern-day revival.

In spite of owning up to getting Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” as the first ever single she bought with her own money (which she played us the video of, along with Duran Duran’s ‘The Reflex’) this is less Howe’s world than the rock world she knows far more intimately, both as a writer and a performer.

She explained that although she started out with a rock band in mind, she switched genre’s because she “didn’t want it to become too Spinal Tap.”

From the couple of readings she gives us tonight, however, it’s brilliantly observed, hilariously eccentric and caustically witty, yet at the same time it comes across as a very human and empathetic portrayal, too.

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And when Howe moves on to talk about her rock biographies, it’s abundantly clear how precious to her maintaining that human element is.

Drawn to bands like The Who at an impossibly young age, Howe reveals that the first rock biography she ever read was a sordid hatchet job on Keith Moon.

She denies that she consciously set out to do this when I put the question to her later on, but that lurid account could almost have acted as her personal manifesto on how not to do it when it came to working on her own music biographies years later.

She emphasises the importance she attaches to giving her subjects a degree of dignity and respect, as well as love she’s keen to stress, regardless of whatever bizarre rock star behaviour or low points in people’s personal lives her books inevitably touch on.

Howe seems to have taken a Punk DIY ‘just get on and do it’ approach to writing: experimenting and learning as she goes along, rather than bending over backwards to fit the usual constraints of the publishing industry. And it certainly seems to be paying off.

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Talking Musical Revolutions makes for a fascinating evening and with some thought-provoking questions from interviewer, Gavin Martin, a great selection of video clips (The Who, The Slits, Bauhaus and Dr Feelgood, for example – not just Falco and Duran Duran!) and some highly entertaining readings from her new book, the two hours just fly by.

Whether it’s her rock biographies or her new foray into the word of fiction, it’s clear that Zoë Howe deals with her subject matter with warmth, passion and good humour.

And at least one or two of those publications are likely to find their way on to my Christmas present wish-list this year.

http://www.zoehowe.com/

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Photo from event publicity promo

 

Cara Dillon at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 26/11/16

With the likes of Gigspanner, Eliza Carthy and (very soon) Maddy Prior, St Mary in the Castle has hosted some top-class folk acts throughout 2016. Tonight it’s the turn of Cara Dillon, whom Mojo Magazine once described as having “what may well be the world’s most beautiful female voice.”

Although it’s still November, in the world of gig programmes and band touring schedules that means it’s almost Christmas. And there’s two musical genres that really know how to do Christmas. The first is glam rock, of course, which was just made for tinsel and all things glittery; but when it comes to putting on a good festive gig folk, too, can give Slade, Roy Wood and co a good run for their money.

Derry-born Dillon and her band deliver a special seasonal set that they have just begun touring. The first half is the more spiritual half which is mainly traditional carols like ‘O Come, O Come ‘Emmanuel’ as well as ‘Mother Mary’ which is a brand new Christmas song Dillon and her musical partner (band-member and husband, Sam Lakeman) wrote themselves. Mary in the Castle is the perfect atmospheric setting for Dillon’s stunning vocals, backed with gentle, haunting piano and beautiful fiddle, acoustic guitar and accordion. The songs in the set are to be found on Dillon’s brand new album Upon a Winter’s Night.

A break, some brisk CD sales, a costume change and Dillon is back for the second half which takes on a more celebratory festive tone; with songs like ‘Standing By My Christmas Tree’, another Dillon/Lakeman original, and a lovely cover of The Pretenders’ 80s Christmas hit ‘2000 Miles’. Normally, when an artist announces they are going to perform an obscure version of a well-known song and a completely different tune starts up to the one your brain is all geared up for, my heart always sinks a little. But the less well known “Cornish version” of ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ really is superior to the better known “Somerset version”. It’s a great end to the set but the polite and attentive Mary in the Castle audience become very, very animated at this point and we get Dillon back on stage for an encore.

She also canvasses opinion on whether people would come again next year, explaining that the specially designed festive stage props set them back quite a bit and she’d love the chance to get a bit more use out of them. She gets an enthusiastically positive response so, who knows, this might become a regular feature. It would certainly be good to see Cara Dillon and co back at the Castle before too long.

http://www.caradillon.co.uk

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Previous review:
Cara Dillon at Cropredy 2014

Book review: ‘Hastings Old Town Music Scene’ by Sean O’Shea

Having been resident in Hastings only some six months or so my perceptions of the town’s lively, thriving music scene are still those of the enthusiastic newcomer. I can’t pretend to know the scene inside out and back to front like many of the people Sean O’Shea interviews in this 140-page book, but that helped make it a fascinating read for me.

For a smallish town of 90,000 Hastings has an unparalleled live music scene, particularly in the old town which this book focuses on: dozens of pubs and bars putting on live music, a healthy mix of larger venues, too, and numerous events and festivals. And for a long long time the town has exerted an almost gravity-like pull as a place for musicians of all types to set up home here and play here. But my perception is that unless you are familiar with the town, either as a resident or frequent visitor, all of this is pretty much under the radar. I think this is probably because, although it’s long had a very healthy live music scene and is teeming with musicians, it’s not given birth to a really big name band that comes to define the place musically and put it on the musical map. Andover forever has The Troggs, Guildford – the Stranglers, Wolverhampton – Slade. Yet Hastings just seems to have dozens and dozens and dozens of very talented musicians, but not necessarily ones who are household names. This book, therefore, is not filled with interviews of mega-successful rock icons reflecting on their long-past musical roots, but rather is a series of interviews with musicians who live and perform in the town today. A few of those interviewed were born here and reflect on a Hastings childhood and teenager-dom. But most have been drawn here at some point by the pull of the town’s music and arts scene, many it appears via south-east London – a journey I, too, have made.

It’s packed with stories and reflections and covers interviews with musicians from a wide range of genres: folk, jazz, rock, blues, classical and more. Some like Lorna Heptinstall of the internationally acclaimed Skinny Lister or Liam Genockey of the iconic folk rockers Steeleye Span, both of whom ended up in Hastings, have profile and reputations that stretch far beyond Hastings. But others, like the four women who make up the a capella harmony vocal group, Rattlebag, renowned for their folk sing-arounds in the Stag Inn, are little known outside Sussex. But their passion for and insight into the Hastings music scene makes for a genuinely enjoyable read.

Whether you’re a music-loving resident familiar with scene or a curious visitor who wants to find out more, ‘Hastings Old Town Music Scene’ is well worth a read. At the back there’s a list of old town music venues as well as a calendar of the key musical events, festivals and fairs that Hastings has built up a considerable reputation for.

Published 2016 by Hastings Press

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Folk: album review – Ewan McLennan & George Monbiot ‘Breaking the Spell of Loneliness’

My review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Many followers of Bright Young Folk may be familiar with columnist George Monbiot. For some, Monbiot’s polemical Guardian columns on environmental destruction, economic inequality, the abuse of power and social decay may be a key reason for purchasing that newspaper, but would anyone want to purchase an album by him?

The first thing to make abundantly clear is that it is Ewan McLennan whose vocals and music we hear throughout the album. Monbiot, though, contributes much of the lyrical content and the story on how this album came about is a fascinating one.

The project began in the wake of an article that Monbiot wrote about the age of loneliness, which explored the themes of social isolation and the breakdown of society. It soon went viral and there was interest from publishers, but Monbiot’s further writings on the subject became the basis for songs, rather than a book, and he turned to McLennan with the idea of putting an album together.

So, a compelling back-story but musically and lyrically is the album any good?

There’s a gentle, melodic, laid-back feel to the music which provides the perfect backdrop for appreciating the album’s lyrical content. McLennan provides the vocals and guitar and he’s joined by Lauren MacColl on violin and viola, Sid Goldsmith on slide guitar, Donald Shaw on harmonium and Beth Porter on cello.

Scotsman McLennan, has a voice with absolutely bags of character, that immediately draws the listener in to each enunciated syllable of each line of every song.

Opening track Such a Thing as Society offers an eloquent and unapologetic rebuttal to one of former PM Margaret Thatcher’s most famous quotes: “There is such a thing as society, it keeps us from losing our minds, it’s working and living and laughing together, that makes us human kind.”

My Time and Yours, with its melancholic harmonium accompaniment and reflective lyrics looking back to days of hard time,s but strong communal and familial ties, is a particular favourite. It is a battle cry for today’s generations to break the spell of loneliness. It’s the only song written by McLennan alone but completely fits in with the overall theme of the album, and in many ways its lyrics act as a rallying manifesto for the album as a whole.

Other themes explored on the album include lost childhood freedoms and the casualties of society as seen through the eyes of a desk sergeant on night duty at a local police station. A haunting and beautiful instrumental Unknown Lament, and spirited cover of the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome complete the album.

The world we live in means there is an awful lot to rally against and the folk genre rightly retains a crucial role in turning out songs that make us think hard about the world we live in. But however sincere the intentions and however important the issues, it is not unreasonable to expect such songs to be well-written, well-played and well-sung. Breaking the Spell of Loneliness more than passes those tests and is an absolute gem of an album.

Released October 2016

http://www.ewanmclennan.co.uk/breaking-the-spell-of-loneliness

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Iain Matthews in Etchingham 18/11/16

This review was also published in The Stinger here

“Just on the off-chance there’s a spare place do you fancy seeing Iain Matthews do a private gig in someone’s front room in Etchingham tonight.”

“Of course I’m interested! Let me know.”

“Yes, there’s a place for you. The guy who’s organising it says he knows you from years back.”

So went a series of texts between myself and a friend. And why I found myself in the house of an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen for around twenty years to witness a performance by former Fairport Convention/Matthews Southern Comfort/Plainsong singer, Ian Matthews.

It’s a really intimate affair: just twenty-odd people crowded into a room, Matthews and his guitar. But his material and manner is just perfect for a gathering like this. A few songs in he confesses he very rarely performs solo, normally performing either in a band or as a duo. This really surprises me because not only is he a superb singer-songwriter-performer he’s also got that knack of instant engagement and rapport with an audience, however small. He’s got some fascinating stories to share, reflecting on both his long career and the songs he performs.

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Material-wise, we get some great material from throughout his career, both covers and originals. Highlights include Matthews’ own ‘Ballad of Gruene Hall’; a beautifully laid-back cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’; a song from Gene Clark’s magnificent solo album No Other; and some lovely Richard Farina covers from the newly-revived Plainsong’s 2015 album Re-inventing Richard.

That golden voice that sang along with Sandy Denny on the original version of ‘Meet on the Ledge’ will probably always be the thing I associate most with Matthews, however. And at the end of the set it can be heard singing out that song, once more, as a final encore for this small but enthusiastic gathering. A perfect end to the evening.

At one point in his set Matthews talks about his giving up completely as performer, assuming his career had run it’s course by the early 80s. But then he recalls a few years later an emotional Robert Plant grabbing him backstage at Fairport’s Cropredy festival and lecturing him about the importance of getting back out there on the road. “You owe it to your fans,” urges Plant. “What fans?” asks Matthews. “Get out there and you’ll find they are out there,” Plant responds. Indeed they are. Keep on playing Iain…

http://www.iainmatthews.nl/news.html

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Folk: album review – Hamish Napier ‘The River’

My review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Hamish Napier is an in-demand folk musician who has collaborated with a number of key acts on the Scottish folk scene. The River, however, is the debut solo album from this Strathspey-born composer and multi-instrumentalist, and is very much inspired by a childhood spent growing up on the banks of the Spey. “The River brings to the surface vivid sonic images of occurrences, past and present, along the mile-long stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home,” Napier tells us in the extensive sleeve notes.

The album includes a stellar cast of renowned Scottish folk musicians, including Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) on flute, James Lindsay (Breabach) on double bass, Martin O’Neil (Duncan Chisholm) on bodhran, as well as Callum MacCrimmon singing Canntaireach, the ancient chanting language of the bagpipes.

Perhaps symbolic of the constantly changing flow of any river, there is a breadth of sounds and moods explored on this album. Opening track Mayfly puts one in mind of some early 70s prog rock passages, a folky Tubular Bells if you will. It’s perhaps an unusual start but provides a captivating experimental feel which immediately encourages the listener to want to explore further.

The Whirlpool meanwhile is a lovely tune with flute and whistle. It has been written as a round – in celebration of the whirlpool that constantly spins and spins just a few hundred yards from the Old Spey Bridge.which captures the frenetic natural cycle of the river as an ever-changing dance. The mood changes considerably with The Dance, beginning with gentle, sombre piano.

Of course, no aquatic-inspired folk, be it river or sea, is complete without harrowing tales of tragedy and death, and the beautiful but mournful Drowning of the Silver Brothers is inspired by the fate of two local boys who mysteriously drowned in the 1930s. Clearly not forgotten locally, this piece serves as a haunting but fitting tribute to the boys and the mystery that surrounds them.

Another memorable track is Floating, which has a funky electronic feel to it demonstrating just how far Napier is prepared to cast his musical net in order to capture the range of moods and emotions he feels moved to express in this album. The two-part The Spey Cast closes the album. The first part is a thought-provoking gentle piece inspired by the death of an old fly fisherman while the second part is a fast and furious musical romp which reflects the mixture of chaos and hilarity that is the town’s annual raft race.

For those with a love of Scottish folk, particularly those with a keen interest in experimentation and innovation within the Celtic world and who love to hear the sound of boundaries being pushed, this is an album well worth exploring.

Released January 2016

http://www.hamishnapier.com/

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