Folk – album review – Birichen ‘Hush’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Birichen are Catriona Sutherland (vocals), Iain-Gordon Macfarlane (fiddle and guitar) and Robert McDonald (dobro slide guitar) and this five-track EP is their debut release. Named after the settlement in the Scottish highlands that serves as their base, the trio’s music is steeped in the influences of Scottish folk but there are other influences at work, too, most notably Americana.

The EP opens with the sound of birdsong and running water, but regardless of whether it’s Drumnadrochit or Montana it really doesn’t matter, the opening song Holding On To Each Moment immediately transports the listener to somewhere that is soothing, laid-back and breathtakingly beautiful. Gordon-Macfarlane’s fiddle and McDonald’s slide guitar serve to clearly lay out Birichen’s musical mission from the outset and both players provide the perfect accompaniment for Sutherland’s clear voice and gentle, evocative delivery. The country influences come even more to the fore with a cover of Guy Clark’s LA Freeway but on the jazzy Gonnae Get Good and the poignant Smile In Your Sleep the emphasis is very much on Scottish history and culture, the latter an emotive lullaby recalling the brutal and traumatic impact of the Highland Clearances that touches on the history of the Birichen settlement and Sutherland’s own family history.

A beguiling blend of Scottish folk and American country Hush sees Birichen announce their arrival in splendid form. A fine debut EP.

Released: October 2018

https://www.facebook.com/Birichen/

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Folk: album review – Rachel Croft ‘Hours Awake’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Celtic-influenced melodies, lush instrumentation and pure yet ever-so-sensual vocals serve to make Hours Awake a highly attractive debut album from the York-based singer songwriter. The album collects together songs that Croft has been creating over a three-year period between 2014, when she first started writing, and 2017.

Only Dreams, which was also released as Croft’s debut single back in 2017, is one of the standout tracks on the album. Beautifully atmospheric instrumentation combines with powerful lyrics and captivating vocals in a Sandy-Denny-meets-Kate-Bush sort of way and showcases Croft’s considerable vocal range. Opening track, the moody and haunting Old Climbing Tree is another stunner. In addition to Croft, herself, on acoustic guitar a group of talented musicians contribute to making this album something special. The playing of Emlyn Vaughan on double bass, Rachel Brown on cello and Emily Lawler is particularly noteworthy.

Nicely packaged and beautifully illustrated the inside cover-art features some of Croft’s own striking black and white pen and ink work.

The album is not quite perfect. Some slightly weird production mars the second track Hear Me somewhat and the final track Can’t Replace Your Perfect, a big, soulful, gospel-tinged number stands up perfectly well on its own and certainly helps demonstrates the vocalist’s versatility but seems a little out of place here. Nonetheless, Hours Awake is a beautifully impressive debut from a talented vocalist, musician and songwriter.

Released: 8th February 2019

https://rachelcroftmusic.com/

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Book review: ‘Roots, Radical & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.

Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.

Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.

While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.

The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.

First published in 2017

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Hard rock: album review – Spitfish ‘Penny Dreadful’

Ask me about Gdansk and I’d immediately think of Polish shipyards, Lech Walesa and the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union and the anti-communist protests of the 1980s. In fact that’s the sum total of my entire knowledge of the place – but it’s also home to Spitfish.

A brooding industrial early 70s Sabbath-like feel combines with more upbeat classic rock elements and a taste of 90s grunge to produce a fine album of hard rock.

Formed three years ago by vocalist Boris Karloff the line-up now features Karloff on vocals and bass, Cyril Delevanti on guitar and A.J. on drums. The rumbling hard, heavy riffs meld nicely with Karloff’s warmer, more melodic vocals to produce something that’s both atmospheric and catchy.

Spitfish’s on-stage persona and album cover-art pays homage to old-school horror movies and there’s clearly a love of the theatrical but, importantly, there’s some serious quality hard rock behind the imagery.

“Even though only members of the band know the dark concept of Spitfish, it’s worth listening to their music,” their publicity blurb tells us. That I would agree with. I knew little of Gdansk and nothing of Spitfish but I’ve been giving Penny Dreadful numerous plays since the CD arrived through my door. It is, indeed, music worth listening to.

Released: October 16th 2018

https://www.facebook.com/spitfishband/

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Folk/rock: album review – Crooked Weather ‘Are We Lost’

In spite of originating from the windswept landscape of East Yorkshire, you don’t need to spend very long at all listening to Crooked Weather to work out that the band’s spiritual home is so evidently the sun-blessed uplands of America’s west coast, circa 1969. Warm harmony vocals, catchy acoustic guitar melodies, delicious interjections on the slide guitar and that sunny laid-back country-meets-folk Americana vibe that combines musical intricacy with seemingly effortless execution, Are We Lost is an impressive and highly likeable album.

Based around the vocals and guitar playing of both Holly Blackshaw and Will Bladen, the duo are backed by a stellar cast of supporting musicians in the shape of of Rob Burgess, Beth Nicholson, Dave Tomlinson and Tom Skelly. Song-wise the album is mainly a vehicle for the talented writing of Bladen but there’s also a deeply lovely arrangement of the traditional English folk number ‘Hares On The Mountain’.

The album climaxes with Bladen and Blackshaw’s ‘Easy’ an undulating and dramatic slice of epic folk-rock which also serves as the band’s current single.

“Easy was one of those songs that just wrote itself and it’s hard to say where this kind of a song comes from. It had been fermenting away in the background for a while and ideas would come now and again when outside cutting the grass and things like that. Then one afternoon it pretty much came out fully formed. It’s probably best not spending too long thinking about where it came from,” says Bladen.

It’s not at all difficult to close your eyes and imagine these as summer festival favourites – and having had quite a few such appearances under their belts they will be well worth checking out if you have a chance to see them. And obviously, do check out this album, too.

Released: 12th April 2019

https://www.crookedweather.com/

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Live review: Mott The Hoople ’74 at Shepherds Bush Empire 27/4/19

Back in the early 80s, I was on a voyage of discovery voraciously buying up the back catalogues of some of the great bands of the late 60s and 70s. Many of the big beasts – the likes of Deep Purple and Humble Pie and, yes, Mott The Hoople had called it a day by then. Even though such bands were at their commercial height less than a decade previously they seemed to inhabit a completely different world to the early 80s music world of my teenage years. I loved the records. I absolutely adored both the ‘Mott’ and ‘The Hoople’ albums, in particular, but I never really entertained the idea of seeing Mott The Hoople live on stage. A brilliant slice of rock n roll history? Indeed. But they were the past and I could, at least, enjoy Ian Hunter’s impressive solo career.

That all changed in 2009, of course, when the short run of reunion concerts by the original line-up were announced. Jubilant, emotional and electric the one small niggle about the reunion, and of a further run in 2013, is that while they rightly celebrated the band’s original line-up, they didn’t do justice to the input of the later members – namely Ariel Bender on guitar and Morgan Fisher on keyboards.

Again, I accepted this as a small niggle in an otherwise perfect reunion. I never really entertained the idea that I’d get the chance to see it put right. On the way to Shepherd’s Bush Empire I was feeling quite emotional about having the opportunity to see it become reality after all, and remembering back to the time when I first happened upon this veteran band in a second-hand shop in Preston as a teenager. This was always going to be more than just a gig. I want it to be special. They more than deliver on that.

Songs from ‘The Hoople’ – Mott The Hoople’s brilliant final studio album (and the only one to feature Fisher and Bender) feature prominently: the camp splendour of ‘The Golden Age of Rock n Roll’, the glammed-up deliciousness of ‘Roll Away The Stone’, the glorious insanity of ‘Marionette’ and many more.

At earlier dates on the tour there had been some online disquiet from fans about the quality of Bender’s playing. True, he was never going to be Jimmy Page (or Mick Ralphs for that matter) but his over the top antics and tongue-in-cheek craving for adulation were an essential component of late-period Mott’s 70s stage act – and so it proves tonight. Moreover, Bender’s blunt in-yer-face guitar work really suits the proto-punk of those early Mott songs like ‘Walking With a Mountain’ and ‘Rock n Roll Queen’ that Bender made his own when he became part of the band.

Fisher, always a magnificently talented pianist, when he’s not tottering around the stage with copious glasses of white wine, gives us many wonderful musical flourishes on the keys. With the untimely deaths of Dale Griffin and Overend Watts the ranks of Hooples are sadly depleted but Ian Hunter’s long-time side-kicks in the Rant Band, gifted musicians all, do a seamless job co-opted into the on-stage madness that is Mott The Hoople.

Hunter’s unmistakable voice, as ever, is in fine form. At 80 he shows no signs of slowing down, of losing his grip as a performer or his creativity as a songwriter. However, if this tour is to be the final chapter in the ballad of Mott the Hoople it serves as a fitting end to the career of a wonderful, unique and utterly, utterly irreplaceable band. Mott the Hoople – thanks for a great trip….

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Set-list:

American Pie / The Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll
‪Lounge Lizard ‬
Alice
Honaloochie Boogie
Rest in Peace
I Wish I Was Your Mother
Pearl ‘n’ Roy (England)
Sucker
Sweet Jane
Rose
Walking With a Mountain
Roll Away the Stone
Marionette
Jerkin’ Crocus / One of the Boys
Medley: Rock ‘n Roll Queen / Crash Street Kidds / Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On / Mean Woman Blues / Johnny B. Goode / Violence / Cleveland Rocks / You Really Got Me
All the Way From Memphis
Saturday Gigs
All the Young Dudes

 

https://mottthehoople.com/classof74/

Related reviews:

Ian Hunter at Shepherds Bush Empire 2016

Ian Hunter at Shepherds Bush Empire 2014

Ian Hunter at Giants of Rock 2016

Mott The Hoople Fan Convention 2016

 

Folk: album review – Band of Burns ‘Live From The Union Chapel’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Originating out of the Burns Night gigs that ran at East London’s Wilton’s Music Hall for several years, Band of Burns came about when key members of the team (musicians Alastair Caplin and Dilar Vardar, and promoter Sophie Bostock) decided to put a more permanent touring outfit together. Featuring twelve musicians, this double live album was recorded at one of the band’s celebrated gigs at North London’s iconic Union Chapel and was released thanks to a successful crowdfunding appeal.

As the band’s origins and name suggests the influence of Scotland’s most celebrated poet casts a major presence over the entire project. It would be a mistake, however, to assume the album was focused solely on the work of Robert Burns.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume it was focused solely on the Scottish folk tradition either. Those involved in the Band of Burns come from a variety of different backgrounds and musical traditions, hailing from England, Wales and Ireland as well as Scotland and from as far afield as Turkey.

The result is a delightful collection of songs and tune sets from a fantastic array of musicians. From songs based on Burns’ own writing like My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, Now Westlin Winds and Parcel o’ Rogues, through to other traditional numbers like Banks of Red Roses as well as songs like Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, there will be much that many folk enthusiasts will be familiar with here. However, the range of voices, both male and female, together with the exceptional standards of musicianship has resulted in Band of Burns producing something very special here.

Moreover, it is definitely a collaboration that lends itself well to the live album format. Although overflowing with talent, it would be difficult to imagine the album having quite the same impact had the recording been studio-bound. The awed crowd reactions to the ballads and the rapturous responses to some of the tune sets wonderfully capture what must have been an incredible atmosphere in Union Chapel on the evening of 29th January 2017.

Although nicely packaged a little bit more information on the background to the song choices and the playing on each track would not have gone amiss. However, with information about both the sizeable number of musicians and the concert itself to cram in there is probably a limit to how much additional information can be squeezed in.

Two discs, twelve musicians and one magical night, Live From The Union Chapel is a wonderful celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns.

Released: Ord Ban Music  19th January 2018

https://www.bandofburns.com/

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Rock/singer songwriter: album review – Craig Finn ‘I Need A New War’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Brooklyn-based band The Hold Steady had already made quite a name for themselves with their lyrical storytelling and classic rock influences when their front-man, Craig Finn, began a parallel solo career back in 2012. The classic riffs and catchy melodies of The Hold Steady had given way to a more mellow musical approach in a Johnny-Cash-meets-indie-rock sort of way but, clearly, Finn had happened upon something that many were looking for. Finn’s last solo album We All Want The Same Things, released in 2017, received no shortage of plaudits and he will be hoping to make a similar impact with I Need A New War. Again, Finn’s rich narratives, world-weary characters and laid-back, seen-it-all-before delivery take centre-stage on this new album.

“I saw this record as the third part of a trilogy,” says Finn. “Thematically, this was the third group of songs that I had written about smaller moments – people trying to stay afloat in modern times, attempting to find connection, achieving tiny triumphs and frustrating let downs in their day to day lives. Also, this was the third record in a row that I’d made with these musicians, along with engineer D. James Goodwin, following Faith in the Future (2015) and We All Want The Same Things (2017).”

Finn has moved effortlessly from twenty-first century rocker to timeless singer-songwriter and the musicians he has brought together evidently have a natural feel for what the artist is working to achieve. Horns, piano and sensitive guitar work fill out the sound and give the release the vibe of an album you instinctively know is trying to tell you something. I Need A New War will certainly help cement Craig Finn’s reputation of a modern-day singer-songwriter of some note.

Released: 26/4/19 Partisan Records

https://craigfinn.net/

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News: Cleveland Rocks – iconic independent record label relaunches

Cleveland International Records, the US independent record label that brought us the likes of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Ronnie Spector’s collaboration with the E Street Band in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is back in business,  relaunched earlier this year by the son of its late founder, Steve Popovich Sr.

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“My dad’s story is pretty fascinating, here’s this guy who grew up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania to becoming one of the most beloved and respected people in the history of the record business,” says Popovich Jr. He began working at the label out of high school during its second incarnation (1995-2003). “The idea to relaunch had been simmering for a while,” he adds, “when my father’s estate was finally settled after seven in a half years after his passing, it seemed like the perfect segue to me transitioning away from my company, Wrecking Ball Entertainment to relaunching Cleveland International.”

In the 90’s Popovich Sr. famously took on the might of Sony – and won. Popovich sued Sony for non-payment of royalties from Bat Out of Hell royalties. The case was settled out of court for nearly $7 million. As part of the settlement, Sony was required to place the Cleveland International logo on reissues of Bat Out of Hell. When Sony failed to comply, Popovich took to the courts once again and a jury awarded him an additional $5 million in damages in 2005. In 2012, Sony reached a final out-of-court settlement with Popovich’s estate over more unpaid royalties revealed in an audit performed prior to Popovich’s death in 2011.

The label is marking its relaunch with a CD and LP re-release of its mid-90’s all-star compilation called, Cleveland Rocks. In addition to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” the 13 track collection includes classics by Ian Hunter (“Cleveland Rocks”), Ronnie Spector & the E Street Band (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”), Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (“I Don’t Wanna Go Home”), Just Us Girls (“Time Warp”), Iron City Houserockers (“Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive”), Euclid Beach Band (“There’s No Surf in Cleveland”), The Boyzz (“Too Wild To Tame”), Essence (“Sweet Fools”), Mike Berry (“I Am A Rocker”), The Rovers (“Wasn’t That A Party”) and Bat out of Hell collaborators Jim Steinman (“Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”) and Ellen Foley (“We Belong To the Night”).

The album ends with Ian Hunter’s iconic paean to Cleveland. Although originally released by Chrysalis on the You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic album it became something of an anthem for both the city and the label. Hunter writes on his website The Horses Mouth, “The inspiration for Cleveland Rocks goes back to the old days when people used to make fun of Cleveland. Cleveland was ‘uncool’ and LA and NYC were ‘cool’. I didn’t see it that way. Lotta heart in Cleveland.”

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Cleveland Rocks released by Cleveland International Records April 5th 2019

https://www.clevelandinternational.com/

An afternoon spent with Dame Evelyn Glennie – Eastbourne College Theatre 14/4/19

Last Sunday I was privileged to host an afternoon of music and chat with Dame Evelyn Glennie in Eastbourne’s College Theatre. Beginning to lose her hearing at eight and deaf since the age of twelve this did not stand in the way of Glennie becoming one of the world’s most renowned percussionists. It was clear from our talking just how much her school environment played a pivotal part in this. This was not some generously-resourced specialist academy but a community school in Scotland. One where teachers happened to have a burning passion for nurturing creativity and one where something like a hearing impairment was not going to be a barrier to participating in the school orchestra. Glennie’s passion was nurtured and supported – indeed we had one of those people who played such a role in the audience for the event. Of course, being a full-time solo percussionist was not even a career that had previously existed but Glennie set about successfully inventing such a role for herself and remains an inspiration to many.

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She memorably played at the 2012 Games and during the course of our chat she talked us through some of the creative process that led up to that performance, not to mention the excessive degree of secrecy that was required from those chosen to take part in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. She also revealed that there had previously been an approach to play at the Athens Olympics in 2004. However, a change in artistic direction led to the commission being dropped. She had just told the audience that no creative collaboration is a failure even if it doesn’t quite work out – it’s always a learning experience. What, I asked her, was the learning experience in this case? Was she able to re-apply some of her original ideas for the London Games a few years later? No, she told us. The learning was far more about dealing with bureaucracy and as a result of that, she asserted, she was better equipped for that when the London Games came along several years later.

Audience questions there were many. What did she think about percussion as a form of healing? Had she ever considered collaborating with a visual artist? Where does she keep her instruments? What advice did she have for young performers?

And, of course, we had some wonderful, rich and deeply fascinating demonstrations. An array of instruments filled the stage. We were given a wonderful performance on Glennie’s prized marimba, for example. However, one of the most unexpected demonstrations came courtesy of several children’s wind-up musical boxes gaffer taped together. Setting them off one by one the first couple sounded entirely as you would expect. Once four or five were all going off together the effect was something quite different – and spectacularly sinister. She also talked us through some of the commissions she’s been given for film and TV soundtracks and gave us a demonstration of the waterphone and the evocative sounds that can create. (Check out Evelyn Glennie’s blog here for more of an idea!)

We ended the afternoon with a real treat as Glennie performed a piece of music called ‘Halo’ on an instrument called the hang. This is a relatively new instrument – think two woks welded together to make a kind of flying saucer shape with a few dents in it.

The effect was quite mesmerising and gave us a spectacular finish to a fascinating and thought-provoking afternoon. Certainly, we all came away thinking more about how we listen and how our bodies react to sound.

 

https://www.evelyn.co.uk/

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