Folk: album review – John Smith ‘Hummingbird’

This review was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Two years after recording the album Headlong in Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio, John Smith returned to lay down another new album. Unlike the former, however, which was built around Smith’s song-writing, Hummingbird is very much about celebrating traditional songs and paying tribute to the artists like John Renbourn, John Martyn and Bert Jansch who inspired Smith in the first place. Six of the album’s ten tracks are traditional songs with one cover version and three original numbers.

Less is more was the motto that Smith and Lakeman adopted while making the album. “A folk song’s clarity of purpose is exactly the reason why it has been played in pubs, living rooms and concert halls for hundreds of years,” says Smith. Indeed, this approach has absolutely paid off. Shorn of the typical embellishments we might have come to expect on a modern-day folk album there is beauty and simplicity in the the delivery that gives the lyrics in songs like Hares On The Mountain and Lord Franklin a real resonance.

The lone cover is Anna Briggs’ The Time Has Come which Smith first heard, like many readers will have done, on a Bert Jansch and John Renbourn album. Smith’s three original songs, like the beautiful title track, stand sympathetically alongside the much older material.

A gifted guitarist, a unique vocalist and an impassioned interpreter of traditional material, if John Smith has made this album for his musical heroes then he’s done them proud.

Released: October 2018

https://www.johnsmithjohnsmith.com/

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Folk/indie: album review – Trevor Moss & Hannah Lou ‘Fair Lady London’

This review was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

An integral part of London’s emerging indie folk scene for a number of years, Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou left the capital for Hastings and are now firmly ensconced in the Sussex seaside town’s thriving local music scene. Three years on from their last album, Fair Lady London is the product of their changed setting and changed priorities.

There is still plenty to showcase the duo’s talent as songwriters here, however. The poignantly bitter-sweet We Should’ve Gone Dancing is immediately and utterly unforgettable while the guitar line on Everything You Need is as beautifully infectious as something that Bert Jansch might have come up with.

For their previous album the duo worked with renowned producer Ethan Johns but now they are back with the trusty 4-track recorder they used on their 2012 album, this time setting up in a castle in the East Sussex countryside. “I’ve never really liked studios,” confesses Moss. “The first one we ever stepped foot in was Olympic as teenagers, the same room as Hendrix, Zeppelin, Stones. I didn’t like it. It felt like a spaceship.”

The lo-fi approach works extremely well and gives the album exactly the kind of understated intimacy the duo’s songs warrant.

Now five albums into their career as a duo Fair Lady London sees Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou continuing to make music that in its own delicate, gentle and thoughtful way continues to demand your attention.

Released: November 2018

http://www.trevormossandhannahlou.com/

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Folk: album review – The Trials of Cato ‘Hide and Hair’

This review was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Energetic, innovative and dynamic the press blurb hailing Trials Of Cato as a band that “arrived fully formed” is not just PR hype in this instance. Hide & Hair is a bona fide sweep-you-off-your-feet debut. The three young men from Yorkshire and North Wales met in Beirut while teaching, quickly enthused audiences in Lebanon and arrived back in the UK two years ago. With Hide & Hair they deliver us a lovely blend of mandolin, banjo, bouzouki and guitar, their stunning instrumentation and rich harmonising vocals breathing new life into traditional songs and tunes.

Older songs like My Love’s In Germany, the seventeenth century window’s lament for a fallen soldier, and Tom Paine’s Bones, Graham Moore’s rousing anthem for rights and liberty, rub shoulders with new songs like the equally rousing These Are The Things. Of the instrumental pieces Difyrrwch is the band’s arrangement of three traditional Welsh and English melodies while Kadisha is their own composition inspired and named after a valley in northern Lebanon.

The trio are Robin Jones (mandolin/tenor banjo/vocals), William Addison (Irish bouzouki/vocals) and Tomos Williams (guitar/vocals) with Addison and Jones alternating lead vocal duties across the album.

Few debuts have as much vitality and impact as this one and they have already been receiving plaudits from the likes of the BBC’s Mark Radcliffe who has lauded them as “one of the real discoveries on the folk circuit in recent times”. We shall certainly be hearing a lot more of The Trials Of Cato.

Released: November 2018

https://thetrialsofcato.com/

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Live Review: Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill 19/12/18

This review was originally published by The Stinger here

Steve Harley and his band-mates take the stage and launch straight into George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun, a top ten hit for Harley and co, in 1976. It’s well received by the audience and I’m instantly transported back to the previous (and only) time I saw Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, one blazing August afternoon at the Reading Festival back in 1983 when that song worked its magic on the crowd. It’s a great start. The trademark combination of electric violin, electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards all in place, the band have the audience on side straight away.

After a couple of energetically performed hits, however, he takes us into some of the more reflective songwriting of his later solo career. Harley is a hugely talented and award-winning songwriter, but my view has always been that with an instantly recognisable but fairly limited vocal range, Harley’s voice is better suited to the more upbeat pop-rock material. That was confirmed for me tonight. There’s some beautifully heartfelt songs and some absolutely superb musicianship. Original Cockney Rebel drummer, Stuart Elliot is still with the band and Paul Cuddeford is an absolute whizz on guitar. Between songs Harley is a witty, sincere and, at times, a surprisingly emotional host. However, much as I admire his evident songwriting skills on the slower, more sensitive material, the delivery didn’t always quite work for me.

After a short interval though we’re back on to some of the rockier material where the band excel, particularly the aforementioned Cuddeford, and where Harley’s vocals are perfectly suited. And as we come to the end we start to get another blast of the hits. Over the course of the evening we are treated to Mr Soft, Love’s A Prima Donna, Best Years Of Our Lives, Sebastian and many more. Struggling to move around following a recent hip operation Harley tells the audience he’s not going to hobble off stage, wait in the wings and hobble back on for an encore as he introduces his best-known and one of the most memorable pop songs of the past fifty years. Now in use by Pfizer as the soundtrack for a Viagra ad, he jokes that he offered them Mr Soft but they insisted on this one.
The normally genteel, all-seated De La Warr audience start to get up and make their way up to the front to dance along to a wonderful, life-affirming rendition of Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me).

I learnt a lot more about what makes Steve Harley tick tonight. For someone who did not always endear himself to the media circus back in the day, he comes across as genuinely likeable and engaging. I’m still always going to love him more in glam rock god mode than in sensitive singer songwriter mode, much as I have a deep love for both genres, but this is a gig I am certainly glad I did not miss.

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Photo credit: Sarah-Louise Bowry

https://www.steveharley.com/

Five classic albums whose musical legacy outlived all the people playing on them

With so many rock n roll icons leaving us in recent years I find myself playing a hell of a lot of albums that feature musicians who are no longer with us these days. Many historic albums from the 60s and 70s  now only have one or two of the personnel who played on them still alive. On Small Faces albums like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake only drummer Kenney Jones remains with us, of the classic Electric Warrior-era T. Rex line-up we have only drummer Bill Legend still around and the same can be said for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – with only drummer Woody Woodmansey still around to celebrate the band’s legacy.

But here are five classic albums where none of the musicians playing on them are still with us.

1. Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley: Elvis’s 1956 debut album featured his regular backing band of Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Bassist, Black, died in 1965, the king himself passed away in 1977, of course, and Moore died in 2016. The final member of Presley’s original backing trio, DJ Fontana, sadly died this year. The album (with its iconic cover later inspiring the artwork for the Clash’s London Calling two decades later) contains classics like Blue Suede Shoes and Money Honey recorded for Elvis’s new label, RCA, as well as some previously released songs from his original label, Sun Records.

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2. Chuck Berry – After School Session: Although Chuck Berry stuck around until 2017 most of the musicians on his 1957 debut album (which features many classics like Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Too Much Monkey Business and School Days) passed away some decades earlier. Many would argue Johnnie Johnson’s piano was as much an integral part of that early rock n roll sound as Berry’s guitar. However, by the 1980s Johnson was working as a bus driver until support from the likes of Keith Richards put him back in the public eye. Johnson was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years before his death in 2005.

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3. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced: Hendrix’s 1967 debut was praised by Melody Maker for its artistic integrity and by the NME’s Keith Altham for being brave, original and exciting. However, just three years later Hendrix would be dead, followed by bass player Noel Redding in 2003 and drummer Mitch Mitchell in 2008. They leave behind an album that has been held up as one of the greatest and most influential debuts of all time.

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4. Ramones – Ramones: Critically acclaimed upon its release in 1976 and containing evergreen classics like Blitzkrieg Bop, the album “posed a direct threat to any vaguely sensitive woofer and/or tweeter lodged in your hi-fi” claimed the NME’s Nick Kent. The Ramones would be around for another two decades but at the turn of the millennium Joey (d. 2001), Dee Dee (d. 2002) and Johnny Ramone (d. 2004) would all go in rapid succession of one another, followed by original drummer Tommy Ramone in 2014.

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5. Motörhead – No Sleep ’til Hammersmith: A tearful rock world said goodbye to the seemingly indestructible Lemmy in 2015, only one month after the death of Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor. Just over two years later the last member of Motorhead’s most famous and most memorable lineup, Fast Eddie Clarke, was gone, too. The trio recorded six albums together including this iconic live album. When Lemmy formed the band back in 1975 with a promise that “it will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die” he probably wasn’t expecting to be regularly appearing on Top Of The Pops and releasing a live album that went to number one but that is exactly what happened.

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Folk-rock: album review – Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’

Merry Hell and their rousing brand of folk rock have been around since 2010 now, rising from the ashes of 90s folk punk band The Tansads. Rather than another album of electrified folk the Wigan-based band take a more pastoral approach this time, with the all-acoustic Anthems To The Wind offering reworkings of established favourites alongside some newer songs.

“… although the band has grown in many ways, we have wanted to continue performing in the more intimate venues where the full electric 8-piece would neither fit nor be suitable. The atmospheric hush of the folk clubs inspired a stripping back of many of our arrangements to get to the very heart of our music’s message,” the sleeve-notes tell us.

Much of the album is recorded live: at Bunbury Village Hall in Cheshire and the Lion Salt Works in Northwich, alongside the Music Projects in Wigan.

It opens with a reworking of Drunken Serenade from the band’s first album. Indeed, a memorable line from these lyrics gives this new album its title. It’s clear that songs like this and The War Between Ourselves lose none of their power through the acoustic treatment and, if anything, become yet more anthemic.

The album also proves an excellent showcase for some of the more poignantly reflective songwriting of the band’s Virginia Kettle, and her lovely vocals, on tracks like No Place Like Tomorrow.

Anthems To The Wind shows Merry Hell continuing to innovate and inspire. A fine album that lives up to its name.

Released: 26th November 2018

http://www.merryhell.co.uk/

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Related reviews:

Merry Hell – Bury Me Naked EP

Merry Hell – Come On England EP

 

Singer songwriter: album review – Marianne Faithfull ‘Negative Capability’

This review was originally published  by Get Ready To Rock here

With a recording career spanning over fifty years ‘Negative Capability’ is Marianne Faithfull’s twenty-first album. Battling arthritis, contemplating bereavement and dealing with loneliness, it’s a highly autobiographical and emotive offering from Faithfull. “It’s the most honest album I’ve ever made,” she says. “I’ve always tried not to reveal myself. There’s nothing like real hardship to give you some depth. I’ve had terrible accidents and I’m really damaged. It’s changed my life forever. I’m in a lot of pain and worked really hard to get strong so I can do my work. The great miracle is I was able to make this beautiful record. I really had no idea how it would turn out.”

Alongside a house band composed of Rob McVey, Warren Ellis and Rob Ellis and Ed Harcourt (who also collaborates with Faithfull on the writing on several of the tracks), Nick Cave also puts in a guest appearance on one track, the magnificent ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ which Cave has co-written with Faithful.

Faithfull’s voice today is a world away from the soft, gentle, wistful lead vocal the world fell in love with when ‘As Tears Go By’ was released back in 1964. Her vocals, aged, deepened and absolutely full of life, love, loss, tragedy and reflectiveness, these songs are delivered with 100% sincerity and conviction. For those wanting to make comparisons, Faithfull even returns to her iconic 1964 Jagger & Richards interpretation, one of two covers on the album, alongside Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.’ Of the new material, the aforementioned collaboration with Cave, alongside the majestic ‘In My Own Particular Way’, the haunting ‘Witches’ Song’ and ‘They Come At Night’ (co-written with Mark Lanegan) are all absolute stand-outs.

With beautiful songs and stunning musicianship in ‘Negative Capability’ Marianne Faithfull has delivered a late-career classic.

Released: 2nd November 2018 on BMG

http://www.mariannefaithfull.org.uk/

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Folk: album review – Daimh ‘The Rough Bounds’

This review was originally published by Bright Young folk here 

Launched twenty years to the day after Daimh’s first ever gig, The Rough Bounds sees the Gaelic super-group in celebratory mode. Unlike The Hebridean Sessions, the live album released to mark their fifteenth anniversary, this new album sees the band looking forward and exploring new material, both self-composed and traditional, rather than revisiting songs from earlier in their career.

“Half of the tunes on the record are written by the band and the other half are traditional, the only exception being that of a set of melodies composed by piping legend, PM Donald MacLeod from the Isle of Lewis. We wanted to pay tribute to one our favourite composers, but the set also serves as a stepping stone between the old tunes and our own contemporary pieces,” explains the band’s Angus MacKenzie.

No knowledge of the Gaelic language is required to appreciate the beauty of the exquisite sounds rolling off the lips of singer, Ellen MacDonald, but the lyrics, we are informed, cover those familiar themes of drinking, feuding and loves lost at sea. There can be few more powerful arguments in favour the band’s outspoken passion for preserving and defending Gaelic language and culture than hearing these lyrics delivered so beautifully on songs like Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan and Tha Fadachd orm Fhìn.

Of the tune sets 12th of June and the Donald Macleod Reels showcase some wonderful pipe-playing, while the uplifting Happy Fish contains some gorgeous interplay between accordion, whistle and fiddle.

Strong melodies, exhilarating pipes, enchanting fiddles, hauntingly atmospheric accordion and breathtakingly beautiful vocals The Rough Bounds is pretty much everything you could ask for from an album of Gaelic folk.

Released: May 2018

https://www.daimh.net/

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First, Last & Always with Darren Johnson

I answered some questions here for Jason Ritchie​’s Rocking Chair blog about albums that mean something to me.

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Darren writes on rock and folk and as well as being a regular contributor to Get Ready To Rock and various other publications he runs his own music blog. He has also handled PR for a number of artists in recent years, including Bernie Torme, Thunderstick and prog-folk outfit Dandelion Charm. Visit Darren’s music blog here: https://darrensmusicblog.com/

The first album I ever bought…

Excluding the albums that I taped off my dad as a kid (Status Quo, Monty Python and so on) and excluding the copy of Highway To Hell that my older step-sister passed on to me when she decided she was punk and would no longer be listening to AC/DC, the first new album I bought (well it was actually a present for my 15th birthday but it was exactly what I asked for) was We’ll Bring The House Down by Slade. I have…

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Live review: Toledo Steel at The Carlisle, Hastings 3/11/18

A third live blast of this band for me in recent months, Toledo Steel are rapidly becoming one of my absolute favourite modern-era heavy metal bands.

Although they released their debut album ‘No Quarter’ earlier this year, the band are not quite new kids on the block, having been around since 2011 and with two prior EPs and a relentless round of gigging under their belts. Unlike a number of similar bands, however, their line-up has been relatively stable during that time and on-stage they are a formidable unit together.

Rich Rutter’s powerfully melodic vocals, combined with the twin guitar assault of Tom Potter and Josh Haysom and some truly, truly memorable songs make Toledo Steel a really great classic heavy metal outfit.

Storming through a set-list including ‘Heavy Metal Headache’ and ‘No Quarter’ from their recent album and ‘City Lights’ and ‘Speed Killer’ from their last EP the impact on the crowd is instant. These are not just great songs. They are fully-formed heavy metal anthems.

And with a nod to the classic era of heavy metal that has done so much to help shape and influence this band we also get a brilliant cover of Judas Priest’s ‘Heading Out to the Highway’.

Following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and Motorhead in having an eponymously-named killer track they leave us with a momentous blast of ‘Toledo Steel’ for an encore and for everyone to roar along to. Superb!

While the Carlisle is not packed tonight the band absolutely storm the place and it’s clear Toledo Steel have some committed fans in the audience, myself included. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before they are playing on far bigger stages to far bigger crowds. They 100% deserve it.

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http://www.toledosteel.co.uk/

Related reviews:

Toledo Steel – album launch gig in London

Toledo Steel at Mearfest 2017