Zoe Wren is a singer-songwriter working very much in the folk tradition. She clearly knows her folk history, having studied this at university, and has been performing on the folk scene since her mid-teens, not to mention spots of busking in Camden. Importantly, she is able to bring all this into the mix as a song-writer.
With a stunningly beautiful voice, some gently captivating acoustic guitar and some equally beautifully-written songs, there’s a definite nod to that classic era of singer-songwriters and interpreters of traditional material à la Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and co. At the same time there is enough about both Zoe Wren’s performance and her songwriting that is new, original and just so damned good that it really helps her stand out on today’s folk scene.
Five of the EP’s six songs are written by Wren herself but she uses her undoubted knowledge of traditional folk songs to revisit a number of familiar themes in the folk canon. What she does so well is take the stories of the overwhelmingly male songwriters and male narrators of traditional songs from past centuries and recast them from a female perspective.
“It’s probably a bit of an odd thing to say as a singer-songwriter, but my EP was partly inspired by my university dissertation. It was called ‘voicing the unsung experiences of women in contemporary folksong’ and it got me thinking a lot about not only how gender is portrayed in traditional folk music, but also what that means for contemporary female singer-songwriters. Some of the songs on the EP explore women’s voices, others just voices and personas in general, but each of the original songs retells a story from a traditional folk song in some way, “ says Wren.
A gifted songwriter and exceptional singer, Zoe Wren brings a welcome perspective and impressive originality to traditionally-inspired music and Gold & Smoke is highly recommended.
This interview was originally published by Get Ready To Rockhere
Jim Lea, the former Slade bass-player and one half of the mega-hit Holder-Lea song-writing duo, has a brand new six-track EP out: Lost In Space. I catch up with Jim to discuss the inspiration behind the title track and the other songs on the EP, to talk about his appearance at Wolverhampton’s Robin 2 venue last Autumn and, of course, to hear a few recollections from the old Slade days as well as the challenges that life throws up outside the world of music.
“Lost In Space was written deliberately as a pop song. Of all the songs I have come up with, this is one of my favourites. The ideas portrayed in the song are of someone spending their life living in an inner world, virtually oblivious to normal life. Some might say I have unwittingly written about myself,” states the press release accompanying the EP.
So often, introspection is portrayed as being sad and angst-ridden yet Lost In Space is a very uplifting song with a great catchy chorus. Jim has certainly lost none of his knack for writing catchy uplifting choruses. For such an upbeat song I put it to Jim whether there is a subtle inference here that being caught up in your own world can actually be a pretty happy place.
JL:“It is when you’re happy yeah but you have to find yourself first. You have to be happy with it. I think a lot of people do it to escape. It’s one of the autistic symptoms when people are being diagnosed. They don’t connect. I’ll tell you who came out and spoke about it – Chris Packham from Springwatch. Millions of people must have seen that programme about it. I’m sure I’ve got grains of autism in me but I’m nowhere near as bad as him. He just lives in a tiny little cottage in the middle of a wood with his animals. But to be quite honest for a big part of my life I was not a big communicator. I didn’t really do interviews at all. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I began to look at myself and went into psychotherapy and completely changed my personality. I almost changed my DNA.”
Is that partly why we are hearing more from Jim recently, I wonder. A new DVD, a live appearance at the Robin in Wolverhampton last Autumn and now a new EP. Are we seeing a new Jim?
JL:“Yes, yes. This is the new me. I’m obviously not bothered about talking to you at all. You seem quite a nice chap! I’m a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. Whereas back in the day with the band for a long time I wasn’t. I was better off in the eighties and going into the nineties, but in the seventies I couldn’t cope with all that. If you look at the band there were two who wanted to get their face in the camera and two who didn’t. The idea of fame is very nice. You think that’s what you want but when it comes – well it took me all of a couple of weeks to think hang on I haven’t got a life here. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t do anything. So a lot of people want that and they want that attention, whereas with me I wanted to go back to how I was before going on television.”
With that in mind I suppose when Slade were less in the spotlight in the late seventies that was OK for you, as long as the band were still gigging and recording?
JL:“That’s right. That was a good blueprint for me. That was great. And, of course, when we started having hits again in the eighties it was much easier to cope with because it wasn’t that mad teenage chasing-you-down-the-street type stuff.”
Lost In Space is a great catchy pop song. But the rest of the EP really rocks out. For me it seems to channel some of the spirit of Slade in the early 80s when the band had a comeback thanks in part to the heavy rock crowd post-Reading. Was it a conscious decision to go for a more rocky approach here compared to Therapy, your previous solo album?
JL:“No. The songs on this EP – I don’t know whether you know I had cancer – and these songs are from pre-cancer. They’re quite old. You can probably tell I’ve got a frog in my throat and I’ve never been able to get rid of that since I’ve had my cancer treatment. I’m not on the treatment any more but it just doesn’t go away. Luckily I’ve got some vocal tapes from god knows how many years ago that I just re-recorded quickly. Because my brother, who’s looking after me from the record point of view, says do you fancy doing an EP. He’d been talking to the record company. I said yes – four tracks? He said no, it’s six tracks for an EP these days. I said that’s half an album, when do you need it for? He said next Monday! But I did it because the songs were there. I had a vocal. I just slung everything at it and came up with what you hear.”
Live at the Robin
You took the stage at the Robin last November for a Q&A session to launch your new DVD (a live recording of his 2002 solo gig at that same venue) but at the end you surprise everyone when you come back on stage with your guitar to blast out some old Slade classics.
JL:“When I went off – we had a bit of a scam me and Paul Franks (radio presenter and interviewer that day) and he said Jim wanted to share something and he’s just going off. But when I got down there the people who are looking after the stage side of things they’re all chatting together. And I said what are you doing I need my guitar. Where’s my guitar? I was shouting at them and I was really in a bad mood and I said to the sound guy get out the front and get on the desk…. and it was at least three or four minutes before I came out. And there is some fan footage (and we are going to put that out) but just before I come on you can hear people saying ‘where’s he gone?’ Just coming over the microphones you know. And the audience I could hear what they’re saying. And this one female voice says (adopts exaggerated Yorkshire accent) ‘Do you think he’s gone for a lie down?’ Oh dear, it did crack me up that did. And to be quite honest that’s what I do a lot of these days. I have to go and have a sleep.”
It was his brother Frank who had encouraged Jim to do a few songs at the end of the Q&A.
JL:“You’d see these old singers like Frank Sinatra when they’re past it and their voice just cracks up and I said I can’t do that. And then I got this idea of knocking a few backing tracks up and I did some vocals to see what it sounded like. But I only did four tracks and then I thought hang on I could play along. And in this day and age that was my justification. I would have loved to have had the same line-up as the Robin in 2002 – just a drummer and bass player and really thrash it out. But that whole complicated thing with equipment for four songs meant we wouldn’t have even got the balance sorted out.”
Playing along to backing tapes it may have been but that didn’t dampen the outpouring of emotion from fans at the event, seeing Jim Lea playing on stage again, fifteen years after his one and only solo gig and some thirty-four years after Slade’s final UK tour. Jim only became aware of just how emotional the event had been for the audience, however, when his brother finally caught up with Jim and the rest of the family some time later that day.
JL:“All the family went for dinner and my brother was an hour late and we were all starving. Well he said he stayed ’til the end. Nobody wanted to go. People were crying. And the boss of the club came over and my brother asked him why is everybody crying? Why won’t they go? And as the boss was walking towards him he saw that he was crying as well!”
While he is thoroughly bemused at the emotional audience reaction it has clearly made him ponder on how much he enjoyed playing on stage.
JL:“I wish I could find some way of getting on stage again. That would be really good. But you know I was very tired when I played the Robin in November.”
Coz I Luv You
From recent ventures we then delve back into the early days. I mention that he was one of the first to bring the electric violin into a pop-rock setting. Given that this was around the same time the folk rock thing going on I ask if he was conscious of what people like Dave Swarbrick were doing with Fairport Convention around the same time as Jim was putting a violin solo on Coz I Luv You.
JL:“Well I used to play the violin on stage. Really it was the band trying to stand out and I think it was about the end of the sixties and you are quite right about Fairport Convention and Dave Swarbrick and there was East of Eden and Dave Arbus. And that guy played on The Who’s Baba O’Riley on the Who’s Next album. In the studio Pete Townsend came walking through. I was there messing about with my violin and he said here mate can I look at your violin. And I said I’m not giving it to you. You’ll smash it up. No mate that’s just stuff on stage. I don’t do any of that. Can I have a look? I want to play a violin. And the next thing I know it’s on Baba O’Riley with Dave Arbus playing. But with Coz I Luv You we’d had Get Down And Get With It as our first hit and it was about coming up with the next one. Because Get Down And Get With It was an everybody-join-in type thing I thought to write something like that is just going to be a cop-out. So I thought about bridging the fact that we were going to make a pop single with trying to make it a bit gritty as well. So I came up with (sings melody) and I got my acoustic guitar and I went over to Nod’s. I’d never written with Nod before and really it was like trying to get the singer on board so it’s kind of political in case it was a ‘well I don’t want to do anything with a violin’. That’s what could have happened but it didn’t. And we worked on the ‘I just like the things you do’ bit and obviously I knew that this was going to be really big. And it was and it got to number one within three weeks. And it’s only recently where people have said I saw Jim Lea from Slade with an electric violin playing on Top Of The Pops and that’s why I started playing violin. And you know it’s really edifying to think that you might have set some trail for something that happens in the future.”
While Jim is not exactly comfortable with his former band’s often outlandish image, there is clearly pride at what the four of them achieved together back in the day.
JL:“And the other thing with the band was because of our sort of wacky image which we kept going on with for too long. Well not we but Dave did. You know look at Quo back when they did Ice In The Sun and they changed the way they looked to do a different thing. Same as the Beatles changed but you know that never happened with us. But there was something from the wacky side of it and because we were having hit singles. Back then if you were having hit singles you were a pop band and we weren’t a pop band. I mean we could always blow off anybody we were playing with. OK there wasn’t the musical virtuosity in the band but it was a fantastic band. And together – you can forget the recording and all that because you can always mess around with that and try to make it sound a bit more sort of credible – but there was something about the four of us playing when we were on stage. And we went to that big studio at Olympic. Get Down And Get With It was the first thing we ever recorded in that studio. And we always went to that studio because it was like doing a gig and we were comfortable with that because we were really bloody good. And I look at people now and you know big names and so on and they all came out to watch us… But we were something special right from the first few notes we ever played.”
With so many insights we then get on to the topic of autobiographies. We’ve seen tomes from all the other three members of Slade but I put it to Jim that many Slade fans would say that the most fascinating and revealing of all would be a Jim Lea autobiography.
JL: (Laughs) “At times I thought about doing it. In fact, I was probably the first one to think about doing it. That was back in post-Reading days. But there seemed to be a reaction that I shouldn’t do that and that if there was going to be any book it should be a Slade book, not me. So I just left it and then Nod did one – which I’ve never looked at and Don did one which I’ve never read either but it’s supposed to be very good I’ve heard. The thing is I’d want to write it myself rather than sitting down with someone with a tape machine. You’d have to be able to taste it and smell it. If I’m talking about the smoke-filled rooms you’d have to be able to visualise from the words what that was like. The way it used to hang in the air in these grey layers.”
Jim also emphasises that his life hasn’t just been about music, particularly in the post-Slade years.
JL:“My musical career has been punctuated by having to look after my father to save my mother because he was driving my mother mad. He’d got dementia and then there were two or three years with my (older) brother the same thing happened and I was on care duty for both. So that’s six year’s gone and now my mum herself is housebound. I’ve just come from her now and I’ve always thought being of service to others is a big thing to do in life. It’s hard work because you have to give up your own wishes and your own life. You have to hand over what you want to do in order to help the person that needs the help. So being of service it’s a big thing. So with my mother as well it’s probably seven years gone. She became ill about a year ago and so put it all together you’ve got a whole chunk of life that’s nothing to do with music.”
For all of his musical legacy it’s clear that family is very important to Jim and you get the idea that there is no way he would not have been there for those who needed him most. But it’s also clear that Jim Lea still has something to contribute musically and is enthusiastic about his latest EP. He doesn’t even baulk at the round of promotional interviews that need to be done these days as long as, given his current health, there are not too many of them.
“I’m alright with you today, Darren, because I’ve only got you today – but the other day I had fifteen!”
Lost in Space EP is released on 22nd June 2018 by Wienerworld
Catching singer-songwriter Marina Florance live a couple of years ago she immediately impressed both with her heartfelt songs and the seemingly effortless but compellingly sincere country-ish vibe that she pulled off. Fly Beyond the Border is Florance’s third album, bringing together brand new material, some recent collaborations with other artists and some previously released singles.
Although coming late in life to a professional music career, the album sees Florance really hitting her stride as a song-writer of note. Her themes of life, love and relationships are universal but her honest, heartfelt delivery makes you want to hang on to every word.
Florance has been working with the lottery-funded Warm & Toasty Club’s Coast To Coast Project where she was commissioned, alongside co-writer Jules Fox Allen, to write three songs based on the memories of residents at retirement complexes along the Essex Coast. One of these songs ‘Sirens’, celebrating the tenacity of women in often very difficult circumstances, features on the album.
It’s not just the sensitive lyrics and Florance’s heartfelt delivery though. There’s some suitably impressive musicianship on this album, too. Alongside Florance’s guitar and mandolin there’s a fine group of accompanying musicians, including some lovely Americana-tinged fiddle playing from Mark Jolley that compliments Florance’s songs perfectly. Meanwhile, ‘The Blue Lady’, featuring some beautiful dobro and guitar from Ben Walker, is a definite highlight.
If you have not yet come across Marina Florance, there’s plenty for fans of folk, country, Americana or singer-songwriter to fall in love with and Fly Beyond The Border is well worth checking out.
This review was originally published by Bright Young Folkhere
A relatively new entrant to the folk scene, Thom Ashworth already made quite an impact with his first EP Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture at the start of 2017. Now he is back with a second and the elements that ensured his first release stood out from the crowd – his distinctive tenor vocals and stripped-back minimalist accompaniment from his acoustic bass guitar – equally apply to the second, Hollow.
Comprising four tracks, two are traditional songs and the other two are written by Ashworth himself. Of the traditional material, High Germany is the song about the War of The Spanish Succession, performed by Martin Carthy, The Dubliners and others over the years. Here it is turned into a rousingly defiant protest song as Ashworth delivers lines like “Oh cursed be the cruel wars that ever they should rise” accompanied by his trademark guitar sounds and powerfully rhythmic percussion.
The title track, meanwhile, is one of Ashworth’s own songs and is altogether a more mournful and sombre affair with eerily atmospheric accompaniment. The other original song, rispin’s War,picks up the anti-war theme of the first track.
Paean to the working man and woman,Work Life Out To Keep Life In, rounds the EP off in fine form and perhaps hints that Ashworth may well turn out to be the Billy Bragg for the mid twenty-first century.
This release is another clear demonstration that Thom Ashworth is a folk singer with important things to say and a unique way of saying it.
The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) gave a shot in the arm to the hard rock/heavy metal scene in the late 70s/early80s. By the second half of the seventies many of the original pioneers from the late 60s/early 70s were on hiatus or running out of steam and a crop of new bands took the can-do spirit of punk and began taking hard rock out of the mega stadiums and into the altogether more accessible pubs and small venues. The scene didn’t last long and apart from a few bands who made it into the mega stadiums themselves, many fell by the wayside. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in the NWOBHM. A number of the old bands have reformed and are out gigging again but, importantly, a whole new generation of younger bands, many of them taking direct musical inspiration from that scene, are once again filling up pubs and small venues, releasing albums and building up solid fan-bases.
One of those bands is Toledo Steel who are releasing their debut album ‘No Quarter’ and, in the guise of playing the official after-show party for the Frost & Fire heavy metal all-dayer at Camden’s Underworld, are at The Dev to formally launch it with a special gig.
Formed in 2011 in Southampton and with two well-received EPs under their belt the five-piece combine melodic vocals, a twin guitar attack, furiously heavy delivery and a ear for a catchy well-written song. Indeed, those very qualities that made NWOBHM bands like Saxon and Iron Maiden such a breath of fresh air back in the late 70s.
With two EPs and a brand new album the band have a really decent stash of powerful material to draw from, their set-list tonight combining earlier material like the utterly unforgettable ‘City Lights’ with material from the new album like the excellent title track ‘No Quarter’ and a song that celebrates the curse of tinnitus ‘Heavy Metal Headache.’
Looking around the crowd packed into this smallish boozer tonight it’s noticeable that there are a fair few of us in our late 40s/early 50s, clearly drawn to this renaissance of classic-sounding metal. But what is more significant is that we are far outnumbered by much younger guys and girls around the same age as the band. This is looking far less like a mid-life crisis driven nostalgia-fest and far more like a genuine movement – and that is a very hopeful sign for the future of rock.
Fast and furious, loud and heavy as hell but never less than tuneful and melodic Toledo Steel are everything you want from a truly great heavy metal band and ‘No Quarter’ is a brilliant debut album.
Will Finn and Rosie Calvert will be familiar to many folk fans as one half of a capella singing quartet The Teacups. On ‘Beneath this Place’, however, they go for a somewhat different approach: traditional folk accompanied by a range of instrumentation including the steel pan, no less. While such a combination may scream ‘twee novelty record’ that’s very much not the case and there’s some interesting sound textures and sensitive album song interpretations.
“Just as I sing in different styles,” explains Calvert, “I play folk tunes differently on the steel pan than I would calypso.” Such an approach has allowed them to create a sound that’s unique while very much in the tradition of European folk. Opening up with the traditional ‘Banks of the Sacramento’ which captures the initial excitement of the American gold rush the use of the steel pan in such an unexpected context opens the album in fine form. On other tracks like ‘January Man’ that follows the steel pan takes on an altogether more mournful tone.
The duo’s harmonies, of course, honed over the years are as delightful on this album as they are with The Teacups on tracks like ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’.
With accompaniment from Evan Carson (bodhran and percussion), Matt Downer (double bass), Sam Partridge (flute and whistles) and Seth Tinsley (guitar) the duo have produced a fine album in ‘Beneath This Place’. Having enjoyed seeing them on stage with The Teacups I very much look forward to catching the due performing these songs live at some stage.
With so many excellent but perhaps not always particularly distinctive albums being released on the contemporary folk scene ‘Beneath This Place’ genuinely does offer something that little bit different. Well done Will Finn and Rosie Calvert.
Adapting the chalk-board cover and title of the band’s classic 1969 album ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’, Fairport Convention’s latest album ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’ is a two-disc live recording of a 50th anniversary performance at their Cropredy festival last summer.
I was there last year and it was indeed very special to see all five surviving original members of the band take the stage and perform their earliest songs once again; along with surviving members of later line-ups and other guests deputising for the ones who are are, sadly, no longer around to perform. It was an absolutely unforgettable night and it’s obviously lovely to have a memento from that special performance.
The question now, however, is how much the live recording lives up to my memories of that evening, particularly when performing material from such iconic albums in the folk rock canon as the aforementioned ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’, ‘Liege & Lief’ and ‘Nine’.
The double CD’s twenty-five tracks are heavily weighted towards the band’s late 60s/early 70s heyday when what is now a much-loved national treasure really was pushing the boundaries in terms of both rock and folk music. The superb ‘Hiring Fair’, however, from the band’s mid 80s renaissance is rightfully included along with the instrumental ‘A Surfeit of Lampreys’, as is the rather twee ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ from last year’s studio album ‘50:50@50’.
Chris While and Sally Barker both do an excellent job filling in for the irreplaceable Sandy Denny on tracks like ‘Come All Ye’ and ‘Rising For The Moon’, as does PJ Wright standing in for Denny’s late husband Trevor Lucas on a superb ‘Ned Kelly’. Richard Thompson’s unmistakeably brilliant guitar on tracks like ‘Sloth’ alone make it worth buying, never mind all the other highlights.
Standing in a field in Oxfordshire last year witnessing all of this felt like something really, really special. This album is, indeed, proof that it was. Buy it.
This review was originally published by Hastings Online Timeshere
Touring together since the early 90s, picking up more awards than you’d care to mention and selling out the Albert Hall on several occasions, Devon’s Show Of Hands are one of the best-known names on the contemporary folk scene. As the venues got bigger and the album sales increased the original duo of Steve Knightley and Phil Beer were joined by double bass virtuosos, Miranda Sykes, along the way.
For this tour however, sans Sykes, the duo have decided to go back to their roots, performing songs from early on in their career. They are ably supported by Geoff Lakeman, father of a whole brood of award-winning folk musicians in Sean, Sam and Seth Lakeman. An engaging folk singer and concertina player with a lifetime’s experience as part of the local west country folk scene, Lakeman entertains the audience as he adopts the bemused persona of someone who finds themselves touring in support of their very first album at the age of 69.
Show Of Hands’ set features songs from Knightly and Beer’s early years of playing together at the Deer Leap folk club in Devon, in addition to songs voted for by their fans from the duo’s first five albums. There’s a nice variety in terms of both traditional material and Knightley’s own songs. As one would expect, it’s also a great showcase for Beer’s musical genius on fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Perhaps more so than a typical Show Of Hands gig, however, the nature of the performance gives the two a real opportunity to talk about their original coming together as a duo, their musical influences and some of the things that had happened to them over the years – both the hilarious and the poignant.
Introducing ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’ Knightley explains that they were once playing the song to a group of musicians in India when the host musicians responded with a song of their own that had an almost identical melody and subject matter. It’s a lesson in realising however English we might think many of these old folk songs are there is something universal about much traditional music and also reminds us how well-travelled some of these songs are.
It isn’t all music from the early days though. The duo wrap up with a ‘greatest hits’ collection, giving some of their best-known anthems like ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’, ‘Country Life’ and ‘Cousin Jack’ a good airing. There’s plenty of Life In Show Of Hands yet and, I’m certain, there’ll be plenty more caustic observations of modern-day life but for this tour it was nice, also, to celebrate the duo’s early days with them and to learn a bit more about what brought them together.
This review was originally published by The Stingerhere
Four-piece King King have been building quite a formidable reputation since forming a decade ago. ‘The best blues rock band in the world’ no less, according to Blues Rock Review.
It’s a big sound and a very classy sound that fills the cavernous St Mary In The Castle tonight, and one that just oozes the confident charm and riff-laden swagger from classic rock’s heyday when band’s like Bad Company dominated the album charts and filled the stadiums. Integral to the whole sound, and one of the things that really makes the gig special for me, is the interplay between guitarist Alan Nimmo and keyboard player Jonny Dyke. Dyke, the new boy in the band who replaced departing keyboard player Bob Fridzema last year, delivers deliciously soulful Hammond that perfectly compliments Nimmo’s guitar wizardry and bluesy vocals.
At the heart of all great blues rock, however, are great songs and King King certainly don’t disappoint in that department either. Songs like ‘You Stopped The Rain’ and ‘Rush Hour’ show some quality song-writing. And lyrically it’s not just standard stadium blues rock fare of feeling alright or looking for love. Material from the new album ‘Exile & Grace’, in particular, concentrates on some altogether more profound subject matter. “There’s an underlying theme on this latest album,” explained Nimmo, when launching the album late last year. “Some of the main songs are about the state of the world, y’know, this beautiful blue planet that’s turning into a battlefield.” ‘Broken’ one of the songs tonight from the new album is very much on that theme of a troubled world. In spite of the uncompromising lyrics though it’s delivered with the same class and seemingly effortless appeal that defines all the great songs of this genre.
While Nimmo has had issues with his voice in recent years and had to undergo treatment on his vocal chords, there’s no sign of that hampering the performance tonight and the whole band give an absolute master-class in classic blues rock.
She Don’t Gimme No Lovin’
You Stopped The Rain
Long Time Running
All Your Life
Stranger To Love
Let Love In