All posts by Darren Johnson

About Darren Johnson

PR, writing, campaigning and blogging

Book review: ‘All Around My Hat – The Steeleye Span Story’ by John Van Der Kiste

In spite of the title and the very period-looking cover from the band’s mid -70s heyday ‘All Around My Hat’ is a very thoroughly researched, if somewhat concise, history of folk rock legends Steeleye Span that covers the band’s entire history from its formation at the tail-end of the 60s to the present day. Timed to coincide with Steeleye Span’s fiftieth anniversary it charts the story of the band through its many line-up fluctuations, extensive touring and recording history and the numerous challenges and opportunities that were thrown at its members along the way .

Although key stages of the band’s history were already pretty familiar to me (the band’s formative years and heyday period are covered extensively in Rob Young’s excellent ‘Electric Eden’, for example) there are other eras that I knew far less about. I definitely learnt a good deal about the band, particularly around the years when Gay Woods (who appeared with her husband Terry on the very first album) returned in the mid 90s and the subsequent intra-band tensions that arose and ultimately led to Maddy Prior’s departure, albeit a temporary one. There were even a couple of gigs where neither Woods nor Prior were with the band and remaining members Peter Knight and Tim Harries had to cast around for a temporary lead singer and temporary drummer to fulfil existing tour commitments.

And the title? John Van Der Kiste’s book very much demonstrates that rather than Top 20 hits and going on Top of The Pops being a weird fluke, getting folk music out of tiny folk clubs and on to big stages was always very much a driving vision for founder member Tim Hart who. Even in the early days of his career, as one half of a duo with Maddy Prior, he felt the folk scene needed a shot of glamour, publicity and marketing.

Some of the key players past and present (Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Martin Carthy et al) are interviewed for the book but other insights are taken from pre-existing interviews previously published elsewhere (including, for that matter an interview I did with Julian Littman for the Get Ready To Rock website).

Intelligent, well-researched and well-written, even though a good deal of the material comes from secondary sources Van Der Kiste does a fine job in pulling the various threads together and producing this timely history of a ground-breaking and much-loved band.

Published by Fonthill Media 5th December 2019

https://www.fonthill.media/products/all-around-my-hat-the-steeleye-span-story

ss cver 2

Related posts:

Interview with Maddy Prior

Interview with Julian Littman

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Ashford 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2017

Review: Steeleye Span, London 2015

Review: Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival 2014

 

News: ‘Leave It In The Ground’ Merry Hell release climate call to action

With an ecological theme ‘Leave It In The Ground’ is the brand new single from folk rockers Merry Hell, the first in a trilogy of digital singles to be released at three-weekly intervals.

“Leave It In The Ground was written by our fiddle player, Neil McCartney. Coming from a family with mining connections and growing up in an area with a long but declining mining tradition, he is well aware of both the human and environmental impacts of extracting fossil fuels. His song looks at the use of cleaner and safer energy as both a way forward and a means of honouring the sacrifices of the past.

Neil does have form as a songwriter, being responsible for ‘Home Again’ a top 3 hit for his old band – The Big Geraniums – in their native Ireland.

As is true of our previous releases, we are neither strident nor condemnatory. We do not preach,we seek to ask questions of ourselves and encourage others to do the same.

The new songs are strong and the messages are united. Let us look at our own behaviours and how we can make positive changes for the benefit of all, whilst we hold up the mirror of truth to those who place profits and gain above the common good.
We have decided to release the songs as The Hourglass Trilogy, reflecting the widely held belief that the time for action is now, hopefully before it is too late.

The series will also serve as a taster for our next album Emergency Lullabies, currently approaching completion.

There will also be a video accompanying each of the singles. The tracks and videos will be released individually, 3 weeks apart, as downloads or to stream because we felt that pressing a CD of only 3 songs would be counter to the ideas represented by this project.

We are not eco-warriors, we are not perfect, most of us have cars and we are all still learning how to be more thoughtful about our behaviour. However, whilst we recognise both our own actions and shortcomings, we applaud and salute those individuals and groups who, by their actions and words, inspire us to individual and collective action. Their bravery in the face of political and indeed physical threat on an industrial scale is an example to us all. We all know who they are, let us support them the best we can.

Finally, we applaud our own children, who are, in many cases, far more aware, active and engaged than we are and should have been.

Enjoy the music. Listen to the words, make up your own minds and let us all take the actions we believe to be right.”

Released: 18th May 2020

http://www.merryhell.co.uk

merry hell gif

Related posts:

DVD review: Merry Hell ‘A Year In The Life’

Album review: Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’

Folk/world: album review – Reely Jiggered ‘Tricky Terrain’

Kate Bush with a Bhangra band and a Celtic fiddle player – if you asked me to give my first impressions of Tricky Terrain, the new album from Reely Jiggered, that’s pretty much what sprang to mind when I put it into the CD player .

Actually, as first impressions go that’s not too far out. With the soaring vocals and frenetic fiddle-playing of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland trained Alison McNeill and the band’s output inspired by both Scottish folk and World beats, they have managed to create a unique and irresistible fusion of folk, funk, rock, pop and jazz

Now releasing their third album they have headlined a number of festivals, both in Scotland and internationally, and are past winners of the Soundwave music competition. Joining Alison McNeill on vocals and fiddle are Fiona McNeill (guitar, bodhran, backing vocals) and Scott McLean (drums), with guest musicians Stuart Taylor (keys) and Gregor McPhie (bass).

ReelyJiggered_PR2

The rocking rhythms, furious fiddling and exquisite vocals aligned with those diverse beats make for an absolutely cracking album. The songs are great, too – whether it’s Alison McNeil’s own compositions exploring politics, mental health and international issues as well as the Scottish landscape and past history – or whether it’s the band’s modern take on ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which closes the album.

Fresh, vibrant and unique I’m immediately won over to ‘Reely Jiggered’ and Tricky Terrain is a superb album.

Released 1st May 2020

https://www.reelyjiggered.co.uk/

ReelyJiggered_PR1

 

Pop/orchestral/singer-songwriter: album review: Mike Batt ‘The Penultimate Collection’

Forever destined to be most closely associated with the Wombles and ‘Bright Eyes’, the Watership Down theme sung by Art Garfunkle, Mike Batt has an illustrious CV as a performer, arranger and composer and this 36-track, 2-disc album is an expansive career retrospective.

Not only does it include selections from his original solo material, it also includes Batt’s own recordings of hits he wrote for other artists. Along with his version of the aforementioned ‘Bright Eyes’ there’s also his own versions of ‘A Winters Tale’ (a 1983 hit for David Essex) and (I Feel Like Buddy Holly’ (a 1984 hit for Alvin Stardust) –  an ideal fit for Batt’s unmistakable vocal just as much as those who originally had hits with them.

‘Summertime City’, a hit for Batt under his own name and the theme to the BBC’s Seaside Special TV series in the seventies, also gets an airing – with Batt musing: “For many years, despite its success I looked back on it with embarrassment but now I am proud of it as a good, strong pop record. I insisted that Sony ‘delete it forever’ and the rights to the song reverted to me. So this is the first time (apart from the MB Music Cube) that it has been released since 1975.”

Batt’s Wombles days are not neglected either. ‘The Wombling Song’ an a couple of others are included but not, sadly, ‘Remember You’re A Womble’ – certainly one of my favourite hits of 1974 as an 8 year-old and surely the most splendid glam rock/folk rock mash-up of all time.

The rockier more upbeat side of Batt’s career, however, is represented by tracks like ‘Imbecile’ which features Family’s Roger Chapman on vocals as well as a beautifully unmissable solo from Rory Gallagher. Chapman also contributes vocals on another track, as does the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone whose trademark vocal graces ‘Tiger In The Night’.

An instinctive ear for a pop melody, a prolific orchestral composer and an instantly recognisable voice in his own right, Mike Batt has made a major contribution to British music over the past four decades and The Penultimate Collection is a worthy retrospective. Just why oh why was ‘Remember You’re a Womble’ missed off?

Released digitally on 8th May 2020 and in physical album format on 6th June 2020

mike batt lp

https://www.mikebatt.com/

Book review: ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ by Tom Kitching

When the EU referendum result didn’t go quite the way I wanted it my reaction was to consume excess amounts of alcohol and spend the next few weeks swearing at every news bulletin that came on. Fiddle player, Tom Kitching, however took a different and altogether more constructive approach. Realising that he didn’t know England half as well as thought he did, Kitching resolves to travel around the country, busking wherever he goes and writing a blog of his experiences. The blog eventually became this book. An accompanying album of tunes (reviewed here) was also recently released.

My initial assumption about a travelogue written by a folk musician is that it would be very much led by the music. We’d get a short history to a particular folk song or tune, some background info about how it was linked to a particular area and then a few modern-day observations of the place today to bring us up to date. But the book is not like that at all. Although busking is the focus of the trips, and the means by which he pays for his meals and accommodation each day, the book is ostensibly about people.

Some of the places he visits I know extremely well: Hastings where I live now, Deptford where I spent twenty-odd years and Hull where I spent some time in the 80s and where my partner’s parents still live – and I found his observations to be thoughtful and convincing. Other places he visits I am far less familiar with like Easington Colliery, West Bromwich and Bradford, the latter providing one of the most touching scenes in the book as a black family, some Asian kids and some white kids all start dancing in the street to Kitching’s fiddle-playing, the adults all chatting and shaking hands with one another. “If I’d been able to guarantee this sort of result to the arts council before I’d set off on my project I’d be arriving here in a solid gold Rolls Royce,” he notes.

He visits well-off villages and impoverished towns and is often insightful in his observations on failed regeneration schemes and deepening political neglect, yet at the same time pragmatically optimistic about how things could be different. There is some meanness from some of the people he comes across along the way, particularly in attitudes to those who are homeless and (along with buskers) are also trying to eke out an income on the streets. Overall, however, there’s a huge amount of warmth and some lovely conversations that are recounted.

Even if you have zero interest in folk music or fiddle-playing ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ is a fascinating and compelling read.

Published by Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd – 2020

Seasons -Of-Change-book

Related posts:

Tom Kitching – Seasons of Change – album review

Pilgrims’ Way – Stand and Deliver 

Gavin Davenport & Tom Kitching at Warwick Folk Festival

 

 

Folk: album review – Will Pound ‘A Day Will Come’

Whereas the European referendum result prompted Remain-voting fiddler, Tom Kitching to embark on a busking-journey across England which resulted in both an album (reviewed here) and a book, for similarly Remain-voting melodeon and harmonica player, Will Pound, the referendum helped inspire a quite different project.

An album dedicated “to all Europeans wherever you come from and whatever you believe in” the release features tunes from across the now twenty seven member states that make up the EU. Named after a famous speech by nineteenth-century writer, Victor Hugo, in pursuit of the dream of European co-operation and unity, this is not an album that shies away from wearing its heart on its sleeve, right down to the burgundy passport-coloured cover.

Comprising fourteen tracks, the twenty-seven countries featured are mostly paired up – so a Dutch sailing song, for example, forms a tune-set with a Spanish dance tune. It means we are taken on a breathlessly whirlwind tour of the continent with a huge array of tempos, styles and traditions – but the quality of playing and the inventiveness of the selections never lets up.

An Arts Council-backed project Pound is joined by some highly-acclaimed figures from the folk and wider music world. Those contributing include percussionist superstar Dame Evelyn Glennie, Scots Trad Music Awards winner Jenn Butterworth, Pilgrim’s Way’s Jude Rees (who also accompanies Kitching on his recently-released album) and German fiddler Guthrun Waither. There’s even some performance poetry in the shape of contributions from Birmingham-based, Polish slam poet Bohdan Piasecki.

Celebrating political and economic unity in the shape of cultural and historical diversity this is a lovely project with a fine message and some beautiful tunes. It makes for a nice companion piece to Tom Kitching’s recent Seasons of Change release.

Released: 8th May 2020

https://willpound.com/

will pound lp

News: ‘Fox and Hare’ the debut single from US indie-folk outfit the John Daniels Band

The John Daniels Band are a three-piece from Buffalo, New York and ‘Fox and Hare’ is their debut single. Playing together a few years now they’ve been honing their sound on the live circuit. They ask us to imagine if Neil Young, Lenny Kravitz and Pink Floyd got together to form a band – a blend of soul, psychedelia and amazing lyrics.

An album is due later this year, their signature style a union of indie, country and folk music. Comprised of John Verbocy, Drew Azzinaro, and Kevin Urso, who is also the band’s producer, they fuse acoustic and electric guitars with well timed percussion, creating dreamy soundscapes.

The band is the brainchild of frontman and lead songwriter Verbocy, whose raspy, warm vocals and emotional narratives are at the heart of the band. Being a two time cancer survivor, John has plenty of stories to tell and lots of emotion to share.

Asked to describe “Fox and Hare” John Verbocy tells Darren’s Music Blog: “We can recover from anything. It all starts with a thought and manifests into a reality.”

John Verbocy grew up listening to a broad range of musical influences. One day it would be Van Morrison and David Bowie, the next Paul Simon and Curtis Mayfield. “I am a total B-Side guy,” says John, “deep cuts of classic artists through and through.”

Drew Azzinaro met John in high school and they shared an affinity for music and weed, but they didn’t start making tunes together until they reunited again a few years ago. While looking for a band mate, they happened across Kevin Urso and the connection was immediate.

Kevin Urso is multi-talented artist that can claim singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, and composer on his resume. He was the guitarist of BeArthur surrounding their album release Welcome To The Ongoing in 2006, and has since collaborated with it’s members on other projects, including Prime Mover by Rocco Of The Snow. In 2015, Kevin performed during Buffalo’s ‘Music Is Art’ festival in a piece called Life On Fire where his piano was set ablaze until it was rendered unplayable by the flames. He released his debut solo album, Goodbye, in 2018.

‘Fox and Hare’ by the John Daniels Band released 30th April 2020

https://johndanielsband.com/

John Daniels band pic

From AC/DC to ABBA: five classic glam rock singles by non-glam bands

In the early 70s the likes of Bolan, Bowie and Slade were pioneering both the sounds and the looks that would come to define glam rock. Emerging in 1971, building momentum in 1972 and absolutely dominating the UK charts by 1973, glam was everywhere by 1974. Even non-glam bands were at it.

Here we look at five bands who managed to release great glam rock singles in 1974.

AC/DC – Can I Sit Next To You Girl

Released as their debut single in July 1974 the original version of ‘Can I Sit Next to You Girl’ is the only AC/DC release to feature Dave Evans on lead vocals, prior to Bon Scott taking over. The band would re-record the track with Scott but here you can see and hear the original. Angus is in his schoolboy uniform, of course, but the rest of the band are looking spectacularly glammed up. And it’s not just the image that’s glam either. The vocal delivery, arrangements and guitar riff all have far more of a glam rock than a hard rock feel to them. Now I love the sleazy hard-rocking Bon Scott-era of AC/DC and wouldn’t want to change a thing – but this debut single gives a delicious glimpse of how things might have been in some parallel universe.

Mungo Jerry – Long Legged Woman Dressed In Black

When ‘In The Summertime’ became the band’s first big hit in 1970 Mungo Jerry’s laid-back jug-band sound couldn’t be further away from glam rock if you tried. By 1974, however, it’s blindingly clear that glam was having an influence. It’s not just lead singer Ray Dorset’s studded white leather sleeveless jacket over his bare chest, we have a drum beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Glitter Band release and a sing-along chorus that just screams pure unadulterated glam. My particular memory of this song was at my 8th birthday party when my dad crammed me and half the kids down the street into the back of his Ford Anglia to take us to the park. On the way back this came on the radio at full volume and we had all the widows open, screaming along to it at the top of our voices.

The Wombles – Remember You’re A Womble

Although their first single and (the theme tune from the BBC series) epitomises the lush orchestral pop that creator Mike Batt has been associated with much of his career, for the Wombles’ second single they went down a much rockier route. Joining Mike Batt (vocals/keyboards) were session musicians Chris Spedding (guitars), Les Hurdle (bass), Clem Cattini (drums), Ray Cooper (percussion), Rex Morris (saxophone), Eddie Mordue (saxophone) and Jack Rothstein (violin). Not only was the single a brilliantly bouncy slice of glam rock but, thanks to the glorious fiddle solo, it’s a brilliant slice of folk rock, too. As such it remains the greatest glam-folk single ever made. Tim Hart of Steeleye Span kind of agreed. In his book ‘Electric Eden’ Rob Young recounts that Hart “bought a triple LP of Wombles tunes and was impressed with the clarity of it’s sub glam power pop”. Batt was hired by the band and the result was Steeleye Span’s own glam-folk smash ‘All Around My Hat’.

The Rolling Stones – I Know It’s Only Rock n Roll

This July 1974 single and title track of the Stones’ album later that year originally emerged out of a jam session Mick Jagger had with Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones of the Faces, along with David Bowie and bass player Willie Weeks. The track was polished up, some guitar licks were added by Richards and a Rolling Stones classic was born. Easily the most glam-influence song the Stones produced it really reminds me of T.Rex. And, of course, if you are going to release a glam rock single you need a glam rock video to go with it. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg the video shows the band dressed in sailor suits and playing in a tent which eventually fills up with bubbles. According to Keith Richards, the idea for the sailor suits came about at the last minute because none of the Stones wanted to get their own clothes ruined with detergent bubbles.

ABBA – Waterloo

Waterloo was written specifically as ABBA’s bid for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, after the group finished third with ‘Ring Ring’ in the contest for Sweden’s entry the previous year. With a driving guitar riff and a rocking upbeat tempo the song was quite a departure from the romantic ballads of previous European winners and, indeed, of ABBA’s later releases. Throw in the knee-high silver platforms, the glittery costumes and the star-shaped guitar and ‘Waterloo’ is a glam rock classic in all but name. Indeed, Abba themselves had cited ‘See My Baby Jive’ by English glam rockers Wizzard as a major influence at the time. My Nana, who was babysitting for us that night, let us stay up to watch them win Eurovision.

Related posts:

Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

The Sweet versus Bowie: the riff in Blockbuster and Jean Genie – origins and influences

Slade, strikes and the three-day week: the story of the greatest Christmas record ever made

 

Singer-songwriter: album review – Tom Fairnie ‘Lightning in the Dark’

An Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter whose writing cuts across a number of styles, encompassing Americana, folk, country and blues – Tom Fairnie and has built up a considerable reputation on the Scottish folk circuit.

Over in Austin, Texas, Grammy-nominated producer, Merel Bregante, came across Fairnie’s music, was inspired by his songs and invited him over to Austin to record. Friends, family and fans rallied round to make that happen, courtesy of a crowdfunding campaign and a series of benefit gigs and Fairnie pitched up in Texas. In the studio he worked with a stellar cast of musicians who had previously played alongside the likes of Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne. Lightning in the Dark is the result, an album of breathtaking Americana with Celtic influences shining through. It’s a delicious fusion of styles. Dobros and banjos nestle with whistles and pipes to create something both beautiful and extraordinary – Celticana as Bregante dubbed it.

The sound is special but so, too, are the songs. Fairnie’s gift as a songwriter and easy-going but thought-provoking lyrics, many of them composed with songwriting partner and fellow poet Bob Shields, make this a standout-out album.

An absolute gem of an album. If you love Americana seek out Tom Fairnie’s Lightning In The Dark. You will not be disappointed.

Released: 1st May 2020

https://tomfairnie.com/home-news

TomFairnie_PR1-scaled

Folk: album review – Tom Kitching ‘Seasons of Change’

Two years ago fiddle-player Tom Kitching, known for his work with Gren Bartley and for being part of Pilgrims’ Way, started a blog and announced he was going on a journey.

“The sense of not knowing my own country was brought home to me by the referendum result. Virtually all my friends voted to remain, but England as a whole had other ideas. Clearly, the English are a much more complex and varied group than the people around me,” he states in his very first post back in April 2018, adding that he was aiming to travel across England, busking in towns, villages, and cities each day.

Kitching’s travels continued for well over a year and the blog eventually morphed into a book. The busking, meanwhile, ended up turning into an album – which is precisely what we are reviewing here. Recorded as live in Danebridge Methodist Chapel, Staffordshire in December 2019, some eighteen months after his journey began, Seasons of Change brings together eleven tunes mixing traditional tunes with Kitching’s own material. Essentially, a mixture of tunes from his busking repertoire along with new compositions inspired by his round-England trip.

Past collaborator Marit Fält accompanies Kitching on Nordic mandola and cittern and Pilgrim’s Way bandmate Jude Rees also joins him on English border bagpipes.
With morris tunes, reels, jigs, polkas and hornpipes it’s a wonderfully varied set of tunes in terms of tempo and pace, not to mention geographical origin. The album takes us on a journey starting with ‘Old Molly Oxford’ right up to ‘Old Age and Young’ from John Offord’s ‘Bonny Cumberland’ tunebook. There’s even a peek over the channel with the final track. The old French tune ‘La Fanatique’ is paired with Kitching’s own ‘Infinite Espresso’ inspired by an incident in a dockers’ cafe in Harwich, which Kitching assures us in the sleeve-notes we need to buy the book if we want to find out the full story.

Beautifully played and absolutely fascinating in equal measure Tom Kitching has created a real delight with his Seasons of Change album. Now all I need to do is order the book…

Released: 17th April 2020

Book, blog and album all available via http://www.tomkitching.co.uk/

tom k

Related reviews:

Book review: ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ by Tom Kitching

Pilgrims’ Way – Stand and Deliver 

Gavin Davenport & Tom Kitching at Warwick Folk Festival