All posts by Darren Johnson

About Darren Johnson

PR, writing, campaigning and blogging

Folk/singer-songwriter: EP review – Alison Benson ‘Paths & Stories’

Paths & Stories is the debut EP from Liverpool-based folk singer-songwriter Alison Benson. The five-track release comprises five of Benson’s own songs, each looking at the life of an individual, both real and imagined. From a tragic Victorian fortune-teller to a First World War conscientious objector to the heroine of a pioneering piece of 1950s lesbian fiction, Benson draws from a wide range of historical and artistic sources for her inspiration, be it paintings , novels or local landmarks. And she produces some quite unique and utterly captivating folk storytelling in the process.

“Folk music doesn’t exist without stories,” says Benson. “Whether real, mythical or fictional.”

“Focusing on one person’s experience, for me, is a way to get even deeper into a story – to empathise and think about motivations. Singing songs in the first person, as someone else , also gives the narrative a different quality.”

Showcasing her distinctive and appealing vocals, Paths & Stories is pretty much Benson, her songs and her ukulele. I’ll be honest and say that this is not normally my favourite instrument but Benson’s technique is such that any preconceptions about overly-upbeat enforced jollity and cloyingly twee melodies are instantly cast aside as soon as you hear her playing. Gently evocative, the ukulele in Benson’s hands makes for the perfect accompaniment to her thoughtful and poignant storytelling.

And what storytelling there is. Well-produced and highly listenable this is a lovely EP from a singer-songwriter who is clearly emerging as a serious and noteworthy talent.

Released 28th March 2020

https://alisonbensonmusic.weebly.com/

‘It’s About Time’ – Jefferson Starship back with new single and new EP

‘It’s About Time’ is the latest single from US rock legends Jefferson Starship. Following the death of Paul Kantner in 2016 the band these days are: David Freiberg, Donny Baldwin, Cathy Richardson, Chris Smith and Jude Gold. The new single, however, is co-written by the band’s legendary ex-vocalist Grace Slick.

And while the single is definitely more of an upbeat slice of AOR in the spirit of ‘We Built This City’ rather than any Woodstock-era hippy freak-out, the lyrics are certainly not lacking in countercultural bite. “Can’t you feel the planet getting hotter? How can you sit back and watch your own slaughter?” sings Cathy Richardson. “Old white men have had their turn.”

A video has been released to promote the single:

The band have also announced the release of a new seven-track EP Mother of the Sun which will be released on 21st August. Not only does it include songs co-written by two original Jefferson Starship/Jefferson Airplane members – ‘It’s About Time’ co-written with Grace Slick and a further track co-written with Marty Balin, the EP also features the return of original Jefferson Starship member Pete Sears, who contributes bass on three tracks.

“Paul Kantner was our bandleader and the visionary who kept Jefferson Starship going through so many eras,” says Richardson. “He inspired so much about this record, from the messages in the lyrics to the title and album art to the collaborative process of creating music as a band with some of his original muses – Grace, Marty, and Pete. Mother of the Sun is dedicated to PK.”

Jefferson Starship today features singer/multi-instrumentalist David Freiberg (who, following a five-album stint with Quicksilver Messenger Service, was then part of the final line-up of Jefferson Airplane and the original Jefferson Starship), drummer Donny Baldwin (who joined Jefferson Starship in 1982 and also played and sang on many hits of the band’s Starship era), lead singer Cathy Richardson (whom Kantner recruited in 2008), Chris Smith (who has been in the band since the late 90s) on keyboards and Jude Gold (who joined in 2012) on lead guitar.

Having caught them several years ago I can happily confirm that live, the current line-up are well worth seeing, performing hits across all eras of the band including ‘White Rabbit’, ‘Somebody to Love’, ‘We Built This City’, and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.

Mother of the Sun is released via Golden Robot Records on 21st August 2020.

www.jeffersonstarship.com

Folk/singer-songwriter: album review – Virginia Kettle ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’

Virginia Kettle’s vocals have been a key element of of Merry Hell’s sound since the band’s inception a decade ago. Before joining her husband John, brothers-in-law Bob and Andrew, and sundry others in the eight-piece folk-rock outfit, however, she’d established herself as a singer-songwriter in her own right. As Virginia Barrett, she released two solo albums: ‘The Quiet Bridge’ and ‘Sense of Human’ prior to joining the band. No Place Like Tomorrow is her first solo album since Merry Hell began, however.

It’s a more intimate affair than a typical Merry Hell album, both in terms of personnel and in terms of subject matter. The songs have far less of an obvious political tone than many Merry Hell songs and here Kettle tends to touch on more personal matters: love, relationships, family life. ‘Union Jack House’ is the most political song on the album but is structured and delivered in a way that has surprising echoes of Victoria Wood (with a little bit of Are You Being Served thrown in!)

Fans of Merry Hell will already be familiar with the title track, given it appeared on their 2015 album The Ghost in Our House and Other Stories, sung by Andrew, was reworked for their 2018 album Anthems to the Wind, sung by Virginia, and is now reworked once again. A beautifully tender, less anthemic and more delicate rendering than before, this is now the definitive version in my view.

Although Kettle is not backed by the full band she is, at various points, supported by the Hell’s fiddle-player Neil McCartney, bass-player Nick Davies and her guitarist husband John Kettle. Indeed, on a couple of tracks the stripped-back, more intimate feel of the solo album really allows McCartney’s elegant fiddle-playing to take centre-stage: the title track and ‘Valentine’s Waltz’. For me, that tailor-made combination of Kettle’s vocals and McCartney’s fiddle make these two of the real stand-out tracks on the album.

A mellower and more personal offering than a Merry Hell release No Place Like Tomorrow is a charming album that showcases Virginia Kettle’s obvious talents as a singer-songwriter.

Released: 12th July 2020

http://www.vkandthedreamkeepers.com/

http://www.merryhell.co.uk

Related posts:

‘Emergency Lullaby’ Merry Hell’s song for action when we’re mired in apathy

‘Sister Atlas’ new single Merry Hell salutes those taking climate action

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

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: album review – The Wilderness Yet

It’s sometimes hard to keep up with the constantly-shifting formations of stellar young talent on the contemporary folk scene as new duos, trios and ad-hoc collaborations are announced each month. The debut album from the latest such trio, however, is something to get genuinely excited about. The singer and former Young Folk Award finalist Rosie Hodgson has joined forces with fiddle-player Rowan Piggott and guitarist/flautist Philippe Barnes.

Named after a line from a Gerard Manley-Hopkins poem The Wilderness Yet combine exceptional musicianship with deft creativity to present us with this lovely collection of songs and tunes. Mainly self-composed with a handful of reworkings of more traditional pieces, the writing talents of all three are in evidence.

A quick glance through the titles on the beautifully-packaged CD will be enough to tell you that there’s a bit of an environmental theme going on here. Indeed, the aforementioned Manley Hopkins poem ‘Inversnaid’ acts as something of a manifesto for the trio:

“What would the world be once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wilderness and wet;
Long live the weeds, and the wilderness yet.”

As well as furnishing the trio with their name, the poem – set to music by Piggott – provides the album with its title track. Coming right at the end it’s one of the highlights on a very strong album. There’s also another chance to hear Piggott’s rallying anthem for our dwindling bee population ‘Queen & Country’ a song that appeared on his excellent solo album Mountscribe back in 2017, this time sung by Hodgson. Her own ‘The Beauties of Autumn’ and the a capella ‘In A Fair Country’ similarly celebrate the beauty of our natural world and showcase both Hodgson’s song-writing and vocal gifts. Piggott’s and Barnes’s tune-sets are also a joy to listen to, their fiddle and flute-playing helping create some suitably evocative imagery.

A cause very close to my heart Rosie Hodgson, Rowan Piggott and Philippe Barnes have created a beautiful homage to our precious but threatened natural world with The Wilderness Yet. Highly recommended.

Released: 24th July 2020

thewildernessyet.com/

News: ‘Love Life’ the new album from Tawny Ellis released 24th July

An album of soulful Americana Love Life is the latest album from US singer-songwriter Tawny Ellis.

With the title reflecting the theme that runs throughout the songs on the album, Ellis says:

“This record took about three years to finish. I can’t tell you why. It’s just the natural progression of it. The songs for the most part are very personal stories or perhaps stories I tell you about what I have observed in relationships. I built these songs mostly with three different people, Gio Loria – my husband, Jesse Seibenberg and Ted Russell-Kamp. I was lucky to have all of their extraordinary talent and input on board.”

Alongside her lush vocals and lyrical storytelling Ellis says she is known as ‘the girl with the weird instruments’ and her steel guitar an omnichord playing can be heard on the album, her talent for the latter developing when she borrowed an instrument that had originally belonged to Brian Eno, at the suggestion of her producer/musician friend Daniel Lanois.

“It’s a wonderful tool for writing and experimenting and I ended up writing most of the record on it. It’s progressions opened up doorways for me, kind of like a key to the magic.”

Also featuring on the album are Jessie Siebenberg (guitar, steel guitar, drums, piano, keys), Ted Russell-Kamp (guitar, bass), Gio Loria (guitar), Kaitlin Wolfberg (violin, vocals), Scarlet Rivera (violin), Quinn (drums) and Brooke Lizotte (piano).

Released: 24th July 2020 by Music Building Records

https://tawnyellis.com/home

Glam-punk: album review: Tiny Bit of Giant’s Blood ‘Gigantosaur’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Following ‘Dram A’ a five-track EP released back in 2018 Gigantosaur is the debut full-length album from US-based self-styled glam punks Tiny Bit Of Giant’s Blood. A curious but likeable album from this gloriously eccentric bunch, the likes of Queen, Bowie and Van Halen are hailed as influences. Such influences are clearly evident but there’s also plenty of Ramones-style attitude and a sprinkling of over the top Tubes-style outlandishness and some Mott-style craziness that gives the album that punk edge.

Tiny Bit Of Giant’s Blood are Tony Rogers – vocals/keyboards, John Scholvin – guitar/vocals, Jackie Schimmel – bass/vocals, and Larry Beers – drums/vocals.

‘Girl Over Here’ is one of the stand-out tracks and one of those where the glam influences are most obvious. Punchy and hook-laden, it put me in mind of Transformer-era Lou Reed with early Stooges-style attitude and Queen-esque backing vocals. One of the more out and out punk tracks is the wonderfully off-the-wall ‘Mick Jagger Carries My Boots’. The album also includes a raggedly anarchic cover of ‘If You Want Blood’ which manages to sound absolutely nothing like AC/DC yet manages to sound inspired. If you’re going to do a cover an all-time classic rock song there’s absolutely no point in making it sound like a copy of the original so they just take this brilliantly-written song, ignore what was recorded originally and apply their own unique formula. They pretty much pull it off.

Gigantosaur is definitely something a little different. Taking a sideways look at some great elements of rock history and coming up with something quirky, fun and just that bit crazy do check out Tiny Bit of Giant’s Blood.

Released: 22nd May 2020 by Jumbo Records

https://www.tinybitofgiantsblood.com/

Americana/singer-songwriter: album review – John Jenkins ‘Growing Old (Songs From My Front Porch)’

John Jenkins is a well-known figure on the Liverpool music scene, once part of cult eighties band ‘The Persuaders’ but in recent years it’s been solo performances as a singer-songwriter or fronting his own band John Jenkins & the James Street Band. Two well-received independently-released albums ‘Window Shopping in Nashville’ and ‘Looking For That American Dream’ are now followed up with this latest release: ‘Growing Old (Songs From My Front Porch)’.

Inspired to write a selection of songs that could be performed solo, Jenkins reveals in the sleeve-notes that the working title for the album was initially ‘Songs for the Open Mic’. Thankfully, someone else suggested the slightly more Nashville, slightly less Norris Green title of ‘Songs From The Front Porch’. I don’t really care whether he’s got a porch or not to be honest – even if it’s only a metaphorical one it suits the feel of the album.

“I really wanted to record a selection of intimate songs that could resonate with the listener,” he says. “Stories of life, family, friends, good times, sad times, loss and happiness..”

All self-composed (bar one co-written with LA-based Kendra Boardman that emerged out of a songwriting retreat) the songs on the album explore those familiar themes of love, ageing, loss and loneliness. Jenkins’ lyrics have a nice turn of phrase to them and he can clearly turn out some really, strong memorable melodies, too.

Highlights include opening track (and the song that gives the album its name) ‘Growing Old’. Its contemplative mood and laid-back Americana feel sets the tone for the rest of the album rather nicely. Other highlights include the melancholic ‘Heartlands’ and the aforementioned co-write ‘This Mountain Between Us’ – performed here as a gorgeous duet with old friend Siobhan Maher-Kennedy taking us into classic country territory.

While the music might have a strong Americana feel to it Jenkins eschews a faux-American delivery and sings resolutely in his own voice. While I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily got the most distinctive of voices there’s a warm, engaging honesty about it that just works so perfectly for material like this.

Since Growing Old popped through my letterbox the other week I’ve been growing more and more fond of it. A fine album.

Released: 15th May 2020

https://johnjenkinsmusic.com/

A tribute to Judy Dyble 1949-2020

The singer and songwriter Judy Dyble, who sang lead vocals on Fairport Convention’s very first album, sadly died at the weekend. Although never as celebrated in British folk rock history as her replacement, Sandy Denny, Judy’s beautifully clear, distinctive vocals nevertheless remain an essential part of the early Fairport sound.

After her time with Fairport, Judy was involved in a handful of other projects in the late 60s and early 70s before quitting the music business altogether, spending time bringing up her family and working as a librarian. Her musical story doesn’t quite end there, however, as the early 2000s saw Judy begin writing, recording and performing once more. Albums like the gently captivating ‘Talking With Strangers’ from 2009 and the gorgeous ‘Flow and Change’ from 2013 were extremely well received but her career renaissance continued to grow and grow with her more recent albums picking up a slew of top-notch reviews and frequent appearances in the music press.

Judy’s 2016 autobiography ‘An Accidental Musician’ is a beautiful read. Obviously, I’ve read my fair share of sex and drugs and rock and roll confessionals over the years and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this takes a very different tack. Obviously, it’s a fascinating read in terms of music history but there is so much in there that really any of us can relate to: bereavement, the lack of confidence that can come from not doing something for a long time, the fear and then the buzz of taking on new challenges – it all served to give the book a very, very human angle. When I posted comments along these lines on social media at the time, in typically engaging fashion Judy came back straight away:

“I am so glad you appreciated it, I kind of worry that it isn’t what people expect it to be – a typical race through the 60’s with lots of name droppings… Thank you.”

Other than being part of the communal sing-along for ‘Meet On The Ledge’ Judy was not called upon to play a major part in her former band’s forty-fifth anniversary celebrations which I know was a source of some frustration to her. I emailed Fairport’s Simon Nicol at the time expressing my disappointment that she had not been asked to play a bigger contribution. He did get back saying the band hoped to do more with Judy in the future. They certainly made up for it at the band’s fiftieth anniversary celebration at Cropredy in 2017 where, as well as a solo slot for Judy that weekend, all of the original line-up (sans deceased drummer Martin Lamble) reconvened. Magically we were transported back to 1967 with all of the surviving members from the first Fairport album reconvening on stage for a stunning recreation of the first track on the first album ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’, followed by ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ and ‘Reno, Nevada’. It completely captured the magic of that first album and was really special seeing Judy, Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson and Iain Matthews sharing a stage together.

An essential part of the early Fairport sound, an unexpected and most wonderful artistic renaissance in later life and one of the loveliest, most sincere, most humble and least showbizzy people you could ever wish to meet, Judy Dyble will be greatly, greatly missed.

Me with Judy at the signing tent at Cropredy in 2017

Americana/folk: album review – Johnny Steinberg ‘Shadowland’

There have been some excellent new Americana releases dropping through my letterbox and into my CD player these past few months. Shadowland by Johnny Steinberg is no exception. With a name like that, songs that tell tales of heartbreak, cheap whiskey and Jesus, not to mention some deliciously effortless musicianship that just seems to ooze Nashville, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Mr Steinberg hails not from Nashville but from Norfolk (at least these days – although he’s from Yorkshire originally). What surprised me even more, however, was learning that Shadowland is, in fact, Steinberg’s debut album.

Outstanding songs, exquisitely well-played and beautifully sung this album radiates such class that I’m still getting my head around the fact it’s a debut album.

Steinberg takes up the story:

“If you had said to me eight years ago when I left my job, started songwriting and learned finger-style guitar that only five years later I would be recording in the US and UK to produce an album of my own songs I’d have said you were bonkers.”

Steinberg’s heart-warming story of his journey to Nashville and how he came to record an album with the likes of Boo Hewerdine (The Bible/ State of the Union) and Kira Small (Willie Nelson/ Garth Brooks/ Martina McBride) and other brilliant musicians is recounted in the extensive booklet that accompanies the beautifully packaged CD.

Steinberg has been gigging, either solo or with his band Johnny Steinberg and the Blue Fish, for some time now, garnering support slots with the likes of Graham Gouldman, Dave Swarbrick, Kathryn Williams and Reg Meuross. He is thoroughly deserving of the wider attention this album will surely bring him. Shadowland is pure class from start to finish.

Released: 4th July 2020

https://www.facebook.com/JohnnySteinbergMusic/

News: ‘Emergency Lullaby’ Merry Hell’s song for action when we’re mired in apathy

Released on Monday 29th June, ‘Emergency Lullaby’ is the third part of the Hourglass Trilogy series of climate-themed singles released by folk rockers Merry Hell.

It will also provide the title for the next full Merry Hell album which will be called ‘Emergency Lullabies’ and is currently nearing completion.

Written by mandolin/bouzouki player Bob Kettle, he says of the song:

“The song ‘Emergency Lullaby’ developed from a melody I’d written on the piano. I was quite pleased with the tune – it had a soft, sleepy quality that reminded me of a lullaby – but, for a long time, I couldn’t come up with any appropriate words to go with it… In the meantime, I was to thinking about climate change and the devastating impact it will have on our lives and environment if it continues unchecked. I’d read about rising global sea-levels, fires in the arctic circle and deforestation in the Amazon. I was also dismayed by the nonchalant denials of the part played by human activity in this looming crisis – for example, Trump and Bolsonaro’s casual rejection of scientific consensus and willingness to sacrifice our planet’s wellbeing and the futures of generations to come for short-term political and financial gain.

“On the other hand, I’m painfully aware of just how little I’m doing, personally, to alleviate these dangers. I ride in cars and draw energy from a grid fed by fossil-fuels. I’ve been negligent with recycling and, because I’m lucky enough to live a first world lifestyle, I’m generally oblivious to the impacts my actions have in other parts of the world. I’m part of a great sleepwalk into destruction – so, in short, I’m no one to judge anybody else’s behaviour. I wanted to emphasise that, if the climate crisis has a human cause it also has a human solution. We can save our planet if we act immediately. Time is short; the longer the delay, the sooner the devastation. We need to hold on to hope because, if we lose it, we’re lost. I’m encouraged by the awareness and organisation shown by young people. If the older generation follow the young and support them in collective action, we have every chance of securing a cleaner, fairer world that can be sustained into the future.

“So, I coupled the soft, sleepy melody with lyrics about the climate crisis – to express the contradictory aspects of the problem: we need urgent action but we’re mired in apathy. That’s how I came up with the title ‘Emergency Lullaby’. I’d love to sing it in a spirit of understanding, hope and togetherness.”

 Emergency Lullaby (Wasting Time)

 The water is rising,
The Arctic’s ablaze,
The Amazon’s burning
But I spend my days
Feeding flood and fire in so many ways
Sitting here wasting my time.

 There are clowns in high places
Trading on lies,
A cult of denial to cover our eyes
But if we give up hope then we give up our lives
Willingly wasting our time.

 We will die of doubt
Time is running out…

 The hourglass counts down
An avoidable fate:
The next generation pays for our mistakes.
Act now, act together and it’s not too late
Or we’re wasting the world and our time.

 So, get down to Earth,
Let the young lead the old,
All hands to the ark!
Unfurl the rainbow!
Our life’s in our hands,
We’ll reap what we sow

The single is available to download and stream from all the usual digital platforms.

Released: 29th June 2020

http://www.merryhell.co.uk

Related posts:

‘Sister Atlas’ new single Merry Hell salutes those taking climate action

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

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!’