Category Archives: folk music

folk performers and music

Folk: EP review – Zoe Wren ‘Gold & Smoke’

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.

Released: 2018 on Folkstock Records

http://www.zoewren.com

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Folk/country/Americana: album review – Marina Florance ‘Fly Beyond The Border’

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.

Released: March 2018

https://www.marinaflorance.com/

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Related reviews

Album review – Marina Florance ‘This That & The Other’

Marina Florance – Emerging Talent Showcase

Folk: EP review – Thom Ashworth ‘Hollow’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

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.

Self released: November 2017

http://thomashworth.com/

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Folk: album review – Will Finn & Rosie Calvert ‘Beneath This Place’

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.

Released: 1st June 2018 by Haystack Records

https://willfinnandrosiecalvert.com/

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Folk-rock: album review – Fairport Convention ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’

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.

Released: June 15th 2018 on Matty Grooves

http://www.fairportconvention.com/

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Related reviews:

 

Fairport Convention at Cropredy 2017

Album review – Fairport Convention ‘Come All Ye: The First Ten Years’

Fairport Convention – 50th anniversary gig at Union Chapel 2017

Fairport Convention at Cropredy 2014

Fairport Convention at Union Chapel 2014

Iain Matthews in Etchingham 2016

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘From Psychedelia to Sonnets’

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘Twangin’ ‘n’ a-Traddin’ Revisited’

Album review – Sandy Denny ‘I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny’

Fotheringay at Under the Bridge, London 2015

Fotheringay at Great British Folk Festival 2015

Richard Thompson at Royal Festival Hall 2015

Richard Thompson at Folk By The Oak 2014

Album review – Richard Thompson ‘Acoustic Classics’

Judy Dyble at WM Jazz at The o2

 

 

Live review: Show Of Hands at St Mary in the Castle 4/5/18

This review was originally published by Hastings Online Times here

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.

https://www.showofhands.co.uk/

Show of Hands

Photo Credit: Simon Putman

 

Live review: Lindisfarne at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 24/3/18

This review was also published by the Hastings Online Times here 

After well-received performances from both Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span at Hastings’ St Mary in the Castle this past year, it perhaps came as no surprise that it was time for that other giant of the late 60s/early 70s folk-rock: Lindisfarne.

The band had been on hiatus for around a decade but the Lindisfarne name was resurrected in 2013 when founder member, Ray Jackson, began touring with a number of other former members from various eras of the band. They were soon to find that there was clearly a huge amount of affection out there for the Tyneside folk-rockers but after a couple of years Jackson stepped back and retired. That was not the end of the reunion, however, as in stepped another founder member with Rod Clements from the band’s classic line-up taking Jackson’s place.

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Audiences are no longer treated to Jackson’s brilliantly distinctive and instantly recognisable mandolin-playing (the man who came up with the mandolin intro on Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May let’s not forget) but Clements is a gifted musician (switching between electric fiddle, mandolin and slide guitar) and an engaging presence on stage. He’s joined by Dave Hull-Denholm, son-in-law of original front-man the late Alan Hull, on vocals/guitar; Charlie Harcourt, who originally played with the band in the mid 70s, on guitar; Steve Daggett, who toured with the band in the 80s, on keyboards; Ian Thompson who, like Hull-Denholm, has been around since the 90s, on bass; and, finally, former Roxy Music drummer, Paul Thompson, on drums.

Denholm-Hull’s voice is surprisingly reminiscent of Alan Hull’s distinctive vocals and he does the band’s legacy, and his late father-in-law proud. There are plenty of Lindisfarne classics to keep the Hastings crowd entertained, too: ‘Lady Eleanor’, Road To Kingdom Come’, ‘Wake Up Little Sister’, ‘We Can Swing Together’, ‘Meet Me on the Corner’ and, of course, ‘Fog On The Tyne’, Newcastle’s finest produced so many unforgettable songs back in the day and the band tonight cram so many of them into two hours.

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With bands like the aforementioned Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention going from strength to strength in recent years it’s nice also to also see Lindisfarne firmly back in business – and playing and sounding great. Maybe it’s time for an album, too, guys?

 

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Photo credits: Richard Broady

http://www.lindisfarne.com

Related review:
Lindisfarne at Great British Folk Festival

Live review: The Young ‘uns – The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 22/3/18

Teesside-based folk trio The Young ‘uns have been singing about injustices, historical and modern, for some years now, releasing four well-received albums and touring folk venues and festivals up and down the country. Their songs, written by the trio’s Sean Cooney, have covered everything from fighting poverty in the 1930s to fighting homophobia in the 2010s.

The Young ‘uns latest tour, however, The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff is devoted to a single theme. Johnny Longstaff was born in Stockton-on-Tees just after the First World War. Poverty and unemployment drove him to London as a teenager, via the Hunger March of 1934. Whilst in London Longstaff became more and more politicised, volunteering for the Spanish Civil War in 1936 as a young man of just seventeen. Longstaff recalled his experiences in a series of recordings in the 1980s. Using excerpts from these tapes and photo montages from the period interspersed with their songs, The Young Uns bring his story to life once more.

With sixteen songs composed by Cooney the trio sing their way through Longstaff’s remarkable life. Songs like ‘Any Bread’ and ‘Carrying The Coffin’ recall the poverty and destitution of life in the north-east in the Great Depression while ‘Cable Street’ retells the tale of the famous battle with Moseley’s fascists on the streets of London. As the show unfolds songs like ‘The Great Tomorrow’, ‘Trench Tales’ and ‘David Guest’ recall the experiences of fighting Franco’s fascists, from the bitter conditions and lack of food to the heroics of fallen comrades that Longstaff fought alongside. The show ends with a rendition of ‘The Valley Of Jarama’, a song song sung by Spanish Civil War veterans and written by Alex McDade, himself one of the volunteers of the British Battalion fighting the fascists. Although the forces against fascism were defeated in Spain, Longstaff, who died in 2000, was adamant that the Spanish Civil War was a vital prerequisite for the successful defeat of fascism in the guise of Hitler’s Nazism just a few years later.

I’ve seen the Young ‘uns on multiple occasions now and their live performances, in addition to their brand of movingly defiant songs, usually involve much hilarious ad-libbed banter, both between themselves and with the audience. With The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, however, the guys prove that their gift for storytelling and their natural affinity with the underdog also means they can pull of a project as ambitious as this and move an audience to tears in the process.

http://www.theyounguns.co.uk/

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Related reviews:
The Young ‘uns at Cecil Sharp House
The Young ‘uns at Great British Folk Festival

Americana: album review – Orphan Colours ‘All On Red’

Back in the summer of 2010 I was one of many thousands at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy festival being wowed by the impressive talents and uplifting melodies of the then newly-formed alt-country outfit, ahab. Sadly, the pressures of holding it all together proved too much and the band split. Two of their number, Steve Llewellyn and Dave Burn, were not done yet, however. Together with ex Noah & The Whale guitarist Fred Abbott, Danny & The Champions of The World drummer Steve Brookes and bass player Graham Knight, they formed a new band Orphan Colours.

As Llewellyn explains, “At the end of 2013 both ahab and Noah & The Whale had been chewed up and spat out by the music business. We found ourselves out of a job despite both band’s upward trajectories. The toll of touring and hard graft was too much. Speaking for myself, I had a lot more to give and I wasn’t anywhere near done yet. I had a backlog of songs that weren’t fit for ahab and I wanted to get them out into the world. So despite having failed with ahab and the financial pressures I was under, I put every penny I had into this project.”

After a really promising EP ‘High Hopes’ in 2016 the band set to work on the live circuit but have now finally released their debut album. Compared to the up-tempo numbers of love and heartbreak from the ahab days, All On Red mines more of a classic, laid-back, country-rock vibe but the talent for strong melody, heart-warming vocals and infectious choruses is as evident as ever. The deliciously-sounding ‘Start Of Something’ which opens the albums gives you everything you would want from a great country rock song and from then on the album doesn’t falter.

“I had written my fair share of sensitive songs for ahab – about love and loss and all that, and there’s a few on here but I really wanted to bring a bit of rock n roll into the UK Americana scene and I feel like we’ve achieved a good balance on this record,” contends Llewellyn.

It was particularly nice to catch the band performing a few songs from the album as part of an in-store appearance at Bexhill’s Music’s Not Dead record store last Saturday (well three-fifths of them anyway – drummer, Steve Brookes, eschewing the chance to set up his kit on the tiny shop window stage and guitarist, Dave Burn, managing to damage his ankle falling of stage the night before). Gamely, the depleted gang honour the gig anyway and deliver an impressive, heartfelt performance. While only a small number of those crammed into the shop owned up to witnessing either Orphan Colours or ahab live before, it was encouraging to see that they had clearly won over a number of new fans.

All On Red is a very impressive debut album. Let’s hope the music world conspires to keep Orphan Colours around for a few years longer than it did their predecessors.

Released: 26th January 2018

https://www.orphancolours.com/

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Related reviews:
ahab at Cropredy 2015
Orphan Colours in London 2016
Dave Burn – solo album review

Folk-rock: EP review – Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’

If I was to try and sum up the band Merry Hell I’d ask people to imagine if Fairport Convention had come from Wigan. That is not in any way intended as an insult. Being from Lancashire and being a long-time fan of Fairport Convention it is definitely 100% meant as a compliment.

Merry Hell’s lyrical themes tend to be somewhat edgier, politically, compared to Fairport but not in an over-earnest ranty way. Bitter-sweet reflectiveness and wry good humour tend to be the band’s hallmarks. And so it is with ‘Bury Me Naked’ – the band’s new single. Written and sung by the band’s female lead, Virginia Kettle, it’s a great mid-tempo sing-along with an ecological theme and a friendly rebuke about filling our lives with too much junk and clutter. Originally appearing on the band’s second album this track is a re-recording featuring some fiddle wizardry from incoming band member, Neil McCartney.

The second track ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is a slower-paced ballad that’s lifted from Merry Hell’s most recent album Bloodlines. Going back to my initial analogy, this track would not have been at all out of place alongside some of the memorable songs that the likes of Ralph McTell gifted to Fairport Convention after they got back in business as a touring and recording unit. Two additional songs ‘Drunken Serenade feat. The Banshee Reel’ and ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ also showcase the band’s song-writing and musical abilities.

Musically, lyrically and, indeed, politically there is a much-needed place for a band Merry Hell in today’s Britain and it’s good to see them going from strength to strength.

Released: February 26th 2018

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

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Related reviews:

Merry Hell ‘Come On England’