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 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.
On these bright warm sunny days is there anything more perfect than those classic laid-back 70s west coast sounds? Sunny and upbeat with a hint of sadness and a touch of drama, you know the score. The Eagles knew it. Fleetwood Mac knew it in spades. So how lovely, therefore, on just one of those very days, to get the latest Fred’s House EP dropping through my letterbox.
Cambridge-based Fred’s House celebrate their tenth anniversary with this brand new four-track EP Walls and Ceilings.
Following a slight re-jig in the line-up the band is now entirely female-fronted, with newcomer Prue Ward on fiddle and vocals joining Vikki Gavin on vocals and keyboards, Gafyn Jameson on bass and backing vocals, Lachlan Golder on guitar and backing vocals and Paul Richards on drums.
Truly conjuring up the spirit of Rumours-era interpersonal intrigue (although hopefully not the cocaine bill) ‘Only The Sun’ is about former frontman (and Vikki Gavin’s ex-partner) Griff saying his farewells and moving on. The other tracks also cover familiar themes of relationship angst, unrequited lust and new beginnings.
Harmonies, hooks, gorgeous melodies and exquisite production Walls and Ceilings is a work of beauty from start to finish.
If no-one has done more than Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends to repopularise sea shanties in recent years, then surely no-one has done more than Bristol’s Longest Johns to give them an alt-folk makeover, pull them into the twenty-first century and make them cool.
Cures What Ails Ya is the Longest Johns’ third album. Building on the impact of the first two, Written in Salt released in 2016 and Between Wind and Water released in 2018, the Longest Johns began attracting a dedicated online following that consisted of a quirky but thoroughly modern combination of folk enthusiasts and internet gamers. Collaborating with the creators of suitably-themed games like ‘Sea of Thieves’ the group’s online content has helped them garner over 70.000 YouTube subscribers and upwards of 7.3 million streams by the time this, their third album, is released.
But what of the music? I just love it! An upbeat album as teeming with feel-good vibes and irreverent takes as it is with maritime hardship and folk tradition, Cures What Ails Ya is just beautifully held together with the rich harmonising voices of the four members and, in places, some suitably lovely accompanying instrumentation. Song-wise, there’s a real mix – from standards like ‘Bonny Ship The Diamond’ and ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn’ to new original songs like the wryly tongue-in-cheek ‘Hoist Up The Thing’ and ‘The Last Bristolian Pirate’ which manages to name-check Tescos.
A brilliant album from the men who made shanties sexy – buy it!
Available on digital formats, CD and vinyl Cures What Ails Ya’ is released on 10th June 2020 with a special online live launch party
Following their recently-released single ‘Leave It In The Ground‘ Merry Hell have released the second single of their climate-themed trilogy. Titled ‘Sister Atlas’ it pays tribute to Greta Thunberg and the commitment of many young people like her taking up the call in demanding action on climate change.
Merry Hell explain:
“In the second song in our #HourglassTrilogy, written by Virginia Kettle, our lead female singer, Sister Atlas celebrates the strength and commitment of our young people in calling for a halt to the current climate destruction and to search for ways in which the damage can be reversed. This can either be focused on the example and inspiration of one young girl, or the wider actions of an increasing number of our children who wish for more than to have their future sacrificed to ignorance and greed. A salute to Greta Thunberg and more power to those who have taken up the challenge. Please feel free to spread the music and the love!“
The release of the single and accompanying video comes just a few days after the band were delighted to be announced as winners of the Folking Award for Best Live Act, joining winners in other categories such as Oysterband, Eliza Carthy, Ralph McTell and Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman.
The single is available to download and stream from all the usual digital platforms.
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? Named after the band’s bestselling single 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. 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.
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.”
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).
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.
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
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.