Canadian singer-songwriter Garnett Betts‘ work springs from a folk/roots sensibility but there is no shortage of other influences, too, from jazz to blues to country to easy listening. With Highfield, his latest album, the result is some compelling story-telling in the best singer-songwriter tradition mixed in with some cool, laid-back jazz-tinged piano.
Featuring Betts on vocals, guitar and penny whistle, the album also includes Rick May on bass, Karel Roessingh on piano and keys and Alex Campbell on hand percussion.
“I definitely think that an up beat and more energetic feel runs through this album than my past work,” says Betts.
Betts’ story-telling really comes to the fore on ‘Smart Guys Don’t Fade Away’ described as a tale of unsolicited advice from youth through to maturity and one of the stand-out tracks on the album.
‘Farther On’ one of the two instrumentals on the album takes on a more overt folky feel with some atmospheric penny whistle giving the track something of a Celtic touch.
The more upbeat ‘Rendezvous’ meanwhile, with its catchy melody and slightly bluesy feel, immediately puts me in mind of one of those classic, mid 70s albums with that sun-kissed, west coast vibe and is another stand-out track.
A singer-songwriter with plenty to say and a diverse set of musical influences distilled into an interesting and coherent album. Check it out.
Recorded live at a home-town gig in the month before lock-down commenced, Glasgow’s folk instrumentalists Rura celebrate their tenth anniversary with this brand new live album. Live At The Old Fruitmarket documents Rura’s performance for a 1,200-strong crowd on the final day of the Celtic Connections festival back in February.
The foursome – Steven Blake (pipes and keys), Jack Smedley (fiddle), David Foley (flute and bodhran) and Adam Brown (guitar) are joined by former, past collaborators and long-time musical friends to celebrate the band’s decade of music-making. The concert includes guest slots for the band’s former singer and songwriter Adam Holmes, who contributes two songs, and guitarist Chris Waite in addition to other musicians, including Ali Hutton (Treacherous Orchestra) and James Lindsay (Braebach).
Fiddler, Jack Smedley, reflects: “Over the past ten years we have made incredible friends, made ridiculous memories and played a few tunes along the way! We want to thank everyone who joined us on stage that night at The Old Fruitmarket as well as every single person who has come to see us. We had a blast!”
Capturing some of the magic and atmosphere of what was clearly a very special night, the band and their guests are fizzing with energy as they revisit highlights from their back catalogue.
From fast and furious to melancholy and mournful anyone with a love of Scottish pipes and fiddle is going to love this album. And for anyone who was lucky enough to experience this as one of their last gigs before lock-down they are almost certainly going to want to purchase it as a memento of that evening.
This review was originally published by Bright Young folk here
From traditional horse fairs, to the wooden ’obby ’oss, to the racehorse, to more mystical creatures, the horse has been an enduring fixture in traditional folk song. Racokzy brings such songs together in an inspired and ambitious approach for her debut album.
Rakoczy, full name Fruzsina Zsofia Rakoczy, was born in Budapest but has lived most of her life in Manchester. Coming to folk music via the Euro dance scene and local sessions, she sings and plays recorder, concertina and bagpipes, all of which can be heard on the album.
The album draws together traditional favourites like Skewbald, Poor Old Horse and Creeping Jane along with covers from the likes of US singer-songwriter Tucker Zimmerman and pastoral prog rockers Jethro Tull, in addition to a couple of originals.
In her biography Rakoczy cites influences as diverse as British and European traditional song, early music, classic rock, gothic and steampunk and draws inspiration from artists like Tom Waits, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, David Bowie and Joan Jett. With a versatile vocal delivery and excellent musical accompaniment, the spectrum of emotions, moods and influences the artist and her backing band take us on over the course of this album is an exhilarating ride.
From the powerful bagpipe and drumming arrangements which lend atmosphere to opening track Hooden Horse, a Kentish calling-on song celebrating the parade of the wooden hobby horse through the streets of Broadstairs, to the sparse and mournful guitar and vocal arrangement on Little Dun Dee collected from septuagenarian Gypsy traveller Mary Anne Haynes in the 1970s, there is plenty for the traditional folk enthusiast to fall in love with on this album.
For their cover of Zimmerman’s Taoist Tale meanwhile, Rakoczy and her band, the Horror Show, channel the spirit of Mancunian indie favourites The Stone Roses. The album ends with a little bit of folk rock – not the late 60s variety but a blast of 1950s rock and roll as the traditional song Dead Horse is repurposed as a vintage electric guitar romp, a glorious and fitting tribute to our equine friends everywhere.
Quirky, inspired and creative Frontrunner is a superb debut and Rakoczy will most definitely be a name to watch out for.
Describing their style as “post-truth, new wave folk” The Strunts came about as Kintyre musicians, David Fee and Les Oman, reacted to the inauguration of Donald trump as US President with a bout of song-writing. ‘Ranches and Mansions’ one of the songs on this album was the initial fruit of this collaboration, soon followed by several more. The Strunts and their debut album Too Much of Everything were born.
Applying a combination of dark humour and raw emotion with a singer-songwriter folky vibe, the album is quirky and eccentric yet musically appealing – based around Oman and Fee’s bouzouki and acoustic guitar playing. Recorded over the past three years, with the help of musician and engineer/producer Sam Hales at his Campbeltown studio, other local musician friends came on board as the project evolved. These included Alison Leith on additional vocals, Anne Leith on backing vocals, Mark Leishman on drums and percussion, Alex Johnson on double bass as well as Hales on electric guitar.
In spite of being delighted with the result, The Strunts say they will be “equally delighted if POTUS 46 is somebody else, meaning that the ‘difficult second album’ can fly in some other weird and wonderful direction.”
Crystal clear vocals and songs that veer between folk and country with just a sprinkling of smooth slightly jazz-influenced pop Are You Listening is the latest release from London-based singer-songwriter, Saskia Griffiths-Moore.
The first of two-album deal with Suzanne Marcus Collins Foundation, it includes re-workings from her back catalogue as well as two brand new songs and a Leonard Cohen cover.
Whether or not you are familiar with her back catalogue Saskia turns in some fine renditions of her older material here, backed by David Ian Roberts (guitar), Thomas Holder (double bass), Ali Petrie (piano) and Gabriella Swallow (cello) giving the whole album a gorgeously mellow acoustic feel. Of the brand new songs both the optimistic and upbeat ‘Best of You’ and the sad and wistful ‘Come Comfort Me’ compliment the older material nicely.
I do like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and here Saskia sings it well. However, I’m not sure it’s entirely essential on this album given there are so many Cohen songs that haven’t been covered quite so many times. Never mind, she does sing it superbly.
A beautifully-recorded album and a fine showcase for Saskia’s burgeoning talents as a singer-songwriter – yes: we’re listing. An impressive album.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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