Category Archives: folk music

folk performers and music

Folk – album review – Birichen ‘Hush’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Birichen are Catriona Sutherland (vocals), Iain-Gordon Macfarlane (fiddle and guitar) and Robert McDonald (dobro slide guitar) and this five-track EP is their debut release. Named after the settlement in the Scottish highlands that serves as their base, the trio’s music is steeped in the influences of Scottish folk but there are other influences at work, too, most notably Americana.

The EP opens with the sound of birdsong and running water, but regardless of whether it’s Drumnadrochit or Montana it really doesn’t matter, the opening song Holding On To Each Moment immediately transports the listener to somewhere that is soothing, laid-back and breathtakingly beautiful. Gordon-Macfarlane’s fiddle and McDonald’s slide guitar serve to clearly lay out Birichen’s musical mission from the outset and both players provide the perfect accompaniment for Sutherland’s clear voice and gentle, evocative delivery. The country influences come even more to the fore with a cover of Guy Clark’s LA Freeway but on the jazzy Gonnae Get Good and the poignant Smile In Your Sleep the emphasis is very much on Scottish history and culture, the latter an emotive lullaby recalling the brutal and traumatic impact of the Highland Clearances that touches on the history of the Birichen settlement and Sutherland’s own family history.

A beguiling blend of Scottish folk and American country Hush sees Birichen announce their arrival in splendid form. A fine debut EP.

Released: October 2018

https://www.facebook.com/Birichen/

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Folk: album review – Rachel Croft ‘Hours Awake’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Celtic-influenced melodies, lush instrumentation and pure yet ever-so-sensual vocals serve to make Hours Awake a highly attractive debut album from the York-based singer songwriter. The album collects together songs that Croft has been creating over a three-year period between 2014, when she first started writing, and 2017.

Only Dreams, which was also released as Croft’s debut single back in 2017, is one of the standout tracks on the album. Beautifully atmospheric instrumentation combines with powerful lyrics and captivating vocals in a Sandy-Denny-meets-Kate-Bush sort of way and showcases Croft’s considerable vocal range. Opening track, the moody and haunting Old Climbing Tree is another stunner. In addition to Croft, herself, on acoustic guitar a group of talented musicians contribute to making this album something special. The playing of Emlyn Vaughan on double bass, Rachel Brown on cello and Emily Lawler is particularly noteworthy.

Nicely packaged and beautifully illustrated the inside cover-art features some of Croft’s own striking black and white pen and ink work.

The album is not quite perfect. Some slightly weird production mars the second track Hear Me somewhat and the final track Can’t Replace Your Perfect, a big, soulful, gospel-tinged number stands up perfectly well on its own and certainly helps demonstrates the vocalist’s versatility but seems a little out of place here. Nonetheless, Hours Awake is a beautifully impressive debut from a talented vocalist, musician and songwriter.

Released: 8th February 2019

https://rachelcroftmusic.com/

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Book review: ‘Roots, Radical & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.

Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.

Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.

While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.

The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.

First published in 2017

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Folk/rock: album review – Crooked Weather ‘Are We Lost’

In spite of originating from the windswept landscape of East Yorkshire, you don’t need to spend very long at all listening to Crooked Weather to work out that the band’s spiritual home is so evidently the sun-blessed uplands of America’s west coast, circa 1969. Warm harmony vocals, catchy acoustic guitar melodies, delicious interjections on the slide guitar and that sunny laid-back country-meets-folk Americana vibe that combines musical intricacy with seemingly effortless execution, Are We Lost is an impressive and highly likeable album.

Based around the vocals and guitar playing of both Holly Blackshaw and Will Bladen, the duo are backed by a stellar cast of supporting musicians in the shape of of Rob Burgess, Beth Nicholson, Dave Tomlinson and Tom Skelly. Song-wise the album is mainly a vehicle for the talented writing of Bladen but there’s also a deeply lovely arrangement of the traditional English folk number ‘Hares On The Mountain’.

The album climaxes with Bladen and Blackshaw’s ‘Easy’ an undulating and dramatic slice of epic folk-rock which also serves as the band’s current single.

“Easy was one of those songs that just wrote itself and it’s hard to say where this kind of a song comes from. It had been fermenting away in the background for a while and ideas would come now and again when outside cutting the grass and things like that. Then one afternoon it pretty much came out fully formed. It’s probably best not spending too long thinking about where it came from,” says Bladen.

It’s not at all difficult to close your eyes and imagine these as summer festival favourites – and having had quite a few such appearances under their belts they will be well worth checking out if you have a chance to see them. And obviously, do check out this album, too.

Released: 12th April 2019

https://www.crookedweather.com/

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Folk: album review – Band of Burns ‘Live From The Union Chapel’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Originating out of the Burns Night gigs that ran at East London’s Wilton’s Music Hall for several years, Band of Burns came about when key members of the team (musicians Alastair Caplin and Dilar Vardar, and promoter Sophie Bostock) decided to put a more permanent touring outfit together. Featuring twelve musicians, this double live album was recorded at one of the band’s celebrated gigs at North London’s iconic Union Chapel and was released thanks to a successful crowdfunding appeal.

As the band’s origins and name suggests the influence of Scotland’s most celebrated poet casts a major presence over the entire project. It would be a mistake, however, to assume the album was focused solely on the work of Robert Burns.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume it was focused solely on the Scottish folk tradition either. Those involved in the Band of Burns come from a variety of different backgrounds and musical traditions, hailing from England, Wales and Ireland as well as Scotland and from as far afield as Turkey.

The result is a delightful collection of songs and tune sets from a fantastic array of musicians. From songs based on Burns’ own writing like My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, Now Westlin Winds and Parcel o’ Rogues, through to other traditional numbers like Banks of Red Roses as well as songs like Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, there will be much that many folk enthusiasts will be familiar with here. However, the range of voices, both male and female, together with the exceptional standards of musicianship has resulted in Band of Burns producing something very special here.

Moreover, it is definitely a collaboration that lends itself well to the live album format. Although overflowing with talent, it would be difficult to imagine the album having quite the same impact had the recording been studio-bound. The awed crowd reactions to the ballads and the rapturous responses to some of the tune sets wonderfully capture what must have been an incredible atmosphere in Union Chapel on the evening of 29th January 2017.

Although nicely packaged a little bit more information on the background to the song choices and the playing on each track would not have gone amiss. However, with information about both the sizeable number of musicians and the concert itself to cram in there is probably a limit to how much additional information can be squeezed in.

Two discs, twelve musicians and one magical night, Live From The Union Chapel is a wonderful celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns.

Released: Ord Ban Music  19th January 2018

https://www.bandofburns.com/

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Live review: Steeleye Span at St Mary the Virgin Church, Ashford 13/4/19

It’s 2019 and yet another band are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. That post beat-boom period of the late 60s to early 1970s was a period of exceptional creativity in popular music, perhaps unparalleled. From hard rock, glam rock, prog rock and, indeed, folk rock so many bands and styles made their mark and we are lucky to have a good number of them still touring today.

Steeleye Span are not resting on their laurels, however. This tour is about far more than a career retrospective from the band’s weighty back catalogue. The band have a new album out and songs from that are given as much prominence in the set as some of the old favourites. The album is not officially released until June but it’s available for sale on the tour so you can get a sneak preview via both the stage and the merch desk. In contrast to the epic prog-folk of the band’s Wintersmith album of a few years ago Est’d 1969 is very much in the spirit of the band’s ‘classic era’ early 70s albums, both in terms of song choices and overall sound. A version of Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’, an adaptation of John Masefield’s poem ‘Roadways’ and various traditional ballads from the album are among the songs performed tonight. Of course, there is room, too, for a good number of Steeleye Span favourites like ‘One Misty Moisty Morning, Alison Gross and Black Jack Davey. A new song, the beautiful ‘Reclaimed’ written by Prior’s daughter and sung a capella forms part of the encore, along with the ever-present ‘All Around My Hat’.

With a line-up that’s always been evolving only Maddy Prior remains from the band’s earliest days. Unlike those other veterans of the folk rock scene, Fairport Convention (whose fluctuating line-up has stabilised in recent decades), Steeleye Span continues to evolve. Jessie May Smart, who replaced long-standing fiddle player Peter Knight a few years ago, is currently on maternity leave so her place on this tour is ably filled by classical violinist Violeta Barrena. Lining up alongside Maddy Prior, the rest of the band’s current members are Julian Littman, Andrew Sinclair, Roger Carey, Liam Genockey and Benji Kirkpatrick. Talented players all, they bring a fantastic assortment of instruments, sounds and techniques with them, not to mention a rich array of voices.

Although rightly celebrated as icons of folk rock this band have always continued to vary their style, their set-list and, very often, their line-up from tour to tour which means there’s always an element of the unexpected and nearly always something very special to look forward to. Long may that continue.

Set-list

Harvest
One Misty Moisty Morning
The Elf Knight
The January Man
Alison Gross
Old Matron
Thomas The Rhymer
Tam Lin
Roadways
Black Jack Davy
Little Sir Hugh
The Weaver And The Factory Maid
King Henry
Seventeen Come Sunday
Domestic
Reclaimed
All Around My Hat

http://steeleyespan.org.uk/

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Related reviews:

Steeleye Span live 2017

Interview with Julian Littman

Steeleye Span live 2015

Steeleye Span live 2014

 

 

Live review: The Story of The Blues at The Printworks Hastings 21/3/19

Tonight’s The Story of the Blues tells the tale of one of Black America’s most celebrated and influential contributions to popular music through a combination of archive film footage, spoken narration and live performance. Put together by Hastings’ own Green River Blues Band, the town’s Printworks venue is absolutely packed out for them.

Having a fascination with this genre, both in its original country blues acoustic format and its later electrified form (not to mention the influence it had on both American rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and the British beat groups of the 60s) this was always going to be a must-see for me as soon as I saw it advertised. I was a little worried that if the band didn’t quite get the tone right that, however accomplished they are as players, we might end up with something that ends up being over-romanticised and shall we say a little saccharine Opening with Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit ‘Working On The Chain Gang’ I thought we may be at risk of going down this route but any notions that they might not pull this off are soon dispelled. Narrator Jonathan Linsley talks us through the early roots of the blues starting with the shameful brutality of the slave era and the spirited songs of defiance that arose from that. The film footage that plays on the screen behind reveals a highly moving montage of images, from the almost impossible to absorb images of slave-sale stores on US high streets through to footage of some of the heroes of the emerging blues scene in action. The six-piece Green River Blues Band deliver a passionate and skillfully-played set taking us through early songs like ‘Take This Hammer’ and ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’ through to later songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Between songs narrator, Jonathan Linsley gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the performers like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson.

After a short interval and the band are back one stage, the acoustic guitars now being replaced with electric. Now we move later into the mid-twentieth century, the band presenting us with timeless classics like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. Of course, though these remain well-known classics today by the 1960s many of the songs, and certainly many of the performers, had fallen into obscurity – until, of course, picked up, adapted and re-popularised by a bunch of middle-class white boys on the other side of the Atlantic. The show touches on this and clearly this was the entry-point for where the blues came into the lives of the guys on stage tonight.

The show celebrates the songs and those who created and performed them while pulling no punches in terms of the poverty, the hardship and, often, the brutality of the environment that the blues sprang out of. A moving and passionate celebration of the genre the biggest surprise is possibly that this is not some slickly-produced show that regularly tours the country but that tonight is strictly a one-off, put together out of love with all profits going to a local good cause.

If the Story of The Blues were to be rolled out beyond a one-off night in Hastings Printworks, however, I am absolutely certain it would find appreciative audiences in many venues. The Story of The Blues is a genuine triumph for those who put this together.

https://www.facebook.com/Greenriverbandpage2016/

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Folk: album review – Dan Rauchwerk ‘We Are More Than What We Leave Behind’

Part of New York-base folk band The Lords of Liechtenstein, the harmony vocals of Dan Rauchwerk, in tandem with his brother Noah, have hitherto drawn comparisons with the Everlys. Now he’s doing a Don (or is it a Phil?) and branching out into a solo career. We Are More Than We Leave Behind represents Rauchwerk’s first album released under his own name.

Witty, quick-fire, thought-provoking lyrics reveal a real gift for storytelling. Whether real or imagined we are introduced to some intriguing and compelling characters in Rachwerk’s quirky ten-song alternative history lesson. Mrs McLaughlin is cautionary tale about war and young men signing up but rather than ending in death and mourning like so many folk songs it finishes with the would-be soldier’s mother visiting the recruiting sergeant to give him a piece of her mind. Victoria, meanwhile, “a devil to the Irish, grandmother to the Czar” is a wry look at the legacy of empire.

There is an attractive quirkiness to the music, too, with Rauchwerk’s collection of old instruments including a vintage parlour guitar, an oversized mandola and an Irish button accordeon all being heard on the album. Kyle Joseph on bass guitars and keyboards, Sam Kestenbaum on keyboards, and Spencer Inch on bodhran and assorted percussion assist Rauchwerk, along with Caitlin Mahoney on additional vocals.

Strong melodies and captivating lyrics, We Are More Than What We Leave Behind provides a modern and endearing take on traditional folk storytelling.

Released: December 2018

https://danrauchwerk.com/

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Singer songwriter: album review – Mike Silver ‘Alchemy: Fifty Years In Song’

The independent label Folkstock has had an enviable record in bringing young up and coming artists like Kelly Oliver to wider attention. Here, however, Folkstock give us a 16-track career retrospective of singer-songwriter Mike Silver.

As the press blurb itself notes: “Despite a few brushes with national media, Mike has remained the preserve of the initiated.” Such brief brushes include a session for Bob Harris on Radio 1 in the 70’s and airplay on radio 2 for his 2003 song ‘Not a Matter of Pride’ but I must admit Silver had completely bypassed my radar. It’s to the credit of Helen Meissner’s Folkstock label, therefore, in aiming to redress that.

Learning to play guitar at a young age, successfully auditioning for a place in John ‘Johnny Remember Me’ Leyton’s backing band at 16 but turning it down for the security of the South Eastern Gas Board instead, Silver eventually found his artistic calling and re-invented himself as an acoustic singer-songwriter in 1969.

Mike Silver for BBC profile

This compilation therefore marks Silver’s fifty years in this guise and is a fitting celebration of his undoubted talents as both a songwriter and performer. Some beautifully intricate guitar work, thought-provoking lyrics and a warm and engaging vocal delivery make Alchemy: Fifty Years In Song a pleasure to listen to.

Personally selected by Silver, the tracks span from 1984 through to 2012 (Were there licensing issues with accessing the earlier material or has Silver simply made a personal preference for songs from his later era?) Highlights include the addictively catchy ‘Walk Away’, the self-pitying sing-along drinking song ‘Oh Doctor’ and the poignant and beautifully played ‘Breaking the Silence’ reflecting on the plight of Europe’s Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s.

A fine singer-songwriter and something of an unsung hero these past few decades, Mike Silver and his Alchemy compilation are well worth checking out by anyone with an interest in the acoustic singer-songwriter genre.

Released by Folkstock Records 26th March 2019

http://mikesilver.co.uk/

Alchemy cover art Mike Silver

Photo credit: artist publicity

Folk: album review – Julie Felix ‘Rock Me Goddess’

Although born and brought up in the US Julie Felix made the UK at home and established herself as a folk singer of repute in the mid 1960s, embracing the hippy scene and being a regular fixture on TV screens. Now aged 80, Felix is still singing and recording.

A personal message in the album’s sleeve-notes is all star signs, goddesses and mother earth, accompanied by a picture, of course, of a serene-looking Felix in the lotus position. You suspect her spiritual home, in time and in place, will forever be located somewhere equidistant between Woodstock and Greenham Common. No-one but no-one, however, should doubt the sincerity of Felix’s message nor the importance of the themes she tackles. Songs about ecological destruction, war, peace, power and love loom large, the anger and the hope embodied in the lyrics more relevant and certainly more urgent than ever before.

Woman, with its heartfelt message of female empowerment, is Felix’s perspective on the rise #MeToo movement. Tiger Eyes, meanwhile, takes on modern consumer culture and includes some amazing guitar soloing from guest guitarist, Doug Nofsinger. Amongst the other guests, Peter Knight (Steeleye Span, Gigspanner) provides some beautiful violin on three tracks, including a cover of Knight’s own Lullaby Kiss.

The protest singer personified, today’s world has not left Julie Felix any shortage of issues to protest about. Rock Me Goddess sees her in fine voice continuing to speak (or at least sing) truth to power.

Released: October 2018 by Talking Elephant

https://www.juliefelix.co.uk/

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