Tag Archives: book review

Book review: ‘Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales’ by Jackie Lees & KG Miles

While not an obsessive fan (I have a greatest hits CD and a copy of Highway 61 Revisited in my collection but that’s all I’m afraid) Bob Dylan’s presence has loomed large in the history of many of the bands, such as Fairport Convention and The Byrds, that  I am pretty obsessive about. Moreover, many of the music biographies I have read make frequent references to Dylan’s sundry visits to London in the early to mid-1960s – both in terms of the impact he had on London’s folk and nascent rock scenes and vice versa.

Given what a pivotal figure Dylan is then, the idea of having a proper contextual overview rather than relying on what I’ve pieced together through a series of fleeting appearances in other people’s biographies was therefore appealing.

‘Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales’ begins with his first visit to London in the Winter of 1962. We start off in the King and Queen pub in Fitzrovia, where Dylan made his first live appearance in London, and take in iconic folk-scene venues such as the Pindar of Wakefield (now the Water Rats) in Kings Cross, home of Ewan MacColl’s Singers’ Club, and the Troubadour in Earls Court.

One might assume that the remaining chapters would take us on similarly meandering detours of the capital for each of Dylan’s subsequent visits. However, ‘Bob Dylan in London’ is as much guide-book as it is biography and the publication is generally arranged geographically rather than strictly chronologically and includes a 16-page colour sections with maps and illustrations.

Two long-time Dylan devotees, Jackie Lees and KG Miles, take us through several decades of Dylan in London, bringing to life the writer/performer’s presence in a series of locations through a mixture of contemporary concert reviews, anecdotes from fellow artists and recollections from audience members, with some of their own personal memories thrown in for good measure. At one point we even get to hear from a homeowner whose Crouch End property was on the market and Dylan’s early 80s visit as a prospective buyer is recalled.

The most fascinating parts of the book, however, are the ones where Dylan was at his creative and commercial peak in the 1960s. Insightful anecdotes from this period abound, including Donovan and Joan Baez in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room helping him write out the cue cards for the iconic trailer for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, filmed in a nearby alleyway off The Strand called Savoy Steps.

The recollections do not always put Dylan in a favourable light. The treatment of Joan Baez on a 1965 tour leaves a particularly unpleasant taste. However, this short, concise book is highly readable, entertaining and informative. Anyone with an interest in London’s musical heritage and Dylan’s artistic legacy will find much to enjoy here.

Published: March 2021 by McNidder & Grace

https://mcnidderandgrace.com/bobdylaninlondon

Book review: ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ by Dr Rob Brosh

When an American academic, Dr Rob Brosh of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, got in touch to see if I was interested in reviewing the textbook he had written for music students, my first thought was, “Why me?” I play music all day long but can’t hold a tune for the life of me. I read about music, write about music and think about music but have never had any pretensions to being a musician and barely know one end of an instrument to another. Music history always fascinates me, however, so I emailed Rob back and told him I’d be very interested in reading his book.

In the pre-internet days I used to devour rock encyclopaedias – books like The NME Book of Rock, The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Seventies Music and The All-Music Guide To Rock. Huge, lengthy tomes that I would constantly dipping in and out of to find out background information on bands and artists that I was newly discovering. There’s something about the old rock encyclopaedia format in Brosh’s book but rather than an A-to-Z directory this book takes us through the evolution of rock music genre by genre.

I found ‘Rock History: the Musician’s Perspective’ absolutely gripping and read it cover to cover. It does three main things.

Firstly, it gives us a detailed overview of the vast range of music genres that fall within the canon of rock music and how each developed from the development of rock and roll itself, through blues rock, psychedelia, hard rock, folk rock, punk rock and many, many more. What I thought came across brilliantly in the early part of the book is the dynamics of how successive waves of musicians in the US and the UK influenced one another, sending new musical trends back and forth across the Atlantic as rock music involved from its earliest foundations.

Secondly, it gives us a concise but fascinating overview of many of the key artists within each of those genres, for example detailing how bands came together, how they developed their own style and giving us some memorable highlights from their careers. The fact that it’s arranged by genre rather than artist obviously makes it a little trickier to look up individual artists than the old encyclopaedia format did, but the internet has largely rendered that format obsolete now I guess anyway. However, it more than makes up for that by being able to place the evolution of individual artists into the wider context of the evolution of key genres and styles. I was definitely picking up new insights in this way and learning new facts so it’s obviously going to be a great resource for students.

The third thing the book does is focus in on particular songs, providing insights into the structure of them and how certain sounds were achieved. This last element is where you get the musician’s perspective and while some of it went over my head as a non-musician most of it didn’t! I definitely learnt a lot and ended up playing many of the songs that were being discussed in detail and it all started making a lot of sense.

This decidedly non-musician’s review of a musician’s perspective on the history of rock music is therefore a very positive one. Highly recommended.

Published by DDG Publishing, 2018

Book review: ‘How To Think Like David Bowie’ by Jonathan Tindale

I’m generally more one for Viz Top Tips than anything approaching self-help literature but when I was offered the chance to review a book entitled  ‘How To Think Like David Bowie – Habits of mind for leading a more creative and successful life’ my curiosity was piqued.

By sheer coincidence the book arrived in the post about thirty minutes before I was due to head off on a trip to Essex with former Bowie guitarist, Kevin Armstrong, who had worked with Bowie on Absolute Beginners and Tin Machine and played with him at Live Aid. I hadn’t even had time to open the book before he arrived but I mentioned it to a bemused Kevin on the journey up to Colchester and asked for his thoughts. “I think there’s very few people who ever really knew what David Bowie was thinking,” was Kevin’s response, saying that Bowie was always welcoming and warm-hearted but rarely shared his inner thought processes, concentrating very much on the task in hand and getting the best out of everyone present.

In the book itself, Kevin Armstrong’s own sentiments are very much echoed by an earlier collaborator, Rick Wakeman, whose recollections of recording ‘Space Oddity’ back in 1969 are reproduced in the book:

“He was always incredibly prepared in the studio. He never wrote in the studio; everything was already done. He was always what he called ‘75% prepared’. You’d go in and he’d get the piece that far, and then the studio would take it that extra 25%.”

So does author, Jonathan Tindale, really attempt to get inside the head of Bowie and tell us how to think like him? In truth, although the book references Jung and Myers- Briggs and ‘The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and it’s more philosophy than psychology. Bowie’s approaches to numerous projects throughout his five-decade career are analysed, dissected and cross-referenced and various life lessons drawn from them. Tindale, whose previous publications have included travel writing and parenting, draws on a wide range of Bowie-related sources to derive a number of key lessons from Bowie’s career.

Arranged across twelve chapters, themes include Bowie’s individuality, his work ethic, his approach to creative collaborations and his attitude to the business side of things. The book is not a long read but it’s well referenced and entertaining and avoids falling into the cult-like demagogic devotion that some of the more hagiographic pieces written after his death have fallen victim to. Moreover, it doesn’t shy away from looking at some of Bowie’s flaws and the odd creative troughs in his career as well as the many peaks. Quirky and thought-provoking How To Think Like David Bowie will be of interest to more than just the most hardened Bowie devotee.

Published: 18th June 2021 and available to order here

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Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

The Sweet versus Bowie: the riff in Blockbuster and Jean Genie – origins a influences

Mike Garson performs Aladdin Sane at Birmingham O2 2017

Holy Holy at Shepherd’s Bush Empire 2017

Holy Holy perform The Man Who Sold The World & Ziggy Stardust De La Warr Pavilion 2019

Book review: ‘Noise Damage – My Life as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Underdog’ by James Kennedy

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

I’ve not just got a passing interest in rock autobiographies. I positively devour them. Pretty much anyone I admire who puts one out these days will tend to end up on my reading list sharpish. Usually, though, it’s people whose careers I follow, whose albums I buy and whose concerts I go to. James Kennedy is none of these. I was vaguely aware of his former band Kyshera but they were around at a time when I was insanely busy in my work life and any downtime would be spent listening to familiar favourites rather than seeking out new bands. To be honest I had to google Kyshera to give myself any idea of what they sounded like or, indeed, who the aforementioned Mr Kennedy actually is. His memoir turned out to be every bit as gripping as those of my heroes, however.

Born in 1980, Kennedy is a talented kid from a poor background in South Wales. “I am thankful for having cultured, lefty, weed-smoking atheists for parents, continually blasting out Pink Floyd, Zappa, Kate Bush and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he shares with us, nicely dispelling those tedious one-dimensional caricatures of working class culture that are constantly being sold to us by Red Wall-chasing Tory politicians these days.

Kennedy then finds himself entering a world of professional music at a time when the traditional industry model as we knew it was rapidly imploding. He is not one to get nostalgic for the old ways, however. Fairly early on in the book he sets out his stall thus:

“We have the ability to create, record, produce, release and promote our art, all from our bedroom with no interference, censorship or bullshit from any third parties, and share it with the world for hardly any cost. How we make any money doing this is the new problem.”

The subsequent two-thirds of Noise Damage is then pretty much devoted to that very problem of not making any money. From heinous scams by criminal promoters to unfeasible hours holding down a multiplicity of jobs Kennedy paints a detailed picture of a life that, while bursting with creativity, friendship and critical acclaim on the one hand, gets worn down by years of grim conditions, constant back-stabbings and an absence of anything approaching stability on the other.

The book is an absolute must-read for anyone attempting a career in music (certainly anyone without wealthy parents or an independent income). However, there’s enough self-reflection, critical evaluation and good-natured humility to make this a genuinely powerful testimony on a highly personal level. Noise Damage is Kennedy’s first book. Let’s finally hope he makes some money out of it.

Published 18th October 2020 by Eye Books

http://eye-books.com/books/noise-damage

‘Confess’ by Rob Halford – a gay heavy metal fan reviews the Metal God’s autobiography

I’ve read enough rock autobiographies over the years to know the score: boy from working class background, boy joins a band, struggles along for a few years, makes it big, fame, alcohol and/or drug addiction, groupies galore, several wives, numerous girlfriends, sobriety, reflection and, finally, publishing deal. Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford’s ‘Confess’, however, is a rock confessional with a difference. The wives and girlfriends are notable by their absence and Halford tells his tale as an out and proud gay man.

As someone who became a Judas Priest fan not long after my dad brought home a newly-released copy of ‘British Steel’ back when I was a young teenager, and as someone who has known they were gay from around that same time I was particularly keen to read Halford’s memoir.

Halford’s down-to-earth-working class upbringing in Walsall is easy to identify with. Coincidentally, although the two have never met, he lived just a couple of streets away from Noddy Holder’s family home, another musical hero of mine. Indeed, many of the place names were already familiar to me from Holder’s own autobiography. (The pub that Halford mentions as the location of his local bus stop as a kid is the same pub where the classic Slade foursome held their first ever rehearsal – trivia fans).

As Halford starts to metamorphosis from council estate kid to heavy metal rock god I certainly felt a sense of exhilaration as his dreams are achieved – such as the era-defining success of that iconic British Steel album, for example.

For much of the book, though, I also felt a sense of immense sadness. This paragraph, where he reflects on the state of his life in 1980 – by which time he was in his late 20s – is a telling one:

“It was five years since I’d been seeing Jason. Apart from the odd snatched random fumble I had been alone ever since… not just alone but forced to supress my longings, my needs, myself.”

When I think back to my own life at that stage, I had already met my partner. We’d bought a flat and been living together for several years by then. I was born fifteen years after Halford and my modest brush with life in the public eye never obliged me to hide my own sexuality. However, it’s not difficult to really grasp the pain and evident loneliness that Halford was going through. He does eventually find personal as well as professional fulfilment albeit that there are dysfunctional relationships, tragedy addiction along the way.

There is also a fair bit of revelatory gossip and down to earth black country humour to keep the reader entertained. However, there are a many segments that are deeply, deeply moving, too: Halford’s obvious joy at the emotions he experiences performing sober for the first time, the palpable relief he feels when he first publicly comes out back in the late 90s and the excitement he feels reuniting with Priest in the early 00s.

‘Confess’ does not always make for easy reading. There is a real sadness to parts of it but Rob Halford’s warmth and humanity shine through. Absolutely one of the best rock biogs in ages.

Published: Headline Publishing 29th September 2020

Related posts:

Album review : Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls

Live review: Judas Priest at Brixton Academy 2015

Live review: Les Binks’ Priesthood at Minehead 2020

Book review: ‘Chasing Shadows – The Search for Rod Evans: Deep Purple’s original singer’ by Adrian Jarvis

Part biography, part rock ‘n’ roll travelogue and part love-letter in celebration of a teenage musical obsession, I enjoyed Adrian Jarvis’s ‘Chasing Shadows’. Subtitled ‘The Search for Rod Evans’ – the elusive lead singer from the very first line-up of Deep Purple back in the late 1960s – you could be forgiven for thinking it all starts sounding a bit obsessive and stalkerish.

But the book is not really like that at all. For a start, Jarvis is not particularly obsessed with the mysterious Mr Evans, who dropped out of the music businesses in the early 70s, reappeared in 1980 fronting a bogus Deep Purple, was sued by his erstwhile bandmates and promptly disappeared again. The author is certainly a huge fan of Deep Purple in all of their various guises (or “Marks”) over the years but he is open about what he sees as the limitations of Evans’ vocal style and lyric-writing abilities in comparison to his successors and Jarvis’s curiosity about the singer’s whereabouts is more about a symbolic missing piece in the jigsaw of the band he loves rather than an unfathomable obsession with Evans per se.

The “search” takes us down a number of unexpected and meandering routes, some of them with only the most tenuous connections to Evans himself. But it remains an entertaining read nevertheless. Moreover, as someone of a similar age to the author (ie one who was way too young to get into heavy rock/metal during its first wave in the late 60/early 70s but who was to discover an affection for those older bands via the New Wave of British Heavy Metal [NWOBHM] boom a decade later) there is much in this tale that I can relate to.

Published by Wymer Publishing 2017

Related reviews:

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Glenn Hughes, Bexhill 2019

Glenn Hughes, London 2015

Deep Purple, London 2015

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Birmingham 2017

Whitesnake – The Purple Album

Book review: ‘All Around My Hat – The Steeleye Span Story’ by John Van Der Kiste

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.

Published by Fonthill Media 5th December 2019

https://www.fonthill.media/products/all-around-my-hat-the-steeleye-span-story

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Related posts:

Interview with Maddy Prior

Interview with Julian Littman

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Ashford 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2017

Review: Steeleye Span, London 2015

Review: Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival 2014

 

Book review: ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ by Tom Kitching

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

Seasons -Of-Change-book

Related posts:

Tom Kitching – Seasons of Change – album review

Pilgrims’ Way – Stand and Deliver 

Gavin Davenport & Tom Kitching at Warwick Folk Festival

 

 

Book review: ‘On Track: Hawkwind – every album, every song’ by Duncan Harris

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

‘Hawkwind – every album, every song’ is another volume in Sonicbond’s ‘On Track’ series, this time taking on the Herculean task of documenting the prolific adventures of Dave Brock’s gang of space rockers in the recording studio over the past five decades.

Author, Duncan Harris, takes us on an album-by-album, track-by-track tour of every Hawkwind studio album, from the folk, busky and “startlingly melodic but totally unrepresentative ‘Hurry On Sundown’ (the opening track on the band’s eponymous 1970 debut) through to ‘The Fantasy of Faldum’ (the “sprawling, acoustic rock-based finale” of their most recent 2019 album ‘All Aboard The Skylark’).

Harris is never short of an opinion on any of Hawkwind’s vast output and his pithy one-paragraph assessments take us through the highs (‘Master Of The Universe’ from 1971′s ‘In Search Of Space’ is “the jewel” “the definitive Hawkwind song”) and the lows (‘Turner Point’ from 1982′s ‘Choose Your Masques’ is “by universal common consent… the worst piece of so-called music ever officially released under the name Hawkwind”).

The publication, of course, includes Harris’s take on the actual hit single ‘Silver Machine’ (“once the swirling fluttering synthesisers are removed, turns out to be somewhat bland rock and roll more suited to the 1950s than the 1970s”) as well as ‘Quark, Strangeness and Charm’ “the hit single that never was but should have been” (“a bouncy new wave tune that suggests Squeeze were avid listeners”).

Besides all the officially-released studio albums, Harris also includes a handful of essential live albums and a couple of albums from Hawkwind spin-off projects, giving us a grand total of thirty-two albums being pored over.

The book is also a hive of information about the band’s ever-fluctuating personnel and shifting musical direction.

Rather than simply giving us a standard intro piece to each album, as other authors in the series have done, Harris also groups the albums into eras representing different phases in the band’s evolutionary history. This allows for some additional context-setting over a defined period rather than each album simply being looked at as a momentary snapshot in time.

Accordingly, we get the Dawn of The Hawks era covering the early days, The Day of The Hawks era covering the Lemmy period as well as later phases such as the band went through new wave of heavy metal influenced and techno-dance influenced stages, for example.

A fascinating well-researched book written by someone who, although you definitely won’t agree with him on everything, clearly has an unquenchable passion for the band and a detailed knowledge of its history. While Harris’s book has not filled me with a desire to seek out every Hawkwind album ever recorded I certainly came away with renewed respect and genuine affection for this most remarkable of bands.

Published: Sonicbond Publishing 26th March 2020

Hawkwind every

Related reviews:

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Hawkwind at The Old Market, Hove 2014

Book review: ‘On Track: Fairport Convention – every album, every song’ by Kevan Furbank

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

The ‘On Track’ series by publishers Sonic Bond provides an album by album, track by track overview of a number of artists. The latest in the series to get this treatment are British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention. Author, Kevan Furbank, takes us on a fascinating journey through each of the band’s thirty studio album’s, from 1968’s self-titled debut to this year’s Shuffle and Go.

Each entry begins with a factual summary of personnel, recording information and release dates, followed by a brief potted history the album’s genesis and the band’s fortunes at the time it was recorded. That is then followed by Furbank’s review of each track. Having read a fair few books on folk-rock, Fairport and some of their leading personnel, most of the history was familiar to me. However, Furbank really comes into his own with his pithy and usually very insightful track by track reviews. And what he’s superb at doing is capturing the familiar styles of different Fairport personnel as well as some of the band’s most used external songwriters. ‘Tale In Hard Time’ one of Richard Thompson’s early songs on 1969’s What We Did On Our Holiday, for example, is thus introduced as “another of Richard’s gloomy/jaunty songs, an upbeat rhythmic number with slit-your-wrists lyrics” beautifully summing up a whole canon of classic Thompson output.

Furbank is also meticulous at pointing out where the band have returned to a song, as they have done on frequent occasions, and making comparisons with the earlier versions – or highlighting where the band have returned to a similar lyrical theme or musical arrangement in a different song. So if, like me, you were thinking I’m sure they’ve recycled that Eddie Cochran riff for one of those fifties rock n roll – meets trad folk song mash-ups just once too often, this book will tell you exactly which song and which album they tried it on first and where (perhaps unwisely) they thought it was a good idea to try it again.

I read the book over a single weekend, often playing the relevant albums as I turned the pages. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s critical insights even if I did not always agree them. For those familiar with Fairport Convention’s history this will be a fascinating sit-down read, as well as a really useful reference for the future. However, if you are a Fairport fan looking to learn more this shouldn’t be the first book you read on the band. Start with Clinton Heylin’s ‘What We Did Instead Of Holidays’ or Mark Eden’s ‘Electric Eden’ or the band’s own authorised biography first and you will enjoy what this book has to offer all the more.

Published 26 March 2020 by Sonic Bond

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Related reviews:

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Fairport Convention at Union Chapel 2014

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Album review – Fairport Convention ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’

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Album review – Richard Thompson ‘Acoustic Classics’

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