Tag Archives: folk

Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & 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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Folk: album review – Dan Rauchwerk ‘We Are More Than What We Leave Behind’

This review was published in the Summer 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

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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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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Live review: Seth Lakeman at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill 7/3/19

This review was originally published by The Stinger here

It doesn’t seem too long ago that Seth Lakeman was being hotly-tipped as one of the young rising stars of the contemporary folk scene and, back in 2005, was being nominated for the Mercury Prize. Now in his early forties and a father of three, but still maintaining those boy-band good looks, he’s become one of the folk scene’s seasoned figures and has no problem packing out the De La Warr.

For this tour he’s supported by singer-songwriter, Carus Thompson. The singer/guitarist does a nice line in Aussie-flavoured Americana, including a love song that was inspired by playing in a maximum security German prison. Once part of Australian folk/country band Carus & The True Believers, Thompson’s music is well worth checking out.

Lakeman has the audience onside from the first song and takes us on a thrilling but thoroughly modern folk-rock romp. The set-list includes material from his 2018 album The Well Worn Path, as well as highlights from across his now-considerable back-catalogue – both traditional and self-composed.

Set highlights include ‘The Educated Man’, a song from the new album which is surely destined to be an audience favourite for many years to come. Another favourite is ‘Portrait of My Wife’ a traditional ballad that Lakeman initially performed as part of the Full English folk collaboration back in 2013. It’s just Lakeman and his fiddle right at the front of the stage for this – the band and even the microphone are dispensed with. The impact is stunning and the crowd join in the song’s chorus of ‘raise your glass to the one you love’.

Accompanying Lakeman, who alternates variously between fiddle and acoustic guitar, are Kit Hawes on guitar, Ben Nichols on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums. Nichols’ bass playing produces a deep and powerful sound and Jenkins’ drumming really gives the band that folk rock oomph. However, it’s the interplay between Lakeman and Hawes that proves crucial to the dynamic on stage tonight. Whether it’s acoustic guitar versus electric, banjo versus acoustic, electric versus fiddle or acoustic versus fiddle it’s never less than totally captivating and the sound from the two musicians is glorious.

Lakeman tells us we’re the best audience of the tour so far and the band are clearly delighted with the response they get from the De La Warr tonight.

I volunteer for this project called Gig Buddies which is about giving adults with a learning disability opportunities to have an independent social life and I invited my gig buddy, Glenn, along to accompany me to this gig. The final verdict on Seth Lakeman’s performance tonight, therefore, goes to Glenn and he writes: “I enjoyed seeing Seth Lakeman and I love his songs. He was fantastic and I got to meet him afterwards.”

(Additional reporting by Glenn Harris)

https://www.sethlakeman.co.uk/

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Related reviews:

Seth Lakeman at Folk by the Oak 2014

Folk: album review – Gerry O’Connor ‘Last Night’s Joy’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Acclaimed County Louth musician Gerry ’Fiddle’ O’Connor is a fourth-generation fiddle-player, has several decades of playing behind him and has worked with Irish folk outfits Lá Lugh and Skylark, releasing albums with both, besides a range of other collaborations. Last Night’s Joy is O’Connor’s second solo album, following up 2004’s Journeyman.

Across the album’s eleven instrumental tracks O’Connor displays his incredible versatility and virtuosity. The majority of the tunes forming each set are traditional, although there are a handful that have been composed in more modern times. Together, they each take us on a journey through a wonderfully spirited mix of styles, tempos, moods and emotions.

Meticulously sourced, the detailed sleeve-notes for Last Night’s Joy give a fascinating insight into the background to each of the tunes, The listener is therefore provided with little gems like the following, for the delicious tune-set The Old Dash Churn: “The collector Brendan Breathnach recorded County Louth fiddler Peter McArdle in Mark McLoughlin’s Bar in Dundalk in 1971. Apparently, due to time and resource constraints, he asked Peter to play only his more unusual tunes and these double jigs were learned from that recording.”

The haunting Bádaí na Scadáín with gentle piano accompaniment from O’Connor’s son Dónal, originates from the song of the same name telling the story of a father searching for his three fisherman sons lost at sea. Even without words none of the sadness is lost in this beautiful, mournful rendition which is one of the album’s real highlights.

Along with O’Connor’s son, the album also features luminaries of the Irish music scene including Séamie O’Dowd, Niall Hanna, Neil Martin and Seán Óg Graham among others. O’Connor’s namesake Gerry ’Banjo’ O’Connor also appears on one track, the punningly titled StereO Connor, for a set of gloriously energetic American polkas.

Anyone with a love for Irish traditional music and for vibrant, expressive fiddle-playing will, indeed, find this album a joy.

Released on Lughnasa Music on 1 October 2018

https://www.gerryoconnor.net/

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Live review: Cara Dillon at the Birley Centre, Eastbourne 21/2/19

From ‘She’s Like The Swallow’ from her very first album released, incredibly, some eighteen years ago through to songs from her 2017 album The Wanderer, folk singer Cara Dillon treats the audience to a beautiful and varied selection of songs tonight.

I’ve enjoyed seeing Dillon performing live several times now, the last occasion being at Hastings’ St Mary In The Castle with a full band. Tonight, however, it’s just Dillon, her voice, a little bit of Irish whistle-playing and her husband and musical partner, Sam Lakeman, accompanying her on piano and acoustic guitar. There’s nothing bare-bones and basic about tonight’s performance, though, nor indeed about the setting. The ultra-modern Birley Centre theatre space at the private Eastbourne College, lavishly equipped with a Steinway grand piano, is clearly a gift for Lakeman to perform at tonight, as he compares the Steinway to some of the more battered instruments he’s had to play on elsewhere on the tour.

Whether it’s her interpretations of traditional songs or her own writing, Dillon’s Irish roots and County Derry upbringing are never far from the surface. ‘The Leaving’ is a song she wrote about the tradition of what was once known as ‘the living wake’, she tells us, where relatives would make merry until the early hours to say their farewells, not to a deceased relative but to one emigrating to America, very often never to be seen again. It’s a beautiful, emotive song but an even more poignant moment comes with her rendition of the Troubles-era song ‘There Were Roses’ about two boys, one catholic one protestant, who were both murdered in tit-for-tat killings back in the 70s. Dillon promises not to go on about Brexit but, as she introduces the song, very movingly talks of the threats to the peace process and the crushing of feelings of hope and optimism amongst young people that the current Irish border issues throw up back in her home town. Inviting the audience to join in the chorus, which we all do in our gentle, quiet, thoughtful way – adds to the poignance.

Another especially moving moment in the evening comes about with Dillon’s rendition of the song ‘Lakeside Swans’ from her latest album The Wanderer, which she was inspired to write as a result of the refugee crisis and seeing those awful images of the drowned little Syrian boy on the beach that appeared on the front pages of every newspaper a few years ago.

Always a mixture of beautiful singing, emotive lyrics and captivating performance an evening with Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman on stage is never less than something very, very special. Eastbourne tonight demonstrates their ability to pull this off once again.

http://www.caradillon.co.uk/

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Related reviews:

Cara Dillon at Cropredy 2014
Cara Dillon at Hastings 2016

Folk: album review – John Smith ‘Hummingbird’

This review was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Two years after recording the album Headlong in Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio, John Smith returned to lay down another new album. Unlike the former, however, which was built around Smith’s song-writing, Hummingbird is very much about celebrating traditional songs and paying tribute to the artists like John Renbourn, John Martyn and Bert Jansch who inspired Smith in the first place. Six of the album’s ten tracks are traditional songs with one cover version and three original numbers.

Less is more was the motto that Smith and Lakeman adopted while making the album. “A folk song’s clarity of purpose is exactly the reason why it has been played in pubs, living rooms and concert halls for hundreds of years,” says Smith. Indeed, this approach has absolutely paid off. Shorn of the typical embellishments we might have come to expect on a modern-day folk album there is beauty and simplicity in the the delivery that gives the lyrics in songs like Hares On The Mountain and Lord Franklin a real resonance.

The lone cover is Anna Briggs’ The Time Has Come which Smith first heard, like many readers will have done, on a Bert Jansch and John Renbourn album. Smith’s three original songs, like the beautiful title track, stand sympathetically alongside the much older material.

A gifted guitarist, a unique vocalist and an impassioned interpreter of traditional material, if John Smith has made this album for his musical heroes then he’s done them proud.

Released: October 2018

https://www.johnsmithjohnsmith.com/

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Folk: album review – The Trials of Cato ‘Hide and Hair’

This review was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Energetic, innovative and dynamic the press blurb hailing Trials Of Cato as a band that “arrived fully formed” is not just PR hype in this instance. Hide & Hair is a bona fide sweep-you-off-your-feet debut. The three young men from Yorkshire and North Wales met in Beirut while teaching, quickly enthused audiences in Lebanon and arrived back in the UK two years ago. With Hide & Hair they deliver us a lovely blend of mandolin, banjo, bouzouki and guitar, their stunning instrumentation and rich harmonising vocals breathing new life into traditional songs and tunes.

Older songs like My Love’s In Germany, the seventeenth century window’s lament for a fallen soldier, and Tom Paine’s Bones, Graham Moore’s rousing anthem for rights and liberty, rub shoulders with new songs like the equally rousing These Are The Things. Of the instrumental pieces Difyrrwch is the band’s arrangement of three traditional Welsh and English melodies while Kadisha is their own composition inspired and named after a valley in northern Lebanon.

The trio are Robin Jones (mandolin/tenor banjo/vocals), William Addison (Irish bouzouki/vocals) and Tomos Williams (guitar/vocals) with Addison and Jones alternating lead vocal duties across the album.

Few debuts have as much vitality and impact as this one and they have already been receiving plaudits from the likes of the BBC’s Mark Radcliffe who has lauded them as “one of the real discoveries on the folk circuit in recent times”. We shall certainly be hearing a lot more of The Trials Of Cato.

Released: November 2018

https://thetrialsofcato.com/

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