PATRICIA VONNE – Top Of The Mountain (MIG 20182 CD)

Top Of The MountainPatricia Vonne releases Top Of The Mountain, her seventh album on March 23rd. It’s got a variety of styles, which is both its strength and weakness. At times, it’s a little way from the kind of music that is at the core of but I’ve enjoyed playing the album, which has an energy to it that I imagine makes Vonne and her band a great live act.

Vonne comes from San Antonio and describes herself as ninth generation Tejana. Top Of The Mountain reflects the mix of influences that she has grown with: rock, folk, flamenco, bilingual tex-mex, Latin, and predominantly has a rock band sound behind the songs. The opening track ‘Citadel’ has an air of late 80’s/early 90’s rock; the second track ‘City is Alive’ has a dirty grunge lead guitar to reflect the lyrics; ‘Illuminaria’ is sung in Spanish to another lively rock beat with lead played not just on the high notes, but also with occasional bass lead a la Duane Eddy; the title track is so catchy I’ve struggled to get it out of my head; ‘Lil Lobo’ will probably have audiences dancing in the clubs to its heavy beat. See what I mean about the album? – it’s great fun but it’s not traditional folk or folk-rock.

There are elements of Americana, though – particularly since the next track reminded me to keep to a wider understanding of the Americana genre. Madre de Perla is a flamenco-esque tribute to Vonne’s mother (the title translates as mother of pearl) and nudged me to remember that the Spanish heritage is as much a part of Americana as other traditions.

The video link below takes you to ‘Tidal Wave’; it’s less than a minute but have a flick through the other videos on the page and you’ll get a feel for Vonne’s energy and the strong melodies of her songs. The wildly rocking ‘Graceland Trip’ (also on the video page) and ‘Lekker Ding’ (hottie/sexything according to the urban dictionary – though you don’t need to know this, just listen to the delivery) draw more on a rock’n’roll tradition.

‘Western Blood’ is an instrumental somewhere between the music for a Clint Eastwood western and The Shadows ‘Apache’ and it works really well. ‘Concion de la Boda’ (Wedding Song) draws more on European traditional music roots for its arrangement. The album closes with the quieter ‘God’s Hands’ and ‘Stop The Madness’, where Vonne’s vocal is thoughtful but still a delight.

It’s been great to listen to Top Of The Mountain. The album’s strength is in the vitality of Vonne and her band – and, hence, I’d like to see them live – as well as the range of musical traditions it draws on. While I’ve enjoyed the range of influences, the diversity also makes it feel a bit more like a collection of singles. Maybe in the days of playlists and shuffled music that doesn’t matter, not least because there’d be some instantly engaging singles amongst them.

Vonne is on tour, if not the UK, from April 5th:

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website:

‘Red Hot Heart’ live:

THE MELLOWSHIP – You Belong With Me … (own label)

You BelongBorn, raised and still based in the West Country, when she was 23 aspiring singer-songwriter Mo Dewdney had a motorbike accident that left her paraplegic. For some years, music was no longer part of her life, but, then, after the birth of her son, she found herself playing out words and music in her head. She began putting these down on paper, began singing with a local band and, eventually, decided to try her luck by singing her own material in a capella settings. This in turn led her to link with other folk musicians from the region, such as Anthony Chipperfield, and, now, her self-released debut album, You Belong With Me… recorded in collaboration with folk luminaries Lukas Drinkwater, on guitar, bass and harmonies, and fiddler Ciaran Algar.

As their involvement might indicate, Dewdney is of a traditional persuasion, although all but one of the numbers are self-penned, her pure, clear and often yearning vocals and phrasings having earned comparisons with Judy Collins and Sandy Denny. The collection opens with the contemplative ‘shine on’ optimism of ‘Starlight’, leading to an unaccompanied introduction to ‘Marriage Bands’, a song that strikes a rather less upbeat note with its tale of a warrior spirit woman losing her independence, freedom and spirit in the chains of loveless marriage, the cycle repeating itself with her daughter in the last verse; however, buoyed up by Algar’s rustic backwoods fiddle and Drinkwater’s waltz time guitar melody, the nature imagery dressed ‘Kiss All The Stars’ has a rosier view of love’s binding power.

With Drinkwater adding drums, as per the suggestion of the title, ‘The Woad – The Last Battle of Maidens Castle’ takes on traditional ballad form, returning to warrior imagery for the story of a woad-painted tribe facing the end of their dream, the vocals adopting drone line tone, complemented by hollow plucked fiddle and a hypnotic war dance rhythm.

Underpinned by Algar’s lullabying fiddle, another celebration of love, ‘You Belong To Me’ with its dreamy chorus is a warmer affair, while, again in waltz time, ‘Grampa Sam’ sets Dewdney’s lyrics to a tune by Jim Causley in a touching tribute to an elderly gent who took her under his wing when she first moved to the country, taught her to garden, told her tales of his life’s joys and tragedies and became a grandfather to her child.

The musically upbeat mood continues with the fingerpicked jauntiness of ‘The Moment I Now’, a call to do the right thing by the planet on which she live, its love of the natural world and eco message echoed in the album’s sole cover, Drinkwater playing guitar and harmonising on Stan Rogers’s classic ‘Northwest Passage’.

It ends with again just the two of them, this time Drinkwater also adding bass, on ‘Down By The Fire’, the sound of the sea backdropping a final affirmation of finding a place and a partner with whom to share your life. With another project already in hand in collaboration with Greg Hancock, you might want to climb aboard and share yours with her.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

JESS VINCENT- Lions Den (Kostenurka Records)

Lions DenThere have been a few changes in Jess Vincent’s life since the release of Shine back in 2015. She’s become vegan for a start. However, the most significant is the fact that she and her partner, Jozeph Chowles, have moved from Wiltshire to Bulgaria where, indeed, the bulk of the album was recorded, partly in the home studio from which the label name comes, and that, unlike her previous releases, all the songs here are solely Vincent’s work.

The good news, though, is that there’s been no major musical upheavals in the process, although the new environment does feed into Chowles’ arrangements, Eastern European hints surfacing here and there, such as in the Indian harmonium drone that permeates the pulsing ballad ‘Follow’, on which Vincent’s vocals are well back in the mix, although, having said that, the twang to the guitar would be more at home in Utah.

It opens on sparse, dry banjo notes with the tempo-shifting ‘The Way It Is’, bursts of guitars and percussion making their presence felt in the faster flurries, Vincent’s high pitched warbling vocals sounding especially effervescent. I’d assume the title track, a languorous number picked out on a minimalist repeated acoustic guitar phrase, a muted percussion rumble surfacing towards the end, lyrically addresses making the big move and, as she says in her notes, facing her demons.

‘Stranger’ is another relatively muted number, the vocals again held back in the mix, opening on single ukulele notes before the arrangement fleshes out and those Eastern European colours seep into the gradually gathering melody. ‘Ghosts’ shifts continents, the crooning backing vocals, harmonium and harmonica evoking sprawling mid-west landscapes over which the melody ebbs and flows. Harmonium again provides the bedrock on the gently dappled ‘Ballerina Dreams’ with its dreamy, shimmering ambience and lines about seasons changing beneath her feet, by which point you’ll have clocked that this is a generally musically reflective affair, with no rock storms lurking unexpectedly in the wings, although the steady march beat ‘Cherry Tree’ does kick the sonic level up a notch or two with its electric guitar breaks and the backwoods gospel feel to her vocals.

That same Appalachian sensibility is also evident on ‘Waiting For You’, a simple but particularly lovely number with its undulating , tinkling electric guitar notes, wheezing harmonium and music box-like melody.

Of the two remaining numbers, ‘Holiday’ takes an early hours, slow bluesy lullabying waltz approach and what could possibly be described as a narcotic Chris Isaak/David Lynch mood, while ‘Won’t Be Long’, a yearning brushed drums mortality-themed folk gospel slow shuffle, sees the album out on campfire in the pines harmonica and picked acoustic guitar notes that bundles together familiar thoughts of Iris deMent, Dolly Parton and Nanci Griffiths.

The dictionary definition of a lion’s den is a dangerous or frightening place, but there’s no need to approach this with caution, just jump right on in.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Waiting For You’ – live:

KEITH JAMES talks to about forty years in music

Keith James
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

This year sees Keith James celebrating his fortieth anniversary as a professional musician. He has followed an unconventional, one might say unique, career path but didn’t always make it easy for himself. Keith took up the guitar at age twelve and formed a school band called The Velvet Haze. “We were The Orange Lantern but had a name change and went for something a bit more racy. It was mostly blues – I was listening to John Mayall, Peter Green; the British blues movement – and just copied it. That didn’t last very long and I was more attracted to the acoustic guitar and started listening to Dylan, Paul Simon – I really liked Paul Simon – and I really liked James Taylor.” The head boy at George Abbot school was John Renbourn and as Keith says “we all learned guitar together”.

“I quickly put a set together on acoustic guitar and I was invited to take over from a couple of chaps who were playing a wine bar in Guildford so I sat in with them and learned the ropes. I got a job playing a couple of nights a week and then was head-hunted to play in another couple of bars. Looking back now, in terms of playing what people wanted in the Home Counties, middle-class Liebfraumilch-drinking crowd – now desperately un-hip and unfashionable – I was really in the right place at the right time but from the music business point of view it couldn’t have been worse.

“I came home from a holiday in the Greek islands having missed the opportunity to go to university because I stayed out there too long. I completely ran out of money and began playing live in Pugh’s wine bar in Guildford as a matter of needing to get through the next week and it just organically grew from that. That was in the mid-seventies and I built up a circuit in a completely parallel universe just prior to punk breaking. The folk scene was quite healthy but I didn’t seem to have anything to do with any of it. I didn’t feel that I fitted with the folk world at all and never have done but I built up a fairly healthy following for the best part of a decade in the wine bar era, which went really well.

“So, from coming back from a Greek island with a guitar and a handful of songs I built up a circuit which also funded the production and release of three or four vinyl albums. I was really bookable and, in fact, I won the Wine Bar Entertainer Of The Year award in 1981. I could have played every night of the month and I was in my own little universe.”

I’d always imagined that playing that scene was a bit soul destroying. Keith disagrees.

Keith James
Keith James on stage in 1982

“I had a brief foray into folk clubs and I gave it a good try but I felt like a real fish out of water. Playing the wine-bar circuit I think that I was probably good enough to keep their attention and people would come along specifically – I had loads of bookings on Mondays and Tuesdays because people would come along and share an orange juice and listen to me but that wasn’t profitable for the proprietor. That ran of steam and I went off to South America.”

Keith visited almost every country in South America, spending most of his time in Brazil and being influenced by the country’s writers and musicians and he seems very at ease with the rhythms that he uses on the Lorca album. “I don’t know why. I like odd rhythms; ‘The Mask’, for example: everything is strange about that. It’s in five time, it’s in a strange guitar tuning, it’s played on a flamenco guitar and it’s in Spanish but I really like it. I find it adventurous and intriguing and really exhilarating. If I’m playing a Leonard Cohen concert, for example, because there is a long-standing Lorca-Cohen connection I’ll put that in and it wakes the audience up.”

His travels have taken him to Spain several times, the first time partly with the aim of meeting Chris Stewart, the author of Driving Over Lemons. “Because we used to play Charterhouse when I was at school I was convinced that somewhere down the line I owed him a kick in the shins but I was also there to do a proper study of Federico Garcia Lorca. There is an area south of the Sierra Nevada where Lorca spent a tremendous amount of time particularly around his book Romancero Gitano. I went to a town called Órgiva and into a pizza bar and the first person to walk in after me was Chris Stewart. He told me a huge amount about Lorca.”

 Had he made it to university Keith would have read for a literature degree and his life has, in some ways, also been one of study.

“I’ve always found, even in music, everything to do with the prose far more important. If you’re learning an instrument, particularly the guitar, you realise that the parameters that you can work with in terms of the accompaniment to a song have limitations, which is why they often sound similar. If you start with C, G, D and F they are going to sound similar. It’s the intent and the lyrics and the poetry behind what you’re doing that’s the most important thing so I’ve always been drawn to a set of words that would really, really make me cry. One of my great loves in life is poetry

“Having said that, I dismiss a tremendous amount of poetry – the world is full of poetry or things that people write that they think are poetry. It all is, I suppose, and I can’t be the judge and if T.S.Eliot is, to me, like bathing in asses’ milk then it may not be to someone else. People may like things that are more domestic: I really struggle with Larkin, for instance, because quite a lot of his poetry is based around domesticity and a really small world, nothing expansive.

“I did a huge study for about a year of Dylan Thomas. I was given a commission by the Arts Council of Wales to set a collection of his poetry to music and his poetry is unbelievably wonderful and he’s not scared of anything at all. He’s not scared if it doesn’t scan right or if nothing makes sense.”

Following his return from South America, Keith’s career took another turn.

“There was a period of about ten to fifteen years when I started a recording studio in Reading where I worked as a sound engineer and record producer. It came out of necessity: I came back with a virus which affected me to such a degree that I couldn’t really sing properly but I really began to enjoy the work. This is before the days of computers and we were recording onto big analogue tape. I built up a clientele and I made an album called Tomorrow Is Longer Than Yesterday which, listening back to now, is quite disturbing. I think I felt so upset about humankind and the way things were that it’s almost an album’s worth of philosophical protest songs.”

That album surfaced at the beginning of the 90s and from it Keith got lots of requests to produce albums from “the folk/singer-songwriter world” and some jazz – “anything that had something organic and real and acoustic about it”. He reckons that he made ninety-nine albums for other people but out of that period grew another love.

“Various people came in to record Nick Drake songs. They would say ‘I’ve got eleven of my own songs and I’m going to do a Nick Drake song as well’. I did what I normally do in a situation like that – I really fell in love with his music – and I did a huge amount of research on him as person. I’ve internalised it and thought ‘where would I be if I were Nick?’.

“More or less at the same time I’d come to the end what I thought I could give to sound engineering. The business was changing dramatically – we were coming to the end of the analogue era – and it was a bit of a dark age for recording studios and for the business. I wanted to do something different so I did a pilot Songs Of Nick Drake concert at Windsor Arts Centre which was full and I sprang into action to do some more.”

Lorca followed The Songs Of Nick Drake. “The original Lorca album is mostly material from The Gypsy Ballads of the mid-20s and that went so well that the Lorca estate were keen to do another one. So I was really keen to do Poet In New York but, believe it or not, they had on the table a project that had been put together by a Spanish composer and Elvis Costello and they were about to do Poet In New York. The Lorca Foundation is run by his niece, Laura, and I think they’d been waiting for the Costello project but it never did surface so I was called in and told ‘let’s do Poet In New York’.

“There was a lot of time spent doing the first Lorca album and touring it twice and then Poet In New York and touring that twice – taking up most of 2007 to 2010 – but it’s proved to be a very worthy thing to do.”

Keith once observed that he doesn’t get to play his own songs very much but that is slowly changing. “Yes. During all this I’ve been writing songs which, for some strange reason, I still feel timid about. I feel safer doing a tour which has a concept, where it can be a bit third person. The projects that I’ve done where I’ve set poetry to music are really enjoyable; it’s almost like working with a team member – a long dead team member – but there is someone else bringing something to the table and it’s extremely inspiring.

Twenty years on from that first pilot concert Keith is still performing Nick’s songs and, with both Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen in his repertoire, is playing about a hundred dates each year, split into two tours. They rotate and Keith is currently touring The Songs Of Leonard Cohen again and toying with the idea of a Pablo Naruda project. Captured, a best of collection is out now and it will contain some new original songs – something we don’t hear enough of these days. I’ll leave Keith to sum up where he is now.

“I absolutely love it. I have to say that, particularly with The Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour, I feel completely and utterly blessed. I feel completely honoured to be doing this tour because some of his material is just unimprovable. I live inside a bubble where I get to play all that lovely material in lovely places and all the people who come to my concerts are lovely.”

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

David Harley’s review of Captured:

‘The Mask’ live on the radio:

GARY MILLER – Mad Martins (Whippet WPTCDB24)

Mad MartinsI shouldn’t need to explain about Gary Miller but for our younger readers: Gary was lead songwriter with The Whisky Priests, a very fine (and rather tough looking) post-punk folk-rock band from the north-east. After a while away from the front line he returned in 2010 with the excellent album, Reflections On War. The first of two projects emerging this year, Mad Martins is a three-CD box set housed in a lavish hard-back book and will later be a stage presentation

I didn’t know much about the three Martin brothers, although I have seen at least one of John’s paintings – an enormous apocalyptic Biblical scene, probably The Day Of His Wrath. More of John later. Each of the three CDs is dedicated to one of the brothers and will be one act of the stage play, so we begin with William, the eldest brother. He aspired to be a renaissance man, sorry THE Renaissance Man, and if you want evidence of his madness, just listen to ‘William Martin’s Dream’. He had been a soldier and a ropemaker, became an inventor and pamphleteer and the world’s greatest natural philosopher – at least in his own mind.

Now you might think that this is an odd subject for a major project but Gary’s skill as a songwriter and his construction of the piece is sufficient to draw you in from the start. His style is earthy and robust and his borrowing of traditional tunes adds an extra authenticity. He handles most of the lead vocals and about half of the instruments, most of the rest being played by producer Iain Petrie. Keith Armstrong leads the important spoken word sections – Gary’s accent is perhaps a little too strong – with an ensemble including Richard Doran, Mick Tyas, Ann Sessoms and Gary’s brother Glenn. There is a separate album, Fair Flowers Among Them All, featuring these instrumental sections.

Next we come to Jonathan Martin: now he was mad! A strange child, by all accounts, he was first a shepherd, then press-ganged into the navy. His naval adventures are quite remarkable if his own accounts are to be believed but it allows Gary to compose a shanty and a hornpipe. Next he became a tanner and then a preacher with a remarkably anti-authoritarian take on religion. He was committed for plotting to assassinate the Bishop of Oxford. ‘Shoot The Bishop’ recounts the circumstances that brought this about. Remarkably, he escaped the asylum twice and his next plan was to burn down York Minster. He set the fire and escaped but was captured and committed to Bedlam where he died.

Again, Gary blends original songs with Jonathan’s own words with two extracts from writings by Charles Dickens and traditional tunes. The whole disc rocks along and you almost feel some sympathy for Jonathan by the end.

John Martin probably wasn’t mad but he heard the Word of God. He’s probably the most famous and the most enduring of the Martin brothers as his monumental biblical paintings attest. Like William, John was something of a polymath; one of his projects was a sewage system for London, related in earthy relish in ‘Drainage Scheme’. His ideas inspired John Bazalgette who designed the system that is still in use. On this final disc, Gary looks to Keith Armstrong for many of the spoken word sections.

As a painter, John was a friend to royalty and Gary’s music has an appropriately bombastic tone which is where the orchestration of The Albert Ness Ensemble and The Lick Spittals’ horns come into their own. Despite his success, John fell into poverty and the later songs have rather simpler accompaniments but he fought back beginning with The Coronation Of Queen Victoria before died peacefully in1855.

Mad Martins is a magnificent piece of work, transcending both the traditional ideas of folk-rock as represented by The Whisky Priests and the established view of what a singer-songwriter should be. It isn’t inexpensive, as you might imagine, but it’s worth every penny that you spend on it.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

Buy Mad Martins from:

Promo video:

WILLOW SPRINGS – Urban Ghosts (S’quare Records SQR1)

Urban GhostsBased in Belfast, Willow Springs is essentially a vehicle for singer-songwriter Mark Crockard, Urban Ghosts supported by an assortment of fellow Irish musicians, being his debut album. An emerald-coloured Americana cocktail that shakes together Tex-Mex, Western swing and country, it’s an easy on the ear, fairly middle-of-the road affair, but that’s not intended as a criticism. Sometimes, it’s good to be able to just sit back and let an album flow over you without having to work at it. He wears his influences openly, the first number, the moody, twangsome guitar ‘I’m All Over You’, finding him sounding like Roy Orbison in his vocal tone and delivery, while on several occasions, he comes across like an Irish Willie Nelson, notably so on the waltzing piano ballad ‘It Still Hurts’, ‘Tender Lovin’ Feelin’’ and the jazzy roll of ‘Gone Southbound’ with Chris Haigh on fiddle.

Blending balladry with more uptempo numbers, with fine guitar work variously complemented with dobro, mandolin and melodic, Crockard touches on gospel notes the piano-led ‘You Saved A Drowning Man’, blows harmonica on the driving train rhythm shuffle of ‘The End Of The Pier Show’, croons Texicana pop with ‘Heart and Soul’, shades the cowboy ballad ‘Autumn Blues’ with Gaelic fiddle colours and channels Van Morrison for ‘Together We’ll Walk In Beauty’. It might not get him invited to play the trendy Americana joints, but it should ensure a warm welcome in the UK’s many Country Music clubs.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website:

Video trailer: