Barbara Dickson – new EP

Barbara Dickson

Barbara Dickson’s career spans 50 years and she is now recording some of her most interesting material, a fusion of old and new.

I started in folk clubs of the 1960s’, says Dickson, ‘and there I learned songs I’ve never forgotten.’ That material, paired with soaking up the ‘new’ songs of the time has given her a prodigious knowledge of music. Since 2004, she has been recording many of those songs with Troy Donockley, her collaborator and musical soulmate.

Five Songs is a taster of music they are playing on Barbara’s UK-wide concert tour, taking place in February and March, where they appear from Yeovil to Perth! The songs on the EP are a cross section of her favourites of now; 3 traditional songs, ‘Farewell to Fiunary’, ‘The Palace Grand’ and ‘The Laird of the Dainty Dounby’. The remaining two tracks are ‘October Song’ by Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band and an original song by Barbara called ‘The Hill’.

Artist’s website:

Listen to ‘The Hill’ here:

Rayna Gellert releases a new mini album

Rayna Gellert

If Rayna Gellert seems a preternaturally gifted songwriter, it’s because she’s seen farther into the old songs than most. Growing up in a musical family, Gellert turned to Appalachian old-time music at a young age, becoming a prodigious fiddler and leading a new revival of American stringband music through her work with the acclaimed American roots band Uncle Earl. Through the late nights at music festivals, the kerosene-lit jam sessions in campgrounds, the all-night sessions in a warm kitchen, the old songs have fueled her passion for the music. The Appalachian ballads leave so many parts unknown, so many stories half told, that it’s only natural she’d turn at some point to finishing the stories herself. What she found when she did was that she had an uncommon talent for songwriting that reads both as simple and accessible, but also heartfelt and profound. A great songwriter never overwrites a song, and that’s a lesson Gellert learned from folk song.

With her new mini album, Workin’s Too Hard, out January 20  on StorySound Records, she pulls from the tradition, but the songs are all her own and the arrangements are built on a collaboration with Nashville songwriter Kieran Kane (co-producer, mandolin, guitar, vocals). In the vein of other artists like Sam Amidon and Gillian Welch, Gellert’s roots in Americana run so deep that no matter what she writes, it will always have a timeless quality to it.

Gellert’s new mini-album showcases her reverence and deep-seated history, as well as a lifetime spent studying and playing, old-time music. Workin’s Too Hard is no exception. Folk Alley’s Elena See sums it up aptly by saying:

“[Gellert’s] original songs sound like they could have been written decades earlier, probably a nod to Gellert’s childhood, growing up steeped in the traditions of Appalachian ballads and stringband sounds. And the way she delivers those songs? Sheer perfection”.

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Artist’s website:

‘Sleepy Desert’ with Kristin Andreasson:


JOHN RENBOURN & WIZZ JONES – Joint Control (Riverboat Records TUGCD1095)

Joint ControlThis CD review is something of a special case, in that it actually comes from my own collection, and wasn’t bought specifically to review (and has been available since September 2016). However, it includes the last recorded work of John Renbourn, in a rare recorded collaboration with the almost equally influential Wizz Jones. Joint Control doesn’t, however, hark back to the heavily classically-influenced and mostly instrumental work that characterized so much of John post-Pentangle output. In fact, apart from one instrumental by Wizz, there are no original pieces on the album at all: rather, it’s a strong set of songs by two great guitarists who obviously enjoyed playing together on songs they must both have known from way back.

  1. ‘Hey Hey’ is the first instrumental on the CD, a version of the Big Bill Broonzy warhorse. However, even if John’s carefully constructed 2nd guitar part hadn’t given it an extra dimension, there’s an added poignancy: the sleeve notes suggest that this was the last thing they worked on together before John’s death in 2015.
  2. Dylan’s ‘Buckets Of Rain’ is a live version sung by John, and while he was never the strongest singer around, he was in good voice here.
  3. ‘Glory Of Love’ (Billy Hill) is one of the first songs I ever heard Wizz sing back in the ’60s: if you haven’t heard him sing it (or the Broonzy version by which he was strongly influenced), you really need to hear this to appreciate what a good guitarist he is. He sings it rather well here, too. John’s characteristic and nimble lead work doesn’t hurt at all, either.
  4. Mose Allison’s ‘Getting There’ sits somewhere on the borderline between blues and jazz, and seems to have been a regular feature of John’s solo sets. It suits his voice very well.
  5. While Wizz has sung many of Alan Tunbridge’s songs over the years, some may be more familiar with the version of ‘National Seven’ on John’s eponymous first album from 1965. This live version sung by Wizz is much closer to the way Tunbridge himself has recorded it, but with athletic lead guitar from John. Very, very good.
  6. ‘Mountain Rain’ is an outstanding story song by Archie Fisher, previously covered by Wizz on a studio album. I’m not familiar with that version, but this live version does it justice and then some.
  7. The Bahaman gospel singer Joseph Spence’s ‘Great Dream From Heaven’ (a.k.a. ‘Happy Meeting In Glory’) was long associated with the much-missed Davy Graham, and has much more of a jazz feel than the better-known version by Ry Cooder. It sounds to me more like a Renbourn solo than a guitar duet, but the sleeve notes don’t make it clear either way.
  8. ‘Strolling Down The Highway’ is another song of musical vagrancy, this time by Bert Jansch, from his first album, of course. (1965 was a good year for Folk Baroque…) Good version.
  9. ‘In Stormy Weather’ is a typically wistful song by the greatly underrated Al Jones, another track previously recorded by Wizz on Lucky The Man.
  10. Balham Moon is the only original on the CD, an atmospheric instrumental by Wizz with a second guitar part added by John.
  11. Perhaps the only Renbourn recorded performance I could never altogether like was his version of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Blues Run The Game’, where the song seemed to get lost in the pace of the accompaniment. I preferred the original, or even Bert Jansch’s slower, more emotional version. The version here, sung by Wizz, is closer to Frank’s. I still prefer Frank’s vocals, but the tasteful lead guitar does work very well.
  12. Wizz’s guitar on Bert Jansch’s ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ is less complex than the original, but the song suits his voice and John’s guitar is everything you’d expect.
  13. ‘Joint Control’ is an early Bert Jansch instrumental and this version is very reminiscent of Jansch and Renbourn circa the Bert and John Very classy.

There are quite a few videos around showing John and Wizz playing together, including versions of some of the pieces here, but unfortunately the recording quality tends to be low. Some of the tracks here are also live, but professionally recorded, and the difference is startling. This is comfortable, nostalgic fare, not novelty and dramatic experimentation, but it it’s a suitable finale to John Renbourn’s distinguished career, looking back over many decades of fine music and fine performances.

David Harley

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‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ live at the Vortex:

SON OF THE VELVET RAT – Dorado (Fluff and Gravy FnG037/Mint 400)

DoradoDorado is released on February 17th, the sixth album of husband and wife duo Georg Altzeibler and his wife Heiki Binder who left Austria to make their home in Joshua Tree, California in 2013. They had an impressive career with five albums to their credit and the description “best Austrian singer-songwriter ever”. The new album combines this mixture of European tradition with a modern American feel and a singing voice that draws you in to listen to the songs. Imagine a late Dylan voice, maybe Tom Waits or Nick Cave mixed with the songscape of Brel and Brassens and it will put you in the right territory. There are ten tracks and they take you into this area, a slightly off-kilter and edgy world. The voice is deep and the arrangement is almost jazzy, bluesy, slow pauses after the beat and almost a shuffling feel with a touch of Americana.

As for the songs, ‘Surfer Joe’ is the most obviously commercial and should get radio play. ‘Sweet Angela’ is a great love song to a beautiful girl glimpsed at a demonstration “waving a banner like a headline of your resume” – with the twist that the singer doesn’t actually know her name and has called her Angela so he can write the song. In general, you can hear the imagery as simply descriptive but it’s also metaphorical. You can hear the imagery of the album as simply descriptive but it’s also metaphorical. Take the opening two lines of the first song, ‘Carry On’, “Summer’s gone without a reason….Tell myself Fall’s just a season and not some strange kind of letting go”. Some of it is simply startling “She’s a scar on your eyeball” from ‘Tiger Honey’ or the impact of the last three words in this, from ‘Shadow Song’, “Skin to skin, bone to bone, thigh to thigh/So entwined and so alone”.

My two favourites, though are ‘Love’s the Devil’s Foe’ – with a yearning voice set against a late night tune – and ‘Blood Red Shoes’, the two voices complementing each other beautifully, a chorus that’s impossible not to hum along with, some laid back lead guitar, some gentle brass and lyrics like “I see you follow me and I‘ll follow you anywhere/From the killing floor all the way to the County Fair/You got blood red shoes”.

Oh yes, and even if the music were no good you’d want to read producer Joe Henry’s sleeve notes, an example being: “For some of us, songs are the only cards to play; the only thing our hands will ever hold or our hearts possess suggesting the possibility of bankable redemption.” The album won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you can picture (and like the thought of) listening at 1:00a.m. in a darkened European cellar bar with no desire to go home, I imagine this to be the ideal setting. In the meantime, the stereo does a pretty good job.

Mike Wistow

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‘Blood Red Shoes’ – official video:

Chris Murphy announces new album of original fiddle music

Chris Murphy

Have you ever had the feeling that a perfect moment could only be made more so if it had a soundtrack? From misty strolls down forgotten trails, to laughter-filled pubs bursting with dance and joy, to that moment when you look at someone and realize for the first time that you’ve fallen in love with them, The Tinker’s Dream provides a stellar musical landscape for thousands of those ephemeral moments, and so much more.

Chris Murphy’s ‘Connemara Ponies’ gallops to the warm smack of a bodhran drum-here played by Celtic Woman’s Andy Reilly while the flutes and violins echo the buzzing of bugs and birds in a long-ago dream of old Ireland. But while Uilleann pipes usher in the stirring ‘Union of the Seven Brothers’, marshalling an insistent rhythm that certainly pays homage to traditionalists like the Chieftains, elsewhere Murphy’s impressive ensemble suggests the Pogues’ more acoustic moments, and the roll-neck romance of Sixties folk-rockers like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band.  And while ‘Gibraltar 1988’ might signal a journey to points south, it’s a sea voyage to that mighty crag that only an Irishman (in Murphy’s case, Bronx Irish) could muster, pointing his violin bow toward dramatic waves of rolling acoustic guitar, droning double bass courtesy of the Waterboys’ Trevor Hutchinson and sea-worthy penny whistles. Displaying at turns a brooding gravitas, at others a free-flowing heartfulness, Murphy’s Tinker’s Dream is a myth in the making, an imaginary soundtrack as at ease in a Tolkien landscape as at a South Boston watering hole, or wherever Irish ears are smiling.

For 25 years, and with no sign of slowing, violinist Chris Murphy has made a living by writing, performing and recording original music. For Murphy, the path forward is charted by looking backward, to the troubadours and minstrels of ages past. Forget the exaggerated reports of the music industry’s demise. It’s only the record industry, a relative blip in the history of putting tones in sequence, that’s suffering. Music, and the opportunity to make a life’s work out of it, well, that’s not going anywhere. “In another era,” he says, “I would have played square dances, and loved it. I would have been a court musician in Versailles in the 17th Century, or a violinist in a circus orchestra.” For Chris Murphy, inspiration spans eras and aesthetics, but the fundamentals are the same.

Born into an Irish-Italian family near New York City, Murphy was surrounded by the disparate and eclectic sounds of his neighbours’ traditional music. “I heard and was influenced by everything – from Italian-mandolin music, to bluegrass and folk, to Latin music,” he says. Inevitably, he discovered rock ‘n’ roll, claiming still further influence from some of rock’s most adventurous and eclectic icons: Lou Reed and Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson. “My real hero,” he says, “was David Lindley. Hearing him play fiddle and lap steel with Jackson Browne – that kind of esoteric, enigmatic soloing over songs is originally what I loved.”

As he searches for new ways to communicate through music, fusing styles and techniques from across the globe – a unique fabric of world music, he calls it – Murphy finds his element on the stage, where spontaneity and improvisation reign. “To me, the music is liquid, and I’m looking to have some kind of experience.” he says. “I’ll twist and turn and hammer and mould and shape cut and paste the music to do that. We’ve never done a song the same way twice.” As ever, Murphy re-forges the past to make a new way.

Artist’s website:

‘Song For Che’ live:

SOPHIE RAMSAY – The Seas Between Us (own label SRAM003)

The Seas Between UsThe collection of Scots and Gaelic songs that form The Seas Between Us are largely taken from Burns (either by attribution or orgin), together with Hector Macneil’s ‘My Love’s In Germanie’ and a handful of traditional airs. From the opener, ’Ae Fond Kiss’, we are on well-trodden and familiar ground. However, whether in Gaelic or English, each song has been given thoughtful re-interpretation here. Even the over-familiarity of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has been carefully considered, rephrasing the lines to impart the meaning of those words so often bellowed semi-coherently at midnight, through a fug of alcohol.

Musically, the traditional has been supplemented by open, spacious arrangements with subtle electronic effects, that are quite deliciously and decidedly of the modern age. Occasionally reminiscent of some of Martin Green’s more recent work, here are ghostly plinking pianos, haunting horns and a fluttering flute. But – as if all that alliteration wasn’t tiring enough – there’s the over-use of echo to contend with. On individual tracks it works well enough, in particular on the layered vocals of ‘The Burning Of Auchindoun’ but, over the course of an entire album it starts to become a distraction. In contrast, however, the sudden absence of vocal reverb on ‘My Love’s In Germanie’, plus some disturbing tapping noises, contrives to create quite an effective airless and claustrophobic atmosphere.

A great deal of musical imagination has clearly been brought to bear in the production of this album. A delicate piano line in ‘By Yon Castle Wa’’ turns tensely choppy, ‘The Lea Rig’ features slow, deep, dragging strings, and ‘Bidh Clann Ulaidh’ subtle pipes propel the rhythm. ‘Bothan Àirigh Am Bràighe Raithneach’ (the album booklet helpfully provides translations of the Gaelic lyrics) features an array of eerie hee-haws, like a gently snoring donkey, while elsewhere notably on ‘The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow’, Findlay Napier lends vocal support to Sophie Ramsay’s gentle, breathy, fragile voice.

Overall, the album has a rather subdued and reflective feel. There’s a consistency of mood, perhaps at the expense of creating richer contrasts of emotional light and shade. However, it’s not at all a brash or showy album, simply one that wants to give the songs enough space to speak for themselves.
Su O’Brien

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‘By Yon Castle Wa”: