When I first played this album I assumed that Shortstuff were American and had been playing the blues for years. Big Blue has a confident swing about it that invites you in and settles you down. In fact Dave Thomas and Hugh Gregory met in London and once enjoyed a residency at the Half Moon. That was in the mid-70s and their debut album has taken forty-two years to emerge blinking into the light.
The earliest tracks here were recorded in 1975 and the rest in 1992 but the vintages are not revealed on the album. I’d guess that the later ones feature Steve Jinks on percussion and bass and have the feel of more modern recording technology but I could be wrong. The nine songs are all covers and come from a mixed bag of sources.
The opener is Johnny Cash’s ‘Hey Porter’ a single by the Man In Black in 1958. The original had all the hallmarks of Cash’s country style with that familiar bass riff. Shortstuff dispense with all that and turn the song into a lazy blues with two guitars playing contrasting parts and Thomas’ harmonica in the break. Next is ‘I Sing ‘Em The Way I Feel’ by J B Lenoir and again Shortstuff strip away the African influences of the original and almost take the song back to Lenoir’s early New Orleans style instead of the Chicago funk of his original. Even as “cover artists” Thomas and Gregory brought something of themselves to their choice of material.
There are two songs by J J Cale, including the gorgeous ‘Magnolia’ and other sources include John Mayall, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Dan Hicks. ‘Honeybabe’ is traditional and ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ is credited to Terry and McGhee rather than Vinson and Chatmon but it may be that Shortstuff just borrowed their arrangement.
Word has it that Shortstuff will reunite to tour this year.
They may be newcomers to the scene, but Stick In The Wheel are certainly making their mark, not just with their own recordings and associated artifacts, but in their involvement with the folk world in general, and the traditional in particular.
Band members Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey serve as curators, collaborators and producers for this collection of new live recordings by both the great and good and some of the lesser known luminaries in the genre. The remit for those involved was to record songs that explored either place or their musical identity, culminating in a gathering of field recordings captured in locations as diverse as a stone cottage in Edale, a bank vault and a garden at Robin Hood’s Bay using just two stereo microphones and with no subsequent overdubs.
As you would imagine, the tracks are stark and raw, first up being ‘Bedfordshire May Carol’, chosen by performer Jack Sharp, leader of psych-folk outfit Wolf People, as it supposedly originated just a few miles from where he grew up. Next up, Eliza Carthy leads a flurry of more familiar names with a self-penned number, ‘The Sea’, a new setting of the broadside ballad found in Manchester’s Chetham Library and featuring on her current album, the initial pizzicato fiddle giving way to more robust playing. She’s followed by one of the veterans of English folk, John Kirkpatrick, applying his accordion to a song from his lengthy repertoire and a folk club staple ‘Here’s Adieu To Old England’, while his sometimes musical partner, Martin Carthy, also chose a number he’s recently reintroduced back into his sets, ‘The Bedmaking’, a familiar tale of the abused and cast aside servant girl. fingerpicked here to a halting rhythm.
Sandwiched in-between is one of the rising stars of the few folk firmament, the Peak District’s Bella Hardy, who went to 19th century collection The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire for ‘The Ballad of Hugh Stenson’, setting it to a more upbeat tune than the hymnal adapted by Jon Tams, while, another member of folk royalty, Jon Boden puts his squeezebox to work on a contemplative take on 19th century drinking song ‘Fathom The Bowl’.
There’s a couple of spokes from the Wheel, both unaccompanied, Kearey delivering glottal version of the much covered ‘Georgie’ and Fran Foote ‘The Irish Girl’. They’re not the only numbers to be sung naked as it were. BritFolk alumnus Lisa Knapp has a lovely treatment of the tumblingly melodious ‘Lavender Song’, while, also from the female side, Fay Hield tips the hat to Annie Briggs with her choice of ‘Bonny Boy’.
On the other side of a capella gender fence, Geordie folkie Stew Simpson mines his Newcastle roots for ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’ (which the accompanying booklet helpfully translates as “Oh Yes, I Could Pick At The Coals”), Sam Lee turns the evergreen ‘Wild Rover’ on its head to transform it into a slow, sad lament rather than more familiar rollicking rouser of Dubliners and Pogues note, and, from Wales, a deep-voiced Men Diamler closes the album with ‘1848 (Sunset Beauregard)’, a self-penned political protest ballad about Tory policies. The remaining unaccompanied track is actually a duet, Peta Webb and Ken Hall joining voices for an Irish in London in the 50s marriage of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Just A Note’, about the building of the M1, and Bob Davenport’s account of the dangers of ‘Wild Wild Whiskey’.
The three remaining tracks are all instrumentals. Bristol’s acoustic instrumental quartet Spiro are the only band on the collection and provide their self-penned ‘Lost In Fishponds’, apparently about getting lost en route to a gig, joined here by North Wales violinist Madame Česki, while Sam Sweeney brings his fiddle to bear on two tunes. ‘Bagpipers’, one of the first things he played with his band Leveret, and ‘Mount Hills’, an English dance tune from the 17th century. Which leaves Cumbrian concertina maestro Rob Harbron to provide the third with a pairing of ‘Young Collins’, a Costwolds’ tune learned from Alistair Anderson, and, another from the Morris tradition, ‘Getting Up The Stairs’, which, by way of a pleasing synchronicity, he actually learned by way of John Kirkpatrick on the influential Morris On album.
It more than does the job it set out to achieve, and, likely to loom large in end of year awards, fully warrants a place in any traditional folk fan’s collection.
Although conveniently filed under NewGrass, there’s more to San Francisco based duo Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud that bluegrass, Shake Me Now, their third album, produced by label founder Alison Brown, evidencing traces of jazz, classical, blues and folk. With Oscar Westesson on upright bass essentially making them a trio, it’s moodily overcast folk that dominates the opening track, ‘Black Sky Lightning’ with its fingerpicked tracery and pulsing bass, getting slightly airier with the strummed love song ‘On My Way Tonight’ before the title track brings it back to calmer, more reflective ground.
The traditional roots are evidenced with covers of both ‘Deep Ellum Blues’, the first on which Cloud’s vocals have equal prominence, and ‘Worried Man Blues’, a folk chestnut popularised by Woody Guthrie. Along with these there’s also a cover of relatively more recent origin, Cloud taking wearied lead on a slow paced interpretation of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.
Everything else is original material, ranging in style from the fiddle-backed American roots folksiness of ‘By The Rio Grande’ and the stripped and slow waltzing ‘Hero’s Crown’ to the crooning harmonies of ‘Mississippi River’ and the itchier, swampier blues that drive ‘Feelin’ Good’.
Quiles has a gentle, soothingly engaging voice, and it’s heard to good effect on the a capella harmonising opening to the five minute ‘Faded Flower’ before a lonesome acoustic campfire guitar picks up the spare melody. Closing with a one mic bonus recap of ‘Black Sky Lightning’ that ups the tempo, this is one for the hours as evening draws in and you sit there staring at the vastness of the skies. Front porch optional.
If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Quiles & Cloud link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
Benjamin Folke Thomas was born on a small island off the coast of Sweden, mainly populated by evangelical Christians, but his third album takes it’s title from across the Øresund; Copenhagen.
Combining his upbringing with musical influences ranging from Leadbelly to Cohen and Jackson Browne means his work tends, perhaps not surprisingly, to be introspective and personal. His style and voice are similar to Martyn Joseph and, like Joseph, he is a supreme storyteller. His stories encompass large issues but at the individual, human level so this is not necessarily an album to be put on in the car whilst driving. To get the most from it you need take the time to sit down and listen to every word and you will be well rewarded for your effort.
The title track, ‘Copenhagen 30/6’, is a good example of his work as a storyteller. There are seven verses and no chorus, which is fairly typical. It’s a song about needing somebody in order for life to make sense and have purpose and yet not until the very end of song are we given any hope there might be a happy ending. There may also be an element of autobiography in it
“I missed you tonight when I was up on stage, I couldn’t find my focus I was unable to engage, The sound was bad not enough tickets sold, I wish I was with you tonight.”
‘Finn’ is another story set to music, rather than a song, and it is a terrific story about the passing of time; how things change but how they also stay the same. It chiefly concerns two men who have come into Benjamin’s life and the song is so convincing I believe they are real people. We are first introduced to Abbas, a Palestinian and doctor but trying to make ends meet working in a supermarket having left his wife and children behind. Next we are introduced to Benjamin’s grandfather, the Finn of the title, who also ended up as a refugee from the Nazis and lost his brother to them. Two men separated by time and yet neither are able to live the life they wanted because of forces they cannot control which separate them from loved ones.
If there is a theme to this album it is that search for love and stability yet worrying that finding what you want may not be the answer. As he sings in ‘Safe and Secure’
“They say that love is liberating But I don’t understand How can anyone in love ever feel Safe and secure”
Musically the influence is Blues with a bit of Rock but the strength is the words. In a different persona Benjamin could be described as a poet, rather than singer, and he would be equally good. Copenhagen is an incredibly good album of contemporary music from a performer who has a lot to give and is not afraid to give all. It is highly recommended.
The album was released on the 3rd March and is available through the artist’s website as well as the usual platforms.
If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Benjamin Folke Thomas link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
Dave Burland may have recorded one of the definitive folk albums of the seventies but he’s always been a rocker at heart as anyone who has been in the same room as Shagpile will testify. Alongside him in The Awkward Squad are two members of that band, Dave Fisher and Bryan Ledgard and their first album, Okkard, is a perfect example of having fun with the music they love.
The big noise here is Fisher on keyboards and steel guitars and I’m guessing that he takes the lead on ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ which is built on piano with three voices on the chorus. The Awkward Squad take it a little faster than is usual with odd little twists in the phrasing that makes it much brighter than the dirge it can become. It’s electric piano that introduces the opening track, ‘Reynardine’ with solid guitar and drums from Ledgard. Burland’s distinctive laid-back delivery adds to the gentle rolling feel of the arrangement. He switches to mandolin for Terry Allen’s ‘New Delhi Freight Train’ over Fisher working the left hand end of the keyboard.
What they do to ‘Country Life’ is quite amazing. A not-quite honky-tonk piano is matched with a sort-of syncopated vocal line and Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ is given a full-blown nightclub feeling with backing vocals courtesy of Chris While and Julie Matthews. It’s not all fun, though. ‘Kitchener’s Finger’, written by Burland, is paired with ‘The Bloody Fields Of Flanders’ and ‘Lamkin’ is as dark a version as you could wish to hear, fleshing out the “mason” storyline.
‘Long Distance Love’ and Steve Goodman’s wonderful ‘City Of New Orleans’ are more familiar territory – this is possibly the best version of the latter that I’ve heard – and I was convinced that the final track, ‘Spencer The Rover’, appeared on Dave’s first album, but of course it doesn’t. As far as I can tell this is the first time he’s recorded it. No matter; it’s a perfect Dave Burland song to bring Okkard to a close.
If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the DAVE BURLAND AND THE AWKWARD SQUAD – Okkard link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
Wait Till The Clouds Roll By is the debut album from young Irish singer Fintan McHugh. It has been available for a while but has only recently come into our possession and we feel compelled to bring it to your attention. Fintan plays guitar and cittern and for his instrumental breaks he chooses harmonica. Bringing a modern style of moothie to a traditional ballad gives the song a new slant.
Fintan opens the set with the title track, a nineteenth century parlour until it was appropriated for the folk scene, probably by Uncle Dave Macon. It’s an excellent start with a good chorus to settle the listener in but, for me, the key track comes next. ‘Lord Saltoun & Annachie Gordon’ is one of my favourite ballads and Fintan’s long version wrings every ounce of pathos out of the text. The use of the harmonica somehow transforms the song, giving it a modern resonance in a way that I can’t quite explain.
‘The Rocks Of Bawn’ is a song I’ve never quite understood but it would seem that after Cromwell “subdued” Ireland the best land was given to the Protestant incomers while the Irish were moved to the inhospitable west coast. Some versions refer to a recruiting sergeant because a life in the army was considered a better bet than scratching a living out the rocky coast. Fintan’s version goes straight to the top and wishes for the Queen herself to ride along and recruit him. He uses the cittern almost as a percussion instrument on the song, maintaining a steady beat on the bass strings.
Fintan was much influenced by Andy Irvine as a youth, borrowing ‘You Rambling Boys Of Pleasure’ from him and basing his arrangement of ‘The Blacksmith’ on Planxty’s. There is a dynamism about his guitar playing that reflects their style. He sings ‘A Stór Mo Chroí’ unaccompanied, almost as a warning to the addressee who has made the decision to leave Ireland to escape the potato famine rather than as a song of sentiment and longing.
There are two of Fintan’s own songs in the set and it’s interesting to note that sometimes his phrasing echoes the uneven line lengths of traditional ballads. To be honest, these songs are rather insubstantial compared with the mighty texts they sit among, but this is still an impressive debut album.