HARP & A MONKEY – Live at Grayshott Folk Club

Harp & A Monkey
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Although they have a new album on the way – pause for cheering – Harp & A Monkey had resolved not to play anything from it. Martin Purdy explained that when they had tried to preview new songs, audiences had been disappointed that they couldn’t buy them there and then. Besides, being such a long way from home gave them a perfect opportunity to explore their back catalogue in front of a new audience.

I’d seen them live once before, doing a support spot but here, in a headline role, they were able to relax and be a little more expansive. Their instrumentation seems minimal, not to say a little odd: banjo, guitar and glockenspiel with touches of accordion, melodica, fiddle and, yes, harp. However they perform over loops and backing tapes – Andy Smith and Simon Jones are both string players and it’s all their own work, so as Martin put it “we’re miming to ourselves” but they’re not, of course. They are playing in a situation where timing is everything and unforgiving and you can’t help but admire the skill when a note rings out a split second before a spoken word section of tape begins.

They began with ‘The Manchester Angel’, one of their adapted traditional songs and one which puts Harp & A Monkey in a geographical and historical context: mill towns, cobble streets and poverty. Many of their original songs encompass the history and geography of their home region as well as its people which is where the semi-traditional ‘Bolton’s Yard’ comes in. But they’re not restrictive as ‘Digging Holes’ proves and sometimes their songs are deeply personal – ‘Dear Daughter’ springs to mind.

The second set began with a selection of songs from War Stories, their Great War album, beginning with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’. It may be sacreligious but I think I prefer their version of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ to Peter Bellamy’s. Peter emphasised the harshness of the poem whereas Harp & A Monkey bring out the tenderness. The album and songs like ‘Gallipoli Oak’ and ‘Postman’s Song’ concentrate on the other stories of the war – the widows, the bereaved parents and the civilians who kept services going at home but saw the misery and despair.

They finished with the lighter songs: ‘The Molecatcher’, ‘Pay Day’ – not exactly light, perhaps, but very singable – and the delightful ‘Katie And The Twinkly Band’ before encoring with ‘Charlie Chaplin’. A splendid show.

Jim Cozens
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Harp & A Monkey were supported by singer-songwriter Jim Cozens and Grayshott are very lucky to have a performer of his calibre in their midst. His songs are never formulaic and conjure up wonderful pictures. I particularly liked ‘15th And P Street’, his account of living in Washington DC which he really brought to life.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Soldier, Soldier’ – official video:

PETER KNIGHT AND JOHN SPIERS – Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 6 March 2018

Peter Knight And John Spiers
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Same venue, different day. In the space of a week, three entirely different acts have made their distinct impressions in this same room. Tonight it’s Peter Knight And John Spiers, an inspired pairing first conceived of in 2016 and now touring Well Met, their first album together, recorded in January this year. The elegance and lyricism of their playing is the common denominator here, each complementing the other, smoothly coursing together like fine clockwork.

Each tune and set is lovingly crafted, with thematic and rhythmic variations explored unhurriedly, inviting the listener in to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of each one.

Knight’s playing is a revelation. A world away from folky fiddling, it’s fully informed by the classical style, all long sweeping bow strokes and eloquent legato. Yet he never loses the essential folk heart of the music, tracing a graceful line of his own making.

The melodeon is an eerie beast, breathing like a ghost over your shoulder at one minute, harrumphing like a euphonium the next. One moment turning out jolly hornpipes, then droning with deepest melancholy. It’s a curious kind of versatile, but Spiers knows exactly how to capture and manipulate its range, adding maximum colour and savour to the music.

Opening with ‘Paddy Carey’s Jig’, Knight’s waist-height plucking transitions to bowing, as it does on the second tune, the American ‘Waiting For The Federals’. Except here it’s much more a classical chin-held pizzicato, its raindrop effect giving way to a Scottish-influenced playing style that even manages to evoke a hint of distant bagpipes.

‘Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives’ is a fascinating set, reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, with the melodeon taking on a metronomic drone quality and the fiddle only taking on a more rustic aspect in the later stages.

‘Rosebud In June’, that Steeleye Span stalwart, becomes a beautiful, poignant, almost filmic melody with Knight adopting a more slurred style towards the end. The emotional pull of this and Northumbrian lullaby, ‘Bonny At Morn’ are stand out moments, as is Knight’s virtuoso solo spot.

Since an audience member has shouted out a request, Knight casually picks up and runs with it, saying “I don’t normally do requests – unless I’m asked”. From the album, An Ancient Cause, ‘From A Lullaby Kiss’ demonstrates a touch of gypsy style with the fiddle sounding periodically flute-like. It’s the only song of the evening to feature any sung lyrics, and suitably weighty they are, too.

For Spiers’s solo, we are treated to a trio of hornpipes, two of which are his own. ‘George Green’s College Hornpipe’ is succeeded by ‘Ewan Mac’s Export’, a tune written for a friend moving to Scotland, and ‘Hyena’, originally ‘Autumn Hornpipe’ but renamed by fellow sessioners as “it’s got a high E in it”. His other featured composition, ‘The Long Walk Home’, captures the authentic slow plod of tired feet.

Elsewhere, ‘Cuckoo’, a trio of cuckoo-related tunes, is followed by a jolly hornpipe pairing, ’Scan Testers No.1 Step Dance/Murphy’s Hornpipe’. To Galicia for the coiling waltz,‘A Bruxa’ (‘The Witch’), by Milladoiro’s Antón Seoane, and home again for Nigel Eaton’s ‘Halsway Schottische’, before wrapping up the evening with a spirited encore of ‘Isadora’s Reel’. And what an evening: contemplative, accomplished and one to relish for some time to come.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: https://www.peterknight.net/knight-and-spiers

SAM KELLY & THE LOST BOYS – Live at Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 5 March 2018

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Battling snow and ice on tour for the past week has clearly taken a toll on this group of musicians (amongst many others no doubt), but that won’t stop them putting on a storming show this evening.

Support act, Honey And The Bear (aka Jon Hart & Lucy Sampson) deliver a half-hour set of earwormy, catchy songs, culminating in ‘William’ from their 2016 EP, About Time Too and the galloping, riffling ‘Wristburner’. Their slightly low-key stage presence belies their lively, well-crafted and perfectly performed music. And it turns out that there’s so much more to this versatile duo: manning the merch stall, driving the van and even providing the evening’s sound tech. Headliners, book them now, while you can.

A short while later, the seven-piece line-up of Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys fills the stage as percussionist Evan Carson sets a grinding groove for the first song, ‘Hickathrift’, the tale of a legendary Norfolk giant-killer.

With so many big, sing-along tunes on both the band’s albums to date, from ‘The Golden Vanity’ via the deceptively jolly ‘Angeline The Baker’, the call-and-response of ‘The Keeper’ or the barrelling ‘Jolly Waggoners’, featuring a frenzied banjo part from Jamie Francis, it’s blindingly obvious why this band is such a festival success.

Then there’s the dry, irreverent and often charmingly unfiltered humour that allows them to respect what they do without being in thrall to it. If you’re after reverential folk that won’t poke fun at the often ludicrous and/or plain old sexist scenarios of some songs, this might not be the band for you. If you want a solid, tight set of superb musicians who know how to have a good time, then they’re a must-see.

Still, it’s not all wall-to-wall party. The well-paced set contains many quieter moments, such as the tender rendition of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’, and Cornish ballad ‘Grwello Glaw’ (‘Let It Rain’). Originating from Kelly’s time with The Changing Room, it’s an appropriate choice for a St Piran’s Day gig. (Also, we’re told, it will be the first dance the band plays for Hart and Sampson’s wedding in June. Altogether now: aaahhh!).

A rather different sound comes with ‘The Shiny Ship’, an effect-laden track from the Pretty Peggy album that has been reworked for the live environment. Carson’s shimmering cymbals and hard rapping drum offset Graham Coe’s shoulder-slung, psychedelic, droning cello to create an atmosphere of moody mystery.

For the family members present in the audience, Kelly dedicates a cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans Of Swing’ which starts leisurely before building into a floorshaker. Finishing with Archie Moss’s melodeon leading the mischievous cross-dressing tale, ‘The Close Shave’ and buffered by tunes from Ciaran Algar and Toby Shaer, the set ends on a whirling high.

As the audience erupts in appreciation, the band returns in typically self-deprecating fashion. “The dressing room was locked” deadpans Algar. Meanwhile, there are two clear contenders for an encore among the crowd. Carson holds a vote, defying Algar’s sardonic, “This is not a democracy”. 48% want ‘The Chain’, but 52% are pro ‘Greenland Whale’, so there it is. Luckily, this is one vote that doesn’t cause deep or lasting division, as we all sing happily together before going our separate ways home.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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.

Artists’ website: http://www.samkelly.org/

‘Sultans Of Swing’ – live at the other Cambridge Festival:

CARA DILLON – Live at Kings Place, Kings Cross, 22 February 2018

Cara Dillon
Photograph by Mike Wistow

The venue was stunning. Clean wooden floors, a delicate bar, someone selling programmes (for Barry Cryer in Hall One), what I can only call an ‘older audience’. There’s a civilised aspect to folk in a place like this that I’m simply not used to. This was a Christmas present. A trip to London with tickets for Cara Dillon in concert. A fascinating experience in that I normally watch folk music in small halls/arts centres or in fields at festivals. But it felt good.

And the music, ah the voice. Three of the band walked on stage, Cara Dillon in the centre, a couple of empty microphones either side, then piano to the left and violin to the right. And a voice like an angel, prickling the back of the neck, even when it became the voice of a lonely angel. About four songs in there was a wee technical hitch, which left Dillon to sing an impromptu unaccompanied solo while they fixed it. If anyone in the sold out hall had dropped a pin you’d have heard it, so rapt were the audience by the song.

By now the stage was full – a bass and second guitar giving a deeper sound to the music. ‘The Leaving Song’ written by Dillon was a delight, the story of a living wake (a ‘wake’ for those alive but being seen for the last time before they left for America or elsewhere) with gems of detail such as hobnail boots sparking on the stone floor as they danced and then the quiet as the family realised Dillon’s great great uncle, who was leaving, had slipped quietly out the back to avoid final farewells.

The second half had no technical hitches and took off into the skies. Dillon returned from break with ‘Both Sides The Tweed’ and the live version knocked the socks off the recording on the new CD. ‘Lake Side Swans’ was written after seeing the posture of the refugee boy a couple of years ago face down on the beach. Dillon said, “The image stayed with me and I wrote this”. This is what we need our folk singers for – to capture those moments where we share our humanity else we’d otherwise forget it in a world of instant electronic images supplanted one after another.

The set moved on with ‘Blackwater Side’, ‘If I Prove False’ – a stunning duet with John Smith and a refrain you couldn’t help but join in gently with “Who’s gonna kiss your pretty little lips……if I prove false to thee”. Then 2009’s ‘Hill of Thieves’ and the powerful ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ from 2002.

If the first half lost a little of its flow because of the technical problems and clicks on the guitars, the second half showed us why Cara Dillon, with band, is one of the classic folk singers of the modern age. She finished with two more songs from the new album, Wanderer, before concluding appropriately enough with ‘Parting Glass’.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).


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.

Artist’s website: http://www.caradillon.co.uk/

‘The Parting Glass’:

McGOLDRICK, McCUSKER & DOYLE– City Roots Festival, The Junction, Cambridge (27 February 2018)

McGoldrick, McCusker & Doyle
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Even on this icy night, the venue is full, the crowd enthusiastic – a significant portion seemingly also having attended the recent Transatlantic Sessions. It’s the second visit to Cambridge in very short order for this trio of musicians and they are most warmly welcomed back. (As a side note, it looks like a simple accident of timing prevented Transatlantic Sessions from inclusion in this year’s City Roots festival).

Arriving slightly late (delayed by a missing bike lock key), the band is already underway, so it’s John Doyle’s Child song ‘What Put The Blood’ that makes the first impression. John McCusker follows with a trio of songs from his Hello Goodbye album incorporating a tender tune for his daughter, called ‘It’s A Girl’ with a strathspey link into ‘Billy’s’, a reel for Billy Connolly.

Doyle then takes up an elegant, restrained electric guitar for ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’, about the mass death of thousands fleeing the famine en route to Canada. Doyle’s plainly touched by a recent meeting with an elderly woman in Scotland who’d somehow survived this horrific ordeal.

Mike McGoldrick’s seemingly bottomless lungs and dancing fingers are in fine form as he takes the reins on ‘Leaving South Uist / Lochaber Badger’, two tunes learned and loved from earlier Transatlantic Sessions. To round off the first session, the crowd joins in with the deceptively jolly sea shanty ‘Billy O’Shea’, a cautionary tale of pressganging and death. Doyle momentarily loses his thread and, casting heavenwards for inspiration, he fills on guitar, greeted by an encouraging roar of support from the audience as he finds his place once more. It’s reassuring to know that even the most gifted among us is only human, after all!

A quintet of tunes including ‘Keane O’Hara’, ‘Rip The Calico’ and ‘Coming Of Age’ opens the second session, all taken from the new album, The Wishing Tree, and followed up by ‘Across The Western Ocean’ a downbeat sea shanty learned from Doyle’s father. The band happily jumbles over the various tune titles, finally settling on a relaxed, “they’re all on the CD” – which pretty much sums up their easy-going unforced rapport, the kind that only years of friendship can bring.

When they play, it’s a different matter altogether. There is a precision and clarity that unites them. Totally focused, totally in sync, every note is played cleanly: no smudging, blurring or elision. From bow strokes, to finger placing to chords, the line of the music is always sharply defined and crisp, no matter how fast the tempo gets.

They’re superb quick-change artistes too, swapping out instruments mid-tuneset in the blink of an eye, not missing a beat. Starting on whistles, McGoldrick switches to flute and McCusker to fiddle, whilst Doyle changes guitar. As the tune gathers pace, the sheer physical effort is etched on their faces and in their body movements, with Doyle arched over his instrument, practically driving it into the floor. Afterwards, McCusker only says drily, “Well, that went slightly faster than we’d hoped”.

Doyle presents his murder ballad ‘Burke And Hare’, with its chorus based on a children’s rhyme, and ‘The Apprentice Boy’ (aka ‘Charming Anne’) which he introduces as “an optimistic song – my only one”. McCusker’s tender ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ provides a tender, wistful interlude.

The audience remains utterly engaged and absorbed, rocking out with the faster numbers, quietly attentive on the slower ones. At the end of the show, there’s uproarious applause and foot-stomping until the band returns with an encore of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’.

Never having seen this trio play before (I know), their superb musicianship delivered so much more than expected and, mostly, with apparently effortless ease. What an absolute pleasure to share in their warmth, intimacy and richly talented company for the past couple of hours.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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.

Believe it or not, these guys don’t have a dedicated web-site.

Live at Warwick Folk Festival:

Damien O’Kane live at Chapel Arts Centre, Bath. Friday 23rd February 2017

Damien O'Kane
Photograph by Martyn Plant

On taking to the stage at Bath’s Chapel Arts Centre Damien O’Kane immediately established himself as a genial and engaging presence. The Northern Irish singer and musician spoke warmly of the venerable Roman city while diplomatically avoiding any suggestion that he was less enamoured of Basingstoke, where he had appeared with his accomplished band the previous evening.

Somewhat boldy perhaps, O’Kane opted to commence proceedings with an instrumental, the traditional Irish melody ‘Castle Kelly’s’, drawn from recently released third album Avenging And Bright. This introductory number served as musical scene-setting since it amply showcased the lush and enveloping sound the band conjures, while O’Kane’s dexterous banjo playing occupied centre-stage. Guitarists, Steve Byrnes and Steven Iveson played impeccably throughout the night, while the keyboards of Anthony Davis added a contemporary tonal palette that sets O’Kane’s music apart from that of many of his contemporaries.

A strain of dry and eccentric humour surfaced (not for the last time) when the singer informed us that though he sits to play the banjo he will be on his feet for the guitar; the banjo being an exceptionally heavy instrument we were assured. Much of the music Damien O’Kane played tonight was evocative of a reflective, perhaps pensive frame of mind and steadily absorbed the keenly attentive audience. One striking moment was O’Kane’s sensitive rendition of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, its traditional lyrics set to a tune of the artist’s own devising. This beguiling love song set on the fringes of Northern Ireland’s longest river was a particularly apt choice given that the fabled watercourse snakes through O’Kane’s hometown of Coleraine. Before the interval was reached O’Kane managed to rouse the initially reticent audience to sing the chorus of a song taught to him by his grandfather: ‘P Stands For Paddy I Suppose’. It was however, necessary for the singer to halt proceedings mid-song to playfully lambast the audience for their timid vocals before the lines were sung back to O’Kane with heightened gusto.

Taking to the stage for the second half the show, O’Kane informed the audience that his fellow band-mates had advised him during the interval to curtail his between-song banter and concentrate on the songs. Indeed, the relaxed and gently humorous mood of the show’s first hour seemed largely supplanted during what followed by a greater sense of urgency and intent. The second set opened with a full-throttle rendering of the superb ‘Boston City’, the opening track of Avenging And Bright. Other melodious gems from the album abounded during the second set providing many examples of the tremendous musicianship of O’Kane and his band. Instrumental interludes occasionally provided instances of the impish humour evident in O’Kane’s earlier comments and observations. At one point the group detoured without warning from traditional tunes into the Muppet Show theme, complete with stonily earnest expressions worthy of Statler and Waldorf themselves. Elsewhere we were treated to a po-faced excerpt from Mungo Jerry’s, ‘In The Summertime’; a mightily incongruous inclusion in a set list of traditional music at any time but particularly so on this perishingly cold February night in Bath.

After the extended and warmly received encore it was clear that Damien O’Kane had found many supporters for his expansive vision of traditional music. Equally evident was the considerable instrumental prowess of his unassuming band. For those folk enthusiasts of the opinion that traditional music can thrive in a contemporary settings Damien Kane is most assuredly your man.

Tim Carter

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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.

Artist’s website: http://damienokane.co.uk/

The Damien O’Kane Band: ‘P Stands For Paddy’ – live:

Tim Carter presents ‘Off the Beaten Track’ on Somer Valley FM (www.somervalleyfm.co.uk) on Monday evenings at 6pm.