CHRIS CLEVERLEY TRIO – Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham

Chris Cleverley Trio

Already well-established as a charismatic performer on the folk circuit and a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter as well as hugely accomplished guitarist, this hometown gig, the first of the award-winning club’s new season, served to launch his new trio format comprising himself, Kim Lowings and Said The Maiden’s Kathy Pilkington, who also plays banjo and woodwind.

Following an opening set by Minnie Birch, herself a frequent Cleverley collaborator, the trio took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendition of ‘The Old Man From Over The Sea’, Chris taking lead and the two girls crooning harmonies and joining in on the chorus, a ribald Irish ballad from the Anglo-American tradition about a young woman encouraged by her mother to have it away with some grey-bearded old bloke who ultimately proves to be sexually inadequate.

Cleverley strapping on guitar and with Kathy on banjo, ‘You And I Belong Together’, a new self-penned number, proved a rousing Americana stomp, setting the musical backdrop for a rendition of the traditional American folk classic ‘O Shenadoah’, a number he’d recorded on his debut album, elevated to even greater heights by Kathy’s clarinet and her and Kim’s complementary pure-voiced harmonies, the latter airily soaring, the former slightly earthier.

Two further numbers from Apparitions follow, the American folk coloured ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, Kathy back on banjo and Chris strapping on electric guitar, and the waltzing ‘Missing Persons’, explaining that, as the songs age so they change, the new format affording a chance to reinvent rather than simply retread.

The girls temporarily leave the stage for two solo Chris numbers, the ridiculously catchy as yet unrecorded ‘The Low Light Low’ which promises to be a highlight on the next album and, in a tip of the hat to the man who inspired him to learn guitar, a version of ‘Barrack Street’, a traditional tale of a sailor’s misfortune in Windsor, as learned from the Nic Jones album Penguin Eggs (and also on Said The Maiden’s A Curious Tale).

Ending the first set on another terrific new song, ‘Rachael’, the second began one more in a capella mode with another traditional ballad, his time from Scotland, with each taking a verse of ‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ before heading into Appalachian territory, Cleverly on banjo for ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ off his debut.

Setting the scene by recounting how he and Pilkington had taken some time during their summer Scottish dates to explore the blooming heather, they followed with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, given a more uptempo strummed tempo than is usually the case. A number he’s been trying out on recent dates, Steve Miller’s 70s classic ‘The Joker’ might not immediately strike you as folk club material, but in the trio’s hands it works brilliantly. Then it was time for another solo spot. Having already reminded that he gives good between song banter with an amusing story about the animated video for ‘The Day Before The Dawn,’ thoughts of fox-inspired merchandise for babies and a toddler getting up on stage and dancing, he recalled how after reading The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he was inspired by the beautiful grotesques on the fringes of society to write the subsequent song, ‘The Rafters’.

At this point, Kim and Kathy step off and Minnie Birch steps up to duet with Chris on ‘Glitter’, a song off her own debut album they’d been performing on their dates together, before everyone assembles for Birch to sing lead on ‘Up And Down’, a song inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream she wrote for The Company of Players, the Shakespeare-inspired project of which they comprise four of the nine members. And, returning for a well-deserved encore, it’s from this too that comes ‘But Thinking Makes It So’, a Cleverley-penned number inspired by Hamlet and the theme of mental illness, not only one of the very best songs he’s written, but one of the finest in the contemporary folk canon this century. An outstanding finale to a tremendous show.

Cleverley is set to record his new solo album in November and, while both Lowings and Pilkington will be involved, it won’t be a Trio project and there’s no further live shows from the line-up until next autumn. It would be an act of human cruelty to wait so long to hear them again, so, just perhaps, a live in the studio EP of the set’s covers and traditionals might not be too much to hope for. Make it so.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

Performance: 26 September 2018

‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ – live in the front room:

Katie Spencer – in praise of live music

Katie Spencer
Photograph by Mike Wistow

Saturday night I find myself in a church in a small village. This settlement is so tiny that to describe it as a small hamlet overstates it. The best part of fifty years ago I came here on an archeological dig to see if there really had been a Roman settlement, on the edge of a river crossing now too deep and polluted for anyone to risk going in the water (though I was talking to a retired farmer last night who’d swum over in what he described as his foolish youth).

And in the church is a folk concert. Whoa – a folk concert in this place which I associate more with Roman Rome than the modern world; and also whoa – a folk concert in a church – wouldn’t have happened fifty years ago when my great aunt played the church organ in the village on the other side of the river. Even worse (albeit better for me last night) we brought our own alcohol. Fifty years ago the only red wine allowed in the place would have been for communion. The roof didn’t fall in (and see later).

Photograph by Mike Wistow

I knew nothing about the gig before – I’ll go and watch anything live and just said yes when asked to go. What a setting – as the photos show. Three sessions, two artists. Joe Clark, first on, played a mix of covers and own songs. Clever guitar playing from his adeptness in both classical and folk guitar, notably on John Martyn’s ‘May You Never’ and Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ as well as on his own stuff.

Being this kind of venue, there’s a break to stretch the legs and catch up with people. As well as friends who were part of the group I came with, I met an old mate I played cricket with in rural and industrial Nottinghamshire more than thirty years ago in the midst of the miners’ strike and all that went with it. He’s now retired, more into jazz, but happy for his land to be used annually for a folk mini-festival.

Katie Spencer, on the link below and pictured above played two sets. Lovely voice, lovely picking. She’s from Hull, where I lived for ten years or so – a great city of the arts long before it became a (capitalised) City of Culture. If you click on the link below to Spencer’s website and flick through the videos you’ll see why I bought the CD. Mostly her own songs – I particularly liked ‘Drinking The Water’ – but including Spencer the Rover, in recognition of the tradition, the folk revival versions of the song, her own surname and the life of the travelling musician.

So, folk is live. In the break, I learnt folk isn’t just live, the money raised is going to repair the church roof (which still hadn’t fallen in). What more could you want – not just a good evening, but a good cause. Wise also – you don’t even notice you’re raising money because you are simply here enjoying yourself.

There were fewer than a hundred of us. And at venues all over the country, this kind of acoustic music is keeping folk live. For me last night a church, songs of life, stories of Hull, a catch up with old friends, memories of an archeological dig, memories of the formerly thriving pit towns and villages and memories of family long gone – and the same kind of thing is going on in pubs, clubs, halls, fields, house concerts across the country.

Within a ten mile radius of where I live, I knew of three events the same night, Boo Hewerdine in one and Daisy Chapman in the other. There may have been more?

So…in praise of live music – and many thanks to all those artists and promoters who are keeping it live.

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.

Katie Spencer ‘s website: http://www.katiespencer.net

Katie Spencer – ‘Can’t Resist The Road’ live:

EFDSS NATIONAL YOUTH FOLK ENSEMBLE – Grand Arcade, Cambridge

EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Serendipity. It’s great isn’t it? I was just leaving John Lewis (other department stores are available -Ed), doing a spot of late-night shopping, when I became aware of a largish, youthful-looking group of musicians setting up to play in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Nothing particularly unusual there, except that flyers and t-shirts indicated that this was the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble. Needless to say, the shopping trip was rapidly abandoned in favour of spending the next 40 minutes pleasurably listening in.

Opening with a Saraband from Playford, this group of young musicians quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and attracted a decent crowd, heading swiftly into the second of their 8-track set, a sweet take on Catriona MacDonald’s ‘Show Me’. The tunes and arrangements showed the ensemble off pretty well as they roved around the country from Lancashire to Cornwall. The ensemble also showed some ability to create diverse moods, although this session – sensibly enough – was crowd-rousing stuff in the main. Sam Sweeney, the ensemble’s Artistic Director, was on hand giving support to this, his second cohort of students to pass through the EFDSS programme.

It’s a very tough gig playing in the swimming-pool acoustics of a shopping arcade to a bunch of strangers passing through who didn’t actually come to see you and have other priorities anyway, so these youngsters deserve every praise for handling themselves with grace and aplomb. It’s a minor point to say that at times they seemed more intently focused on the music, perhaps slightly at the expense of giving a performance to the audience, but given the distracting environment, maybe it’s not surprising. Overall, they gave a most convincing account of the enduring vitality of folk music.

For anyone attending the Cambridge Folk Festival, the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble will be opening the programme of events on Friday lunchtime, 3rd August. Do try to give them some support: the future of folk music could look a lot like them.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.efdss.org/efdss-education/national-youth-folk-ensemble

The ensemble in 2017:

JACKIE OATES – Lush Studio Soho

Jackie Oates
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

I have reported on CD launch events from a number of venues; the BBC Club, The Convent, even Wigan but none as lush as …well, Lush. On the hottest day of the year in London the air-conditioned Lush Studio Soho was an oasis. It’s a rabbit warren of a building and definitely bigger on the inside than the outside. I don’t know what part of the firm’s business is conducted there but the place was full of shiny happy people who obviously love their jobs. Jackie Oates has a commercial connection with Lush so where better to stage this event.

The performance space is called The Nest and was decorated with roses and flooded with red light. This was after terribly sticky cupcakes featuring roses and apple and hand made cocktails featuring the same ingredients – although a bigger shot of gin wouldn’t have gone amiss – and the roses and apple scent of one of their fragrances.

The album being previewed is called The Joy Of Living. Its title track is the Ewan MacColl song and the number that Jackie closed with. The younger and less embittered members of the audience admitted to tearing up a little at the end. It’s an appropriate title for an album that spans four generations from Jackie’s grandfather who fought with the 51st Highland Division to her daughter, Rosie and her sibling on the way, and encompasses life and death.

Jackie opted to open with ‘Caroline And Her Young Sailor Bold’ which isn’t on the album but its theme of love conquering all is totally relevant. ‘The Last Trip Home’, which came next, was one of Jackie’s father’s favourites and is redolent of the sadness surrounding his death. Then Jackie looked forward with three children’s songs: ‘My Shoes Are Made Of Spanish’, ‘Spring Is Coming Soon’ and ‘Rosy Apple’ – hence the decorative theme. Before we got too misty-eyed she switched to John Lennon’s extraordinary ‘Mother’, perhaps making the point that parenthood isn’t always a bed of roses. Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ for Jackie’s grandfather and ‘Virginny’ learned from her father brought us almost home before ‘The Joy Of Living’.

Jackie stuck to her five-string viola and was accompanied by Jack Rutter on guitar, Indian harmonium (great for drones) and a remarkable looking but wonderful sounding fan fret cittern – hand built, of course. It was a delightful evening which promised a lovely album to come.

Dai Jeffries

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: www.jackieoates.co.uk

‘The Joy Of Living’ – live at Cecil Sharp House:

WINTER WILSON – Far Off On The Horizon (The Launch Event)

Winter Wilson
Photograph by John S Wright

If you go to a Winter Wilson gig you can expect great songs well-played, but also humour in their introductions. I saw them play at a small festival last summer and they stopped their set for five minutes so we could watch the Spitfire fly past. This is a duo good enough to break the rules. They launched their new album, Far Off On The Horizon at Sleaford Playhouse Theatre on May 11th.

The evening opened with the two walking on stage, relaxed, joking and self-deprecating before moving into the title song of the new album. If you’ve never heard them, then their style is, at heart, a combination of Dave Wilson’s clean picking and the two voices – strong separately but gloriously harmonized for both gentle or up tempo songs to give greater impact to the lyrics and the tune. This opening song is about being awake in the middle of the night, alone after a break up. The scene begins as one of everyday experience but then, as Dave Wilson’s songs do so often, there are lines to stun you into admiration at both the insight and the ability to weave the words seamlessly into song lyric, “Treachery comes with a smile/ And deceit the warmest handshake.”

How do you move from this to a song, ‘Merciful Father’, about killing in the name of your faith? For most people this would be the cue to start a considered discussion; for Winter Wilson, it’s an opportunity for Kip Winter to pick up the guitar while Wilson swaps to the banjo. The song is introduced with banjo jokes that have the audience in laughter – but as soon as they start playing, the mood changes to thoughtful listening, and for the acapella finish you could hear a pin drop.

And so the concert moves on – high class singing and playing are interspersed with insight and self-deprecating humour between the songs. ‘Ashes And Dust’, the title song of the previous album, came next followed by a couple more new songs – first a shift of style into blues with ‘Tried And Tested’ and then ‘When First I Met Amanda’ , a girl Wilson met a primary school and how the years have treated her (which is unkindly). There is something simultaneously specific and general about Wilson’s best songs and this is one of them. The lyrics move beyond a simple tale of the fall of someone you once knew into a reflection on humanity “Some never get to say I love you;/Some whisper ’neath their breath./Some spend their lives saying they’re sorry,/While others can’t forgive.”  And then it moves back into individual humanity with Wilson reversing the first verse of primary school love and praying that “she felt a little better/when she looked into my eyes” .

The duo have been playing as Winter Wilson since the 90’s, mostly in the folk tradition. As well as the serous aspects you can see above, their songs are also just good fun to sing. They moved next to 2007’s ‘Metagama’ and encouraged the audience to sing. Another blues-based song ‘The Freo Doctor’, about the cooling Western Australian afternoon breeze is airily introduced, with a schoolboy smirk, as ‘a song about wind’. The first half ended with three songs of great humanity: a solo from Kip Winter of a Burl Ives song her father used to sing; ‘Ghost’ – a classic Wilson song about a Big Issue seller and the impact of changes in the benefits system, a catchy chorus and the stunning image in final line of the chorus, “Well the government said it was self inflicted, / So I don’t show up on their statistics./With the click of a mouse I disappeared;/ From a girl to a ghost at eighteen years”; and a song with lyrics found after the death of a young local musician “I can’t take any credit for it, I just knocked a few edges off”.

By half time we’ve had a classic Winter Wilson concert: humour, self-deprecation, humanity – and some great songs. You have to be good to be able to take an audience from the laughing humour of the introduction to silent thoughtfulness in the first four bars of the following song and in recent years Winter Wilson have honed their talent and travelled a long way: they spent this winter opening around the country for Fairport Convention, and in the recent past they have toured Australia and New Zealand, Germany and Holland, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as all corners of England; they’ve played to small folk clubs and large festivals; they’ve written, sung and played some of the best songs currently on the folk and acoustic scene. John Tams, who knows a thing or two, has said, “It’s a rare gift you have – cherish it mightily.” Sleaford is Winter Wilson’s home town and the gig was a sell out. While there were local Sleafordians in the audience, there were also many who traveled for the concert.

The second half was made of the same stuff. It opened with a joke about a Welshman on a desert island and then moved into ‘Someone else’s Bed’ an early song about an enduring human pain, gripping to listen to, “knowing that you’re lying in someone else’s arms and someone else’s bed” – Dave Wilson’s driving strum on the bass strings forcing us to listen to the tale. The story grows, the higher strings chipping in, occasionally at first and then bursting in to the chorus, Kip Winter’s voice adding volume and fullness to a great tune in this song about something in life that hurts both male and female equally.

Then they took us from humour to empathy again – the humour in the bizarreness of knowing the German word, Schwangerschaftstest, for pregnancy testing kit – the empathy in this tale of ‘Doreen and Joe’ in their tenement, yearning for a baby. It has a happy ending, but it takes you through the agony of failed tests before the joy of the ending.

‘The Ship It Rocked’ is another new song with a lyric to stop you in your tracks, “They say you can’t trade human flesh,/No man can own another./But when the devil calls you’ll sell your soul,/You’ll turn upon your brother.” ‘Grateful For The Rain’ is a song of emigration to Canada with an introduction about the social history of lone female emigrants.

Having played most of the new album they treated us to a request for ‘This Day Is Mine’, another song that got the audience singing, and then to other favourites. It’s generally impossible to know the impact of songs that you write and sing, but for the song that followed, ‘Is It True That His Eyes Are Like Mine’, the duo have had two people come up to them (one after crying through the whole song) and let them know that they too have had babies taken away at an early age, the adults turning up years later to find their mothers – one ‘child’ aged 30, one aged 55.

The blues ‘Find Myself A Lover’, from 2001, came next – still powerful and a great showcase for Kip Winter’s vocal talent – and then ‘We Still Get Along’ from 2013. They finished with ‘Still Life In The Old Dog Yet’, the song they played jointly with Fairport on the recent tour. They couldn’t not do an encore after the ovation they received and finished with ‘Common Form’, based on the story of Rudyard Kipling bending rules so that his son could fight in World War One – then and losing him at the Battle of Loos only weeks after his arrival in France. It includes another magnificent line, “Testosterone and bullshit it’s a heady potent brew” but is much too nuanced to be described as an anti-war song (though it is). As ever with Wilson’s songs, it’s about humanity at a personal level (a father and his son) first, but also allowing you to draw out a wider understanding of humanity as a whole.

And there we had it – a typical Winter Wilson concert, but even more of one because it was both a homecoming and a launch of the new album. Twenty-five years since I first saw them perform they have eight albums to their name and international success. Have a listen to ‘Ghost’ in the video link below and you’ll get a feel for the songs, the clarity of the playing and the strength of their voices both separately and together. And if you like musicians who can move you from humour to compassion in about ten seconds, go and see them live.

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.

Artists’ website: https://winterwilson.com

‘Ghost’ – live:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC – live at The Old Courts, Wigan – 29th April 2018

Merry Hell Acoustic
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.

Jenny ColquittSupport came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.

If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished –  I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.

They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.

As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.

The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video: