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BILLY MITCHELL & BOB FOX – Back On City Road (Own Label)

What is it about Billy Mitchell and Bob Fox that makes you wish everyone in the world were a Geordie? On the strength of this striking album it’s the feeling of camaraderie that is inherent in each song and the obvious good-humour that runs like a seam of ‘black diamonds’ throughout the recording. Starting with “The Shoemakker” (surely a spelling mistook) followed by “The Pitman And The Blackin’” from their region of God’s own country it establishes the duo’s credentials for the traditional personality inherent from their North-East up bringing. In keeping with the locality, the inclusion of Mark Knopfler’s far from cheesy “Sailing To Philadelphia” and the anthemic “Why Aye Man” (the theme from Auf Widersen Pet) are prime examples of being proud enough to wear your heritage firmly on your sleeve. As part of their established sound Billy more often than not utilises his trusty Guild 12-string guitar adding a resonant ringing depth in much the same way Celtic bands use Bouzouki. It’s a glorious sound enhanced by the mandolin and guitar interplay on the only tune set “Off To Kefalonia/Spanish Misfortune” complete with minor key ending so reminiscent of a performance by the much missed Jack The Lad. Personally speaking my CD collection would be incomplete without the performances of these two guys and a damn sight less colourful. For those of us that have had the pleasure of listening to Bob and Bill over the years this album will prove a must purchase item. Here’s to the next one! Contact or PETE FYFE

ALBION CHRISTMAS BAND – Snow On Snow (Talking Elephant Records TECD135)

I don’t know what it is about Christmas but it always brings out the best in me particularly the seasonal songs. It seems that I’m not the only one either as this is the latest in a long line of several albums that the Albion Band have released on the theme. The band’s choice of material would appear to be inexhaustible and to prove the point they incorporate traditional fare such as “The Seven Joys Of Mary” and standards “In The Bleak Mid Winter” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (each with their original melodies still intact) alongside more contemporary songs “Frozen Man”, “Comfort And Joy” and Dave Goulder’s classic “January Man” which are blessed with titles that settle nicely within the framework of the concept. As ever, Ashley Hutchings along with Simon Nicol, Kellie While and squeeze-box maestro Simon Care provide the core backing and vocals augmented by Guy Fletcher (violin/drums), David Tobin (cornamuse/recorder) and Mark Hutchinson on keyboards/percussion and production. Finally, perhaps it’s my age (or maybe as it’s a Christmas recording and I’m in Scrooge mode) but my only gripe with an otherwise blemish free production is that I’ve had to take up ‘squinting’ as a hobby because I can just about read the sleeve notes…sleeve designers please note 4pt as your choice of font size is not exactly ideal (!) That aside this is a recording that should be on every ‘folk’ enthusiasts Christmas wish list. Contact for more details. PETE FYFE

Alison Krauss Live From The Tracking Room (Rounder Records)

Perhaps it’s Alison’s beautiful smile beaming from the sleeve or the thoughts that inspire it that convey so much about this country gal done good. For those of you that haven’t heard the ‘angels from heaven’ vocal style that evokes memories of the sadly departed Karen Carpenter for its individuality then do yourself a favour and, by hook or by crook obtain a copy of this great DVD. Whether you’re a musician or not, everyone will appreciate the duets with, amongst others; James Taylor (How’s The World Treating You), Brad Paisley (Whiskey Lullaby) and “Lay Down Beside Me” with John Waite. The glittering array of top-notch musicians she surrounds herself with is based on a mutual respect shown to a truly great artist and includes Jerry Douglas on steel guitars, Abraham Laboriel Snr (bass guitar) and Gordon Mote on piano. Predominantly used to promote the album A Hundred Miles Or More (of which there isn’t a duff track!) this visual record shows an artist in her prime and should be required viewing for anyone interested in getting on in the music business. You can tell during the linked interviews with the band the empathy they all feel towards Alison and she is equally rewarded by her trust in them in getting exactly what she wants in putting across her lyrics. When expounding the virtues of Alison’s performance everyone agrees (this reviewer included!) that she has that rare, gently commanding charisma that endears her music to anyone who hears it. The photography, as expected is first class with plenty of close-ups on the musicians’ digital dexterity and also shows the intensity and passion of the singers. If you’ve just become aware of Alison or are a long established fan then this DVD is for you. For more information visit PETE FYFE

The Eva Cassidy Story featuring Zoe Tyler – Churchill Theatre, Bromley 23.09.09

Over The Rainbow (The Eva Cassidy Story)

Zoe Tyler’s stunning performance of “Fields Of Gold” on the BBC Breakfast show the other day was inspirational. Utilising the song to promote the “Over The Rainbow – The Eva Cassidy Story” tour I thought I’d check it out a couple of days later at Bromley in Kent’s renowned Churchill Theatre. Well, the first signs looked promising…a sold out performance and I hadn’t seen an audience so hyped up since I attended the first night of Riverdance in London. I’m sure many turned out on the strength of that TV appearance but then, what else did I expect? I’m not sure really but the first part of the show relied heavily on a rather ragged bunch of musicians whose playing didn’t appear up to much. Without wishing to sound churlish, there’s no need for out of tune (something a good guitar technician could sort in a couple of minutes), badly picked acoustic guitars on whic h a majority of the show relies. This coupled with a heavy dose of American schmaltz (think perhaps a bad episode of The Walton’s or a cringe worthy “now picture this” by Canada’s Rankin Family) didn’t inspire the restless, sighing throng although none of the vocalists could be faulted. Along with an ever changing, indistinct and clichéd projected background this didn’t bode well for the second act. The contrived audience participation of laughing at lame jokes about Wild World and clapping along with the songs which quickly faded merely acted as an unwanted distraction…then again it shouldn’t take some jumped up hack to point this out to the producer who should realise this on a trial run of the show. As most of Eva’s major hits in the UK including “Songbird”, “Fields Of Gold” and the title song were used in the first act the actual performance highlights came from the more raunchy Blues Alley set and the truly tear inducing finale. I’m really sorry that I couldn’t have given a more positive review as Ms Tyler has a truly exceptional voice…surely blessed by God (!) and I can’t help thinking that with a bit more thought (maybe opening with a recording of Terry Wogan first playing Cassidy on his radio show) and the producer gearing things to British audiences including a quality ‘house band’ (not something you’d expect to see at a Warner’s Holiday country music show) this wo uld have ended up a tighter, more balanced performance. Footnote: I’ve just been on the writer’s website and discovered that he’s British! – a surprise really as this show is definitely geared to appeal more to an American audience. PETE FYFE

Shrewsbury Festival Review

Driving through Shrewsbury, you are acutely aware of the medieval heritage that surrounds and seduces you, with the ghosts of England’s past seeming like the perfect hosts for a celebration of our folk music traditions. Arriving at the festival site, you are immediately enveloped by a relaxed festival atmosphere, with the Showground taking on the feel of a rural village.

Whilst the festival itself spans four days in total, my visit would be confined to just two afternoons this year, though one shouldn’t underestimate just how much entertainment and inspiration was packed in to this relatively short space of time, particularly when that time was filled with such an inspired selection of music.

Breabach were to provide the first music of my Sunday afternoon, with a spirited set of tunes and songs. The combined highland pipes of Calum MacCrimmon and Donal Brown were utterly electrifying, and Donal’s step-dancing brought a very visible energy to the band’s stage presence. Poor Patsy Reid was unable to lend her vocals to this afternoon’s set due to being struck down with the flu, though she still put in a fine, fluid performance on fiddle.

It is testament to the festival committee’s temerity, that they have given such prominence to the American singer-songwriter, Krista Detor, both at this year’s festival, and as part of the associated Darwin Song Project. Those of us who have already fallen under Krista’s enchanting spell are well aware of her eloquent writing talent, and her handsomely expressive vocals, and for those at Shrewsbury who were unfamiliar with Krista’s work, her performances this weekend must have made for a most alluring discovery. Krista made the marquee take on the feel of the most luxurious of concert venues, wrapping her sultry vocals around the most sumptuous ballads you might ever witness. For around an hour, the audience feasted on an emotional upheaval of humour, hope, and heartbreak.

Chris Wood is undoubtedly a national treasure, and to witness this one man playing on the main stage, armed with just his songs and guitar, made for a potent experience. Wood manages to write songs that connect with the national conscience, in a way that maintains a manifest degree of intimacy. His songs bear melodies and structures that owe much to the traditional styles of the British Isles, yet his lyrics speak a language that is very much relevant. His songs of family life chimed a particular resonance and warmed him to an attentive audience, but it was Wood’s intense song chronicling the last days of Jean Charles de Menezes that laid bare the nation’s shame and despair, to a mixture of discomfort and relief from the audience; discomfort from the acceptance that such a thing could happen in our own country, and relief that Wood was giving a frank and honest voice to what many of us have felt.

Returning to the festival on Monday afternoon, I took some time to just mill around the Village Stage and catch a glimpse of the variety of traditional dancing that was being performed, ranging from sensible and ladylike, to somewhat lewd and bawdy, but always performed in the best of spirits. The effort that these dance troupes put in to making their colourful costumes is nothing compared to the energy they expend during their wholehearted performances, and love ’em or loathe ’em they certainly accentuate the festival atmosphere, and do much to discourage any reservedness that you may feel!

Karine Polwart kicked off the afternoon’s music on the main stage, where she was warmly welcomed by a rapturous, near-capacity crowd; accompanied by the solid guitar and vocals of her brother, Stephen Polwart, and the versatile Inge Thomson, who displayed her typically intuitive accompaniment and sang like an absolute angel. You could really appreciate the wide appeal of Karine’s songs when you saw the reaction of the large festival audience, many of whom were applauding the opening chords to the songs they recognised. There were audience members of all ages enthusiastically singing along, heightening the sense that Karine really is one of the seminal songwriters of our time, with a body of songs that is cherished by an increasing number of admirers. A healthy dose of modesty meant that Karine faced the crowd with just a little bemusement, and looked genuinely surprised whenever her songs raised a cheer.

Megson proved to a laid-back audience why they are widely regarded as one of the folk scene’s rising stars with their exquisitely crafted, catchy folk-pop. They brought a finely tuned illumination to some old folk ballads, but it was their own songs that really roused the audience with winsome harmonies and bewitching choruses. In particular “Fell To The Breeze” hinted at their potential for wider appeal beyond the folk genre with a summery radiance that you couldn’t fail to be captivated by! Megson also provide a welcome change by singing proudly in their gorgeous Teeside accents, rather than opting for the usual mid-Atlantic drawl to which many singers seem to descend these days.

My visit to Shrewsbury was rounded off by Irish stalwarts Patrick Street, a group whose members possess renowned individual talent, that is surpassed only by their combined efforts. It was magical to witness these legends of traditional music whipping up a storm on the main stage, playing with an enviable zest and spirit. Patrick Street demonstrated an impressive intricacy thanks to the mesmerising string work of Andy Irvine and Arty McGlynn. Kevin Burke put in an effortless performance on fiddle, whilst John Carty’s combination of versatility and virtuosity ensured that no style or pace was beyond their reach. Patrick Street are a group who remind you that, most of all, traditional music really can be unbelievably great fun!

The fact that this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival was sold out well before the weekend itself speaks volumes, and demonstrates why this offers a genuinely unmissable event on the folk festival calendar.

All involved in staging this event should be heartily congratulated!


2009 Fairport Convention Cropredy Festival Review

With the threat of hitting the big four O this year, it was time to try some new activities to try and prove to myself that I was still young and restless! Courtesy of “the one and only” ..Folkmaster.. (apologies Darren), I trotted along to Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival armed with cold weather gear (well, after 4½ years in ….Brisbane…., the ….UK…. is cold – and camping would be freezing!) and a very open mind – what had I got myself in to?

The day dawned fine and sunny as I arrived in Oxfordshire, the tent was erected with relatively little swearing and angst although it did take strategic and careful logistical planning to avoid the large lumps of cow dung! All sorted and unpacked and it was off to find out what all the fuss was about.

With no real prior knowledge of Fairport Convention (heresy, I hear!!) and my life obviously lacking, I was both enthusiastic and cautiously optimistic about the education that lay in store. Armed with vino, camping chair and souvenir programme, (note the priorities!), I set myself in amongst the other festival revellers eagerly awaiting the entertainment. We were not disappointed. What an array of talent, variety and sheer chutzpah! It was fantastic. There were acts for all – traditional folk; folk rock; folk punk (!) (or should that be punk folk?) and pop! It was three days of sheer delight!

Along with the music, there was the Cropredy atmosphere – an aura of comradeship, fun and don’t-care attitude prevailed. When they say that it is ….Britain….’s friendliest music festival, they weren’t kidding! Browsing around the many stalls, children’s entertainment and food vendors just added to the sense of ambience.

But back to the music and where to start. All the artists were excellent but my personal highlights included Richard Thompson and I was thrilled when he played Vincent Black Lightning 1952 as that was my introduction to his music; Dreadzone – energetic, crowd-pleasing and thumping good tunes!; Seth Lakeman – having danced to his set at Stokes Bay Festival, it was great to see him again and Cormac Byrne from Uiscedwr who joined him on Lady of the Sea; Nik Kershaw (my nostalgic return to the 80s and the heady days of youth.) Colvin Quarmby – with Gerry Colvin’s groovy hands – they deserved a set of their own!! And of course, the incomparable Fairport Convention who were joined by the lengendary Yusaf Islam aka Cat Stevens.

When Sunday morning came and it was time to dismantle the tent and begin the journey home, a sense of mild gloom came over me – my first Cropredy was over – never again would I be a Cropredy virgin but…. Although the first time is special, the next time I would be a veteran.. roll on Cropredy 2010! Sarah Burch August 2009