Okay, first off let me declare that I’ve known Mark and Carolyn Evans, who are the core of Birmingham-based Red Shoes, for some 30 years. This, however, has no bearing on what I think of their music. Even had I not known them, I would still be a massive fan. I would also rate Carolyn as one of my all time top five female vocalists, and I’m not the only one who has compared her to Sandy Denny, admittedly her biggest influence.
Originally formed in 1983, they self-released the All Fall Down EP produced by Clive Gregson and a single on Mooncrest, a version of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’, as well as a never-released album. However, eight years later they called it a day to focus on raising a family. Some twenty years later, they decided to give it another go.
Fate brought them into contact with Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg who offered to produce and play on, what would become their debut album, Ring Around The Land. Released in 2009, it was followed in 2012 by All The Good Friends, produced by the late Mick Dolan and again featuring Pegg, alongside Dave Swarbrick and Bev Bevan, and including a slow, deeply sad stunning version of ‘Blackberry Way’.
Now comes their third release, this time a double CD set comprising two acts, one electric and on acoustic, the former featuring the core line up of Mark, Carolyn and guitarist Nigel King alongside drummer Rob Mason and contributions from Pegg and Ric Sanders, while the latter is just the trio. Both discs also feature guest appearances by Joe Brown on Dobro and ukulele, respectively.
As depicted on the artwork, Act One opens with ‘Salters Screen’, one of two rerecorded numbers written as a commission by Worcester County Council for a libraries and communities audio-visual project. An uptempo folk-country chugger featuring Pegg on mandolin and Brown on dobro it was written in response to the memories of Droitwich locals who used to go to Salters Super Cinema which finally closed in the 1960s. A similarly uptempo approach is taken for ‘Dust In The Hallway’, although, carried along on shuffling brushed snare with Sanders on fiddle solo, the lyrics are actually about alcoholism.
Then comes ‘Hostile Place’, a song written several years back during a brief stint under the name of The Lorelei, arranged here by King and, quite frankly, with its line “this home’s a hostile place” one of the greatest songs about a dying relationship ever written. Sung with a vocally quivering heart-wrenching intensity by Carolyn and with Sanders augmenting the emotions on violin, if you’re not a weeping wreck at the end then you have no soul.
Taking its title from the Kevin Spacey TV series, the tumblingly melodic state of the world themed ‘House Of Cards’ was written as a biting response to Donald Trump and American politics and is in turn followed by the title track. Now, long standing fans will know this as a powerful ballad written and sung by Mark, here, however, it’s transformed into one of their jaunty folk numbers in the manner of ‘Swansong’ off the previous album. Both versions are terrific.
‘I Wish It Would Rain’ finds Carolyn in soulful mode for a powerful, slow-paced calling for a cleansing of the country to wash the hate from the shores of its green and pleasant lands. The curtain then falls on the first act with the five-and-half minute ‘Maple Tree Boy’. Sanders’ violin introducing a moving traditional-folk flavoured ballad set to a military slow march inspired by the true story of Arthur Wallace, a navy medic at the Normandy lands, the first casualty he treated being a young Canadian who died in his arms from a bullet that had passed through his helmet. Wallace was haunted by the experience to the end of his days and the fact he was never able to find out the lad’s name. Another one to exercise the tear ducts.
Act Two opens with ‘Floorspot Annie’, a poignant fingerpicked number about a would be folk singer who escapes the 9-5 grind down at the club on a Tuesday night, her hopes of getting spotted never materialising but, despite the fact that “she may not play the finest note or sing the brightest tune” always cheering the audience.
‘Heart of Stourport Town’ is the second of the commissioned songs, a touching slowly strummed, melancholic Dennyesque ballad about friendship and the ‘joyous company’ community that draws on an interviews with two women who grew up in houses attached to the Tontine Hotel, built in 1772 to provide lodgings and premises for the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Company, in the 1950s.
They don’t do many storysongs, but, Mark singing lead, the spare ‘Six Boats’ is a number inspired by Cornish (?) smugglers and sung in the voice of a young father condemned to hang after being betrayed to the Redcoats. Appropriately enough, this is followed by ‘Pirates’, written by Mark and sung by Carolyn, a wistful song of regret and of not putting down roots as she sings “my dreams have faded, faded far away and the sands have covered my footsteps”, Springsteen surely inspiring the line “like a pirate, riding a stolen car.”
Again penned by Mark, their debut single gets a six-minute revisiting with Brown on baritone ukulele, like the title track, has also been reimagined, transforming from its original soaring chorus ballad of desperation sung by Mark to a slower strummed, more world weary reading.
Mark taking lead again, taking its title from the Ayrshire town ‘All The Way To Troon’ is probably the newest number here, a lovely Celtic-hued folk ballad about seeking a lost love, one I can imagine club audiences swaying long to and one which Daniel O’Donnell might want to wrap his ears around.
A passionate member of the anti-fox hunting lobby, the last album featured protest song ‘Red Coat Ride’ and here she’s channeled her love of foxes into an adaptation of the similarly-themed traditional ‘Reynardine’, a stark reading featuring just her electrifying voice underscored by Mason’s rumbling drums.
And, speaking of foxes, she also has another identity as fledgling author C.S.Evans and, accompanied by King, the collection closes with her singing ‘Martha’s Song’, the words taken from her debut novel, Martha – Trinity of the Chosen, a magic-realism murder mystery in which foxes feature prominently, but existing in their own right as a celebration of childhood innocence and nature.
Although, live work will continue, there’s talk that this might be their last album, and, if so, then they are bowing out on a glorious high. However, I live in hope that it isn’t over yet. So should you.
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Artists’ website: www.redshoes-music.com
‘Dust In The Hallway’ – live: