MERRY HELL – Anthems To The Wind (Merry Hell Music MHMCD218)

Anthems To The WindHere’s a conundrum. When you see them playing the folk circuit, Merry Hell comprise Virginia Kettle and her borther-in-law Andrew on vocals, his brothers John on guitar and Bob on banjo, mandolin and bouzouki, bassist Nick Davies and fiddle player Neil McCartney. Officially, however, they’re now an eight-piece with Lee Goulding on keyboards and Andy Jones providing percussion. For such practical reasons as most club stages being too small to accommodate that many musicians, the latter two remain studio-bound.

So, while a live album might be representative of the band on any given night, it wouldn’t be representative of the band as such. So, what you have here is a collection of numbers from the repertoire featuring all eight members, recorded (mostly) live at three venues, just not with an audience, but with the arrangements stripped back to the way they would be heard in their primarily acoustic setting of a folk club.

Ok, that’s the logistics out of the way, so what about the music? It kicks off in fine fettle with the slower live styling of ‘Drunken Serenade’ the opening track from their debut album, these days, of course, showcasing McCartney with an interpolation of traditional instrumental ‘The Banshee Reel’.

Introduced by Virginia as “a message to mothers everywhere”, ‘My Finest Hour’ is the reworking of off Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain, spinning the perspective with, here, Virginia rather than Andrew recounting how mom puts a damper on the couple’s amorous intentions.

Again, it’s Virginia rather than Andrew who sings lead on a slightly longer version of the slow waltzing ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ from 2015’s There’s A Ghost in Our House…, fiddle replacing the already pared back original’s guitar solo.

It’s back to Blink…And You Miss It for anthemic swayalong ‘Over The Border’, fairly akin to the studio recording but, again, slightly longer. The debut also yields three further songs, Bob’s mandolin now being joined by some rousing fiddle from Neil on ‘This Time’, the playful unlikely love story of ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’, sung as before by Virginia, benefiting from a fuller arrangement to its slow march tempo. Andy’s percussion underpinning the prolusion, the division-themed call for tolerance and social anger management ‘The War Between Ourselves’ is one of two instances where the live album brushes up against rock’n’folk, Neil’s fiddle again in the spotlight.

The third is one of the band’s undisputed live showstoppers, ‘Lean On Me, Love’ transformed totally from the studio version with Andrew opening in sonorous a capella form and the slower, almost hymnal arrangement raising its uplifting and inspirational message to the heavens.

Likewise, another live favourite, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ takes on a more full-bloodied stomp feel to the recorded incarnation on Head…and, I venture to suggest, is all the better for it. So too is Andrew and Virginia’s haunting duet of loss and longing on ‘Leave A Light On’ off Ghost…, stripping away the drums and supplanting the guitars with melodeon to bring the song’s swelling emotions into greater relief.

There are, conspicuously, no songs from the most recent album, Bloodlines, you do, however, get two numbers new to Merry Hell but brought in from the Tansads’ back catlogue. The call to personal action and taking risks of ‘Fear Of Falling’ is the second ‘rock-out’ with its strummed guitars, driving fiddle, whoops and handclaps, the album ending with Andrew on lead and the melancholic fiddle notes of the similarly themed slow waltzing ‘Satisfied’, with its refrain singalong image of “millions of people lost in the world”, settling for and accepting the life they’ve been handed rather than, it’s implied, making one for themselves.

They did, of course, win Best Live Act in this year’s Folking Awards; however, not being a live album per se, there’s no crowd applauding or calling for more. You’ll doubtless want to do that part yourselves.

Mike Davies

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: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Lean On Me, Love’ – live:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC and THE RABBLE CHORUS live at Snape Maltings

Merry Hell Acoustic

Merry Hell don’t often get to play at places where the bouncers, sorry ushers, wear DJs but they’d never played Snape Maltings before. This is a classical concert hall with spectacular acoustics in which Virginia Kettle absolutely revelled – singing scales between songs just for the joy of hearing her voice resonate around the space. Of course, they needed a big space to accommodate the choir, so let’s start with them.

The Rabble ChorusThe Rabble Chorus are an amalgamation of four community choirs under the musical direction of Kirsty Logan who teaches all of them the same repertoire – clever, eh? There were three hundred of them of stage and that’s quite a sound, believe me. They opened their support set with ‘Drunken Sailor’ which was rousing but I’d hoped for something more. That came with ‘Emerald Green’, a song from Merry Hell (used with permission, I hasten to add) and Nancy Kerr’s ‘Poison Apples’ which established their right-on credentials. Then came a song in Czech which sounded wonderful but turned out to be totally inconsequential.

A small group of the men sang ‘Sweetest Kick’ from the Spooky Men’s Chorale and a similar group of the women sang two songs from the Borders and Orkney. Sadly, I didn’t get the name of the leader of ‘Cattle Call’ but she has one hell of a voice. I liked their setting of ‘Crossing The Bar’ and they closed with a visit to South Africa via Paul Simon’s ‘Under African Skies’ and ‘Nkosi Sikelel ‘iafrica’.

Merry Hell began with a couple of their crowd-pleasing anthems; ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After Until We’ve Had The Night Before’. The choir had remained on stage but were keeping their powder dry for a while. ‘Stand Down’ and ‘Bloodlines’ followed and then we hit the first peak with The Rabble Chorus joining in on ‘We Need Each Other Now’ and ‘Bury Me Naked’ – songs that really benefit from massed voices.

There are always some fixed points in the set: ‘Lean On Me Love’ and ‘Drunken Serenade’ are essentials and ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ and ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ add lightness as does ‘Finest Hour’ while Virginia’s solo, ‘Violet’, from her eagerly anticipated solo album was a delight. Bob Kettle’s top hat creates a shadow for him to hide in but I managed to get some photographs this time and I still marvel at how Neil McCartney makes his violin sound like a trumpet. I do think that Merry Hell should try working with a brass band.

The first encore of ‘Coming Home Song’, sung a capella with the choir, was a joy – I only wish they could transfer that sound to the sweaty intensity of The Old Courts or The Citadel. Perhaps the only miss-step was following that with ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’ instead of perhaps leaving the final thought that “we will fly away” hanging in that wonderful space.

Finally, and I don’t usually do this, I’d like to thank the Maltings staff. They have a strict no photographs policy but after some cajoling and consultation and probably sworn affidavits from Merry Hell, I was awarded the red sash that made me an honorary usher and allowed no, positively encouraged, to take pictures. They have style in Snape.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ websites: http://www.merryhell.co.uk/  https://www.therabblechorus.co.uk/home

Venue website: https://snapemaltings.co.uk/

‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ – 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:

MERRY HELL – Bloodlines (Merry Hell Music MHMCD 0116)

bloodlinesI was always a fan of The Tansads back in the 90s and the reunion of three Kettle brothers, singer Andrew, guitarist John and mandolin player Bob, along with John’s wife Virginia, in 2010 under their present name has done nothing to change my mind. Bloodlines is their fourth full-length album since then, the first to feature the voices of all eight members (the others being keyboardist Lee Goulding, Neil McCartney on fiddle with bassist Nick Davies and drummer Andy Jones comprising the rhythm section) and not only continues to see their political veined folk flourish, but also takes both that and the songs of personal relationships up a few notches.

It opens with ‘We Need Each Other Now’, John’s stirring anthemic cry for unity in a world divided over a martial beat and ringing guitars, a theme further explored on Bob’s swaying folk rock ‘Come On, England!’, here, again featuring the band’s massed voices, focusing at the divisions at home, a call for arms in a show of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and defence of people’s rights in the face of the troubling rise nationalism and racism in the name of the red, white and blue.

Sandwiched between is the title track, penned and sung by Virginia, a song that, presumably inspired by the current trend to trace family trees, again celebrates connections, this time within the family and generations, scraping fiddle and tumbling drums providing the song’s spine. ‘Coming Home Song’ is another from Bob, a heartfelt call for peace born of the refugee crisis sung a capella by himself, Andre, Virginia, Neil and Nick, while, again raising the anthemic flag and setting a martial beat, ‘All The Bright Blossoms’, on which he’s joined by Goulding on writing duties, addresses mortality and how love lives on in memory.

Virgina provides two in a row, echoing the theme of ageing on the acoustic slow guitar and fiddle waltzing ‘When We Are Old’, which she also sings, and striking political notes with ‘Stand Down’, a defiant message from those seeking freedom, mercy and justice to those who seek to oppress and exploit. Co-penned by John and Bob, the weary ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is another call to action, and not sing lullabies to our demons and simply “lie there and wait for the end to come.”

‘Chasing A Bluebird’ is something new from the band, the first to be written by McCartney, a country tinged waltzer duet between Andrew and Virginia about an inconstant restless lover leaving broken hearts behind, carried along, as you might guess, on a fiddle tide.

The final four numbers are all from Virginia. The traditional coloured ‘Over The Wall’ a rousing tale of a now or never prison escape by men locked up for striking for better pay and this, in turn, leads into the dreamy ‘Under The Overkill’, pizzicato fiddle and snare introducing a tumbling celebration of a love affair and its “wonderful moments in glorious technicolour”, Andrew providing the chorus refrain to her verses.

She shares credits with Bob and Goulding, who also wrote the music, for the penultimate ‘Man of Few Words’, another tender love song – a la ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ – about being unable to express what you want feel, before bringing things to a close with ‘Sweet Oblivion’, a playfully frisky, mandolin and fiddle driven hoedown, each member taking a bow on their respective instruments, about seizing love and life (“kiss me like it was the last night on earth”) and not going grimly into the dark night. If I was planning a party for the apocalypse, this lot would be top of the list for the house band.

Mike Davies

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: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Come On, England!’ – live at the Citadel, St Helens:

MERRY HELL to release Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain

Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of RainWe’re very excited at folking as we have just got our hands on the new Merry Hell “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” album which is due for general release on the 20 May 2013 through Mrs Casey Records.

The album sees the seven-piece build on the songwriting and musicianship which hallmarked their acclaimed 2011 debut, BLINK…and you miss it.

If you did blink and miss it, then you can head back in time with Dai Jeffries and read his excellent album review here

(which he did for us in September 2011).

We also have a live clip of “Drunken Serenade” (from BLINK…and you miss it) for your listening and viewing pleasure below.

Recorded at Jaraf House Studios, Wigan, Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain is the sound of a band at a new creative peak, inspired by a summer spent immersing themselves in the atmosphere, music and communities at folk and roots festivals up and down the UK.

Tracks like ‘Bury Me Naked’, ‘Let The Music Speak’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (‘Til We’ve Had A Night Before)’ have already become firm favourites among the band’s devoted live following, delighting audiences at Towersey and Wickham Festivals, Big Session, The Great British Folk Festival and many more.

Driven by the distinctive counterpoint vocals of Virginia and Andrew Kettle, the songs are folk music in the broadest sense – story-telling, rootsy and organic – yet underpinned by an unashamed pop sensibility and given wings by the musical accompaniment, including a guest appearance from folk violin legend Dave Swarbrick.

Built around the Kettle family axis (in addition to Virginia and Andrew, the band includes John Kettle on guitars and brother Bob on mandolin and Irish bouzouki), Merry Hell are a band blessed with ability and imagination.

Equally at home in reflective, acoustic-based moments, or declaring their credentials with powerful rock rhythms, the breadth of talent carries firmly into live shows where, time and again, audiences have been swept off their feet and those new to Merry Hell have joined the believers.

If “BLINK…and you miss it” was the sound of Merry Hell becoming comfortable in their new found skin then “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” is loving the skin they’re in.

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 web link: http://www.merryhell.co.uk/