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:

WILL POUND – Through The Seasons (Lulubug LULUBUG004)

Through The SeasonsThe cover tells you most of what you need to know about this album. Will Pound, here devoting more of his energies to melodeon than harmonica, was brought up in the Morris tradition and is a long-time member of Chinewrde Morris. Through The Seasons is a project he has long cherished and has brought together some fine musicians to realise it. Although there are a convenient twelve tracks, this is not a calendar – the Plough Monday tune comes in at number nine – nor is it a user manual. It is, as Will himself says, a celebration.

If you have even a passing interest in Morris many of these tunes will be familiar to you but possibly only the hardiest will have heard ‘The College Hornpipe’ or ‘Papa Stour Sword Dance’ in situ. You will certainly have met ‘Getting Upstairs’, ‘Trunkles’, ‘The Nutting Girl’, ‘Brighton Camp’, ‘Salmon Tails’ and ‘Ampleforth’ not to mention ‘The Liberty Bell’. The selection of tunes covers Cotswold, North-West, Border, Rapper, Molly and Longsword.

At the core of band are fiddler Ross Grant and Benji Kirkpatrick playing bouzouki, banjo and guitar but Will has called in a few favours, notably John Kirkpatrick who leads the melody on the Border tune, ‘Not For Joe’ and Eliza Carthy who lends her fiddle and voice to ‘The Nutting Girl’ – the latter proving that she is a Waterson through and through. Fiddlers Ross Couper and Patsy Reid are drafted in to add authenticity to the Shetland tune that closes the set.

Purists, if any are left, may take exception to one or two liberties taken with the arrangements – Will certainly does odd things to ‘Brighton Camp’ – but the casual listener will enjoy Through The Seasons immensely and I’m sure it will be in every car on the way to a folk festival this summer.

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.willpound.com

Through The Seasons:

LUKE JACKSON – Solo Duo Trio (First Take Records FTCD003)

Solo Duo TrioWow! Luke Jackson stepped on stage at Bramley’s Cocktail Bar in Canterbury and roared his way through a new blues-based song, ‘Fun Of It’ – it took my breath away even at this distance. Solo Duo Trio is Luke’s first live album featuring Andy Sharps as half the duo on bass guitar and drummer Connor Downs completing the trio as Luke led his band through a set divided into the titular three segments.

For his second song he goes back to the title track of his first album, More Than Boys. It was recorded when he was just eighteen but even then he was making his mark. Six years on from that release his voice has matured and I imagine he’s learned some new guitar techniques but it is his command of the stage, his material and his audience that is astonishing even though his stage announcements still sound modest. The third track is another new song and one of Luke’s absolute best; ‘Flowers’ is deceptively simple but quite heart-rending, sung with passion over a minimal guitar part.

Luke closes his solo segment with ‘Last Train’ segueing into a verse of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and welcomes Andy to the stage for ‘Father’s Footsteps’ from his second album. I think that it’s only when listening to Luke’s own selection from his catalogue that you realize what a marvelous bunch of songs he has produced in a few short years. The duo segment closes with a brilliant version of ‘Finding Home’ proving how versatile two instruments and two voices can be.

Connor comes to the stage for the trio section, beginning with ‘Is It Me?’ and one of my favourites from the entire album, ‘Aunt Sally’ – what a song that is. Luke tries to take it down a bit with ‘Made Of  Stone’ and the band gets behind him, driving but not racing. ‘Answers Have Gone’, from Fumes And Faith, is another rocking blues and as he starts to sing ‘Sister’ he sounds like an old bluesman. Finally comes the last song from his most recent studio album and ‘The Road’ brings us as up to date as we can get.

If you thought that you knew Luke Jackson, as I thought I did, listen to Solo Duo Trio and prepare to revise your opinions. This is stunning.

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.lukepauljackson.com

‘Is It Me?’ – live:

MOONRAKERS – Tides (own label)

TidesFirst of all, I’d like to make it clear that we’re not reviewing Tides because one of the key members of Moonrakers is also a member of our writing team. No, we’re reviewing it because they are one of the very few bands to acknowledge Francis McPeake’s claim to ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ which makes them alright in our book.

Tides is the band’s fifth album and the first by the current line-up: Jon Bennett, Liz van Santen, Sarah Fell and Eleanor Dunsdon. At first hearing I was tempted to describe it as folk-rock without the rock – there is no bass and percussion is restricted to bodhran and cajón – because the band imparts an upbeat, positive feeling to acoustic music. The instrumental line-up includes bouzouki, Celtic harp, concertina and five-string fiddle which gives great variety to the music.

Moonrakers’ repertoire mixes original and traditional songs, tunes and a somewhat unexpected cover of Huddie Ledbetter’s ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’. The opener is Bennett’s ‘The Singer’, a sort of post-protest song, perhaps a nod of acknowledgment to Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and others of their ilk who took their songs to the streets. That is followed by Scott Skinner’s ‘Glenlivet’ featuring Eleanor’s harp and Liz’s fiddle. Next is a traditional song, ‘The Ploughman’, and Moonrakers have set out their stall for our delectation.

Other significant tracks include Bennett’s ‘Black Beach’ about redundant Northumbrian miners scraping a bit of extra money by gathering sea coal and the Appalachian ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies’ featuring Sarah on lead vocals, a role she shares with Jon. Sarah’s voice is clear and strong and one of the band’s great assets. Finally, they take ‘Thousands Or More’ at a cracking pace, quite unlike the way it can be dragged down in mass singarounds.

I think the description I was searching for earlier is “sparkling” which is really what this album is.

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.

Artists’ website: www.moonrakers.net

‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ – live:

MA POLAINE’S GREAT DECLINE – The Outsider (OMH Records MPGD05)

The OutsiderI don’t usually get to review this kind of record, mostly because I’m not sure what kind of record this is. Ma Polaine’s Great Decline are a duo, Beth Packer and Clinton Hough, and The Outsider is their second album. Apart from Pete Flood’s drums on four tracks, Beth and Clinton play all the instruments, mostly sparsely arranged. There are influences from inter-war jazz and blues but if you told me that these songs were all Tom Waits’ originals that he hadn’t got round to recording yet, I’d believe you. I’m not the first to draw such a comparison.

If you’ve ever felt that the whole world is cross-threaded, The Outsider is your kind of record. Its protagonists have jumped a groove or two in one way or another, from the ‘Little Lady’ who society fails to notice to the protagonists of what is described as a murder ballad, one of whom is a mermaid. The opener, ‘Carousel’, is relatively conventional love song is waltz time but for the most part Beth’s lyrics are deliberately opaque. You can search for clues so the line “run me right out of town” suggests a meaning that the title ‘Monster Swan Blues’ does not and the song’s meaning becomes clear – actually, it’s not so difficult.

The key sound is Clinton’s electric guitar, often very sparse but building in intensity in the right places like the sinister ‘Can’t Have You’. Beth plays double bass, piano, accordion, harmonica and percussion building textures beneath her vocals. Clinton switches to acoustic guitar for the simple and rather disturbing ‘The Poison Sits’ and adds an electric solo before the last verse and adds it to that accordion for that final stanza.

Twice through and I’m really liking The Outsider. It’s a record enhanced by a certain mood, a certain ambience – sitting in a cheap hotel room with a bottle of whisky in your hand and the neon from the strip joint across the street flashing through the cracked window – but it will play well anywhere you happen to be.

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.

Artists’ website: www.mapolainesgreatdecline.com

‘Can’t Have You’ – official video:

AURI – Auri (Nuclear Blast 27361 42120)

AuriI really didn’t know what to expect from this album. I know Troy Donockley, of course – at least his work with everyone from Maddy Prior to The Bad Shepherds and I know he can play like a demon. Tuomas Holopainen, I learn, is the founder of Nightwish and a composer of symphonic metal so were we in for prog uilleann pipes? Vocalist and viola player Johanna Kurkela is a new name to me so what would Auri offer?

I find myself in an odd position. I love the instrumental sound that Auri makes from Tuomas’ huge keyboards to Troy’s delicate whistles and guitar. There isn’t much in the way of metal but guest drummer Frank Van Essen is an important part of the sound. Symphonic describes it well, as would choral with all the multi-tracked vocals, it is a big rich sound.

My odd position? For the most part, this is not an instrumental album and my first port of call for songs would always be the lyrics but I can’t get into these. If I let my mind wander and just listen to the sound Auri make, I’m quite happy. Johanna has a clear voce which is more robust than it first seems and if she were singing in her native Finnish, I wouldn’t be searching for meaning, and would be raving about what a great album this is.

There are some stand-out tracks; ‘Underthing Solstice’ is one such as are the wordless ‘The Name Of The Wind’ and the closing ‘Them Thar Chanterelles’. I rather like ‘Aphrodite Rising’ but I’m not sure what it’s about although I can probably make some guesses. This is why I didn’t get into 70s prog-rock and avoid concept triple-albums wherever possible. I never was an intellectual.

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.

Artists’ website: www.nuclearblast.com

‘Night 13’ – official vdeo: