VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Transports – A Tale Of Exile And Migration (Hudson Records HUD007LP/CD)

TransportsTom Paxton once remarked about one of his songs that it originally sounded as if it had been written a century ago, but that he no longer considered that a virtue. Fortunately, Peter Bellamy had no problem with “telling it like it was”. His ballad opera The Transports was, in the opinion of many, the best example of how effectively he could write songs that sounded as if they had been written around the time of the events they describe, which happened in the late 18th century. The Transports – A Tale Of Exile And Migration, released on January 12th 2018, is not, of course, the first recorded version of the opera.

The first recording was released in 1977, and included some enormously influential artists, including some whose influence has survived long after they themselves left the stage. (For example Bert Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Dave Swarbrick, and Peter Bellamy himself.) The ‘silver edition’ released in 2004 included not only the (remastered) original recording, but also a collection of newer recordings by other artists, including members of Fairport Convention; Coope, Boyes & Simpson; Steve Tilston; and Damien Barber and John Kirkpatrick. This latest CD, produced by Andy Bell, features a younger generation of singers and musicians, including members of The Young ‘Uns, Bellowhead, Faustus, Waterson: Carthy, Whapweasel, and Belshazzar’s Feast, as well as Nancy Kerr, Matthew Crampton and Greg Russell.

This live CD isn’t just a reproduction of the original recording with different musicians, however: it mirrors the touring revival from 2017 (which at the time of writing is just beginning another 14-date tour that ends in Norwich on the 24th January: see the website linked below for details). While it’s still based on the true story that captured Peter Bellamy’s imagination all those years ago, it uses spoken narrative between songs rather than the four sections of ‘The Ballad Of Henry And Susannah’ from the original recording. The narration, by Matthew Crampton, also draws parallels with the plight of 21st century forced migration. Perhaps the only reservation that I have about the CD is that while the narration is very capable, even a new listener might not want to hear it every time after they’ve become acquainted with the story. But in this age of iGadgets and personal playlists, I suppose people are much less likely to simply put on a CD and play it all the way through.

The production also includes Sean Cooney’s own recent song ‘Dark Water’, about Hesham Modamani, who swam from Turkey to Greece in his bid to escape from Syria. Live performances include stories of migration researched by the Parallel Lives project. While the song doesn’t have the ‘traditional’ quality of Peter Bellamy’s songs, it doesn’t jar – on me, at any rate – and it’s an excellent performance.

For comparison with previous recordings, here’s a listing of the songs: there are 28 tracks altogether, including the spoken tracks.

  1. ‘Us Poor Fellows’
  2. ‘The Robber’s Song’
  3. ‘The Leaves In The Woodland’
  4. ‘The Ballad of Norwich Gaol’
  5. ‘I Once Lived In Service’
  6. ‘Sweet Loving Friendship’
  7. ‘The Black and Bitter Night’
  8. ‘Dark Water’
  9. ‘The Humane Turnkey 1’
  10. ‘The Plymouth Mail’
  11. ‘The Humane Turnkey 2’
  12. ‘The Green Fields of England’
  13. ‘The Still and Silent Ocean’
  14. ‘Roll Down’

For reasons of space, I won’t go through the performances individually: the songs are of a uniform high quality (and, happily, the booklet includes the lyrics). The vocals (both solo and ensemble) and instrumental work are never less than very good, though Nancy Kerr’s bravura performance on ‘The Leaves In The Woodland’ deserves a special mention.

If you already have an earlier version, it’s still worth taking a look at this for its change of focus (and, of course, some excellent performances). If you’re not acquainted with The Transports but like the sound of songs that are very much in a traditional vein and tell a fascinating historical story with 21st century resonances, you should definitely take a look. And if you tend to prefer more contemporary renditions of contemporary material, take a look anyway. You might just surprise yourself.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

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.thetransportsproduction.co.uk/

A Taste Of The Transports:

JACK BRETT – Plays The Blues And Other Melodic Misfortunes (JBR Records)

Melodic MisfortunesWhen I lived in South Shropshire I saw and heard quite a lot of Jack Brett, and knew him to be a seriously talented practitioner of the guitar (especially slide guitar), much in demand locally as a soloist, as an accompanist and with the bands Red Madog and Blue Moon. But I hadn’t realized until recently that he’s also developed into rather a good songwriter. I’m a little behind the curve as regards his CD Jack Brett Plays The Blues And Other Melodic Misfortunes: it’s been available for a few months now, but I only recently caught up with him at a session in Ludlow and persuaded him to let me scrounge a review copy. All parts are performed by Jack except where noted on the track-by-track listing below.

This isn’t exactly a blues album, in that there isn’t a straight 8/12/16-bar to be found, and Jack’s voice is nearer to Jeff Buckley than Howling Wolf: however, several of the tracks have a decidedly blues-y feel, enhanced by some classy slide.

  • ‘Diesel’ has a decidedly blues-y feel. I love the line about “potpourri of the working man“.
  • Perhaps I’d better take Jack’s warning about “overanalysing” ‘Toxic Distaste’, lyrically at any rate. It’s the vocal on this track that reminded me a little of Jeff Buckley, but Jack’s writing is all his own.
  • ‘Steady on the Road’ is perhaps the nearest to a classic blues form, though it morphs into something more ethereal before fading away on some very nice rock-star slide.
  • ‘I Want My Hat Back’ features Nick Hurt’s bluesy harmonica and some excellent lead guitar (which reminded me a little of Artie Traum in electric mode) in a somewhat jazzy song.
  • It’s a long time since I made my living out of playing, but ‘Gettin’ Paid’ still rings a bell or two. Mind you, if I could manage a slide solo as blistering as the one featured here, I might just try for a life on the road once more.
  • The slide on ‘Hospital Radio’ is more reflective, but no less effective, and is augmented by strings, played by Andy and Alex Cook. A very effective, very personal song.
  • ‘Sing, You’ll End Up with More Dosh’ is a short slide instrumental with a fragment of conversation that sounds like one of those gems of unsolicited advice that most musicians are offered at one time or other. Would that have been at that well-known busking venue, the Butter Cross in Ludlow, I wonder? J
  • I find it hard to believe that anyone ever told Jack to ‘stop singing, you’ll make it rain!’ If they did, his song ‘I’m Making It Rain’ proves how fortunate we are that he didn’t take that advice.
  • ‘Don’t Have to Meet Her Father’ is about setting your standards high.
  • ‘Down to Earth Dirt’ fades out with some emotive saxophone from Gerson Engels.
  • I suspect that Jack has drawn on his own history for many of these songs, but I know that ‘Overgrown’ is dedicated to Jack’s late father, Paul Brett. A lovely song – indeed, a strong contender for my favourite song of 2017. The CD and live versions both feature the violin and cello work of Andy and Alex Cook, augmenting Jack’s delicate guitar and impassioned vocals.

That’s the end of the CD listing: however, if you opt for the Deluxe version, available for digital download below, you can get four additional tracks.

‘Old Songs’ and ‘Simple Rules’ are tracks that didn’t make the CD (but are well worth hearing), ‘Hospital Radio (Stripped Mix)’ is a version of track 6 above that omits the slide but brings out the string arrangement by Andy and Alex Cook, and ‘Down To Earth Dirt (Extended) is a version of track 10 with an extended version of the sax solo by Gerson Engels. (And very nice it is too, a little grittier than the version on the CD.)

Both iTunes and Amazon categorize ‘Down To Earth Dirt’ and ‘Simple Rules’ as explicit, which strikes me as being over-cautious, apparently based on the presence of a very mild alternative term for excreta in the lyric, rather than an extreme leaning towards gangsta rap. Still, if you’re a more sensitive person than I am, you’ve been warned.

However, if you like the sound of well-played, well-sung versions of some fine songs, give this a listen.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

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.jackbrettmusic.com/

Album trailer:

GREENMATTHEWS – A Christmas Carol: A Folk Opera (Blast Records BFTP011)

A Christmas CarolThe Dickens novella A Christmas Carol has become almost integral to the Yuletide celebrations since its publication in 1843, helped and sometimes hampered by innumerable movies, some better than others. But at a time when the world seems to be governed by Scrooges, Gradgrinds and other self-servers who can’t even claim honest greed, perhaps we could do with revisiting the story of the melting of one of the stoniest of hearts. So GreenMatthews have added A Christmas Carol – A Folk Opera to their impressive catalogue of Christmas-related CDs. Besides Chris Green (voice, guitar, mandocello, piano, accordion, bass guitar and drums) and Sophie Matthews (voice, flute, English border bagpipes), the CD features special guest Jude Rees of Pilgrims Way (voice, oboe, melodeon).

Perhaps the first thing to say is that while this set has been toured in the last couple of months in combination with a set of seasonal songs and carols, it isn’t an opera as non-folkies might understand the term. Rather, the narrative is conveyed on the CD (as on the concert tour, I believe) through a set of 20 tracks with Chris Green’s lyrics set to traditional tunes, with no spoken narrative or continuo.

The first track, ‘Introducing Scrooge’, is a lengthy scene-setting track. The other tracks describe specific events and scenes from the novella (‘The Ghost Of Christmas Past’, ‘Fezziwig’s Ball’, ‘A Funeral’, and so on). ‘The Conclusion’, like the rest of the narrative, follows Dickens’s story faithfully, as I remember it. No surprises there, then, but the story as Dickens wrote it is more than strong enough to survive this condensed narrative. In fact, Chris Green has done an excellent job of conveying the essential plot points in this abridged form.

The music, as you’d expect, is excellent, with good singing and outstanding instrumental work. The choice of traditional melodies is fairly restricted, especially considering the repetitive use of warhorses such as ‘Dick Darby’ ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Villikins’, but the arrangements cleverly ring the changes with variations in instrumentation and form, with major-key melodies suddenly turning up as a minor-key variation and vice versa. Perhaps the CD could have benefited from the interpolation of one or two of those other seasonal songs here and there, or a few more tunes like those that find their way into ‘Fezziwig’s Ball’ (my favourite track).

Still, it’s all great fun, and I may well investigate one or two of their other Christmas-related CDs, in defiance of my inner Scrooge. By the time you read this, it looks as if the ‘Christmas Carol’ tour will be more or less finished, but you may well find it worthwhile to check out their web site to what other tours are in prospect, as well as their catalogue of CDs.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

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.greenmatthews.co.uk/

THE STONED CHERRIES – Baked In A Pie (own label)

Baked In A PieHaving only recently moved away from Shropshire, I had heard from time to time of The Stoned Cherries, who are based in the Shropshire/ Herefordshire/ Worcestershire area, but had never (as far as I know) actually met or heard them, so I was looking forward to hearing their CD Baked In A Pie. The band consists of Aly May (whistles and backing vocals), Dave Evans (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, lead and backing vocals), Matt Donaldson (bass guitar, foot drum, acoustic guitar, piano accordion, backing vocals), and Roger Pugh (acoustic guitar, mandola, spoons, lead and backing vocals), augmented by Jo Rowland on steel pan on ‘Run With The Moonlight’. The CD is an interesting mixture of dance tunes and (mostly) original songs by either David Evans or Roger Pugh.

  1. ‘Morrisons’ is the traditional ‘Morrison’s Jig’, though it’s played through the first time at half-speed, which is actually quite attractive. It then accelerates into a more conventional version with more than a dash of folk-rock.
  2. ‘Rosalind’ (David Evans) is a C&W-ish song about a schoolboy romance. I suspect that it’s more entertaining as a live performance, especially the long and quirky spoken section at the end.
  3. ‘Run With The Moonlight’ (Roger Pugh) offers slightly reggae-tinged “Words of advice to a 16 year old son“. Well, Caribbean-tinged, with its leavening of steel drum.
  4. ‘Si Bheag Si Mhor’ is usually attributed (as here) to Turlough O’Carolan, though there’s some debate as to whether he wrote it, or adapted it from ‘The Bonny Cuckoo’. There again, some believe ‘Si Bheag Si Mhor’ came first and was adapted for ‘The Bonny Cuckoo’. I’ve no opinion either way, but it’s a melody I never tire of hearing, and is played well here.
  5. ‘Lemon Girl’ (David Evans) appears to be about the lengths to which people will go to get a lemon in wartime. Which is more fun than it sounds. I’m sure Robert Johnson would have approved of the metaphor.
  6. In ‘Final Arrangements’ Roger Pugh makes clear his preferences as regards his funeral arrangements. One of the better melodies among the songs here: nice arrangement, too.
  7. ‘Witches Flight’ (Roger Pugh) is described as “A sparkly tune from Roger’s folk opera “A Minstrel’s Tale”2.” The first few bars do remind me of a tune better known as ‘Arthur McBride’ (think Martin Carthy rather than Paul Brady), but as an arrangement it does indeed sparkle. Apparently it’s “now the signature tune for the Saint FM Folk Show.
  8. ‘House In The Woods’ is credited to Chris Allen and Chris Broderick, better known as the Singing Loins. It’s pretty close to the original, though thankfully it misses out the massed kazoos. Good song.
  9. ‘Dance Of The Seven Suns’ is another attractive minor-key tune by Roger Pugh, advising us to celebrate the natural world rather than destroying it. Some of the lead guitar has some almost John Renbourn-ish phrasing, which is never a bad thing. However, the lead vocal sound very uncomfortable in the lower register.
  10. ‘Forgotten Man’ (David Evans) is a surprisingly plaintive subject and arrangement. Good lyric, despite the repetitive chorus, which might be more effective cut down slightly.
  11. In ‘Cottage’ Roger Pugh sings of a life of unsophisticated self-sufficiency in a cottage in the Welsh Marches. The arrangement is suitably Celtic, if more Goidelic than Brythonic (and the lyric reminds me a bit of band rehearsals in a somewhat similar geographical context, but let’s not go there now…) The song goes seamlessly into…
  12. …a medley of the reel ‘Oysterwives’ Rant’ and the ‘Ballydesmond Polka’. And I can see why they might use this one to get “toes tapping and hips swinging at the end of a gig.
  13. ‘Days End’ (David Evans) is a reflective song about “memories, and the age-old conundrum of getting older.” Interesting lyric.
  14. ‘Down At The Billet On Boxing Day’ (Roger Pugh): while the notes promise us “Morris dancing, a mummer’s [sic] play and a traditional sing song, held at an annual event at The Crooked Billet, Leigh On Sea [sic], Essex“, this turns out to be just a song describing these events rather than the actual events. What a track that might have been. J However, it’s a likeable performance, sung unaccompanied and with strong harmonies. A good way to end the album.

I suspect that I might have liked this CD better if I’d seen the band live. Not that I didn’t enjoy it: it’s just that some of the tracks sound a little like hearing a live performance on the radio – it’s just not the same as being there. My wife (who is by no means a folkie) doesn’t like it because it’s so whistle-dominated, but Aly’s playing adds a more varied range of colours than you might expect, and the other instrumental work is equally efficient. The instrumentals are fine, and the songs are interestingly quirky, though the lead vocals are a bit patchy. However, I’m sure that fans of this very popular band will find much to enjoy here.

David Harley

Artist’s website: dgand2.wixsite.com/thestonedcherries

‘King Of The Fairies’ – live:

ASSEMBLY LANE – Northbound (own label ALCD01)

NorthboundThe Newcastle-based band Assembly Lane are Tom Kimber (mandolin, harmony vocal), Niles Krieger (fiddle, harmony and lead vocals), Bevan Morris (double bass), and Matthew Ord (guitar, lead and harmony vocals). While their CD Northbound – due for release on November 10th 2017 – draws on both British and North American traditional material, the arrangements lean generally towards the North American: indeed, if it were not for the absence of a banjo player, this would be a classic bluegrass line-up, and their sound generally reflects that sensibility. The songs are all traditional, but there are three instrumental tracks credited to Tom Kimber and one to bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe.

  1. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is one of those slightly morose songs in which the singer regrets a poor choice of occupation: lyrically, it has some lines that resemble ‘The Buffalo Skinners’. Nicely arranged, though sometimes the backing distracts from the vocal. The tune used here resembles the one recorded by Roscoe Holcomb.
  2. ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ is the well-known-prison song: the arrangement of this version, however, is closer to old-timey than to the Texas prison farms. It appears to owe much to the Band’s arrangement, though a little more sprightly and with much the same verses but in a different order. Nice harmonies, too. However, it doesn’t really convey the brutality of the environment from which the song arose.
  3. ‘Mind The Gap’ is an attractive instrumental set with a bluegrass feel, but credited to mandolinist Tom Kimber. Mandolin, fiddle, bass and guitar are all featured prominently in the course of the track.
  4. ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ is a familiar version of the border ballad (Child 9), but rendered here with a bluegrass-y arrangement that gives it some freshness.
  5. Title track ‘Northbound’ is an attractive tune by Tom Kimber with some impressive unison work from fiddle and mandolin, as well as spotlighting skilful lead work from fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as the usual solid basslines from Bevan Morris.
  6. ‘Northbound’ segues almost seamlessly into Kimber’s ‘Fivefold’. While there are sections in ‘Fivefold’ that recall tunes that are staples of Celtic dance music, there’s a fascinating individuality and complexity to the interplay between the instruments over jazzy bass riffs.
  7. ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ uses the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs used on Nic Jones’s 1970 recording and many subsequent recordings. It’s a fine tune, and this version does it justice, vocally and instrumentally.
  8. On ‘1845’, sometimes known as ‘The Morning of 1845’, fiddler Niles Krieger gets to take the vocal lead, and does so with credit.
  9. ‘Road To Columbus’ is the classic Bill Monroe tune, and the band does it justice.
  10. ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn?’ – more often heard as ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’ – is particularly notable for the rich acapella harmonies of the opening section, and the bowed bass and fiddle of the next section, but the athletic playing and changes of pace throughout ensure that the listener’s interest never flags. A delightfully upbeat end to the CD.

For me, the best part of this CD is the instrumental work. The press release suggests that the album was essentially recorded live as an ensemble, which perhaps explains its freshness, yet the arrangements are impressively complex: clearly these are excellent musicians who are very comfortable playing together. The vocals are very competent and appropriate to the arrangements, and while there are one or two songs that we have, perhaps, heard a little too much of over the years, all are well performed. This is an album that delivers good music and promises more. And I’d love to hear them live.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.assemblylane.com

‘Mind The Gap’:

GHALIA & MAMA’S BOYS – Let The Demons Out (Ruf Records RUF 1250)

Let The Demons OutGhalia & Mama’s Boys are, to all intents and purposes, the New Orleans band Johnny Mastro & Mama’s Boys acting as the studio band for Belgian singer/guitarist/songwriter Ghalia Vauthier. The resulting CD, Let The Demons Out is released on the 20th October 2017. It’s a 21st-century take on the sort of butt-kicking R&B that pushed me towards my first electric guitar in the early 1970s. And very good it is, too, though the sound here is probably more Chicago than New Orleans. The rest of the line-up consists of Johnny Mastro (a.k.a. Mastrogiovanni) on vocals and harmonica, Smokehouse Brown on guitar and backing vocals, Dean Zucchero on bass and backing vocals, and Rob Lee on drums and percussion. Songs are by Ghalia unless otherwise indicated.

  1. ‘4AM Fried Chicken’ is probably not about KFC. He said, blushing slightly. Nice medium-paced rocker that wanders in and out of a 12-bar format.
  2. ‘Let The Demons Out’ is slower, and bears little resemblance to the Edgar Broughton Band, still less the Fugs, though the lyric shares an obsession with the expelling of demons out. Rather good: I’m not surprised they made it the title track.
  3. ‘Press That Trigger’ is another raunchy lyric with several metaphors to add to Robert Johnson’s lemon squeezing and Bessie Smith’s sugar in the bowl. Though this probably isn’t what Sondheim had in mind when he wrote that line about “got a rocket in your pocket
  4. ‘Have You Seen My Woman’ relates the predicament of a free-spirited woman and a possessive man over a suitably repetitive riff.
  5. ‘Hoodoo Evil Man’ – well, I suppose you can’t record blues in New Orleans without some sort of reference to Louisiana Voodoo.
  6. ‘Addiction’ takes the pace way down in a slow-burning song about romantic obsession, with tasteful, atmospheric harmonica and slide guitar. My favourite track at the moment.
  7. ‘All The Good Things’ was written by Ghalia Vauthier and Paul Niehaus. The arrangement reminds me a little of John Lee Hooker, which is never a bad thing. I love the way the vocal is tracked by the harmonica in the playout.
  8. ‘I’m Shaking’ is a very effective cover of the Rudy Toombs number first recorded by Little Willie John in the early 1960s.
  9. ‘Waiting’ is a medium-paced 12-bar written by Johnny and Lisa Mastrogiovanni: the vocals are shared here between Johnny and Ghalia, and framed by some tasty slide. Good harmonica break, too.
  10. ‘See That Man Alone’ retains a blues feel, but over an interesting descending chord sequence.
  11. In ‘Hey Little Baby’ the minimalist lyric is augmented by heavy drums and fuzzy slide.
  12. ‘Hiccup Boogie’ is a quirky topic and lyric – words by Ghalia, music by the whole band, though it’s hard not to hear Canned Heat in that underlying riff (and it’s actually spoken most of the way through). What’s more, “I got the hiccup boogie” reminds me irresistibly of Spike Milligan and “I’ve got those rheumatism blues“, while the call-and-response section of the playout almost recalls the swing era. Still, it’s great fun and well-played.

So, is it folk? Well, not really, but then many of the CDs that reach me for these reviews would fail to meet a purist definition of folk. Though it’s certainly in the blues idiom, it isn’t ‘authentic’ (or meant to be): it does, though, suggest the tight ensemble work of many 1960s R&B bands, with carefully-considered harmonica and guitar solos ornamenting the song and the singer, rather than the song being a launching point for extended solos. Not that Ghalia’s powerful and versatile vocal work would be easily overshadowed, and while her accent sometimes makes some words hard to follow, the lyric sheet makes up for that. (And the lyrics fit the idiom very well.) In fact, there’s something slightly English about the harmonica here (think Paul Jones or John Mayall), but Ghalia’s songs are already well beyond the cover versions of early English R&B, and I look forward to hearing how her writing develops in the future.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.facebook.com/ghaliaandmamasboys/