The second crop of fruit from the joint project between Sam Carter and Jim Moray brings in Stuart Provan on drums and adds Archie Churchill-Moss’s melodeon to Tom Moore’s violin with Barnaby Stradling on bass.
As with their Salvor debut, it’s rooted in traditional folk songs given a contemporary and often off-kilter treatment with contemporary resonance, case in point being album opener ‘Babylon’ which, opening with a radio broadcast sample, takes the shapenote hymn by the scruff of its neck and lurches into a driving rock drum beat bulked up with electric guitars and brass, the “Babylon’s falling” chorus refrain chiming with its described reaction to current British and US politics.
The drums and guitar solo may lean to the heavier side of folk rock, but there remains a definite traditional air to the 19th century transportation ballad, ‘Black Velvet Band’, set to a new, moody and slow-paced six minute plus tune by Moray that’s a far cry from the familiar rousing Dubliners’ version, the verse melody leeching off the similarly-themed ‘The Whitby Lad’.
The Roud collection also provides the source for ‘William Glenn’, Carter taking nasally lead on a nautical tale of mutiny, superstition and the crew casting overboard the captain they deemed responsible for the storms, a rousing, urgent shanty-founded interpretation learned from Nic Jones with the addition of new lines based on Tony Rose’s version as ‘Sir William Gower’.
Written by Moore, ‘The Ombudsman’ provides an instrumental break, violin naturally to the fore over a dampened bass drum thump, the initial nervy African-textured guitar work giving way to fierce, almost prog-folk riffs, the fury subsiding for the leaving song ‘Far In Distant Lands’, another shapenote hymnal, taken from The Southern Harmony 1854 as ‘328 Missionary Farewell’, it’s timely echoes of the migrant crisis delivered over a wheezing drone and a tinkling repeated keys pattern, building to a climax with wind effects before its final ebbing way.
It’s back to sea for the album’s lengthiest number, ‘Captain Kidd’, the Roud broadside about the legendary alleged pirate who was executed in politically controversial circumstances in 1701, the tune based on ‘159 Wondrous Love’ from The Sacred Harp, starting out in acoustic mode with Moray’s vocals accompanied by fiddle and drone before erupting around the two minute mark into steady-paced but full-blooded electric folk rock.
Another folk standard ballad, ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, the Suffolk-set true story of how Maria Marten was shot dead by her lover William Corder who was subsequently tracked down, found guilty and hung in 1828, events also giving rise to a popular melodrama and something of a local tourist industry, with even part of Corder’s scalp, ear attached, being displayed in Oxford Street. Unusually sung from Corder’s viewpoint, it’s set to a folk rock combination of ‘129 Heavenly Amor’ and ‘146 Hallelujah’, two tunes by shapenote composer William Walker that appear in The Sacred Harp, and featuring an almost Byrdsian jangling guitar solo. A fine companion piece to ‘The Murder Of Maria Marten’ recorded in 1971 by Shirley Collins and The Albion Band.
Featuring in both the Child and Roud collections, ‘Serving Man Become A Queen’ gets a sweeping rework, barreling along on both a newly written Moray tune and a borrowing from The New York Trader as it moves from high velocity drums-driven urgency to a slower passages with a brief touch of almost Bach organ.
The penultimate track and another nautical tale, here about one of three Scottish brothers who turned to piracy to support himself and his siblings, ‘Henry Martin’ begins with clattering African-styled percussion from Laurence Hung before Provan’s drums and glowering electric guitar take control, the number venturing into almost improvisational jazz rock territory towards the end. It ends in suitably jaunty form with melodeon akimbo and fiddle surging for ‘Drink Old England Dry’, a song originally written in response to Napoleon’s boastful threats to invade and drink the country dry, the French subsequently variously substituted by the Germans and Russians, but here reworked to tone down any pro-Brexit sentiments with Moray and Carter trading the new verses and joining together on the suitably rowdy, glasses raised chorus.
Invented in 1844 by Scottish mathematician Hugh Blackburn, a harmonograph is a mechanical device that uses two balanced swinging pendulums to draw geometric pictures, two different but equal forces working in perfect harmony to create a complex whole. What better metaphor for the musical symbiosis of False Lights could you ask!
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With Oscar fever rising to a climax it’s time to say “Welcome To The Folkies” – the 2016 Folking Awards. We’ve sifted through the albums and performances of 2015 – always a long and difficult task punctuated by bouts of thumb-wrestling to settle disputes. Adopting the pattern followed by everyone else, here, in no order of precedence, are our nominations. With the exception of one category we have restricted our choices to British acts.
All nominations are 2016 Folking Awards winners.
Soloist Of The Year
Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin
India Electric Co.
Show Of Hands
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Best Live Act
The Demon Barbers XL
Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Layers Of Ages – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Head Heart Hand – Megan Henwood The Girl I Left Behind Me – India Electric Co. It’s Not Your Gold Shall Me Entice – Elle Osborne Disco At The Tavern – The Demon Barbers
Folking’s Rising Star
India Electric Co.
Best International Artist
Gandalf Murphy And The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams
Justin Townes Earle
To give the awards a further edge, we opened the vote to our visitors and run a public poll in all of the 8 categories (as listed above).
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The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.