Coven aren’t so much a group as a collective made up of three elements. On the one hand there is the musical delicacy of Lady Maisery and on the other the homespun Yorkshire charm that O’Hooley & Tidow exploit. In the middle is Grace Petrie, a thorn between two roses, and more of her anon.
They originally came together three years ago to celebrate International Women’s Day, which coincidentally was the date of this event, and their show still has that as its central theme. Lady Maisery opened with ‘Sing For The Morning’ from their latest album followed by ‘Portland Town’, a remarkable arrangement featuring fiddle and feet before finishing with ‘The Crow On The Cradle’.
Next came Grace Petrie who I hadn’t heard before. She’s something of a fire-brand and the wit of her stage chat carries over into her writing. Her first song, ‘A Revolutionary In The Wrong Time’, describes her career: “not folky enough for Whitby; not cool enough for Cambridge” is her self-deprecating description. The second song, written for her niece Ivy, describes rushing away from Glastonbury to be home for her arrival. It is probably the most unsentimental sentimental song you’ll hear and Grace wrapped up her set with her contender for the new national anthem, ‘God Save The Hungry’. I really liked her and her crusade to prove that there are still protest singers around – and that there is still a need for them.
Belinda and Heidi chose three songs about inspiring women: ‘Beryl’ and ‘The Pixie’ from Shadows and ‘Too Old To Dream’ from their first album. Three songs about three very different women in very different circumstances.
Coven only sang six songs as a unit, the six that appear on their EP, ‘Unholy Choir’, and I found that a little disappointing. The first of these closed the first half: Rowan Rheingans’ new setting of ‘Bread And Roses’ which dispenses with the martial rhythm of the more usual version.
The second set followed a slightly different pattern. O’Hooley & Tidow opened with ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘The Needle & The Hand’ before bringing the whole group together for ‘Coil & Spring’. Lady Maisery did likewise with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ and ‘Order And Chaos’ before ‘This Woman’s Work’. Grace’s two solos led into ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ to close the show.
Well, of course, there were two encores; The Roches’ ‘Quittin’ Time’ and ‘Never Turning Back’ and Coven really gave us our money’s worth with a show that lasted well over two hours and never outstayed its welcome. There are five gigs left on this tour and that will be it until next year unless the rumours of summer festivals are true. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me explain. Coven combines the prodigious talents of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and Grace Petrie. They have worked together, when commitments permit, for about three years having got together for International Women’s Day but Unholy Choir is the first time they have recorded. A word of warning, though, this six-track EP will only be available at gigs on their tour starting on March 1st.
Much of the material is drawn from back catalogues but these are all new recordings that combine the power of six voices and their instrumental skills. The opening track is ‘Coil & Spring’, written by O’Hooley and Tidow with the assistance of Boff Whalley about the Pussy Riot protest. I must have chosen itself as it gives the EP its title. Next is ‘Bread & Roses’. Rowan has given the song a new tune which makes it less of a march with a much more English feel. An inspired move.
‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice and Kate Bush’s song gives the group something to get their musical teeth into but, being old and male, I prefer ‘Quitting Time’ by the late Maggie Roche. Its footloose feel is enhanced by Belinda’s rolling piano but softened by the sweetness of six voices in harmony. Grace wrote ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ and she sings it an appropriately confrontational style. The message is simple: get out there and do something, however small.
The final track was recorded live. It’s Pat Humphries’ anthemic ‘Never Turning Back’. It’s a song I didn’t know from a writer I hadn’t heard of but I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pat knew Pete Seeger. Coven sing it a capella (the way Pat does) using the natural acoustics of Cooper Hall where they made the record and it brings the set to a rousing, optimistic close.
You have twelve chances this year to hear Coven live and acquire a copy of Unholy Choir. Don’t miss out.
There’s a new gang in town and if their publicity photographs are any guide they mean business. Coven combines the talents of O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and singer Grace Petrie. Belinda O’Hooley explains how it all came about.
“We were introduced to Grace’s work by Huw Pudner at The Valley Folk Club in Pontardawe. He was raving about her, and around the same time, Jude Abbott from the No Masters Co-op was also singing her praises. We watched some of her stuff on YouTube and thought she was such a firebrand, standing up for what she believes in and doing great things for women. We spent a summer doing the same concerts at festivals as Lady Maisery and were blown away by their live show. We got to know them along the way. Heidi and Rowan chatted about doing something as a collective at some point, and here we all are!
“Coven was Heidi’s idea. She had previously set up a Women Make Music night in Huddersfield and had experience of this sort of thing. Both Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie were well up for forming a collective with us and celebrating International Women’s Day in a series of concerts. The first Coven tour was just three dates which all sold out. The second year, we played ten dates and this year, we’ve got twelve.”
The name could be something of a hostage to fortune. Whose idea was it?
“I can’t remember who thought the name up, it wasn’t me. I think it suits us; a gaggle of witches.”
I couldn’t possibly comment on that but the press photos seem to suggest that Belinda and Heidi are the dominant force. Either that or it’s a case of big’uns in the middle and little-uns on the ends.
“Ha! I think it looks like me and Rowan have got married and the rest of Coven are our bridesmaids. Elly Lucas took the photo at Kellam Island in Sheffield. We love the way she utilises the background of a rusty metal fence with the sunlight, to create texture and atmosphere. She’s a bit good. Looking at that photo, I wouldn’t want to mess with any of us.”
Again, I couldn’t possibly comment but what can we expect from a Coven gig?
“The show consists of us performing separately in our bands and also collectively together on existing material and also songs that Coven members have brought to the group. Over the course of the last two tours, these songs have taken on a life of their own and it has been very rewarding and exciting to record them and make an EP.”
Having developed rather below the radar over the last couple of years, Coven are embarking on a fully-fledged tour in March. Can we take it that Coven will be an on-going project?
“I think all of us want Coven to be an ever developing project as we all have so much to give to it. We all seem to get on really well and there is room for creativity and expression both individually and as a collective. It helps that we all like vegan food too. Hannah James is the most wonderful vegan chef, and kept us all fed beautifully for the five days we spent at Cooper Hall, Frome recording the EP. Fay Goodridge invited us there, and through their bursary scheme, we were able to record in their extraordinary venue. This EP, recorded by me and Heidi and mixed and mastered by Neil Ferguson will be available initially exclusively on the tour”
Their third album in as many years, after the two-handed format of The Hum and the limited hand-signed micro-release Summat’s Brewin’, the duo’s fifth studio outing, Shadows, sees them return to the fuller sound of their first two albums with a post-Bellowhead Pete Flood on drums, Andy Seward on double bass, frequent collaborator Jude Abbott providing brass and Rowan Rheingans on fiddle and viola. There’s also a, perhaps surprise, appearance from Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers contributing electric bass guitars and Ebow.
With songs about home, the environment, nature, inspirational women and social issues, it’s familiar territory, comprising a couple of covers alongside the self-penned material, the latter including two instrumentals. But familiarity doesn’t breed complacency, and the writing and performances here as every much as impassioned as any fledgling act looking to make an impressive debut.
It opens with a love letter to their home, ‘Colne Valley Hearts’, and the strength and fortitude it instils, the songs itself beginning with birth (“smacked me head coming out, made me rugged, shoulders broad. Ready to carry, ready to work”) as Belinda provides jittery piano accompaniment to Heidi’s vocals, the chorus refrain “cold hands, warm hearts lighting up the cut tonight” as much a defiant anthem of Northern pride as “the fog on the Tyne is all mine”.
From Huddersfield, the album expands to take in the bigger picture with the first of the socio-political numbers, the trumpet-streaked ‘Made In England’. Written in response to the worrying rise of UKIP a few years back, it draws as much on music hall as it does traditional folk it’s a ‘Ballad of Britain’ for “you everyone that inhabit dear old Albion”, a rejection of the UKIP view (and that of “Mosely’s henchmen” before them) that “foreigners are thieves and perves” who just “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap”, and a celebration of multiculturalism “with me ruby murray, kebab in a hurry, fags and Becks from the corner shop, head to toe in Pradamark.”
Equally pointed, based on an old Sunday School hymn titled ‘Little Reapers’ and sung with starkly interwoven voices, sombre piano ballad ‘Reapers’ is in the voice of a child and initially appears to about innocents, leading lost souls to God, but, in the second verse takes on a darker hue that explains why it is dedicated to all children abused at the hands of the Church.
The abuse of children, in this case their forced migration to Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1970, is at the heart of ‘The Dark Rolling Sea’. It’s actually a short piano instrumental that grew out of Tidow’s obsession with an instrumental passage in ‘Why Did I Leave Thee?’, a setting of a poem by child migrant Frederick Henderson, the duo set to music for last year’s Ballads Of Child Migration album. The other instrumental, a solo O’Hooley composition, is the simple but no less resonant title track, which, played on the Machynlleth Tabernacle Trust’s Steinway, she says reflects how playing piano helps express emotions she finds hard to verbalise.
It’s not all gloom. ‘Blankets’ may concern baby elephants orphaned by poachers or human-wildlife conflict (it’s inspired by the David Sheldrick Widlife Trust in Kenya), but its tremulously crooned, brass and piano slow waltz focuses on the brightly coloured blankets that give them comfort, safety and warmth. Likewise, turning to inspiring women, the uptempo ‘Beryl’ is a tribute to Beryl Burton, a Leeds cyclist who, despite chronic health problems, became a champion racing cyclist, the track taking an appropriately jaunty approach with the sort of breezy chorus Gracie Fields who have loved. This is followed by its companion piece, the piano tinkling ‘The Pixie’, another tribute (commissioned for the WWI commemoration event at 2014 Glastonbury), this time to Oxenham’s Daisy “Pixie” Daking, a dance teacher and member of the Cecil Sharp’s EFDS, who, in 1917, went to France as part of the YMCA to boost the war-weary troops’ morale by teaching them morris, sword, and country dancing, something she continued until 1919.
Of the album’s two covers, one is the strings-adorned ‘River’, Joni Mitchell’s Christmas-set bluesy regretful rumination on a lost relationship, a song they featured in last year’s winter shows in Marsden, while the other, the dreamy and rather lovely piano ballad ‘Small, Big Love’ was actually penned for them by Kathryn Williams and Graham Hardy to celebrate their wedding.
Which leaves ‘The Needle and the Hand’, a key track yet also the only number that doesn’t have an annotation in the lyric booklet. However, gradually swelling on drums and swirling strings, rhyming pewter and fuchsia and with lyrics that concern changing seasons, regeneration, tattooing – or rather beautilation – (it actually features the sound of a tattoo needle) and memory, it draws on Tidow’s own troubled childhood as seen through now adult eyes and concerns guilt, love, self-worth, self-discovery and embracing the fullness of life. These are shadows you really do want to lose and find yourself in.
If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the O’HOOLEY & TIDOW link 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.
What is there new to say about O’Hooley & Tidow? The Hum tour was almost over by late July and the songs well established after countless performances, although Belinda and Heidi never lose the passion in their music, and they are full of confidence. This, however, was O’H & T on their own turf at a venue full of friends and family where everyone seemed to know everyone else and if they didn’t know you they made it their business to find out. Before I’d settled down I was in conversation with the venue’s photographer and being introduced to Belinda’s father, Seamus. You don’t get that in Camden Town.
They opened with ‘The Hum’, a song that starts small and gets big, and ‘Just A Note’, another song that began with something small and says a lot. After the a capella trio of ‘Spancil Hill, ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Banjololo’ came the moment we were waiting for: the live recording of ‘Summat’s Brewin’’ for their next album. We did our best. ‘Two Mothers’ was stunning with Belinda unleashing a tidal wave of piano and Heidi clinging to the microphone stand to withstand the storm.
The second half began with more serious songs including ‘The Tallest Tree’ and ‘Peculiar Brood’ before Seamus was encouraged up on stage – it didn’t take much encouragement – to sing ‘Phil The Fluter’s Ball’ and completely steal the show. After ‘A Daytrip’ and ‘Kitsune’ they finished with ‘Like Horses’ and returned to encore with ‘Gentleman Jack’. And then…
It seemed we’d not done terribly well on ‘Summat’s Brewin’’ so we did it again, Belinda nailed the piano solo to her satisfaction and Neil Ferguson didn’t have to keep us in after school (but they’ll probably dub Coope Boyes And Simpson on later). And then … there had been a request for ‘Too Old To Dream’ so it was sung and that was a good finisher. And then … Belinda and Heidi came down on the floor to sing a beautiful and heartfelt ‘Parting Glass’ by which time the poor compère had no idea what was going on. You don’t get that in Camden Town, either.
O’Hooley and Tidow have produced this video to accompany a track from their brilliant new album, The Hum, which is released today. Belinda and Heidi are both members of CAMRA and enthusiastic supporters of the many craft breweries in their native Yorkshire. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to have a serious drink together.
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 on the banner link 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. Ordering through folking.com / folking.org helps us to earn a few pennies to contribute to the sites running costs.