JOHN FORRESTER – Restless (Irregular Records IRR109)

RestlessJohn Forrester is a singer, a songwriter, an ace double bass player and the sort of chap that everybody in the business knows. Restless is his fourth solo album but his first working with a producer, Roy Dodds. With a small group of supporting musicians, Dodds has constructed a rich, varied soundscape without rounding off the corners. John’s voice can be smooth and delicate but is more often big and forceful reflecting the back-story of tragedy that interrupted recording.

Restless talks not of happy wanderlust but of dissatisfaction with wherever one happens to be. You know what he means: there is always something better around the corner even if it’s the place you just left behind. It’s the inability to settle coupled with the inability to move for whatever reason. In ‘Butterfly Catcher’, John sings “Stare out a new window, try to wish myself there” followed by “When I try to leave you’re blocking the stairs” encapsulating the dichotomy that the record explores.

John opens with the wistful ‘Richmond Hill’, initially a cappella with Kath Williams cello and Saskia Tomkins’ violin joining in. It’s a lovely song, looking back with fondness and forward with hope. ‘New Season’ is lifted by Andy Webb’s slide guitar and John definitely wants to leave wherever he is but in ‘Somewhere I Can Be’ he doesn’t know where to go. Jenny Carr’s piano and George Whitfield’s accordion help to provide the drive under John’s urgent acoustic guitar.

Restless is an album full of exquisite pain. Only in ‘Escaping A Storm’ does the central character find the place where she wants to be. In some ways the narrative reminded me of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ but so much bleaker. I’m very much enjoying the record but, as anyone will tell you, I’m a miserable old sod.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.forrester.uk.com

‘Escaping A Storm’ – live session:

Robb Johnson live at Lodsworth

Robb Johnson live
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

19th November 2016

The last time I heard Robb Johnson live was the London Gentle Men show, an acoustic, thoughtful story of the Great War and its consequences inspired by the experiences of his grandfathers. This was very different – Robb the rocker, the man who could front a Clash tribute band. The My Best Regards band are superb. There’s the mighty bass of John Forrester; Robb’s son Arvin who looks like an angel and drums like a demon and Jenny Carr on a slightly cheesy looking keyboard which, due to marvels of modern technology, produced some wonderful sounds including the electric organ that underpinned many of the songs. Then there’s Robb playing a vintage hollow-body Les Paul; what’s not to love?

I noticed very soon that Robb didn’t introduce a single song by name which means that I took some very bizarre notes although the songs from My Best Regards are still fresh in the mind. His introductions were sometimes a bit cryptic but the story behind ‘Better Than TV’ is almost better than the song. Afterwards, I blagged a set list but there doesn’t seem to be enough titles on it. Robb did remind me that they slipped in ‘We Hate The Tories’ in the middle: thanks Robb, I got that one.

They opened with a Johnson classic, ‘Night Café’ followed by ‘Here Goes Nothing’, the title track of last year’s album, ‘Bay Of Angels’ and ‘Carrying Your Smile’. The first track from the new album was ‘We All Got Wings’ followed by ‘Suzy’s Party’ (another off-the-wall intro) and ‘Dear Franz’.  Robb is very disparaging about the folk scene these days which is a shame because folk clubs were, and still would be, receptive to his songs (although ‘The Mystery Beat’ wouldn’t be welcome at Cecil Sharp House, so perhaps he has reasons for his negativity) so ‘Sidmouth Promenade’ is a bit of dig at the middle-classness of folkies. Shame: ‘Hollingdean Lullabye’ should be sung every day somewhere. Their final encore was ‘The Magic Tonight’ which was an excellent summary of their show.

Ed Goodale
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Support for the evening was Ed Goodale, a fine young singer-songwriter from Sussex, aided by his brother Ollie on cajon. I was immediately taken with his songs, which is unusual because I normally have to take my time getting into a new writer. The cajon is a bit limiting over a long set, although Ollie is a very fine player and they need to expand the percussion vocabulary. I haven’t heard Ed with his full band yet so that’s next on the list.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/ / http://edgoodale.com/

ROBB JOHNSON – My Best Regards (Irregular Records IRR100)

my best regardsRobb Johnson, dubbed “the last of the genuinely political songwriters”, has released more albums than probably even he can count. By my reckoning My Best Regards is his thirty-third, not counting re-recordings and compilations and the thing is, the quality never falls. Even Bob Dylan had his off days.

The opening track is ‘September 1939’ and I thought how clever that is: taking the period of the phoney war, as it was known, and pointing out that on both sides nothing had really changed. Ah, but then Robb moves the story to the present day and we see what he’s really driving at. With ‘A Hollingdean Lullabye’ goes straight for the jugular as a response to the fuss made over the Cambridge’s children. Hollingdean is a children’s centre where Robb once worked, one that is still open, and he points out that although babies born there don’t have it so good there are many off in worse circumstances.

Robb’s finger is always on the political pulse and the subjects of ‘When The Tide Comes In’ and ‘The Future Starts Here’ are obvious but some songs have to picked at until they unravel. ‘Dear Franz’ links Kafka and the Prague Spring but brings Tesco into the argument and ‘A Whole Lot Less’ is ostensibly a song of lost love but there’s a lot more to it – “Second class and second best” is a recurring line. This is one of the album’s rockers with Jenny Carr’s keyboards, John Forrester’s bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. If you hear Robb in folk club you might forget that he can rock like a good ‘un. The upbeat mood continues with ‘Better Than TV’ – I’m still trying to figure that one out – and the even heavier ‘That Mystery Beat’ which sound like something by Rush except for Robb’s vocals.

Three songs are repeated in different versions. ‘When The Tide Comes In’ has an additional Arabic vocal courtesy of  Reem Kelani and ‘The Sidmouth Promenade’ and ‘The Future Starts Here’, featuring Brighton’s Hullabaloo Quire, both stick it to the right-wing in no uncertain terms. There isn’t a bad song and I haven’t mentioned ‘Babbacombe At The Closing Of The Day’, a delightfully cynical song that’s typical of Robb’s style, or the Cohenesque ‘A Room In The House Of Love’. If you have read this far, you’ll probably want to buy this album and I urge you to buy another from Robb’s back catalogue as well. It’s what I do.

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).

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Artist’s website:  http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

A live set by Robb from 2011 (parental guidance required):

Robb Johnson releases new album

Robb Johnson
Photograph by Hari Johnson

Robb Johnson is widely recognised as one of the UK’s finest songwriters.

“An English original”, (Robin Denselow, the Guardian) … “one of our best singer-songwriters ever” (Mike Harding)… “Robb Johnson keeps folk music relevant & thought-provoking” (The Living Tradition).

His songs are covered by many singers, from folk legend Roy Bailey & cabaret diva Barb Jungr, to floor singers & folk club regulars. & Robb’s song suite Gentle Men, his family history of the First World War, is a particular career highlight – “a wonderful mixture of the political and personal…A really moving piece of work”  (Billy Bragg), “a folk classic” (The Guardian). The November 2015 release of a live song & spoken word recording of Gentle Men – A Solo Performance, was described as “Intense, engaging & very moving” (fROOTS).

In 2016, PM Press in the US released A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands, a 5 CD career-to-date box set to unanimous critical acclaim –

“packed full of well-crafted songs…a magnificent retrospective” (R2), “one of this country’s most important songwriters (no argument!)…a powerfully literate emotional sensitivity at work…this is one real essential purchase” (fROOTS), “He can be lyrical, he can explore the personal & emotional just as effectively as he can propagandise… his body of work can stand alongside anyone’s” (The Living Tradition).

Now, a new album of thirteen songs, My Best Regards, is out right now. It features pianist Jenny Carr & bassist John Forrester, who worked together on 2013’s recording of Gentle Men, & Robb’s son Arvin on drums & percussion. The songs cover a wide spectrum of subjects; from the personal to the political, & the shared points in between, from birthdays to migrations, from late night bus stops to the Sidmouth promenade, from Babbacombe Model Village to Franz Kafka & Prague, & involve among others new babies in Hollingdean, MP’s 10% pay rises, & Turkish red wine & charity shops in Broadstairs.

The album also contains different versions of 3 of the songs – 2 recorded with Brighton’s Hullabaloo Quire, & one song, ‘When the Tide Comes In’, recorded with the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. Robb says: “It is always difficult to be objective about a new album, but I think this one may well turn out to be particularly good.

Robb will be touring the UK in October to celebrate the release of this album. At the end of the month he will be playing some gigs in Belgium, and there are plans for more international tours in 2017.

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.robbjohnson.co.uk

‘The Night Café’ live in the studio with the My Best Regards band:

ROBB JOHNSON – GENTLE MEN (Irregular Records)

Gentle MenGentle Men was commissioned for the 1997 Passendale Peace Concert. It has been expanded and re-recorded at an appropriate time as the government prepares to “celebrate” the outbreak of the Great War which now recedes beyond living memory. The gentle men of the title are Robb’s grandfathers, Ernest Johnson and Henry Jenner – Ern and Harry – who fought and survived and their story covers not only the war but also the decades that followed. Robb has said that his intention was to show Ern and Harry as real people with real lives both before and afterwards, not ciphers or victims.

The subject matter, particularly in the first part covering the period up to 1919, is bleak and bloody and Robb’s gift for comedy doesn’t find many outlets. It’s there in the “yeah, right” variety of ‘A Gentleman Always Wants Horses’ and the gallows humour of ‘Soldier On’ but as a listener the reaction is more often a shudder. To his credit, Robb doesn’t spare his audience’s sensibilities.

Lead vocals are shared with Barb Jungr, who does strident and sentimental with equal conviction, and Roy Bailey whose powerful performances belie his years. They are supported by Jude Abbott (brass), Jenny Carr (piano and accordion) and John Forrester (double bass) with other contributions from Arvin Johnson and Linze Maesterosa. Accompaniments are never overstated but Robb skilfully captures the music of the times, be it the music hall of a century ago or the post-war gaiety of ‘Noni And His Golden Serenaders’.

The second part of the piece explores how the experience of the war to end all wars shaped Harry and Ern and through them helped to shape Robb himself and the world into which he was born. Finally, we come to the present day and the inevitable conclusion that we’ve learned bugger all in the course of the last century.

I was fortunate to be at the London launch of the album and I’m not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears – and I wasn’t the only one – and the recorded version has exactly the same effect. You must hear Gentle Men and I urge you to splash out on the special edition with its narrative text and photographs although, while listening to these songs, it seems almost insensitive to talk about a beautifully presented hard-back book.

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.

Website: www.gentle-men2014.co.uk