KEEGAN McINROE – A Good Old Fashioned Protest (own label)

Old Fashioned ProtestLast year saw a welcome return of the protest album and it’s good to see the momentum hasn’t slowed, Texas-based McInroe getting 2018 off to a suitably barbed start with this sparsely arranged nine-track collection of observations and commentary on the state of the world.

Recalling both the satirical bent of Tom Paxton and Arlo Guthrie, it opens with ‘Talking Talking Head Blues’, concerning the right-wing media’s all-encompassing views on terrorism that nods to Trump’s call to wall off Mexico, the extremes of homeland security measures, fake news and “Russian secret agents like that albino pederast Julian Assange” before playfully interrupting the broadcast with breaking Justin Beiber news.

McInroe describes the album as a protest against war, a remit clearly addressed on the dust bowl blues ‘Big Old River’ which looks behind the smoke and mirrors to reveal the profit motives behind fuelling conflict while, for the most part another talking blues, ‘Bombing For Peace’ is essentially a list of oxymorons such as “bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity” or “strangling the future while hoping for tomorrow”. It’s simplistic, but no less effective for that.

There’s a switch in mood and tone for the acoustic strum of ‘Christmas 1914’, a quietly wistful song that revives the legendary story of how, during WWI, the British and German soldiers declared an unofficial truce, came out of the trenches exchanged gifts and played football together.

It’s back to talking blues for the 60-second ‘Bastards and Bitches’, a flurry of invective directed at the “self-righteous pricks robbing all generations, stroking each other while the world lies bleeding”. It’s not exactly subtle, but he puts that to rights with ‘The Ballad Of Timmy Johnson’s Living Brother’, a Kristofferson-styled (‘Me and Bobby McGhee’ to be precise) story about a young man radicalised when his family, including his baby brother, become collateral damage in an Egyptian strike on a suspected terrorist with its stark chorus refrain “what a catastrophe, can you imagine a world where this is viewed as ordinary?”.

‘Nietzsche Wore Boots’ is actually a three-minute spoken word poem that, reminiscent of the 60s Beat writers, casts the German philosopher as Moses coming down from the mountain, declaring God to be dead and castigating “You who feed the hungry with stones and derision. You who love your neighbor with bombs and oppression. You who only mourn when it’s your dead children”.

It ends on an apocalyptic note of the Earth purged of mankind’s poison, only to make a full recovery and live a long life. It’s a note of optimism that echoes in the final two tracks, the slow waltzing care for thy neighbour strum of ‘The Love That We Give’, another vintage Kristofferson-like number about bringing hope to the hopeless, and the Guthrie-esque ‘we ain’t gonna take it’ album closer ‘Keegan’s Beautiful  Dream’ call for change through solidarity and a shared dream of a better tomorrow with its inspirational declaration that “we are the instruments set to be played, that’ll move us from darkness out into the day”. Get in tune.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘The Love That We Give’:

BETH WIMMER – Bookmark (own label)

BookmarkRaised on America’s east coast with her poet mother and folk-singing grandfather before moving to Los Angeles, Wimmer’s been based in Switzerland for several years, although Bookmark, her fourth album and the first in six years, was primarily recorded in Lichtenstein and Austria, co produced by Billy Watts from the Mojo Monkeys, who also provides guitar, and featuring bassists Rodrigo Aravena and Taras Prodaniuk, drummer David Raven and multi instrumentalist Dänu Wisler with Suzie Candell on harmonies.

Stylistically, this is a relatively bluesy album, although it opens in dreamier shape with the title track’s reverie, Watts adding electric guitar and bass to Wimmer’s acoustic on a celebration of a perfect relationship served up in musical metaphors. The blues kick in though on the uptempo 70s AM boogie rhythm of ‘Loosen My Grip’, Taras Prodaniuk laying down the basslines on a number basically about getting loose, letting go of the bad and going with the groove that offers up the wisdom to “keep your eye on the sweet donut, not on the hole.”

Likewise, even if the lyrics concern moving on and not crying years over a bad love, the lazing mid-tempo ballad ‘Louisiana’ also evokes thoughts of that same mellow rock era and artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon, Wendy Waldman and Maria Muldaur.

There’s a folksier, more acoustic air to ‘Mahogany Hawk’, an airy waltz through Laurel Canyon soundscapes with hints of Joni that, in its theme and nature imagery, also echoes the era’s disdain for consumerism and commerciality and the desire to fly free of society like the lyrics’ ‘avian saint’.

Autobiographical notes sound on the Texicali coloured ‘Mexico’, Wisler providing dobro and Watts taking the acoustic solo on a suitably warm rolling rhythm and sway as she sings about moving from California to marry a man from Switzerland, but annually returning to melt winter sorrows dancing in the sun.

Strumming acoustic with Watts sliding in the pedal steel, ‘Pretty Good’ sounds another anti-materialistic note on a song that celebrates those that try and perhaps fall short rather than those who succeed and lose touch, a countrified rolling rhythm backdropping the call to do your best at what you do and to bring a glow to the vibe in your neighbourhood backyard.

Breathily but powerfully sung and again in classic soulful AM mode with resonant guitar from Watts, ‘Simplicity Of A Man’ is a near six-minute poignant love song that, unusually in a world that can often have a cynical arch-feminist perspective on men, looks inside the soul and finds a tenderness within. It opens on the image of an elderly widower mourning his bride of 52 years, continuing with a young philosopher rendered speechless on the birth of his child before narrowing the focus to a more personal, intimate understanding of how the male of the species may not always articulate their love, but this doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.

The final stretch begins with the album’s sole cover, Wimmer’s voice soaring on a gently faithful take of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ complete with la la chorus and handclaps finale before heading into ‘The Last Part’, a slow watltz dreamy ballad love song that can be best summed up in the line from Jerry Maguire, “you complete me”. It ends on another upbeat note with ‘We Can Do This’, an all acoustic percussion-free track featuring mandolin and lap steel that for some reason reminds me of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ about how, while there may be storms to weather and it may sometimes take the scenic route, love is always worth trying to hold together.

A bookmark is defined as a something than enables you to return to or remember a place or a time with ease; this album will make you want to do both.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Bookmark’ – live:

SOPHIA JOHNSON – One Year (own label)

One YearWhen I reviewed Hannah Johnson’s solo debut a few months back, I was unaware that her sister, Sophia, had also released her debut back in 2016, with One Year getting an international release in 2017. Both were, of course, two thirds of Birmingham-based bluegrass outfit The Toy Hearts along with their lap steel player father Stewart, until Sophia upped sticks in 2015 to move to Austin, resulting in Hannah renaming the band The Broken Hearts.

Although she initially made her name with gypsy jazz guitar instrumental outfit Trio Gitano, Sophia shares her sister’s love of old school country and Western Swing, particular touchstones being Ray Price, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills, something very evident in their respective albums, both in their choice of covers and their own material. It’s the latter that dominates on Sophia’s fine collection, several of the songs clearly having an autobiographical slant, kicking off with ‘Visa Blues’, a sprightly swing number that might have come from the Prairie Home Companion stage as, backed by fiddle and some fine guitar picking, she tells the immigration authorities “I’m a guitar player and I come from Birmingham, I left everyone I love and everything I own to chase a dream in Texas, make Austin my home.”

Although it’s water under the bridge now, Sophia having co-produced and played on Hannah’s album, the split clearly caused some friction and, if you know the background, then it’s hard not to read into the lyrics of the jazzy, clarinet-flavoured title track, a pertinent reference to the time that had passed and lines like “it don’t feel much like a victory when the winning costs so much” and how “it’s a year since we have spoke”. However, for those not privy to the conscious or otherwise personal references, it works just as well as a relationship break up number, the experience informing though not necessarily defining the songs, as for example the reflective slow sway ballad, ‘Starting Fires’ where, to plangent guitar chords, Beth Christman’s fiddle and Earl Poole Ball’s piano (not to mention a vague echo of Richard Thompson), she sings about cutting ties and burning bridges.

Indeed, there’s a clutch of collapsed relationship numbers, the five and a half minute ‘Don’t Call’, a lolloping, burping bluesy organ groove courtesy of Kullen Fuchs with hints of the Sir Douglas Quintet and about avoiding contact so as not to feel even more down and, by contrast, the catchy brushed drums and hot club fiddle shuffling swing of the sweetly sung but defiant ‘Rue The Day’ that conjures the vintage days of the Grand Ole’ Opry.

The last of the self-penned numbers is ‘Kitchen Floor’, a twangsome bluegrassy number about drinking away the loneliness served with a cocktail of Jackson, Parton and Cash and a guitars and fiddle instrumental break. Of the four covers, first up is a playful Westerns wing sashay through Silas Lowe’s ‘I’m Moving To Manchaca’ while the penultimate cut reprises Ben Saffer’s clarinet on the Johnny Mercer’s prairie swing ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’. Showcasing both Johnson’s terrific acoustic and electric guitar playing as well as the classiness of the other musicians, who also include Tom Lewis on drums, Bryce Clarke on electric guitar, bassist Huck Johnson and fiddle player Katy Cox, the other two are both instrumentals, Bob Wills’ Western Swing romp ‘Big Beaver’ and, closing the album, Johnson and Cox’s big grin arrangement of the traditional ‘Beaumont Rag’.

As well as making a name for herself on the Austin scene as both an artist in her own right and as an in demand guitar player, as well as forming a musical partnership with Rosie Flores, Johnson’s also been nominated for best Western Swing Female in the fifth annual Ameripolitan Music Awards founded “to benefit and acknowledge artists whose work does not readily conform to the tastes of today’s “country” or other music genres and organizations.” The Toy Hearts may beat no more, but in giving birth to two new solo swing sensations, the Johnson sisters are proving a musical defibrillator for old school country on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mike Davies

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THE LOST NOTES – Run Free Right Now (own label TLN01)

Run Free Right NowA self-deprecating acoustic folk roots five piece from Moseley in Birmingham, guitarists Ben Mills and Oli Jobes and Charlize Theron lookalike Lucy Mills provide the vocals with Silas Wood on double bass duties and Jamie Human behind the drums, they’ve been going for a couple of years and Run Free Right Now is their debut album.

They’re an exuberant bunch, the album kicking off with ‘Green Grass’, a three part harmony chorus hayride foot-stomping reminder that “even if life on the other side seems better, green grass always turns yellow.” Lucy steps into the vocal spotlight for the fingerpicked waltzing ‘Bobby’, a kiss-off leaving song with crooning chorus that gets a live reprise as the album’s bonus track. The pace picks up again with the outstretched helping hand of a jaunty strummed ‘All At Sea’ (which also get a vocal remix revisit) before all three voices join together for the bluegrassy Banker’s Blues, a playful jibe at the self-interested financial profession in which the narrator protests about being accused of not having a conscience, declaring “I care about everybody, just not as much as me.”

In similar tongue-in-cheek mode is the Jobes-penned ‘A Leader Of Men’, an uptempo Guthriesque romp which, referencing Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Maggie Thatcher as he bemoans being unable to follow in their footsteps because of health and safety red tape.

Turning to their gentler side, the five-minute ‘I’ll Wait Until The Sunrise’ is a softer, folksier waltz with a lovely filigree guitar pattern, the lyrics drawing on the age old folk story/fairy tale of a woman (a selkie here) setting her suitor a series of task to complete before morning, while ‘Lonely With You’ is a slow waltzing, brushed drums number about missing a lost love.

Turning to 60s folk blues influences, the simple declaration of love that is ‘Touch The Sky’ is the other Jobes’ number, the circling guitar work suggesting the spirits of Jansch and Graham, coloured by Wood’s bowed double bass, the album taking another stylistic swerve with ‘Take My Hand’, a blues-gospel swing number that starts with finger-clicking and Mills singing a capella before the guitars join in as it shuffles between southern gospel and New Orleans flavoured jazz complete with a touch of ragtime guitar break.

The last two tracks are both Mills and Jones co-writes, ‘Stone In My Shoes’ one of those list songs about a fractious relationship served up as train choogling tempo blues number with buzzing harmonica, the album proper ending with the mid-tempo title track’s call to escape the urban pressures for a simpler life of music, friends and harmony, chasing the sun and dancing with the breeze, Ben shouting out the title refrain as it gathers to a crescendo and final quiet close.

Like many first albums, the eagerness to show off different sides of the music means it doesn’t always flow as fluidly it might, and I’d have liked to have hear more of Lucy’s vocals upfront, but there’s no doubting the quality of the performances or the talent in evidence. The Lost Notes are a real find.

Mike Davies

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‘Green Grass’:

BELLA HARDY – Hey Sammy (Noe NOE10)

Hey SammyHer ninth solo outing, this is very much Hardy’s ‘pop’ album, a dramatic change in sound an style resulting from a brief relocation to Nashville and a seven-week residency in Kumming in Southwest China (which itself gave rise to Eternal Spring earlier this year, a live collection of song and poetry with Chinese musicians). Recorded with the backing of Iain Thomson on guitars, Tom Gibbs on keys and clarinet, and the rhythm section of James Lindsay and John Blease, with Hardy on fiddle, harmonium and xylophone and Paul Savage in the producer’s chair, it opens with Chinese colours evident on the chiming notes that introduce and underpin the dreamy ‘Redemption’, a folk song about friendship and kindness to others, enrobed in almost show tune clothes.

Driven by a beating tribal drum rhythm, the poppy ‘Learning To Let Go’ details feelings of displacement and search for self as she sings of being a stranger in California looking for “another way of being known another way of being” but that also “I know the who but I still don’t know what I want to be.”

Co-penned with Thomson, ‘Driving Through Harmony’ gets a touch funky in a West Coast style and is followed by the first of two-writes with Nashville’s Peter Groenwald. First up is the mid-tempo ticking rhythm ‘Queen Of Carter’s Bar’, a country-tinted fading relationship number that, a loose rework of ‘Tam Lin’, again concerns identity (“I’m watching you pretend to be the thing you’re aren’t”), followed by the keyboards balled ‘In My Dreams’, which, with added input from Konnad Snyder, is a suitably hushed and atmospheric weave with a percussive ebb and flow.

A particular standout is the self-penned ‘You Don’t Owe The World Pretty’, a punchy jangling feminist pop song about women taking ownership of their bodies and their lives that comes with a surging chorus rush. It’s followed by the two collaborations with Scottish jazz pianist and composer Tom Gibbs, the first being ‘Busy Head’ (tracing the familiar theme of “so desperate to fit in and so in need of staying apart”) that again, especially in its swelling flourishes, has the air of a Broadway showstopper, as indeed does the gathering swell of piano-led ‘Heartbreaker’, a song about “a neon jazz folk love affair” you might imagine Elaine Paige covering.

Next up comes the title track, its jaunty guitar chug and big burst choruses belying the song’s subject matter concerning the rise of racism in Britain, followed, in turn, by ‘South Lake’, a piano-based, clarinet-shaded number inspired by and referencing Nan Hu, meaning South Lake, a stretch of water in Yunnan province, in its contemplation of being and our connection with the world around us.

The lyrics conjure thoughts of Chinese poetry and, indeed, one such provides the source for the closing shimmering six-minute ‘Stars’. It’s a studio rerecording of the number originally featured on Eternal Spring, a two part lyric that combines words adapted from poem 21, written in praise of Yunnan, in the Shijing, a collection of some three hundred ancient poems sometimes translated as The Book of Songs, with Hardy’s own response, both set to her spirits soaring tune.

The press blurb talk of it as a ‘glorious…grown up’ record, I think a magnificent coming of age might be a better term.

Mike Davies

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‘Driving Through Harmony’ – official video:

KATE RUSBY – Angels & Men (Pure PRCD44)

Angels & MenBringing the 25th anniversary of her music career to date to a sparkling finale, Kate Rusby sees the year out with Angels & Men, her fourth Christmas album, again featuring a collection of predominantly South Yorkshire carols, but, this time, produced by husband Damien O’Kane with what she calls “an iridescent twinkle”.

Twinkle it most certainly does on the opening gambit of ‘Hark Hark’, the crispness burnished by the mulled wine warmth of cornet, French horn, Flugel horn and tuba, complemented by euphonium, diatonic accordion and, special guest from the Alison Krauss Band, Ron Block on banjo.

The album marks another first in featuring a Christmas standard in the jaunty form of Sammy Chan and Jule Styne’s festive chestnut, ‘Let It Snow’, given her own Barnsley sheen and, again featuring the brass section, a folksy instrumental interpolation.

Changing the ambience for a more brooding, portentous tone, featuring O’Kane on guitar, Duncan Lyle on moog with Josh Clark on percussion, ‘Paradise’ returns to the South Yorkshire canon for what is, in fact, a variation on ‘Down In Yon Forest’, a Renaissance carol about the nativity based on the Middle English hymn, the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. And, on the subject of variations, things take a playful turn for ‘The Ivy And The Holly’, a cover of Kipper Family member Chris Sugden’s witty riposte to the evergreen carol as having “no good points between ‘em!” from their 1989 album Arrest These Merry Gentlemen.

Rusby, of course, recorded the original carol on Sweet Bells, her 2008 Christmas album, and the lively ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ is, in fact a revisiting of the title track in a fuller brass arrangement, basically ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ with an added Yorkshire village chorus and renamed after the tune.

The words written in 1858 by Edward Caswell and set to the tune of ‘Humility’ in 1871 by John Goss, ‘See Amid The Winter Snow’ is also known as ‘Hymn For Christmas Day’, the simple cascading brass arrangement here perfectly capturing the theme of purity.

Featuring a circling guitar pattern from O’Kane with Nick Cooke on accordion although credited as traditional, the first two verses and chorus of ‘Rolling Downward’ are actually taken from the lyrics by 19th century Pennsylvanian hymnalist Robert Lowry with Rusby providing an amendment to the third.

Another familiar festive number arrives ‘Deck The Halls’, Clark laying down the rhythmic bedrock with the brass section and Aaron Jones on bouzouki adding extra joie de vivre to its fa la la la la. Then, things take another contemporary turn with a sleigh bells feel to Richard Thompson’s ‘We’ll Sing Hallelujah’, reclaiming its somewhat depressive and downbeat lyrics about mortality and investing it with a jubilant feel.

Introduced by a sample her young daughter Daisy saying banjo over and over, the light-hearted ‘Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo’ is another cover, this time from Canadian singer-songwriter David Myles, taken at a more measured tempo and featuring Block again on banjo, this time joined by Sierra Hull on mandolin.

The album ends with two Rusby originals. Clocking at just under six minutes, the slow waltzing ‘Let The Bells Ring’ is a bittersweet mingling of sadness at the passing of the year and the hope of the one beginning, Anton Davis on piano as it gathers to a swelling orchestral brass crescendo. The final track reprises Barnsley’s very own Yorkshire tea-drinking super-hero first featured on last year’s Life In A Paper Boat, returning for ‘Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas’ as he variously melts Sid the bad snowman with a pot of tea, saves Daisy and sister Phoebe from the thin ice over the lake and digs Santa out of a Lapland snowdrift, bringing it all to a climax with military drums and a flourish of brass. And, in good super-hero movie tradition, stay on for that extra little bonus after the final note. To borrow the name of well-known dessert, as the sleeve photo suggests, this is an Angel Delight.

Mike Davies

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 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:

‘Sweet Bells’ – live: