Katie Spencer – in praise of live music

Katie Spencer
Photograph by Mike Wistow

Saturday night I find myself in a church in a small village. This settlement is so tiny that to describe it as a small hamlet overstates it. The best part of fifty years ago I came here on an archeological dig to see if there really had been a Roman settlement, on the edge of a river crossing now too deep and polluted for anyone to risk going in the water (though I was talking to a retired farmer last night who’d swum over in what he described as his foolish youth).

And in the church is a folk concert. Whoa – a folk concert in this place which I associate more with Roman Rome than the modern world; and also whoa – a folk concert in a church – wouldn’t have happened fifty years ago when my great aunt played the church organ in the village on the other side of the river. Even worse (albeit better for me last night) we brought our own alcohol. Fifty years ago the only red wine allowed in the place would have been for communion. The roof didn’t fall in (and see later).

Photograph by Mike Wistow

I knew nothing about the gig before – I’ll go and watch anything live and just said yes when asked to go. What a setting – as the photos show. Three sessions, two artists. Joe Clark, first on, played a mix of covers and own songs. Clever guitar playing from his adeptness in both classical and folk guitar, notably on John Martyn’s ‘May You Never’ and Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ as well as on his own stuff.

Being this kind of venue, there’s a break to stretch the legs and catch up with people. As well as friends who were part of the group I came with, I met an old mate I played cricket with in rural and industrial Nottinghamshire more than thirty years ago in the midst of the miners’ strike and all that went with it. He’s now retired, more into jazz, but happy for his land to be used annually for a folk mini-festival.

Katie Spencer, on the link below and pictured above played two sets. Lovely voice, lovely picking. She’s from Hull, where I lived for ten years or so – a great city of the arts long before it became a (capitalised) City of Culture. If you click on the link below to Spencer’s website and flick through the videos you’ll see why I bought the CD. Mostly her own songs – I particularly liked ‘Drinking The Water’ – but including Spencer the Rover, in recognition of the tradition, the folk revival versions of the song, her own surname and the life of the travelling musician.

So, folk is live. In the break, I learnt folk isn’t just live, the money raised is going to repair the church roof (which still hadn’t fallen in). What more could you want – not just a good evening, but a good cause. Wise also – you don’t even notice you’re raising money because you are simply here enjoying yourself.

There were fewer than a hundred of us. And at venues all over the country, this kind of acoustic music is keeping folk live. For me last night a church, songs of life, stories of Hull, a catch up with old friends, memories of an archeological dig, memories of the formerly thriving pit towns and villages and memories of family long gone – and the same kind of thing is going on in pubs, clubs, halls, fields, house concerts across the country.

Within a ten mile radius of where I live, I knew of three events the same night, Boo Hewerdine in one and Daisy Chapman in the other. There may have been more?

So…in praise of live music – and many thanks to all those artists and promoters who are keeping it live.

Mike Wistow

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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Katie Spencer ‘s website: http://www.katiespencer.net

Katie Spencer – ‘Can’t Resist The Road’ live:

NATHAN BELL – Loves Bones And Stars, Love’s Bones And Stars (Angry Stick Recording Company)

Loves BonesIn case you’re wondering, the title of the album is correct. Loves Bones And Stars, Love’s Bones And Stars is due for release on September 24th and is the fourth album in Nathan Bell’s Family Man series – and it’s rather good. The album is full of songs rather like his self-description of his life, “Utterly ordinary, always extraordinary”.

The style is Americana-ish, but the voice and the lyrics raise this album above the ordinary. Try the lyrics first. The opening track, ‘I Would Be a Blackbird (for Leslie Irene’ is a song for his wife whose favourite bird is, I gather, the Red Winged Blackbird (I’ve just looked on Google, it really is quite splendid) “If I was a word I would be your name/I would be your name/I would be a song/And if I was a song/That would still your heart/I would be a Blackbird”

How’s that for an expression of love? But good as the lyric is in its simplicity, it is made by the vocal. Bell has a gravelly voice and sings these lines gently. Just as a strong man with nothing to prove can be the mildest parent or nurse, the lyric, “If I was a word, I would be your name” becomes the softest touch of a fierce expression of love.

Right through, the album is consistently good. There are no promo videos yet so the link below is to Bell playing live in Edinburgh a year ago but on this raw-ish video Bell’s singing and playing come through pretty well.

To pick a few of the other tracks. ‘Whiskey, You Win’ is a cracking country song telling of drink, losing the woman, the truck, and the singer reflecting on his life – all wrapped up in a great tune and lyrics like “Now all of my dreams/Fit into the suitcase/That you threw into his pickup truck”. ‘Faulkner And Four Roses’ is another whisky song, but this time as a cure for insomnia in a song written for a friend who lost his wife of fifty years. ‘My Kid’ captures that point where we listen to our children and realise that they’re growing into the insightful adults we’ve been trying to raise them to be “Damn, damn, damn/Where’d he learn to talk [think, act in subsequent verses] that way/Damn, damn, damn/My kid’s going to be okay”. “Metal” is a track he describes as “a song of hoping that I will die well and knowing there’s no way of knowing if I will” with a refrain sung in that gravelled voice, accepting that this is the nature of things “I know this to be true and I don’t mind” as he thinks of his love, of his friends, and of the next generation coming along.

A couple of songs are on the album in alternate versions, ‘A Day Like This’ and the title track. Unusually, I find I listen to both versions, rather than stopping the album before they come on. I’ll let Bell describe the title song, “….By now I was writing songs about my own love. They were songs about the bones that keep us upright, that keep us moving. They were songs about how we look longingly toward the stars, yet we (I) love and cherish most the ordinary things within our reach”.

Mike Wistow

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: https://www.nathanbellmusic.com

Nathan’s tour schedule is now online at https://nathanbellmusic.com/schedule

Nathan Bell live:


NIAMH VARIAN-BARRY – Wings (own label NVB001)

WingsSometimes you just want to snuggle down and be wrapped in the voice you’re listening to. Niamh Varian-Barry has one of those voices. Have a listen to ‘Dusty Little Wings’, the opening track on the album Wings, and you don’t want to do anything other than just listen. Wings was released earlier this year and is the debut solo album of Varian-Barr, former lead singer of the highly respected Solas. The link below takes you to the video she used to help fund the album and gives you a good feel for the music – not just aurally but also, as befits the daughter of an artist, a visual sense of how embedded her work is to the landscape as well as the sounds of Ireland.

The album pulls off the difficult task of keeping the sense of being a single piece of art while covering a range of music in its eleven tracks and it maintains a sense of Irish musical style throughout. And it does this even though the middle of the album has a track ‘Tar Eis an Bhastaigh’ which reminds me of the art rock of Marianne Faithful from later periods of her career. This is pretty impressive given that the track sits effortlessly between a couple of tunes which are very different to this – it follows the strings, cor anglais and piano of ‘She’s Here’ (Varian-Barry’s newly born daughter) and is followed by ‘Gerry Barry’s’ a tune for violin and accordion written after hearing a melodic chime on a TGV station.

Varian-Barry has composed six of the eleven tracks. Whether it’s the pull of her voice or her violin/viola playing I’ve just wanted to sit and listen to Wings. There are tunes which can holds you with their stillness – the traditional ‘Dancing The Baby’ for example – or their liveliness (‘Escapade In A Minor’ or ‘Padrino’). And to finish where I started, there are songs where all you want to do is to listen to Varian-Barry’s voice. ‘The Lark Of Mayfield’ is just as affecting as the opening track. The stripped down version of ‘Satisfied Mind’ which closes the album is as affecting as any version (I’ve just dug many of them out on YouTube) of this widely covered song.

Wings is a debut album, but a debut from an experienced singer and musician with a handful of equally talented colleagues. It was engineered by Donogh Hennessy (ex of Lunasa) and is just a delight to listen to. Play it loud on a decent hifi and wait for your partner, or other passing strangers, to come in and say “That’s lovely, what are you listening to?

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: http://niamhvarianbarry.com

Introductory video:

DREW MORRISON AND THE DARKWOOD – Electric-Notes Wild (Storm Cloud SCCD002)

Electric-Notes WildElectric-Notes Wild, to be released on September 7th, is the debut album from Drew Morrison And The Darkwood. It follows a well-received EP, Tales of Love, Sadness and Rock’n’Roll, released in 2015. The band have been playing since 2011 and perform regularly (they’ve been called ‘the house band’) at the Spice of Life venue in Soho at the monthly Country Soul Sessions, the session dedicated to Americana, Blues, Rock N’ Roll, Pop, Country, Bluegrass. Morrison has described his music as being for “the lonesome fugitive within us all” and his voice has a soulful yearning to match that epithet.

The album opens with ‘Always’, a strong country song about an artist he’s listened to since his youth, how he’s followed his life and how “I guess I’ll carry you always”. It’s the only song I can think of that captures how the artists we follow from our youth change our life – but it’s not uncritical, which is its lyrical strength. Musically it has intimations of several of the greats and a lovely ending where the Duane Eddy-style bass lead which has infused the track morphs seamlessly into a lead that would grace any mid-60’s track from ‘I Feel Fine’ to ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ – a nice touch for a song about musical heroes.

The other tracks on the album have the same mix of delicately played music with lyrics that have some great lines “Girl I swear, I really did care/but now when I think of you, I know just to do/ I’ve got to Keep a Moving on…cos you’ll just bring me down” or “Have you ever walked a mile in someone else’s shoes?/ Have you ever really felt the blues?”.

This has been an unusual album to listen to. I keep playing Electric-Notes Wild and hearing something new in it. I keep trying to pin it into a description that would open it up to someone who’s not heard it and each time it pulls away into something else – it’s more than Country/Americana though that’s the core of the album. It deserves a proper listen because there’s some great hooks (the chorus to the shuffling ‘Like We Used To’, the rising chorus of ‘Sad Music’, for example), Morrison’s voice is easy on the ear but still captures that ‘lonesome fugitive’ in us. The band/ arrangement are simultaneously reminiscent of something you think you know, but are actually unique to Electric-Notes Wild as far as I can tell.

One final note. At the risk of writing an overly geeky paragraph more fitting for the (non-existent) What-Hi-Folking-Fi magazine: When I first played the album on my normal set up I thought, it’s OK, but nothing more; unusually, when I played it in the car the brightness and zing of the playing came out. A few tweaks to the set up at home to move it from no amendments to tone and I found the same spark. I’ve made a mental note to try and get to the Country Soul Sessions where I’d guess you see the band at their best.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://www.drewmorrisonandthedarkwood.co.uk

There are a couple of shows in London before the end of the year https://www.drewmorrisonandthedarkwood.co.uk/shows/

Album launch at Country Soul Sessions:

LETITIA VANSANT – Gut It To The Studs (own label)

Gut It To The StudsLetitia VanSant is an American activist whose first album, Gut It To The Studs, has a UK release date of August 28th. Gut It To The Studs is Americana rather than folk, but the lyrics focus on modern-day spiritual and political concerns as much as the ‘folk revival’ did in the sixties. All but one of the songs on the album were written by VanSant.

The album opens with ‘Where I’m Bound’, a modern and personal take on the ‘New Adam’ view of American culture. The song tells of a dying mother’s advice to follow a path on which you can be guided by your heart, not by the fool’s gold of modern life; you should do this for yourself and so that “Slowly others will follow on the trail that you made/On their dark journeys they won’t be so afraid/For you travelled not by sight/But by your certain faith”. VanSant’s vocal plays well against the band, particularly the vocal clarity against the bass on this track.

The title track follows. Gutting it to the studs is a construction image about rebuilding yourself spiritually – something’s not right in life so “I’m knocking down the walls tonight/Gotta gut it to the studs”. The song works on two levels being a political song which references people risking all in fragile boats, but is also, I suspect, a personal song – VanSant has given up a secure career to become a professional musician. Both these songs are lyrically and musically strong and you can see why VanSant has won serious songwriting competitions. The beautifully sparse final track, ‘Sundown Town’ has a simple vocal and guitar arrangement that makes the bleak tale of a sundown town (where black people weren’t welcome after dark) all the stronger. While I’ve enjoyed listening to the rest of the album, VanSant’s other songs don’t have quite the same power as these three to meld the strength of the subject with the music. The cover track is Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, of which VanSant says, “We owe so much to the people who fought for justice in decades past….I recorded this as a reminder to myself that the present moment is just as critically important to our nation’s history”.

What I like about this album is that it continues the ethical struggles in song of past generations and it has several tracks in which you can hear VanSant’s distinctive talent; what I’ve also found is that, much as I like both VanSant’s voice and the band/arrangements, as I’ve talked about Gut It To The Studs to other people I’ve largely focused on the album as social comment.

VanSant is only touring in the USA at the moment, so try the title song for yourself in the video link below.

Mike Wistow

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: https://www.letitiavansant.com

‘Gut It To The Studs’ – live:

PHILIP MARINO – Chasing Ghosts (own label)

Chasing GhostsPhilip Marino released his fourth CD, Chasing Ghosts, on July 27th. Marino is an American singer-songwriter who lives in Essex in the UK. In style, perhaps the most appropriate genre would be to describe Chasing Ghosts as Americana. It’s broader than that though and you can hear the influences that Marino listened to in his youth – John Mellencamp, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – mingled together into some rather lovely songs.

‘The Way It Goes’ opens the album, a delightful bit of guitar work drawing you in and a lyric that keeps you grabbed. It begins “In my life I’ve lost my way…” and without self-pity captures the hopes, though not the reality, of winning in life – “That’s the way it goes”. ‘In My Blood’ is an identity song – what Marino owes to his parents and his former lover and how this shapes “every song I’ve sung”. The band has played on the first two tracks but not until ‘Try’ does the larger sound really hit you. The title track ‘Chasing Ghosts’ would make a good single; an up-beat melody that acknowledge Mellencamp’s influences and a chorus with variants of ”Yeah those ghosts in my head/I hear screams of demons I’ve fed/So we’ll be/Chasing those ghosts till they’re dead”.

‘This Time’ reverts to a gentler style, acoustic guitar to the fore. ‘In Your Hands’ is a neat reflection on time with a former love when she was with him and “had my life in your hands” and again when she left and “held my heart in your hands”.

The album finishes with a couple of strong tracks with the band. ‘The Road Goes Down’ is tense and has a great line – having introduced Johnny with a big dream in a small town Marino sings, “his soul died ounce by ounce”. The almost-final track (there’s also a hidden track, which is a fine song but it takes away from the album’s ending) is ‘No Turning Back’. Of several tracks on the album with great choruses, ‘No Turning Back’ is possibly the best – a great encore song to leave you joining in and singing after a concert/album has finished.

Marino’s previous album was produced by Simone Felice, which tells you how well he is regarded. Chasing Ghosts was co-produced by Marino himself and Adam Bowers at the Boathouse studios in Suffolk. The music industry is changing – being disrupted in modern parlance – and there is some really good stuff being released away from the historical routes of record companies if only it can get a hearing. Chasing Ghosts is one of the albums that’s worth giving a hearing

Mike Wistow

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: http://www.philipmarino.com/index/

‘This Time’ – live at the Boathouse Sessions: