CHRIS CLEVERLEY TRIO – Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham

Chris Cleverley Trio

Already well-established as a charismatic performer on the folk circuit and a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter as well as hugely accomplished guitarist, this hometown gig, the first of the award-winning club’s new season, served to launch his new trio format comprising himself, Kim Lowings and Said The Maiden’s Kathy Pilkington, who also plays banjo and woodwind.

Following an opening set by Minnie Birch, herself a frequent Cleverley collaborator, the trio took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendition of ‘The Old Man From Over The Sea’, Chris taking lead and the two girls crooning harmonies and joining in on the chorus, a ribald Irish ballad from the Anglo-American tradition about a young woman encouraged by her mother to have it away with some grey-bearded old bloke who ultimately proves to be sexually inadequate.

Cleverley strapping on guitar and with Kathy on banjo, ‘You And I Belong Together’, a new self-penned number, proved a rousing Americana stomp, setting the musical backdrop for a rendition of the traditional American folk classic ‘O Shenadoah’, a number he’d recorded on his debut album, elevated to even greater heights by Kathy’s clarinet and her and Kim’s complementary pure-voiced harmonies, the latter airily soaring, the former slightly earthier.

Two further numbers from Apparitions follow, the American folk coloured ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, Kathy back on banjo and Chris strapping on electric guitar, and the waltzing ‘Missing Persons’, explaining that, as the songs age so they change, the new format affording a chance to reinvent rather than simply retread.

The girls temporarily leave the stage for two solo Chris numbers, the ridiculously catchy as yet unrecorded ‘The Low Light Low’ which promises to be a highlight on the next album and, in a tip of the hat to the man who inspired him to learn guitar, a version of ‘Barrack Street’, a traditional tale of a sailor’s misfortune in Windsor, as learned from the Nic Jones album Penguin Eggs (and also on Said The Maiden’s A Curious Tale).

Ending the first set on another terrific new song, ‘Rachael’, the second began one more in a capella mode with another traditional ballad, his time from Scotland, with each taking a verse of ‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ before heading into Appalachian territory, Cleverly on banjo for ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ off his debut.

Setting the scene by recounting how he and Pilkington had taken some time during their summer Scottish dates to explore the blooming heather, they followed with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, given a more uptempo strummed tempo than is usually the case. A number he’s been trying out on recent dates, Steve Miller’s 70s classic ‘The Joker’ might not immediately strike you as folk club material, but in the trio’s hands it works brilliantly. Then it was time for another solo spot. Having already reminded that he gives good between song banter with an amusing story about the animated video for ‘The Day Before The Dawn,’ thoughts of fox-inspired merchandise for babies and a toddler getting up on stage and dancing, he recalled how after reading The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he was inspired by the beautiful grotesques on the fringes of society to write the subsequent song, ‘The Rafters’.

At this point, Kim and Kathy step off and Minnie Birch steps up to duet with Chris on ‘Glitter’, a song off her own debut album they’d been performing on their dates together, before everyone assembles for Birch to sing lead on ‘Up And Down’, a song inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream she wrote for The Company of Players, the Shakespeare-inspired project of which they comprise four of the nine members. And, returning for a well-deserved encore, it’s from this too that comes ‘But Thinking Makes It So’, a Cleverley-penned number inspired by Hamlet and the theme of mental illness, not only one of the very best songs he’s written, but one of the finest in the contemporary folk canon this century. An outstanding finale to a tremendous show.

Cleverley is set to record his new solo album in November and, while both Lowings and Pilkington will be involved, it won’t be a Trio project and there’s no further live shows from the line-up until next autumn. It would be an act of human cruelty to wait so long to hear them again, so, just perhaps, a live in the studio EP of the set’s covers and traditionals might not be too much to hope for. Make it so.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

Performance: 26 September 2018

‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ – live in the front room:

THE COMPANY OF PLAYERS – Shakespeare Songs (own label)

Shakespeare SongsThe Company of Players is an assemblage of young musicians brought together at the behest of Jess Distill of Said The Maiden, in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 by putting together some songs related to his life and work. And one of the fruits of that collaboration is the CD Shakespeare Songs. Participants are Jess Distill (vocals, flute, Shruti box – a drone instrument somewhat like a harmonium), Hannah Elizabeth (vocals, violin), Kathy Pilkinton (vocals, clarinet, spoons, mandolin), Sam Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion), Kelly Oliver (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica), Lukas Drinkwater (vocals, electric guitar, double bass), Chris Cleverley (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Kim Lowings (vocals, dulcimer, piano), Minnie Birch (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Daria Kulesh (vocals).

And a very interesting set it is, too. Knowing nothing of the project, I was, I suppose, expecting performances of songs that actually feature in Shakespeare plays (‘The Willow Song’, for example) or settings of his words, possibly accompanied by instruments from the period – which would have been fine by me! – but there are no lutes or viols here, and the range of material is both wider and in many cases more modern than I expected.

Track listing:

  1. ‘Black Spirits’, by Kathy Pilkinton, takes its title and lyrical content from Macbeth: specifically, Act I Scene I, and Act IV Scene I, taken verbatim from speeches by the Three Witches. It starts with minor-key, dirge-like close harmonies from Said The Maiden over an instrumental drone, then picks up the pace with percussion from Sam Kelly, while the harmonies of Jess, Hannah and Kathy are augmented by the voices of Sam, Chris, Kelly and Minnie.
  2. Minnie Birch’s ‘Up And Down’ borrows ideas and imagery from Midsummer’s Night Dream, and even the chorus is based (though not verbatim) on the words of Puck:
    Up and down, up and down,
    I will lead them up and down
    .’
    The sound, however, is very ‘modern folk’. In fact, it reminded me a little of Megan Henwood, which is certainly not a complaint. A very pretty tune.
  3. ‘Gather Round’, by Kim Lowings, draws on ideas and imagery from The Tempest. However, the expression is unashamedly modern, and would not sound out of place on Radio 2. (Hey, that’s not a criticism: I often listen to Radio 2!)
  4. While the title of Chris Cleverley’s ‘But Thinking Makes It So’ comes from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” the song seems to be a more general musing on the human condition and psychological frailty, no doubt influenced by the well-known soliloquy. Very attractive.
  5. In contrast, ‘Method In The Madness’, by Jess Distill and Kim Lowings, is clearly based on Hamlet (perhaps somewhat influenced by the Icelandic Amlóði or the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus, somewhat less conflicted precursors of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark). It’s curious that such a dark, corpse-strewn play should attract such light music. While this doesn’t have the levity of Adam McNaughtan’s ‘Oor Hamlet’ (chanted or sung to ‘The Mason’s Apron’), its sprightly tune, married to instrumentation that would not be out of place at a bluegrass festival, could certainly be described as toe-tapping. In fact, the tune would fit nicely into that group of American songs including ‘The Roving Gambler’, ‘Poor Ellen Smith’, and ‘Going Across The Mountain’. I’m almost tempted to describe it as fun.
  6. ‘Song Of The Philomel’ is a gentle song by Kim Lowings: the slightly archaic expression in the lyrics recalls Titania’s lullaby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Philomel is both an old name for the nightingale and a 19th-century instrument somewhat related to the violin, though Hannah’s fiddle here doesn’t have the philomel’s shrill tone.) I particularly like this track.
  7. ‘Interval’ is a brief instrumental track, not listed in the sleeve notes or lyric booklet, but its mournful, slightly dissonant tone serves very appropriately as an introduction to the next track, ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’. Amusingly, the press release ascribes its inclusion to Midsummer’s Eve mischief-making by the Fairy Queen and her followers. However, there’s nothing light-hearted about either track.
  8. Daria Kulesh’s ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’ draws its story, as the title suggests, from the novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (and the source of an opera by Shostakovich), rather than directly from Shakespeare. Darla’s dramatic delivery of a melody fittingly reminiscent of Russian folk music is almost operatic in its intensity.
    By the way, the Russian word прощай, which appears several times in the lyric, generally means something like ‘farewell’ or ‘goodbye forever’, but can also mean something like ‘forgive’, which perhaps echoes the more sympathetic portrayal of Katerina in Shostakovich’s opera. Just a thought.
  9. ‘You Needs Must Be Strangers’ takes verses from Sir Thomas More. The authorship of this play is, to say the least, complicated. But it is generally accepted that 147 lines added to the play in 1603 were contributed by Shakespeare in his own handwriting. Its meditation on the plight of the exile has an all-too-apposite resonance in the 21st century, reminding me a little of Martin Thomas’s ‘The Exile’.
  10. ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’, by Hannah Elizabeth, sets the song from As You Like It described by Touchstone as “untuneable”, though Hannah’s setting (like Thomas Morley’s long before it) disproves that description. A great tune, though the extended playout is a little overlong for my taste.
  11. The lyric to ‘Jessica’s Sonnet’ is actually not quite a sonnet, but then it isn’t by Shakespeare either, being credited to Kelly Davis, Kim Lowings and Sam Kelly. It does, however, represent the thoughts of Jessica, the daughter of The Merchant Of Venice, just before she elopes with Lorenzo. The vocals are credited to Sam and Chris, but there’s a strong female vocal there, too, plus other harmonies that seem to be from the whole Company.

This certainly isn’t the sort of music I was expecting, but I certainly can’t say I was in the least disappointed by what I heard. Good solo and harmony vocals, excellent instrumental work where technique serves the interests of the songs but never overshadow them, and some very attractive tunes. If you’re among the many people who were completely put off The Bard by unimaginative English lessons, don’t let that put you off this take on his life and work. And if you love Shakespeare but are open to alternative ‘takes’ like West Side Story you may well like this.

It’s certainly staying on my iPod.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.facebook.com/TheCompanyofPlayers

‘Method In The Madness’ – live:

VARIOUS ARTISTS Downtown Compilation (Folkstock FSR 22)

VARIOUS ARTISTS Downtown Compilation (Folkstock FSR 22)Downtown is a compilation released to coincide with two concerts curated by Folkstock Records at the London Folk & Blues Festival. It’s a limited edition with several tracks recorded specifically for the project so you may want to make your purchase with due alacrity.

The set opens with ‘Miles To Tralee’, about to be a single for Kelly Oliver and slated for her second album. It was produced by Stu Hanna and just exudes style and confidence. Kelly has come a long way in a very short time and deservedly so. Next come Fred’s House and their digital single ‘Shut Up And Dance’. On first hearing I thought that they’d discovered it on some obscure album of Americana but, no, it’s all their own work and a thumping good track. Minnie Birch’s ‘Dustbowl’ is taken from her debut album and ‘Little Black Cloud’ is a taster for Marina Florence’s forthcoming album and is already receiving radio plays. Mariana has a smoky, sultry voice that demands your attention, possibly on pain of a cane across the knuckles.

There is something of middle-period Joan Baez about Zoe Wren’s singing and ‘Nothing To See’ is a particularly powerful performance and one of the collection’s unique tracks as is Kaity Rae’s ‘When You Go’. ‘The Moon And The Pilot’ can only be by Daria Kulesh. Kate Rouse’s hammered dulcimer is an obvious clue and the allegorical lyrics and a hint of the 1940s about the vocal delivery remove any doubt – the mention of Stalin seals it. This is another original recording for this compilation.

‘Nashville’ is the second selection from Minnie Birch’s debut album, Floundering, and then comes Ben Smith with ‘Let Me Down Easy’. Ben is a superb guitarist and the song has the feel of the sixties troubadours with a laid-back band and little electric fills that build up as the track progresses. Finally, we return to Kelly Oliver and ‘Rio’, a song co-written with Nigel Stonier and her most recent single. It’s a happy, uplifting song with which to end an excellent set. “Thanks for having me” indeed.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: www.folkstockrecords.com

Fred’s House – ‘Shut Up And Dance’:

The F Spot Femmes Fatales

Femmes

Strong, sensuous, fascinating and feminine, this compilation of ten compelling self penned songs from women is being released on Folkstock Records on International Womens’ Day on March 8th. Performed by some of the talented female singers we have had the pleasure of working with in the past year and spanning four generations, this distinctive selection hopes to enlighten and inspire with its diversity and be distinguishable from other compilations by its raw honesty and emotion. We thank all the singers for laying bare their soul in this stripped back showcase of their undeniable talent.
This is not just any album full to the brim with female singer songwriting talent.

The F Spot Femmes Fatales has been lovingly conceived, curated and produced to show many different aspects of the feminine psyche.

Lose yourself in the songs and let this album challenge your assumptions about women, whether as musicians, producers of music or consumers of music.

Have you considered how sultry a singer in her 80th year can sound ? track one on this stunning selection will make your jaw drop. Delivered with panache and humour this track was the one which stood out for us on Peggy Seeger’s recent album Everything Changes, and it was our mission to entice Peggy to let us use it to open this compilation ! so you can imagine how thrilled we are to have ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’ as the first track on the album. Lyrics such as “I am not just any woman, looking for any man, and I don’t intend to change me to fit into your plans. I’m a hell of an angel and you’d better give a damn, you don’t know how lucky you are

Have you ever heard the story of the Mississippi woman ? this strong and wryly observed alternative creation story by Maz O’Connor is the penultimate track on the album and delivered with purity which belies the message, Maz’s beautiful voice captures your heart and lyrics such as these capture your mind.

“She made clothes from the rushes and a bed down by the willow
And when darkness came the riverbank made for her a pillow
Then the angel of the lord came down and said “now you are free”
And she said “lord, make a man out of me, lord, make a man out of me”.

WHO IS ON THE ALBUM ?

Here are the contributors in order. With the information which is presented in the 4 page booklet of the jewel cased CD.

Peggy Seeger – A free thinking pioneer, Peggy Seeger has paved the way for generations of female singer songwriters the world over. Peggy was awarded ‘Most Inspirational Female’ by Music Week in 2014 and we are honoured to have permission to release a song from her recent much acclaimed album Everything Changes thanks to Red Grape Music Ltd.

Roxanne de Bastion tours throughout the UK, Europe and the US, all on trains and busses. The young troubadour self-released her debut album in 2013 and has since then been championed by Tom Robinson on BBC6, John Kennedy on XFM, Ruth Barnes on Amazing Radio. Roxanne’s compositions are routed in the 1960’s, but the tone of voice is very much her own.

Zoe Wren is studying music at Cambridge University and having released her debut EP Pandora’s Box with us in the middle of last year is now working on her debut album. Picked to perform on Stage  2 at Cambridge Folk Festival last year, Zoe is certainly attracting attention and we hope you enjoy this track which is also available on her EP, which can be found on Folkstock Records bandcamp.

Marina Florance is a prolific and revered singer songwriter based in Norfolk. A darling of the East Anglian BBC Stations, Marina has also had her music chosen by Soundcloud as Track of the Day ! Coming to performance of her own material later in life than most, Marina’s sultry ‘chocolate’ voice wins hearts the world over and captivates from the first note.

Minnie Birch  has been played on BBC Radio 1 and has caught the eye of that legend that is Joan Armatrading, supporting her on four gigs over the last two years. Her debut album is due for release this year and will no doubt build on the success of her beautiful EP Settled and consolidate her reputation and take her career to the next level.

Kaity Rae is our youngest contributor and is studying songwriting at The Institute in N. London. Recently awarded ‘Student of the year’, Kaity is on the prestigious resident artist RoundHouse programme, was a finalist in the GIGS: Big Busk song awards, won her category of Love Folk Live & has released her debut EP Spark Nov 2014. This is an acoustic version of one of her EP tracks.

Kelly Oliver  gained a 4* review from The Telegraph for her debut album This Land, which was funded by an Emerging Excellence Award from Help Musicians UK. It also won best female album from FolkWords and was shortlisted by FATEA. With BBC Radio 2 airplay and a video session with Whispering Bob Harris helping to sell out headline gigs, the future is looking bright.

Daria Kulesh’s cut glass vocals conjure an exotic elegance which is prevalent in her songs. Aided by her Russian heritage and ruthless lyrics, her dramatic delivery excites and entices you to carry on listening. This track is from her debut album Eternal Child which is gaining exultant reviews and looks set to provide her with the showcase needed to establish her musical career on a firm footing.

Maz O’Connor is one of Folk’s rising stars and attracted a BBC Radio2 Folk Award nomination as well as a Creative Fellowship from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. 2014 brought a rapturous reception for her acclaimed second album This Willowed Light and we are thrilled that Wild Sound Recordings kindly gave permission for us to re-record a stripped back version of this stunning ‘alternative creation’ story.

Fay Brotherhood  is an enigmatic artist in many senses of the word. Her creative outpourings are at their most visceral in her live performance and her distinctive voice and almost paganistic delivery has attracted much interest and acclaim. Her music transports to the heady, trippy days of the 60’s and brings you bang up to date with a modern twist in the tale.

Label website:  http://www.folkstockartsfoundation.com/