SHAKE THE CHAINS – Shake The Chains (Quercus Records QRCD003)

Shake The ChainsEven supposing you knew nothing about this album, a quick glance down the track listing would instantly identify Shake The Chains as a politically conscious project. A new generation of protest songs sit comfortably alongside some old standards.

Despite Edwyn Collins’ complaint in ‘A Girl Like Youabout “too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”, it can sometimes be hard to imagine what it would take, in these trying times, to generate enough protest to effect real change. But here is a delightful set of songs, nonetheless.

Hannah Martin contributes songs of poetic allegory and metaphor. ‘Yarl’s Wood’ evokes the horror of a refugee ending up in a detention centre. The refugee’s flight, “the choice that is no choice” is starkly laid out and overwhelmingly powerful. ‘Song Of The Jay’ uses certain bird behaviours to draw unflattering parallels with some human ones. Similar, but viewed from another angle, is Tim Yates’s song ‘Side By Side’ which delivers a darkly moody lament on social division.

Nancy Kerr delivers a brilliantly tender pairing of poems about Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed under Pinochet’s regime. This lengthy piece allows the purity of the art form simply to shine.

Naturally, these serious subjects deserve gravity, but there is room for humour, too. Greg Russell’s country-flavoured ‘Bunch Next Door’ is a domestic scale witty deconstruction of political villains, while ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ has a drily sardonic air of resignation.

By contrast, Findlay Napier’s songs are much harder-hitting, with a raw passion. ‘Building Ships’ is a poignant song about his father’s experience of the death of that industry. The album’s title track – as well as a rallying call to action – ‘Shake The Chains’ is punchy, feisty and totally heartfelt. Its central chorus is adapted from Shelley’s poem Masque Of Anarchy, about the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, and a much-quoted work of those standing up for the poor and oppressed.

Of the stalwarts, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ has a simplicity, sincerity and even an undercurrent of anger. Likewise ‘We Shall Overcome’ – stripped back, sung a capella (with delicious harmonies) is revealed afresh as a sorrowful yet hopeful anthem.

The live recording gives an immediacy to the songs: the joy of hearing an audience respond suits the nature of the works. It provides a confirmation bias, a reassurance that the listener is not alone, as well as a desperately necessary response to the current madness in the world.

Whilst we can see how much we’ve moved on from the treatment of Alan Turing, as detailed in Kerr’s touching ‘Poison Apples’, it’s also a reminder against complacency. Rights hard-won may be all too insidiously and easily eroded.

It’s a hard album to review without clambering onto the soapbox, so tightly enmeshed are subject and medium. It is a superb album in its own right, with strong songs, gorgeously arranged and performed. It is also deeply moving: keep the tissues handy, there will definitely be something in your eye. Now, get out there and change something.

Su O’Brien

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 SHAKE THE CHAINS 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist website: https://www.shakethechains.com

‘If I Had A Hammer’ – live:

MARTIN SIMPSON – Trails & Tribulations (Topic TSCD593)

Trails & TribulationsMartin Simpson never disappoints, whether live or on record, but rarely does he surprise. Rather he evolves over time and emerges with something new and different as he has here. Trails & Tribulations is his 20th solo album in a career going back to the early seventies. You sort of know what to expect – Martin is equally drawn to the English and American traditions; he will have borrowed a song or two and written a couple more; there will be a variety of guitars plus banjo and ukulele and it will probably all come together with a fine group of musicians supporting him. And, of course, you’ll be absolutely right.

What’s new is a richness to the music which I suspect comes from working with The Full English and Simpson Cutting Kerr. Both Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr feature here as does percussionist Toby Kearney, guitarist John Smith, Ben Nicholls on bass and Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals. Toby is generally restrained but the percussion is more noticeable than I remember. Take the first track, Jackson C Frank’s ‘Blues Run The Game’. It’s a short song but Martin takes his time over it, warming up his fingers as he does on stage as the introduction emerges. Bass and percussion provide an unobtrusive foundation and Martin tops everything off with Weissenborn decoration. Next is Emily Portman’s ‘Bones And Feathers’, which he has been singing for a year or so now, and which features banjo – not one of Emily’s chosen instruments. Martin owns it now.

From the Americas we have ‘Thomas Drew’, which would appear to be a distant cousin of ‘John Hardy’, ‘East Kentucky’ and ‘St. James Hospital’ but the first two are written by Martin and perfectly match the period feel – he had me fooled. From the English tradition come ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ and ‘Reynardine’. That leaves four others. Charles Causley’s ‘A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon’ – music by Alex Atterson – has also been in Martin’s live repertoire for a while and it sounds like a song he would have written if someone hadn’t already done so. ‘Maps’, ‘Jasper’s/Dancing Shoes’ and Ridgeway are three more of Martin’s songs, continuing the semi-autobiographical style that began with ‘Never Any Good’.

Trails & Tribulations will be available in multiple formats including a deluxe double CD with six extra tracks including my all-time Simpson favourite, ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’. I’m holding out for that!

Dai Jeffries

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 MARTIN SIMPSON 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://www.martinsimpson.com/

‘Blues Run The Game’ – live:

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Martin Simpson announces his 20th solo album

Martin Simpson
Photograph by Elly Lucas

World renowned guitarist, singer and songwriter Martin Simpson releases his 20th solo album in 40 years Trails & Tribulations on September 1st 2017 via Topic Records. The brand-new studio album, his first new solo work since 2013’s widely praised Vagrant Stanzas, will be available in standard and deluxe CD, digital download and standard vinyl (the latter through Vinyl 180).


Trails & Tribulations
is a collection of songs about nature, about travels and about real life stories. There are traditional songs, poems and contemporary songs by great writers, and songs that I had to write because nobody else knew what I wanted to say. I travel, I learn songs, I write and try to get better at the skills required for me to do my job. I look at the world as I pass by, on the road, out of the train window, or as I stop and pay close attention to the square foot under my nose. There is so much to see and to hear and to inspire and to try and understand. I had a huge amount of fun playing and recording these songs, using different instruments, different noises, old friends and new ones, all of whom brought so much to the mix. Martin Simpson, April 2017.

Produced and engineered by Andy Bell, Trails & Tribulations features some of Martin’s most inventive playing yet, showcasing his virtuosity on a variety of instruments including acoustic guitars, resonator guitars, Weissenborn lap steel guitar, electric guitars, 5 string banjo, ukulele – and voice.

Guest musicians on the new album are: Ben Nicholls (string bass and electric bass guitars), Toby Kearney (drums and percussion), Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola), Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion and melodeon), John Smith (electric guitar and backing vocals), Helen Bell (strings), Amy Newhouse-Smith (backing vocals) and his daughter Molly Simpson on vocals.

Martin will tour extensively this year, including a headline set at Cambridge Folk Festival in the summer and London’s Kings Place in autumn, following the release of Trails & Tribulations.

Hand in hand with his long and storied solo career, Martin has been central to seminal collaborations like The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Simpson Cutting Kerr. He has worked with a dazzling array of artists from across the musical spectrum: Jackson Browne, Martin Taylor, June Tabor, Richard Hawley, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Thompson, David Hidalgo, Danú, Richard Thompson and Dom Flemons, to mention a few. He is consistently named as one of the very finest acoustic, fingerstyle and slide guitar players in the world and is the most nominated musician in the history of the BBC Folk Awards, with a remarkable 31 nods. A true master of his art.

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 Martin Simpson – Trails & Tribulation 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://www.martinsimpson.com/

‘Blues Run The Game’ – audio stream:

NANCY KERR – Instar (Little Dish Records LiDiCD002)

instarInstar is term given to an intermediate stage of an animal’s life-cycle, most usually applied to insects. It explains the rather disconcerting cover image and suggests that Nancy may one day make an album called Imago. This is complex album with roots in the natural world and the Sweet Liberties project and as its title indicates it’s about transition and impermanence whether by natural processes or by man’s intervention.

I’ll start in the middle with ‘Fragile Water’ which is one of the album’s key songs. It’s derived from/inspired by ‘The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerrie’ and from that starting point it looks at our perception of ourselves – our self-identity, if you will. It’s also a superb piece of writing; words that are simultaneously simple and complex with a beautiful tune. Before that ‘Written On My Skin’ is a song about blood. “Last night I ran with Reynardine” is the opening line as Nancy invokes a symbol from the tradition that everyone will recognise but it’s really about sexual assault and alludes to the fact that acts of parliament are written on vellum – supposedly a symbol of permanence.

The Sweet Visitor Band on the album are Tom Wright, James Fagen, Rowan Rheingans, Tim Yates and Greg Russell – all five sing and three are multi-instrumentalists as is Nancy herself. CJ Hillman guests on three tracks and this line-up could be termed folk-rock – sometimes it leans that way – but can also be quiet and delicate.

I was fortunate enough to hear Nancy and the band on the final date of their recent tour and the insight gained from hearing her talk about her influences is so important. Three books inspired the music: Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Helen Mcdonald’s H Is For Hawk and George Monbiot’s Feral – if you want to dig deeper there is your reading list.

I can honestly say that there isn’t a song here that I’d skip over. There’s the folky humour of ‘Farewell Stony Ground’ vainly trying to conceal a serious point and ‘Oh England What Seeds’ about the Tolpuddle Martyrs but also for all the people that the Empire transported around the world. ‘Gingerbread’ is their Christmas single and even that has a down-side and ‘Crow’s Wing’ was inspired by seeing a peregrine falcon in the middle of Sheffield. This is definitely a candidate for album of the year.

Dai Jeffries

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 NANCY KERR – Instar 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://nancykerr.co.uk/

‘Seven Notes (Adieu My Love)’ – official video:

Nancy Kerr And The Sweet Visitor Band live at the West End Centre, Aldershot

Nancy Kerr
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The first time I heard Nancy Kerr play she was sitting primly on stage alongside Eliza Carthy. How things have changed: now she’s front and centre, mistress of her stage with a superb band behind her. The Sweet Visitor Band is a fluid entity. With James Fagan at home on child care duty Greg Russell took the lead guitar role and, this being the last gig of the tour, Hannah Martin stepped in for the very busy Rowan Rheingans – what a super-sub she is. Tom Wright on drums, guitar and pedal steel and Tim Yates on double bass remain in place. In most bands you might call them the engine room but they are much more that.

This tour was to promote Nancy’s new album, Instar, a complex work and Nancy did acknowledge that it was good of us to turn out to hear what was essentially a bunch of new songs. They opened with ‘Farewell Stony Ground’ from the new album, the story of a man who set up a car park on a piece of waste ground and took the public’s money for fifteen years. An urban myth? Can we be sure? The song is a perfect slice of English folk-rock in contrast to the title track which starts with a jazzy feel from the drums.

The band is remarkably flexible. At quiet points, the harmonies of Nancy and Hannah dominated minimal accompaniment; in full-on mode with five voices together and every else going full blast, comparisons with the folk-rock bands of the early seventies are inevitable.

Highlights – I looked at my notes and thought ‘that was good, so was that…’ but ‘Fragile Water’ with Hannah on banjo stands out as does the chugging rhythm of ‘Light Rolls Home’, a song written about Nancy’s end of Sheffield. They closed the first set with their Christmas single, ‘Gingerbread’, not the happiest song as Nancy conceded but it has a hummable tune if you don’t concentrate too hard on the words. The other side, ‘It Was Red’, was the first encore. ‘Kingdom’, which opened the second set, was one of several songs written for Sweet Liberties which appear in new clothes on Instar and is another storming almost-rocker.

It was an excellent show: powerful, thought-provoking, sometimes angry sometimes tender and I do have to give a cheer for the Westy which continues to book the best of folk music acts. It’s great to have such a venue a couple of miles from our front door.

Dai Jeffries

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 Nancy Kerr 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.

Artist’s website: http://nancykerr.co.uk/
Venue website: http://hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/west-end-centre

‘Gingerbread’ – official video:

SWEET LIBERTIES – Sweet Liberties (Quercus QRCD002)

Sweet LibertiesSweet Liberties, originally a commission by the EFDSS and Folk at the Oak, in partnership with the House of Commons, to mark the 2015: Anniversaries: Parliament in the Making, this has now expanded to become a 14-track album featuring a varied line up of folk musicians in celebration of 800 years in the pursuit of democracy.

Some of the names will be familiar, others less so, but all contribute thoughtful and relevant songs touching on various aspects of the overall topic. I am assuming that everyone listed in the credits (which includes Nancy Kerr and Patsy Reid on violin, Nick Cooke on melodeon) played on all (or most) of the songs, the writers themselves handling the vocals, perhaps the best known being Martyn Joseph who contributes three of his own numbers, the first, featuring fingerpicked guitar and violin, a revisiting of ‘Dic Penderyn’ from his Evolved album, the story of the 1831 Merthyr Riots and the man hung for a crime he could not have committed. The second, a duet with Sam Carter, is also one from the back catalogue, ‘Twelve Years Old’, from Songs For The Coming Home, inspired by the 1833 Factory Act and framed as a conversation between two children a hundred years apart. His third, ‘Nye’, is a new song written for the project, a fingerpicked, violin-accompanied tribute to those who work in the NHS and to its founder, fellow Welshman, Aneurin Bevan.

The album opens with ‘Kingdom’, the first of four songs by 2015’s BBC Folk Singer of the Year, Nancy Kerr, a traditional styled solo acoustic number that takes Magna Carta as a springboard to address the ownership and management of land for profit and the subsequent loss of habitat. Coloured by violin, ‘Seven Notes’ is another traditional framed track, one which uses the image of the migrating cuckoo as a poetic metaphor for colonialist history, setting it in an experiment in musical patterns to represent multicultural Britain.

Rather more jaunty, the waltzing, melodeon-led Music Hall-like ‘Lila’ (the only song not to also feature on her new Instar album) connects the suffragette movement with the abolition of slavery through its twin subjects, Adelaide-born Muriel Lila Matters, who took to a hot air balloon to scatter Votes for Women leaflets over Parliament, and Mary Prince, an eighteenth century Bermudian whose autobiography offered a narrative of slavery. Her fourth contribution, the spare, melodeon, violin and guitar accompanied ‘Written On My Skin’, again draws on metaphor and nature imagery (here a hunted fox) on a song in memory of women forced to resort to the Human Rights Act to have their sexual assault cases justly tried.

A relatively new voice on the British contemporary folk scene, Maz O’Connor also has four credits, all new recordings, kicking off with the violin-backed ‘Rich Man’s Hill’ which, inspired by the 1601 Poor Law and concerning the widening gap between the haves and have nots,, tells of a homeless man in London who believes that, if he works hard enough, he too can get himself a mansion. The one track to address democracy directly, ‘This Old House’ (a nod the Palace of Westminster) is a playful take on democracy and compromise framed in the context of a couple redecorating and patching up their shared house, pizzicato violin driving along the chorus.

Featuring nimble fingerpicked guitar and violin, ‘Broad Waters’, as the title suggests, concerns the 1985 killing of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm estate and the subsequent police fitting up of three innocent men for his murder, and is set as a dialogue between a police officer pressuring a young boy into testifying against Winston Silcott. Her last track, backed by just acoustic guitar, the plaintive ‘Broken Things’, also concerns social justice, here, borrowing the opening of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth, a lament for the decline of the trade union movement, focusing on the Miners’ Strikes of 1984 and, in particular, the death of David Jones during violence on a picket line.

Which leaves Sam Carter who, like Joseph, provides three numbers. Echoing Kerr, ‘Am I Not A Man?’ also addresses slavery a waltzing number inspired by freed slaves organisation Sons of Africa whose campaigning contributed to the Abolition of Slavery Act, drawing for its details on the slave autobiography Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano.

His two other songs come at the back end of the album, the first being the lurching cabaret-styled ‘Dark Days’, a straightforward state of the nation comment with gyspy violin accompaniment, proceedings closing with the folksy salvationist hymn ‘One More River’, a return to the theme of slavery that sounds a personal note in that his great great aunt married the son of a fugitive Virginian slave, sun in his voice as he contemplates fleeing to England, ending in an unaccompanied chorus by Carter and, presumably, his three female associates.

Featuring none of the bombast or flagwaving that would likely characterise an American equivalent, this is both a damn fine album and a salient reminder of the liberties we so often fail to hold dear.

Mike Davies

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 SWEET LIBERTIES – Nancy Kerr 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.

ORDER – [CD]

‘John Ball’ live at the launch event: