ROGER PUGH – A Colourful Journey (Oblong Records, OBLCD079)

A Colourful JourneyIt’s a rarity to come across an artist who describes himself as “jester, minstrel, singer, songwriter, entertainer”. Step forward Leicestershire’s Roger Pugh, serving up a deeply personal memoir in his fourth solo album, A Colourful Journey. It’s an album that feels both celebratory and poignant, as he reflects on his life and work. In particular, the rocking ‘Final Arrangements’ where he fiercely berates future mourners, “don’t you come to my funeral dressed in black” has edges of both belligerence and pathos.

To be honest, though, ‘solo’ is stretching a definition quite a bit. There are16 other musicians lending their various talents to this set of songs. One of the dangers in having so many collaborators to choose from is that it becomes all too tempting to overwork the material to fit them all in. Whilst there’s quite a pretty tune at the heart of ‘Picking Ragwort’, it gets a bit muted by multiple layers of instrumentation. However, when it does come right, as in the thundering drums and skittish mandola of final tune ‘Witches Flight’, it’s a very pleasurable listen.

Pugh’s a storyteller at heart, drawing on a diverse range of musical genres – often within the same song. He’s written and performed (in Leicester Cathedral, no less) an entire folk opera, ‘A Minstrel’s Tale’, two tracks from which appear on this album: the lively, mediaeval-style capering tune ‘A Romp Through The Barley’ and the portentous prog-rock harmonies of ‘The Day Before The Hanging’.

‘The Busker’ is a familiar tale for al fresco musicians and its chirpy, singalong chorus of “Let’s drink a health to the busker” should be mandatory on chilly street corners everywhere. Elsewhere, though, things don’t go quite so well: a pleasingly sinuous fiddle part on ‘Run With The Moonlight’ (a song for his son) struggles against an ill-matched Caribbean-style syncopated percussion and the two fail to gel.

The production sound seems rather too sharp, and much more stripped-back arrangements might have served the material better. There are some satisfying melodies and entertaining lyrics, but it feels like there’s simply too much going on – too many styles, instruments and different parts competing for attention. It seems rather harsh to say so about such personal songs and an album that’s taken three years to come to fruition but, by about half-way through, it’s all starting to feel somewhat over-cooked and at risk of tipping over into pastiche.

Pugh clearly has an abundance of stories to tell and music to tell it with and the acapella ‘Down At The Billet On Boxing Day’ shows how good he can be. This song (appropriately enough, in the style of a revel or wassail) allows voices to harmonise attractively, lyrics and melody work well together without overdoing any single element. It’s the album’s most consistently successful track and plenty more like this would be most welcome.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: https://roger-pugh.co.uk/

‘A Minstrel’s Tale’ – live:

LEVELLERS – We The Collective (On The Fiddle Recordings, OTFCD029P)

We The CollectiveTo celebrate their 30th anniversary, We The Collective finds the Levellers’ reaffirming their mission statement, renewing their vows. Recorded at Abbey Road, with renowned producer John Leckie, the album re-imagines eight of their classic songs – from a vast back catalogue – including some singles, plus two new tracks.

Played acoustically, with an added string section, the rather gentler-sounding song arrangements might be seen as some sort of acknowledgement of the passage of time. After all, these once passionate young men are now passionate middle-aged men. Greyer now, they nonetheless stand proudly by their body of work, still enraged by injustice and hypocrisy. As well they might be, since it’s all too horribly apparent how relevant these songs continue to be.

Where opening track ‘Exodus’ ploughs straight in with some punchy late-Beatles strings, the punky ‘Subvert’ remains a quick-fire stomp, set off with scraping strings and a militaristic drum. Generally, though, the pace here feels marginally slower, the songs have a bit more room and now seem designed for listening rather than moshing. This allows greater reflection and depth to emerge, such as in ‘England My Home’, which is suitably thoughtful, angry and disappointed. ‘Liberty Song’ and ‘Dance Before The Storm’ also smooth out the melody lines, deepen the groove and allow space for the lyrics to shine.

‘Hope Street’ replaces the sawing guitar of the original with heavy strings, adding a vaguely distant-sounding vocal, almost like catching the sound of a busker playing just around the corner. ‘Elation’ features Celtic-flavoured backing vocals and a bombastic climax, in place of its original electro/bass fuzz-out. Its ‘House Of The Rising Sun’-style vocal is delivered over a discombobulating harpsichord loop.

The brace of new songs – both highly topical and political, naturally – stand up well in the ensemble. ‘The Shame’ is a withering indictment both of the situations that create refugees and the pointlessness of well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffectual, sympathy.

The Phil Spector-ish burst of drums and tambourines that open ‘Drug Bust McGee’ lead, not to a wall of sound, but to the alarming first line “I stole my name from a dead baby”. A bitter tale of an undercover cop sting unfolds: the women duped into relationships – and creating families – built on lies and deception in the name of infiltrating activist groups. It’s a dark and woeful song, all the more so for the appalling truth of it. (As a small grumble, the review copy of the CD doesn’t credit the female singers or other musicians. Hopefully this is remedied on the full sleeve notes).

The album closes with the anthemic ‘One Way’. This classic crowd singalong has been strangely stripped back so that when the chorus arrives it doesn’t boom out assertively, it sort of shuffles in with its head down. Perhaps it’s meant to make the listener pause and reassess: the internet age allows us to be too quick to judge others, as traditional assumptions about faith, gender and lifestyle dissolve. A bit more “live and let live” would be nice. Or, might it be an awkward nod to the notion that unfettered individualism has eroded our social conscience? Nonetheless, it sadly dulls the impact of what’s arguably the band’s most famous call to self-determination and ends the CD on a rather downbeat note.

Postscript: It would be disingenuous not to mention the dreadful personal circumstances that have delayed the release of this album and tour (now postponed to the summer) – but without wishing to dwell on them, either. It’s too easy to find things, retrospectively, in the music that couldn’t possibly have been there when it was recorded: too easy to be misdirected. Time will give the fairest hearing and be the better reviewer in the end. All condolences to Charlie Heather and family, and to the band.

Su O’Brien

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 website: www.levellers.co.uk

‘Drug Bust McGee’ – official video:

YOU ARE WOLF – Keld (Firecrest Records, FC001P)

KeldDiving down from the avian themes of You Are Wolf’s first album, Hawk To The Hunting Gone, Keld is a set of songs of water, specifically the mysticism of freshwater inland waterways. The word “keld” means “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – somewhere to swim, to chant spells, to drown, to murder.

You Are Wolf is one among Kerry Andrew’s many projects as a prolific writer and musician. Here, she partners with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall (whose cello playing is gorgeous) and percussionist Peter Ashwell to bring an alt-folk take on some traditional songs and to push the boundaries with their original material. The songs focus on building up complex rhythmic sequences from multiple layers of instruments and voice.

The traditional songs are delivered fairly straight in Andrew’s clean, clear vocal. Arrangements are rhythmically rich and suitably sympathetic, with the running water and hand percussion beneath the a cappella vocal of ‘The Baffled Knight’, followed by the metallic clinking and sultry cello of ‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ making for a very enticing start.

At track three, there was a sudden parting of the ways. ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a bafflingly over-stuffed incantation, a mantra-fuelled distillation of urban yoga workshop. Perhaps there’s just a bit too much sonic distraction going on in this one. ‘George Collins’ and ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ which follow, are sweet and simple relief, by contrast.

Generally, though, it’s on the original songs that the band members really get a chance to stretch themselves. ‘Dragonfly’ moves from a sinister rattlesnake shake to African Pygmy singing in a rather Kate Bush-like way. There’s a fine coda to ‘If Boys Could Swim’ where, over a darkly scraping cello, the central phrase is chopped up, eventually reduced to a mere two words “girls, boys” which, despite suddenly calling a well-known Blur song to mind, is highly accomplished and considered in terms of how it’s achieved.

In another take, ‘Drowndown’ plays around with the phrase “Do not go down to the water’s edge”, until it becomes a stumbling, aphasic repetition, any sense of the words subsumed into the rhythm. As well as a strong influence of minimalism, there’s more than an echo of P J Harvey’s “Down By The Water” hereabouts. Except that where Harvey is visceral, You Are Wolf are cerebral. What this means – for this listener at least, please do listen and form your own view – is that it’s entirely possible to appreciate the composition and musical skill on a coolly intellectual level, without ever being troubled by the hot, primal tug of emotional connection.

Su O’Brien

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.youarewolf.com

‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ – official video:

CAMBRIDGE CITY ROOTS FESTIVAL – Various artists/venues, 22 February – 6 March 2018

Cambridge City Roots Festival
Matt Hammond photographed by Su O’Brien

The City Roots Festival shakes open its umbrella (and hauls on its snow boots) for a second year of folk and roots events. As before, a loose collection of venues and artists are brought under the festival banner, from the already-scheduled to the specially commissioned.

New this year is an extended, two-week timespan. With something happening just about every evening and a few of the daytimes too, is there enough to keep fans busy? Well, it is hard to imagine it being a destination for the whole festival fortnight. But for those within travelling distance (admittedly a pretty wide area) – or those who don’t enjoy the whole festival experience – coming along to individual events seems to work well enough. The potential downside of this is that it tends to favour bigger names who might be touring here anyway. The challenge remains, as ever, to expose upcoming acts to wider audiences.

Inevitably, it’s also harder to keep up continuity across a multi-venue, multiple day festival. Branding is generally more visible this year, which is a definite plus. Some of the artists, though, seem barely aware that they are part of the festival – at least they don’t mention it. In fact, one act, busy lamenting a lack of inclusion (so far) in the summer Cambridge Folk Festival schedule, seems blissfully unaware that they are part of the winter one!

Last year’s closing acts, Sona Jobarteh and Muntu Valdo open the festival this time, bringing welcome African warmth. Haitian voudou from Chouk Bwa Libète goes head to head with a live interview at the University Union with Wilko Johnson. Other acts featuring in the main line-up include Megson, Tom Robinson, Rich Hall, Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas. As with traditional festivals, there are overlaps, forcing a decision about which act to see!

Although headline acts have been flagged up for some time, a lot more, smaller, ‘fringe’ gigs are still being announced right up to the last minute. This means keeping in constant contact with the website is essential, to pick up on late changes. A lot of the smaller events are admirably free of charge too, cementing the impression of a confident local music-making community.

A family fun day at the Guildhall hosts live acts, children’s activities and a well-attended ukulele workshop. It’s heartening to see so many youngsters taking up their brightly coloured ukes. The downside is that they missed out on a superbly intimate follow-up gig by Muntu Valdo in the hall next door.

In this vast space, his tiny colourfully-dressed figure is surrounded by pedals, coaxing unexpected sounds from his guitars and building up intricate loops. He delivers an impeccable slide blues with an unmistakeably African slant – oh, and he plays a mean harmonica, too. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play a Sunday afternoon tea dance: thrilling and strange. As the sun streams in through the civic stained glass, it’s tempting to run out and drag the shoppers in from the streets outside to make them listen to this highly original talent.

Barbara Wibbelmann delivers some fine a capella Gaelic songs and finishes, accompanied by Quentin Rea on guitar, with a delightful ‘La Vie En Rose’. Martin Baxter’s Alternative Arrangements lend some mid-afternoon Americana as well as an upbeat ‘John Barleycorn’. The miles of empty space between seating and stage finally makes sense as ceilidh band Frog On A Bike whip up the dancers to wrap up the afternoon.

Buskers too, are apparently abroad on this cold and sunny day but, despite several slogs around town, they remain stubbornly invisible. Only stalwart singer-songwriter Matt Hammond can be found chilling his fingers, engaging passers-by with his percussive guitar style and promoting his new single, ‘Skylines’.

One of the hazards of a winter festival is always going to be inclement weather and, as with most of the rest of the country, the big hit of snow takes its toll on players and audiences alike. Still with a few line-up tweaks, it seems that all the shows go ahead, which is very impressive.

Following an afternoon masterclass in Miller’s Music shop, CC Smugglers (currently crowdfunding their new album), squash themselves into a tiny corner of the 1815 bar on a snowy evening. Playing a relaxed, mainly acoustic set, this cheery crew deliver their own bluesy, skiffly songs with some great join-in choruses, alongside lounge standards. The keyboard player in particular brings a distinct jazz style to the set, as a small crowd of Lindy Hoppers push back the chairs to whirl around the floor.

SJ Mortimer (now also performing with Morganway) And Her Flying Pigs bring lashings of country, the monthly New Routes night at the Junction features several Americana artists, and traditional music goes on in pubs and clubs across the city. Even the serious business of making a living is once again the subject of a workshop day to encourage musicians to focus further than the next creative impulse.

With such diversity of music to choose from, with venues from snug to cavernous, seated or standing, the organisers have plainly tried to cater for many tastes within the broad spectrum of folk and roots. There is something for everyone here and, as well as the national/international artists, it’s a valuable reminder of what incredible home-grow talents exist across the Eastern region at the moment. See you in 2019!

Su O’Brien

Festival website: www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/cityroots

 

She doesn’t seem amused.

PETER KNIGHT AND JOHN SPIERS – Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 6 March 2018

Peter Knight And John Spiers
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Same venue, different day. In the space of a week, three entirely different acts have made their distinct impressions in this same room. Tonight it’s Peter Knight And John Spiers, an inspired pairing first conceived of in 2016 and now touring Well Met, their first album together, recorded in January this year. The elegance and lyricism of their playing is the common denominator here, each complementing the other, smoothly coursing together like fine clockwork.

Each tune and set is lovingly crafted, with thematic and rhythmic variations explored unhurriedly, inviting the listener in to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of each one.

Knight’s playing is a revelation. A world away from folky fiddling, it’s fully informed by the classical style, all long sweeping bow strokes and eloquent legato. Yet he never loses the essential folk heart of the music, tracing a graceful line of his own making.

The melodeon is an eerie beast, breathing like a ghost over your shoulder at one minute, harrumphing like a euphonium the next. One moment turning out jolly hornpipes, then droning with deepest melancholy. It’s a curious kind of versatile, but Spiers knows exactly how to capture and manipulate its range, adding maximum colour and savour to the music.

Opening with ‘Paddy Carey’s Jig’, Knight’s waist-height plucking transitions to bowing, as it does on the second tune, the American ‘Waiting For The Federals’. Except here it’s much more a classical chin-held pizzicato, its raindrop effect giving way to a Scottish-influenced playing style that even manages to evoke a hint of distant bagpipes.

‘Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives’ is a fascinating set, reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, with the melodeon taking on a metronomic drone quality and the fiddle only taking on a more rustic aspect in the later stages.

‘Rosebud In June’, that Steeleye Span stalwart, becomes a beautiful, poignant, almost filmic melody with Knight adopting a more slurred style towards the end. The emotional pull of this and Northumbrian lullaby, ‘Bonny At Morn’ are stand out moments, as is Knight’s virtuoso solo spot.

Since an audience member has shouted out a request, Knight casually picks up and runs with it, saying “I don’t normally do requests – unless I’m asked”. From the album, An Ancient Cause, ‘From A Lullaby Kiss’ demonstrates a touch of gypsy style with the fiddle sounding periodically flute-like. It’s the only song of the evening to feature any sung lyrics, and suitably weighty they are, too.

For Spiers’s solo, we are treated to a trio of hornpipes, two of which are his own. ‘George Green’s College Hornpipe’ is succeeded by ‘Ewan Mac’s Export’, a tune written for a friend moving to Scotland, and ‘Hyena’, originally ‘Autumn Hornpipe’ but renamed by fellow sessioners as “it’s got a high E in it”. His other featured composition, ‘The Long Walk Home’, captures the authentic slow plod of tired feet.

Elsewhere, ‘Cuckoo’, a trio of cuckoo-related tunes, is followed by a jolly hornpipe pairing, ’Scan Testers No.1 Step Dance/Murphy’s Hornpipe’. To Galicia for the coiling waltz,‘A Bruxa’ (‘The Witch’), by Milladoiro’s Antón Seoane, and home again for Nigel Eaton’s ‘Halsway Schottische’, before wrapping up the evening with a spirited encore of ‘Isadora’s Reel’. And what an evening: contemplative, accomplished and one to relish for some time to come.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: https://www.peterknight.net/knight-and-spiers

SAM KELLY & THE LOST BOYS – Live at Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 5 March 2018

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Battling snow and ice on tour for the past week has clearly taken a toll on this group of musicians (amongst many others no doubt), but that won’t stop them putting on a storming show this evening.

Support act, Honey And The Bear (aka Jon Hart & Lucy Sampson) deliver a half-hour set of earwormy, catchy songs, culminating in ‘William’ from their 2016 EP, About Time Too and the galloping, riffling ‘Wristburner’. Their slightly low-key stage presence belies their lively, well-crafted and perfectly performed music. And it turns out that there’s so much more to this versatile duo: manning the merch stall, driving the van and even providing the evening’s sound tech. Headliners, book them now, while you can.

A short while later, the seven-piece line-up of Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys fills the stage as percussionist Evan Carson sets a grinding groove for the first song, ‘Hickathrift’, the tale of a legendary Norfolk giant-killer.

With so many big, sing-along tunes on both the band’s albums to date, from ‘The Golden Vanity’ via the deceptively jolly ‘Angeline The Baker’, the call-and-response of ‘The Keeper’ or the barrelling ‘Jolly Waggoners’, featuring a frenzied banjo part from Jamie Francis, it’s blindingly obvious why this band is such a festival success.

Then there’s the dry, irreverent and often charmingly unfiltered humour that allows them to respect what they do without being in thrall to it. If you’re after reverential folk that won’t poke fun at the often ludicrous and/or plain old sexist scenarios of some songs, this might not be the band for you. If you want a solid, tight set of superb musicians who know how to have a good time, then they’re a must-see.

Still, it’s not all wall-to-wall party. The well-paced set contains many quieter moments, such as the tender rendition of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’, and Cornish ballad ‘Grwello Glaw’ (‘Let It Rain’). Originating from Kelly’s time with The Changing Room, it’s an appropriate choice for a St Piran’s Day gig. (Also, we’re told, it will be the first dance the band plays for Hart and Sampson’s wedding in June. Altogether now: aaahhh!).

A rather different sound comes with ‘The Shiny Ship’, an effect-laden track from the Pretty Peggy album that has been reworked for the live environment. Carson’s shimmering cymbals and hard rapping drum offset Graham Coe’s shoulder-slung, psychedelic, droning cello to create an atmosphere of moody mystery.

For the family members present in the audience, Kelly dedicates a cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans Of Swing’ which starts leisurely before building into a floorshaker. Finishing with Archie Moss’s melodeon leading the mischievous cross-dressing tale, ‘The Close Shave’ and buffered by tunes from Ciaran Algar and Toby Shaer, the set ends on a whirling high.

As the audience erupts in appreciation, the band returns in typically self-deprecating fashion. “The dressing room was locked” deadpans Algar. Meanwhile, there are two clear contenders for an encore among the crowd. Carson holds a vote, defying Algar’s sardonic, “This is not a democracy”. 48% want ‘The Chain’, but 52% are pro ‘Greenland Whale’, so there it is. Luckily, this is one vote that doesn’t cause deep or lasting division, as we all sing happily together before going our separate ways home.

Su O’Brien

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.

Artists’ website: http://www.samkelly.org/

‘Sultans Of Swing’ – live at the other Cambridge Festival: