ZOE MULFORD – Small Brown Birds (Azalea City ACCD 1701)

Small Brown BirdsOriginally from Philadelphia, singer, songwriter, guitarist and much-praised clawhammer banjo-player Zoe Mulford now lives (sometimes) in Manchester. She is currently on tour with Tom Kitching whose fiddle plays a major role in the sound of this record. Small Brown Birds is Zoe’s fifth album, mostly original songs with two covers.

The opening track, ‘Answer The Knock At The Door’, is deceptively light but hidden within is a rebuke to those governments who turn their backs on refugees. ‘Back Door Key’ paints a picture of domestic contentment concealing a message to a former lover along the lines of “you’re a bastard but I miss you”. Bob Beach’s harmonica emphases the hidden melancholy. The banjo first appears on ‘February Thunder’, a look forward to the expected spring that may be personified in Jenny, a lonely woman who everyone knows but nobody knows. I like the interplay between Ken Pendergast’s bass and Sam McEvoy’s cajon here as the song morphs into the traditional ‘Frosty Morning’..

You really can’t afford to let your attention wander. ‘One Damn Thing’ hints at a series of personal disasters without ever being explicit. The first cover is The Red Clay Ramblers’ fantasy shanty ‘The Queen Of Skye’, which could perhaps use a bit more welly although Tom’s fiddle drives it along nicely enough. That track marks a change of mood. ‘Snow On The Junkyard’ is bleak, ‘Speak True’ regretful and ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ is a meditation on the Charleston church shooting built on Zoe’s piano chords. Joan Baez has recorded it for her new album.

It’s back to the banjo for ‘Blackbird’ which seems to sit well at this point and leads into the traditional sounding instrumental title track featuring fiddle, banjo and Mark Allen’s whistle. ‘Zillionaire’ is a wry but jolly attack on corporate greed and the record comes full circle with the welcoming ‘Won’t You Come On In?’ to put things back in perspective.

I have to confess that Small Brown Birds is my first contact with Zoe Mulford and now, by happy coincidence, I can look forward to hearing her live in a week or so. It could be destiny.

Dai Jeffries

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

‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ – live:

Zoe Mulford announces new album and tour dates

Zoe Mulford

Small Brown Birds is the eagerly awaited new album release from Zoe Mulford, an album that looks for joy in the midst of hard times. The songs touch on wintry themes with compassion, honesty, and sometimes wit, tracing a journey from sadness to hope and from winter to spring. The musical arrangements range from gentle and lush to infectiously danceable.

News just in is that Joan Baez will be covering one of Zoe’s songs, ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’, on her upcoming album and concert tour and spoke about Zoe in an interview with Variety magazine, to quote Joan from the article re the new album “I’ve done something from Antony & The Johnsons, two from Tom Waits – ‘Last Leaf’ and ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ – Josh Ritter, one from an unknown, Zoe Mulford, brilliant. Twelve songs and they’re done.”

The new album showcases Zoe Mulford’s clear voice, sprightly clawhammer banjo, and resonant guitar. An American songwriter now living in the north of England, Zoe charms audiences with story-driven songwriting and an unlabored vocal style sometimes compared to that of Joan Baez. Tracks on the album include her take on the Red Clay Ramblers’ soaring sea shanty, ‘The Queen of Skye’. Zoe’s own ‘February Thunder’ dovetails gracefully with the traditional American tune ‘Frosty Morning’. The banjo also crosses the Atlantic for a solo rendition of Paul McCartney’s acoustic tour de force, ‘Blackbird’ and in the tradition of broadsheet ballads; Zoe pulls stories from current headlines. ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ tells the story of the 2015 AME church shooting in Charleston and President Obama’s eulogy for those slain.

The heart of the project is a new collaboration with English fiddler and mandolinist Tom Kitching. Tom is a high-energy player in the style of Dave Swarbrick. Folk broadcaster Mike Harding describes him as “one of the best English fiddlers ever, he takes English folk music by the scruff of the neck and sends it off laughing and dancing and having a good time.”

The core band on the album also features English percussionist Sam McEvoy and Philadelphia’s Ken Pendergast on upright bass. Guest musicians include Pat Wictor on harmony vocals, Bob Beach on harmonica, and Michael G. Ronstadt on cello.

Small Brown Birds is Zoe’s fifth release. She draws expertly on the traditional music of both Appalachia and the British Isles and while stealing a few pages from the American Songbook to create music that feels both comfortably lived-in and sparklingly fresh. Zoe has had work published in Sing Out! Magazine and has had songs covered by many other artists, including Rhiannon Giddens (with Gaelwynd) and John Roberts & Tony Barrand.

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 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.zoemulford.com

‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ – live:

To support the release of Small Brown Birds, Zoe along with Tom Kitching will be touring throughout 2018; confirmed dates so far are:

Wednesday 17 January – Nottingham – Carrington Triangle Folk Club

Thursday 18th January – Bradford – Topic Folk Club

Friday 19 January – Northwich – Northwich Folk Club

Wednesday 24 January – Kirkham, Lancs – Willows Folk Club

Friday 26 January – Guildford – Music Institute Folk Club

Saturday 27 January – Combe Martin – Shammick Acoustic

Sunday 28 January – Reading – Readifolk

Thursday 12 April – Lymm – Lymm Folk Club

Friday 20 April – Bodmin – Bodmin Folk Club

Monday 23 April – Warwick- Warwick Folk Club

Monday 30 April – Stockport – Midway Folk Club

Friday 4 May – Todmorden – Todmorden Folk Festival

“As well as her fine voice and songwriting skills, what makes Zoe standout is her claw-hammer banjo technique…” Fatea

PILGRIMS’ WAY – Stand & Deliver (Talking Cat Records TCCD1748)

Stand & DeliverThere has been a change along the Pilgrims’ Way. Lead vocalist Lucy Wright has moved on and in her place has come singer and maestro of reeds and wind, Jude Rees, formerly known as The Littlest Oboe during her time with Isambarde. Jude brings the band’s complement of instruments to fifty. Stand & Deliver is their third album, a themed collection, and before I tell you whence comes the title track you should know that this isn’t the most serious collection of traditional songs you’ll hear this year, despite the number of grisly deaths it includes. The clue is right there on the cover.

Many of the songs will be familiar to most listeners but the liberties that the Pilgrims sometimes take with them are another matter. These are songs of robbers, thieves, highwaymen and other n’ere do wells. The set opens with ‘Caveat For Cutpurses’ which reminds me a little of Strawhead in their youth and sure enough the text is from Ben Johnson’s Bartholemew Fair via the Roxburgh Collection. ‘Ibson, Gibson, Johnson’ is a variant on a familiar song but the outcome is the same so beware of naked women tied to the ground by their hair.

I think I’ve heard ‘Shoot Them All! (Box On Her Head)’ before but I can’t remember where and Jude delivers this tale of a female serial killer with some relish. ‘Cadgwith Anthem’ is sung with appropriate seriousness with gorgeous harmonies and instrumental delicacy. In contrast, I think Jon Loomes or Edwin Beasant plays electric guitar through a fuzz-box on ‘Saucy Bold Robber’. Their version of ‘Robin Hood & The Bishop’ comes from France and differs somewhat from the version recorded by the late Tony Rose in having lines in French and a “derry-derry-down” chorus although the story and main melody are the same.

Tom Kitching takes the lead on ‘Gaol Song’ with strange mechanical sounds imitating the sound of the treadmill and a couple of lines of an old blues and wailing harmonica courtesy of Edwin. ‘Turpin Hero’ is taken at a merry pace and is that a crumhorn? I do believe it is. Edwin is the lead on ‘Adieu, Adieu’ initially over Jon’s piano before the orchestra joins in and their arrangements really do verge on the orchestral.

‘The Elms Of Tyburn’ is the one song on the album that is pared down to the basics – essentially Jon’s acoustic guitar and something drone-like far behind it. Finally, the title track, which was written by Stuart Leslie Goddard (oh, look him up, I’m not doing everything for you) brings the album to a suitably amusing close – was there a doo-wop chorus in the original? However you approach it, this is a brilliant record – great songs, innovative ideas, fine singing and playing and a whole heap of fun.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.pilgrims-way.net

ALICE JONES – Poor Strange Girl (Splid SPLIDCD 017)

Poor Strange GirlYou’re probably thinking that you’ve heard of Alice Jones before, and you probably have: The Gina Le Faux Trio, The John Dipper Band and her collaboration with Pete Coe working on the Frank Kidson collection as well as what seems like a dozen other things in her native Yorkshire. Poor Strange Girl, however, is her first solo album.

Alice sings the way she speaks which isn’t always a given even now. Despite that, she casts her musical net wide. The title track, which opens the set, was collected by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky and, even before I read her sleeve notes, I had the feeling that she was referring to herself. Next is ‘Woody Knows Nothing’, adapted from traditional sources by the late Erik Darling and we’re still a few thousand miles from Yorkshire. As well as an interpreter of traditional songs Alice is also a composer and musician, playing keyboards, whistle and tenor guitar so next up is the first set of tunes, both written by her before the first traditional songs collected in England, ‘The Cruel Mother’ and ‘Green Bushes’; the latter from the Kidson collection.

Variety is one of the selling points of the album. There is a set of mazurkas and another of polskas; two fine songs from the Warner collection; a very timely version of ‘Adieu To Old England’ and ‘Long, Long Trail A-Winding’ to finish.

Poor Strange Girl was produced by Jon Loomes and Alice is supported by Tom Kitching on fiddle and Hugh Bradley on double bass but this is definitely her album and very good it is too.

Dai Jeffries

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 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://alicejonesmusic.com/

‘Woody Knows Nothing’ live:

Tom Kitching – new album and tour

Interloper – out now

Tom Kitching

Top flight fiddler Tom Kitching, a former BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award finalist, is the man behind one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking roots music releases of 2015, as he presses the reset button on English music.

Previously best known as one half of a duo with singer-songwriter/guitarist Gren Bartley and a member of the brilliant, BBC award-nominated ‘trad with a twist’ band Pilgrims’ Way, Cheshire-born Tom has been described by Living Tradition magazine as “one of the best young fiddlers in Britain”. Continue reading Tom Kitching – new album and tour

GREN BARTLEY – Songs To Scythe Back The Overgrown (FELLSIDE FECD247)

When Tom Kitching and Gren Bartley went their separate ways after a successful partnership there was a feeling of inevitability about the directions they took. Tom formed Pilgrim’s Way and stuck with mostly traditional material and now Gren has taken the solo singer-songwriter route. Songs To Scythe Back The Overgrown is his debut.

Gren claims the album came to him a dream; a dream which included being offered loads of money by Kate Rusby and presumably a guest appearance by Joni Mitchell who’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is the only non-Bartley composition. The songs are coloured by the traditions he grew up with so ‘My Time Is Nearly Over’ has a gospel-blues structure, ‘Slow Train’ is a blues with a British accent and ‘Kings And Queens’ feels almost like a traditional English song. He plays guitar, banjo, slide guitar and a little harmonica and is supported by Andy Whittle on keyboards and harmonica, Katriona Gilmore on violin and vocals and Robert Hallard on backing vocals but no-one is overused. Continue reading GREN BARTLEY – Songs To Scythe Back The Overgrown (FELLSIDE FECD247)