ROBB JOHNSON & THE IRREGULARS – Eurotopia (Irregular IRR113)

EurotopiaAs if to prove that not only does Robb Johnson have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist but that he’s actually ahead of the beat, this album arrived just before the election. There is politics in Eurotopia but not in the way you might expect. This isn’t a rant, more a lament, a threnody for the loss of Europe. It includes some of Robb’s best and most complex songwriting; songs full of people, places and memories.

Robb has spent a good deal of time gigging around Europe and beyond and many of these songs are set in cities across the continent. I assumed that the opener, ‘The Carnival Song’, is about a visit to Jerusalem and then I came to the chorus: “Dir propeller, eller, eller/Gehen schneller, schneller, schneller”. It refers to a song called ‘Dreh den Propeller’ by a German singer called Buddy. It’s horribly catchy and I suspect that it’s something that Robb heard on his travels and found stuck in his mind. In a way it sets up the majority of the other songs which are set in different times and places and in his memory.

‘Charing Cross Station & Hungerford Bridge’ and ‘Coincidents On The Circle Line’ are obviously set in London and are inspired by chance observations and memories, the latter finds Robb musing about a vanished Afghan coat. Then we move on. ‘If The Night Runs Out Before The Money Runs Out’ takes us to Paris, ‘Tram Number 22’ finds us in Prague and ‘The Kreuzberg Sisters’ deposits us in Berlin. ‘My Last Night In Montmartre’ is obvious even to me.

Now it gets serious. Having lulled us with nostalgic tales of exotic places, Robb hits us first with ‘Stalingrad’ and then ‘Welcome To The Museum’ and now we see what he’s been leading up to. The romance of old Europe is ripped away and the ugly face of the modern world is revealed. ‘The Work Is Never Done’ returns to Paris and picks up the theme in the mundane activities of the day before the tourists arrive.

The Irregulars on Eurotopia are Jenny Carr on piano, John Forrester on double bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. Linz Maesterosa’s flute and reeds and Bethan Prosser’s violin help to provide the late-night, rainy atmosphere that colours many of the songs. There’s one more thing you need to know. This review is of the thirteen track full band CD but …there is also a nine track vinyl version with just Robb on acoustic guitar and Fae Simon on vocals. The two issues have only four tracks in common so you know what that means: yes, you need them both!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

We’re unable to source a video from Eurotopia yet but this is brand new – ‘More Than Enough’:

Charles Foskett announces his long-awaited debut album

Charles Foskett

Late Bloomer started with the composition of only one song, ‘Pull On The Rope’ – it was an exercise of healing and distraction – mainly to see if Foskett could still actually string a cohesive sentence together after chemotherapy and radiation – this was before undergoing massively invasive 12 hour surgeries to rid him of his life threatening tumours – he also lost several body parts into the bargain – Chemo Brain (cancer-related cognitive impairment) can last up to five years and longer.

This was between 2010 and 2015 – fast forward five years – Foskett is still breathing and a happy boy, now in his 70’s – he is on a mission with one heck of an uplifting and motivational back story to tell – not only to those who have been through and are going through similar circumstances, but to everyone out there who cares about their own health and well-being.

OK – Let’s talk about the sexy part – The Music! Folk Songs and Roots Music appealed to Foskett for one simple reason, the possibility of storytelling within it’s lyrical content – Foskett’s own particular brand of home-made folk songs started with many regressive trips from his hospital bed back to his early post World War 2 beginnings on Tyneside.

OK, you may think this is not something out of the ordinary, but Foskett having a great sense of humour and being a true visualist, has always been able to recall not only bygone images but has a gift to be able to replay movies of his long gone past, sometimes even with the audio attached – in other words, he can still hear the voices and the sounds of those halcyon days of old.

This explains such amazing story lines to songs like Jimmy Gray’s Granny’s Eye’where he accidentally got a missing glass eye (which belonged to a friend’s ancient grandmother) lodged up his backside.

Mahoney’s Bridge’ – Another 1950’s story based upon a childhood friend whose mother was a prostitute and the daughter eventually followed in her footsteps.

Wild Wild Things’ – A duet he wrote for Julie Felix and himself, about how two old people in their twilight years might reflect upon today’s young, expending all their precious energy on useless pass times (We’ve all been there and done it!).

Foskett, a natural musical arranger, has produced here a number of hugely infectious, sometimes dark, sometimes uplifting but always heartfelt songs – Apart from the self penned songs there are some that have been specifically written for him by the likes of Grammy, Emmy, Bafta awarded John Cameron (Orchestral Arranger and Orchestral Conductor of Les Miserables).

Foskett is currently working on his follow up album which will be a duets record co-written with some of his duet partners – The duets list so far are Judie Tzuke (‘Stay With Me Till Dawn’) – BBC’s Nicky Campbell OBE – Ralph McTell  – Steve Knightley (Show Of Hands) – Paul Jones (The Manfreds) – Janis Ian (At Seventeen) – Foskett is also writing with the legendary songwriter, winner of five Ivor Novello Awards and writing partner of the late Michel Legrand – Barry Mason – This project promises a whole host of other musical luminaries as his guests.

Artist’s website: www.charlesfoskett.com

‘Hole In The Clouds’:

JON PALMER ACOUSTIC BAND – One Fine Day (Splid Records SPLIDCD 26)

One Fine DayJon Palmer is a fine songwriter and a good bloke to have a pint with – both of which endear him to me. One Fine Day is the third studio album from his band, now an octet, which belies its name by having Baz Warne of the The Stranglers playing electric guitar on three of the twelve tracks. Producer David Crickmore also adds to the electricity as does Nick Settle but I’m not going to quibble. I am going to stick my neck out and say that this is the band’s best album so far.

As a songwriter, Jon can be a bit political but he’s also a skilled storyteller and one of the delights of the album is listening as the songs unfold, often in unexpected ways. The opening track, ‘Music Town’, is really upbeat and I’d like to think it’s about Jon’s home town of Otley but it’s also about any place where music can be found be it club, session or the back room of a pub. ‘One Fine Day’ begins in the same up-tempo style, with Matt Nelson’s whistle and Wendy Ross’ fiddle leading the way and finishes in a wild instrumental coda. But as you listen you get the sneaking suspicion that the story won’t have a happy ending.

‘Great North Road’ is one of Jon’s great story songs. You’ll think you know what it’s about and you’d be mostly right…but at the first mention of a horse you have to adjust your viewpoint. There’s any number of traditional songs that tell the story that Jon wraps up in the second verse. ‘Bridges Not Walls’ is the first overtly political song – do I need to explain its inspiration? Thought not. ‘Vagabonds & Rogues’, in a deceptive waltz time, could be another traditional story and it suggests something Steve Tilston might have written although I don’t believe that Steve would have risked the maidenhead joke.

‘Hey Now!’ is a folkier follow-up to ‘Music Town’ with a neat bit of name-dropping but I wonder how the Acoustic Band like being called “a bunch of reprobates”. I think I’d be proud of that. ‘Little England’ is Jon’s inevitable Brexit song delivered more in sorrow than anger. ‘The Knife Thrower’s Assistant’ – “I never miss, well, only sometimes” – is another story with a delicious twist. Actually, there are twelve great songs here and, although I’ve mentioned a couple of the players, One Fine Day is great ensemble piece, tightly played.

One Fine Day isn’t officially out until April but, guess what, go to Jon’s website, cross his palm with silver and I’m sure he’ll sell you a copy.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.jonpalmeracousticband.com

‘Hey Now!’ – live:

THE SMOKE FAIRIES – Darkness Brings The Wonders Home (Year Seven Records)

Darkness Brings The Wonders HomeThe Smoke Fairies new album, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home, is music that coughs up a bluesy and very British folk rock beauty. You know, the brilliant bottleneck player Mississippi Fred McDowell said, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll”, but these women certainly do – with British silky slide guitar to spare.

The first two songs explode with tough guitar lingo. In a way, this never stops being folk music; yet, in another way, it never stops being a lot of other things. Of course, The Fairies have played bluesy rock before with ‘The Three Of Us’ from their Blood Speaks album, but this new record certainly ups the amperage in relation to their last self-titled record which created lovely and dense and (somewhat) languid folk rock.

But, back to those first two songs, ‘On The Wing’ and ‘Elevator’: The former clears the air with a strident bottle-necked pulse, while those twin voices hover like angry spectres. Ahh, ‘Elevator’ plays a four aces riff, worthy of any card-carrying rock band of the 70’s with wah-wah intensity. And there’s a rhythmic piano to boot! It’s a wonderous rock tune.

Well, the rock pulse continues. ‘Disconnect’ has urgent chords, a lead guitar that plays with the angular construction of Chairs Missing period Wire, and vocals that recall an early Kate Bush. ‘Coffee Shop Blues’ is patient rock, with a broad landscape that percolates with the touch of honest truth. Once again, those vocals stretch toward a sublime sunset. This song dances on slow time.

‘Left To Roll’ is that same slow time with an even more glorious melody. I am from America’s frozen Midwest, and this song is a deep pair of warm gloves. It’s just an idea, but that’s the big deal with the Smoke Fairies’ music on this record: The solicitous singing butts against the juxtaposed punchy rock guitar sound. Darkness Brings The Wonder Home, more than any other SF’s album, tugs with bewitching tension.

Just a comment about the lovely unison vocals of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies: Years ago, the band Three Dog Night had a hit single called ‘One Is The Loneliest Number’. And the Greeks “considered the number 1 a unit and not a proper number, which had to express a multiplicity” (Thank you, once again Simon Critchley!). But these voices defy all that negativity about the solitary digit because the two Smoke Fairies become one in a joyous (before the fall) harmony of a Blakean “England’s green and pleasant land”. Yes, indeed, this music never stops being vibrate folk music.

And then the riff stuff returns. ‘Out Of The Woods’ vibrates with stinging chords and a psych feel. ‘Chocolate Rabbit’ grooves with guitar grease. The vocals slide with a spooky incantation. ‘Chew Your Bones’ gets bluesy with a Macbeth hellbroth” harmony. This song taps beauty and evil at the very same time. And ‘Don’t You Want To Spiral Out Of Control?’ flickers with psychedelic stop lights.

And, just another comment: This album picks up the embers of Fairport and Steeleye Span and continues to spark into the Wicker Man bonfire.

The finale song, ‘Super Tremolo’, simply weaves the melodic tapestry of this record to a final stitch. Those twin vocals sing a “green and pleasant” melody that is cast against rock guitar tension. Sure, this record never stops being a lot of other things. But, to once again quote Mississippi Fred McDowell, “My Baby She Gonna Just Jump And Shout”. And that’s what Darkness Brings The Wonders Home does: The Smoke Fairies “just jump and shout” in a way that never stops being a melodic folk record, but indeed, does “play rock ‘n’ roll”.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: https://www.musicglue.com/smokefairies

‘Disconnect’ – official video:

Maverick announces first names for its thirteenth year

Maverick

Maverick, the UK’s first and finest Americana festival is pleased to announce first names for its lucky thirteenth outing!

This year‘s event will take place from Friday 3rd – Sunday 5th July showcasing the cream of the crop from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. The barns and outbuildings of Easton Farm Park will once again be transformed into a unique and boutique festival environment offering six stages indoors and out, perfect for the presentation of music, food and fun that has been attracting festival-goers since 2008.

Maverick has been at the forefront of Americana since before the genre was christened, co-founding the Americana Music Association UK and quickly becoming a red-letter day on the calendar for artists and audiences alike.

This year, the lineup already includes international award winning artists from all over North America!

Singer-songwriter and Grammy-winner STEVE FORBERT from Meridian, Mississippi is celebrating the 40th anniversary and re-release of his seminal album Jack Rabbit Slim, past Grammy-nominees for best American roots performers THE CALIFORNIA FEETWARMERS are heading east with some west coast sunshine and Canadian Juno nominee and past festival crowd pleaser TERRA LIGHTFOOT returns with her killer band.

We also welcome from Kentucky, JD WILKES AND THE LEGENDARY SHACKSHAKERS with their hell-for-leather brand of Southern gothic rockabilly, from Chicago, power-house band of bluegrass boys THE HENHOUSE PROWLERS and from Texas, taking us for a thrilling, fresh ride down the Lone Star highway, VANDOLIERS.

TICKET PRICES

Ranger £120.00  Weekend plus camping
Wrangler £90.00 Weekend
Rustler £50.00 Saturday
Nighthawk £35.00 Friday
Holy Roller £25.00 Sunday
Tenderfoot £25.00 10-15 yrs (under 10 go free)

Festival website:: www.maverickfestival.co.uk

GEMMA MAE ANDERSON – Life (own label GMAZE2CD)

LifeLike many musicians, I’m all too well aware of the risks and consequences of joint damage and pain, especially in my own age group (let’s just say the wrong side of retirement age…) I find it difficult to imagine, though, what it’s like for Gemma Mae Anderson, though, being diagnosed with the debilitating autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 17, which means that she’s now lived with that diagnosis for longer than she lived before it. Yet her debut CD Life shows a determination to go beyond that sad situation: not only has she crystallized her experiences into a positive musical artefact, but she’s also using it to raise money for the charity Versus Arthritis. Furthermore, she’s assembled an impressive array of backing musicians, mostly Shetlanders. (Pulp’s Candida Doyle, who contributed keyboards to ‘Wherever There’s A You’, is from Belfast, but has Shetland family links and was also diagnosed with RA as a teenager.)

You might expect an album with no less than four Shetland fiddlers featured to be pretty folky, but in fact this one leans to the pop end of the spectrum, with a soupçon of country here and there.

Here’s the track list. All titles are credited to Gemma.

  1. ‘Open Up’ is a nice upbeat song: lyrically, it reminded me a little of Mary Chapin Carpenter, though Gemma’s voice is a lot lighter.
  2. ‘Ray Of Light’ is a little slower, but has a basically positive message.
  3. ‘Everybody Knows’ is nothing like the Leonard Cohen song of the same title: in fact, it has darker overtones, lyrically, and rather an interesting melodic structure.
  4. The piano-borne ballad ‘Anything’ also sounds as if it reflects the singer’s physical condition, though I guess it could apply to many other situations. Very effective, anyway.
  5. ‘Wherever There’s A You’ has a bouncier feel, set against a curiously 1960s arrangement.
  6. ‘The Way Of Life’ is another piano-borne ballad with prominent fiddle.
  7. ‘Today We’ll Tell The World’ balances piano against acoustic guitar behind an attractive love song. Nice backing vocals too.
  8. ‘Falling Forever’ is another very positive love song.
  9. By the time I got to ‘Not A Bad Feeling’ I was beginning to feel a bit I had overheard rather too much of a conversation between a couple. The songs stand well in isolation, but the cumulative effect is a little too much.
  10. Fortunately, ‘Take This Road’ changes the mood, while maintaining Gemma’s trademark positivity. It’s nice to hear viola counterpointing fiddle, too.
  11. ‘I Want To Believe It’ has a much darker lyrical theme, and benefits from a dramatic and vocal intensity that isn’t quite there in the preceding tracks.
  12. There is some of that darkness and intensity in the lyric to ‘Time’, too.

This is a very pleasant CD: Gemma sings nicely, if a little uncertainly in places. The songs are generally upbeat, with very singable choruses, even where the lyrics hint at something darker. It would, perhaps, have benefited from a little more light and shade, more variation in pace and modality, at any rate in terms of appealing to a grizzled old folky. Lord knows there’s little enough positivity and optimism in the world today, but some of the songs here suggest that she is capable of tapping a richer vein of emotion that could make for some very interesting future work. Nonetheless, Life should make lots of money for a very good cause.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.birnamcdshop.com/product/gemma-mae-anderson/