THE LARK AND THE LOON – Homestead Hands (own label)

Homestead HandsShe’s the lark and he’s the loon and The Lark And The Loon are multi-instrumental husband and wife duo Jeff Rolfzen and Rocky Steen-Rolfzen. Homestead Hands is a self-penned album, their second, packed with stories from the Black Hills to the Ozarks.

Their songs are suffused with western lore and range from the sound of a theme song from an old western to slide guitar blues. The opener, ‘Code Of The West’, comes from Rocky, or rather stories that her forebears told and passed down when they settled in Montana and the title track is also inspired by her family. She returns to that home in ‘Lonesome Western Heart’ and yodels authentically on ‘Homestead Hands’ and they use the same pattern of notes on ‘The Old Red Rooster’, a song with historical connections – look up Spearfish Creek if you’re interested.

Jeff tackles the harsher aspects of western life. He’s from St. Paul and, although he’s moved out of the city now, the city hasn’t completely left him as you can hear on the rocking ‘Deal With The Devil’ and ‘Give My Regards To Mr. Hicock’. That’s not a typo, by the way, Wild Bill’s name was occasionally spelled that way. ‘No Place To Be’ is a restless song of nostalgia and regret sung by Rocky while ‘Time For Moving On’ is Jeff’s take on the life of the itinerant musician. Life in the country is at the heart of the album, though, exemplified by ‘Ozark Mountain Home’, an ode to where they live now.

Musically, Jeff provides the foundation on guitars and banjo and decorates on harmonica while Rocky does a similar job on accordion and banjo – there’s a lot of banjo on Homestead Hands – and adds percussion, although how you play a shotgun shell remains a mystery to me. This album is heaps of fun and now I feel the need of a John Wayne movie.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Homestead Hands’ – live:

PHIL DOLEMAN – Skin & Bones

Skin & BonesIn recent years the ukulele has become increasingly prominent in my life as a music teacher and workshop organiser, so it was with a degree of keen anticipation that I opened Phil Doleman’s first full studio album, Skin & Bones. He may be unknown to many folk fans, but he looms large in the ukulele world with his infectious enthusiasm for old-timey blues, classic 1920s jug band and ragtime. For many this album will be instructional – how to present well-known songs, suited to the instrument, without the bland relentless 3-chord strumming that gives the ukulele a bad press. If used well, it can be both rhythmic and melodic, as demonstrated here in accomplished finger picking that creates variety and a degree of light and shade. In the ukulele world few can get anywhere near the giddy heights of technical brilliance achieved by, for example, James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro; but Phil Dolman shows what can be achieved with intelligence and diligence.

Phil’s competent playing extends to guitar, banjo, bass, harmonica and nose flute, though he’s also joined here by five other musicians and his very own Beehive Ukulele Club who sing heartily on ‘Diddie Wa Diddie’. My favourite track is a quite sophisticated arrangement of ‘You May Leave’ on which, surprisingly, he manages vocally to sound very much like Ry Cooder. The final track, recorded on a wax cylinder, is an opportunity for him to tip his hat to the first generation that created the music he evidently loves.

Jon Bennett

Artist’s website:

‘You May Leave (But This’ll Bring You Back)’ – live:

MAWKIN – Down Among The Dead Men (Good Form Records MKN005)

Down Among The Dead MenI was thinking that it was rather too long since I’d heard anything from Mawkin when David Delarre got in touch to ask if I’d like an advance copy of their new album. It would have been rude to refuse. In the three years since they released The Ties That Bind Mawkin have been building their live reputation as one of the best folk-rock bands in the country and that comes together in Down Among The Dead Men, an album that’s turned up to eleven.

There is a lot of drinking going on here – dead men referring to discarded bottles – and while there is absolutely no suggestion that the boys were in any way inebriated while recording this it certainly sounds like they enjoyed the process. This is a melting pot of all sorts of influences from traditional folk to rock as song segues into tune and on to the next track before you’ve caught your breath. There’s an exuberance that is reminiscent of – whisper it – Bellowhead with sudden changes of tempo and unexpected arranging tricks. The closing ‘Jolly Roving Tar’ is a perfect example.

‘Midnight Ranger/Midnight Ramble Reel’, the opening track, is also the first single. It is fairly typical of the band’s modus operandi: a mash-up of a couple of old songs with rewritten lyrics and tune combined with a tune written by David. Next they rock up ‘Blind Fiddler’ and meld it with ‘The Cabin’, a tune written by James Delarre. They switch things round with the Kipling/Bellamy ‘A Smugglers’ Song’ with the traditional ‘Daniel Wright’s Hornpipe’. I’m sorry that they opted to change the word “Valenciennes”, though – don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience, chaps.

I love the thinking behind ‘To Wednesday’, a tune celebrating the hardest day of the folkies’ year. The Wednesday of Sidmouth week sees five days of drinking behind you with three days still ahead. It leads neatly into James’ wild ‘Old Fool’ about the perils of over-indulgence. ‘My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him’, ‘Diamond Ship’ and ‘Ugly Fish’ leave the booze behind but the title track takes us back there with a tribute to the Roman god Bacchus although the style and lyrics are a touch funereal.

Down Among The Dead Men really is a fine album and it’s good to see a band that isn’t content to sit on its laurels but takes the time to develop and progress. Good on you, guys.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘The Blind Fiddler’ – live:

IAIN THOMSON AND MARC DUFF – No Borders (own label IAT 003)

No BordersIain Thomson is a singer-songwriter brought up in Dumfries who works regularly as a duo with Marc Duff who plays bouzouki, pipes, piano and whistles here and also produced the album. In his other life Iain has been a sheep farmer on Mull, where he again lives, although we’re told that he’s planning a move to Sweden, obliquely referenced in ‘Fate Is Knocking At My Door’. Then he was a truck-driver and, most recently, a fencing contractor. One look at his photograph tells you that he’s a man who knows about hard physical work and many of his songs draw on his experiences. No Borders is his second CD.

The record opens with ‘All Our Stories’. It derives from a project that began when the school in Ulva on Mull closed and the local people were interviewed for an archive about their lives and experiences. Iain doesn’t go into detail about their stories but rather concentrates on the fragility of a community living on the country’s edge. A related story appears in ‘Glendale Martys’ which tells how the resistance to the clearances of crofters on Skye eventually led to the Crofters Holdings Act of 1886.

The second track is ‘The Winter Winds Blow’ in which Iain recalls the working life of a fencer – out in the open in all weathers – remembering the good and glossing over the bad. Perhaps we all do that. ‘Back To The Sheds’ recounts his life as a shearer, both on Mull and in the antipodes while ‘The City Sleeps’ tells a story from his trucking days when he found himself stranded in Glasgow’s red light district at 3.00 am – perhaps it’s better not to ask.

Raising his eyes to more distant horizons he writes about the refugee situation in the title track and the way that isolation and separation can be brought to an end by technology in ‘Reunion’. He ends with an old Gaelic poem, ‘An t’Eilean Àlainn’ which, in a way, takes us back to the beginning.

No Borders has a very traditional sound with Hannah Fisher, John Somerville and John Saich among the supporting players and even Gordon Maclean’s bass doesn’t really bring modernity crashing in. It’s an album of fine songs from Thomson and beautiful decoration from Duff.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘The Long Road Home’ – live:

NATHAN BELL – Loves Bones And Stars, Love’s Bones And Stars (Angry Stick Recording Company)

Loves BonesIn case you’re wondering, the title of the album is correct. Loves Bones And Stars, Love’s Bones And Stars is due for release on September 24th and is the fourth album in Nathan Bell’s Family Man series – and it’s rather good. The album is full of songs rather like his self-description of his life, “Utterly ordinary, always extraordinary”.

The style is Americana-ish, but the voice and the lyrics raise this album above the ordinary. Try the lyrics first. The opening track, ‘I Would Be a Blackbird (for Leslie Irene’ is a song for his wife whose favourite bird is, I gather, the Red Winged Blackbird (I’ve just looked on Google, it really is quite splendid) “If I was a word I would be your name/I would be your name/I would be a song/And if I was a song/That would still your heart/I would be a Blackbird”

How’s that for an expression of love? But good as the lyric is in its simplicity, it is made by the vocal. Bell has a gravelly voice and sings these lines gently. Just as a strong man with nothing to prove can be the mildest parent or nurse, the lyric, “If I was a word, I would be your name” becomes the softest touch of a fierce expression of love.

Right through, the album is consistently good. There are no promo videos yet so the link below is to Bell playing live in Edinburgh a year ago but on this raw-ish video Bell’s singing and playing come through pretty well.

To pick a few of the other tracks. ‘Whiskey, You Win’ is a cracking country song telling of drink, losing the woman, the truck, and the singer reflecting on his life – all wrapped up in a great tune and lyrics like “Now all of my dreams/Fit into the suitcase/That you threw into his pickup truck”. ‘Faulkner And Four Roses’ is another whisky song, but this time as a cure for insomnia in a song written for a friend who lost his wife of fifty years. ‘My Kid’ captures that point where we listen to our children and realise that they’re growing into the insightful adults we’ve been trying to raise them to be “Damn, damn, damn/Where’d he learn to talk [think, act in subsequent verses] that way/Damn, damn, damn/My kid’s going to be okay”. “Metal” is a track he describes as “a song of hoping that I will die well and knowing there’s no way of knowing if I will” with a refrain sung in that gravelled voice, accepting that this is the nature of things “I know this to be true and I don’t mind” as he thinks of his love, of his friends, and of the next generation coming along.

A couple of songs are on the album in alternate versions, ‘A Day Like This’ and the title track. Unusually, I find I listen to both versions, rather than stopping the album before they come on. I’ll let Bell describe the title song, “….By now I was writing songs about my own love. They were songs about the bones that keep us upright, that keep us moving. They were songs about how we look longingly toward the stars, yet we (I) love and cherish most the ordinary things within our reach”.

Mike Wistow

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Artist’s website:

Nathan’s tour schedule is now online at

Nathan Bell live:


RACHEL NEWTON – West (Shadowside SHADOW03)

WestI had better confess that I’m a bit of a fan of Rachel Newton. The last time I heard her perform live she demonstrated how to play harmonics on the harp and let me tell you that it isn’t easy. West is her fourth solo album, named for her grandfather who lived on the west side of Achnahaird where Rachel went with Matty Foulds to record. West is entirely solo, just voice and harp, and doesn’t encompass the high drama that marked her previous records although there is a fair measure of lost love. This is a very delicate album – I was tempted to say “fragile” but it isn’t. Rachel’s singing is gentle, certainly, but the harp accompaniments are firm. Even so, I could happily drift away to her playing.

Rachel begins with ‘Gura Muladach Sgith Mi’ adapted from the singing of Flora MacNeil of Barra and Catriona NicCharmaig and pitched fairly low in the earthier regions of her vocal range. From there she turns to a favourite of hers, Sir Walter Scott, with her setting of ‘Maid Of Neidpath’, turning it into a traditional ballad in everything but origin and a true story at that.

The album is punctuated by four short original harp compositions, ‘Suilven’ being the first, although I’m not sure that they are intended to mark turning points in the record. However, after ‘Suilven’, Rachel briefly leaves Scotland for ‘Once I Had A True Love’, based on the version by Peggy Seeger, although the song can be English, Scottish or Appalachian. She isn’t away long, though, visiting Tiree for ‘Hi Horo’s Na Horo Elle’ and following that with ‘Skye Air’, a gorgeous harp solo. ‘For Love’ is usually preceded by “Died” but this is a version I hadn’t heard before.

Rachel takes us to Arkansas for ‘A Token’ which is bookended by two more punctuation marks, ‘Stac Pollaidh’ and ‘Beinn An Eoin’. It’s another song of a dying lover and I’m sure that better minds than mine can trace its antecedents before it arrived in the Ozarks. There is another Gaelic song, one more short instrumental and Rachel finally gets to indulge her love of country music again. The first time I heard ‘Jolene’ sung in three part harmony I found it amusing and Rachel’s harp arrangement takes it off somewhere else. It makes a jolly encore to her live set so I suppose it’s placed appropriately here. But… perhaps someone should translate it into Gaelic!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

The full band version of ‘Jolene’ live: