CIARAN O’KANE – Round & Round (own label)

Round & RoundCiaran O’Kane describes his debut album, Round & Round, as “a collection of the songs I like to sing” which is the best reason for singing them and also a very Irish way of looking at things. Like his countrymen since time immemorial he has picked up music on his travels, kept some songs and written others. The result is a record of great variety.

Round & Round opens with ‘The Banks Of The Lee’ sung over drones, a technique Ciaran returns to on his own song, ‘Done’. There is no clue as to how the effect has been achieved; it doesn’t sound like tape loops and there is no synthesiser credited so I guess it is bass and accordion played live and treated in some way. Whatever, it’s cleverly done and makes for an arresting start to the album. Ciaran has a great voice for songs like this and ‘The Moorcocks Crow’ and transfers the same vocal technique to some of his own writing. ‘Snow’, for example, has a tune that sounds old and contains the kind of grace notes that are frequently found in Irish singing. Give it a while and someone will tell you that it’s traditional.

There are two other traditional songs; a relatively straight take on ‘Willie Taylor’ and a rather gorgeous ‘Lord Franklin’ sung as an unaccompanied duet with Ciaran’s mother Helen O’Kane.  Then there are two accordion tune sets, ‘The Ranaghan Reels’ and ‘The O’Num Polkas’, plus a rather good version of Ger Wolfe’s ‘The Curragh Road’.

And so to Ciaran’s own songwriting. I’ve already mentioned ‘Snow’ but the tragic story told in ‘The Fulldiew Stone’ is even better – a hundred years from now it will be traditional. These two are not necessarily typical of his output, though. The title track, a slightly rueful song of self-realisation appears twice, the second being a stripped-back version accompanied only on bodhran which I prefer. ‘The Belfast Lass’, a cautionary tale, has its roots somewhere in the tradition and must be a live favourite and ‘I Won’t Give Up’ is an upbeat song full of positive attitude.

Ciaran O’Kane has made a fine debut album – check it out.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/Ciaranokanemusic/

‘Skim’ – live:

MARK HARRISON – The Panoramic View (own label)

The Panoramic ViewI really like Mark Harrison’s previous album, Turpentine, so I was delighted when he sent me The Panoramic View. Mark plays 12-string and National guitars and his core band is double bass and drums courtesy of Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn. His music is the blues but with the lightest of touches and an edge of country with piano by Paddy Milner taking us into a saloon somewhere and Paul Tkachenko’s brass taking us somewhere sleazier. On top of that he’s a very inventive song-writer.

The opening track, ‘One Small Suitcase’ is about escape and a line in the first verse suggests that our protagonists are slaves planning to run away. Without that line the song could be about a young couple eloping but perhaps both interpretations are true. You never know what Mark is going to write and so, perhaps with that in mind, he’s engaged Scottish television presenter Gail Porter to read introductions to the songs which otherwise would be printed in the booklet, going as far as to explain that the instrumental ‘Pool Meadow Strut’ is about a Coventry bus station.

Actually, Gail’s introductions are important as Mark bases several songs on old bluesmen and only a real aficionado would know that ‘Don’t Die Till You’re Dead’ was a favourite phrase of Mississippi John Hurt or that Eddie “Guitar” Burns gave up playing music and worked multiple jobs to raise the kids from two marriages as told in ‘House Full Of Children’. Although Burns’ name isn’t well-known to most people he is highly rated among Detroit bluesmen – just the sort of guy that Mark would know about.

‘What Son House Said’ is a possible interpretation of an alcoholic ramble, in fact nearly all the songs are hedged around with “might bes” or “could haves” and when the subjects under discussion are living under the Jim Crow laws in the 50s and 60s or the life of a Chinese track-layer in the 19th century perhaps all you need is empathy for other people’s lives. Mark has that.

Dai Jeffries

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.markharrisonrootsmusic.com

‘Ain’t No Justice’ – live

MERRY HELL – Anthems To The Wind (Merry Hell Music MHMCD218)

Anthems To The WindHere’s a conundrum. When you see them playing the folk circuit, Merry Hell comprise Virginia Kettle and her borther-in-law Andrew on vocals, his brothers John on guitar and Bob on banjo, mandolin and bouzouki, bassist Nick Davies and fiddle player Neil McCartney. Officially, however, they’re now an eight-piece with Lee Goulding on keyboards and Andy Jones providing percussion. For such practical reasons as most club stages being too small to accommodate that many musicians, the latter two remain studio-bound.

So, while a live album might be representative of the band on any given night, it wouldn’t be representative of the band as such. So, what you have here is a collection of numbers from the repertoire featuring all eight members, recorded (mostly) live at three venues, just not with an audience, but with the arrangements stripped back to the way they would be heard in their primarily acoustic setting of a folk club.

Ok, that’s the logistics out of the way, so what about the music? It kicks off in fine fettle with the slower live styling of ‘Drunken Serenade’ the opening track from their debut album, these days, of course, showcasing McCartney with an interpolation of traditional instrumental ‘The Banshee Reel’.

Introduced by Virginia as “a message to mothers everywhere”, ‘My Finest Hour’ is the reworking of off Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain, spinning the perspective with, here, Virginia rather than Andrew recounting how mom puts a damper on the couple’s amorous intentions.

Again, it’s Virginia rather than Andrew who sings lead on a slightly longer version of the slow waltzing ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ from 2015’s There’s A Ghost in Our House…, fiddle replacing the already pared back original’s guitar solo.

It’s back to Blink…And You Miss It for anthemic swayalong ‘Over The Border’, fairly akin to the studio recording but, again, slightly longer. The debut also yields three further songs, Bob’s mandolin now being joined by some rousing fiddle from Neil on ‘This Time’, the playful unlikely love story of ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’, sung as before by Virginia, benefiting from a fuller arrangement to its slow march tempo. Andy’s percussion underpinning the prolusion, the division-themed call for tolerance and social anger management ‘The War Between Ourselves’ is one of two instances where the live album brushes up against rock’n’folk, Neil’s fiddle again in the spotlight.

The third is one of the band’s undisputed live showstoppers, ‘Lean On Me, Love’ transformed totally from the studio version with Andrew opening in sonorous a capella form and the slower, almost hymnal arrangement raising its uplifting and inspirational message to the heavens.

Likewise, another live favourite, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ takes on a more full-bloodied stomp feel to the recorded incarnation on Head…and, I venture to suggest, is all the better for it. So too is Andrew and Virginia’s haunting duet of loss and longing on ‘Leave A Light On’ off Ghost…, stripping away the drums and supplanting the guitars with melodeon to bring the song’s swelling emotions into greater relief.

There are, conspicuously, no songs from the most recent album, Bloodlines, you do, however, get two numbers new to Merry Hell but brought in from the Tansads’ back catlogue. The call to personal action and taking risks of ‘Fear Of Falling’ is the second ‘rock-out’ with its strummed guitars, driving fiddle, whoops and handclaps, the album ending with Andrew on lead and the melancholic fiddle notes of the similarly themed slow waltzing ‘Satisfied’, with its refrain singalong image of “millions of people lost in the world”, settling for and accepting the life they’ve been handed rather than, it’s implied, making one for themselves.

They did, of course, win Best Live Act in this year’s Folking Awards; however, not being a live album per se, there’s no crowd applauding or calling for more. You’ll doubtless want to do that part yourselves.

Mike Davies

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: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Lean On Me, Love’ – live:

NICK ELLIS – Speaker’s Corner (Mellowtone)

Speakers' CornerHis fourth album in three years, the Liverpool singer-songwriter’s music has been described as streetscape narrative-noir, which I guess is a fancy way of saying he specialises in dark storytelling, delivered primarily with just picked acoustic guitar, coloured here and there with Mark Percy’s percussion and Edgar Jones on double bass. The blurb says the songs capture “the uncertain and anxious atmosphere of a divided, disillusioned and broken Britain, caught in the zeitgeist of a major cultural, social and political shift”. So, socio-political comment protest then. Speakers’ Corner was inspired by an iron podium designed by Liverpool based sculptor Arthur Dooley and architect Jim Hunter in 1973 as a commission from the Transport & General Workers Union to be sited at the Pier Head, Liverpool’s centre-point of maritime activity, and to be used for public speaking. As such, it provided a platform for protesters and trade unionists for 20 years until the until the City Council quietly removed it. Ellis says how he felt this to be a very symbolic suppressive gesture, taking away the focal point of the city’s voice, to which end this album recreates it in song and music.

It’s something of style cocktail, opening with ‘I Get Love’, borrowing the rhythm line from Solomon Burke’s ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ but with the Wilson Pickett tempo, although it also calls the Newbeats’ ‘Bread And Butter’ to mind too. Things switch for the guitar chiming, bass drum thump of the mid-tempo, descending notes of Impractical Ideas with its line about “finding yourself “on top of the world digging deeper for a bigger pearl in the lining of a rich man’s purse”, which feels more in tune with Jake Bugg’s first album. before the first of four acoustic folk instrumentals, a nimbly picked ‘Sally-Go-Round The Roses’, the others being the circling ‘Mick’s Walk’, ‘The Fisher-Bendix Tree’ (a reference to a Liverpool washing machine manufucatory taken over by the Thorn Group in 1971 and the subsequent union battles) and (presumably another local reference) the closing, harmonica wailing blues ‘Lawrence Walk Breakdown’.

Despite an airplay unfriendly expletive, ‘Jesus Of Twine’ is a standout song, an acerbic swipe at hypocritical communist-lite bohemians and their poverty chic who get their “information from those back-room Socialists”, then it’s back to the blues for the urgently picked gambling and hot dames ‘Around Midnight’. Rhythmically nodding to The Box Tops’ classic, ‘Wrote My Baby A Letter’ is another bassline and percussion riff-based track, delivered in a late 50s R&B cum rock n roll vocal shug.

Accompanied by acoustic resonator guitar with its circling pattern of notes mirrored by the vocal delivery, the naggingly catchy ‘The She Club Mystery’ details a relationship in freefall, dressing up the lovers deceit in gumshoe and espionage imagery, indeed one line even nodding to Anais Nin/Was Not Was (depending on your choice of media) in declaring her a “spy caught creeping in the house of love”.

Adopting a similar fingericked guitar sound and structure, ‘Blue Summer’ has a more melancholic pastoral feel reflecting lines like “even get wraiths get lost in the light”, the final song being the brooding, overcast ‘Hearts And Minds’ about suppression and oppression of the working class, “down at the bottom of the great divide”, as Ellis sings

Bow and serve the bosses, smile and tick the boxes
Answer when you’re told to, just earn your pay

Mind you, the line about “another white-nigger that likes to fight” might raise a few prickles in some quarters as it builds to the last Calvary-referencing verse with Christ the social agitator.

Nick Ellis has a voice, give him your ears.

Mike Davies

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.facebook.com/pg/Nick-Ellis-Music

‘Blue Summer’ – official video:

SETH LAKEMAN – The Well Worn Path (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD709)

The Well Worn PathSeth Lakeman’s new album has appeared with surprisingly little fanfare. The Well Worn Path was recorded at the beginning of the year during a break in the Robert Plant/Shape Shifters tour with old comrades and relations Ben Nicholls, Kathryn Roberts and brother Sean and new friends Kit Hawes, who brings something of Sheelanagig’s pan-European influences, and Evan Jenkins. The album is stripped down but not in the way that Ballads Of The Broken Few was – you’d have to call this folk-rock – but I suspect that if Seth has learned anything from The Shape Shifters it is to value the spaces within the music.

His playing is in the English fiddle-singer style with a dramatic keening edge over powerful drumming from Jenkins and Nicholls’ bass. Kit Hawes plays finely judged guitar fills and intros, sometimes gentle and subtle, sometimes strident but never overdone. This folk-rock is definitely 60s style – I can hear echoes of Liege & Lief in one or two songs and the dark, hollow sound that Steeleye achieved on Ten Man Mop. There’s even a hint of Iain Matthews in ‘The Educated Man’, a seemingly autobiographical song co-written with David Prowse, who is definitely not Luke’s father but could be a member of Japandroids.

The songs are all original although Seth accepts help when he needs it. The opening track is his reworking of ‘Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still’ and ‘She Never Blamed Him’ is an old-time American song, probably from the Civil War but made darker by Seth’s new arrangement. Kit Hawes co-wrote ‘Drink ‘Til I’m Dry’ and the album’s title track and Reg Meuross co-wrote ‘Divided We Will Fall’, a thinly veiled political piece. ‘Fitzsimmons’ Fight’ is all Lakeman and harks back to the west country stories of his early work – Bob Fitzsimmons was a Cornishman, after all.

Seth has made another step along his musical journey with The Well Worn Path – highly recommended.

Dai Jeffries

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.sethlakeman.co.uk

‘Divided We Will Fall’ – official video:

JON WILKS – Midlife (own label)

MidlifeWhen someone gathers together traditional folk songs from a particular region, it generally tends to be the case that these are from Up North, Down South or to the West Country. The Midlands tend to be less well-served, despite a rich seam there to be mined. Indeed, a search of the Internet suggests that the last time anyone compiled such a collection was back in 1971 with the Roy Palmer-curated The Wide Midlands – Songs, Stories And Tunes from the Central Countries.

However, this sorry situation has now been put to rights by Jon Wilks, a Solihull-born Brummie journalist and singer whose interest in folk music was sparked on discovering his grandparents met and courted at grandparents met and ‘courted’ at Cecil Sharp House. Today he runs Grizzly Folk, an online blog dedicated to traditional folk and music hall songs from in and around Birmingham, Midlife, sung in a proud Brummagen accent, the result of over a year’s research, being a natural progression.

His two main sources are Palmer, obviously, and Cecilia Costello, a singer of Irish decent born near the Bull Ring in Digbeth in 1884 who variously worked making screws and as a brass polisher in the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary in Winson Green. Her own recordings, collected in 1951 and 1954 by Marie Slocombe from the BBC Sound Archive, can be found on an album released in 1975.

The material there was wide-ranging, but her contribution here is very much rooted in the streets where she grew up. An amalgamation of two different songs, as you might surmise ‘Aye For Saturday Night (My Bloke’s a Peaky)’ is a reference to the Peaky Blinders gang. The first song raises a rousing glass to drinking and other weekend carousing, bookending the lines

My bloke’s a Peaky, and he’s none the worse for that;
He’s got bell-bottomed trousers and a Peaky Blinders’ hat;
He’s got rings on his fingers, and round his neck a daf,
So all you nosey-parkers can take it out of that

a fragment of a folk poem set to a tune by Wilks.

The collection actually begins out of Birmingham, with ‘The Brave Dudley Boys’, a song collected by Palmer and featured on The Wide Midlands about 18th century activists the Dudley Colliers. Opening with the anachronistic sound of a steam train (the first wasn’t operational in the UK until 1802) and set to a hammering industrial rhythm and distortion effects with shanty-like “yah boy ho” backing vocals, it recalls “the days of good queen Bess” when they led a riot against escalating food prices and low employment at the tail end of the 1780s, things being defused before they got out of hand by pacifier Lord Dudley Ward who calmed the men and held back the advancing soldiers.

Sounding a particularly resonant note given the new and lost landmarks and the labyrinth of road works and diversions currently taking place in the city, the amusing handclap stomp and ragtime picked ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ is ascribed to music hall performer James Hobbs and recounts some poor bloke returning to his home city and not recognising it, albeit Wilks has updated the lyric to include several contemporary references such as long vanished pub The Ship Ashore and veteran nightclub Snobs, recently relocated after forty odd years on its original site.

Accompanied by acoustic guitar, the Irish roots of ‘Navvy Boots’ can be clearly heard (unsurprisingly, The Dubliners recorded a version), a song collected in Pelsall Common near Walsall in 1967 when sung by Eileen Hannoran, a traveller, to members of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre. While it may have its roots in the many Irish emigrants who worked as navvies in the Midlands on the construction of the railways and canals, the song itself tells of one such labourer who spends the night with his lover, boots still on, and ends up having pay child maintenance for his fun.

Up until as late as the mid-nineteenth century it was apparently not uncommon for there to be wife-selling markets up and down the country, the wives often willing participants eager to rid themselves of some shiftless husband given that divorce was hard to come by, and is recorded here in two songs, ‘John Hobbs’ and ‘Bandy-Legged Lett’, the latter reprised in demo form as the final track.

Fingerpicked, the first tells of an unfortunate shoemaker who found his wife Jane to be a right “tartar” and when he found no buyers at Smithfield market hung himself with the rope he used to drag her there. The second, found in Bilston Library by Jon Raven who recorded it on his Kate of Coalbrookdale album, is a more humorous rowdy calypso stompalong as Samuel Lett looks to flog off wife Sally, “good looking and sound as a bell”, but with a voice like one too and eating and drinking him out of house and home.

His missus has no connection to ‘Birmingham Sally’, an unaccompanied tale of star-crossed lovers kept apart by class and economic barriers, that dates back to the early 1800s and also features on The Wide Midlands, sung there in a female voice, by Chris Richards. Meanwhile, built on a throbbing bassline, the instrumental ‘Buffoon’ gives the original Morris tune a whirligig dancefloor Hammond organ groove that kind of sounds like a mash up of the Albions and Men Without Hats.

Set to cascading notes, the music hall-styled waltzer ‘Colin’s Ghost’ is one of two songs collected in 1906 in Kings Norton from a Mrs. Webb and has nothing to do with spectral matters, being, rather, the tale of how a young maiden discovers the supposed ghost haunting the village lanes is, in fact, a rather comely shepherd with whom she strikes up a far from disembodied relationship. The other Webb-derived song is the fingerpicked ‘Adieu, Adieu’, also known as ‘The Flash Lad’ and recorded by pretty much anyone who’s anyone in folk music, from Roy Bailey, The Watersons and Fairport to Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy and Brass Monkey, the lyrics here an amalgam of various versions.

The remaining number comes from Roy Palmer’s book, Songs Of The Midlands. Collected from G. Hayward, an actor with a mummers troupe in Newbold, in 1899 by W.H.D. Rouse, ‘There Was An Old Man Came Over The Sea’ is a stark ballad, the acoustic accompaniment punctuated by dry drums, electric guitar solo and cattle prod jolts, about a woman reluctantly forced by her mother into marriage and bed with a snivelling and snuffling decrepit old coot who then dies, presumably from the exertions of the night.

The folk tradition of the Midlands, and particularly Birmingham, has been pretty much ignored for the past 50 years, the likes of singers and collectors such as Costello and George Dunn little known outside of dyed-in-the-wool folk circles. With this album, Wilks may have hopefully lit a torch to attract other moths to the flame.

Mike Davies

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.grizzlyfolk.com

‘Colin’s Ghost’ – live: