WINTER WILSON – Far Off On The Horizon (The Launch Event)

Winter Wilson
Photograph by John S Wright

If you go to a Winter Wilson gig you can expect great songs well-played, but also humour in their introductions. I saw them play at a small festival last summer and they stopped their set for five minutes so we could watch the Spitfire fly past. This is a duo good enough to break the rules. They launched their new album, Far Off On The Horizon at Sleaford Playhouse Theatre on May 11th.

The evening opened with the two walking on stage, relaxed, joking and self-deprecating before moving into the title song of the new album. If you’ve never heard them, then their style is, at heart, a combination of Dave Wilson’s clean picking and the two voices – strong separately but gloriously harmonized for both gentle or up tempo songs to give greater impact to the lyrics and the tune. This opening song is about being awake in the middle of the night, alone after a break up. The scene begins as one of everyday experience but then, as Dave Wilson’s songs do so often, there are lines to stun you into admiration at both the insight and the ability to weave the words seamlessly into song lyric, “Treachery comes with a smile/ And deceit the warmest handshake.”

How do you move from this to a song, ‘Merciful Father’, about killing in the name of your faith? For most people this would be the cue to start a considered discussion; for Winter Wilson, it’s an opportunity for Kip Winter to pick up the guitar while Wilson swaps to the banjo. The song is introduced with banjo jokes that have the audience in laughter – but as soon as they start playing, the mood changes to thoughtful listening, and for the acapella finish you could hear a pin drop.

And so the concert moves on – high class singing and playing are interspersed with insight and self-deprecating humour between the songs. ‘Ashes And Dust’, the title song of the previous album, came next followed by a couple more new songs – first a shift of style into blues with ‘Tried And Tested’ and then ‘When First I Met Amanda’ , a girl Wilson met a primary school and how the years have treated her (which is unkindly). There is something simultaneously specific and general about Wilson’s best songs and this is one of them. The lyrics move beyond a simple tale of the fall of someone you once knew into a reflection on humanity “Some never get to say I love you;/Some whisper ’neath their breath./Some spend their lives saying they’re sorry,/While others can’t forgive.”  And then it moves back into individual humanity with Wilson reversing the first verse of primary school love and praying that “she felt a little better/when she looked into my eyes” .

The duo have been playing as Winter Wilson since the 90’s, mostly in the folk tradition. As well as the serous aspects you can see above, their songs are also just good fun to sing. They moved next to 2007’s ‘Metagama’ and encouraged the audience to sing. Another blues-based song ‘The Freo Doctor’, about the cooling Western Australian afternoon breeze is airily introduced, with a schoolboy smirk, as ‘a song about wind’. The first half ended with three songs of great humanity: a solo from Kip Winter of a Burl Ives song her father used to sing; ‘Ghost’ – a classic Wilson song about a Big Issue seller and the impact of changes in the benefits system, a catchy chorus and the stunning image in final line of the chorus, “Well the government said it was self inflicted, / So I don’t show up on their statistics./With the click of a mouse I disappeared;/ From a girl to a ghost at eighteen years”; and a song with lyrics found after the death of a young local musician “I can’t take any credit for it, I just knocked a few edges off”.

By half time we’ve had a classic Winter Wilson concert: humour, self-deprecation, humanity – and some great songs. You have to be good to be able to take an audience from the laughing humour of the introduction to silent thoughtfulness in the first four bars of the following song and in recent years Winter Wilson have honed their talent and travelled a long way: they spent this winter opening around the country for Fairport Convention, and in the recent past they have toured Australia and New Zealand, Germany and Holland, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as all corners of England; they’ve played to small folk clubs and large festivals; they’ve written, sung and played some of the best songs currently on the folk and acoustic scene. John Tams, who knows a thing or two, has said, “It’s a rare gift you have – cherish it mightily.” Sleaford is Winter Wilson’s home town and the gig was a sell out. While there were local Sleafordians in the audience, there were also many who traveled for the concert.

The second half was made of the same stuff. It opened with a joke about a Welshman on a desert island and then moved into ‘Someone else’s Bed’ an early song about an enduring human pain, gripping to listen to, “knowing that you’re lying in someone else’s arms and someone else’s bed” – Dave Wilson’s driving strum on the bass strings forcing us to listen to the tale. The story grows, the higher strings chipping in, occasionally at first and then bursting in to the chorus, Kip Winter’s voice adding volume and fullness to a great tune in this song about something in life that hurts both male and female equally.

Then they took us from humour to empathy again – the humour in the bizarreness of knowing the German word, Schwangerschaftstest, for pregnancy testing kit – the empathy in this tale of ‘Doreen and Joe’ in their tenement, yearning for a baby. It has a happy ending, but it takes you through the agony of failed tests before the joy of the ending.

‘The Ship It Rocked’ is another new song with a lyric to stop you in your tracks, “They say you can’t trade human flesh,/No man can own another./But when the devil calls you’ll sell your soul,/You’ll turn upon your brother.” ‘Grateful For The Rain’ is a song of emigration to Canada with an introduction about the social history of lone female emigrants.

Having played most of the new album they treated us to a request for ‘This Day Is Mine’, another song that got the audience singing, and then to other favourites. It’s generally impossible to know the impact of songs that you write and sing, but for the song that followed, ‘Is It True That His Eyes Are Like Mine’, the duo have had two people come up to them (one after crying through the whole song) and let them know that they too have had babies taken away at an early age, the adults turning up years later to find their mothers – one ‘child’ aged 30, one aged 55.

The blues ‘Find Myself A Lover’, from 2001, came next – still powerful and a great showcase for Kip Winter’s vocal talent – and then ‘We Still Get Along’ from 2013. They finished with ‘Still Life In The Old Dog Yet’, the song they played jointly with Fairport on the recent tour. They couldn’t not do an encore after the ovation they received and finished with ‘Common Form’, based on the story of Rudyard Kipling bending rules so that his son could fight in World War One – then and losing him at the Battle of Loos only weeks after his arrival in France. It includes another magnificent line, “Testosterone and bullshit it’s a heady potent brew” but is much too nuanced to be described as an anti-war song (though it is). As ever with Wilson’s songs, it’s about humanity at a personal level (a father and his son) first, but also allowing you to draw out a wider understanding of humanity as a whole.

And there we had it – a typical Winter Wilson concert, but even more of one because it was both a homecoming and a launch of the new album. Twenty-five years since I first saw them perform they have eight albums to their name and international success. Have a listen to ‘Ghost’ in the video link below and you’ll get a feel for the songs, the clarity of the playing and the strength of their voices both separately and together. And if you like musicians who can move you from humour to compassion in about ten seconds, go and see them live.

Mike Wistow

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: https://winterwilson.com

‘Ghost’ – live:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC – live at The Old Courts, Wigan – 29th April 2018

Merry Hell Acoustic
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.

Jenny ColquittSupport came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.

If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished –  I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.

They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.

As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.

The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video:

SMITH AND BREWER – Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (21st April 2018)

Smith And Brewer

It’s surprisingly hard to recall, on this bright sunny Spring day, that a little over a month ago, snow and gales stopped play. Back then, I should have been reviewing Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer as part of the Cambridge Roots Festival. This afternoon comes my chance to make amends, courtesy of Anglia Ruskin University’s programme of “Lunchtime Sessions”. A mixed audience of students and civvies flow into the theatre’s darkness from the warm sunlight outside.

The artists formerly known as Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer have recently undergone a, some might say, rather overdue metamorphosis. Now appearing simply as Smith and Brewer, they proudly display the embossed guitar straps bearing their respective surnames. Yes, maybe it does sound a tiny bit like a craft ale, but it rolls off the tongue so much more easily. And I have been known to say it often when evangelising about this pair to anyone within earshot. Not normally Americana/Country’s loudest advocate, I’m utterly beguiled by this duo’s charming blend of close harmonies and melodious songs. It’s an obvious, perhaps even rather tainted comparison to make, but they’re a sort of English Simon and Garfunkel – without the relationship issues, hopefully.

Starting off with ‘Isabella’, a natural classic from their eponymous EP, they motor on through ‘Another Shade Of Blue’ and the vigorous, sassy guitar of ‘Life’s Too Short’. ‘Blow Wind Blow’, another EP track, follows after which Smith leads on a sweetly tender ode to his young son, ‘Better Than Your Father’. As a young artist in the front row makes rapid sketches of them, Brewer delivers some Spanish-tinged guitar with ‘Love You Forever’.

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ is another of those instant classics: but despite sounding deceptively like a chilled summer anthem, it’s lyrics are rather gloomier. It’s still not entirely an obvious choice to appear on a Dutch horror movie soundtrack, but do be sure to listen out for it, coming soon to your local Dutch cinema.

It’s not just their facility with melody and harmony; they are richly proficient guitar players too, with a cooperative style that elaborately interweaves Smith’s warmth with Brewer’s steelier tones. Mostly, they look quite relaxed, but their most “guitarry” song, ‘Julietta’ (continuing a tradition of four-syllable female name song titles), features a lengthy, fast and energetic break that illuminates the physicality beneath their playing.

The forceful, lively ‘Favourite Photograph’ follows, and they close with the angular ‘Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me’. Although time hasn’t really been allotted for an encore, such is the crowd appreciation that they return anyway to finally round off proceedings with the gently funk-inclined ‘Hold On’.

A group of students filing out say, “Well, that was really great”, and mean it. It was, really great.

Smith and Brewer’s first album is due to be released later this year.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’:

HARP & A MONKEY – Live at Grayshott Folk Club

Harp & A Monkey
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Although they have a new album on the way – pause for cheering – Harp & A Monkey had resolved not to play anything from it. Martin Purdy explained that when they had tried to preview new songs, audiences had been disappointed that they couldn’t buy them there and then. Besides, being such a long way from home gave them a perfect opportunity to explore their back catalogue in front of a new audience.

I’d seen them live once before, doing a support spot but here, in a headline role, they were able to relax and be a little more expansive. Their instrumentation seems minimal, not to say a little odd: banjo, guitar and glockenspiel with touches of accordion, melodica, fiddle and, yes, harp. However they perform over loops and backing tapes – Andy Smith and Simon Jones are both string players and it’s all their own work, so as Martin put it “we’re miming to ourselves” but they’re not, of course. They are playing in a situation where timing is everything and unforgiving and you can’t help but admire the skill when a note rings out a split second before a spoken word section of tape begins.

They began with ‘The Manchester Angel’, one of their adapted traditional songs and one which puts Harp & A Monkey in a geographical and historical context: mill towns, cobble streets and poverty. Many of their original songs encompass the history and geography of their home region as well as its people which is where the semi-traditional ‘Bolton’s Yard’ comes in. But they’re not restrictive as ‘Digging Holes’ proves and sometimes their songs are deeply personal – ‘Dear Daughter’ springs to mind.

The second set began with a selection of songs from War Stories, their Great War album, beginning with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’. It may be sacreligious but I think I prefer their version of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ to Peter Bellamy’s. Peter emphasised the harshness of the poem whereas Harp & A Monkey bring out the tenderness. The album and songs like ‘Gallipoli Oak’ and ‘Postman’s Song’ concentrate on the other stories of the war – the widows, the bereaved parents and the civilians who kept services going at home but saw the misery and despair.

They finished with the lighter songs: ‘The Molecatcher’, ‘Pay Day’ – not exactly light, perhaps, but very singable – and the delightful ‘Katie And The Twinkly Band’ before encoring with ‘Charlie Chaplin’. A splendid show.

Jim Cozens
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Harp & A Monkey were supported by singer-songwriter Jim Cozens and Grayshott are very lucky to have a performer of his calibre in their midst. His songs are never formulaic and conjure up wonderful pictures. I particularly liked ‘15th And P Street’, his account of living in Washington DC which he really brought to life.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Soldier, Soldier’ – official video:

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: