KATIE MELUA – Live at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster

Katie Melua and choirs
Photographs by Tony Birch

Westminster Central Hall is an impressive venue in an impressive building.  Built in 1912 the Great Central Hall has a capacity of 2,300 who sit beneath the largest self-supporting domed ceiling of its kind in Europe.  It’s a big venue that needs a big artist to fill it and Katie Melua did exactly that on December 8th  in a show that confirms she is one of the best popular singers around.  I had to check exactly how long she’s been in the public eye and was quite amazed to see that her début album Call Off The Search was released in late 2003 and there have been six more albums since.

Despite that, and the obvious loyal following she has, Katie remains a very down-to-earth performer.  There’s no big build up, no MC encouraging the audience.  Instead, as I’ve seen her do before, she quietly enters a darkened stage and starts on the first song with just her and a guitar. The audience were immediately captured, “their Katie” was back on home territory and they loved it.

Katie lets her music do the talking so there are no long stories or introductions, we didn’t get an “Hello” until after song three.  Instead we had twenty songs over two sets, and then the encores.  The show was beautifully paced with plenty of movement on the stage to break the evening up.  As well as her sole songs she had her band consisting of Tim Harries (bass),  Mark Edwards (keys), Nicky Hustinx (drums) and little brother Zurab Melua (guitar) being used in different combinations.  In addition we were also introduced to the Gori Women’s Choir from Katie’s home country of Georgia and who featured on her 2016 album In WinterThe choir consisted of fifteen members plus conductor Shalva Mosidze.  They made a wonderful contribution to the evening.

Katie MeluaWith that many people the staging had to provide a backdrop rather than completion and this was done through animations by Karni & Saul which were muted and restful.  It took me a while to get in to them but they did complement the music which was, of course, of the highest standard.  Although, as mentioned, the songs weren’t introduced most were familiar to the audience and several were greeted with applause including ‘Belfast’ from that very first album and ‘Nine Million Bicycles’.  Of course ‘Closest Thing To Crazy” made an appearance and I was half expecting a sing-a-long, but it wasn’t that kind of evening although it got a huge cheer at the end.  The audience were quite quiet, they’d come to listen, and even the one shout out was noted by Katie as being “very polite”!  Only ‘The Flood’ encouraged a slight clapping along, and that was rewarded with a smile.

In an evening of such lovely music there were some stand-outs away from the big hits.  ‘The Carol Of The Bells’ (Shchedryk) was beautifully presented with just Katie and the choir but I think it was ‘Diamonds Are Forever’; was the one that really caught me by surprise.  We’re all used to Shirley Bassey’s belting anthem to avarice but Katie turns it into a rather bittersweet song of somebody who has probably learnt the hard way that men are not to be trusted so only diamonds give the permanence she seeks.  The evening ended with a well deserved call for an encore and ‘What A Wonderful World’ was a suitable choice, greeted with a standing ovation.  It was a wonderful evening that left a very satisfied audience who will no doubt be back for more in the future.

Before finishing, there are several mentions to be made.  Support came from London based Keeva, who impressed me with her soulful voice and good presentation of her songs.  She’s somebody who is now on my watch list to see again.   Bryony October did an excellent job on sound balancing, at times, sixteen voices and five instruments none of which ever dominated.  Thanks are also due to Sue Harris at Republicmedia for her help and chasing down the photo pass, and to the staff at Central Hall who were unfailingly helpful throughout.

Tony Birch

 Artists’ websites: http://katiemelua.com/
https://www.keeva-music.com/

Katie Melua and The Gori Womens Choir – ‘Carol Of The Bells’:

MARTIN STEPHENSON & THE DAINTEES – live Under The Bridge, London

Martin Stephenson & The Daintees
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Martin Stephenson & The Daintees arrived in Chelsea in the middle of a long tour. The reason is, of course, the revamped Gladsome, Humour & Blue, an album I’ve very much enjoyed reacquainting myself with over the last few weeks. The core Daintees are lead guitarist John Steel, Kate Stephenson on drums and bassist Chris Mordey with a brief guest appearance by vocalist Anna Lavigne. The re-recording took a back-to-basics approach and the live band now trimmed away anything that wasn’t strictly necessary. The plan was simple: play the album through, more or less in order, and have some extra fun at the end.

So they started with ‘There Comes A Time’ which, with the audience full of the band’s friends, became something of an anthem – the hook line being irresistibly singable. There was a bit of messing about with a lead and it felt a bit shambolic. Sometimes it seemed that Martin was working on his stand-up routine with improbable stories and iffy jokes but after a while I had him sussed. He may look as though he’s winging the whole show but behind the joking he is razor sharp and the band is tight as a drum.

‘Slaughterman’ was followed by an acoustic solo of ‘The Wait’, less being more. ‘Even The Night’ became another anthem with just Martin’s guitar and John and Kate doing backing vocals. And the audience who took over the chorus and harmonised like professionals. A huge roar greeted ‘Wholly Humble Heart’ with a stunning guitar solo from John and then Martin did something that really impressed me. In the midst of a story about how the Americans pinched everything from us and in particular how Merle Haggard learned Kentucky thumb style from Chas And Dave he demonstrated the proof. First the chunky chords on the middle strings, then a bass lick and finally adding a melody line – plus a ‘brass’ chord hit over the pick-up. I saw it and I still can’t get my head round it.

‘Goodbye John’ saw a guest appearance by John Perry, formerly of The Only Ones. He’s a fine player but looks seriously scary and now we had two lead guitarists on stage, both under tight control – it could have got messy otherwise. ‘Signposts To Heaven’, a track from a new side-project album, Thomasina, co-written with Anna was followed by the country-rock of ‘Running Waters’ and with John Perry firmly ensconced we were treated to ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, The Only Ones’ biggest hit. ‘The Folk Singer’ wasn’t the Tommy Roe hit, I’m pleased to say, but ‘The Whisky’ is likely to get Martin exiled from the Highlands.

Finally, Martin gave us ‘Rain’, solo-ish and acoustic-ish before the band came back to encore with ‘Boat To Bolivia’ and its infectious blend of Latin and reggae beats. The Daintees’ tour continues well into the new year and I urge you go and hear them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard Martin before you’ll still have a great night out.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.daintees.co.uk

‘Rain’ – live from an earlier date on the tour:

DARIA KULESH and JONNY DYER live at Cecil Sharp House

Daria Kulesh and Jonny Dyer
Photographs by Dai Jeffries

This wasn’t a launch event, more a pre-launch preview event for Daria’s forthcoming album, Earthly Delights, and a unique opportunity for fans to pre-order the record for delivery before Christmas. The rest of the world will just have to contain its impatience. Performing as a duo these weren’t the album arrangements but I asked Jonny what the full version of one particularly powerful song would be like. His answer: “like that only bigger and louder”.

Before the main event they started with five songs from Daria’s seasonal EPs beginning with Loreena McKennitt’s ‘The Mummers’ Dance’ from Spring Delights before moving into summer with ‘Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz’. Autumn was represented by an impassioned ‘No Man’s Land’ and Daria was really on fire but she calmed things down with ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’. Most performers use its English translation but Daria sang Yves Montand’s original French version before polishing off the hors d’oeuvres with ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’.

Daria KuleshIf the title Earthly Delights conjures up visions of Hieronymus Bosch, you’re not too far off. After the painful journey that led to Long Lost Home Daria says that this album will be playful and a celebration of human needs and desires but there is an inescapable sensuality about her performances and the title track is as much earthy as Earthly. “Sing a song of your soul” is the line that sticks in the memory while Jonny’s bouzouki powered through. ‘Shame Or Glory’ is about ambition but with a twist as William Topaz McGonagall and Florence Foster Jenkins are Daria’s role models here. The first set closed with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ in complete contrast.

The second half contained the real meat of the evening and was more exotic and more Russian, with elements of myth and fairy tale. I don’t want to give too much away now because Daria and Jonny played the whole album although, as Daria was at pains to point out, not necessarily in the right order. There were some songs we’ve heard before including ‘Rusalka’ and ‘Maid Of Light’ reworked from Kara’s first album together with ‘Pride Of Petravore’ which was just an instrumental back then. ‘Vasilisa’ was a single and is one of Daria’s big folklore ballads and finally they encored with Daria’s tri-lingual ‘Those Were The Days’ with the audience joining in with whatever language they could.

Jonny DyerIt has to be said that Jonny Dyer is the accompanist who is most simpatico as far as Daria is concerned and always brings out the best in her and I say that having heard them together three times now. This was a super show and I’m looking forward to the album and the band that has been assembled to perform it.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/

‘Vasilisa’ – official video:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC and THE RABBLE CHORUS live at Snape Maltings

Merry Hell Acoustic

Merry Hell don’t often get to play at places where the bouncers, sorry ushers, wear DJs but they’d never played Snape Maltings before. This is a classical concert hall with spectacular acoustics in which Virginia Kettle absolutely revelled – singing scales between songs just for the joy of hearing her voice resonate around the space. Of course, they needed a big space to accommodate the choir, so let’s start with them.

The Rabble ChorusThe Rabble Chorus are an amalgamation of four community choirs under the musical direction of Kirsty Logan who teaches all of them the same repertoire – clever, eh? There were three hundred of them of stage and that’s quite a sound, believe me. They opened their support set with ‘Drunken Sailor’ which was rousing but I’d hoped for something more. That came with ‘Emerald Green’, a song from Merry Hell (used with permission, I hasten to add) and Nancy Kerr’s ‘Poison Apples’ which established their right-on credentials. Then came a song in Czech which sounded wonderful but turned out to be totally inconsequential.

A small group of the men sang ‘Sweetest Kick’ from the Spooky Men’s Chorale and a similar group of the women sang two songs from the Borders and Orkney. Sadly, I didn’t get the name of the leader of ‘Cattle Call’ but she has one hell of a voice. I liked their setting of ‘Crossing The Bar’ and they closed with a visit to South Africa via Paul Simon’s ‘Under African Skies’ and ‘Nkosi Sikelel ‘iafrica’.

Merry Hell began with a couple of their crowd-pleasing anthems; ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After Until We’ve Had The Night Before’. The choir had remained on stage but were keeping their powder dry for a while. ‘Stand Down’ and ‘Bloodlines’ followed and then we hit the first peak with The Rabble Chorus joining in on ‘We Need Each Other Now’ and ‘Bury Me Naked’ – songs that really benefit from massed voices.

There are always some fixed points in the set: ‘Lean On Me Love’ and ‘Drunken Serenade’ are essentials and ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ and ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ add lightness as does ‘Finest Hour’ while Virginia’s solo, ‘Violet’, from her eagerly anticipated solo album was a delight. Bob Kettle’s top hat creates a shadow for him to hide in but I managed to get some photographs this time and I still marvel at how Neil McCartney makes his violin sound like a trumpet. I do think that Merry Hell should try working with a brass band.

The first encore of ‘Coming Home Song’, sung a capella with the choir, was a joy – I only wish they could transfer that sound to the sweaty intensity of The Old Courts or The Citadel. Perhaps the only miss-step was following that with ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’ instead of perhaps leaving the final thought that “we will fly away” hanging in that wonderful space.

Finally, and I don’t usually do this, I’d like to thank the Maltings staff. They have a strict no photographs policy but after some cajoling and consultation and probably sworn affidavits from Merry Hell, I was awarded the red sash that made me an honorary usher and allowed no, positively encouraged, to take pictures. They have style in Snape.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ websites: http://www.merryhell.co.uk/  https://www.therabblechorus.co.uk/home

Venue website: https://snapemaltings.co.uk/

‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ – live:

CHRIS CLEVERLEY TRIO – Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham

Chris Cleverley Trio

Already well-established as a charismatic performer on the folk circuit and a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter as well as hugely accomplished guitarist, this hometown gig, the first of the award-winning club’s new season, served to launch his new trio format comprising himself, Kim Lowings and Said The Maiden’s Kathy Pilkington, who also plays banjo and woodwind.

Following an opening set by Minnie Birch, herself a frequent Cleverley collaborator, the trio took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendition of ‘The Old Man From Over The Sea’, Chris taking lead and the two girls crooning harmonies and joining in on the chorus, a ribald Irish ballad from the Anglo-American tradition about a young woman encouraged by her mother to have it away with some grey-bearded old bloke who ultimately proves to be sexually inadequate.

Cleverley strapping on guitar and with Kathy on banjo, ‘You And I Belong Together’, a new self-penned number, proved a rousing Americana stomp, setting the musical backdrop for a rendition of the traditional American folk classic ‘O Shenadoah’, a number he’d recorded on his debut album, elevated to even greater heights by Kathy’s clarinet and her and Kim’s complementary pure-voiced harmonies, the latter airily soaring, the former slightly earthier.

Two further numbers from Apparitions follow, the American folk coloured ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, Kathy back on banjo and Chris strapping on electric guitar, and the waltzing ‘Missing Persons’, explaining that, as the songs age so they change, the new format affording a chance to reinvent rather than simply retread.

The girls temporarily leave the stage for two solo Chris numbers, the ridiculously catchy as yet unrecorded ‘The Low Light Low’ which promises to be a highlight on the next album and, in a tip of the hat to the man who inspired him to learn guitar, a version of ‘Barrack Street’, a traditional tale of a sailor’s misfortune in Windsor, as learned from the Nic Jones album Penguin Eggs (and also on Said The Maiden’s A Curious Tale).

Ending the first set on another terrific new song, ‘Rachael’, the second began one more in a capella mode with another traditional ballad, his time from Scotland, with each taking a verse of ‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ before heading into Appalachian territory, Cleverly on banjo for ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ off his debut.

Setting the scene by recounting how he and Pilkington had taken some time during their summer Scottish dates to explore the blooming heather, they followed with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, given a more uptempo strummed tempo than is usually the case. A number he’s been trying out on recent dates, Steve Miller’s 70s classic ‘The Joker’ might not immediately strike you as folk club material, but in the trio’s hands it works brilliantly. Then it was time for another solo spot. Having already reminded that he gives good between song banter with an amusing story about the animated video for ‘The Day Before The Dawn,’ thoughts of fox-inspired merchandise for babies and a toddler getting up on stage and dancing, he recalled how after reading The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he was inspired by the beautiful grotesques on the fringes of society to write the subsequent song, ‘The Rafters’.

At this point, Kim and Kathy step off and Minnie Birch steps up to duet with Chris on ‘Glitter’, a song off her own debut album they’d been performing on their dates together, before everyone assembles for Birch to sing lead on ‘Up And Down’, a song inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream she wrote for The Company of Players, the Shakespeare-inspired project of which they comprise four of the nine members. And, returning for a well-deserved encore, it’s from this too that comes ‘But Thinking Makes It So’, a Cleverley-penned number inspired by Hamlet and the theme of mental illness, not only one of the very best songs he’s written, but one of the finest in the contemporary folk canon this century. An outstanding finale to a tremendous show.

Cleverley is set to record his new solo album in November and, while both Lowings and Pilkington will be involved, it won’t be a Trio project and there’s no further live shows from the line-up until next autumn. It would be an act of human cruelty to wait so long to hear them again, so, just perhaps, a live in the studio EP of the set’s covers and traditionals might not be too much to hope for. Make it so.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

Performance: 26 September 2018

‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ – live in the front room:

Katie Spencer – in praise of live music

Katie Spencer
Photograph by Mike Wistow

Saturday night I find myself in a church in a small village. This settlement is so tiny that to describe it as a small hamlet overstates it. The best part of fifty years ago I came here on an archeological dig to see if there really had been a Roman settlement, on the edge of a river crossing now too deep and polluted for anyone to risk going in the water (though I was talking to a retired farmer last night who’d swum over in what he described as his foolish youth).

And in the church is a folk concert. Whoa – a folk concert in this place which I associate more with Roman Rome than the modern world; and also whoa – a folk concert in a church – wouldn’t have happened fifty years ago when my great aunt played the church organ in the village on the other side of the river. Even worse (albeit better for me last night) we brought our own alcohol. Fifty years ago the only red wine allowed in the place would have been for communion. The roof didn’t fall in (and see later).

Photograph by Mike Wistow

I knew nothing about the gig before – I’ll go and watch anything live and just said yes when asked to go. What a setting – as the photos show. Three sessions, two artists. Joe Clark, first on, played a mix of covers and own songs. Clever guitar playing from his adeptness in both classical and folk guitar, notably on John Martyn’s ‘May You Never’ and Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ as well as on his own stuff.

Being this kind of venue, there’s a break to stretch the legs and catch up with people. As well as friends who were part of the group I came with, I met an old mate I played cricket with in rural and industrial Nottinghamshire more than thirty years ago in the midst of the miners’ strike and all that went with it. He’s now retired, more into jazz, but happy for his land to be used annually for a folk mini-festival.

Katie Spencer, on the link below and pictured above played two sets. Lovely voice, lovely picking. She’s from Hull, where I lived for ten years or so – a great city of the arts long before it became a (capitalised) City of Culture. If you click on the link below to Spencer’s website and flick through the videos you’ll see why I bought the CD. Mostly her own songs – I particularly liked ‘Drinking The Water’ – but including Spencer the Rover, in recognition of the tradition, the folk revival versions of the song, her own surname and the life of the travelling musician.

So, folk is live. In the break, I learnt folk isn’t just live, the money raised is going to repair the church roof (which still hadn’t fallen in). What more could you want – not just a good evening, but a good cause. Wise also – you don’t even notice you’re raising money because you are simply here enjoying yourself.

There were fewer than a hundred of us. And at venues all over the country, this kind of acoustic music is keeping folk live. For me last night a church, songs of life, stories of Hull, a catch up with old friends, memories of an archeological dig, memories of the formerly thriving pit towns and villages and memories of family long gone – and the same kind of thing is going on in pubs, clubs, halls, fields, house concerts across the country.

Within a ten mile radius of where I live, I knew of three events the same night, Boo Hewerdine in one and Daisy Chapman in the other. There may have been more?

So…in praise of live music – and many thanks to all those artists and promoters who are keeping it live.

Mike Wistow

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Katie Spencer ‘s website: http://www.katiespencer.net

Katie Spencer – ‘Can’t Resist The Road’ live: