EFDSS NATIONAL YOUTH FOLK ENSEMBLE – Grand Arcade, Cambridge

EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Serendipity. It’s great isn’t it? I was just leaving John Lewis (other department stores are available -Ed), doing a spot of late-night shopping, when I became aware of a largish, youthful-looking group of musicians setting up to play in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Nothing particularly unusual there, except that flyers and t-shirts indicated that this was the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble. Needless to say, the shopping trip was rapidly abandoned in favour of spending the next 40 minutes pleasurably listening in.

Opening with a Saraband from Playford, this group of young musicians quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and attracted a decent crowd, heading swiftly into the second of their 8-track set, a sweet take on Catriona MacDonald’s ‘Show Me’. The tunes and arrangements showed the ensemble off pretty well as they roved around the country from Lancashire to Cornwall. The ensemble also showed some ability to create diverse moods, although this session – sensibly enough – was crowd-rousing stuff in the main. Sam Sweeney, the ensemble’s Artistic Director, was on hand giving support to this, his second cohort of students to pass through the EFDSS programme.

It’s a very tough gig playing in the swimming-pool acoustics of a shopping arcade to a bunch of strangers passing through who didn’t actually come to see you and have other priorities anyway, so these youngsters deserve every praise for handling themselves with grace and aplomb. It’s a minor point to say that at times they seemed more intently focused on the music, perhaps slightly at the expense of giving a performance to the audience, but given the distracting environment, maybe it’s not surprising. Overall, they gave a most convincing account of the enduring vitality of folk music.

For anyone attending the Cambridge Folk Festival, the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble will be opening the programme of events on Friday lunchtime, 3rd August. Do try to give them some support: the future of folk music could look a lot like them.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.efdss.org/efdss-education/national-youth-folk-ensemble

The ensemble in 2017:

JACKIE OATES – Lush Studio Soho

Jackie Oates
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

I have reported on CD launch events from a number of venues; the BBC Club, The Convent, even Wigan but none as lush as …well, Lush. On the hottest day of the year in London the air-conditioned Lush Studio Soho was an oasis. It’s a rabbit warren of a building and definitely bigger on the inside than the outside. I don’t know what part of the firm’s business is conducted there but the place was full of shiny happy people who obviously love their jobs. Jackie Oates has a commercial connection with Lush so where better to stage this event.

The performance space is called The Nest and was decorated with roses and flooded with red light. This was after terribly sticky cupcakes featuring roses and apple and hand made cocktails featuring the same ingredients – although a bigger shot of gin wouldn’t have gone amiss – and the roses and apple scent of one of their fragrances.

The album being previewed is called The Joy Of Living. Its title track is the Ewan MacColl song and the number that Jackie closed with. The younger and less embittered members of the audience admitted to tearing up a little at the end. It’s an appropriate title for an album that spans four generations from Jackie’s grandfather who fought with the 51st Highland Division to her daughter, Rosie and her sibling on the way, and encompasses life and death.

Jackie opted to open with ‘Caroline And Her Young Sailor Bold’ which isn’t on the album but its theme of love conquering all is totally relevant. ‘The Last Trip Home’, which came next, was one of Jackie’s father’s favourites and is redolent of the sadness surrounding his death. Then Jackie looked forward with three children’s songs: ‘My Shoes Are Made Of Spanish’, ‘Spring Is Coming Soon’ and ‘Rosy Apple’ – hence the decorative theme. Before we got too misty-eyed she switched to John Lennon’s extraordinary ‘Mother’, perhaps making the point that parenthood isn’t always a bed of roses. Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ for Jackie’s grandfather and ‘Virginny’ learned from her father brought us almost home before ‘The Joy Of Living’.

Jackie stuck to her five-string viola and was accompanied by Jack Rutter on guitar, Indian harmonium (great for drones) and a remarkable looking but wonderful sounding fan fret cittern – hand built, of course. It was a delightful evening which promised a lovely album to come.

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.jackieoates.co.uk

‘The Joy Of Living’ – live at Cecil Sharp House:

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: