Burning Salt have a knack when it comes to finding interesting venues. The last time I saw them was at Shrewsbury Unitarian Church, an impressive venue associated historically with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Darwin. And on 28th September I had the privilege of seeing them at a ‘secret gig’ in the oldest house in Bloomsbury. But the honesty and searing quality of a Burning Salt performance are well in tune with the angst of Britain in 2019.
This time, Hannah Hull and John Parker performed nineteen songs from which the tracks comprising their next album, Close To Home, will be selected, with Hannah’s unmistakeable low-register vocals supported by her own guitar and piano and John’s outstanding double bass work.
Many songwriters hide behind a self-protective veneer of storytelling that might have roots in fact or fiction. Hannah Hull’s writing is more direct, and stunning in its integrity and emotional impact. In her own words: “These are some of my most direct and intimate songs yet, including an early song written when I was just fifteen which I have never shared before. Songwriting has been a survival mechanism for me since I was teenager, and this album contains my private reflections on self-abuse and self-resurrection.”
Not an obvious candidate for enormous commercial success, then, but on the evidence of the Bloomsbury performance, musical success is guaranteed. And it does occur to me that one song with light blues overtones called ‘Groundskeeper’ – performed here with Hannah’s vocal accompanied only by John’s bass – might just be surprisingly successful if it were released as a single.
You can find out more about the album from the crowdfunding page here, and you might even feel inspired to contribute (I was!).
There are gigs – and then there are gigs to remember when others have been forgotten – maybe it’s the music, the interaction with the audience, the setting, the day you met someone, the venue, the holiday you were on, the sound quality, the weather etc. Sometimes many things combine to create the memorable experience. I’m pretty sure this will be one of them, staying in the memory long after others have gone.
I’ll watch just about anything live, whether I know it before hand or not. On Tuesday I got a text to say “Can I draw your attention to a concert in Varaignes tomorrow evening? Dan Jones….is playing in the chateau courtyard…..and will be using at least one guitar made by our friends in the village”. How could I refuse?
So a day later, I arrive at a small French village with a chateau, mostly white stone, a small courtyard laid out for a solo concert, put on (if I understood the French introduction correctly) by people from the local commune. The ‘stage’ is set: it’s a simple space in front of the benches we sit on, archways behind it, pigeons muttering overhead and a simple layout of chair, footstand and microphone next to an open guitar case (with guitar) on the floor. We are given a programme for the event, a hand-printed sheet of A4 with a biography and a set list – a mixture of classical music and traditional music from various countries.
After a bi-lingual introduction, Dan Jones walks to the front, second guitar in hand, smiles, greets us and starts to play. Two pieces by Bach set the scene, followed by three Preludes on Occitan songs. People talk about spider exercises on learning guitar – these are played with the fluidity, not of an eight-legged spider, but of a centipede on each hand. We are jaw-droppingly hooked.
Before the break, one piece of Paraguayan music and three from Heitor Villa-Lobos follow. Intermingled amongst them are ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘The Water is Wide’. Click on the video below and picture this not in the studio but in a white stone chateau on a warm evening. Rather magical.
At the break someone asked Jones why he was swapping between the two guitars, (both made by Dan Jarvis who is local). The essence of the answer was that these are both exquisite guitars and I’m like a small boy in a sweet shop. Lovely.
To say the second half was more of the same is a great compliment. Along the way we are treated to tales of life as an itinerant musician. Over the years attitudes have changed, travelling with guitar used to be a badge of honour but Ryanair et al no longer see it the same way. Buying a seat for a guitar is now a lost opportunity for the airline to sell drinks, snacks and raffle tickets.
The Spanish pieces were described, in a great expression, as “going to the soul of the guitar”. From the British and Irish folk tradition, ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ were included in the set; Jones’ webpages have videos of both. If I understood his French introduction correctly, one of the more intriguing insights for me as someone who has enjoyed folk music for decades was Jones’ passing comment (in introducing ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’) that he had recently moved to spend time in Scotland and he has found the Scottish tradition. You can’t help being glad that he has. They were played as quite stunning solo pieces. At times in the concert Jones’ fingers were leaping over the guitar neck with the delicacy of a cat splaying its four paws as it jumps effortlessly from its position and lands elsewhere.
The evening finished with an encore, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’ gently hummed along to by those who were present. He concluded by thanking us for turning up, thanking the Commune for putting on the event – and thanking Jarvis for his guitars, which were “vraiment magnifique”.
As ever with live music, there is always the potential to serendipitously find something wonderful – and this was one of those chance evenings.
Sometimes the music you didn’t know you needed to hear will find you anyway, as a rare and serendipitous encounter with Canadian singer/songwriter Annie Sumi recently demonstrated. Performing in an overly-warm pub room at a community fundraiser with musical partner, local cellist Jessica Burrows, Sumi quickly captured and entranced the room, drawing on a number of songs from her 2017 album, In The Unknown and her 2015 debut, Reflections.
In The Unknown is a fine place to begin exploring this ethereal-folk artist whose controlled yet fluid finger-picked guitar perfectly complements her warm, intimate vocal style. Up close to the microphone, she draws the listener in with compassionate, human stories wreathed in natural and spiritual metaphors. Her songs are mature and introspective, with something meditative, healing even, about them.
On disc, her live “girl-with-guitar” sound is fleshed out by some sympathetic accompaniments, be it delicate strings or the metallic shimmer of pedal steel, both featuring on opener, ‘Evaporating Life’, a reflection on impermanence.
A jazzy swish of percussion and angular steel guitar reflect the hard surfaces of ‘The City’ which, paired with a matching urban soundscape interlude, sees Sumi in carefree mood. More sombre is the environmental change contemplated by ‘Baby Blue’, melodically informed by the bending notes of whalesong.
A glimmer of hopefulness dusts life’s gloomier corners, whether that’s melodically in the climbing chorus of ‘Eye Of A Rose’ or lyrically, as in the moving, tender meditation of ‘Get By’ on life’s compromises and struggles. Yet sometimes a positive spin is hard to come by, as the mournful, slurring strings of the bleak ‘Helpless Dancer’ attest. It forms a stark contrast with the witty, spirited take on broken hearts of the lovely ‘Nightingale’.
Even to these grumpy old heathen ears, ‘In Everything’ with its chorus of “there’s a little bit of God, In everything” shouts out “hit song”. It’s interesting – if perhaps a bit unfair – to compare live and recorded versions of this song made over two years apart. More poppily uptempo and somewhat dominated by an insistent drumbeat in 2017, its 2019 stripped-back live counterpart elicited an audible emotional response from the audience. No matter how it’s served up, this strong, heartfelt song connects.
If ‘Peter Pan’ is a swooping, swooning flight, ‘Time Is A Dream’ is much more reflective on the role of imagination in Sumi’s creative process, “I am falling in and out of my imagination, In, and Out, I am fading to a dream”. With its muted brass, it’s a song that might slide comfortably into The Unthanks’ repertoire.
A quick mention of a newer song, not on this album but hopefully available in future, ‘Skybound’ swaggers like Short Sharp Shocked-era Michelle Shocked and is well worth checking out online.
Although on a flying visit to the UK this time around, Sumi hopes to return next year (promoters, please take note!) for the release of her much-anticipated next project, Solastalgia. With her infectious warmth and joy, it would be an absolute delight to welcome her to these shores again very soon. Until then, get acquainted with Annie Sumi by setting foot In The Unknown.
A few months ago I reviewed the Dodo Street Band CD, Natural Selection, and thought it was pretty good (read Mike’s review here). They didn’t have many gigs planned, but one was fairly near to me so booked the date in my diary.
People talk about going out for the evening to the theatre and mention the whole evening – maybe a meal beforehand, meeting up with friends, the expectation of maybe a London theatre, etc etc. With music, people I know tend to talk about the gig, not the whole event. So this is another occasional live review with a broader slant.
Generally, when I book something in advance, there’s more than a hint of excitement. This was certainly the case with gigs as diverse as, say, seeing the Rolling Stones in Roundhay Park in 1981, taking a friend for his sixtieth birthday to a stadium a few years ago to see The Who – but also things like seeing June Tabor live for the first time in a theatre in Scunthorpe (“a voice as smooth as a pint of Guinness” was a remark I overheard) or going to see a mate’s band play their first ever gig in a dodgy pub. But then, some days, other things just get in the way – and this was one of them. As the day approached I discovered I was working away, getting back home the night of the Dodo Street Band gig.
So on a Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago, I find myself driving after some long days away and hotel-bed-limited-sleep to a concert. The gig is in Worksop college, geographically about half an hour’s drive from where I grew up but in other ways, a couple of light years away from the factory towns, rural and pit villages where I used to play cricket. (I mention this simply because about the only thing I thought I knew about Worksop College was that Joe Root smashed to smithereens most of the cricketing records there.) Generally, my venue of choice to watch music is some kind of club/pub, – in the old days with dark walls, sticky floors, smoke and alcohol. I get the feeling I’m not going to be visiting that kind of place……
And it’s not, but it’s rather splendid. Easy to get to, easy to park, students politely pointing me in the right direction – past the cricket pitch on the right – and into the main building. Given work and the drive, I’m feeling too tired to be in the right place mentally for music. But the setting is pretty good, the room light and airy (and hence a long way from places like Sheffield’s Leadmill or Boston’s Axe and Cleaver where I used to watch my music) is fine and with great sound. The college also they fed us canapés and gave us a free drink at half time. My mental rehabilitation was getting fixed, partly because I was being well looked after.
And the gig? Sometimes you’re just glad you ignored the tiredness because you’ve been to see something unique. This was one of them. The band live are stunning as they trade tunes between fiddle, recorder, accordion, double bass – and in Cormac Byrne they have what I can only describe as a lead bodhran player. Like a live jazz band players sit bits out, they watch their fellow band members take the lead, they mingle the combinations of instruments in different ways so the sound varies – but what never varies is the skill and entertainment value. The humour of the Dodo Street Band’s website is translated onto the stage through entertaining introductions: the Dodo flying machine, for example – the Wright Brothers weren’t the first to create a flying machine, it was the escaping dodos.
What we saw that evening was the band members bringing to exuberant life the skills on the album….plus a bit. The skill of Adam Summerhayes’ fiddle playing being not only in the fingers moving fluidly, but in the way he manages – just – not to poke his colleagues eyes with the dancing bow; as well as bodhran, Cormac Byrne played spoons, bones and members of the audience – anything that could make a percussive sound; Piers Adams had a collection of recorders in what looked like a builders tool belt, switched expertly between them and even played two simultaneously (picture above); Malcolm Creese held the rhythm and played bass solo – and had the most deadpan introductory line – for the first tune in a set “which is called […pause…] ‘Tune Number One”; and a particular mention not just for Murray Grainger’s piano accordion playing but his focus as his young family wanted to join him on stage. They describe their instrumental prowess as playing: Scrapes, Bangs, Blows, Twangs and Bellows.
And Worksop College? A cracking setting, the concert room and the mix were both good, but I also have the unique memories of the rather grand hall where we had interval drinks and the cheery helpfulness of the students. There was also a fascinating conversation with the person who organised it all. I discovered that this gig was one in a series of musical events which Worksop College put on and which they open up to anyone who wants to come. The College seems to have a strong musical curriculum and, to my mind, the staging of music events of all genres and opening them up to the community is a great idea.
Lastly, Natural Selection, the Dodo Street Band’s album was good to listen to, but the live evening got me going, even after the drive and the start to the week I’d had. The evening as a whole? A highly talented – and fun – band in a great location. The venue and the band, then – both of them worth writing home about.
Now based near Winchester, but making a welcome return to his hometown of Birmingham, opening with his reading of the Incredible String Band’s ‘October Song’, Jon Wilks made an all too rare live outing in support of his album, Midlife. It’s a collection of traditional folk songs from in and around Birmingham, most of them pretty obscure, but it’s testimony to his passion for the English folk tradition that he’s not only tracked them down to record and perform, but he’s learnt about their origins and the singers from whom they were collected.
That passion informs his live shows, the songs liberally sprinkled with anecdotes (‘babysitting’ Martin Carthy being a particular gem), humour and history, his singing and personality hugely engaging. Here were tales of, among others, a somewhat corporeal randy spectre (‘Colin’s Ghost’), of night visiting in your work shoes (‘Navvy Boots’), a 19th century Dudley protest about animal cruelty (‘The Trial Of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act’), star crossed lovers (‘Birmingham Sally’), wife selling (‘John Hobbs’), forced marriage (‘There Was An Old Man Who Came Over The Sea’) and the particularly pertinent ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’, about a chap returning home to find the city changed beyond all recognition. Not only Birmingham, and the Black Country, his set took a tour around the Midlands, from Newbold to Staffordshire, even cajoling the audience into joining in with the slavery-themed shanty ‘Shallow Brown’, originally collected in Dartmouth. You also got to learn what trepanning actually means (ensnaring rather than brain surgery) and that there are some twenty-three references to it in the Cecil Sharp archives!
Encoring with ‘Holly Ho’, collected in the 50s from long gone Halesowen pub The Cross Guns, new verses apparently added every week by the customers and quite possibly the only song to ever mention Phil Drabble, the original presenter of BBC’s One Man and His Dog, Jon Wilks is the sort of performer folk circles mean when they talk of the living tradition.
“The Men were up from Kent, and out of Essex too – Though naught but the Thames divides us and unites us onwards – Through all the villages of England and on to London town”. Well maybe not quite the “Wat Tyler” rallying cry (by way of Fairport Convention) … However … Paul Johnson was coming from Kent and I from Hampshire to see Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds launch Singing It All Back Home at Cecil Sharp House in North London on Wednesday 5 June and it felt like a traditional folk and Appalachian call to arms.
Many will know Naomi Bedford, but for those that have not made her acquaintance yet, she is an English roots singer that was introduced to the wider world in 2001 after a guest appearance on later with Jools Holland with the band Orbital. Justin Currie from Del Amitri describes Naomi as “An English Emmylou” and Shirley Collins as “A favourite voice of mine… I love to hear her sing”.
Naomi Bedford’s official debut album, Tales From the WeepingWillow was released in 2011 and featured guest contributions from Paul Heaton, Justin Currie, Alasdair Roberts and Paul Simmonds (from The Men They Couldn’t Hang).A History of Insolence (reviewed here – https://wp.me/p5SuEn-4eU) followed in 2014 which picked up a Radio 2 Folk Award nomination in the Best Original Song category (alongside her musical partner Paul Simmonds), for The Spider and the Wolf. This was then followed by Songs My Ruiner Gave to Me (reviewed here – https://wp.me/p5SuEn-aGQ) in 2017 which added Paul Simmonds name officially to the album title.
However, the concert was all about the new album Singing It All Back Home, as indeed was the first half of the show. You could tell it was going to be a special night as the musicians joining Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds incorporated the national guitar, banjo and mandolin wizardry of Ben Walker (who also produced the album), the 12-string guitar and backing vocals of Richard Leo, the stunning harmonies of Donna Edmead and the bass of Rhys Lovell.
I Must And Will Be Married kicked things off with some great stage banter on the songs content preceding it. I was also filming and taking photos throughout the performance, so I’m not sure of the exact running order but feel confident that A Rich Irish Lady (learnt from Naomi’s mother from the Hedy West version), Hangman and The Rebel Soldier were all in the first set. Hangman had its roots in the Jean Ritchie and Peggy Seeger version with a nod towards the folk/country/rock versions of Gallows Pole. The Rebel Soldier closed the first set and that wonderful moment was captured in my video below.
In the second set, the Hedy West theme continued (one of Bedford’s seminal influences) with The Sheffield Apprentice, again from the new record. The harmonies throughout the night were really amazing with songs like Hands On The Plough and Who’s That Knocking (again from the new album) benefitting from the full 4 part harmony with Bedford, Simmonds, Edmead and Leo.
In traditional territory, but closer to home came Gypsy Davy (from the album A History of Insolence: Songs of Freedom, Dissent & Strife), with a vocal delivery approach from Bedford that was very much on the other side of the Atlantic, drawing on Jean Ritchie (Naomi’s favourite version) and the Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger version to produce a mashed up version of the two with the sentiment of Woody Guthrie.
The second set also included the chilling The Cruel Mother, this version set in New York to accommodate the arrangement from the album Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me. They closed with Railroad Bill from the album Tales from the Weeping Willow from 2011.
A great night, that breathed new life into their collected versions of Appalachian songs that had very much been rooted in the heart of the English and Scottish song tradition. Cecil Sharp House was the perfect place to launch the album.
Paul Johnson and I caught up with Naomi and Paul after the show. Click the play button below to listen to the interview.