Here’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.
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‘Lean On Me, Love’ – live: