JUNE TABOR – Airs And Graces (Topic TTSC004)

Airs And GracesAs you must know by now, to celebrate their 80th birthday Topic are re-releasing a series of classic albums in deluxe editions. Airs And Graces is among the first tranche and is arguably one of the most important. When June Tabor first appeared on the scene I’d just moved into the area and was still finding out where the folk clubs were – it was word of mouth in those days – thus I read about her long before I’d seen her on stage or heard her on record. I’ve made up for it since but coming back to a remastered issue of this debut is a real delight.

From this vantage point in time most of the songs are familiar enough but I’m certain that June introduced the world to ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and it was several years before we could get our hands on Eric Bogle’s first album. Airs And Graces opens with the dancing sound of ‘While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’ – that’s Nic Jones on guitar. He was one of the few guitarists who could have matched the liberties June, who was brought up singing unaccompanied, was wont to take with the rhythm of a song. This is still my favourite version of the song. Nic appears again on ‘Bonny May’ which is also decorated by Jon Gillaspie’s sopranino recorder and I must admit that I’d forgotten Jon’s atmospheric accompaniment to ‘Young Waters’ – probably the only use of a roxichord in traditional music.

Next is ‘Plains Of Waterloo’ and June follows Shirley and Dolly Collins in recording it. It’s gobsmacking to think that this was only the third freely available recording of the song. ‘Bonny May’ is a relative of ‘The Broom Of The Cowdenowes’, which I didn’t know until now but I think everyone knew ‘Reynardine’ by then. In fact, June had a remarkable ability to find a song, then find a variant of it and then make it popular. ‘Young Waters’, ‘Waly Waly’ and ‘The Merchant’s Son’ are familiar stories in folk-song but when did we hear them first, I wonder.

There are four bonus tracks, all predating the recording of this album and essentially field recordings. ‘The Fair Maid Of Wallington’ includes the words “silly sisters”, which were to become famous later and ‘The Royal Oak’ was recorded at the venue of one of those folk clubs that I didn’t know about. Sadly, it wasn’t released on the LP that Stagfolk issued. Two others did and good luck with finding them.

We are used to hearing a rather more sombre June Tabor these days but even forty years ago she couldn’t be called a flibbertigibbet. That voice was magnificent and could deliver a song like few others.

Dai Jeffries

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Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

There weren’t many videos in 1976 but this may suffice:

NAVARO – So Long Wichita (Leading Horses Records LHREC02)

So Long WichitaIt’s been far too long since we’ve heard from Navaro. Steve Austin has posted lots of pictures from his narrowboat where the majority of So Long Wichita was recorded but there hasn’t been much music. This is their third album and is rather stripped down from its predecessor, Home Is Where Your Heartlands. The songs are, in the main, short and this time Navaro haven’t printed the lyrics but that isn’t really a problem – the vocals are crisp and clear.

The trio have three distinct voices and styles. The opener, Pete White’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, is up-beat and poppy and laden with harmonies and if it was aimed at radio play, it’s a cracker. His second song in the set, ‘If Only’, is in the same vein as is ‘One Day At A Time’ but I can’t help thinking that there isn’t an established place for bands like Navaro. Fifty years ago they would have given Peter, Paul and Mary a run for their money but they don’t have the resources of a big record company behind them.

So Long Wichita is a fine album that whips by in a flash and that may be its weakness although in these days where digital music prevails and you can select a single track to buy it may be a strength. OK, enough philosophy. The second track is Steve’s romantic ‘In Midnight Sky’ decorated by James McNair’s lead guitar. Steve has a smooth voice that suits this style of material but he allows Beth Navaro to take the lead on the more up-tempo ‘Poetry In Motion’. The title track is inspired by a “close encounter” with Jimmy Webb but whether this was walk-by or something more meaningful we aren’t told. In keeping with its inspiration it quotes from Joni Mitchell, which always worries me, but I guess that it’s only us oldies who would still recognise the sources.

Mark Stevens adds drums to seven of the ten tracks and PJ Wright plays a grumbling rocky lead guitar part on ‘One Day At A Time’ but otherwise it’s down to the multi-instrumental talents of White and Austin.  It’s great to welcome Navaro back again.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.navaromusic.co.uk

‘Slipping Through My Fingers’:

ABIGAIL DOWD – Not What I Seem (own label)

Not What I SeemBorn and once again based in North Carolina by way of Florence (the subject of ‘Secrets On The Street’) and Maine, Dowd trades in the blues side of folk, her latest album a no holds barred search for self-identity on songs that never expand beyond trio format with variously Jason Duff on bass, Sam Frazier on electric guitar and Bert Wilson handling the drums.

I belong to no one” she declares on album opener ‘Wiregrasser’, an eco-themed number sung in the voice of an Alabamian turpentine worker and how the decimation of the longleaf pines on both which he and the industry depend for survival, turning the mirror on herself for the title track, accompanying herself on guitar for a late night blues self-reflection inspired by her ten years as an artist’s model and the gaze and imaginations of those looking at the canvasses or photographs, finally quitting because she wasn’t prepared to pay the price “To stand and be admired while my life slips away”.

Hard-earned wisdom is passed on to a friend in The Other Side (“Be sure you always say goodbye/Hug your mama and tell her that you lover her/And tell those boys you never tried”), another song about presenting a different face to the world as she sings “you don’t know that I’m a master of disguise”.

Letting go of the painful past informs the bass, drums and guitar arranged ‘Old White House’, a powerful song with a dark undercurrent of a traumatic childhood experience (“I can’t forget the hands/The first touch of a man”) and about revisiting her younger self to let her know she wasn’t to blame, freeing her of lingering guilt and shame.

Leaving and moving on underpins ‘Goodbye Hometown’, a plaintive acoustic fingerpicked song about how you sometimes don’t know who you are until there’s distance between who you were and where you come from (“I never knew what it meant to be a Southern belle/’Till I crossed that Dixie line and said farewell”). It’s immediately followed by a return home in the even more stripped back (guitar/bass) ‘Oh 95’, about growing up and growing cold, eventually, adrift of her moorings, harking to the call of “the shores where I was born”, grateful for the refuge but needing to metaphorically sail back to “where this highway ends”.

There’s family connections behind ‘Chosin’, Duff laying down the rhythmic churning groove on a song inspired by her emotionally cold grandfather who fought in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War and how she never really understood what he had been through until talking to veteran friends at his funeral about how the scars of such experiences never heal, paralleling it with her own inner struggles.

The fallout from the jobs you do are there too on the drawled Southern folk blues ‘Desire’, a song born from a conversation with her fireman brother about the physical, mental, and emotional demands, seeing “the worst kinds of wrong” but still ready to “chase the devil into the fire” while mama’s on her knees praying God to “bring those boys home alright”.

By way of contrast on inspiration, ‘To Have A Friend (Dog’s Song)’ is sung from the perspective of a dog facing another night alone in the dark, written for an animated film, though the line “Do you ever wonder what it’s like to have a friend” and never having “a chance to show the world who you are” or “give all you had to share” touches a poignantly universal nerve.

With ‘Drag Me Down’ and the glissando fingerpicked ‘Daredevil’ both about getting past and letting go of ended relationship, the choppy rhythmed ‘Sweet Love’ (which somehow reminds me of Tim Hardin) about reclaiming life (“let go of your sorrows/Stop casting the blame… make up the tune/As you go along”), the album ends, sung unaccompanied gospel style, in the ‘Silent Pines’ on a final note of resilience and finding strength in the face of adversity and self-erected barriers with the repeated refrain “Come on children rise up/Don’t let ‘em tear you down”. Deceptively good.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.abigaildowd.com

‘Goodbye Hometown’:

BONES AND THE AFT? – Mickey (Liver & Lights No. 57)

MickeyIf you have not yet encountered Bones And The Aft? some explanation may be necessary. They are the musical wing of the Liver & Lights organization, led by poet, artist and publisher, John Bently. The band has a variable line-up with composer Ian Mckean and drummer David Beschizza (aka Admiral Lord Biscuit) as its other fixed points. On Mickey, they are joined by musician/animator Arthur Bently and frequent collaborator Bird Radio.

Mickey is the album of the book One Shoe Michael; A London Song Cycle and you can buy the two together at a bargain price from the website. The book isn’t absolutely essential although it does contain all the lyrics, although not necessarily in the right order. Indeed, the words of one song are printed on a slip of paper tucked into an envelope glued inside the back cover. John Bently’s handmade aesthetic makes its mark in what is an otherwise conventional book.

One Shoe Michael is an imaginary immigrant who wanders the streets of London from his cardboard box. The underlying story is rather surreal, involving snails and gloves, or rather the One True Glove – just go with it, you’ll find that’s best. Over that are the stories of people he meets: the nurse, the friendly copper – who gets three songs – and Mutton Jeff and within those stories are telling social observations.

Musically the album begins with the plangent electric sound of ‘Whats Its Orl About’ and moves through a melody by Scriabin transcribed for guitar by Mckean backing ‘One Shoe Mickey’ – an autobiographical introduction. It begins with a gentle acoustic figure and builds up a full-blown band performance. ‘Coppers’ is a bit cockney knees-up topped off with a guitar solo. I must mention the final track, ‘The Camberwell Road’ a sort of travelogue which is Bently’s poetic métier – the description of the everyday.

Unless you’re an habitué of some of London’s more esoteric venues you may not have heard Bones And The Aft? live – I’ve not had that pleasure – but they make records that demand your attention and Mickey is just the latest.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://bonesandtheaft.bandcamp.com/

‘Dirty Jobs’ – one of the copper’s songs:

DERVISH – The Great Irish Songbook (Rounder Records)

The Great Irish SongbookDervish release The Great Irish Songbook on April 12th. I don’t really need to say very much more to persuade anyone to give this a listen. But, since that would be a rather short review, I will do.

The Band – Dervish have been playing Irish traditional music for nearly thirty years – in festivals as large as Rock In Rio (to an estimated quarter of a million people) or sessions as small as those in Sligo pubs where they still enjoy playing. They have a line-up which includes some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, fronted by one of the country’s best-known singers in Cathy Jordan. They’re renowned for live performances, dazzling sets of tunes and stunning interpretations of traditional songs.

The Music – Where would you start in choosing thirteen songs for an album called The Great Irish Songbook? How about ‘The Rambling Irishman’, ‘There’s Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘Molly Malone’? These are the first three tracks on the album – all of them, I suspect, not only familiar to fans of Irish music but to anyone who has even a passing interest in listening to any kind music. Nor does the selection go downhill thereafter. Given the nature of this album, it’s probably worth listing the other tracks: ‘The Galway Shawl’, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’, ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’, ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘Donal Og’, ‘The Fields Of Athenry’, ‘The May Morning Dew’, ‘The West Coast Of Clare’, finishing with (really, despite the Scottish claims to the song, what else would you chose?) ‘The Parting Glass’.

The Guests – The publicity for the album says “In assembling their line-up of featured guests, Dervish reached out to the many artists with whom they’ve bonded over a shared passion for Irish folk, then called on each musician to select their most cherished song within the genre. Recorded mainly at The Magic Room in Sligo, the finished product finds each collaborator imbuing the album with their own distinct sensibilities while lovingly upholding the time-honored character of the songs.” The guests on this album are a fine set of singers and players in their own right. They include: Steve Earle, Rhiannon Giddens, Vince Gill, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda May, Andrea Corr, Jamey Johnson, Kate Rusby, The Steeldrivers, Abigail Washburn, David Gray. They build on Dervish’s sound and, as Shakespeare might have it, their “friendship makes us fresh”.

I’ve enjoyed listening to this album, initially superficially but then much more closely. Firstly I’ve listened to the musicianship and the fresh approach to songs I’ve known for a while and, secondly, I realised I didn’t really know the history to many of these songs and have spent time researching them with the album playing at the same time. Some are newer than I’d realised, some much older. All give an insight into the history of Ireland, its music and, in some cases, its poetry.

If you’re well versed in the Irish tradition, this is a great album for hearing some different takes on songs – the video link below, for example, takes you to ‘The West Coast Of Clare’ and features David Gray. If you want to introduce yourself or someone else to The Great Irish Songbook, it’s a pretty good starting point.

Mike Wistow

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Artists’ website: https://www.dervish.ie

‘The West Coast Of Clare’:

DAVY GRAHAM – Hat (Bread & Wine BRINECD-4)

HatHat, released in 1969, was Davy Graham’s third album for Decca. The mixture of blues, jazz and mainstream songwriting with a little classical thrown in continues the pattern set by his earlier work but it is a rather slight album. Only three tracks exceed three minutes and one can’t help but think that a modern day producer would have encouraged Davy to expand one or two of the pieces. If that would be a good thing I’ll leave for you to decide but it does sometimes feel as though he’s hurrying to get finished.

He opens with the first “mainstream” song, The Beatles’ ‘Getting Better’, and later we have two Paul Simon songs and one by Bob Dylan. ‘Down Along The Cove’ is stripped of its pedal steel and pared back to its 12-bar roots which is a clever way of approaching it. Second is ‘Lotus Blossom’, a song from 1930s popularised by Jimmy Witherspoon and given a hint of ‘Anji’, and then the first of two Willie Dixon songs, ‘I’m Ready’. Davy is accompanied on this album by Danny Thompson on double-bass and an unnamed percussionist and the arrangements seem to fit with the pace and energy of the performances.

Art Blakey’s ‘Buhaina Chant’ is the first of the jazz compositions played with a north African vibe and it’s followed, somewhat incongruously, by ‘Homeward Bound’. It’s a sentimental song of homesickness in Paul Simon’s hands but Davy races through it – actually it works quite well. The other Simon song is ‘I Am A Rock’. After the traditional ‘Love Is Pleasing’ Davy gives us a hornpipe by Purcell adapted from the harpsichord and after the Dylan song we have ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and a guitar composition by Stan Watson. And so he moves between styles and times with abandon – I enjoy the album but I wish Davy had stretched out on even one track to show what he could really do.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Homeward Bound’: