TOMMY SANDS – Fair Play To You All (Spring SCD 1066)

Fair Play To You AllThe picture on the cover of Tommy Sands recent album is a literal illustration of an old Irish saying which, in England, is only uttered by football club managers. It has a number of meanings and interpretations. Superficially Fair Play To You All would seem to be a simple album but it’s far from that. Sands blends politics, history and nostalgia with a lacing of humour and some fine singers and musicians in support.

The first track, ‘The Answer Is Not Blowing In The Wind’, isn’t a rewriting of Bob Dylan’s song although it borrows some of the questions and adds new ones. Sands’ argument is that Dylan’s simplistic answer won’t do any longer and presents a better one. It really is an attention-grabbing opener. The album’s title comes from ‘Clanrye Side’, set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I believe it’s now called Newry River and the song is set in a pub frequented by drinkers from both sides with a tolerant landlady and a young girl who had those words as a tattoo. Whether or not there is poetic license in the song I can’t say but it sets the tone of the record.

‘Ballyholland’ picks up on the nostalgia but also remembers thirty emigrants to America who promised to return but never managed it. ‘Refugees’ and ‘What’s Going On In Jerusalem’ follow the theme of displacement. The latter relates the story of a Jewish family who escaped from the Nazis only to be driven from the US by McCarthyism to settle in Israel. The youngest son returned to America in protest over what he was asked to do in the Israeli army.

Sands is a bit cheeky sometimes. In ‘Refugees’ he appropriates part of the refrain of ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’ but I‘m sure Shane won’t mind and he sets ‘Ode To Europe’ to a well known bit of Beethoven. ‘American Dreams’ and ‘Who Killed JFK?’ both take a swipe at the USA and then Sands switches to rather more distant history with ‘Caoineadh Mhacha’, which is also a feminist clarion call. If I understand correctly, Sands wrote the song in English and employed Pádraigin Ní Uallacháin to translate it into Irish.

Humour comes with ‘Paddy And The Judge’ alongside politics and class warfare and finally Sands goes to the family and clan with ‘Every County On The Island’ and ‘Gathering Of The Clans’ bringing to a fitting end an album that has Irishness running all through it. Fair Play To You All boasts eight backing vocalists, perhaps better described as a choir, with Uilleann pipes, fiddles, bodhran, whistles and Sands’ banjo, not to mention an entire pipe band. This isn’t theme pub Irishness, though, this is the real thing.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.tommysands.com

‘American Dreams’:

JIM AND SUSIE MALCOLM – The Berries (Beltane Records Belcd113)

The BerriesJim and Susie Malcolm’s The Berries is an exquisite album of Scottish folk music. This is a record of harmony, in which Jim’s Scottish porridge-pure vocals blend effortlessly with Susie’s ability (much like the great Linda Thompson) to touch the pathos in the minor moments of any tune.

Just a comment: Jim’s first album, Sconeward, is brilliant singer-songwriter stuff that conjures the beauty and sensitivity of (fellow Scot) John Martyn. Many more albums followed, with traditional songs nestled next to his own tunes. Live In Glenfarg is a wonderful human being of a record. The First Cold Day included ‘Money Making Money’, which matches Bruce Cockburn’s very modern folk protest conscience. And he spent a few years with (the very great) Old Blind Dogs. ‘Nuff said!

But now he sings in simpatico unity with his wife Susie. My friend, Kilda Defnut, always says, “Great harmony just stops time”. And this record just stops time.

Odd: Jim’s harmonica (almost) sounds like a concertina. No matter, this has been part of his signature sound from the start. ‘The Berry Fields o’ Blair’ is a tune from 1947, but pulses with any current working person’s dignity. Ewan MacCall’s ‘Come A’ Ye Fisher Lassies’ details the song of everyday working life that has “gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornoway and Shields”. This is magical music that sings of the common man.

Forgive the hyperbole, but the tragic dual-voiced ‘Lady Dysie’ stretches into a sublime obit that also contains personal favorites like Capercaille’s ‘Fisherman’s Dream’, Silly Wizard’s ‘The Valley Of Strathmore’, Ossian’s ‘The Road To Drumleman’, Malinky’s ‘Billy Taylor’, Roddy Woomble’s ‘My Secret Is My Silence’, and Runrig’s (blessed) ‘Loch Lomond’. That’s rarified air. Not only that, but a mid-song trumpet (played by Jim!) throws a really nice spanner (aka wrench) into traditional expectations.

The Berries continues to portray humanity’s common threads. ‘Lonely In The Bothy’ is Susie’s tour-de-force, as she sings her father’s tune about “unmarried men’ who sadly admit, “It’s lonely at nicht in the bothy”. Then the up-tempo ‘John Maclean’s March’, details the story of a socialist’s defiance of war, imprisonment, and his return home to Clyde. As Robert Burns sang, ‘The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor/ Is king o’men for a’ that’. Once again, ‘nuff said!

Now, just an idea: I once stood on the shore of Loch Ness, and its dark frigid waters were stern ballast that, with peculiar harmony, welcomed the warm July breeze; Nessie’s mystery swam in contentment with the waves of doubt; and old Castle Urquhart stood strong and sagely smiled at the tour busses and visitors donned with tee shirts embossed with a cartooned plesiosaur, sporting a goofy grin.

This record does something like that.

Now, just another idea: My wife Amy, an avid knitter, and I once walked down the Royal Mile in Auld Reekie. We stumbled upon The Ragamuffin, a collective depository of knitwear from private Scottish artisans. And it was the real deal. She asked for my patience so as to indulge her passion. So, I spent the next hour or so in a pub graced with countless local brews while reading, of all things, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner. I just knew my wife was having the time of her life, and, quite frankly, my own several half pints existence wasn’t too shabby at all.

This record does something like that.

Odd (again): Karine Polwart’s song ‘John C Clark’ drops the stylus into the grooves of very modern Scottish folk music vinyl. Suffice it to say, with all the other traditional stuff, it’s the only song to include the words “pizza parlour”. That said, it’s a great tune with a catchy melody and a happy lyric.

Richard Thompson’s Liege & Lief character ‘Crazy Man Michael’ “whistles the simplest of tunes”. The same can be said of ‘Lassie Lie Near Me’, a Robert Burns’ song of aged passion that somehow survives all the years. It drips strong minutes. Ditto for Robert Tannahill’s ‘Gloomy Winter’, a violin led prayer of a song that contemplates the gray thoughts of any battered day. And then ‘The Banks of Inverurie’ simply sings, as Susie’s note says, “a folk song miracle”. These tunes find Jim and Susie’s voices slow dancing under the stars in the ‘corn rigs and barley rigs’ of Scottish lore.

The quick pulse of ‘Guise o’ Tough’ proves humanity needs a really great chorus to survive. And ‘The Twa Gadgies’ just jumps with a jaunty tune that somehow manages to gather bannock, Scottish ale, haggis, stovies and a really nice Peebles meat pie into a listen that begs for yet another play.

To be fair, Jim Malcolm has recorded countless records of Scottish beauty. But the added voice of his wife, Susie, simply drips more colour (and sincere talent) into the canvas of any pallet. Truly, The Berries sings with Caledonian soul. And, as (the great) Dick Gaughan once sang, “Let friendship and honour unite/And flourish on both sides of the Tweed’.

Yeah, this lovely album does something like that.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: www.jimmalcolm.com

‘The Berry Fields O’ Blair’:

KELLY STEWARD – Tales And Tributes Of The Deserving And Not So (Glass Wing)

Tales And Tributes Of The Deserving And Not SoWhile I don’t find her voice as distinctive as Linda Ronstadt, to whom she’s often likened, the Illinois singer-songwriter’s sound is firmly rooted in the guitar twang Americana of 70s Laurel Canyon. Tales And Tributes Of The Deserving And Not So is her debut album after two EPs, the last back in 2012, co-produced by her guitarist and partner Greg Whitson and variously featuring pedal steel, organ, mandolin, banjo and violin, opening with ‘Golden Sun’, recalling her journey back east from Los Angeles with her young son in tow, heading into the sun and a metaphorical better tomorrow.

Both it and the similarly upbeat tempo ‘Mississippi Risin’’, in which the river serves as an image of a divided America and the hope of it joining back together, are solid enough but it’s not until the snakey blues lope of ‘Outlaw’ that it truly catches fire, the song derived from a story written in her younger years about a honky tonk scuffle that left one dead and one on the run. The momentum’s maintained with the softer, slower ‘Travellin’ Ghosts’ with its ticking guitar line and yearning vocals underscored by pedal steel tears as she sings of having to cast off the shadows of the past and move into the light.

‘Generation’ is another highlight, a mid-tempo country jog that comes from a musician’s heart, drawing on her own struggles with the music industry where the money has taken precedence over the message. From here, the view turns to the emotional landscape of her journey, striking country rock notes with the infectious melody lines and chorus hook of the chugging ‘Heartbreak Heart’ and, opening on slide guitar, the more bluegrassy bounce of ‘Restless Kind’.

It hits the final stretch, slowing it down for the measured tempo of ‘Earthquake’, a vocally soaring tribute to a family member’s sacrifice in helping the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake before closing up in punchy blues rocking fashion with ‘No Time For Loving You,’ a riff-driven number about the emotional cost of being a travelling musician, though I suspect it works better in a hot barroom than it does on disc.

At the end of the day, despite some fine songs, it doesn’t quite have the staying power to establish her as a new Americana force, but, nevertheless, it’s still a deserving calling card you’ll want to keep in mind for the future.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.kellysteward.com

‘Mississippi Risin”:

JUDY COLLINS with JONAS FJELD and CHATHAM COUNTY LINE – Winter Stories (Wildflower/Cleopatra)

Winter StoriesA seasonal collaboration between Collins, Norwegian singer-songwriter Fjeld and the North Carolina bluegrass outfit, recorded over the course of just a few days, Winter Stories brings together reworks, covers, and new material, getting underway in stirring fashion with their take of Stan Rogers’ classic ‘Northwest Passage’, the verses shared between Collins, Fjeld and Dave Wilson with all three pitching in on the chorus, backed with piano, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

Collins dips back into her songbook for three numbers, a lively bluegrassy ‘Mountain Girl’ and, as the closing track, ‘The Fallow Way’, previously one of three new songs on her 1990 Forever anthology, and the piano-led ‘The Blizzard’, a number about getting stuck in a Rockies snowstorm with “a dark-headed stranger” which originally appeared in its full seven-minute splendour on 1990’s Fires of Eden, here trimmed to just six.

The soaringly duetted title track is a new contribution by Fjeld, essentially a reflection on how “the light will come again”, be that in the seasons or emotional life, as indeed is ‘Frozen North’, Hugh Moffatt’s lyrics again using the winter cold as a metaphor, here warmed by the spark of love. Fjeld is also the author of ‘Angels In The Snow’, a song Collins previously recorded six years ago for Christmas With Judy, now revisited as a duet.

There’s two new songs to emerge from the collaboration, both Fjeld and Wilson co-writes, the frisky scuffling bluegrass ‘Bury Me With My Guitar On’ and the moodier, jazz-coloured ‘Sweet Refrain’ that, accompanied by piano, sketches a picture of a lonely old cowboy tracing out a melody alone in some room that brings back memories of lost friends and lovers.

The two remaining tracks are both covers, Collins taking solo lead on Jimmy Webb’s 1977 classic ‘Highwayman’, the story of a man (or here, in her silken tones, a woman) reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain and a number she’d been meaning to record for several years but somehow never got round to. The other is another jewel in the 70s SoCal crown, Collins again in the spotlight for a lovely reading of Joni Mitchell’s inadvertent Christmas standard, ‘River’, a seasonally set break-up number generally assumed to be about her relationship with Graham Nash and escaping painful emotional roots.

Winter Stories is not a Christmas album in the conventional commercial sense (nary a carol in sight), but even so it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings the time of the year inevitably evokes.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.judycollins.com

‘River’:

JOHN MOSEDALE – We’re Not Packing Parachutes (own label)

We're Not Packing ParachutesEarlier this year we reviewed Twenty Seven, the debut EP by Hereford singer-songwriter John Mosedale. Now he returns with his first full-length album, We’re Not Packing Parachutes. This is an entirely solo project although there are one or two uncredited extras which may come from library tapes – I’m damn sure they didn’t get a Spitfire into the studio. Three of the ten tracks are written by fellow solo singer Rob Carey and one, the best track on the album, is a co-write.

The title track which opens the record is a metaphor that I’m still trying to work out. I think it may be about mental health and feelings of the need to escape sometimes. It’s followed, neatly, by the first of Rob’s songs, ‘Not Every Parachute Was Made For War’. This is an exercise in nostalgia beginning in the apple orchards of Kent and soldier setting off for WWII. The narrative isn’t explicit about whether the soldier returned but the inclusion of the opening bars of ‘The Last Post’ suggests otherwise.

One of John’s specialities is the humorous song of the type popular in folk clubs back in the 60s. That was then and this is now and you can’t get near the knuckle anymore. ‘Always Putting My Foot In It’ may be a clever idea that works well in a live setting but shouldn’t be allowed inside a recording studio and Carey’s ‘Plastered In Paris’ seems lyrically illogical. ‘My Dog Has 3 Balls’, which appeared on the EP, is a tribute to John’s Labrador and not a triple entendre although still full of gags while ‘Doc Brown’s Car’ suggests humour but is full of nostalgia for the 50s. I’m sure that you can work out what make it is.

John isn’t the first singer to turn to music full-time after escaping the nine-to-five and ‘Old Man In The Mirror’ is a wry meditation on the aging process. Finally, we have ‘Remember Me’, the best song in the set. It begins oddly with the singer enumerating pi (but only to five decimal places) but develops into a contemplation of Alzheimer’s from the point of view of a carer. It deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

John has enjoyed a successful first year on the circuit and We’re Not Packing Parachutes certainly won’t do him any harm.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.johnmosedale.com

‘My Dog Has 3 Balls’:

BENJI KIRKPATRICK AND THE EXCESS – Gold Has Worn Away (Westpark Music LC07535)

Gold Has Worn AwayGold Has Worn Away by Benji Kirkpatrick and The Excess is a real grower of an album. Benji Kirkpatrick, Pete Flood and Pete Thomas deliver fifty-seven minutes of dynamic and rhythmic roots music which I’ve had on repeat in the car and absolutely love it.

I expect this will come as a surprise to most people, but I asked for this album to review as I wondered what Pete Thomas had been up to not having seen him since a gig with Megan Henwood in late 2018. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t come across either Benji Kirkpatrick’s or Pete Flood’s work even though they are associated with such bands as Bellowhead and Faustus. What have I missed out on?

This debut album from the trio was recorded at Henwood Studios by Pete Brown and Adventures in Audio by Matt Williams and the guest musicians are Rowan Godel and Janie Mitchell. The production is fantastic and every song crisp and fresh.

The subject matter covered is, as with many musicians these days, a comment on today’s social and political environment with a touch of personal perspective. That said the songs are in the main vibrant and upbeat and get the head nodding and fingers drumming the steering wheel.

I’m not sure who Benji would say who his influences were for this album, but as I grew up listening to mainstream rather than folk music I hear Yes, early Genesis, Robert Palmer and Joe Jackson, not many folk names in that list I know, but this is an album hard to categorise in any one genre.

The tracks I particularly enjoyed were “In Your Cave” (reminded me of ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’) and who can’t smile at a track called “Stuck In The Loop”, which is one of the three instrumentals included in this gem of thirteen track album. This is a 5* album as golden as the CD sleeve, so go and have a listen.

I think they would be a fun band to see live and I’m regretting missing out on their UK tour in the summer, especially as they’d got as close to me as Winchester. Hopefully it won’t be too long before they tour again.

Duncan Chappell

Artist’s website: https://www.benjikirkpatrick.com/

‘Fill My Heart’: