WOOD, WIRE AND WORDS – The Boy With The Smile (own label)

The Boy WIth The SmileWood, Wire And Words are a trio from Portsmouth: lead singer and guitarist David Rozzell, who writes most of the band’s songs; Clare Rozzell, vocalist and double-bass player and Pat Francis who does most of everything else. The Boy With The Smile is their third album. David says that the group doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed with a genre but in that respect they don’t quite succeed. Regardless of the subject matter, this is Americana but with the exception of Pat’s Dobro they don’t overstep the line into the tropes of country. In fact, the combination of British subjects with the music of the Americas is central to their appeal. This is particularly evident in the single cover here; ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’. Had Richard Thompson not included a mention of Box Hill in the song it could be set anywhere in the USA although James would probably have ridden a Harley. That’s the way Wood, Wire And Words play it and, you know, it’s the best cover of the song I’ve heard.

The title track, which opens the show, is a rural love song which mentions Morris dancers and was written for a Harvest Festival gig and David returns later to the theme with ‘Toast The Harvest’. The next two tracks, ‘I’ll Not Seek Pardon’ and ‘More Than A Train’, are definitely cowboy songs but the latter has a clever twist. Setting it in the UK, David points out that here you can’t jump a train and lose yourself in the wilderness, hence the title. You can get as far as Wick but there will be several changes on route – they’ll track you down.

A few more songs deserve special mention. ‘The Words You Can’t Find’ is an autobiographical piece concerned with living with chronic pain, depression and memory loss but it’s not as dark as that makes it sound. ‘Truth And Democracy’ is their political protest and very good it is too. They balance that with the humour of ‘There’s No Food In My Bowl’ – which is about a cat.

I like The Boy With The Smile a lot. David Rozzell has a mighty voice and a real talent as a songwriter, the playing is tight and the whole album is very easy to listen to – in the best possible sense of easy listening.

Dai Jeffries

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‘More Than A Train’ – live:

Show Of Hands announce new album

Show Of Hands

With its arresting cover of a felled marionette, Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from one of the most prized acts on the folk roots circuit.

Show of Hands’ first key release in more than three years, the 13-track album brings eight keenly awaited new songs (and a co-write) from the pen of Steve Knightley, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most inspired and original songwriters.

Phil Beer is the ‘master decorator’ of the songs – a brilliant, consummate multi-instrumentalist while long term third member Miranda Sykes is back on board with her eloquent double bass and vocals after her sabbatical   – and Cormac Byrne and his feted percussion skills (witnessed on last autumn’s UK tour) bring a vibrant fresh dimension to the party.

Rolling Stones collaborator Matt Clifford adds his keyboard skills to some tracks and an impromptu collective known as The Bridge Hill Shanty Men are the icing on the cake, weighing in with rousing choruses.

Possibly their most commercial release to date, Battlefield Dance Floor is an exuberant, lush, full-blooded album co-produced by the in-demand Mark Tucker and Knightley – Show of Hands’ first release since 2016’s The Long Way Home.

An album of broad brushstrokes, it mixes songs of despair and displacement, emphatic songs, tongue-in-cheek songs, poignant songs and carefully chosen covers into a classic Show of Hands package with wide appeal.

Knightley is a highly talented songwriter who has a great knack in addressing serious and pertinent issues with really catchy lyrics. Top class performances are guaranteed wherever they play” – Songlines

It bursts straight in with Knightley’s ‘Lost’a slickly produced, multi-layered and poetic opener – on the surface a number inspired by the story of doomed Devon sailor Donald Crowhurst who died while competing in the 1968 single-handed, round the world Golden Globe Race –but with a deeper theme summed up by Knightley as “a maritime-themed song about masculine despair.”

Catching the listener unawares the mood swerves abruptly to the upbeat, jaunty, genre-hopping title track as Bhangra meets Morris, a seed sown by Show of Hands’ recent close encounters with Johnny Kalsi’s The Dhol Foundation.

Politics and history graduate Knightley name checks some of the greats in history (Wellington, Drake, Churchill, Monty) in this savvy song of eve-of-battle drunkenness with its catchy rugby chant style chorus. Juxtaposing battle readiness with pre-battle abandon it travels through time from the Battle of Agincourt to D-Day and is littered with clever lyrics: “It’s a ballet not a battle/A salsa not a siege” and its ‘Tomorrow it’s a battlefield/tonight it is a dance floor” refrain.

A trademark Knightley song is shaped in the sublime ‘Just Enough To Lose’ – a poignant tale of failing love delivered by his distinctive voice. “It was just between the sowing and the reaping /You told me our crop was bound to fail’, the regret underlined by Beer’s beautifully judged fiddle and Clifford’s keyboards.

Some years ago Show of Hands joined forces with exiled Chilean musicians to form the band Alianza so the theme of displacement is one well known to them and here it is explored in the Knightley-Johnny Kalsi co-write ‘Mother Tongue’, a stand-out track on the album penned soon after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The atmosphere-charged song is given a haunting, spiritual edge by the enigmatic chanting of British-Asian performer Shahid Khan.

There are songs with a lighter touch – the percussive, tongue in cheek ‘Cornish reggae’ of ‘Dreckley’, the tale of a Home Counties relationship threatened by the lure of the West Country replete with pasties and Poldark! It even includes a nod to The Great British Scone Debate – clotted cream or jam first on your Devonshire scone?!

Sykes takes lead vocal on the wry Knightley original ‘Make The Right Noises’, a cynical look at how we fake concern and enthusiasm because we think we should – concluding that ‘of the virtues sincerity is the most underrated’.

It’s over to Beer to take centre stage on a cover of Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’ – a gem of a road song which suits his voice – and flawless guitar work– perfectly while he also takes the microphone to deliver ‘My True Love’ – a gentle ballad written by Dubliner Adrian Mannering who Steve and Phil encountered on the Brighton folk scene back in their 20s.

‘You’ll Get By’ is a song of hope and reassurance for the older generation facing the array of life’s ups and downs (not just the province of the young!) and drums roll as ‘Swift And Bold’ marches in. A Knightley song written for 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment at a special celebratory concert at their Exeter HQ – at which to his surprise he was made an Honorary Rifleman – brings the battlefield back into view, with the Bridge Hill Shanty Men in full flow. Named after the regimental motto it’s a song which Steve was proud to write.

He says: “Being awarded the title of Honorary Rifleman meant I joined my grandfather and step brother in re-establishing a close relationship with the regiment.”

Steve also revisits a haunting song he first sang on Kirsty Merryn’s debut album She And I.

Merryn’s spellbinding ‘Forfarshire’ tells of lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling and her father William and Grace’s heroic rescue of shipwrecked mariners. In this version Steve is joined by Miranda and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s 2017 release. A useful man to know Gerry also plays myriad instruments on the track – mandolin, piano, fiddle, bass guitar, tenor guitar and percussion.

The album ends with ‘No Secrets’, released as a single to coincide with Show of Hands’ incredible fifth sell out of the Royal Albert Hall in 2017, celebrating 25 years of this unique band. Upbeat and breezy Steve describes it as a distillation of some sage advice given to a fellow folky on his wedding eve.

A classy cornucopia, it’s an album that successfully melds vintage Show of Hands and brand new material, infusing influences old and new and this time – as a four strong band – with even greater depth and panache.

Says Steve: “With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we’ve dreamed of making for twenty five years!”

The music is sharp and the armoury is strong. Battlefield Dance Floor reinvigorates Show of Hands’ unshakeable position at the front line of folk.

Show of Hands will showcase songs from Battlefield Dance Floor on a 22-date autumn-winter tour of England and Wales (October 30-December 7). The album will be officially released on September 27, 2019 under licence to Proper Music Publishing and will be distributed by Proper Records.

Steve Knightley has said “Show of Hands is still a duo consisting of Steve and Phil. Miranda and Cormac have solo careers in their own right and whenever they join us they are always name checked as such! We are absolutely delighted to have them on board for this year’s Autumn tour and next year’s festival season.”

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Artists’ website: www.showofhands.co.uk

Tour Dates

Wednesday 30 October   Beehive, Honiton   01404 384050

Thursday 31 October   Royal Hall, Harrogate   01423 502116

Friday 1 November   Cast, Doncaster   01302 303959

Saturday 2 November Gala Theatre, Durham   03000 266600

Thursday 7 November Brangwyn Hall, Swansea  01792 475715

Friday 8 November   Bath Forum, Bath   0844 888 9991

Saturday 9 November Westlands, Yeovil   01935 422884

Wednesday 13 November  Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
01743 281281

Thursday 14 November   Epic Studios   01603 727727

Friday 15 November   Dorking Halls, Surrey   01306 881717

Saturday 16 November  City Hall, Salisbury   01722 434434

Wednesday 20 November    New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
023 9264 9000

Thursday 21 November   Alban Arena, St Albans  01727 844488

Friday 22 November   Union Chapel, London

Saturday 23 November   De La Warr   Pavilion, Bexhill On Sea
01424 229111

Sunday 24 November  Aylesbury Waterside Theatre  0844 8717607

Wednesday 27 November   Birmingham Town Hall  0121 780 3333

Thursday 28 November   Cheltenham Town Hall  0844 5762210

Friday 29 November   Engine Shed, Lincoln   0871 220 0260

Saturday 30 November   Leicester Haymarket Theatre 0116 2961236

Friday 6 December    Exmouth Pavilion, Devon   01395 222477

Saturday 7 December   Exmouth Pavilion, Devon  01395 222477

Here is one from the folking Archive from 2007 – one of Show of Hands oldest songs, ‘Tall Ships’ joined with ‘Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’ and ‘The Falmouth Packet’ to make the ‘Tall Ships Medley’.

JESSE DAYTON – Mixtape Volume 1 (blu-elan Records BER1175)

Mixtape Volume 1Jesse Dayton wanted “to do cool versions of the songs that I thought the original writers would dig”. His new album Mixtape Volume 1 is released on August 30th.

After vinyl, and alongside it, came the cassette tape. For the first time you could take control of your music by selecting a dozen or so favourite tracks to play one after the other. As time passed, you could even play them in the car or walk around with them attached to your belt. Fifty years on and playlists make it all an awful lot easier to be your own DJ. However, along with that easiness is the loss of careful thought and selection, knowing you’ve spent hours picking favourite tracks from albums or singles and putting them in the (immoveable) order you want so they enhance each other.

Look at the album cover – this album isn’t a playlist, these songs are as carefully chosen as you would do if you were making a tape. Hence, presumably, the title Mixtape Volume 1. The songs? – I’m biased because mostly they’re straight out of music I bought in the seventies. That makes me potentially a harsher judge, but I have to say that this is a cracking selection, with songs by Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, The Clash, ZZ Top, Elton John, Dr Feelgood, AC/DC, The Cars and Bruce Springsteen. And Jesse Dayton hasn’t just picked these songs – he’s felt them and then he’s played them.

Dayton has a career of more than thirty years as guitarist for the likes of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash – and also for the punk bands. He has ten albums of his own. That’s a hell of a fusion of styles and experience in his locker and you can hear all elements in the choice of tracks, from ‘Bankrobber’ or ‘She Does It Right’ to ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ or ‘Redneck Friend’.

Even more staggering, while the songs are recognizable he makes them his own. The video link below takes you to ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ – it’s not a heavy metal arrangement, but emotionally it’s as metal as the original and you just want to hear it live with mates and a pint or two, in a darkened cavern venue, the sound reverberating off low slung curved ceilings.

Like all good mix tapes, it’s hard to pick favourite tracks (a mixtape is a work of contemplated curation, nothing would be on there that you didn’t think was good) but I’d give a particular mention, not only to the uptempo Clash, Feelgood, AC/DC covers, but also to Dayton’s version of Elton John’s ‘Country Comfort’ and a great version of ‘Just What I Needed’, originally by The Cars.

The album I got for review was on CD but it’s available in a number of formats – including cassette. Dayton produced it himself and he is on tour in America currently.

Mike Wistow

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PHIL LANGRAN – Skywriting (Longshore Drift LODR001)

SkywritingPraised by Kathryn Williams and produced by Boo Hewerdine, who also contributes guitar, harmonium and dulcitone to Skywriting, veteran Nottingham singer-songwriter Langram comes from the old school of troubadours, his keenly observed songs gentle, wistful and poetic, his voice seasoned with the years.

The bucolic ‘Bright Autumn Sky’ with its love of nature opens the album and sets the template for what follows and, while love song ‘World Enough’ sings of him shivering and shaking with emotion, the song itself is serene, a mood never broken by the ensuing eleven songs. ‘Leave To Live (Etechachan)’ sketches a portrait of a “barefoot child” as she “peels back the peat from the moorland” and ‘Time’s Dark Wing’ treats on mortality (“all the treasures we bring/Gathered under time’s dark wing”).

Elsewhere, there’s a disconsolate mood permeating ‘The Diamond Wheel’ where “we all dream or dreams alone”, while, on a more positive note, ‘Snow Angels’ talks of that, a Emily Dickinson might put it, certain slant of light when “The hours fall away/From the veil of time/To show the best of strangers/The way things were”.

At times he reminds me of the mellow aspects of Jim Croce while, Hewerdine on vibes, the jazz-shaded ‘Snow Angels’ conjures a mix of Al Stewart and Brian Protheroe.

Don’t come to Skywriting looking for social angst, but if you hanker after reflective songs that paint musical and lyrical landscapes, sharing the spirit of writers like Robert Frost and John Clare, then the slow waltzer ‘Snow on the Mountain’, the sense of wonder in the brief ‘Camera In The Sky’ (“Look up my little one/Look up on high/To all the future all around you”) and the fading relationship drawn in ‘Injury Time’ (”You hide your hand, I hide my heart”) will prove soothing balm.

Mike Davies

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‘Bright Autumn Sky’:

 

MARTIN SIMPSON – Rooted (Topic TXCD598)

RootedDid you know that Ernest Shackleton considered a banjo essential to mental health on his expedition to the South Pole? Neither did I but it’s one of the fascinating facts I gleaned from Martin Simpson’s sleevenotes for his new album Rooted. Mental health is one of the themes of the record and, being a banjo player himself, I reckon that Martin has a head start on some of us. It’s one of the reasons why the album resonates with me.

As you might expect Martin mixes original compositions, traditional songs and covers. Here, Martin’s new songs lean towards the American traditional style so the opener, ‘Trouble Brought Me Here’ sounds like it could be a hundred or so years old. The second track, ‘Kimbie’, is traditional and includes some of those “vagrant stanzas” that he’s fond of. By this time, you’ll be relaxing into the music and the distinction really won’t matter.

Rooted boasts a fine supporting cast including Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr, John Smith and Ben Nicholls plus five backing vocalists but Andy Bell’s production and engineering ensure that Martin’s voice, guitar and/or banjo ride smoothly on top of the arrangements. I’m not totally convinced by one track and that is ‘Hills Of Shiloh’ which was very popular back in the 80s. It’s not the song but Martin takes it a little too quickly for my taste and the arrangement is rather too involved.

There are some great stories in these songs, though. ‘Ken Small’ tells of a man who laboured to unearth a tank from Start Bay left there after the disastrous Operation Tiger in 1944. ‘Joe Bowers’ came from Hedy West and is a relative of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike’ and ‘Henry Gray’ is about a piano-player who was a member of Howln’ Wolf’s band and also worked with Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. Martin was invited to play with his band – what can you say? Robb Johnson’s ‘More Than Enough’ was a song that Roy Bailey played and Martin sang it with him in hospital just before he died.

The bonus disc is a set of instrumentals two of which are sung in the substantive set. I get the feeling that Martin let his hair down just a little – playing guitar is no joking matter – and invited the band to do the same. There are a number of songs that I haven’t mentioned; all as good as the ones I have and you’ll find that Rooted is a sublime record.

Dai Jeffries

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‘More Than Enough’ – with a story to tell:

THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video: