AWKWARD FAMILY PORTRAITS – Everything We’ve Done Up Until Now Except What We’ve Done Since (Holy Smokes Records)

Everything We've DoneAwkward Family Portraits (that’s the band name) recently released Everything We’ve Done Up Until Now Except What We’ve Done Since (that’s the album name). The style is an assortment of jump jive, rockabilly, western swing et al. You get the gist – it’s a fifties and earlier feel with plenty of fun. You need to be in the mood for this album, but if you’re having a party and want a band to make people smile and get them dancing in an old-fashioned way, Awkward Family Portraits feel like a phone number that should be on your list.

The band formed in Glasgow in 2016 and were selected by Tenement TV as one of the “ones to watch for 2018”. If you click on the link below you’ll see two of the band playing ‘Come On Down’ with its American-slanted vocalisation, two guitars picking cleanly, catchy tune to sing along with – and the echo chamber that everyone starts with: a flight of stairs, but in this case stairs with tiled walls, hard surfaces and what appears to be several flights. It’s simultaneously simple and sophisticated.

Elsewhere on the album ‘Keep On Keeping On’ will get you up dancing in the style that I can picture in anything from the Jazz Age of the 20’s to 40’s Swing to 50’s Dance Halls. Ditto ‘Do Yourself A Favour’, ‘Can’t Control Cupid’, ‘Day In The Life of a Lying Man’, the wonderfully named ‘Don’t Drink Whisky It’s Risky’ and ‘Ring, Ring Angus’. These are fun tracks with the energy of early rock and roll – Carl Perkins is perhaps the most obvious influence?

‘The Way The Wind Blows’ has the opening of a song that the writers would try and sell to Sinatra or to early Elvis when he wanted a slow number. Elsewhere, the band show their ability to capture the style and rhymes of mid-century American songbook, for example on ‘Chapati 3’

She cooks my dinner when I get home

She comments on the state of my big damned dome

She wants to hear about the birds and the bees

But I can’t just can’t seem to keep her at ease

Printed on the album cover are the phrases, “From ages 1 to 100+. Fun for all the family”. That sounds about right.

The Awkward Family Portraits’ website gives details of a few gigs coming up in the new year in Newcastle, Nottingham and Glasgow.

Mike Wistow

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‘Ring, Ring, Angus!’ – official video:

JIM MORAY – The Outlander (Managed Decline MD001)

The OutlanderFor The Outlander, his seventh solo album, Moray dispenses with any original material to focus on a set of ten traditional numbers, some familiar, some obscure, and gives them his own personalised interpretation. He’s also adopted a more direct, live performance-based approach making extensive use of his purchase of a 1949 Epiphone Triumph archtop guitar and inviting an array of fellow folkies, among them Jack Rutter, Sam Sweeney, Matt Downer and Josienne Clarke, to join him in the studio.

With Rory Scammell on hurdy gurdy complementing Sweeney and Tom Moore’s urgent violins and Moray’s driving rhythm, the opening ‘Lord Ellenwater’ (sometimes ‘Derwentwater’), compiles the lyrics from an assortment of sources and is set to a tune collected in Cambridgeshire by Vaughan Williams in 1907 from (although some claim it as in 1905 from Emily Agnes Stears in Sussex) and concerns the alleged role of Ellenwater’s in the Jacobite uprising of 1715 and reports that the rivers on his estates ran blood on the night he was executed.

Learned from Roy Harris, ‘Bold Lovell’, a variant on highwayman ballad ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, is launched by handclaps (there’s no drums anywhere on the album) and proceeds at a fair trot, one again propelled by violins, but then, opening with just voice and Nick Hart’s concertina, things slow down for ‘When This Old Hat Was New’, a classic song of old folk nostalgia that traces back to 1630 and bigs up the Romans for looking after the poor folk as the instrumentation gradually builds.

The centrepiece, certainly in terms of running time, is ‘Lord Gregory’ which, extended to a waltzing six and a half minutes with addition of verses from alternate versions, is largely accompanied by just finger picked guitar, presented as a duet with Clarke in an Anglo emulation of the Welch/Rawling harmonies pairing albeit channelling the recordings by Maddy Prior and Kathryn Roberts. It’s followed by the almost as long ‘The Bramble Briar’, learned from the Ewan MacColl version of ‘Bruton Town’, a good old English folk ballad about murder that has its origins in Isabella and the Pot of Basil, a story about a farmer’s daughter, her jealous brothers and a beheaded lover in Boccaccio’s The Decameron. A spare, stark arrangement compounds the gloom of the narrative.

‘John Barleycorn’ is one of two folk club staples given a new lease of life by Moray taken at a suitably flagon-swigging mid-tempo, the other, which closes the album, being a stately, wearied pace and spare arrangement reading of ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ that captures all of the song’s inherent resignation.

Betwixt these comes a slow strummed melancholic Appalachian-flavoured interpretation of ‘The Isle Of St Helena’, a song about Bonaparte’s exile collected by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky and learned from Steve Turner’s 1979 album Outstack, albeit without the concertina arrangement. Switching hemispheres, his fiddle-backed reading of transportation ballad ‘Australia’ owes a debt to Bob Hat’s 1973 version which relocated the destination from the original Virginny.

The final choice is ‘Jack Tar’, a handclap percussion, fiddle stomp take on the shanty about an opportunistic sailor overhearing a scheme by a squire to have his lover dangle string from her window so he can pull it for her to let him in, and naturally sneakily taking his place instead. Learned from the version collected by Sharp in 1904 with a slight variation in the lyrics, although, for purists, sadly he doesn’t include the “doomy-amma dingy-amma doomy-ammma day” chorus!

The most direct and simple of Moray’s albums to date, it cuts to the heart of what traditional folk music is about while ensuring a musical relevance for to the modern generation.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.jimmoray.co.uk

‘Bold Lovell’ – live with Tom Moore:

DREW HOLCOMB & THE NEIGHBORS – Dragons (Thirty Tigers 41767CD)

DragonsDragons, the tenth album by the Memphis-born, Nashville-based Holcomb finds him in jubilant form, even if many of the songs touch on mortality, with his most collaborative work yet, six of the ten songs being co-writes and five featuring guest vocalists.

It kicks off on upbeat infectious manner with ‘Family’, clapping hands bolstering a Bo Diddley meets Paul Simon beat that celebrates, well, family, in a song about growing up seen through the lens of fatherhood with is essentially a series of single lines each preceded by the title chant.

A similar theme of community follows on with ‘End Of The World’, an uplifting anthemic ballad that might even have a hint of Take That to it, that calls for unity and partying your way into the darkness and living for the moment. Wife Ellie joins him for ‘But I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel’, a simple trot along love song with some tinkling piano in the background, then up comes The Lone Bellow for the part spoken swayalong title track, as, accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal drums, the chorus delivers an inspirational never give up message from his late grandfather left behind to “Take a few chances/A few worthy romances/Go swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day/Don’t listen to the critics/Stand up and bear witness//Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way”.

Ellie returns for another chugging rhythm, dreamy, strings-enhanced love song, ‘See The World’, except this one is to his son as he sings “Someday you’ll fly away, find your own time and space… You’ll make your own noise, sing with your own voice”. Lori McKenna gets two co-writer credits, the jangling, steady drum beat mid-tempo ‘Make It Look So Easy’ about the moment when love strikes (“The very first time you put your hands in mine/I knew it would be impossible for me/To ever live without you”) and, also on vocals, the rolling country calypso groove ‘You Want What You Can’t Have’ which, Nathan Dugger on lap steel, is basically one of those other man’s grass numbers about being happy with what you’ve got.

The last vocal collaboration comes courtesy of co-writer Natalie Hemby on the slow walk-paced ‘Maybe’ which addresses pretty much the same theme (“Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything/Maybe we’re lost in what we want. Not what we need”) about how expectations can become a burden rather than a goal.

The emotional heart of the album, though, is ‘You Never Leave My Heart’, a simple piano-accompanied reflectively semi-spoken memory of his brother, who died twenty years ago but about which it’s only now Holcomb’s found the words to put his feelings into song as it swells to a soaring finale.

It all ends with the pulsing notes of ‘Bittersweet’, co-writer Carson Cooley on keyboards and synth for a song that returns to thoughts of mortality as “every curtain falls eventually”, but reminding that it’s what you do on the stage before then that matters, and to embrace life and “Play it like a board game, sing it like a hymn”. There may be dragons, but as long as there’s artists like Holcomb, there’ll always be a St George too.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.drewholcomb.com

‘End Of The World’ – official video:

KIRSTY McGEE & THE HOBOPOP COLLECTIVE – The Deafening Sound Of Stars (HoboPop HPCD0012)

The Deafening Sound Of StarsKirsty McGee is something of a veteran now but she has operated under many people’s radar including, sad to say, mine over the last few years. The Deafening Sound Of Stars is only her eighth album in almost twenty years, so as the owner of five of them maybe I’m not doing too badly. Hobopop is Kirsty’s concept: music without frontiers; neither geographical nor cultural. So while most of this album was recorded in Leeds, some parts were recorded in California and others in Brazil. The result is a heady blend of styles and influences.

The opening track, ‘Moving On’, is a gently rolling country number – Kirsty has long had an affinity with Americana – decorated by Clive Mellor’s harmonica. Kirsty has a collective of ten musicians behind her and this song is based around Barkley McKay’s lap steel and Hammond. The second track is sophisticated lounge jazz featuring Nick Walters’ trumpet and there are still a dozen tracks to go. ‘Butterfly Pin’ is a bluesy jazz number and by this point in what was supposed to be my writing phase I just sat back to listen again.

Fortunately ‘Raven’s Eyes’ dragged me backed to work – I guess Anton Hunter is responsible for the strange sounds underpinning the song – and that comes just in time for my favourite song, ‘Copenhagen’ For Kirsty, this is a retro arrangement based on acoustic guitar with a glass harmonica in the mix but there are more delicate elements than I can enumerate before the track builds up to its big finish. From now on, The Deafening Sound Of Stars takes on a subtly different mood with ‘Second Tuesday’ and the bluesy Americana of ‘Highway Dog Rose’.

And so it goes. The Deafening Sound Of Stars is a splendid album that I’d rather listen to than have to write about. Jazz, blues, folk and smart lyrics are all here – and if those lyrics were printed just a bit larger on the cover it would be perfect.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.kirstymcgee.com

‘Madness & The Moon’ – official video:

Bella Hardy announces retrospective collection and tour dates

Bella Hardy
Photograph by Kate Chappell

BBC Folk Singer of the Year Bella Hardy found her first home in folk music through a childhood love for ballad books. A self-taught ‘fiddle singer’, she began performing at Cambridge and Sidmouth festivals from the age of 13. Her debut album Night Visiting established her reputation as a talented songwriter when her first original composition ‘Three Black Feathers’ earned a BBC Folk Award nomination. Since then, Bella has sung unaccompanied ballads at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, taken a band of drums, brass and electronics to the National Concert Hall of Budapest, and learnt the songs of Chinese farmers during her time as British Council Musician in Residence in Yunnan Province. She’s sat on the moors of her beloved Peak District with only her fiddle for company. She spent a year in Tennessee as a ranch hand, looking after horses, fiddle-singing in the diners, and immersing herself in the music culture of Nashville. With her mesmerising voice and ability to conjure and twist stories that call straight to the heart, Bella has beguiled audiences from Canada to Japan, from Spanish bars, to Castles, to Concert Halls.

With unflinching courage, Bella Hardy has explored and blurred musical boundaries in her search for meaning. From her mastery of tradition music and the stripped back strings and concertina of her debut album Night Visiting (2007), to the electric guitar and drums in the self-penned humanist hymns and feminist battle cries of Hey Sammy (2017), via the Derbyshire ballads of The Dark Peak & The White and ancient Chinese poetry of Eternal Spring, an album of songs and poetry recorded in China. Her themes of displacement and home, lost and found love, heartache and joy, are delivered with her unique, disarming honesty, and, of course, the acclaimed crystalline voice that won her BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Singer of the Year.

And she shared the whole extraordinary journey with you in her first nine records, in the space of just ten years.

Postcards & Pocketbooks is a double CD of her most highly treasured works, with remastered recordings of classic material and two new tracks, ‘Tequila Moon’ and ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’. Bella will also be publishing a lyric book bringing together her original writing and reworkings of traditional material. There will be over one hundred songs in the collection.

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Artist’s website: www.bellahardy.com

‘The Herring Girl’ – live:

NOVEMBER TOUR DATES

Saturday 9th – Sage Gateshead

Sunday 10th – Greystones Sheffield

Monday 11th – The Junction, Cambridge

Tuesday 12th – The Guildhall, Leicester

Thursday 14th – Kings Place, London

Friday 15th – The Folk House, Bristol

Saturday 16th – mac, Birmingham

THE WHISKEY TREATY ROAD SHOW – Band Together (own label)

Band TogetherBand Together is an album that came to me out of the blue. First impressions – with a name like The Whiskey Treaty Road Show they’ve got to be an up-tempo American band, probably Americana/Country genre; my guess was the South but actually they’re from Western Massachusetts.

You can hear for yourself that their name really does tap into something in terms of preconceptions – the link below takes you to ‘Pass The Peace’. The opening acoustic guitar and vocal (a vocal that grabs your attention) rapidly moves into a band sound, grander than standard Americana: a trumpet that plays echoes-of-soul-music, a flash of lead guitar, harmonies that are pretty damned fine.

The album might have been an unexpected arrival in the post but I’m interested. Track two, ‘Don’t Cross My Land’ does something rather special. It’s in effect a monologue from a man defending, from road-building, the land his family built. The voice is that of a man you meet in a bar who stands upright and repeats “No Sir, No Sir…My family built it with their hands and I don’t expect you to understand” I can picture him in my head. That makes it pretty good lyric-story-telling; the music is just as sassy as the man – the harmonies are aggressive, the music loud in support. This is pretty interesting song-writing.

I read around the band. The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow formed in 2016, five Massachusetts singer-songwriters working together to create what they call “in the vein of Americana, rock and roots-folk music”. Individually, they have a strong back-story, together they turn it into folk-rock which (I read and can well imagine) goes down well at festivals. Add to this that they have played alongside Kristofferson, Los Lobos, The Felice Brothers and that Band Together has guest appearances from Arlo Guthrie and members of Wilco and The Black Crowes and you can see that this is a band to be reckoned with.

The remainder of the album circles around this core Americana feel – but adds a bit. There are places on ‘Rose On The Vine’ where you think this is how the Stone Roses would play Americana, ‘Following Your Tears’ has a children’s chorus to it, ‘Reasons’ builds vocal harmonies, smashed hi-hat, harmonica and the brass sound that I suddenly discover all integrate really well with an Americana sound. ‘Rock And Roll Déjà Vu’ isn’t just lyrically about rock and roll, “Rock and roll was playing on the radio/ We used to turn it oh so loud, pedal to the floor/ Let the good times roll/ give me like déjà vu/I’m just glad to be here now singing loud with you”, the tune rocks and blasts out the lead guitar. ‘Perfect Day’ is banjo heavy picking, ‘I Bet The World’ a great country song (“I bet the world I love you/Times the ocean and the moon/and the sun and all the stars that shone/ from July into June”), ‘Lay Down Your Arms’ an anthemic closing track which I imagine is a great sing along at the festivals.

Overall, then, I’ve enjoyed Band Together – the song-writing and the mix of influences/styles in the playing and arrangement work really well. The band’s website shows a handful of gigs in eastern USA over the coming months.

Oh, yeah, it’s also rather good driving music…..

Mike Wistow


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‘Pass The Peace’ – live: