MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

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Artist’s website: http://www.martingreenmusic.co.uk/

‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

MARTIN GREEN – Flit (Reveal Records, REVEAL062CDX)

flitGreen, you may be aware, is the accordionist and electronic experimentalist with Lau, and his new solo album, Flit, is no less an inventive, boundary-pushing affair that, inspired by accounts of human movement across the globe, focuses on the zeitgeist folk scene theme of migration. As the title suggests it’s a restless piece of work, one for which he’s called on the vocal talents of Becky Unthank, John Smith and Adam Holmes as well as Mogwai’s Dominic Aitchison on bass and Adrian Utley from Portishead providing guitars, bass, synths and percussion. Green’s also collaborated on the material, co-writing with Karine Polwart, Anais Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Falkirk-born former Arab Strap founder, Aidan Moffat.

It’s the latter who opens proceedings, speaking his own words on the scratchy, pulsing ‘The Living Wind’ , a narrative essentially about the colonialist destruction and displacement of indigenous peoples, before the first of four Polwart numbers, the brooding, atmospherically ominous ‘Strange Sky’, breathily sung by Unthank, with its sudden sonic storms. By contrast, the second Polwart collaboration, ‘Wrackline’, is a sparse and ghostly thing, ebbing and flowing like the waves washing up on the shore that it references, gathering midway into a tribal clatter that gradually slows before a hushed close.

Sandwiched between the Polwart tracks is ‘Roll Away’, Holmes’ deep voice wrapping itself around Mitchell’s lyrics about being transported far away from home across the ocean, inspired by the story of his grandfather and grandmother, and a folksy melody that vaguely recalls ‘Shenandoah’. The Polwart/Green material returns with ‘The Suitcase’, electronic effects backdropping Moffat’s spoken introduction about the narrator’s memories of his father (‘respect money, money keeps you safe, he told me once, as if to explain a decade and a half of absence….he was alone, even with us’) before a resonant pulsing bass note takes over along with a duet by Unthank and Holmes. ‘Laws Of Motion’ again strikes a contrast, returning to more familiar folk strains, sung by Holmes accompanied by a resonant circling bassline. The only track to which lyrics are printed on the insert, it specifically references the migrant crisis with lines about being “cast adrift on open seas” and “searchlights at the tunnel gate, barbed wire at the harbour. Restless men and women blow like sands across the border”.

‘Clang Song’ and ‘Smallest Plant’ are solely written by Green, the former a collage of seething, dark electronics and the latter, featuring him on accordion with sonorous and disorienting synth noises, a more mournful traditional folk lament duetted by Unthank and Holmes. Finally, with words by Wright, a brooding repeated guitar line from Utley and Devonian folkie John Smith on vocals, ‘The Singing Sands’, the shortest track at under three minutes, is a spectral, minimalist sketch of loss and ‘the mocking waves’.

Immediate and accessible it most certainly is not, but, while it may be challenging, if you open yourself to experience it, it’s a hauntingly powerful piece of work.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.martingreenmusic.co.uk/

‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

GILLIAN FRAME – Pendulum (Cheery Groove CHEERY005)

PendulumGillian Frame was Scotland’s first Young Traditional Musician Of The Year. That was back in 2001 and it’s taken her the fifteen years since to release her first solo album. Of course she recorded three with the band she helped found, Back Of The Moon, played sessions for other bands and taught fiddle and the songs and tunes performed on Pendulum have been with her from those early days.

There are some fine musicians on the album – a core band of Mike Vass, Anna Massie and Euan Burton with guests Adam Holmes (who is making a name for himself with his own band) and Phil Hague. Despite this fine cast, what I like about this album is its essential directness and simplicity. The songs speak for themselves and the instrumental sets are not excuses for displays of ego.

The record opens with a vigour that initially surprised me. The song is ‘Rothes Colliery’, written by Gillian’s husband, Findlay Napier. It’s a straightforward song about the loss of a colliery and is sung in an appropriately straightforward manner – an excellent start. ‘Lovely Molly’ is a song of romantic trickery, played with a light touch and, like all the songs, sung without false emotion.

I’m in no way swayed by the fact that one of my all-time favourite Scottish songs, ‘Silver Tassie’, is included in the set with Holmes sharing lead vocals and that it’s followed immediately with ‘Fine Flooers In The Valley’ with ‘The Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ as a bonus. This is an excellent album.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.gillianframe.com

John McCusker – new album

John McCusker

In celebration of his 25th Anniversary as a professional musician, John McCusker will release Hello, Goodbye on April 29th 2016 and tour the UK in April and May. A wonderfully evocative set of compositions, Hello, Goodbye is John’s first solo album in thirteen years, the first on his new record label Under One Sky Records and the first recorded in his state of the art studio, built over the last 2 years in a bothy dating from 1779, which neighbours his Scottish Borders home. Designed by legendary record producer and studio designer Calum Malcolm, the new studio is a winning combination of the traditional and the new, much like John’s music itself!

Hello, Goodbye was composed while John was on a world tour with Mark Knopfler. The core musical group for the album is an all-star cast of handpicked musicians with whom John has been fortunate to work over the past 25 years: James Mackintosh, Drums/Percussion (Shooglenifty, The Blue Nile, James); Ewen Vernal, Bass (Deacon Blue, Capercaille); Ian Carr, Guitar (Eddi Reader, Julie Fowlis, Swap); Michael McGoldrick, Whistle (Mark Knopfler, Capercaille, Sharon Shannon); Andy Cutting, Melodeon  (The Who, June Tabor); Tim O’Brien (Grammy Award Winning US bluegrass star); Phil Cunningham MBE, Accordion (Bonnie Raitt, Nicola Benedetti) and acclaimed Irish singer Heidi Talbot.

Born in Bellshill, near Glasgow, John began playing whistle and fiddle as a child and joined the legendary folk outfit Battlefield Band aged 17. During his 11 years with the band, he also released his first two solo recordings, 1995’s self-titled debut and 2000’s Yella Hoose. His most recent albums include Under One Sky and the reissues of Yella Hoose and Goodnight Ginger re-mastered deluxe.

John has long been renowned for his skill at transcending musical boundaries: striving to keep his music fresh and exciting, never leaving the past behind but always embracing new sonic adventures. As a live and studio guest he has shared stages with Paul Weller, Paolo Nutini, Teenage Fanclub, Graham Coxon and Eddi Reader. Since 2008, he has been a member of Mark Knopfler’s band, playing arenas around the world including a double bill with Bob Dylan at The Hollywood Bowl and 20 nights at the Royal Albert Hall.

An expanding portfolio as a producer features debut albums by Kris Drever and Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble. He’s also manned the controls for top folk chanteuses Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, Eliza Carthy and Linda Thompson. Film and TV work includes soundtracks for the movie Heartlands (2002) and 16 Years of Alcohol (2003), Billy Connolly’s World Tour of New Zealand (2004), Jennifer Saunders BBC sitcom Jam and Jerusalem (2008) & Starlings sitcom for Sky TV (2012).

John was awarded the coveted BBC Radio 2 Musician of the Year in 2003 and also The Spirit of Scotland Award for music in 1999 and again in 2009.

The John McCusker Band, featuring some of the finest traditional musicians including Andy Cutting, Adam Holmes, Innes White and Toby Shaer, will embark on an extensive UK tour in April/May:

“One of the UK’s most gifted and versatile musicians in any genre, John McCusker is equally in demand as a multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer.” The Guardian

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‘Muireann’s Jig/Farewell to Whalley Range/Roddy McDonald’s’ – The John McCusker band live:

 

Artist’s website: www.johnmccusker.co.uk

Rura – new album and tour

Rura2

One of the most exciting folk-based bands to emerge from Scotland in recent years, Rura returns with their feverishly-anticipated second album, Despite the Dark.

Rugged and hard-hitting, yet intricately disciplined, instrumentals sit alongside heartfelt, anthemic songs, in a masterpiece release from the Glasgow and Edinburgh-based five-piece.

Lead, looping melody lines from fiddler Jack Smedley and Steven Blake, on Highland pipes and whistle, are bolstered by a punch-packing rhythm section of bodhran and guitar from David Foley and Adam Brown – a powerful combination, matched by the earthy honesty of singer-songwriter Adam Holmes’ vocals.

Recorded by highly respected recording and live engineer, Andrea Gobbi, and produced by one of Scotland’s foremost multi-instrumentalists, Ali Hutton (Treacherous Orchestra, Old Blind Dogs) – the album is an all-round triumph.

The tone is established within the seven-and-a-half minute opening track, Dark Reel. Not only was it the band’s first arrangement of new material for the record, but it illustrates the band’s natural progression towards larger arrangements and heightened production levels.

Following tracks weave between similarly high octane sets, and songs – namely the stirring ‘Between the Pines’ – to the delicacy of ‘Cauld Wind Blast’, ‘The Lowground’ and ‘The Glorious 45′.

The intensity and suspension of closing number ‘The Lasher’ bookends nine tracks of powerful, whilst contrastingly stripped back, subtle arrangements of instrumental and vocal mastery, demonstrating the band’s musical maturity, and highlighting both an innate understanding of their chosen material, and unashamed joy in what they do.

Artists’ website: www.rura.co.uk

‘The Lasher’ – live at Celtic Connections:

Tour Dates – http://www.rura.co.uk/tour-dates/

ADAM HOLMES – Heirs & Graces (GROGAR RECORDS GR1AH)

Heirs&GracesHeirs & Graces is the debut album from Edinburgh singer-songwriter Adam Holmes and his band The Embers. Of course, The Embers includes Kris Drever and Southern Tenant Folk Union bassman, Alex Hunter, so this isn’t some studio pick-up outfit and the record was produced by John Wood, one of the few sound men celebrated in song.

Who’s who doesn’t really matter. This is a classy piece of work. It looks as though there’s a lot going on but the arrangements are the epitome of restraint – as if parts were worked out and then reduced by half. The production is similarly spare but everything gels. Key sounds are Steven Blake’s keys and Alan Train’s pedal steel but there are no ego trips and the music rolls and flows. That, and Adam’s languid delivery, is so reminiscent of John Martyn.

Then there are the songs. The opener, ‘Monday Morning’ is a lazy blues to settle the listener in but the best song is probably ‘Oh, My God’, a reflection on a man’s mortality set to a gorgeously simple tune. In fact, gorgeously simple is a perfect description of this album.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.adamholmesandtheembers.com

‘Monday Morning’ recorded live for Amazing Radio: