MERRY HELL – A Documentary: A Year in the Life (own label)

A Year In The LifeExactly what it says, A Year In The Life follows the much acclaimed and awards-festooned Wigan outfit across the course of a year from February 2018 to February 2019, from rehearsals and hometown gigs to meet and greet Q&A sessions (why are you called Merry Hell?) and festivals, from Portugal to Skegness. As John Kettle stresses from the start, while their familiar live format is as a quintet, Merry Hell are, in fact, 12 piece, including not only keyboardist Lee Goulding, fiddler Neil McCartney (who made the documentary) and drummer Andy Jones who roll up for the recordings and larger stages, but also their manager, Damian Liptrot, merchandisers Julie McKiernan and Mike Jones, and designer Julian Watts. They are, as the film makes clear, very much a family in more than the literal sense of the three Kettle brothers and John’s wife Virginia.

Going behind the scenes, to their homes and into dressing rooms (at one show Virginia marvels how they all have their own, including Damian), each gets their own turn in the spotlight, talking about their background, their role in the band, offering up anecdotes and chatting about their favourite books. For Virginia it’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which she read because she wanted to be like the cool girl in town she’d seen reading it, Nick (filmed with the backdrop of a Merry Helloween banner in St Helens) recalls first encountering The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy while Bob talks of George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, affording an opportunity for a trip round their native town and a visit to the actual pier, which, and I’m sure most wouldn’t have known this, was actually the loading bay on the canal where they put the coal on the boats. Virginia, on the other hand, takes us on a tour of Chester to where she moved from Manchester in 1982 and kicked off her music career at the Raven Folk Club (chatting to one of the long-standing organisers, Nick Mitchell), taking in the suspension bridge from which she and he mates would dive into the river and an old Anchorite cell.

As with their music, the personal and the politics go hand in hand, the different members talking about their convictions (Bob notes how the world needs more kindness and Andrew talks about the need for a global ecological consciousness) and how the need to keep what they do and sing about real. Surprisingly, perhaps, the music itself doesn’t play a prominent role in the film, there are snippets of songs from shows or rehearsals (including their support acts, such as Ragnari). But none are talked about individually or (save for Virginia’s ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ over the end credits) played in full, although there are marvellous extracts of the band performing with the Commoners Choir and, with snatches from ‘Bury Me Naked’ and ‘We Need Each Other Now’, the 210 strong Rabble Chorus. As the notes on the back cover say “Merry Hell offer joyful, uplifting folk-rock with a message for troubled times”. This documentary affords an insight into why and how.

Mike Davies

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‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video (and why not?):

MERRY HELL – Anthems To The Wind (Merry Hell Music MHMCD218)

Anthems To The WindHere’s a conundrum. When you see them playing the folk circuit, Merry Hell comprise Virginia Kettle and her borther-in-law Andrew on vocals, his brothers John on guitar and Bob on banjo, mandolin and bouzouki, bassist Nick Davies and fiddle player Neil McCartney. Officially, however, they’re now an eight-piece with Lee Goulding on keyboards and Andy Jones providing percussion. For such practical reasons as most club stages being too small to accommodate that many musicians, the latter two remain studio-bound.

So, while a live album might be representative of the band on any given night, it wouldn’t be representative of the band as such. So, what you have here is a collection of numbers from the repertoire featuring all eight members, recorded (mostly) live at three venues, just not with an audience, but with the arrangements stripped back to the way they would be heard in their primarily acoustic setting of a folk club.

Ok, that’s the logistics out of the way, so what about the music? It kicks off in fine fettle with the slower live styling of ‘Drunken Serenade’ the opening track from their debut album, these days, of course, showcasing McCartney with an interpolation of traditional instrumental ‘The Banshee Reel’.

Introduced by Virginia as “a message to mothers everywhere”, ‘My Finest Hour’ is the reworking of off Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain, spinning the perspective with, here, Virginia rather than Andrew recounting how mom puts a damper on the couple’s amorous intentions.

Again, it’s Virginia rather than Andrew who sings lead on a slightly longer version of the slow waltzing ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ from 2015’s There’s A Ghost in Our House…, fiddle replacing the already pared back original’s guitar solo.

It’s back to Blink…And You Miss It for anthemic swayalong ‘Over The Border’, fairly akin to the studio recording but, again, slightly longer. The debut also yields three further songs, Bob’s mandolin now being joined by some rousing fiddle from Neil on ‘This Time’, the playful unlikely love story of ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’, sung as before by Virginia, benefiting from a fuller arrangement to its slow march tempo. Andy’s percussion underpinning the prolusion, the division-themed call for tolerance and social anger management ‘The War Between Ourselves’ is one of two instances where the live album brushes up against rock’n’folk, Neil’s fiddle again in the spotlight.

The third is one of the band’s undisputed live showstoppers, ‘Lean On Me, Love’ transformed totally from the studio version with Andrew opening in sonorous a capella form and the slower, almost hymnal arrangement raising its uplifting and inspirational message to the heavens.

Likewise, another live favourite, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ takes on a more full-bloodied stomp feel to the recorded incarnation on Head…and, I venture to suggest, is all the better for it. So too is Andrew and Virginia’s haunting duet of loss and longing on ‘Leave A Light On’ off Ghost…, stripping away the drums and supplanting the guitars with melodeon to bring the song’s swelling emotions into greater relief.

There are, conspicuously, no songs from the most recent album, Bloodlines, you do, however, get two numbers new to Merry Hell but brought in from the Tansads’ back catlogue. The call to personal action and taking risks of ‘Fear Of Falling’ is the second ‘rock-out’ with its strummed guitars, driving fiddle, whoops and handclaps, the album ending with Andrew on lead and the melancholic fiddle notes of the similarly themed slow waltzing ‘Satisfied’, with its refrain singalong image of “millions of people lost in the world”, settling for and accepting the life they’ve been handed rather than, it’s implied, making one for themselves.

They did, of course, win Best Live Act in this year’s Folking Awards; however, not being a live album per se, there’s no crowd applauding or calling for more. You’ll doubtless want to do that part yourselves.

Mike Davies

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‘Lean On Me, Love’ – live:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC – live at The Old Courts, Wigan – 29th April 2018

Merry Hell Acoustic
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.

Jenny ColquittSupport came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.

If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished –  I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.

They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.

As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.

The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video:

MERRY HELL – Bloodlines (Merry Hell Music MHMCD 0116)

bloodlinesI was always a fan of The Tansads back in the 90s and the reunion of three Kettle brothers, singer Andrew, guitarist John and mandolin player Bob, along with John’s wife Virginia, in 2010 under their present name has done nothing to change my mind. Bloodlines is their fourth full-length album since then, the first to feature the voices of all eight members (the others being keyboardist Lee Goulding, Neil McCartney on fiddle with bassist Nick Davies and drummer Andy Jones comprising the rhythm section) and not only continues to see their political veined folk flourish, but also takes both that and the songs of personal relationships up a few notches.

It opens with ‘We Need Each Other Now’, John’s stirring anthemic cry for unity in a world divided over a martial beat and ringing guitars, a theme further explored on Bob’s swaying folk rock ‘Come On, England!’, here, again featuring the band’s massed voices, focusing at the divisions at home, a call for arms in a show of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and defence of people’s rights in the face of the troubling rise nationalism and racism in the name of the red, white and blue.

Sandwiched between is the title track, penned and sung by Virginia, a song that, presumably inspired by the current trend to trace family trees, again celebrates connections, this time within the family and generations, scraping fiddle and tumbling drums providing the song’s spine. ‘Coming Home Song’ is another from Bob, a heartfelt call for peace born of the refugee crisis sung a capella by himself, Andre, Virginia, Neil and Nick, while, again raising the anthemic flag and setting a martial beat, ‘All The Bright Blossoms’, on which he’s joined by Goulding on writing duties, addresses mortality and how love lives on in memory.

Virgina provides two in a row, echoing the theme of ageing on the acoustic slow guitar and fiddle waltzing ‘When We Are Old’, which she also sings, and striking political notes with ‘Stand Down’, a defiant message from those seeking freedom, mercy and justice to those who seek to oppress and exploit. Co-penned by John and Bob, the weary ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is another call to action, and not sing lullabies to our demons and simply “lie there and wait for the end to come.”

‘Chasing A Bluebird’ is something new from the band, the first to be written by McCartney, a country tinged waltzer duet between Andrew and Virginia about an inconstant restless lover leaving broken hearts behind, carried along, as you might guess, on a fiddle tide.

The final four numbers are all from Virginia. The traditional coloured ‘Over The Wall’ a rousing tale of a now or never prison escape by men locked up for striking for better pay and this, in turn, leads into the dreamy ‘Under The Overkill’, pizzicato fiddle and snare introducing a tumbling celebration of a love affair and its “wonderful moments in glorious technicolour”, Andrew providing the chorus refrain to her verses.

She shares credits with Bob and Goulding, who also wrote the music, for the penultimate ‘Man of Few Words’, another tender love song – a la ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ – about being unable to express what you want feel, before bringing things to a close with ‘Sweet Oblivion’, a playfully frisky, mandolin and fiddle driven hoedown, each member taking a bow on their respective instruments, about seizing love and life (“kiss me like it was the last night on earth”) and not going grimly into the dark night. If I was planning a party for the apocalypse, this lot would be top of the list for the house band.

Mike Davies

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‘Come On, England!’ – live at the Citadel, St Helens:

MERRY HELL to release Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain

Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of RainWe’re very excited at folking as we have just got our hands on the new Merry Hell “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” album which is due for general release on the 20 May 2013 through Mrs Casey Records.

The album sees the seven-piece build on the songwriting and musicianship which hallmarked their acclaimed 2011 debut, BLINK…and you miss it.

If you did blink and miss it, then you can head back in time with Dai Jeffries and read his excellent album review here

(which he did for us in September 2011).

We also have a live clip of “Drunken Serenade” (from BLINK…and you miss it) for your listening and viewing pleasure below.

Recorded at Jaraf House Studios, Wigan, Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain is the sound of a band at a new creative peak, inspired by a summer spent immersing themselves in the atmosphere, music and communities at folk and roots festivals up and down the UK.

Tracks like ‘Bury Me Naked’, ‘Let The Music Speak’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (‘Til We’ve Had A Night Before)’ have already become firm favourites among the band’s devoted live following, delighting audiences at Towersey and Wickham Festivals, Big Session, The Great British Folk Festival and many more.

Driven by the distinctive counterpoint vocals of Virginia and Andrew Kettle, the songs are folk music in the broadest sense – story-telling, rootsy and organic – yet underpinned by an unashamed pop sensibility and given wings by the musical accompaniment, including a guest appearance from folk violin legend Dave Swarbrick.

Built around the Kettle family axis (in addition to Virginia and Andrew, the band includes John Kettle on guitars and brother Bob on mandolin and Irish bouzouki), Merry Hell are a band blessed with ability and imagination.

Equally at home in reflective, acoustic-based moments, or declaring their credentials with powerful rock rhythms, the breadth of talent carries firmly into live shows where, time and again, audiences have been swept off their feet and those new to Merry Hell have joined the believers.

If “BLINK…and you miss it” was the sound of Merry Hell becoming comfortable in their new found skin then “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” is loving the skin they’re in.

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