The Lines We Draw Together, from banjoist, fiddle player, singer and innovative songwriter Rowan Rheingans is a bit of a juxtaposition with the music being relaxing and melancholy and some of the subject matter covering challenging topics. Listening to it is like having a gentle comforting hug.
It contains ten original songs from Rowan, which the PR notes describe as “ten brilliantly poetic meditations on history, war, family, birdsong, dance, trauma recovery, sorrow and hope” and there is certainly some wonderful story telling in the songs.
The album certainly pushes the envelope of folk and some of it reminded me of a Peter Gabriel album in terms of the originality and composition, especially the title track ‘Lines’. That said there is still the essence of folk songs and tunes in her writing.
There is some gentle banjo playing on ‘Fire’ and listen out for the percussion on ‘Brave’. ‘Sky’ is a short almost spoken song, with very little musical accompaniment. In contrast ‘Traces’ is nearly nine minutes long, starts with mournful strings goes into a repeated short verse and closes with clarinet.
The combination of clarinet from Jack McNeil (Propellor) and strings on many of the songs intertwine wonderfully. Much of it was recorded live, which can be felt by the listener as the interaction between the musicians is very apparent.
Other musicians involved include Michele Stoddart (The Magic Numbers), percussionist Laurence Hunt (The Wayward Band) and electronic musician Robert Bentall all help enforce the originality of the album and the lack of fear of moving away from her more recognized genre. The producer was Andy Bell who has also worked with Jon Boden and Karine Polwart.
I really enjoyed all the songs and if you’re feeling in a reflective mood stick this album on kick back, relax and enjoy the embrace of that hug.
Did 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.
Singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson releases brand new studio album Rooted on August 30 on Topic Records. Produced by Andy Bell and recorded in Sheffield and Oxfordshire, Rooted will be available on CD, LP and digital with the deluxe 2CD and deluxe digital versions including a bonus disc of instrumentals, Seeded.
Summing up the themes of his new album, Martin says:
“The music and songs embrace nature and travel, mental health, real life stories, loss, politics and history… and the threads that bind all this together can be followed back a long way, to 1965 when I got my first guitar and started to soak up material and ideas at a very rapid rate.”
Rooted features an array of stellar guest musicians, including Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola), Andy Cutting (melodeon and diatonic accordion), Liz Hanks (cello), John Smith (electric guitar and vocals), Ben Nicholls (string bass and electric bass guitar), Julie Matthews (vocals), Alan Barnes (clarinet), Max Simpson (vocals), Amy Smith (vocals), Chris While (vocals) and Tom A Wright (drums and percussion). Richard Hawley and Dom Flemons contribute backing vocals and bones respectively to first single ‘Neo’ (out 21st June). As well as vocals, Martin himself plays banjola, 5-string banjo, 6-string fretless banjo, electric bass guitar and electric and resonator guitars!
Hand in hand with his long and storied solo career, Martin has been central to seminal collaborations like The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Simpson Cutting Kerr. He has worked with a dazzling range of artists from across the musical spectrum: Jackson Browne, Martin Taylor, June Tabor, Richard Hawley, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Thompson, David Hidalgo, Danú, Richard Thompson and Dom Flemons, to mention a few. He is consistently named as one of the very finest acoustic, fingerstyle and slide guitar players in the world and is the most nominated musician in the history of the BBC Folk Awards, with a remarkable thirty-one nods. A true master of his art.
Five years on from their debut, which announced a major new force on the scene, Scottish band Salt House release their new album Undersong. Produced by folk heavyweight Andy Bell (Martin Simpson, Songs of Separation, Jon Boden, Furrow Collective), the album instills a special sense of place, recorded in a restored Telford Church on the island of Berneray, Outer Hebrides.
Whether it’s setting old words to new melodies, re-working ancient ballads or writing their own – Salt House marry all their musical strands with a deep understanding for the British song tradition and an empathy for a story. Recent recruit, singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon joins multi-instrumentalist and songsmith Ewan MacPherson and violist and fiddler Lauren MacColl to weave stories of landscape, place and time.
The Telford church used to record the music was featured in Channel 4’s Restoration Man and is a special, hugely creative space, in a location which marries perfectly with the band’s love of the islands, the outdoors and of nature. Salt House are based in the Highlands and Northern Isles and the music for Undersong was created over the past year between the Cairngorms and rural Aberdeenshire.
The ten songs on the album include new settings of poetry, a reworking of a Scandinavian ballad, and six new songs from Jenny and Ewan’s own writing. The band deliver and arrange their material with an honesty and respect to the story, the words, and their lineage, whilst continuing to forge their own sound.
Tom Paxton once remarked about one of his songs that it originally sounded as if it had been written a century ago, but that he no longer considered that a virtue. Fortunately, Peter Bellamy had no problem with “telling it like it was”. His ballad opera The Transports was, in the opinion of many, the best example of how effectively he could write songs that sounded as if they had been written around the time of the events they describe, which happened in the late 18th century. The Transports – A Tale Of Exile And Migration, released on January 12th 2018, is not, of course, the first recorded version of the opera.
The first recording was released in 1977, and included some enormously influential artists, including some whose influence has survived long after they themselves left the stage. (For example Bert Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Dave Swarbrick, and Peter Bellamy himself.) The ‘silver edition’ released in 2004 included not only the (remastered) original recording, but also a collection of newer recordings by other artists, including members of Fairport Convention; Coope, Boyes & Simpson; Steve Tilston; and Damien Barber and John Kirkpatrick. This latest CD, produced by Andy Bell, features a younger generation of singers and musicians, including members of The Young ‘Uns, Bellowhead, Faustus, Waterson: Carthy, Whapweasel, and Belshazzar’s Feast, as well as Nancy Kerr, Matthew Crampton and Greg Russell.
This live CD isn’t just a reproduction of the original recording with different musicians, however: it mirrors the touring revival from 2017 (which at the time of writing is just beginning another 14-date tour that ends in Norwich on the 24th January: see the website linked below for details). While it’s still based on the true story that captured Peter Bellamy’s imagination all those years ago, it uses spoken narrative between songs rather than the four sections of ‘The Ballad Of Henry And Susannah’ from the original recording. The narration, by Matthew Crampton, also draws parallels with the plight of 21st century forced migration. Perhaps the only reservation that I have about the CD is that while the narration is very capable, even a new listener might not want to hear it every time after they’ve become acquainted with the story. But in this age of iGadgets and personal playlists, I suppose people are much less likely to simply put on a CD and play it all the way through.
The production also includes Sean Cooney’s own recent song ‘Dark Water’, about Hesham Modamani, who swam from Turkey to Greece in his bid to escape from Syria. Live performances include stories of migration researched by the Parallel Lives project. While the song doesn’t have the ‘traditional’ quality of Peter Bellamy’s songs, it doesn’t jar – on me, at any rate – and it’s an excellent performance.
For comparison with previous recordings, here’s a listing of the songs: there are 28 tracks altogether, including the spoken tracks.
‘Us Poor Fellows’
‘The Robber’s Song’
‘The Leaves In The Woodland’
‘The Ballad of Norwich Gaol’
‘I Once Lived In Service’
‘Sweet Loving Friendship’
‘The Black and Bitter Night’
‘The Humane Turnkey 1’
‘The Plymouth Mail’
‘The Humane Turnkey 2’
‘The Green Fields of England’
‘The Still and Silent Ocean’
For reasons of space, I won’t go through the performances individually: the songs are of a uniform high quality (and, happily, the booklet includes the lyrics). The vocals (both solo and ensemble) and instrumental work are never less than very good, though Nancy Kerr’s bravura performance on ‘The Leaves In The Woodland’ deserves a special mention.
If you already have an earlier version, it’s still worth taking a look at this for its change of focus (and, of course, some excellent performances). If you’re not acquainted with The Transports but like the sound of songs that are very much in a traditional vein and tell a fascinating historical story with 21st century resonances, you should definitely take a look. And if you tend to prefer more contemporary renditions of contemporary material, take a look anyway. You might just surprise yourself.
Jon Boden, former frontman of progressive folk eleven-piece Bellowhead, has announced details of his new solo album Afterglow, set for release via Hudson Records on October 6th. Afterglow is Boden’s first studio release since calling an end to Bellowhead, a twelve-year project that culminated in a quarter of a million album sales and worldwide sell-out shows including the Royal Albert Hall. Boden will return to the stage at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival (July 27th-30th), where he will debut Afterglow as part of his guest curation.
Afterglow follows on from Boden’s 2009 solo concept-album Songs From The Floodplain which lead him to be named as Folk Singer Of The Year at the BBC Folk Awards. Whereas Floodplain largely dealt with the rural setting, Afterglow looks to juxtapose this and immerse the listener within a post-apocalyptic street carnival – a location of decaying buildings, burning oil drums and homemade fireworks, in which Boden tells the story of two lovers trying to find one another. Speaking about the album concept, Boden says:
“Like my previous album Songs From The Floodplain, Afterglow imagines a near-future world where the luxuries and comfort of 21st century life have become scarce, and a harder, simpler existence now prevails. Afterglow is the story of a couple who are trying to find each other in the middle of a bonfire-night street carnival in a crumbling, derelict city. I had a wonderful time recording it in Sheffield with the help of my band the Remnant Kings and Andy Bell in the producer’s chair.”
Across his career Boden has been awarded a record-breaking 12 BBC Folk Awards, earned through his work with Bellowhead and Spiers & Boden. Now touring as both a solo artist and with his band The Remnant Kings, Jon will perform in both incarnations again this autumn. Commencing with his solo tour at Pocklington’s Arts Centre on November 6th, Jon will perform at intimate venues across the UK before ending at Ludlow’s Assembly Rooms on November 14th. From here Boden will tour with The Remnant Kings, beginning at Gateshead’s Sage on November 17 and taking in a date at London’s Scala on November 22nd.