HARP & A MONKEY – The Victorians (own label)

The VictoriansWe have waited a long while for Harp & A Monkey’s fourth album but, despite the hints they dropped, this may not be the album some of us were expecting. No matter for the band have gone back to their roots with a collection of songs that were popular during, and sometimes written during the nineteenth century. Of course, most of the material within The Victorians has been seriously interfered with by Martin Purdy, Simon Jones and Andy Smith but that is to be expected. These are, or were, tavern songs, parlour songs and sometimes even folk songs mostly from around their home town of Manchester. The illustration on the cover is that symbol of Victorian progress, the Peppered Moth, sometimes called the Manchester Moth which we all learned about in school.

The opening track is ‘A Naked Man In Paradise’, proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. It tells the story of a man who dived into the Irwell to rescue survivors of a capsized ship. While he was thus engaged somebody stole his clothes and he later died of pneumonia. I can’t help but think that there is a moral for our times in there.

Next is ‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’ which was sung regularly when I was a lad and was a favourite of mine. I always assumed that it was traditional but I now learn that the tune was written by Dave Moran of ‘Bedlam Boys’ fame. I’m not sure that I like the chaps’ interference with this song but I’ll let them off in gratitude for putting the song into my record collection. They move to Yorkshire for ‘Jolly Grinder’ – a variant of ‘The Miller Of Dee’ story but not terribly jolly – and ‘Glossop Road’. Again, I always believed that the latter was traditional but I now know that it was written in the 1860s. It’s great to have it in the collection, too. Finally, we have ‘Victorians’, a summary of 19th century themes including science and the acquisition of wealth, and ‘Bonnie England’, which illustrates how very little things have changed in the last century or so.

On a first casual listen the arrangements seemed rather minimal but actually they are quite complex. We’re not given much information in the packaging but there’s accordion, guitar, banjo, harp and viola in there with Martin’s glockenspiel providing the top notes and I suspect that electronics play a part in the album’s production number, ‘Ten Shilling Wife’. On top of that there are bits of “field recordings” – water, the creaking of oars and background conversation providing ambience.

The Victorians could well be Harp & A Monkey’s finest hour but I should listen to their other albums again just to be sure.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Calico Printer’s Clerk’:

HARP & A MONKEY – Live at Grayshott Folk Club

Harp & A Monkey
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Although they have a new album on the way – pause for cheering – Harp & A Monkey had resolved not to play anything from it. Martin Purdy explained that when they had tried to preview new songs, audiences had been disappointed that they couldn’t buy them there and then. Besides, being such a long way from home gave them a perfect opportunity to explore their back catalogue in front of a new audience.

I’d seen them live once before, doing a support spot but here, in a headline role, they were able to relax and be a little more expansive. Their instrumentation seems minimal, not to say a little odd: banjo, guitar and glockenspiel with touches of accordion, melodica, fiddle and, yes, harp. However they perform over loops and backing tapes – Andy Smith and Simon Jones are both string players and it’s all their own work, so as Martin put it “we’re miming to ourselves” but they’re not, of course. They are playing in a situation where timing is everything and unforgiving and you can’t help but admire the skill when a note rings out a split second before a spoken word section of tape begins.

They began with ‘The Manchester Angel’, one of their adapted traditional songs and one which puts Harp & A Monkey in a geographical and historical context: mill towns, cobble streets and poverty. Many of their original songs encompass the history and geography of their home region as well as its people which is where the semi-traditional ‘Bolton’s Yard’ comes in. But they’re not restrictive as ‘Digging Holes’ proves and sometimes their songs are deeply personal – ‘Dear Daughter’ springs to mind.

The second set began with a selection of songs from War Stories, their Great War album, beginning with ‘The Banks Of Green Willow’. It may be sacreligious but I think I prefer their version of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ to Peter Bellamy’s. Peter emphasised the harshness of the poem whereas Harp & A Monkey bring out the tenderness. The album and songs like ‘Gallipoli Oak’ and ‘Postman’s Song’ concentrate on the other stories of the war – the widows, the bereaved parents and the civilians who kept services going at home but saw the misery and despair.

They finished with the lighter songs: ‘The Molecatcher’, ‘Pay Day’ – not exactly light, perhaps, but very singable – and the delightful ‘Katie And The Twinkly Band’ before encoring with ‘Charlie Chaplin’. A splendid show.

Jim Cozens
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Harp & A Monkey were supported by singer-songwriter Jim Cozens and Grayshott are very lucky to have a performer of his calibre in their midst. His songs are never formulaic and conjure up wonderful pictures. I particularly liked ‘15th And P Street’, his account of living in Washington DC which he really brought to life.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

‘Soldier, Soldier’ – official video:

Harp And A Monkey bio

Harp And A Monkey

Songs about cuckolded molecatchers, a lone English oak tree that grows at Gallipoli, care in the community and medieval pilgrims… we can only be talking about the folk experimentalists Harp and a Monkey.

The harp ‘n’ banjo driven electro-folk-storytelling of Martin Purdy (vocals, glockenspiel, accordion, harmonica and keyboards), Simon Jones (harp, guitar, viola) and Andy Smith (banjo, melodica, guitar and programming) is imbued with a deep Lancashire sensibility that shines through in their beautifully crafted and sometimes spooky vignettes of northern life, love and remembrance.

The outfit, who have been friends for more than 20 years, channel the ghosts of summers spent in municipal parks and winters walking on the moors. Ask them about their influences and they are as likely to cite Ordnance Survey maps and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as they are Bert Jansch, Bjork or Bellowhead.

Formed in 2008, Harp and a Monkey have been building up a loyal following via the old fashioned practice of relentless gigging and modern practice of social network sites.

Regulars on the northern festival circuit, in recent years they have expanded their live outreach across the country.  The band are particularly proud of the fact that they have gained a strong reputation for building an excellent rapport with their live audiences and the fact that they have never played anywhere and not been invited back. Such is the strength of their reputation as a quality live act, they have twice been asked to perform at the Homegrown festival; the annual international showcase of the best of English folk music.

The trio’s melodic and hauntological storytelling, which is always underpinned by a firm commitment to classic songsmithery, has caught the attention and support of the likes of Steve Lamacq, Mark Radcliffe and Mike Harding on BBC Radio 2, Lopa Kothari and Nick Luscombe on BBC Radio 3, Folk Radio UK and many more international, national and regional broadcasters.

The band’s self-titled debut album received critical acclaim on its release in late 2011 and they collected excellent reviews for their contribution to the 2012 Weirdlore compilation which highlighted Britain’s most promising practitioners of alternative folk. Their second album, All Life Is Here, was released in April 2014 and again received outstanding reviews, with the likes of fRoots magazine describing them as “undoubtedly one of the most vital and charismatic things happening in English folk music right now”.

The band’s third album, War Stories, was released in July, 2016, as part of their ongoing project (part-sponsored by Arts Council England and The Western Front Association) to mark the centenary of the First World War. The band have been  performing new material and re-worked traditional songs (which strive to challenge stereotypes of the conflict) in unusual venues related to the war on British shores. The album has received outstanding reviews, with the likes of The Observer describing it as “bold and brilliant”. Support from BBC Radio 2 has been substantive, including sessions and interviews with Clare Balding (Good Morning Sunday) and Mark Radcliffe (The Folk Show).

Artists’ website: http://www.harpandamonkey.com/

Was this really the band’s first gig? ‘Pay Day’ live: