We’ve all played a recorder sometime in the dim and distant past, whether we wanted to or not, but we never played like Finn Collinson. These days we usually hear recorders played in baroque ensembles or slightly fey folk groups but they don’t play like Finn Collinson either. Finn is a multi-instrumentalist but he makes various recorders the lead instruments on his debut album, Call To Mind, its title a play on the Latin recordari. He is supported by Emma Beech on oboe and cor anglais, Archie Churchill-Moss on button accordion, Rowan Collinson and Katriona Gilmore on fiddle with bass by Tom Leader and Josh Clark and percussion by Clark and Jonno Gaze.
The opening set, ‘The January Walk’, has all the hallmarks of the Celtic tradition but comprises three modern tunes while the second pairs the old-time ‘Elk River Blues’ with the old English ‘Chain Cotillion’ for a lovely slow set. Unexpectedly, Finn switches to song with a jaunty take on ‘Hanging Johnny’ which, as he points out, has nothing to do with execution. He also features banjo and mandolin on this one. ‘Evie’s & Emma’s’ are two of Finn’s own tunes which he plays on F whistle but he reverts to recorder for ‘Ordinary Streets’ which he pairs with the Morris tune, ‘Orange In Bloom’.
The second song is ‘Banks Of The Nile’, given a driving beat with the lead vocals shared with Emma. That is followed by three original tunes, ‘FolkEast Waltz’ (did I forget to mention that Finn is from East Anglia?), ‘Aardvark’ and ‘Black Mountains’. The third and final song is, appropriately, Jimmy Rankin’s ‘Orangedale Whistle’ before the record closes with the 18th century ‘Tune For The Bullfinch’ from a volume of tunes supposedly used to teach birds to sing. Did it actually work?
Simply by changing the emphasis of lead instrument, Finn has produced a lovely album which wouldn’t work anywhere near as well with all strings. Call To Mind is not revolutionary and it won’t scare the traditionalists’ horses but its delightful style should bring his name to a wider audience.
Based on a ridiculously small sample, I’m beginning to detect a trend for small groups of players making big music overlaid with powerful vocals. If I’m right then Made In The Aker, the debut album by Honey And The Bear, is right on the money. Honey And The Bear are multi-instrumental/vocal/songwriting duo Lucy and Jon Hart. They have waited a while to record this album and their patience shows in the quality of their work.
Lucy and Jon live on the Suffolk coast – aker is Suffolk for turbulent current, if you were wondering – and many of their songs are inspired by their surroundings and local legends. The opener, ‘Dark Heart’, is the story of a girl who cut her heart out in despair for her missing lover and whose ghost is said to haunt Dunwich beach. More prosaically, ‘The Ferry’ is a tribute to the two families who have operated the Southwold to Walberswick ferry for generations. Even when writing in less specific terms they start by drawing on their locality so ‘Sailor’s Daughter’, about breaking free of society’s shackles, starts with an imagined girl, presumably from one of the coastal villages.
It’s back to a local story for ‘Margaret Catchpole’, who was transported to Australia for stealing a horse but ‘Springtime Girl’ was inspired by Lucy’s grandparents, in particular her grandfather who planted his wife’s name in daffodils in their meadow. Other songs were inspired by a Cuban coffee plantation, a tree house and Sir Christopher Cockerell who is rumoured to have tested his hovercraft prototype on Oulton Broad.
Principal among the small group of musicians supporting Lucy and Jon is Toby Shaer, who plays on every track, Evan Carson who provides all the drums and percussion and Graham Coe whose cello underpins eight of the eleven tracks. There are cameos from Archie Churchiill-Moss and Ciaran Algar and, of course, Lucy and Jon play eight instruments. It is their combined vocals, however, that make the album what it is and what it is is a very accomplished debut.
Ocipinski is percussionist Evan Carson’s first solo album inspired by Jerzy Ocipinski and the Polish Resistance Movements of the Second World War. Why this subject matter you ask? It just so happens that Jerzy Ocipinski was Evan’s grandfather.
The album has taken somewhat longer to complete that originally planned, but as we all know Evan is a busy man recording and/or performing with The Willows, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, Carousel and more recently The Tweed Project, to name just a few. It was also recorded in places as far afield as the UK, Russia, Iceland and Australia so it was somewhat logistically challenging.
The music was co-written by Evan and Gleb Kolyadin, who also plays piano on the album masterfully. The lyrics are credited to Evan, Georgia Lewis, Jim Grey and Hannah Sanders who also provide their highly impressive vocal talents along with Evan himself and Ben Savage. Other musicians involved are Karl James Pestka (violin & viola), Graham Coe (cello), Toby Shaer (flutes), Chris Heales (electric guitars and bass), Josh Franklin (bass and synths), Chris Cawood (acoustic guitar and bass) and Archie Churchill Moss (melodian). You are probably already getting the feeling this is something you have to listen to.
The way the album flows is like a prog folk version of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, albeit shorter and without all the psychedelic imagery. Four of the seven tracks are over six minutes long and all are filled with intricate percussion, piano and vocals. The album is obviously percussion driven and those of you who have seen Evan with any of his bands will know he is not one to stick with a standard drum kit and 4/4 beat.
‘Sky’, the opening track is the shortest on the album and it creeps up on you like an instrumental dawn, it builds gently and then leads into ‘Shards’ (for me the best track on the album) with it’s syncopated drum beat and frenetic piano and wonderful lead vocals from Georgia (someone I must find out more about). This leads into ‘Chrysalis’ with more haunting vocal which has an Eastern feel to it.
‘Otriad’ starts with more great piano from Gleb, features Evan/Jim on lead vocal and has the strings from Karl and flutes from Toby which come to the fore in a middle instrumental section. ‘Bloodlines’ starts slower, but then there is more of that driving percussion with Hannah on lead vocals and Ben’s warming backing vocals. This leads into ‘The Fireflies Of Falaise’ which is mainly instrumental with a multi-vocal chant to take it to the end. The final track ‘Anders Prayer’, has an industrial feel to it with Georgia again on lead vocal and it closes out the album in fine fashion.
This is a truly original piece of work brilliantly produced by Joshua Franklin, which I encourage you to take 43 minutes out of your day to sit down and listen to from start to finish. If you’re at the more open-minded end of the folk world, you will thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Produced by and featuring Ange Hardy, this is the debut album by an affable chap from her home town of Watchet in Somerset who, in addition to running weekly shanty nights down the pub and being an established stone sculptor also serves as the local football referee and Punch and Judy Man. Not to mention, holding the position of Town Crier, hence the album’s title, Songs From The Bell Man. And, of course, that commanding voice.
Joined by Lukas Drinkwater on double bass, Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion fiddle player Tom Moore, and percussionist Olly Winters-Owen, with shanty vocal contributions from The Old Gaffers, it’s a collection of both traditional and self-penned songs documenting Watchet’s long history. Case in point being album opener ‘The Watchet Sailor’, a tale about hearts-stealing Jack Tars that he first learned when he was about eight, sung unaccompanied.
The first of the original material follows, accordion backdropping ‘The Last Shift In’, a catchy waltzer lament for the closing of the Wansborough Paper Mill, where he once worked, in 2015 after over 260 years, the intro of ‘Wasson Boy’ being a greeting at shift change to see if all as going well. A Celtic melody setting of Tennyson’s poem with Hardy on whistle, ‘Crossing The Bar’ tips the hat to a former Watchet crier, one Yankee Jack, it being one of his favourite songs. A familiar shanty, ‘Greenland Fisheries’ returns to traditional waters, the maritime imagery carried over into the self-penned ‘The Last Long Ship’, another Celtic mist melody carrying the poignant story him joining a recently widowed Watchet lady to bid farewell to her husband by consigning his ashes to a Viking funeral, a flock of geese flying past in perfect formation to the flickering flames.
It’s back to traditional shanty shores with the unaccompanied ‘Won’t You Go My Way’, another song learned from Yankee Jack, the Old Gaffers singing the title refrain and the number flowing into the lengthily titled Morris tune ‘Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been. Six young fellows came a courting me. Five were blind and the other couldn’t see. Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been.’
Another melancholic gentle waltzer with music hall influences, ‘Emma Louise’ dates back to Milton’s days working at the mill some thirty years back, a love song not to some young lass but a boat, or at least his fanciful imaging of two sail boats he knew about, the lyric another lament for something that’s come to end of its useful life.
The final Milton song, ‘Old Be’n, nods to another former member of the Court Leet, Ben Norman and the wealth of local history knowledge about Watchet harbour he carried with him. If you’re looking for comparisons, this one points to Stan Rogers.
It ends with two unaccompanied traditional numbers, ‘Row On Row On’ being a setting by Tim Laycock to words from the 1864 journal of a New Bedford whaler concerning fears of an approaching storm and arousing reading of ‘Bye Bye My Roseanna’, a shanty cocktail of Scandinavian and Mississippi versions of the song about a sailor’s ocean-roaming life. A fine album indeed, Oyez, oyez.
No artist is going to say their latest album isn’t as good as their previous ones, but when Dunlop says he thinks Notes From An Island is his best to date, he’s not just spouting press release clichés. Again produced by Ed Harcourt, who also contributes bass, and featuring long-standing regulars Jacob Stoney on keys and drummer Fred Claridge alongside guest musicians Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion and violinists Tom Moore and Gita Langley, it strikes both personal and socio-political notes, the Island of the title a reference to both himself and post-Brexit Britain (as well as a riff on Bill Bryson’s celebrated travel memoirs). It’s also the first on which he gets to show off the virtuoso new guitar skills inspired by acquiring the new Gretsch on which most of the songs were written.
It opens with the heady, musically and metaphorically layered ‘Spices From The East’, a five-minute number that initially offers an image of two people sharing their love in cooking a meal together, folding in their spirits with the different ingredients, drinking in the aromas and sharing a plate together. However, as the music gathers from muted beginnings, so too do the lyrics take on a wider vision as they speak of the country’s colonial past and the opening up of trade routes and sea networks into Asia, generally through conflict, that continue to provide access to the titular spices. As such, it speaks of colonial guilt but also, in this troubled refugee times, a call for a masala society in which “we are coalesced whenever we dine”. Interestingly, there are several references to the East throughout the album, with mentions of Persia and the rivers of Babylon.
Dunlop’s songs and frequently veined with melancholy, and mingling the sour with the sweet and here they predominantly centre around negative experiences with bruised and broken relationships. Even so, his take can often be wry. Cases in point being the next two tracks. Taken at a measured pace with simply repeated guitar riff throughout, the organ gradually filling out the sound, ‘Feng Shui’ deals with relationship breakup and the four walls that holds the memories and “the scars from when we threw things acrossthe room”, his mom suggesting he try Feng Shui and rearrange the furniture in the hope of doing the same with his emotions, the song extending to concern the need to redecorate your lives when the relationship wallpaper starts to peel.
More playfully, opening with Harcourt’s jangling 60s folk-rock guitar, ‘Sweet On You’, the poppiest and most commercial thing he’s ever recorded, is about, as he explained at a live show I caught, about a misguided short-lived teenage crush (“Knew you for two years and by the end of the first the writing was on the wall”) on a self-absorbed friend (the lyric is actually ambiguous as to the gender, though he notes how they “started giving time to the girl I gave my heart to”) with a nose for trouble and who, more importantly, in its memorable references to Ry Cooder, didn’t share his musical tastes, the song ending with the confession that “If I had the choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose”. I’d suspect a touch of Buddy Holly influences might have been at work here.
The mood shifts to a more late night bluesy ambience for ‘I Do’, plangent piano notes, bass and a sparse drum beat underpinning a song that revisits the break up in ‘Feng Shui’, an angsty confessional of wanting to be rid of “every liar I’ve been seeing in the mirror at the end of our bed” but wracked by the thought that “I’ll never find anyone fit to hold a candle to you”. In many ways it’s very stoically British, the affair deemed “rather regrettable” and with a deliberately overwritten line in ‘If only I’d lent her my ocular system’s true appraisal of that tight fitting dress” or, to put it another way, “yes, your bum does look big in that”.
Fingerpicked acoustic guitar carries along the folksier ‘One and the Same’, the drums making an entrance midway to beef it up alongside Langley’s violin that seeks to find common ground in shared pain, his voice soaring to falsetto at the end of lines, his intricate Thompson-influenced guitar work again in evidence on the musically uncluttered ‘Within My Citadel’, another infectious melody and bout of self-analysis about going with the wind in order to have a sense of belonging, of building walls to keep from hurt and of, perhaps, prolonged adolescence as he sings about “remnants of a boyhood in disguise.”
Returning to that broken home, the need to move on but being stuck in limbo and smiling for the camera, ‘Nothing Good’ is a slow waltz ballad that paves the way for ‘Threadbare’, another number, its Fleetwood Mac melodic groove enhanced by the West Coast-like guitar pattern, organ swirls, Moore’s violin and Brooke Sharkey’s backing vocals, about love unravelling (and with another mirror reference) and the need to get back on the horse as he sings “I don’t know what love is but I know that it’s out there”.
Melodeon to the fore, ‘Green Liquor’ has a choppy percussive guitar rhythm as he returns to political commentary, the song addressing the paradox of London’s East End where the homeless seek shelter and while buildings stand empty, “earnest for the ghost of a resident”.
It’s back, then, to the fraught dynamics of love with the sparsely arranged ‘Pallet and Brush’ that uses the conceit of him sitting for a painting “coloured by all of my ills” as a relationship metaphor, “our faces disfigured/Forbidding each other to speak.” Although sharing the imagery of distance, love of a different nature shapes ‘Wed To Arms’, a post-Brexit metaphor about conflicting feelings for his country (“I am wed to her charms… but she’s wed to arms”), an island on an island, and the course on which it is set as “we sail the seas of isolation” like “the North Atlantic Drift”.
Maybe it’s that disillusionment that leads the album to end with ‘Cobalt Blue’, an intimate voice and electric guitar that looks for, if not salvation and redemption, then to at least “both go down together” as he sings of his waking freewheeling from a dream of Melbourne and of ploughing Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony island off south eastern Australia to which convicts from Britain were transported. You know the healing may have begun when you can see the sky and not the ceiling.
Paradoxically, an album that turns it mind to personal and national isolation it may well prove the one that expands the horizons of audience awareness and appreciation far beyond his present borders.
Battling snow and ice on tour for the past week has clearly taken a toll on this group of musicians (amongst many others no doubt), but that won’t stop them putting on a storming show this evening.
Support act, Honey And The Bear (aka Jon Hart & Lucy Sampson) deliver a half-hour set of earwormy, catchy songs, culminating in ‘William’ from their 2016 EP, About Time Too and the galloping, riffling ‘Wristburner’. Their slightly low-key stage presence belies their lively, well-crafted and perfectly performed music. And it turns out that there’s so much more to this versatile duo: manning the merch stall, driving the van and even providing the evening’s sound tech. Headliners, book them now, while you can.
A short while later, the seven-piece line-up of Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys fills the stage as percussionist Evan Carson sets a grinding groove for the first song, ‘Hickathrift’, the tale of a legendary Norfolk giant-killer.
With so many big, sing-along tunes on both the band’s albums to date, from ‘The Golden Vanity’ via the deceptively jolly ‘Angeline The Baker’, the call-and-response of ‘The Keeper’ or the barrelling ‘Jolly Waggoners’, featuring a frenzied banjo part from Jamie Francis, it’s blindingly obvious why this band is such a festival success.
Then there’s the dry, irreverent and often charmingly unfiltered humour that allows them to respect what they do without being in thrall to it. If you’re after reverential folk that won’t poke fun at the often ludicrous and/or plain old sexist scenarios of some songs, this might not be the band for you. If you want a solid, tight set of superb musicians who know how to have a good time, then they’re a must-see.
Still, it’s not all wall-to-wall party. The well-paced set contains many quieter moments, such as the tender rendition of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’, and Cornish ballad ‘Grwello Glaw’ (‘Let It Rain’). Originating from Kelly’s time with The Changing Room, it’s an appropriate choice for a St Piran’s Day gig. (Also, we’re told, it will be the first dance the band plays for Hart and Sampson’s wedding in June. Altogether now: aaahhh!).
A rather different sound comes with ‘The Shiny Ship’, an effect-laden track from the Pretty Peggy album that has been reworked for the live environment. Carson’s shimmering cymbals and hard rapping drum offset Graham Coe’s shoulder-slung, psychedelic, droning cello to create an atmosphere of moody mystery.
For the family members present in the audience, Kelly dedicates a cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans Of Swing’ which starts leisurely before building into a floorshaker. Finishing with Archie Moss’s melodeon leading the mischievous cross-dressing tale, ‘The Close Shave’ and buffered by tunes from Ciaran Algar and Toby Shaer, the set ends on a whirling high.
As the audience erupts in appreciation, the band returns in typically self-deprecating fashion. “The dressing room was locked” deadpans Algar. Meanwhile, there are two clear contenders for an encore among the crowd. Carson holds a vote, defying Algar’s sardonic, “This is not a democracy”. 48% want ‘The Chain’, but 52% are pro ‘Greenland Whale’, so there it is. Luckily, this is one vote that doesn’t cause deep or lasting division, as we all sing happily together before going our separate ways home.