SAM LEE – Old Wow (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD743)

Old WowIt’s hard to credit that Old Wow is only Sam Lee’s third album. It seems that he’s been around forever, done so much and already had such an impact on the British folk scene. The album is inspired by Sam’s other consuming passion, the natural world, and there are plenty of bucolic songs about the mythical rural idyll. These are not necessarily those songs but I do detect a pattern. The ten tracks are divided into three sections, heart, hearth and earth and it seems that the first song in each group fits the rural theme – after that you’re on your own.

The opening track, the first of the heart set is ‘The Garden Of England’ which used to be ‘The Seeds Of Love’ until Sam started work on it. It provides the album’s title, which is Sam’s reaction to nature, particularly after a close encounter with a buzzard. So far, so straightforward. Next is ‘Lay This Body Down’, followed by ‘The Moon Shines Bright’. Well, death is natural. Completing the section is ‘Soul Cake’ and Sam confuses us by beginning the song with ‘Green Grow The Rushes O’. Soul cakes were traditionally baked for Halloween and now the traditional children’s song takes on a more sinister aspect.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with Sam’s arranging style and he doesn’t stray much from it on Old Wow. At the heart of the record are piano, bass and percussion with cello on two tracks plus Hardanger fiddle and, for the first time, electric guitar played by producer Bernard Butler.

Hearth begins with ‘Spencer The Rover’ but returns to tragedy with a song I hadn’t heard before, ‘Jasper Sea’, a tale of a father and son drowning. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ doesn’t get any jollier. The opening of the earth section with ‘Turtle Dove’ is symbolic of Sam’s preoccupations. He has spoken about the decline of these birds before and the words of betrayal that he adds to the song are not for the girl being left behind. ‘Worthy Wood’ and ‘Balnafanen’ are both laments and Sam incorporates into the latter parts of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ as he does with ‘Lay This Body Down’.

Old Wow is a complex album – all of Sam’s are. It carries its own darkness and, although it is inspired by nature you will search in vain for shepherdesses and jolly ploughboys. It will grip you, however.

Dai Jeffries

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

‘Lay This Body Down’ – official video:

Sam Lee announces new album, Old Wow

Sam Lee

Sam Lee plays a unique role in the British music scene. He is a multi award-winning singer with a rich and soulful voice, a committed folk song collector and a successful promoter of imaginative live events. With training in visual art and contemporary dance, Sam has presented acclaimed radio documentaries and appeared on stages around the globe. And if all that wasn’t enough, Sam Lee is also a passionate conservationist and highly effective environmental campaigner. This is seen through his work with Extinction Rebellion, Music Declares Emergency and the recent RSPB campaign, Let Nature Sing, where Sam helped get 3 minutes of birdsong into the UK Top 20 charts for the first time.

Sam Lee’s 3rd album, Old Wow, his first for respected indie label, Cooking Vinyl, is due for release on 31st January 2020. The album will be accompanied by his most comprehensive UK tour to date (including his debut show at Celtic Connections 29th January 2020). As with Sam’s previous albums (Mercury Music Prize nominated/Arts Foundation Award-winning, Ground Of Its Own, 2012, followed in 2015 by the equally acclaimed, The Fade in Time), this latest album looks set to surprise, challenge and inspire.

Old Wow was recorded at RAK Studios and Studio 355 in London and is produced by Bernard Butler (Suede, MacAlmont & Butler) who also contributes electric guitar, an instrument Sam has never recorded with before. “It’s played so beautifully and sensitively here that you wouldn’t necessarily know it was an electric guitar at all!”. A remarkable and rare guest vocal is provided by Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh of the acclaimed band, The Gloaming, joining on Hardanger violin. Matthew Barley provides cello on two songs. There are also beautiful harmonies provided by Cosmo Sheldrake and spoken-word poet, Dizraeli. A dazzling supporting cast of musicians features: James Keay on piano, Misha Mullov-Abbado on bass and on percussion, Josh Green. Bucolic front cover artwork is provided by Alex Merry (Boss Morris – and designer for Gucci).

Old Wow is an album devoted to the natural world; a commitment that has dominated Sam’s heart and non-musical practice for more years than he has been singing. It’s an album about our complicated relationship with planet earth but also, about the impact that ecological crisis has on our sense of self and the place we call home. The title came to Sam during a journey in the wilds of Scotland, where he had gone to reconnect with nature. While alone on a mountainside, a buzzard suddenly swooped down and screamed right over his head. Sam felt he was ‘receiving a message, telling me to listen properly and pay attention and the name Old Wow surfaced. I use “Old Wow” to describe that sense of wonder and magic that can, if listened to deeply enough, animate nature very powerfully. It also describes those experiences which exist beyond the natural realm which are often described in our folk songs.’

On Old Wow, this highly accomplished and pioneering singer has created a timeless bridge; ‘music that simultaneously looks back into the past and ahead to the future’. It also provides a moving and “urgent cry to help inspire us all to fall back in love with the natural world that we might strengthen our resolve to protect her”.

Artist’s website: http://samleesong.co.uk

‘The Moon Shines Bright’ – in the studio:

BERT JANSCH – Just A Simple Soul (BMG BMGCAT227CD)

Just A Simple SoulBernard Butler spent more than a decade working with Bert Jansch and it fell to him to curate a definitive best of collection. It can’t have been easy. Like most singers of his generation he moved between labels and publishers while his copyrights changed hands as new repackages of his music were issued. I met Bert once, back in the 80s, and he had no idea how many records with his name on were out there. I tried to compile a list and it wasn’t easy. Just A Simple Soul contains thirty-nine newly remastered tracks and it can only give a glimpse of more than forty years of music making.

The early selections are easy to decide on. The set opens with ‘Strolling Down The Highway’ from his debut album followed by ‘Angie’. I was surprised to hear the fire he brought to the piece and his playing in later years was, as you might expect, rather more considered although still a wonder to behold. Next comes ‘Needle Of Death’, a song that brought his name to wider attention, and then ‘It Don’t Bother Me’.

From there it’s very much a matter of personal choice. Butler’s next selection is the light-hearted ‘A Man I’d Rather Be’ which originally featured Roy Harper on vocals although this remix removes him – if, indeed, this is actually that original recording. ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’ is the second instrumental and ‘Black Water Side’ is a must but did Butler agonise over omitting ‘Jack Orion’? ‘Soho’ is a duet from Bert And John although I might have gone for ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’. By now, you, me and Bernard will have compiled three completely different set lists. For me, ‘Reynardine’ is another essential cut but ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ isn’t despite its very original arrangement. So it goes.

The second disc opens with the first two tracks from L.A. Turnaround; the longtime favourite ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ and ‘Chambertin’ and adding ‘Blacksmith’ from the same set. The first and last add Michael Nesmith’s country-edged production to Bert’s British folk style. Whether as a direct consequence or not, Bert’s musical horizons expanded even further as tracks from A Rare Conundrum, Avocet and Thirteen Down testify. In the latter stages of his career, Bert often returned to re-record old songs and Butler notes that his music was always evolving and that there was always a better version waiting.

This set omits one or two obvious crowd-pleasers; there is no ‘Blues Run The Game’ or ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ but the selection has pointed up the original albums I don’t have (this could get expensive) and is skilfully programmed to make it excellent listening.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s official website: https://bertjansch.com/

‘Poison’ – live. Bert had a heavy cold and was unusually gravelly:

Bert Jansch – Just A Simple Soul: a definitive best of collection

Bert Jansch

From his 1965 iconic debut album, Bert’s peerless musicality, songwriting and interpretation of traditional song has held generation after generation spellbound and inspired musicians in all genres. Just A Simple Soul – named after the closing track on his 1998 album Toy Balloon ­- is the first collection of Bert Jansch’s entire solo career, with insightful liner notes by Bernard Butler (Suede) who compiled this selection with the Bert Jansch Estate. As a writer and player, Jansch has inspired countless other music icons including Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, Johnny Marr, Laura Marling, Graham Coxon, Fleet Foxes and Neil Young.

Presented chronologically the collection begins by drawing from his prolific 1960s period, during which he released six albums between 1965 and 1969. His self-titled debut, sometimes referred to as The Blue Album, is listed at #3 in NME’s Best Folk Albums Of All Time, and this collection plucks three tracks including the harrowing ‘Needle Of Death’; about the tragic passing of Bert’s friend, folk singer Buck Polly. The influence of young singer Anne Briggs began to show in this period, and the traditional folk songs she taught him, plus his bluesy, improvised guitar accompaniment which dominated his third solo album, Jack Orion (1966), featuring John Renbourn on guitar. That same year, the collaborative album Bert & John laid the foundations of the trad folk supergroup Pentangle. Jack Orion included ‘Blackwaterside’ (featured in this collection), a traditional song Jansch learned from Briggs. Elsewhere, eco-warning ‘Poison’ and ‘The Bright New Year’ are included from Bert’s fifth solo album Birthday Blues (1969), with Pentangle colleagues Danny Thompson and Terry Cox.

Jansch recorded three solo albums while part of Pentangle, notably Rosemary Lane (1971), an album described by The Guardian as “a stark, reflective work”, which again included a traditional song learned from Briggs (‘Reynardine’, included here) alongside his own compositions. Also featured here is ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ (originally written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger) as a duet with Mary Hopkin. ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ and ‘Chambertin’, lifted from 1974’s L.A. Turnaround, highlight a significant passage, being recorded after Pentangle’s demise, featuring erstwhile Monkee Mike Nesmith on production. Jansch’s 70s’ output is drawn to a close with the inclusion of ‘Kittiwake’ from his 1979 album Avocet, on which he teamed up with the multi-instrumentalist Martin Jenkins and Danny Thompson for a concept album inspired by birds.

Pentangle reunions and illness limited Jansch’s 80s’ solo output. It’s represented by ‘Sweet Rose’ from From The Outside (1985) which was described by Irish author and composer Colin Harper as “Bert’s rawest and most cathartic work since Bert Jansch twenty years earlier.” When The Circus Comes To Town (1995) was the start of a renaissance for Bert with the title track featured here, as well as ‘Morning Brings Peace of Mind’. This collection takes its name from ‘Just A Simple Soul’, on 1998’s follow-up Toy Balloon, which also included Bert’s take on Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Carnival’ which was a perennial in his live sets.

Jansch’s 21st century output is represented by ‘Crimson Moon’ (Crimson Moon, 2000) and ‘On The Edge Of A Dream’ (Edge Of A Dream, 2002), two records that bookend his 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Edge Of A Dream featured Bernard Butler on electric guitar, Bert’s son, Adam, on bass and vocals of Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. This collection is concluded with ‘High Days’, taken from Bert’s 23rd and, tragically, final studio album The Black Swan. Released through Sanctuary and Drag City, it featured prominent admirers including Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart and Helena Epsvall. It was dubbed an instant classic, described by Pitchfork as “immaculate but natural”, and named one of the best albums of 2006 by MOJO, who described it as “a beautiful, evocative piece of music… his strongest album in years.”

Bert Jansch

Just A Simple Soul reminds us of Bert Jansch’s enduring legacy and his influence across the musical spectrum. As Bernard Butler eloquently puts it; “Bert lived and breathed the sound of the guitar and its endless possibilities for communication, storytelling, conversation, emotional dialogue. We have a life’s work here, and what a life Bert Jansch has given us.”

Interview with Bert Jansch at Fleadh Festival 2000

bert-janschHere is a transcript of an impromptu interview I did backstage at the London Fleadh in 2000 with Bert Jansch. I was very lucky as Bert rarely gave interviews and I will always remember it as we shared a banana in his caravan just before we started…

Q             Who’s been your greatest musical influence and why?

A             Davy Graham I think. Beyond that I was collecting everything from Woody Guthrie to Scottish stuff mainly. Although I was listening to Scottish folk music, it wasn’t until I heard Davy that it pointed the way in which I wanted to go.

It’s mainly the people in my generation of folk music that my influences have come from.

Q             If you could be one person in History, who would you be and why?

A             I don’t think I would like to be anybody famous because every single one has got his or her own drawbacks. If you think of somebody really famous, like Abraham Lincoln, there are so many negatives that go with being someone like that.  I’m just happy being myself!

Q             What is your favourite movie and why?

A             One of my favourites has always been Marilyn Monroe; she was the dumb blonde, but the light of entertainment, so probably the movie “Some like it hot”

Q             Tell us about your latest album or forthcoming album?

A             Yeah, this is one (Crimson Moon) I’ve produced myself and engineered for myself because I’ve become really tired of the finance of the whole studio thing, so over the years I’ve been collecting all the gear that I need, all the equipment, so I can record any time I like and play with a bunch of people like Johnny Marr (guitar/harmonica/backing vocal), Bernard Butler (guitar) who don’t usually get to play with.

This album is just as good as all the rest I’ve done actually.

Q             Where was your most memorable live performance and why was it special to you?

A             I remember playing with Brownie McGhee on an acoustic roots film, that is certainly something I will never forget. I have it on film as well (although I didn’t play much).

Q             If you could use one of your songs to promote something, what would it be and why?

A             I think seriously “Needle of Death” because it’s as much up to date now as it was when it was first written, although I don’t like singing it (it’s a depressing song).

Q             Where do you see the future of the music industry lies?

A             Well I think it does lie in, believe it or not, people like me because there are a lot of us who play intimate personal music, rather than dance music and all that kind of thing. You can churn dance music out basically by numbers these days, or so it seems, but you can’t do that with performance. Without players in the background playing away, the whole thing would soon grind to a halt.

Folkmaster comments: One of our ethoses of starting the site was to focus on the music. It seems to me that folk Music, especially in the UK, needs all the promoting it can get. The mass media tend to focus on the fact that the bands look good rather than the music subject matter.

Television does that, you don’t even have to have experience of playing in front of audience beforehand to make it, just get on “Top of the pops” and there you go.

Folkmaster comments: Which is killing music in a way.

Q             What venue would you most like to play at?

A             Well I’d like to do Cambridge festival a couple of times.

Q             What is the first single you ever bought?

A             (Laughing) “Bad Penny blues”

Q             What was the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to you on stage?

A             I think the most embarrassing performance was at the Isle of Wright Festival because when we (Pentangle) first started to play a woman jumped on stage and grabbed the microphone.  She was then ushered off stage at which point Mick Jagger decided to join the audience.  Then, shortly after that, a Hayrick caught fire then helicopters started circling overhead, and this was all happening within the first half an hour of being on stage.

Q             When your not involved in producing music, what do you do?

A             Gardening, well my wife does most of it, I just get hauled in to do the bits she can’t do.

Q             What is your legacy, what would you most like to be remembered for?

A             That my music was there to be enjoyed, I hope that would occasionally come across.

Interviewed by the Folkmaster

Links: bertjansch.com