BECKY MILLS – Tall Tales And Home Truths (Talking Elephant TECD414)

Tall Tales And Home TruthsFormerly part of Waking The Witch as well as collaborating in duo or trio form with Ashley Hutchings and violinist Ruth Angell, the clear-voiced Yorkshire-born Mills released her solo debut back in 2013, so the follow-up has been long anticipated. Joined by both Hutchings and Angell and featuring Blair Dunlop’s electric guitar on two tracks, this won’t disappoint.

All self-penned with an ear for the tradition, it opens with ‘My Brother’s A Farmer’, cello, concertina and violin colouring a slow waltzing song about her pheasant farmer brother and how the job leaves him no time for romance or a private life.

Featuring Dunlop with Angell on pump harmonium, there’s a further family connection with the six-minute ‘The Lady Of Ballantyne’, sung in the voice of her storytelling grandmother Eve Mills (nee Ballantyne) recalling her family history and of a young girl taken from her land of black stone across the waters to marry an older man she’d never met, the story coming with a rare happy ending.

A sparse arrangement of just guitar, cello and wine glasses, the intimately sung, highly traditional sounding ‘Crocuses’ was written in memory of a family member and how, her grave unmarked for some time, Mills planted crocuses which now return each year in commemoration of her life.

Hutchings and Angell joining on in the backing vocals, her grandfather gets his turn in the songbook on breezy strummed swayalong ‘The Gunsmith’s Daughter’, the old man a self-taught gunsmith who’d shoot at anything that flew, much to the consternation of his daughters, Then, hospitalised, he’d lie in bed watching the birds flying away, living their lives, and underwent sea change, never again shooting a living thing.

Mid-way in comes a brace of songs recorded live with Angell on violin and backing vocals at St. John’s Church in the North Yorkshire village of Newton-upon-Rawcliffe, the first being the slow waltz ‘No Tears For My Fisherman’, the story of a comfortable-off widow from near Robin Hood’s Bay who married a younger fisherman from Saltburn, thinking she’d be rescuing him from a life at the waves only to find their calling was stronger than that of the marriage bed, although she remained content to wait for his return, his third mistress after the sea and his boat.

The second is ‘Last Look At Home’, a jauntier fingerpicked melody serving a song about facing the uncertainty of days ahead with optimism and in the company of the one that matters to you most, assured in the knowledge that the sun will rise again.

Returning to the studio and family, the playful ‘City In My Lungs’ is sung in the voice of her great grandmother who, when she married a sailor, left the family grocery store in Wallsend where she worked to move in with the in-laws in North Yorkshire, only to become homesick for the noise and smoke of the docks, not comforted by her moody husband (“he sulks all day in his shed with his Dad/And in six long weeks I’ve only ever known him bath once”) and unable to make friends on account of her strong accent.

The song, strummed in a lively 60s folk troubadour style and accompanied by acoustic bass, concertina and violin has her begging her folks to let her come back, laying out all her woes , swearing she’d even become a nun for “a great big drag of the city in my lungs”. There is, however, a cute turnaround as he agrees to let her go, but says he’d miss her, and she decides “the city life was never much of a place for raising babies on”.

The same grandmother is the narrator for ‘William’, a low key, spare solo showcase for Mills that talks about how, in 1941, the ship on which her son was serving was torpedoed with only fourteen survivors, he not being among them. Her hair turned white overnight, but she refused to accept he was gone, everyone thinking she’d gone mad with grief. Just under four years later, at Christmas, he knocked on the front door.

Again featuring Dunlop and with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne on melodeon, Mills returns to marriage for skittering ‘The Wheeldale Crossing’, or, more accurately, not marrying but living together, commonplace enough today but a rare thing in the late Georgian era, other than, of course, on the Moors where they make their own rules. `Not that this is a celebration of liberal sexual mores, but rather a tragic tale of how Jack drowned when he got caught in the crossing (“turning like a monkey on the wheel of chance”) and was washed away, only for the locals to accuse her of being a witch when, in a ritual, she burns his clothes but leaves his boots at the churchyard gate for his ghost to retrieve.

The final credited track is the strummed ‘Row Like Grace’, Angell back on pump harmonium, which, as you might rightly assume, is about Grace Darling, one of Mills’ heroines, her courageous actions here serving as a metaphor for her riding life’s tempestuous waves for her other half if he needed her.

There remains a hidden bonus number, ‘Barry Sheene’, a robust strummed singalong tribute to the legendary 70s motorcycle rider and star of the Scarborough circuit (not to mention ladies man) with Dunlop on guitar, a violin solo from Angell and everyone piling in on backing vocals. Ride on indeed.

Mike Davies

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

‘No Tears For My Fisherman’ with Ruth Angell:

More artists revealed for Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019

Shrewsbury Folk Festival has added a host of new acts to its line up as organisers reveal ticket sales are already surpassing 2018 levels.

Renowned singer songwriter Andy Fairweather Low and the Low Riders will make a return with a special show featuring the Hi Riders Soul Revue. Scottish supergroup Capercaillie and American trio Birds Of Chicago are also new to the bill of the four-day festival that takes place at the West Mid Showground from August 23 to 26.

This year’s festival will feature a special day of programming on the festival’s Pengwern Stage by duo Chris While and Julie Matthews to celebrate 25 years of their musical relationship. They have chosen Blair Dunlop, Burden Of Paradise, singer songwriter Charlie Dore and former Fairground Attraction lead singer Eddi Reader to perform on Sunday August 25, which will be topped off with a show by the While & Matthews Big Band.

Other new artists signed up included Áine Tyrrell, AKA Trio, Boxwood Chessmen and the Exmouth Shanty Men. Dance groups confirmed so far are Whapweasel, the John Spiers Ceilidh Band and Relentless. There will also be performances from the Corryvrechan Scottish Dance Display Team.

Already announced for the 2019 event were Kate Rusby, Oysterband, Martyn Joseph, Daphne’s Flight, Skerryvore, Daphne’s Flight, Gary Stewart’s Graceland, Phil Beer Band, Steve Knightley, Merry Hell, Edgelarks, Grace Petrie and many more.

The festival’s first tier of adult weekend tickets sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale on December 1. It is now selling weekend tickets at its third price tier. Day tickets are also available.

Festival Director Sandra Surtees said: “Last year our weekend tickets sold out a month before the festival and many people were disappointed they couldn’t come for all four days despite regular warnings that we were going to sell out.

“We have sold more to date in 2019 than we had by the same time last year so, as ever, our advice is to book as early as possible. There’s so much more than just music for people to enjoy including dances, music and other workshops, great food and drink and a brilliant atmosphere!”

The festival, now regarded as one of the most popular UK folk events, has four main music stages, a dance tent with a programme including ceilidhs, workshops and dance shows, children and youth festivals, workshops, craft fair, food village, real ale, cocktail and gin bars and on-site camping and glamping. There are also fringe events at local pubs with dance displays in the town centre and a parade through the streets on the Saturday afternoon.

Weekend and day tickets can be booked at  www.shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk/booktickets/.

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – Paradise And Thorns (Talking Elephant TECD410)

Paradise And ThornsDivided into two discs, Gloucester Docks Revisited and Other Tales Of Love, Paradise And Thorns finds “the single most important figure in English folk rock” (© Bob Dylan) revisiting his seminal autobiographically- based 1987 solo work (already the subject of a live version and revised re-issue) in the wake of reuniting with the old flame (never identified but likely named Patricia) around which it was based and complementing this with a collection of his personal favourite love songs and stories.

Visiting the docks first, this is a sort of continuance of a previously unfinished story that mixes together past recordings, new material, readings and film clips, opening with an echoey Hutchings reading an extract from John Donne’s poem of parted but constant adulterous lovers ‘Elegie XII’ with JJ Stoney providing keyboard effects. It’s followed by a 1985 live recording of ‘Kitty Come Down The Lane’ by the Ashley Hutchings All Stars, featuring Clive Gregson and Polly Bolton, and, in turn, with another reading, this time ‘The Meadow’, a single line extract from Louis MacNeice’ ‘The Strings Are False’.

The first new recording comes with the pastoral ‘Art Nouveau’, exploring the woman as flower metaphor, co-written with Ken Nicol, sung by Barry Coope and featuring string quartet arrangement by Joe Broughton, with himself on violin and Jo Hamilton on viola.

Another reading, ‘St. Valentine Day Sonnet’, is one of Hutchings’ own, about getting a rose tattoo, written in the manner of Donne, then it’s back to 1987 and a recording of the bouncy ‘Trip To Bath’ by The Albion Dance Band, Bolton again on vocals. Jane Wildsmith provides the voice of Pat in ‘Sultana Cake’, a brief extract from a letter, then it’s into the second new song, Tim Walker on trombone and Chris Sheldon on banjo for the New Orleans-influenced ‘Cul-de-Sac’, a playfully wry reference to how the original romance ended. Another live recording, the lost relationship ‘Our Stolen Season’ comes from a 2000 Rainbow Chasers concert, Hamilton on vocal and Ruth Angell on violin, followed by the first of the film clips, a brief extract (in French but translated in the booklet) from Alain Resnais’ 1960 Last Year In Marienbad before Fred Claridge’s drums introduce the Western-movie soundtrack flavoured ‘Devil-may-care In Our Dancing Shoes’, a down to the crossroads lost souls number co-penned with son Blair Dunlop who also plays acoustic guitar, that brings Pat back into the picture with the lines “Years passed by, then out of the blue/ The call of the road and a text or two.”

Michael Maloney voices an excerpt from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, followed by another French film clip, this time ‘It Was My Heart’ from Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Boi de Boulogne, the screenplay by Cocteau. Then, preceded by a lengthy introduction in which Hutchings explains the background to Gloucester Docks (and the title’s links to both the psalm ‘By Waters Of Babylon’ and Elizabeth Smart’s ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept’ as well as offering a Tristan and Isolde context to the story of doomed love), a 1988 All Stars concert recordings of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ featuring just Bolton and John Shepherd’s keyboard.

The last of the new songs, again written with Dunlop, and featuring both him and Nicol on electric guitars, brings things up to the present day with the lyrically optimistic ‘Thirty-two Years And A Lifetime’, which, after the initial set-up, breaks out into a punchy, upbeat folk-rock melody that may well have travelled over the Cork and Kerry mountains.

It ends with the brief spoken ‘Epilogue’ which brings the lost love back into his life, the pondered question “What is to become of us?” possibly answered as the tracks flows into an arrangement of the traditional ‘French Catholic Wedding Tune’ with Stoney on churchy organ and Becky Mills providing the choral vocals.

Having duly conjured a romantic glow, the second disc beats the heart with a collection of all new recordings, again intercut with clips and readings, that gets under way with rising star Kitty Macfarlane on acoustic singing her own ‘Avona And The Giant’, a song based around the legend of the Bristol giants Vincent and Goram and how, after losing the love of Avona, the latter through himself into the river, his torso forming the isles of Steepholm and Flatholm.

Macfarlane also closes the album, this time, preceded by an extract from the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, with her arrangement of ‘Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun’ from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

In-between clips are taken from the 1932 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s WWI story A Farewell To Arms with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of the Light Brigade and, given the theme, what else but Bogart and Bacall in Casablanca, here in the form of the “I remember every detail” scene.

There’s readings too, Michael Maloney giving John Donne another outing with ‘Aire And Angells’, Hutching and cheering crowd with 30 seconds of ‘If Love Has Wings’ from The Marriage of Figaro (Beaumarchais not Mozart) and a brace of Chekhov with two extracts, pre and post-marriage, from the playful ‘Notes from the journal of a quick-tempered man’.

There’s only one previously releases track, ‘Welcome To The World’ taken from The Albion Band’s eponymous 1999 album, the remainder being all new material. Evoking formative Fairport folk rock and preceding the Donne, ‘Above The Angels’ is sung by Mills with Nicol and Dunlop on electric guitars and Stoney tinkling the piano, ‘If There’s No Other Way’ is an acoustic, strings-arranged Hutchings/Broughton ‘love in vain’ ballad with Bolton on soaring vocals and, revisiting bird imagery, simple acoustic ‘The Swift’, with its title wordplay, is written and sung by Mills.

There’s two traditional numbers, ‘Polly On The Shore’ (or at least an except therefrom) providing a solo showcase for Dunlop, accompanying himself on electric guitar, while, co-produced by Joe Boyd, ‘Sykaleshe’ is a love song performed in their native tongue by Albanian folk outfit Saz’iso, and which seems likely to be an outtake from their 2016 album At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song. Which just leaves ‘Lost In The Haze’, father and son teaming for a first time ever I saw your face memory of first love recalling how Hutchings was smitten by a girl he met as part of a 1964 Methodist Youth Club ramble though Hertfordshire, immortalised in the photograph in the superb accompanying annotated hardback lyric booklet.

The original ‘By Gloucester Docks I sat down and wept’, released in 1987, ended on a painful note, but it finally now has a happy coda; after waiting by the Quay for 30 years, Hutchings’ ship has come in.

Mike Davies

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

As close as we can get to a relevant track – ‘Dancing Under The Rose – Again’:

BLAIR DUNLOP – Notes From An Island (Gilded Wings GWR005)

Notes From An IslandNo 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 across the 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.

Mike Davies

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Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.blairdunlop.com

‘Feng Shui’ – live:

Brooke Sharkey – new single and album

Brooke Sharkey

Brooke Sharkey will headline London’s Union Chapel and head out on tour with Blair Dunlop.

London based singer-songwriter Brooke Sharkey returns with the release of another outstanding single ‘Offida’. This illustrious song interlaces webs of dreams and fathoms the enchantment of cinema. A brave move for the young artist, but one that is sure to carry her higher in her ever growing success.

‘Offida’ born from Sharkey’s captivating album Wandering Heart, out now, seems to breathe light into the curiosity of love whilst simultaneously casting a haunting spell sending any listener into a dream like state of wonder.

Sharkey has seen plaudits arrive from across the UK and Europe with BBC Radio 2, BBC 6 Music, BBC Scotland along with French, Belgium and Dutch national radio all championing the song-smith and The Guardian naming Brooke among the FUTURE 50 most exciting artists in the world.

With a vocal style that switches effortlessly between lithely melodic and fiery, set against a deeply atmospheric musical backdrop and drawing comparisons with the likes of Kate Bush, Ane Brun and Cat Power, her unique sound can be described as:

“An introspective sound adorned with emotional vocals and sliding string sections that create a tense air of melancholy that few others can master so simply and so elegantly, Brooke Sharkey oozes a creativity that radiates emotion. She is a woman who bleeds artistry.” – Fresh Beats.

Busking since the age of 16 around Europe and the UK, most specifically in London, France and Italy, her broad music influences have connected with a multitude of audiences that include Cambridge Folk Festival, Glastonbury, Larmer Tree, Green Man, Secret Garden Party and Broadstairs Folk Festival.

The London based singer-songwriter is set to headline her biggest show to date at the historic Union Chapel, London the location for what is set to be a triumphant return to the capital as part of the London Folk & Roots Festival, 17th November.

Brooke is set to charm audiences across the UK this October and November on tour with Blair Dunlop.

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

‘Offida’ – official:

BLAIR DUNLOP – Gilded (Gilded Wings GWR001)

GildedThe son of Ashley Hutchings, Dunlop’s follow-up to House Of Jacks contains a dozen self-penned songs, all recorded as live with a basic instrumentation of Jacob Stoney on keys, drummer Fred Claridge and bass player Tim Thomas, that find him pushing deeper into the more radio-friendly and catchily melodic frontiers of contemporary folk. This is particularly true of the opening track, ‘Castello’, a song inspired by the experiences and dreams of a Balkan/Latin woman from Manchester he met while touring Europe and which, just as ‘45s’ referenced The Kinks and Dylan, namechecks Joy Division and James. He’s been likened to Jackson Browne and, while this holds true in places (most especially on ‘The Egoist’, a relationship-centred number that wouldn’t have been out of place on Late For The Sky) , listening to ‘She Won’t Cry For Me’, a song seemingly about a relationship fractured by his chosen career (“Your dreams were only ever big enough for two. My dreams are born from other people passing through”), I’m more put in mind of Don McLean playing Richard Thompson, who’s clearly an influence on the stunning guitar work.

Social comment is part and parcel of Dunlop’s work and this is no exception. Built around fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a repetitive, almost mechanical, drum pattern of just three clicks, ‘Eternal Optimist’ addresses the way our lives are dominated by our screens and the way it distances up from real interaction while, as the title suggests, the fingerpicked ‘No Go Zones’ concerns the way the news (and the BBC is specifically mentioned) and scaremongering can inculcate fear in the uninformed Western traveller as well as nodding to the way the ban on fox hunting is blatantly ignored. Which isn’t to say, of course, that some no go zones aren’t very real.

Then there’s ‘First World Problems’, a commentary on giving up control of the manufacturing process, whether that be in terms of a third world farmer’s forced concessions to economic trade (“we can always make it cheaper”) or musical compromise (“the words fall on stony ground without the roots to hold them down”). It’s the first of three co-writes, here with his former Albion Band colleagues, while ahab’s Dave Burns collaborates on the starry-skies mood of the love lost ‘I Don’t Know’ and he teams with Gita Langley for album closer, ‘Phoenix’, a keyboards-led bluesy exploration of the parallels between the mythological bird and someone close to Dunlop.

On a different note, tapping out percussion on his guitar, ‘356’ is a wry song about a man dreaming of buying a classic luxury Porsche sports car with just 40,000 on the clock from a Mayfair showroom before riding off on his bike, and perhaps subconsciously intentionally, reminiscent of Paul Brady’s ‘Crazy Dreams’.

Two tracks make very specific reference to historical figures. That said, the solo acoustic ‘Let’s Dance to Paganini’ is actually another relationship number, here at its birth, hearts sparking to the line “then I knew that it was fate. Let the violins arpeggiate”.

By contrast, and something of a lyrical departure from everything else, opening on an acoustic strum and adding drums and organ ‘Up On Cragside’ is essentially a folk rock potted biography and ode to engineering, sung in the voice of Lord (William George) Armstrong, recounting how he dutifully followed his father into the legal profession before giving it up to pursue his love of machines, first designing a piston for use with the Tyneside dockyard cranes, then setting up a company that forged a light field gun used in both the Crimea and the American Civil War before eventually building the first house (the Northumberland country pile of the title) to use hydroelectricity.

So, songs of the conscience, the heart, the human spirit and the lousy Manchester weather. Sounds like pure gold to me.

Mike Davies

Please support us and order via our UK or US Storefront 


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Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://blairdunlop.com/

‘Eternal Optimist’ live in the studio: