TONY BURT – People Watching (Mirror Blue MBCD010)

People WatchingHailing from Birmingham and now living in Bromyard in Herefordshire, Burt’s been a jobbing folkie since the 60s, playing in outfits such as Witches Brew and Dempsey’s Lot as well as solo gigs round the pub and club circuit. Although he’d always written, that had taken something of a back seat to crowd pleasing covers until he attended a songwriting workshop in 2014 and hooked up with Boo Hewerdine, who co-produced this debut album, People Watching, along with drummer Chris Pepper, both of whom provide the backing to Burt’s guitar and mandola.

All the songs are self-penned, one, pastoral troubadour folk and mellotron-tinted ‘If I Were A Wish’, with lyrics by wife Brigit, and are much in the same 60s vein, opening with the fingerpicked moving on post-relationship ‘Turning My Blind Eye On You’ to reveal an often deep vocal echoing shades of Richard Thompson, one of his acknowledged influences, and Ewan MacColl.

The bulk of the material is relatively freshly written but two have a longer history. Sporting political protest metaphor lyrics, the slow shanty sway ‘The Ship’, Hewerdine on harmonium, dates to 1973, while the ukulele-strummed ‘Devil’s Diamond’ was the only thing he wrote throughout the 90s. In a way, it has vague thematic link to ‘Fly Closer To The Sun’, opening on harmonium drone written on the day Lehman Brothers went bust, albeit the song about taking risks rather than a condemnation.

A couple of more whimsical numbers arrive with the ukulele jaunty ‘Rock Me In Your Arms’ and its audience-friendly chorus that, for all its depression-themed backdrop, suggests the playful side of Harvey Andrews and, backed by drone, ‘Monica Is Taller Than Me’ tells of an elegant waitress in a Scottish restaurant, a nostalgic lust-free reflection and fantasy on the days when a little flirtation may have been an option.

By darker contrast, another drone-backed number, ‘The Village’ calls early Strawbs to mind for a song inspired by the exploits of Freddie Spencer Chapman, the British army officer who found behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Malaya during WWII, and the cost of resistance. Rather cheerier is a visit to the up-tempo strummed ‘JJ’s Bar’, a memory of time spent singing at a remote rock venue in Luxor, Egypt, being a star if only for a night and a handful of drinkers.

As an observational writer, the album ends suitably with the title track, written in a Cleobury Mortimer pub near Ludlow, fantasising the lives and inventing stories about this snapshot of humanity, such as poor old Malcolm who “thinks he’s God’s gift to women” whereas “He’s despised by all those present, talking to him’s just a chore.” Ending with “I wonder what they think of me”.

Probably that, while he may not be one of the acclaimed veterans of the English folk scene, he’d well be worth catching next time he’s playing their local.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.tonyburt.co.uk

‘Turning My Blind Eye On You’:

SIMON AND THE ASTRONAUTS – Simon And The Astronauts (own label AIRLOCK01)

Simon And The AstronautsSimon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.

The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.

‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.

‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.

As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.

Dai Jeffries

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‘I’m Just A Cat’:

Simon And The Astronauts release debut album

Simon And The Astronauts

Simon And The Astronauts really is a fascinating project. Simon Wells is a writer who had attended several of Boo Hewerdine’s song-writing workshops. Over the course of a year together Simon and Boo have made this superb album. Enlisting such talents as Karine Polwart, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier, Ben Hewerdine and Chris Pepper they worked in a very unusual way. Simon would bring a lyrical concept to the studio and together with these musicians would spontaneously write and record each track. Simon himself is a fine performance poet and also leads three of the tracks. There is spontaneity to this album that means you hear new music at the moment of its creation. Stylistically it moves between dream-pop, indie-electronica, delicate acoustics and edgy poetry. It was a chance for these musicians to work outside their comfort zones. Simon’s vision makes it all hang together in a deeply cohesive way.

When looking at tracks on the album, the album opener ‘Astronauts’ was the first track Simon and Boo recorded, at the end of the day, playing back this track that was both eccentric and accessible, they knew they were onto something special. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ follows, co-written with Ben Hewerdine, Boo’s son, who is also a very talented songwriter who has had songs recorded by, among others, Eddi Reader and Dan Whitehouse. Ben took Simon’s lyrics and made this sweetly unsettling recording. ‘Zinc’, which talks about the war in Afghanistan, is augmented by archive recordings of Leon Therimin playing his new invention. The song ‘Bridge’ was also written on day one and is the true story of a bridge in Sheffield, sung by Boo, this was the last track to be finished. Airmail is another Boo song, where he and Simon were remembering those ultra-thin letters people used to send abroad, this recording using a high strung guitar. ‘Love Is’, features Karine Polwart, a joyous take on Simon’s words, recorded with Findlay Napier and other attendees at a workshop. A personal favourite for me, ‘I’m Just A Cat’ is a blissful song, sung by Boo, about, well, being a cat. “Without Simon I would never have a written a song like this” says Boo. Chris Pepper’s production work is just fantastic on this track. ‘Oscar’ is a track where Darden Smith took Simon’s lyric about Oscar Wilde and made this beautiful piano ballad. Tight Metal Jackets features fiery poetry by Simon set against Darden’s rootsy Americana. ‘Trampoline’ is Ben’s jerky indie take on Simon’s concept and ‘Box Of Tears’ which is basically where Simon’s wonderful lyric led Boo to write this tender ballad, the track recorded as soon as it was written. The album closes with ‘Patti’, a simple yet heartfelt tribute to Patti Smith.

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‘Astronauts’:

Simon Todd announces new album

Simon Todd
Photograph by Peter Morrison

Half Empty/Half Full is the eagerly awaited new album from Simon Todd, produced by Boo Hewerdine, ably assisted by Chris Pepper. The album is a collection of songs based upon the concept of considering a wide variety of situations from alternative perceptions. When discussing song selection for this album, Boo Hewerdine (who Simon is so grateful and honoured to have had as a producer) suggested that he select songs that fit together around a theme. Simon immediately had five or six come straight to mind that involve looking at situations from alternative, multiple, or different perspectives. That’s how the album was born; there can be a positive and a negative in everything. Life is about choices. Make yours the right ones.

The songs cover a wide-range of subjects, some very personal, others as an observer or even being completely fictional. Regret and a search for redemption, looking for positives in the peak of personal grief, the horror and futility of the Great War, mental illness, the environment, love & heartache, and the corruption of the many by the few; it’s all here. Working with Boo and Chris Pepper was nothing but an absolute pleasure, and although Simon has never been one for self-praise or promotion, if this wasn’t his music, he’d turn it up when it came on the radio and buy it!

Hailing from the North East of England, Simon Todd is gifted with a powerful voice with a considerable range. He has, over the years, honed his song-writing into a craft, placing equal importance on lyrics, melody and chord structure.

In June 2008, Simon spent a week in Crete with Nashville recording artist and producer, Kevin Montgomery, at Songs In The Sun. Also in attendance were ex Brooks and Dunn drummer Dale Dorman, and the legendary Tommy Allsup – one-time Buddy Holly, and Bob Wills Texas Playboys guitarist; the man who flipped the coin with Ritchie Valens for a seat on the plane  that took Valens, Buddy and The Big Bopper from us on “The day the music died”. “Sitting by the pool in such a beautiful location”, said Simon; “singing ‘True Love Ways’, whilst being accompanied by Buddy Holly’s guitarist, is something that will stay with me forever”.

The experience inspired Todd, who returned home to attack his work with a renewed vigour, ultimately resulting in his debut solo CD release Contracts For The Sale Of Land in 2009. Whilst predominantly writing on his own, there have been collaborations with the likes of Karine Polwart, Findlay Napier, Ali Ingle, Tom Bem, Rosie Bell, Dave Fenley, Kellys Collins, and Pete Sallis. In addition, Simon has also been involved with song-writing retreats organised by the likes as Squeeze’s Chris Difford, and has rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Darden Smith, and Duke Special. He has performed on both sides of the Atlantic (UK-wide, Texas & Nashville). Previously a regular contributor at the once annual “Heroes & Scarecrows”, Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) celebration night, he toured the UK in 2012 with multi-award winning Texan singer-songwriter, Dave Fenley.

Simon’s songs are guaranteed to get your foot tapping, your mind thinking, or your ears wondering why they haven’t heard him before, and how soon they can do so again.

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‘Demons’:

EDDI READER – Cavalier (Reveal 077CDX)

CavalierForty years into her career, Reader’s 11th solo studio album, Cavalier, continues the recent trend of mixing original and traditional material with, naturally, something from Robert Burns.

Recorded in Glasgow and co-produced with husband John Douglas, and featuring a plethora of musicians, Boo Hewardine, John McCusker, Siobhan Miller, Phil Cunningham and Michael McGoldrick among then, it opens on a traditional note with the gently waltzing Irish tune ‘Maiden’s Lament (An Charraig Donn)’, with whistles, Martin Kershaw’s clarinet and Miller and Annie Grace on backing. The first of the original numbers comes with the poppy Douglas co-penned ‘Wonderful’, a song about learning to let go of trying to control your children’s lives as they transition to adults, the collaboration (along with Simon Dine) also providing the hushed slow waltzer ‘My Favourite Dress’, a nostalgic song reminding how short life is, written for his aunt Mary, in care and suffering from dementia.

It’s Douglas who provides the equally poppy, R&B brass-embellished uptempo title track about sharing the load, his other credits including the slower sway of ‘Fishing’, a number about learning that troubles always pass, even rainy evening, and the following ‘Maid O’The Loch’, a number written as a fundraiser to refurbish the titular boat that takes tourists around Loch Lomond. He also shares a co-write with Phil Cunningham on the gradually swelling ‘A Sailor’s Farewell To The Sea’, the latter putting words to the latter’s Christmassy instrumental and featuring both brass ensemble and accordion.

Hewardine provides two numbers, the first being the 50s-like jazzy shimmering, brushed drums, clarinet and brass-kissed ‘Starlight’ (to which Reader added a final verse), given a Mills Brothers-styled arrangement. The other, ‘Old Song’, takes on a very Scottish waltzing feel courtesy of Alan Kelly’s accordion, a romantic hymn to how music can touch memories and lift hearts.

Turning to Reader’s solo material, coloured by whistles and accordion, ‘There’s A Whole In The Desert Dear Darling’ is a swaylong waltzing lullaby of sorts written in memory of Milou Bedssa, a close friend from her teens who had recently passed away. The other is the album’s penultimate track, the lovely, ukulele-accompanied, percussion rippling ‘Go Wisely’, another song for the kids, both a benediction as they embark on their own lives and a reminder that phone calls don’t cost a lot.

Which just leaves the other traditional numbers. Given a rolling and tumbling Celtic rhythm, ‘Meg O’The Glen’ takes its lyrics from two 18th century poems by Paisley’s Robert Tannahill telling the tale of a lass of low fortune being forced to marry a rich old man she didn’t want, song seguing into an instrumental coda of Jerry Holland’s ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel’.

Found among songbooks during a late relative’s house clearance, picked out on the harmonium inherited at the same time, ‘Deirdre’s Farewell To Scotland’ is based on the Celtic myth ‘Deirdra Of The Sorrows’, about a pregnant Irish girl forced to seek sanctuary and the fate of her daughter, the story resonating with the contemporary refugee crisis.

Learned from a version by American jazz singer Kurt Elling, ‘The Loch Tay Boat Song’ is familiar number of love and leaving in the Scottish tradition, here given a laid back late night jazz arrangement for Steve Hamilton’s piano and dedicated to Davy Steele. It’s followed in lively fiddle-laced and wheezing accordion style by ‘Pangur Bán And The Primrose Lass’, a cocktail of an Irish poem about a cat hunting mike (the title translates as White Cat) that rolls into the instrumental interlude, a tune that apparently appeared on an early 70s Steeleye Span album as ‘The Primrose Lassie’, originally collected by Douglas’s great uncle, Irish song archivist Colm Keane. It features Monica Queen on harmonies, prompting thoughts that’s she’s long overdue an album of her own.

And so, Douglas on piano and McCusker on fiddle and whistle, it ends with another nod to her favourite Scottish songwriter, a four verse version of Burns’ classic ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. She says she chose the album title to reflect how she’s feeling. The thesaurus defines it as offhand, high-handed or careless, but also, as a Caballero or a Quixotic figure. Long may she tilt at windmills.

Mike Davies

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

‘Wonderful’ – official video:

SERIOUS CHILD – Empty Nest (TCR Music TCRM75099)

Empty NestThe core of Serious Child – or as the CD sleeve has it, SERIOUS CHiLD – consists of Alan Young on guitar and vocals, Carla March on vocals, and Steve Welch on bass. However, a fine selection of well-performed songs by Alan Young is further lifted on the CD Empty Nest by the support of an impressive number of highly-rated musicians. Among the names you may well recognize are Boo Hewerdine (who produced the album, and indeed persuaded Alan to record it in the first place) and Neill MacColl of The Bible, John McCusker, Gustaf Ljunggren, and three members of The Changing Room. The overall feel of the album is nearer to soft rock than folk, but none the worse for that: this is a quality performance.

  1. ‘Blue Is Only A Colour’ is an affecting ballad, particularly well sung. While Alan Young has a style all of his own, I could almost imagine the Walker Brothers singing this rather well.
  2. ‘Paul The Bag’ is a rock-flavoured and somewhat alarming song about an ageing gangster with something to prove: based on a real-life encounter.
  3. ‘Time Keeps Rolling’ is a reminiscent song about comfort through personal ritual and the passing of time, loosely tied to Paul Robeson’s recording of ‘Ol’ Man River’.
  4. ‘Kind Man’s Bluff’ features The Changing Room’s Tanya Brittain on vocals and accordion, on a moving song about a mother’s feelings as her child leaves home. “But no one dies of heartbreak, so let me help you pack…“. This one could be a keeper.
  5. Most of the way through, ‘I Don’t Remember Venice’ sounds like a pleasant piece of poppy nostalgia but features a sharp twist to the lyric towards the end. Clever.
  6. ‘Cinnabar’ seems to reflect a changed relationship filtered through Alan’s childhood obsession with crimson moths. Interesting.
  7. ‘The Last Chance’ is a little more conventional, but catchy, particularly in the chorus.
  8. While most of the tracks here are not particularly folky, ‘Three Hail Marys’ has an instrumental line-up that would fit in with many an Irish folk group, with prominent whistle, bodhran and banjo, and a lyric that wouldn’t disgrace the Pogues at their best.
  9. I guess we’ve all kept checking our phone for a message that someone somehow hasn’t left. ‘No Missed Calls’ seems to recall that hollow ambivalence, and has a nice guitar-dominated arrangement.
  10. ‘Open Skies’ has a slightly country-rock feel.
  11. ‘Speeding’ for some reason reminds me of John Miles. In a good way.
  12. ‘You Wear The Smile’ is a slow ballad that finishes the album in fine style.

Alan Young has long been known as a talented and versatile vocalist, but it turns out that he’s also rather a good, late-flowering songwriter – apparently he’d never written a song until he was 50. Hopefully, now that he’s discovered this extra string to his bow – um, guitar… – we’ll hear more of his songs in the future. Empty Nest is scheduled for release on the 22nd of June.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.seriouschild.com

‘Time Keeps Rolling’ – live: