The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.
Support came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.
If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished – I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.
They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.
As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.
The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.
MERRY HELL will launch their eagerly awaited acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, in a couple of months. Forget Costa del Folk, Wigan will be the place to be! To whet our appetites they have an EP, Bury Me Naked, led of by one of our favourite songs. The acoustic line-up has given them the opportunity to completely rearrange the song with Virginia Kettle’s voice well out front and what sounds like a barrel organ giving it a jolly lift. ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is based on acoustic guitar and ‘Drunken Serenade’ is given a ceilidh feel with Neil McCartney’s fiddle driving the song. The set is finished off with an anthemic ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’. Brilliant from start to finish. www.merryhell.co.uk
‘The Durham Light Infantry’ is an old song by the mighty Whisky Priests. It has now been re-recorded by writer GARY MILLER and is now the lead single from his new project, From Coalfield To Battlefield. In this version Gary is accompanied by The Ferryhill Town Band brilliantly scored by Sam Lord and producer Iain Petrie. The single includes vocal and instrumental versions and is one of the very few occasions when an instrumental is the equal of the vocal version. There’s a gorgeous riff, if that’s the right word, that serves as a fill in the song and decorates the second version. Lovely stuff. www.whippetrecords.com
Having self-produced his first two EPs, BEN MORGAN-BROWN has enlisted Josh Clark to oversee his third, Cold Rooms. You might think that a solo voice and guitar doesn’t require a huge amount of production but Josh has certainly got the best out of the Exeter based singer songwriter. The opening title track begins gently enough but Ben’s guitar rings underneath his voice while building up to a big finish. The instrumental, ‘I See That You’, is gorgeous with an almost retro feel as Ben finger-picks a low continuo while striking plangent top notes. There are some nice synth tones at the end of ‘No More Fooling’, too. www.benmorganbrown.co.uk
DARWIN’S DAUGHTER is better known to her family as Fiona Ruth Hannon. She lives in Ireland and The Dark is her first EP. The first thing to say is that she has one hell of a voice which stands up well to the orchestra that tries to dominate the opening track, ‘Dark Fires’. It’s better when the production takes its foot off the gas and lets us hear the trio of Anthony Gibney, Max Greenwood and Kim V Porcelli – Greenwood’s piano played at the top end of the keyboard decorates beautifully. https://www.darwinsdaughtermusic.com/what-we-do-1/
Eithne Ní Chatháin goes by the INNI-K which is a blessing for those of us who don’t have the Gaelic. Following her debut album, The King Has Two Horse’s Ears she releases a single, ‘Edges’, before going on tour. She’s impossible to categorise with her powerful voice, fiddle and electric guitar supported by double bass and percussion. We need to hear more. http://www.inni-k.com/
KRIS WOODBIRD is something of an enigma. He lives n Stockholm and has released a number of singles over the last year of which ‘I Am A Boy’ is the latest. Very simple: just one voice and one voice, it’s desperately fragile with self-destructive overtones. He talks about smashing his head against a wall, being unworthy and living far away from home. A new album is expected this year. https://www.kriswoodbird.com/
Based around Worcestershire and Gloucestershire they may be, but with fiddle player Caitlin Barrett and guitarist Paul O’Neil sharing vocals, Loz Shaw on bass, keys vocals guitars, clarinet and banjolina and Tim Downes-Hall on a variety of ethnic hand percussion, Roving Crows are very much of a Celtic folk rock persuasion, with a pinch of prog to go with it. Case in point is the title track, ‘Bury Me Naked’, a song inspired by the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which opens akin to an orchestra tuning up, introduces a desert wind guitar and, over the course of the next five minutes scraped fiddle across a moody, atmospheric swirl conjuring Middle Eastern bazaar images. The colours are also evident in the background of the more acoustic ‘New York Love Song’, about a bittersweet relationship with the Big Apple, but, as it gathers pace, the Celtic winds blow more forcefully.
For a four piece they create rich and diverse musical textures, often very much percussive driven, with ‘Refugee’ introducing a lurching bass driven rhythm that has its roots as much in African townships as it does reggae before the folksier Barrett-penned, impermanence themed ‘Riverside’, the first on which she sings lead, lazes through a dappled melody line, the instrumentation again gradually building as the song progresses. She’s also responsible for two-thirds of the tunes that make up the frenzied instrumental ‘Fire Sky’, that and ‘Tiger’s Eye’ sandwiching ‘Farewell To Chernobyl’, an Irish reel learned from Sharon Shannon.
Set to an initial tick tocking rhythm, ‘If I Had To Choose’ brings O’Neil back to the mic for a musing on the meaning and values of love, the slight reggaed lurch here considerably more pronounced on the ensuing very Marleyesque true story ‘Passing On The Love’.
‘The Last Breath’ is different again, Barrett’s fiddle providing the accompaniment to O’Neill’s spoken word ecological lyrics about taking better care of the planet which, in turn, gives way to the heavy drumming salvos of the discordant fiddle and guitars of ‘Revolution Is Now’, a number that conjures thoughts of the 60s psychedelic jams of The Chamber Brothers had they had Celtic rather than African blood in their veins.
Then, heralded by cymbal shimmers and a circling guitar line before percussion and fiddle enter the weave, comes the ten minute brooding prog folk-rock epic that is ‘Glory Bound’, a gatheringly urgent number that sounds nothing like its description of being written in a lonely moment, in a quiet house in a sleepy valley, but more like in the eye of a storm.
They end with a cover, Barrett again taking lead on their rumbling widescreen arrangement of Jimmy MacCarthy’s much covered ‘Ride On’. It doesn’t displace Christy Moore’s as the seminal version, but it’s certainly up there with the best.
An adventurous and inspired heady cocktail of Celtic and world music with a social conscience and a beating heart, you’re well advised to cast a roving eye and ear in its direction.
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