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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Artist’s website: http://www.simontodd.co.uk/

‘Demons’:

BROOKS WILLIAMS – My Turn Now (Red Guitar Blue Music RGBM-2016)

My Turn NowI first encountered Brooks Williams five or six years ago at a festival. He was sitting outside a pub playing in the sunshine because the venue was locked and nobody could find the key. It was a splendid session and that’s the sort of man Brooks is.

The blues and the delights of resonator guitars are at the heart of Brooks’ music but there’s more to him than that. Take ‘Rosalyn’, one of his own songs, the tale of a doomed love affair. It is deceptively simple with drums by co-producer Chris Pepper and bass by Richard Gates with Brooks playing National and slide guitars. But listen again to that bass line and then pick up on the subtleties of the melody.

My Turn Now is a mixture of styles and there is a sort of narrative thread running through the record. The first two tracks, ‘Crazy Dance’ and ‘My Turn Now’ are brash, up-tempo numbers and it feels as though a few rough edges have been deliberately left in place. Track three, ‘Nine Days’ Wonder’, featuring the first contribution from Sally Barker, is an upbeat, slightly cynical take on modern-day celebrity culture, followed by one of my favourite tracks here, ‘Darkness’.

The covers include a rocking version of Mose Allison’s ‘You’re Mind Is On Vacation’ and a snappy take on ‘Hesitation Blues’. Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Nobody Wins’ is another departure, featuring sharded lead vocals with Barker. I have to say that it’s a bit naughty to label ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ as traditional. Its authorship is, I believe, beyond question but putting that caveat aside this is a fine album.

Dai Jeffries

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

Brooks plays ‘Darkness’ live:

DANIEL NESTLERODE – More Than a Little Guitar (Camp 40 Recordings)

Daniel_Nestlerode_CD_ArtworkNow and again a new singer/songwriter is introduced to you and the force of their talent hits you like a tornado!  This happened to me when I met American singer/songwriter and mandolinist Daniel Nestlerode at a Folk 21 day recently.  He had a guest spot during the conference and all of the audience were riveted!  Now based in Cambridge UK, he has been playing the mandolin since 1992, but more seriously from 2001.

I am now in possession of his eagerly awaited new album – More Than A Little Guitar – and am, again, blown away!  11 glorious tracks which are a mixture of laments, up-tempo tunes, death, about loved ones going away, a song for his young daughter, bluegrass/country and western with fabulous harmonies and excellent mandolin playing.

The self-penned tracks being ‘Old Calapina’, ‘Rolling With The Circus’, ‘A Winter’s Night’ – which conjures vivid images of a man trying to get home in a harsh winter journey and what they can imagine and look forward to awaiting them at home, ‘Virginia Claire’, and ‘All The Things You Are’ which is a father/daughter story of feelings of becoming a father.

I particularly liked the very haunting ‘Long Black Veil’ which is the work of Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill (1949). A story of an illicit love affair with his best friends wife, convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and in death aware of her visiting his grave in a long black veil.

To lighten the album ‘St Anne’s Reel/Whisky Before Breakfast’ is an up-tempo tune which gets the feet tapping, and there are singalong choruses elsewhere too!

Ably produced by Brooks Williams, who has kept the album as stripped back and acoustic, showing Daniels’ talent as it should be.  Engineered by Chris Pepper and recorded at the Hub Studios in Cambridge More Than A Little Guitar is going to be a special album in my collection, so don’t miss out, and give Daniel a listen.  He is a gifted singer/songwriter who is reaching new heights, and already has a number of bookings for 2014.

Jean Camp

Keep an eye out for Daniel’s live gigs on his website – www.nestlerode.co.uk where you can also find the contact details for purchasing his music, and further information.