A great deal has happened since Granny’s Attic released their second album, Off The Land, three years ago. A lot more people have heard of them now and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne has, rightly, become a solo star. Good for him but is it good for the band? If Wheels Of The World is any guide and if he can balance the two strands of his career, then the answer is yes. Cohen is certainly the dominant force although George Sansome takes lead on four tracks but competing with a melodeon can be hard work. Producer Sean Lakeman has done a sterling job in maintaining the balance without suppressing any of the trio’s power.
Most of the material is traditional and the title track which opens the set is new to me. It surveys the political landscape of the early part of the 19th century and its movers and shakers or “spinners” as the lyric has it. Sounds terribly modern, doesn’t it? The other song I hadn’t heard before, ‘What I Saw In My Dream As I Slept In My Chair’, covers similar ground. Between these two is the classic ‘Ship In Distress’ and the first tune set; a piece from Playford paired with one of Lewis Wood’s own compositions. The same sort of juxtaposition occurs in ‘Riddle’s Hornpipe/The Circus’.
‘Banks Of Green Willow’ has long been a favourite of mine and I’m old enough to remember hearing Shirley Collins sing ‘Gilderoy’ back in the 70s. Before you say anything, yes, Sandra Kerr had it first and Shirley increased the lovers’ ages to a more respectable seventeen. George does a wonderful job of what is, after all, a woman’s song and, needless to say, the lyric has little in common with the real life of the outlaw, Patrick McGregor. ‘The Highwayman’ and ‘Our Captain Cried “All Hands”’ would give the record a rousing finish except that they are separated by the beautiful ‘Fenland’, composed by Lewis.
Wheels Of The World gives me hope for the future of traditional music – it’s about the only hope we have left.
Formerly 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.
Curated by Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel, the second volume of From Here is every bit as intriguing and entertaining as its predecessor. Recorded wherever the artists were with just two microphones, these performances are sometimes raw and earthy and sometimes delicate and beautiful. Some of the artists are well known, others less so and same is true of the music.
There is a sort of chronology about the album. It begins with what Nancy Kerr calls a mediaeval song, ‘Gan Tae The Kye’, which she pairs with a popular north-eastern tune ‘Peacock Followed The Hen’. From the same geographical area comes ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ sung by Rachel Unthank and I must admit that I’ve never really listened to it properly. It’s a lullaby, yes, but with a very hard story wrapped up in it and Rachel’s matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the hardship. The first instrumental set is the delightful ‘Cottenham Medley’ by C Joynes, about whom I know almost nothing.other than the fact that he lives in Cambridgeshire. The other two sets are from the north-east: Kathryn Tickell’s dazzling ‘Bonnie Pit Laddie/ Lads Of Alnwick’ and ‘Nancy Clough’ by Sandra and Nancy Kerr, who thus gets to open and close the set.
The chronology begins to break down now. Richard Dawson’s ‘The Almsgiver’ sounds old but which Richard wrote recently and is perfectly in keeping with the feeling of the project. You may think you know ‘Barbera Allen’ but this version by Mary Hymphreys & Anahata will be new to most listeners. Coincidentally (or not) it also comes from Cottingham. June Tabor revisits ‘The Kng Of Rome’ and rising star Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne tackles ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. There are two distinct versions of this song, both by Charles Coborn, and Cohen goes for the political one. Both this and ‘The King Of Rome’ are set around the turn of the 20th century even though the latter was written much more recently. Appropriately, they are followed by Grace Petrie’s ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, her updating of a song that began with the words “At the turning of the century…”, a clever juxtapositioning. Politics – although with a small “p” – return with Chris Wood’s ‘So Much To Defend’ which would appear to be made up of true stories.
Other, but not lesser, artists are Cath & Phil Tyler, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp and Belinda Kempster, who is the mother of SITW’s Fran Foote and a very fine singer, now working as a duo with her daughter. That sort of emphasises the idea that we’re listening to a continuing tradition that has been caught in a moment of time.
Mick Ryan is, as we all know, is a prolific song-writer and skilled at melding his ideas into shows or folk operas as he is happy to call them. Here At The Fair is his sixth such show and, as always, he has assembled a fine cast: Heather Bradford, Alice Jones, Pete Morton, Geoff Lakeman and the trio Granny’s Attic – George Sansome, Lewis Wood and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.
Ryan’s shows are usually historical and/or political subjects so this particular fair is set up in a country town in 1850. Initially it’s all very jolly with the instrumentation featuring reeds and euphonium echoing the sound of a fairground organ. The various characters introduce themselves and comment on their lifestyles. Ryan is generous in sharing out the parts with Geoff Lakeman playing Doctor Maldini, the snake-oil salesman; George Sansome as a ballad-seller; Heather Bradford plays the fortune-teller Madame Lavengro and Pete Morton is allowed to go completely over the top as Professor Sleary, the owner of the flea circus. Ryan plays Vincent Crummles, the showman, with Alice Jones as his daughter. Aficionados of Charles Dickens will recognise the names.
Gradually, a darker story begins to emerge. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne plays the clown Steven Starling who, we learn, is searching for his father. The second disc begins with Maldini recalling the events at Peterloo and Madame Lavengro remembering the last great Chartist meeting. There are other missing persons in this story – is there a link between them? As the show progresses the characters confess the truth about the hardship of their lives in a travelling show, admit that their best days are behind them and confront the truth about themselves. Any more information would be spoilers.
Mick Ryan’s songs are always singable, which is why so many people borrow them, and even in the darker moments of Here At The Fair there is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Things may be bad now but they were good once. Sadly, in the words of ‘If Only’, there is no going back so everyone blinks back the tears and looks forward.
An outway songster was one who sang traditional song and popular hits of the time but “actually invented new ones themselves” according to Lucy Broadwood and Fuller Maitland. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne doesn’t go as far as covering Lady Gaga and it is difficult to point the finger at the song he invented – although ‘Thomas Holt’ probably comes closest – but he admits to taking several liberties with the songs and tunes included here. Outway Songster is as fine an example of the folk process in action as you could wish to find and it’s a damn good album.
The set opens with ‘Ripon Sword Dance Song’, traditionally a Christmas calling-on song from which Cohen has removed the seasonal references and added some extra verses. This is what he does several times on the record, making some songs traditionalish, I suppose, but none the worse for that. Second is ‘Andrew Rose’, a real X-rated song. Cohen is faithful to the printed texts which relish the tortures inflicted on the poor sailor but not actually why it was thought that he merited such treatment. I shudder listening to Cohen’s version.
Many of the songs are variants of well-known ballads. ‘Thomas Holt’ has a tune that is mostly ‘The Devil And The Feathery Wife’ and takes that story and twists it into something new even though it can be traced back to the 17th century. ‘Babylon’ is a Scottish version of the outlandish knight story and ‘Tom The Barber’ is ‘Will O’Winsbury’ in different clothes. There are three instrumental sets and one song I’ve never heard before, ‘Fireman’s Growl’, which was recorded by Tony Rose on Steam Ballads, a long-lost album from 1977. Karl Dallas takes the credit for collecting up the verses and setting them to a very familiar tune.
Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne may have come to your attention as a member of Granny’s Attic, a fine trio, but this is his first solo album – completely solo with melodeon and concertina, with no studio tricks. His voice belies his youthful looks in its drive and confidence and the album is a perfect example of the producer’s skill and Doug Bailey has excelled himself. It sounds as if he just set up the microphones and pressed Record but it probably wasn’t as simple as that.
I’ll say it again: this is a superb record and I hope that we’ll hear much more of Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.