EAMON FRIEL – Atlantic Light (Thran Records THR 1013)

Atlantic LightAtlantic Light is Eamon Friel’s eighth and final album. The Londonderry broadcaster, performer and songwriter died unexpectedly at a remarkably youthful sixty-nine over the weekend. He was immensely popular in and around Belfast and will be sorely missed.

The album fits smoothly into Eamon’s oeuvre. It’s gentle and understated with support from his regular band, some of whom, notably guitarist and arranger Eddie O’Donnell, have been with him forever. There is a thread of nostalgia running through much of Eamon’s work and Atlantic Light is no exception. The opening track, ‘The Old Songs’ harks back fifty years to the music that bound people together in their formative years. ‘Takeaway’ talks about holiday work in a Chinese in Clapham and we’re going back five decades once again. It’s a happy song: any chorus that starts “chicken and sweetcorn soup” is alright in my book. ‘Benediction’ is another song from his school days in Derry. Eamon has a quiet, sometimes whispery voice, that suits this song and the title track very well.

He can crank it up sometimes. ‘Under The Sun’ has the full bass, drums and lead guitar treatment and I’ve often wished in the past that he’d push a bit more. ‘Street Of Song’ moves back in time of Tin Pan Alley – a period that Eamon clearly has great affection for. Frank Robinson’s saxophone and Liam Bradley’s brushed drums give it the perfect period feel. ‘The Hammer’ is an attack on uncaring capitalism which is sung remarkably calmly – I can think of one or two singers who would double the speed and scream these words but Eamon’s regretful tone work just as well. The closing ‘Cnoc An Chónaí’ is another song of nostalgia sung for the musicians of the north London Irish pub scene decorated with Paul Cutliffe’s uilleann pipes. Even the old songs get old sometimes.

And so Eamon Friel formally closes his account with an album that will please his fans but I suspect that there are some demos and out-takes waiting to be unearthed.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.pattynanmedia.com/452/599.htm

COE, PETERS & SMYTH – The Road To Peterloo (Backshift Music BASHCD 65)

The Road To PeterlooIn spite of the establishment’s attempts to cover up the story of the massacre for nigh on two hundred years, it’s now common knowledge to anyone who cares to listen. Mike Leigh’s film has done a great service and now we have a musical history of the event compiled by Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth. It might have been tempting to write a folk opera but every word of The Road To Peterloo is contemporary with the events they describe. Some come from broadsides and Brian and Laura have laboured to marry existing tunes to the lyrics or write new ones where necessary.

The album falls into two halves. The first eight tracks deal with the build-up to the meeting and several of the songs passed into the folk repertoire and remain familiar. ‘The Drummer Boy For Waterloo’ serves to remind us that the massacre took place just four years after Wellington’s victory. Young Edmund “escaped” his life in the cotton mills but died on the battlefield and it’s hard to say whether or not he was better off. . ‘Jone O’Grinfield’ is better known as ‘Four Loom Weaver’ in this version but another song with the same title also tells of a man joining the army in preference to starving at home. ‘Cropper Lads’ celebrates, if that’s the right word, the wrecking of Cartwright’s Mill by Luddites in 1812 and ‘Tom Paine’ is an old broadside set to a new tune by Laura. All this and the Corn Laws, too – everything’s coming to a head.

The second half begins with an instrumental break in the shape of a couple of jigs and then we get to the meat of the story. ‘With Henry Hunt We’ll Go’, ‘Rise, Britons, Rise’ and ‘John Stafford’s Song’ all describe aspects of the massacre, the latter being particularly graphic, while ‘St Ethelstone’s Day’ and ‘The Pride Of Peterloo’ are bitter satires of the events. Finally, ‘The Chartist Anthem’ and ‘Kersal Moor’ document the continuing protests – Peterloo wasn’t the end of the story by any means.

Pete, Brian and Laura haven’t tried to be too clever. They sing and play their instruments without overdubs or guest musicians and some may find the sound of The Road To Peterloo a little old-fashioned. Of course, if you’ve heard any or all of the trio in a folk club, you’ll know better.

Dai Jeffries

Project website: www.theroadtopeterloo.com

‘The Triumph Of Liberty’:

SUNJAY – Devil Came Calling (own label SLCD201901)

Devil Came CallingSunjay has now released five albums and really should be a star but the blues is “genre” music and that’s unlikely to happen yet awhile. After the side-step of Sunjay Sings Buddy he has returned to the roots of his music with Devil Came Calling and if that title suggests a song to you, well you’re absolutely right. Sunjay has a fine band with him, the key member of which is Eddy Morton, co-producer, multi-instrumentalist and writer or co-writer – despite an unconvincing attempt to disguise himself in the latter role. Darren Barnes drums, Ian Jennings plays bass, Pete Bond plays piano and Katriona Gilmore sings and fiddles. Dan Walsh turns up on one track and when you can recruit musicians of this calibre you know you’re on the map.

There are two old blues numbers, several original songs and a number of covers from artists that only the cognoscenti will know. The album opens with the single, ‘Ghost Train’, a catalogue of long gone American heroes which rocks along brilliantly. That’s followed by ‘Mean & Ugly’. I can’t believe that Sunjay expects us to take this seriously so I guess it’s a sort of cross-threaded love song. It’s fun, anyway. Tommy Johnson’s delta blues ‘Big Road’ is the first of the old songs featuring a brilliant drum and bass backing by Darren and Eddy topped off with Lee Southall’s harmonica.

Chris Smither’s ‘I Feel The Same’ slows things down a bit and is the first of the external covers. The devil came calling in Hans Theessink’s ‘Johnny & The Devil’, the old familiar story with almost a happy ending – Johnny doesn’t escape Old Nick’s clutches but he’s still playing somewhere down there. Matt Anderson’s ‘Tell Me’ and Lisa Mills’ ‘The Truth’ round out the record – I hadn’t come across Mills before but this is a knockout song to finish with.

Devil Came Calling is a fine album and essential road music for the summer – if we ever get one.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.sunjay.tv

‘Ghost Train’ – official video:

DARIA KULESH & MARINA OSMAN – Firebirds (own label)

FirebirdsFirebirds was recorded by Daria and Marina for sale at gigs – although you can also buy it from their website. The fifteen tracks were recorded in single takes to get as close to their live sound as possible and they left the occasional giggle in.

Most of the tracks are traditional – or nearly traditional – Russian songs and I should explain that Daria and Marina are very popular with London’s Russian community for whom they mostly perform. The record in sequenced as a live set as far as I can judge. The opener, ‘Oy Moroz, Moroz’, is a drinking song about frost and it would be rude to suggest that these are popular Russian concerns. It’s followed by ‘I Watch The Snow’, one of Daria’s own songs, and ‘Shchdryk’, a New Year’s Eve song – think of the Mari Lwyd without the horse but with similar results for the ungenerous. That’s winter neatly dealt with.

Next up is their multi-lingual version of ‘Those Were The Days’, which was traditional once and is performed with all the fire and passion that Daria and Marina are capable of as well as much enjoyment. Is it wrong to suggest that Daria’s singing sounds more natural in Russian? I don’t know but I do feel that the words flow more comfortably. Marina is a classically trained pianist with the whole weight of Russian music behind her. Her biography is a fascinating read and I believe that if she played Tchaikovsky he’d probably lose.

My other favourites among the Russian songs are ‘Korobeiniki’ and ‘Dunya’s Ferry’, both up-tempo pieces well-suited to dramatic performance. There are three songs from Daria’s first solo album, Eternal Child: ‘The Hairdresser’ – it really is a true story – ‘Fake Wonderland’ and the lovely ‘Fata Morgana’ and the album closes with ‘Kalinka’ which seems to have been removed from its origins over the years but Daria and Marina have tried to restore it. The packaging of Firebirds is minimal but you can download notes on the Russian songs from the website and sound as knowledgeable as I pretend to be.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/with-marina-osman/

‘Those Were The Day’ – in the studio:

SKIPINNISH – Steer By The Stars (Skipinnish Records SKIPCD28)

Steer By The StarsSkipinnish have had a spectacular couple of years since the release of The Seventh Wave and now, as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they find themselves at the top of the tree in contemporary/ traditional Scottish music. Now an octet with Angus Tikka being replaced by Charlotte Printer on bass and fiddler Archie McAllister they press on with a new album, Steer By The Stars, to mark their birthday. Angus MacPhail is still at the helm as principal songwriter with Norrie MacIver on lead vocals and the twin highland bagpipes of Andrew Stevenson and Alasdair Murray. They point out that the band’s youngest member, drummer Rory Grindlay, wasn’t born when the band first got together.

The sea is never far from Skipnnish’s thoughts, either literally or metaphorically and Steer By The Stars is no exception. The anchors of the opening track, ‘Anchors Of The Soul’ are of the latter variety as the song looks to a bright future for the Gaels. The title track combines both – the singer is clearly at sea but is also thinking about the person waiting at the end of his journey. From now on we’re definitely in maritime mood. The first song in Gaelic, ‘Coire Bhreacain’, is written in shanty form and although my Gaelic doesn’t amount to much, I do know that Coire Bhreacain is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow stretch of water off the northern tip of Jura.

Next is ‘Last Of The Hunters’, one of the big anthemic songs that Skipinnish do so well. It’s a hymn of praise for deep-sea fishermen but Angus isn’t parochial and the name-checks circle the entire British coast. This is a song they’ll be playing until the seas run try. In ‘Land Below The Waves’, Angus writes of the Western Isles and his desire to be out at sea again. It’s back to Gaelic for ‘Thar Sàil (Over The Sea)’, another big song but unless I missed the point, it’s about the ferries that ply the Minch. Although they aren’t named it has to be a nod to CalMac!

‘The Atholl Set’ is the second instrumental track – one for the festival dancers – and we’re just about back on land for ‘Wishing Well’, arranged and produced by Malcolm Jones. It’s what a colleague of ours would call a “swayalong” but I’m greedy enough to want to hear more of Malcolm’s guitar. Phil Cunningham composed ‘The Youngest Ancient Mariner’, a gentle interlude for about a third of its length until the pipes take hold of it. There is a traditional ‘Puirt Set’ next and then ‘Still We Run’ harks back to the thoughts of the opening track. ‘Goodbye’ isn’t completely self-explanatory from the title and finally the band return for a set of jigs.

It only struck me at the end that, in Steer By The Stars, Skipinnish have programmed a live set and then recorded it – with all the ebb and flow you want from a concert. There are several guests, including pupils from two schools on the first track but I should mention Jarlath Henderson, Gordon Gunn and former Runrig keyboard player, Brian Hurren. The guests blend seamlessly and like all good visitors, don’t outstay their welcome. You’ll hear a few bars of whistle or mandolin but only if you don’t let the music sweep you away.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.skipinnish.com

‘Wishing Well’ – official video:

JOHN TAMS – The Reckoning (Topic TTSCD006)

The ReckoningThe Reckoning, John Tams’ third solo album, is the latest deluxe re-issue marking Topic Records’ 80th anniversary. Originally released in 2005, it was the last of a trio of albums that might fall into the singer-songwriter category and the culmination, as far as recording goes, of a career that now stretches back fifty years. Tams has also been an actor, composer and musical director among other roles he’s taken on over the years but is best known for his membership of Muckram Wakes, The Albion Band and Home Service.

The first thing that struck me on listening to The Reckoning again was how gentle it is. Tams is a political thinker but he doesn’t rant in song, preferring to let the ideas enter your mind by a process of osmosis. Take the opening song, ‘Written In The Book’. On the one hand it seems to be a condemnation of the false hopes of the sixties: “Lennon and McCartney have a lot to answer for” and on the other it’s an attack on Thatcherism. ‘Safe House’ is equally complex. It’s clearly about the dispossessed but are they immigrants, Travellers, or the unemployed detritus of industrial decline? Probably all three.

There are several traditional songs here – at least they were once traditional and Tams labels them as such despite the work he’s put into them. ‘Amelia’ is absolutely gorgeous: obviously in shanty form but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ‘Amelia’ who is out on the sea or her sailor who is trying to get back to her. ‘Bitter Withy’ is modernised with Graeme Taylor’s Dobro over Andy Seward’s banjo and ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is transferred to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields and 1984.

‘The Sea’ is a song cycle which includes ‘One More Day’, a song that Tams has made his own, and the amalgamation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ with the chorus of ‘A Sailor’s Alphabet’. The last track on the original release was ‘Including Love’, a decidedly American blues decorated by Steve Dawson’s trumpet. It sounded slightly incongruous then but with the three “postscript” tracks taken from or inspired by productions of John Steinbeck works it seems more appropriate. The first of the three is the cheekily titled ‘Sweet Home Oklahoma’ and the second is ‘No Luck At All’, both featuring Taylor on second guitar. Both of these post-date the first release of The Reckoning but the final track is a gorgeous big band version of Albert E Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from 1990 (remember Plainsong’s version?) and among the familiar names on board you have to single out Trevor Dunford’s lead guitar playing.

If this is the last of Topic’s celebratory reissues, it’s not a bad place to stop but, you know, I can think of a dozen more candidates to continue the series.

Dai Jeffries

Please support us and order via our UK or US Storefront 

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Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

‘Amelia’ – live (from the folking archive):