KY BURT – The Sky In Between (Woodstove Records)

The Sky In BetweenWhile lots of Americana finds its way between my ears from time to time, Ky Burt’s album The Sky In Between, due for release on the 5th April 2019, is a little different from most of the CDs in that idiom I hear. Ky’s self-written songs here seem somehow to reflect the landscapes in which he’s found himself over the course of his Midwest upbringing, his career in Arizona, and his most recent move to the Pacific Northwest, as well as the more internal landscapes that we tend to expect from a singer-songwriter. Which actually makes it rather interesting.

On an album mostly recorded at Tyler Fortier’s home studio in Oregon, Ky’s own guitar, vocals and 5-string banjo are supported by a range of musicians and instruments. Not only the usual bass, percussion, piano/keys etc., but also Nashville-tuned guitar, pedal steel and violin. His vocals are untrained, but pleasant – vaguely reminiscent of Davy Graham, though the overall sound and material here are generally nearer country than anything I remember Davy recording. In fact, nearer to country – or in places, country rock – rather than folk, whatever you may understand by that label. And the emphasis here is on the songs rather than on vocal or instrumental virtuosity, though the playing is never less than competent.

  1. ‘Midwestern Sky’ obviously reflects his Midwest upbringing, with a tale of a contented man who chose to stay in that region and “count the airplanes flying high in this Midwestern sky…
  2. ‘Hard To Reach’ is a banjo-dominated ballad of unrequited or broken love, with nice interplay of fiddle and banjo on the instrumental break.
  3. ‘Idaho’ is a more upbeat song of travel.
  4. ‘All I Leave Behind’ is another ballad with a theme of regret, and does have a slightly folky feel. Some of the vocal phrasing seems a little awkward to me.
  5. ‘The Woodstove Song’ is a simple performance carried only by nice clawhammer guitar. It’s really rather a nice song that suits Ky’s voice.
  6. Electric guitar gives ‘Back To The City’ more of an appropriately urban feel, as do the harmony vocals. Another good song.
  7. ‘Midnight Cigarette’ has an old-fashioned jazzy feel, with some slightly unexpected changes. Collin Stackhouse’s violin is a particular standout.
  8. The atmospheric ‘Small Town Dream’ is described as “a lamentation of dying towns everywhere“.
  9. The sparse arrangement of ‘Maple Grove’ gives emphasis to a particularly affecting lyric.
  10. ‘Seeds In The Dirt’ is a nice story of rekindled friendship, mostly carried by sprightly, folk-y banjo.

The accompanying PR sheet describes the album as “Awash with painterly imagery“, and indeed there is something about these story-songs that does call to mind the social snapshot aspect of Edward Hopper. The more I hear it, the more I like it. If you’re a fan of Americana, give it a try: it might just surprise you.

David Harley

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‘Midwestern Sky’ – live:

Julie July Band live in Penzance

Julie July Band
Photograph by Dave Pegg

With lots of milder spring weather finally making an appearance in Cornwall, what could be nicer than venturing down from the hills of Penwith for some live music at the Acorn Theatre? Well, it turns out that many of my neighbours took the opportunity of seeing the Julie July Band on the 30th March 2019, and I don’t think anyone was disappointed.

There has to be a certain sadness in a set comprised mostly of songs written by or associated with Sandy Denny, in that there is always an element of regret that there will be no more Denny songs, or further opportunities to hear that incomparable voice apart from those recordings already available. Yet when that set is executed with such charm, respect and professionalism, no one is likely to leave the theatre without feeling uplifted.

Julie started the show with Richard Farina’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ – starting an electric set with an unaccompanied song might seem a risky strategy, but the old Irish melody to which Farina set his lyric lends itself so well to an unaccompanied treatment and for me it was the perfect opening, seguing into a full band version of Sandy’s own ‘Listen, Listen’.

The rest of the set ranged over most of Sandy’s tragically short career, from the Dave Cousins songs ‘Tell Me What You See In Me’ and ‘And You Need Me’, from her brief spell with the Strawbs, to the Fotheringay version of ‘Gypsy Davey’, to songs from her solo albums like ‘Solo’ and ‘Blackwaterside’. They even found space to include the Inkspots’ ‘Whispering Grass’, which Sandy covered on Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz. While her time with Fairport Convention wasn’t represented much, two of the songs performed are associated as much with Fairport as with other recorded versions. ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ was recorded by both Fairport and the Strawbs, and the stunning ‘Fotheringay’, after which the later band was named, originally appeared on Fairport’s What We Did On Our Holidays.

Julie has promised that the band will always include Sandy Denny songs, and so they should: songs like these should never be forgotten, and Julie is an accomplished and sensitive interpreter of Sandy’s material, and the band provides her with excellent support. I was particularly struck by Steve Rezillo’s fluent lead guitar, especially on ‘Fotheringay’ with its interplay with Don MacLeod’s intricate acoustic guitar. That said, I was also intrigued to get my first aural glimpse of several tracks from the band’s forthcoming CD of original material, Lady Of The First Light, due for release in May, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the band proved here that they can do justice to a whole bunch of Sandy’s songs apart from those on their CD from last year Who Knows Where The Time Goes? Given the chance to attend one of their concerts, I think any Sandy Denny fan will find much to enjoy, and if you’re not familiar with these songs, you have a treat in store.

David Harley

Artist’s website: juliejuly.co.uk/

‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ – live:

SEAN TAYLOR – The Path Into Blue (Sean Taylor Songs STCD113)

The Path Into BlueSean Taylor’s CD The Path Into Blue, due for release on April 12th 2019, is very much an album of its time. Which is to say it’s grounded, lyrically, in most of the things that are wrong with 21st Century Britain and the world in general. Not a lot of moon and June here, then, and not much comfort for those who prefer their music to be relaxing rather than thought-provoking. Nor does Sean Taylor wrap his politics in vague, genteel metaphor: there is no mistaking his views on topics like Brexit, racism and Donald Trump.

Here’s the track listing, all songs having been written by Sean Taylor:

  1. ‘This Is England’ isn’t directly tied to the Shane Meadows movie of the same name, though there’s some overlap in the subject matter. In fact, the track manages to reference most or all of the concerns addressed in more detail in the other songs on the CD. And there are probably enough issues raised to power songs for several more albums. Interestingly, this is less a song than a poem/rap – as the song itself says “…all music is free / Spotify this poem for you and me” – set against a Stevie Wonder-ish riff. A little like Gil Scott-Heron with a London
  2. ‘Lampedusa’ takes its name and topic from the Italian island which has become well-known as an entry point into Europe for refugees from Africa. The instrumental intro and outro have echoes of the Mediterranean, but the song itself takes us somewhere less sunny: “Where did compassion go? / It died a long time ago“.
  3. ‘Grenfell’ draws a chilling connection between the tragedy of the fire and social inequality: “… the working class get zero hours / And a place to die in Grenfell Towers“. While the vocals are laidback, allowing the words to speak for themselves, there’s a raw, effective lead guitar on the playout.
  4. ‘The Last Man Standing (Merry Christmas)’ is a bleaker view of the season than you’re likely to hear over the Tannoy in Tesco or from the salvation army, despite brass band effects and the sardonic choir introduced into the latter part of the arrangement.
  5. ‘Little Donny’ is a harsh verbal portrait of the 45th president of the United States and the societal sickness that, for many, he represents. The sax intro from Joe Morales gives this a jazz/blues feel. The backing vocals from Stephanie Daulong and Jaimee Harris give the hook particular emphasis.
  6. ‘A Cold Wind Blows’ considers the plight of the homeless, with Sean’s nylon-strung lead guitar contrasted with Henry Senior’s pedal steel. Interesting.
  7. ‘Take It Down To The Mainstream’ takes a sideswipe at mainstream pop music and the cult of celebrity. Ironically, it’s a rather effective rock-soaked arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on Radio 1.
  8. ‘Tobacco And Whisky’ is a sombre song about alcoholism and binge drinking. Probably my favourite track.
  9. I don’t know the exact significance of the title ‘Number 49’, but this bluesy track is clearly about addiction.
  10. ‘The Other Side Of Hurt’ is a structurally simple song about depression, with the bulk of the accompaniment carried by Sean’s electric piano and lead guitar.
  11. ‘In The Name Of God’, by contrast, features a more ambitious, ballad-ish arrangement, and addresses the horrific contemporary issues engendered by religious extremism in a lyric that somehow makes its point all the more effectively in its brevity and understatement, accentuated by the quasi-gospel feel of the playout.
  12. ‘The Path Into Blue’ is also about depression, though it’s not as bleak as that might make it sound. “You will only find what is true / When you survive / The path into blue“.

There’s something slightly nostalgic about the way this set addresses contemporary life and politics full on, but rather than the taking on the folky/acoustic approach of most of the ‘protest’ singers of the 1960s, Sean Taylor adopts a husky, jagged vocal delivery, and tunes that have more of a rock shape and instrumentation than we mostly hear even from the more recent singers of songs of social commentary.

The album was recorded in Texas, and while none of the musicians contributing to the album are familiar to me by name, they do an excellent job. If I’ve made it sound rather ‘worthy’, don’t be put off: there’s plenty of musicality here to leaven (and even support) the social awareness of the lyrics.

David Harley

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‘Grenfell’ – official video:

INNES WATSON’S GUITAR COLLOQUIUM – Guitar Colloquium (ISLE Music Scotland ISLE06)

Guitar ColloquiumI’m a little late with this one, for various reasons: Innes Watson’s CD Innes Watson’s Guitar Colloquium was due to be released on the 13th January 2019. However, now I’ve finally caught up with it, it’s too good not to review. Innes Watson is a multi-instrumentalist from Glasgow. It tells us on his website that he’s “A composer of fiddle tunes, string arrangements, guitar music, songs and much more“, and those talents are well displayed on this CD. He’s supported on this set of instrumentals by a variety of other guitarists playing acoustic, electric, tenor, electric tenor and bass guitars, as well as two drummers, two fiddle players, and a cello player, all well-known on the Scottish contemporary music scene.

Here’s the track list – all titles are credited to Innes Watson except as specified below.

  1. ‘Prelude For Sandy’ arranges the heck out of a simple chord sequence.
  2. ‘Doo Da’ is based around a sprightly tune with a structural resemblance to ‘The Little Beggarman’: coincidental, no doubt, since the explanation for the title in the notes makes no reference to Auld Johnny Doo. Nice instrumental harmonies and a tasty acoustic guitar break.
  3. ‘Feds’ (traditional arranged by Jack Evans and Innes Watson) is a variation on a tune often called ‘Waiting For The Federals’ (among many other names, including ‘Seneca Square Dance’). It’s not very danceable in this form, but it is very listenable, moving from a repetitive first section to a more literal but relaxed reading of a tune, to a slower, jazzy electric guitar noodle, and back down the list. Very nice.
  4. ‘Mando Endo’ is described in the notes as “a slow air subjected to the mandolin“, though I don’t hear anything recognizable as a mandolin here. I do hear some very nice Celtic-ish guitar, however, which seques abruptly into the next track.
  5. ‘Udon Noodle’ is altogether funkier. A noodle it may be, but it’s suitably nourishing to the ears.
  6. ‘Stubbs’ apparently takes its name from Stubbington in the South of England, but combines some funky riffing with a tune that would be quite at home in a ceilidh. It even got close to getting me dancing, even though I realized long ago that I perform better in the band than on the dance floor.
  7. ‘Waste Not’ starts with a jazzy chord sequence and then evolves into a guitar-dominated minor theme that segues into the next track.
  8. ‘Waste’ is, by contrast, a brisk piece that nevertheless echoes the previous track in places.
  9. ‘Misty The Cat’ (Paul Jennings, arranged by Innes Watson) starts with Celtic-ish guitar but picks up other instruments as it goes. Fun.
  10. ‘For Queen Nell’ is an intriguing tune: I particularly like the way the counterpoint bass and the distorted electric guitar on the playout.
  11. ‘Wee Dafty’ is described in the sleeve notes as “my attempt at writing a filthy chic hornpipe…” I have to say that the explanations of how the titles came about on this record are almost as entertaining as the tunes themselves. It takes a while to get to the hornpipe section, but it’s worth waiting for. Perhaps it’s as well that no words made it to this cut, though.
  12. ‘Roger’ is an attractive, deceptively simple piece apparently named for Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars.
  13. Fiddles and cello add depth to the guitars in the gently flowing ‘Cowboy & The Pussycat’.
  14. ‘Glasgow Guitar Colloquium’ (Innes Watson, arranged by Andrea Gobbi, Barry Reid, Innes Watson) features pretty much the whole band making whoopee over a repetitive riff, building up to some hysterical fiddlework. I have to admit that I had almost as much fun listening as they seemed to have recording it.

This is a hard album to classify. It has elements of folk and even folk-rock; some pieces are decidedly jazzy and even have elements of jazz-funk, though most of it seems closely and carefully arranged rather than improvisational. But who says it needs to be classified anyway? There is a great deal of flawlessly played and beautifully orchestrated guitar that transcends musical barriers, with solid support from a group of very sound musicians, and I think it will appeal to many people as much as it does me. And I like it very much.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: inneswatson.co.uk/

Promo video:

STEVE GARRETT – Discover And Endure (Alt Mor Records ALT-MOR2)

Diiscover And EndureSteve Garrett’s Discover And Endure consists of solo electric guitar pieces, “inspired by stories and experience of landscape, exploration and human endurance.” On this CD his Gibson ES-335 is sparingly augmented with some minimal but effective looping/drone and percussive effects by way of an Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, and a sub-octave pedal (an EH Octave Multiplexer perhaps?). While you may associate solo electric guitar with jazz – and Steve is clearly at home in that genre – some of the source material here is actually quite folky, and there’s also an ambitious take on a musical gem by Gustav Holst.

Here’s the track listing:

  1. ‘Discover And Endure’ was composed by Steve Garrett, taking its inspiration from the RRS Discovery expedition to the Antarctic between 1901 and 1904. Conceptually, it could be described as the centrepiece of the CD, in that the team at RRS Discovery have played a large part in the project and the forthcoming launch event. Indeed, the accompanying booklet includes a number of photographs of Steve’s own Antarctic landscape watercolours. Though it’s not the longest track on the CD, it packs a wide range of dynamic and musical variation into its four minutes and 43 seconds.
  2. ‘Summer River’ is another Steve Garrett composition, representing sunlight shimmering on water. It features melodic lead voicings over an arpeggiated loop, and certainly offers a relaxed ambience to match the experience it represents.
  3. ‘Lament For The Children’ takes as its starting point a heartfelt 17th century tune by Padruig Mor MacCrimmon “from the piobaireachd tradition … Dedicated to those who have endured the loss of a child.” (MacCrimmon himself lost seven of his eight sons within the space of a year.) While Steve sets parts of the tune against a drone, much of this rendition is chordal, giving it a very different feel to the same tune played on the pipes, as do the very clean tone of the guitar and the freer (presumably improvised) mid-section. What matters, though, is that it somehow maintains both the beauty of the melody and its intrinsic melancholy.
  4. ‘Midwinter Gathering’ is another of Steve Garrett’s compositions. Percussion effects recalling a rather muffled bodhrán (though actually meant to represent “the chaotic footfall of ceilidh dancers” are set against a sprightly reel in the first section, followed by ‘A folk-rock jam section‘. Almost a sub-polar, instrumental counterpart to Bill Caddick’s ‘Winter Fair’. I particularly like this one.
  5. ‘Egdon Heath’ adapts Holst’s underrated composition, originally dedicated to Thomas Hardy. (Egdon Heath is the fictitious area of Wessex which is the setting for The Return Of The Native and features in a number of Hardy’s other stories.) While the intrinsic nature of the instrument is inevitably unable to match the range of instrumental colour and dynamics we hear in an orchestral rendition, this adaptation does capture much of the atmosphere of the piece, and the restrained use of a drone effect adds a richness that would be hard to achieve in a purely acoustic transcription.
  6. ‘Lassie Lie Near Me’ (Roud B44150) is a folk song well-known in association with a lyric collected and adapted by Robert Burns, and a melody sometimes attributed to Thomas Blacklock. This version is faster and freer than I’ve heard in most vocal versions, but it makes an attractive solo piece.
  7. ‘Clifftop Storm’ is another piece by Steve, which he describes as “Variations on a theme by Dave Grohl over a desert drumbeat.” I can’t comment on its resemblance to anything by Foo Fighters, but it seemed eerily appropriate on my iPod when caught in a rainstorm while hillwalking in Cornwall. The section with single string work over a drone is jazzier, and contrasts with the more chordal sections that precede and follow it.
  8. The CD finishes with Steve’s ‘Black Sail Hut’, inspired by a stay at the very remote hostel at the head of the Ennerdale valley, in the Lake District. It’s a gentle, jazz-accented piece that reminded me a little of John Martyn’s ‘Small Hours’, in atmosphere if not in melodic content. Lovely.

While some of Steve Garrett’s admirers have emphasised the serenity and tranquillity of his performances, don’t mistake this for ambient music of the aural wallpaper persuasion. Behind that cool, clear single-string work and those unaggressively jazzy chords, there’s sensitivity as well as technique, and musicality that goes far beyond easy listening. While I can’t altogether like the tone of the percussive effects, the CD as a whole certainly had me reaching for my Les Paul…

Fittingly, the album will be launched on April 5th at 19:30, at RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, the ship that carried the Discovery Expedition (a.k.a. British National Antarctic Expedition) and now a visitor attraction at Discovery Quay, in Dundee.

David Harley

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Not from this album, but recommended:

MARK MANDEVILLE & RAIANNE RICHARDS – Live In Manitoba (Nobody’s Favourite Records NFR041)

Live In ManitobaMark Mandeville and Raianne Richards are well known on the East coast of the US and Canada, and their latest CD, Live In Manitoba, features a classy selection of live performances from their thirteen date house concert tour in Canada back in 2017.

The songs feature intelligent lyrics set against attractive and uncomplicated folk-y melodies in the best tradition of Americana, accompanied by unpretentiously accomplished acoustic guitar and a variety of instruments including harmonica, ukulele, clarinet, whistle and bass. I’m not generally fond of the ukulele unless it’s played extremely well: here, though, it generally works very well, with arpeggio and single-string work that sometimes gives it a tone reminiscent of mandolin. In general, the instrumental work is effective without being flashy. However, it’s the vocal work that lingers in the ears here: if ever two voices were meant to harmonize, it’s these two.

All but two of the songs here are by Mark and Raianne. As you might expect, there are plenty of songs here from the studio albums Hard Times & Woes (2014) and Grain By Grain (2016). Five of the tracks (those preceded by “Prelude: ” in the title) are introductions to the following song, and range from the short and factual introduction to ‘Hand I Hold’ to the lengthier banter of ‘Prelude: Why Are They Talking Again’ and an explanation of their Massachusetts Walking Tour, combining free concerts with raising awareness of the state’s trails and greenways.

Here’s the track listing.

  1. ‘Prelude: “Why are they talking again?”’
  2. ‘Hang On To The Day’ features a nice balance of uke arpeggios and fingerstyle guitar.
  3. ‘Loose Stones In The Gravel’ reminds me a little of ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ melodically, but great words, and with characteristically strong harmonies.
  4. ‘That’s The Way It Goes’ has a nice pace-y feel bolstered by bass guitar.
  5. Raianne takes lead vocals on ‘Don’t Ever Stop Believing’: some interesting chord changes here.
  6. ‘Prelude: “Love Song”’
  7. ‘Hand I Hold’ is introduced by Mark as ‘a love song I wrote for Raianne’. And very pretty it is too.
  8. ‘Grain By Grain’ alternates simple-but-effective clarinet with some adventurous harmony from Raianne: I rather like the contrast of the clarinet and Neil Young-ish harmonica on the break, too.
  9. ‘That Old Machine’
  10. ‘Walls’ is a song by Tom Petty, released as a single with The Heartbreakers in 1996. For me, the harmonies here lift this version well above the original.
  11. ‘Prelude: “It’s the only exercise we get all year”’
  12. ‘One More Mile’ is inspired by the Massachusetts Walking Tour, as explained in the preceding “prelude”.
  13. ‘Prelude: “It didn’t even sound like a furnace”’ You need to listen to the first “prelude” to get the reference here.
  14. ‘It Won’t Be Written On My Grave’ is a catchy, singalong-y song, well worth a listen, even though the whistle and guitar are slightly out of tune with each other.
  15. ‘If Someone Will Come With Me I’ll Go’ is probably my favourite song on the CD at the moment.
  16. ‘As Long As It Takes’ – like ‘Hand I Hold’, this is a previously unrecorded song.
  17. ‘Prelude: “The decisions that we make do affect other people”’ is a long introduction citing the issues address in the next track.
  18. ‘Last Tree Standing’ is a powerful if pessimistic song – “If you were the last tree standing, there’d be someone to cut you down…” – counterpointed by the clarinet’s very apposite quoting of ‘John Brown’s Body’.
  19. ‘Unknown Legend’ is a song by Neil Young, and this treatment does it full justice, and makes a satisfying end to the CD.

Some excellent songs, exceptionally well sung. Recommended.

David Harley

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‘Last Tree Standing’ – live: