KATE RUSBY – Philosophers, Poets & Kings (Pure PRCD53)

PhilosophersIncredibly, Philosophers, Poets & Kings is Rusby’s 17th studio album in just over 20 years. Once again, a collection of the traditional and self-penned with a couple of covers for good measure, it pays homage to her Yorkshire roots, both musical and personal, as well as furthering her exploits into electronic realms with Moog, synths and programming.

It opens though without any techno frills on her setting of a traditional song, ‘Jenny’, which, although I’ve been unable to track down its provenance, I would assume to originate from Yorkshire and tells the playful tale of Yorkshire Jen, the long shout outsider who proves to have the stamina to stay the course when the others can barely trot. As befits the subject, it builds into a sprightly drum thumping number that features cornet and flugelhorn, Michael McGoldrick on flute, double bass, diatonic accordion and Ron Block on banjo as well as Damien O’Kane on guitars and vocals. Not only that, it’s reprised in a remix version as the penultimate track that strips out flute, bass and accordion and replaces them with Anthony Davis’s programming for which you might want to break out the folk glow-sticks.

Horses also get a mention in the languidly paced ‘Bogey’s Bonnie Belle’, a much recorded bothy ballad about impregnation out of wedlock and the class system divide popularised by Scottish Travellers, here featuring O’Kane on tenor guitar, Ross Ainslie on whistles and moody Moog provided by Duncan Lyall. Apparently, when she was young Rusby’s family had a Staffy named after the song, which leads nicely into the swayalong title track. Another traditional song set to a new tune, celebrating the inspirational power of the vine in promoting poetry and song that namechecks Diogenes, Plato and Democritus it also harks to wine-fuelled family singsongs and, who knows, may well have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’.

The first original number comes with ‘Until Morning’, a twinkling I’m by your side lullaby of sorts essentially about how it’s always darkest before the dawn, followed by the two covers, first up being a rousing reading of Thompson and Swarbrick’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’ from Liege and Lief, although fiddle is conspicuous by its absence, substituted by whistles, Moog and programming. The second is a rather more left field choice, being an emotionally plaintive take on Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ featuring just Rusby and O’Kane’s tenor guitar, Rusby having first performed it on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show.

Co-penned with dad Steve and featuring wheezing accordion and whistles, the whimsical lurching ‘The Squire and the Parson’ is apparently based on a local folk tale involving much strong wine, a night-time coach journey and the two characters mistaking each other for a highwayman and knocking one another about.

A bittersweet mood shrouds ‘The Wanderer’, a poignant self-penned story about a man from her village suffering from Alzheimer’s who spends his time walking in search of his lost soul mate. Staying local with a dedication to the Barr Family who host Rusby’s Underneath The Stars Festival, ‘The Farmer’s Toast’ is another airy, waltzing accordion-based arrangement of a song originally published as a broadside in the early 19th century celebrating the idyllic pleasures of farming life a century earlier.

That soul-swelling sense of joy spreads over the Rusby original ‘As The Lights Go Out’, on which, joined by Chas MacKenzie on electric guitar and Sam Kelly on vocals, another anthem to hope in the face of loss, grief and doubt as she sings about facing the dawn with a smile and how “Tonight the stars are yours and mine.”

It closes though on a much darker note the self-penned ‘Halt The Wagons’ conceived as a lullaby to the 26 children, 15 boys and 11 girls aged 7-17 from Silkstone, who, in 1838, were drowned in the Barnsley Huskar Pit disaster when the coal mine shaft in which they were working was flooded in a freak storm, their bodies found with their arms around each other for comfort. Written to commemorate the 180th anniversary, it features evocative Yorkshire brass and euphonium but, more movingly, 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir of the same ages and gender, recorded underground at the National Coal Mining Museum of England. It’s impossible to listen to without welling up.

The booklet features quotes from three Greek philosophers, among them Aristotle who said “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” Kate Rusby bears the torch.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

‘Jenny’ – live:

DAMIEN O’KANE & RON BLOCK – Banjophony (Pure Records PRCD48)

BanjophonyIf you’re not a fan of the five-string egg-slicer you might be thinking of moving on but hold hard there, stranger. This is no ‘Duelling Banjos’, last one to the end gets the beers in mayhem-fest. The object of the exercise was to pair the 5-string banjo of the American tradition with the Irish style of tenor banjo playing but Banjophony does more than that. Most of the music here is contemporary, mostly written by O’Kane and Block with two each by Michael Mooney and David  Kosky and a traditional tune that crept in when no-one was watching.

Have a look at the cast list and you’ll realise that this is something rather special. There’s Stephen Byrnes on guitar, Duncan Lyall and Barry Bales on double bass, Michael McGoldrick on whistle and Stuart Duncan on fiddle just for starters. Indeed, we’re half a minute into the first set, ‘Miller’s Gin/Potato Anxiety’ before we actually hear a banjo courtesy of a lovely guitar intro from Byrnes.

Some tunes sound traditional – Block’s ‘Battersea Skillet Liquor’ is classic southern banjo picking topped of with fiddle – but more sound like new music written with the banjo in mind. O’Kane’s ‘Ode To Aunty Frances’ is a beautiful piece that could be arranged for any instrument(s) you fancy and still sound good. ‘Crafty Colette’ is another tune that approaches the banjo lead slowly and that lead, when it arrives, can best be described as “thoughtful”.

The band are very tight and Byrnes has contributed to the arrangements as has Kosky and all the music was recorded live apart from two double bass parts which came from Tennessee. You can almost feel the rapport between the musicians particularly when a tune doesn’t quite behave as expected. The title track is like that and is well-named.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ websites: www.damianokane.co.uk / www.ronblock.com

This short teaser video is all we can find:

DÀIMH – The Rough Bounds (Goat Island Music, GIMCD005)

The Rough BoundsTwenty years to the day since their first gig, Dàimh release their seventh album, The Rough Bounds. While the title might aptly describe the burly chap gracing the cover, it actually relates to the area around West Lochaber where the band originates, “Na Garbh Chrìochan” in Gaelic.

Dàimh (meaning “kinship”) are now a six-piece, with the addition of fiddler Alasdair White to complement Gabe McVarish. The album also features Duncan Lyall (double bass), Martin O’Neill (bodhran) alongside ex-band member Calum Alex MaxMillan, Ewen Henderson and Kathleen MacInnes (backing vocals).

A lively puirt à beul trio (about chickens, Owen’s boat and picking cockles), ‘‘S Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan’ fairly bubbles along like a clear mountain stream. Followed up by ‘12th Of June’, a strong, driving pipe-led set of jigs, these two tracks make an immediately engaging opening to the album.

Sorrowful òran, ‘Tha Fadachd orm Fhìn’ features a delicate metallic sheen of percussion courtesy of guest artist Signy Jakobsdottir, well-partnered with Ellen MacDonald’s expressive vocal. MacDonald’s crystal clear voice is edged with a subtle smokiness and, aside from the liveliness of puirt à beul, the songs of love, loss and longing featured here allow her melancholy lyricism to the fore. (A witty set of icons printed alongside the song titles provides helpful clues about the subject matter: those accompanying ‘Bodach Innse Chrò’ are particularly brilliant).

The tunes mix the band’s arrangements of traditional material with their original compositions, all of which sit together extremely comfortably. New and old interweave unobtrusively. A pair of Donald MacLeod reels, an homage to one of the band’s favourite composers, makes for an interesting diversion. Here, beaty guitar and assertive fiddle provide the framework for a deftly twisting, turning interplay of pipes and whistles.

Arrangements are rich but not overloaded, with the band’s skilful, energetic playing breathing fresh vitality into the tunes. The album culminates with a haunting and lamenting instrumental version of the murderous, ‘Chì mi’n Toman’, with its eerie, lingering final pipe notes.

The Rough Bounds makes a most welcome and assured addition to the Scottish traditional music canon. From here, Dàimh are looking strong and confident as they embark on their next twenty years.
Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.daimh.net

‘Dhannsamaid Le Ailean’ – live:

Dàimh announce new album

Dàimh

Translated from the Gaelic Na Garbh Chrìochan, the Rough Bounds is the area of West Lochaber where Dàimh were formed 20 years ago. Still based in the area, the band’s roots remain firmly tied to the region by the enduring connections of the three remaining founding members.

Historically regarded as an unruly and inaccessible Jacobite stronghold from which Bonnie Prince Charlie both launched his campaign and subsequently fled from in defeat six months later; the landscape of the Rough Bounds is reflected in the breath-taking beauty of Ellen MacDonald’s vocals, the wild grandeur of Dàimh’s pipe and fiddle led instrumentals and the band’s ongoing mission to defend and promote the Gaelic culture.

The idea of crossing the paths of past and future is strongly represented. “Half of the tunes on the record are written by the band and the other half are traditional, the only exception being that of a set of melodies composed by piping legend, PM Donald MacLeod from the Isle of Lewis. We wanted to pay tribute to one our favourite composers, but the set also serves as a stepping stone between the old tunes and our own contemporary pieces” explains piper Angus MacKenzie.

Bringing a mixture of seldom-heard songs passed down from family to better-known puirt à beul and ballads, Ellen MacDonald confidently takes command of the vocals and proves she is now a firmly established star in the gaelaxy. The songs cover all of the expected Dàimh themes; drinking, fighting, heartbreak and heading off to sea, never to be seen again.

For this, the band’s seventh album to date, their number swells to six with the addition of Alasdair White who joins Gabe McVarish on fiddle. “Fiddle is spelt with two ‘D’s because Dàimh deserves a double dose of fiddle action” declares Gabe. “Alasdair is just d’man for the job!”

Former Dàimh singer Calum Alex MacMillan makes a cameo appearance alongside Kathleen MacInnes and Ewen Henderson on backing vocals. The Rough Bounds also features guest appearances by instrumentalists Martin O’Neill (bodhran), Duncan Lyall (double bass) and Signy Jakobsdottir (percussion) and was engineered by Barry Reid.

The Rough Bounds is due for release on Goat Island Music on 27th May 2018; exactly 20 years to the day after their first ever gig. A coinciding launch tour includes 3 venues from their inaugural tour and also notches up the 27th and 28th Scottish Islands the band has performed on.

Artists’ website: https://www.daimh.net/

LORI WATSON – Yarrow Acoustic Sessions (Isle Music Scotland ISLE05CD)

Yarrow Acoustic SessionsIf the word you usually associate with the Scots is “dour” ‘I’m afraid this album may reinforce your prejudices. As I understand it Yarrow Acoustic Sessions is the prequel to a full album – working drawings if you will. Lori is supported by Duncan Lyall, who also produced the record, Steven Byrnes and Fiona Black and the accompaniments are, to say the least, spare, with Lori employing a lot of plucked violin.

For those with limited knowledge of Scottish geography, Yarrow in a region of the borders north-west of Keilder and not far from Flodden, hence the inclusion of ‘Flooers O The Forest’ in this set. Lori opens with ‘Yarrow (A Charm)’ based on a poem by Walter Elliot and built on a droning, almost discordant, harmonium by Lyall. Next comes ‘The Flytin O Life And Daith’ – words by Hamish Henderson and music by Alison McMorland – which is not exactly cheering. Then there’s ‘Fause, Fause’, a song I don’t particularly care for in English. Evan as an aficionado of traditional Scottish song, I’m finding this album hard going.

Taking it in isolation I would probably heap praise on ‘Dowie Dens O Yarrow’ although I’d be happier if Duncan Lyall were playing a real piano. Lowi sings mostly in Scots which, as Dick Gaughan would patiently explain, isn’t English with some unfamiliar words but a foreign language from which you can pick out a few words. Thus, ‘Flooers O The Forest’, a long version which I think uses the original 18th century words, is at times incomprehensible, particularly when Lyall is giving the keyboard a real work-out.

I like ‘What A Voice (Blackbird)’ which sounds more like a completed version as does the closing ‘October Song’ with some clever variations of both melody and rhythm and Lori harmonising with herself. If the final project sounds anything like these two tracks, I’ll be very happy.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.loriwatson.net

‘October Song’ – official video:

Lori Watson announces two new albums

Lori Watson

Scots Singer of the Year 2016-17, Lori Watson is a fiddle player, singer and composer. She has drawn on the rich tradition of the Scottish Borders throughout her artistic life, including experimental works and a PhD thesis and creative folio exploring innovation and contemporary traditional music practice. A folk musician with considerable pedigree, Lori is currently touring and recording with Boreas, Iain Morrison and several solo and collaborative projects including guesting with Kate Rusby in 2018 and she has six albums in circulation including two critically acclaimed records featuring her trio Rule Of Three. But this is Lori’s first significant song work and she is lettingus in on the process as well as the finished product.

Lori is touring Yarrow Acoustic Sessions in 2018 with Duncan Lyall on keys, harmonium and bass (Kate Rusby, Treacherous Orchestra) and Chas Mackenzie on guitar (Halton Quartet, Scott Matthews). Follow-up album Yarrow is expected Autumn 2018.

Yarrow Acoustic Sessions is the culmination of an evolving digital album –Watson’s first major song work. Growing up in the Scottish Borders, the Yarrow valley beside Selkirk has been an inspiring place for Lori and acknowledging that this unique and atmospheric area has inspired countless artists over the centuries, she has continued her own exploration of the area through song, music, folklore, history and poetry. This album is a thoughtful selection of songs brought together to convey a sense of Yarrow as Lori knows it. The songs are full of strong natural imagery and tales of our own imperfection: living and dying, growing and decaying, loving, betraying, regretting, accepting, and a kind of madness we just can’t shake.

In addition to vocals and fiddle from Watson, the album features sensitive playing from Duncan Lyall (keys, harmonium and double bass), Steven Byrnes (guitar and bass drum) and Fiona Black (accordion) as well as contributions from poets, writers and composers Hamish Henderson, Walter Elliot, Alison Rutherford, Jean Elliot, Lewis Spence, Alexander Anderson, Alison McMorland, Ed Miller and Robin Williamson. Yarrow Acoustic Sessions reflects Watson’s creative process towards a second, forthcoming, album (Yarrow) that carries these themes beyond conventional folk sounds (hinted at in ‘What A Voice (Blackbird)’.

Dark and brooding, windswept, contoured, joyful, turbulent, sparse, reflective: Yarrow is an exploration of human connections to nature and one another, through time, inspired by the Yarrow valley in the Scottish Borders.

“I’m interested in unfinished works and fragments, whether traditional or original. They’ve always been inspiring starting points for me. I’m creating and interpreting fragments; crafting something that expresses the connections between us and our environment spanning hundreds of years: and then it’s filtered by what inspires and resonates with me right now.”

“I’m very curious about nature and about our psychology; and how we connect, and make sense of, our inner and outer lives. I think this comes through in the music.”

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Artist’s website: www.loriwatson.net

‘Flooers O The Forest’: