To describe Glymjack simply as contemporary English folk would be rather inadequate. It is acoustic roots, lyric-driven with a nod to soft rock, peppered with a little Americana, and anchored here by two traditional English songs to establish the home ground. Thus Glymjack arrives all guns blazing with a finely produced sound and a galaxy of star guests that give an unequivocal seal of approval to their debut album Light The Evening Fire.
First, some name checking. In the driving seat is singer-songwriter Greg McDonald (accordion, bass, cuatro, guitar, tenor guitar, mandocello, mandolin, piano, vocals) who has written eight of the ten tracks. Adding flair and colour to the now-touring trio are Gemma Gayner (violins, violas, vocals) and Dickon Collinson (bass). The hallmark of the album is sophisticated arrangements with multi-instrumental and harmonic delights provided by a line-up of well-known guests from the folk world: Phil Beer, Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes, Sam Kelly, Evan Carson, Louise McDonald, Tom Peters and Claire Portman. I read elsewhere that McDonald has been in the Phil Beer band, hence the reciprocal collaboration.
The word glymjack is Victorian slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Many of McDonald’s songs are London-centric and the lyrics clearly reflect current social issues. But here’s my major gripe: why, when the lyrics and subject matter are so important, is there no booklet or word sheet in the CD, or indeed anything that tells you the background to the material? One could argue, I suppose, that if the lyrics are clearly audible (which they are), nothing else is needed. Well, I may be slow, but two hearings later I still don’t quite grasp the meaning of ‘The Wolf Who Cried Boy’. ‘Bright Sparks’ makes reference to folk heroes such as hedge preacher John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 peasants’ revolt, and to the suffragettes. I’ve no doubt that McDonald is a fine song writer, but some of the songs reflect particular events and concerns for which the listener (or is it just me?) needs at least a clue.
‘Bows Of London’ and ‘The Sweet Trinity’ are fine renditions of traditional songs, showcasing one of the many pleasures of the album – the rich harmonies. To conclude – thumbs up for a decidedly delicious and very English set of songs steered admirably by arrangements from the very best of the folk hierarchy.
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Produced with Show of Hands’ Phil Beer, and featuring Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes alongside Sam Kelly percussionist Evan Carson and fiddle virtuoso Gemma Gayner, English folk-roots act Glymjack’s debut album Light The Evening Fire is released this month.
Previously described as “a dynamic, fiddle driven force to be reckoned with” (Maverick), or simply “brilliant folk music” (fRoots), Glymjack’s music is pitched somewhere between the gritty Americana of Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen and the string-laden indie-folk of Blue Rose Code.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Greg McDonald’s original songs are unflinching in their dark vision of Brexit Britain. Title track ‘Light The Evening Fire’ steels itself against the coming darkness with angry defiance as McDonald reels off a list of what he’s prepared to burn to get through the night while Knightley and Beer chant “On the fire! On the fire!” Meanwhile the anthemic ‘Made In England’ depicts homeless soldiers sleeping on the streets of London, and the epic ‘Hope Point’ takes a road trip through rural counties where immigrant gangs face exploitation and worse.
There’s traditional English folk music here too, of both the dark-hearted balladic kind on ‘Bows Of London’, and the festival-pleasing kind on a fiery rampage through the seventeenth century traditional tune ‘The Sweet Trinity’.
The album closes with the epic ‘Bright Sparks’, a tribute to two beacons of English progressive politics, fourteenth century radical John Ball and suffragette Emily Davison. Based on a speech given by the late Tony Benn at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival where he and McDonald shared a bill five years earlier, it signs off with an anthemic sing-along as defiant in the face of the Trump era as it is celebratory of its heroes’ inspirational legacy: “When all light’s lost in the dark”, Glymjack’s assembled cast roars, “I just close my eyes and I see bright sparks”.
Fittingly, the name Glymjack is itself a nod to a dark chapter of English folk history, taken from Victorian criminal underworld slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley’s roles in the making of the Light The Evening Fire album mark the creative zenith of a musical relationship that began when a teenage Greg drunkenly cornered the pair with a demo at a gig – an incident, immortalised in the Show Of Hands song ‘Be Lucky’, which would ultimately lead to Beer suggesting the studio collaboration out of which Light The Evening Fire grew.
Throughout 2018, Glymjack tour as an acoustic trio with Greg joined by Gemma and bassist Dickon Collinson, delivering a high energy, harmony-rich set of hard-hitting originals, English folk songs and fiddle tunes.
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The Phil Beer Band rocking Haslemere Hall on 19th May – photo by Darren Beech
Phil arrived hot on the heels of the Show of Hands 5th sellout concert at The Albert Hall and the memory of winning the public vote for ‘Best musician’ in this years folking awards still fresh in his mind.
The night was put together by local promoters Auriol and Stuart who are best known for their intimate ‘meal and music nights’ at Applegarth Farm Grayshott. Phil had asked the pair to organise the event as part of his bands first UK Tour in 5 years.
Auriol said ‘for us music is about collaboration and fun, Phil sells out Applegarth every year just before Christmas with a seasonal celebration of music and friendship. So to be asked to promote his full band at Haslemere Hall was a pleasure and honour. We also asked our friend Julian Lewry to collaborate because he does an amazing job putting on live music regularly at Farncombe Music Club and occasionally Haslemere Hall, and like us has a lovely and loyal group of supporters. Stuart summed the evening up by saying that it was one of his favourite gigs ever.
The Phil Beer Band delved into the back catalogues of Phil’s beloved country, rock, folk and blues material which has become the PB Band trademark of the staple diet that have delighted audiences down the years. A rich tapestry of material with that unique PBB ‘folk n roll’ twist thrown in.
There were just too many highlights to name them all but favourites included:
Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear (Randy Newman) which came with a tale about Phil’s computer technician days when he managed a computer the size of a house and played records on the night-shift to keep the staff entertained. The Randy Newman track was a firm favourite of these sessions and dedicated to his boss at the time.
Devils Right Hand (Steve Earle) – A blistering full band version which had you leaping out your western salon seat, throwing you cards to the floor and shouting “Shot the dog down” at the appropriate point in the song.
Restless Highway (Richard & Linda Thompson) – A trip back to 1978 and the “First Light” Album – this came with a story about Phil calling RT to confirm the lyrics and RT referring Phil to a lyrics website as he couldn’t remember them.
Acadian Driftwood (The Band) – The whole story of a people displaced condensed into one song – special mention to the melodeon mastery of Gareth Turner that reallymade you feel part of the cinematic backdrop of the piece.
Photo by Darren Beech
The Fireman’s Song (D.Bilston) – Great to hear this again, I was first introduced to this song by Pete Coe, who also does a stunning version of it (unique in the fact that it contains a clog dance at the end). I’ve added the video below from the folking archive (Winchester May fest in 2006) so Phil can learn the steps for next time.
More Hills To Climb (Emily Slade) – It was so lovely to hear Emily sing one of her original songs from her first album “Shire Boy”. That finger style guitar method she uses is bewitching to watch and I felt myself drawn in to it again and again as the evening progressed. From where I was sitting, I decided not to annoy everyone by taking film clips of the performance but inspired, I searched my archive and found a performance clip from back in 2004 from one of the Folking live Farnham Maltings shows I did back then. I had to share it (see below). Apologies it not the whole song, my equipment at the time could not do videos over 3 minutes. How technology has changed…
For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer (Warren Zevon) and Next Best Western (Richard Shindell) were given the full band treatment and we got through both of them without being sawn in half or receiving a guarantee of a bed for the night!
Special mention also has to be given to Olivia Dunn (fiddle) who threw so much energy into the whole evenings performance, that it left you teetering on the edge, thinking that any minute, she was either going to spin out of control, or compose herself in that split second, just as bow and fiddle folk-rocked from one number to the next.
Photo by Darren Beech
Greg McDonald (bass, vocals) had the impossible task of filling the much missed Nick Quarmby’s shoes and Phil told a lovely story of how they made sure that something of Nicks was left on stage every night. On this night, it was a guitar pick that gave you the impression that Nick was smiling down and tapping his foot along with the rest of us. Greg also came on for a solo spot and gave us a new song called “Night Shift” which I believe will be on his new album.
Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes (Blind Willie Johnson) – This is a PBB blues classic which has to be included in the repertoire together with that firm favourite Willin’ (Little Feat) – I partially liked the story about the Dorset choir singing in harmony to “Weed, Whites and Wine”.
Perfectly Good Guitar (John Hiatt) – Another great tale to introduce this rocking country classic – about the lunacy of Garth Brooks and Ty England smashing a $5000 Takamine guitars up every night on a 50 date tour in 1991 – you do the math!
The Border Song (Arizona Smoke Revue) – This was one of my favourite performances on the night with again another fascinating tale. Phil was part of this band (as was Steve Crickett) which was formed by Bill Zorn in the late 70’s/ early 80’s. Bill was commissioned to write a song for the movie Midnight Express and The Border Song was that song. In the end however, the song was eclipsed by a Jimmy Hendrix track so it never made the cut. However, the band had just enough money left to employ at “stunt guitarist” who took the form of Richard Thompson. The song appears on the “A Thundering On The Horizon” LP and is the last track on the second side.
Photo by Darren Beech
Before The Deluge (Jackson Browne) was the encore and special mention must also go to “The Hawthornes” who gave us a lively and entertaining start to the evening with Louisa Gaylard setting the pace for a vocal driven acoustic romp through a mariachi style upbeat of pop/rock hooks. The band also featured trumpet player, Greg Wilson-Copp from the Roving Crows, Jesse Benns (drums) and Gordy Partridge (Bass).
The Phil Beer Band on the night were: Gareth Turner (melodeons), Olivia Dunn (fiddles), Emily Slade (guitar, vocals), Greg McDonald (bass, vocals) and Steve Crickett (drums).