GREG RUSSELL & CIARAN ALGAR – Utopia And Wasteland (Rootbeat RBRCD40)

Utopia And WastelandThe ink is barely dry on Greg and Ciaran’s previous album and they are back with Utopia And Wasteland. The mix is pretty much as before; original songs, judiciously chosen covers and three tune sets. The title isn’t just a randomly chosen three words: it is at the heart of the record and exemplified by Ciaran Algar’s ‘We Are Leaving’. There has always been a political slant to their writing but there is a real feeling of suppressed anger here as well as carefully considered ideas.

The anger only really surfaces on the opening track, Gregg Russell’s ‘Line Two’, a bitter skewering of HS2 and all that goes with it: bent bankers, corrupt politicians and overwhelming greed. Here the album title is represented by the utopia of high-speed luxury travel for the rich and the wasteland for the poor whose homes will be bulldozed to make it possible. Next is the first instrumental set, ‘Warwick Road’ with multitracked fiddle and banjo, to remind us that music should also be entertainment.

The third track is the first cover; Stan Rogers’ ‘Lock Keeper’. I sometimes have trouble with Rogers’ covers, his voice with that hint of a Maritime accent is so distinctive. Greg’s interpretation isn’t as robust as Stan’s. Where the original lock-keeper is defiant, Greg’s is initially more thoughtful and quieter in his responses. The song is really about the pleasures of home in contrast with the adventurous life of the sailor and his tropic maids and Greg muses further on the theme of home in ‘Seven Hills’, a song written abroad but full of thoughts of his home in Sheffield.

‘We Are Leaving’ is about the Grenfell disaster but is really about racist views, a theme Greg turns to in ‘Walter’. Walter Tull was a soldier of afro-Caribbean heritage who was a second lieutenant in the Great War and killed in action. Despite repeated petitioning he was refused a Military Medal and such monuments as he has were mostly erected without official co-operation.

Greg and Ciaran don’t really need much support but producer Mark Tucker adds bass, percussion and backing vocals when required. His contributions are mostly unobtrusive but now and again you notice that a song which started quietly has risen to a mighty roar without drawing attention away from the vocals. That’s clever engineering that adds greatly to a very fine album.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Seven Hills’ – official video:

GREG RUSSELL & CIARAN ALGAR – The Silent Majority (Fellside FECD275)

The Silent MajorityI have to say that this album represents everything that folk music should be about. There is tradition, there is musical invention and evolution of the tradition and there is the sort of protest on which the revival was based.

The opener is ‘Prologue’, ethereal, other-worldly sounds that morph into what I’m guessing is a traditional tune before finally resolving into the title track. ‘The Silent Majority’ was written by Lionel McClelland and seems particularly appropriate in our present circumstances. The examples it cites – Hitler, Chile – are familiar but still it’s a song to make you stop and think. From the global we turn to the local and ‘George’, the story of a Glasgow bad boy written by Findlay Napier and Nick Turner. George is not a pleasant character but I’m sure that there are men like him all over the country.

‘We Must Be Contented’ is a piece of social commentary from the 19th century; a sort of cousin of ‘Hard Times Of Old England’ with the optimism of the latter replaced by a weary resignation. The words are old but the tune is modern, written by Ron Flanagan, which leads into ‘Did You Like The Battle, Sir?’. Why have I never heard this song before? Its form is old but it was written in the 70s by Bev Pegg and John Richards and I thank Greg and Ciaran for bringing it to my attention.

After Ciaran’s epic instrumental ‘The Tide’ which he describes as his attempt to write film music the attention switches to Greg for two traditional songs, ‘Limbo’ and ‘Brisk Young Man’. Both have been tweaked, the latter to the extent of having a new tune written for it and some new words added. What a cracking version – I can imagine Eddi Reader borrowing it. After a second mostly traditional tune set, ‘Swipe Right’, featuring Ali Levack’s whistle and pipes the album closes with Pete Coe’s ‘Rolling Down The Ryburn’. Pete’s summary of the life of a travelling musician is a cut above the usual “life on the road it tough” lament. He still sings it, of course, but it’s good to have it on a new album.

The Silent Majority will be on my list next awards season

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Did You Like The Battle, Sir?’ – official video:


russellIn the three years since they came together as a duo, young folkies Russell and Algar haven’t done too badly. Their 2012 debut, .The Queen’s Lover’, earned massive critical acclaim, last year they won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and then went on to pick up the Horizon Award at this year’s awards. All this while still taking A Levels (Ciaran in Stoke-on-Trent) and a Politics degree (Greg in Exeter). In between, they also found time to undertake extensive touring and record this, their sophomore release.

Unsurprisingly, they’ve not messed with a successful formula, the material a mix of self-penned, traditional and covers, songs and instrumentals, but it does evince a deepening of their craft, Algar taking care of fiddle, banjo and bodhran with Russell on increasingly sturdy lead vocals and concertina, and the pair sharing duties on guitar and bouzouki. Although essentially a two man affair that captures the sound of their live performance, they are augmented by Dave Russell’s bass on the six minute style and tempo shifting ‘George’s’, an instrumental set that encompasses trad tunes ‘The Harp And The Shamrock’ and ‘Crooked Road To Dublin’, and Jeana Leslie providing piano (and arrangement) for the spare and equally lengthy traditional fishing industry ballad ‘The Rose In June’, with Elly Lucas and the Cumbrian Two Chaps Choir providing harmonies on assorted tracks.

They cast their own net wide, trawling material from Northern England (‘The Cockfight’, Russell’s rousing, fiddle-scraping heritage-acknowledging arrangement of ‘The Bonny Grey’), Ireland (‘Absent Friends’, a two part melancholic instrumental set by Holly Geraghty and Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford, respectively), Sweden, in the form of ‘Roses Three’, the tale of a young man sent on a foolish errand by the maid he’s wooing, translated and adapted by Vicky Swan and Jonny Dyer, and America with a fine cover of ‘Cold Missouri Waters’, the story of the Mann Gulch fire tragedy of 1949 and a song popularised by Richard Shindell.

Elsewhere, frisky upbeat instrumental set ‘The Silent Jigs’ combines tunes by Algar, Joanie Madden and Irish fiddler Ain McGeeney, ‘The Workhouse’ is a sombre number lifted from Mick Ryan’s folk opera The Pauper’s Path and featuring harmony from Lucas, ‘Royal Comrade’ with its concertina solo is a variant on ‘The Lakes of Coolfiin’ ballad about a young man’s drowning, learned from the singing of Jim Causley, and, one of the particular highlights, ‘The Call And Answer’ is an anthemic love song, penned by Phil Colclough and featuring Russell on wheezing concertina and a chorus part borrowed from DH Lawrence.

To these ears, the album’s standout track, Algar wrote the stirring ‘Away From The Pits’, a song that uses Stoke-on-Trent as a metaphor for a feckless female (“this city is a little like you”), while, built around just guitar and fiddle, the closing number, tender love song ballad ‘A Season In Your Arms’, is also credited to Algar, albeit this time Ciaran’s father, Chris, firm evidence that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the family tree.

On the album notes, they say these are songs and tunes they’ve enjoyed writing or hearing at folk clubs around the country. It’s a pleasure you’ll equally enjoy sharing.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Away From The Pits’ performed at The Ram Folk Club, Thames Ditton.

Folking at Cambridge Folk Festival 2013 – Day 3

wb3_300Those following this blog will know that it would not be complete without an early morning campsite folking shower report – although those on-site would have had a deluge of their own later in the day when KT “rain goddess” Tunstall took to the stage and opened the heavens – but more on that later. My first shower was at 5.00am, an hour earlier than the day before! Perhaps it was the excitement of the previous 2 days, or perhaps it was just the the showers but Cambridge was not awarding me much sleep.

Breabach danceAs I was finishing the day 2 blog We Banjo 3 took to the main stage, a quintet from Galway playing Irish, bluegrass and American old time music. From what I saw on the #CFF13 @CamFolkFest twitter feed they were definitely making many instant fans and got Saturday stage 1 off to a rousing start. Next up were the mighty Breabach, a tour de force in the Scottish music scene. They had a great array of weaponry on hand including: highland bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, double bass, mandolin, bazouki and even included a set dance by fiddle payer, Megan Henderson.

Saturday Cambs FF CrowdBoth SOC (Son of Clicker – the folking photographer) and I knew that getting to see everything today was going to be tough with all 3 stages in full swing. In fact panic set in and we ran around like headless chickens for a bit until coming to our senses and catching the end of the Festival Session, hosted by Battlefield Band and Feast of Fiddles academic legend Brian McNeil. This was a one off line-up featuring: The Chair, Frigg, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, Radio 2 young folk award winners Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, Martin Simpson, Le Vent du Nord and We Banjo 3 again.

Hop and a skip back to the Stage 1 to see Martin Simpson performing a guitar master class wrapped up in his usual exemplary solo set kind of way which included favourites like the you were never any good with money gem Prodigal Son and Jackie and Murphy, a story song of an epic true tale of bravery, donkeys and Gallipoli.

Thea Gilmore CFFManaged to then catch the end of the talented and velvet voiced Heidi Talbot on stage 2 as she left us all going up and down her music tree, Korrontzi from Northern Spain were next up and made you feel part of a Basque hill town knees up for a short while (it was great to see Thea Gilmore dancing along to them back stage). It wasn’t long until Thea took center stage with her full band line up which included producer, husband and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier. Thea definitely showed off her folk credentials by giving us a faultless performance of Pity the Poor Immigrant. Thea then belted out the Radio 2 A listed song Start As We Mean To Go On, before ending with what for me was the highlight of the day, a perfect rendition to the stunning London with her little lad taking center stage on the fiddle. Sandy Denny who wrote the lyrics to this song is my folk heroine and Thea is equally addictive.

There was only one way to come down and that was to head over to the club tent and catch State Of The Union, aka Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams. In the grand tradition of ‘The Special Relationship’, State Of The Union combines the talents of America and England, producing an end result that delighted the club tent crowd with hook-laden songs, fiery and emotional guitar playing and soulful vocals. By this time I had a few jars of Ringwood’s finest Boon Doggle ale and was amusing myself by keeping the girls at the bar on their toes and coming up with different names for it. The firm favourite was Moon Poodle!

Fully Protected & The Moon PoodleThe Moon Poodle was listening as the heavens opened and the poodle piddled down on us as KT Tunstall hit the stage. A great set followed, my favourite being Other Side of the World or dark side of the poodle moon by the Black horse and a cherry tree, no that one actually came later… but don’t blame it on the Sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, blame it on the Boggle. I was past caring as I was now focused on keeping the umbrella in the right place for KT’s Mexican “brella” wave!

I caught a bit of the Mavericks but it was definitely time to head back to Coldham’s before I did myself mischief…

The folkmaster