NANCY KERR & JAMES FAGAN – An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James Fagan  (Little Dish LiDiCD003)

An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James FaganTwenty years playing together! It seems like only yesterday they were cast in the role of ‘brat pack’ young folk upstarts. And now we’re talking the language of ‘retrospective’ with a new offering An Evening With… to showcase the impressive repertoire and instrumental prowess that has kept them at the top for this long. A live album is always a risk; you can never quite rekindle the full experience of being there. But they’ve made a good shot at it, with recordings from two shows – Hertfordshire and Sheffield – just as it happened. The exceptional sound quality doesn’t mask the participation of the audience who sing in harmony with Nancy and James on two tracks.

The songs include some of their most requested from the previous five albums – ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘Anderson’s Coast’ – plus some previously unrecorded tunes such as Willy Taylor’s ‘Sir John Fenwick’. Nancy’s stellar album Instar also gets a look in, with ‘Fragile Water’; but for many of us who’ve seen them live, the big number is ‘The Flaming Drones’ intertwined with the melody of ‘Dance To Your Daddy’, in which Nancy sings one melody while playing another on the fiddle – how does she do it?!

‘The Herald Of Free Enterprise’ is about the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster, a song written by Robb Johnson and famously recorded by the late Roy Bailey. James added it as a tribute to Roy, and also because it includes some very fine audience chorus singing. Taking us into antipodean romantic poetry is Henry Lawson’s ‘The Outside Track’, set to music by Gerry Hallom and beautifully sung here by James with Nancy adding some tasty harmonies.

It’s been nine years, a house move, and two children since the duo’s last album, and both James and Nancy have branched out into their own respective projects – The James Brothers, The Full English and Melrose Quartet to name just three. They both come from renowned musical dynasties and this album is proof again that roots music runs deep through their every vein.

Jon Bennett

An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James Fagan is now available to pre-order.

Artists’ website: www.nancykerr.co.uk

‘The Outside Track’ – live:

MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion (own label MQCD03)

DominionDominion is the long-awaited second album from Melrose Quartet: Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. If you haven’t heard them you should remedy that oversight as soon as possible: four voices and four instrumentalists, equally gifted with unaccompanied harmony and instrumental dexterity. And that’s before we begin to discuss songwriting.

The album is a delightfully eclectic mix of material, you know, the way people used to make albums back in the 70s. It begins, unexpectedly, with a southern Appalachian song, ‘Mariah’s Gone’ originally from Jean Ritchie. Unaccompanied, it makes an arresting statement from the outset – you are going to listen to this record. It is followed by the title track, ‘Dominion Of The Sword’, further adapted from Martin Carthy’s version with a new verse by James. You must expect some politics from the quartet but this is as heavy handed as it gets and the tunes that follow, ‘A Generous Man/Carthy’s March’ are as bright and joyful as you could wish for.

The ebb and flow continues throughout the record. Nancy Kerr’s ‘Hand Me Down’ is about the unifying effect of music and ‘’Ware Out Mother’ is a huge joke. It started out in the tradition but was probably written in its present form by Charley Yarwood and Tom Brown. Jess Arrowsmith’s ‘Anthem Of A Working Mum’ is a song that should be adopted by the tradition. Like the best writing it says a lot in a few words and leaves you to colour in the picture while Nancy’s ‘Rise No More’ is a lament for the lost steel industry told in complex metaphor. Around these we have ‘The Seeds Of Love’, Paul Davenport’s ‘Davy Cross’ and Paul Metser’s lovely ‘Good Intentions’.

Melrose Quartet could play Dominion from start to finish in a folk club and you’d go home knowing that you’d had a good night out. I don’t think that you could ask for much more than that.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: www.melrosequartet.co.uk

Melrose Quartet live at Chester Folk Festival:

Melrose Quartet announce their second album, Dominion, plus launch tour dates

Melrose Quartet

Melrose Quartet are Nancy Kerr (voice, fiddle), James Fagan (voice, bouzouki, guitar), Jess Arrowsmith (voice, fiddle) and Richard Arrowsmith (voice, melodeons). November 2017 sees them release their eagerly-awaited second album, Dominion.

From deep roots in their hometown’s vibrant music, song and dance scene, to smashing concert appearances all over the UK, Sheffield-based Melrose Quartet have attracted a reputation for making music that truly connects with people. All four are internationally renowned singers, instrumentalists and writer/composers and this year they were proud to be named the new patrons of Whitby Folk week. Dominion expands and strengthens the musical presence they first asserted with Fifty Verses, their 2014 BBC Folk Award-nominated debut CD.

Dominion was recorded as close to “live” as possible in a sweetly resonant chapel schoolroom near Sheffield, and captures the quartet’s deft and heartfelt musical spontaneity. Whether the music has its origins in 17th century political poetry via Martin Carthy’s modern-era lens (‘Dominion Of The Sword’), or the lived experience of 21st century women wryly detailed by Jess Arrowsmith (‘Anthem Of A Working Mum’), the intention is to communicate and connect.

The fervour of social dance and the stateliness of Morris have infused Melrose’s repertoire from the start and flourish here on instrumentals ‘Rosslyn Castle’, Dave Swarbrick’s classic ‘Carthy’s March’, Fagan’s ‘Low Quebec’ and wild reel set ‘Gallery/Venus’.

A capella traditions from Britain, America and beyond (‘Mariah’s Gone’, ‘The Seeds Of Love’) are visited with the quartet’s famed unaccompanied zeal, while the voices of the extraordinary ordinary people who populate our folk songs are freshly amplified in a traditional tale of migrant workers facing down bigotry (‘Ware Out Mother’), Paul Davenport’s tragic sea-réquiem ‘Davy Cross’ and Nancy Kerr’s echoing steel-town hymn ‘Rise No More’. And appropriately, Kerr’s ‘Hand Me Down’ and Jess Arrowsmith’s ‘Raise Your Voice’ are songs that embody our needs and our hopes for peace, belonging and community. What Melrose Quartet want is for their music to land squarely in the listener’s heart.

Artists’ website:  www.melrosequartet.co.uk

‘Anthem Of A Working Mum’ and ‘Dominion Of The Sword’ – live:

CARA DILLON – Upon A Winter’s Night (Charcoal CHARCCD008)

upon a winter's nightIn the absence this year of a new Kate Rusby festive collection for folk fans to warm their chilly cockles, Cara Dillon, aided and abetted by husband, musical partner and producer Sam Lakeman, steps up to the seasonal plate for her first Christmas offering, Upon A Winter’s Night, an 11-string stockingsworth of traditional nuggets, hymns and originals.

It’s one of the latter, the title track, written by Sam and Noah Lakeman, that kicks things off, a jaunty Nativity scene setter that also features Uilleann pipes, Luke Daniels on accordion and Kathryn Roberts on backing vocals. There’s three other originals, Cara and Sam providing the piano backed ‘Standing By My Christmas Tree’ with its interpolation of ‘Silent Night’ and bells-pealing keyboard notes as well as the simply arranged lullaby closer ‘Mother Mary’, he on acoustic guitar and she joined on vocals in the final refrains by a family affair of Colm, Noah and Elizabeth Lakeman. The third is Sam’s own instrumental contribution, a lively woodland romp with ‘The Huntsman’, again featuring Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes and Daniels on accordion alongside fiddle from Niall Murphy and James Fagan’s bouzouki with Ben Nicholls providing stalwart bass.

The other numbers are the couple’s arrangements of, by and large, very familiar seasonal tunes, first up, introduced by Murphy’s fiddle sounding like a hunting horn, being a traditional folk-sounding reading of ‘The Wexford Carol’ that gathers to fulsome fiddle finale. Rather less known, based on a traditional Polish carol, ‘Infant Holy, Infant Lowly’ is another lowing lullaby and introduces John Smith on guitar. Considerably better known is the evergreen ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, here taken at a swayalong tempo on the back of fiddle, pipes and accordion and featuring guest viocals from both Roberts and Sam’s father, Geoff.

By contrast, while often given a rousing chorus flourish, here ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ is an altogether more contemplative affair etched out by just her voice and Sam’s piano, a fine companion piece to the wholly a capella ‘O Holy Night’, Adolphe Adams’ 19th century setting and translation of a French poem (Midnight Christians) on which she duets with older sister Mary, their version joining a list that includes Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Bing Crosby and, more recently, Ellie Goulding.

This is, in turn, followed by another breath of fresh winter air with ‘Mary Bore A Son To God’, one of the earliest known Irish language carols and sung here in the original Gaelic (‘Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia’),a slightly softer reading than that previously done by Horslips with Henderson’s Wilson taking the fiddle parts.

Finally, once whisperingly recorded by Bono, there’s another traditional Irish carol, ‘The Darkest Midnight’, which taken from the Kilmore Carols collection of South Wexford (albeit a trimmed down version) is again arranged for just her voice and Sam’s acoustic guitar and piano, another lovely grace note to a collection that very much has its mind set on celebrating the real meaning of Christmas. A touch more contemplative than Rusby’s South Yorkshire offerings perhaps, but likely to prove an equally enduring bauble on folk’s festive fir.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.caradillon.co.uk

THE JAMES BROTHERS – The James Brothers (Drover Records DROVCD001)

The James BrothersThe James Brothers aren’t brothers, of course. They are James Fagan and Jamie McClennan and nowhere near as mean as the look on the cover. James is Australian but it might be less well-known that Jamie was born in New Zealand – so it was just a matter of time before they got together to record some “Colonial Roots Music”.

A couple of the songs are familiar but the majority are gleaned from collections that will be familiar in the antipodes but unknown in the northern hemisphere. The opener, ‘Run Away Wilder’ comes from a book of poetry called Black Billy Tea – New Zealand Ballads by Joe Charles with a tune by Fagan and McClennan. Its subject is George Wilder, a very polite burglar still known to be around in 2009.

Another source is Shanties By The Way, a collection of New Zealand ballads. Some, like ‘The Voyage Of The Buffalo’ are definitely sea songs but ‘Shearing’s Coming Round’ is clearly a dry-land work song anticipating the muster of shearers. It was written by Irish émigré David McKee Wright around the turn of the 19th century and has the ring of authenticity. Bill Scott is another author and ballad collector whose work is liberated. His ‘Hey Rain’ is a typically spirited Australian reaction to the coming of the rainy season.

The best known songs here are Trevor Lucas’ ‘The Ballad Of Ned Kelly’, ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ written by Tim Finn in his Split Enz days and Michael O’Rourke’s melancholy ‘The Poison Train’, a meditation of the death of rural communities. The James Brothers have a freedom of spirit that we seem to associate with down under – or is that a cliché? Actually, I don’t mind if it is, this is a fine album.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.thejamesbrothers.co.uk

‘Hey Rain’ – live:

CARA DILLON – Live At The Grand Opera House (Charcoal Records CHARDVD001)

OK, some of us lesser mortals working within the confines of the poverty stricken ‘folk scene’ would find it hard to muster enough funds to run to making a top-notch DVD but thank goodness that some can. Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead, The Transatlantic Sessions and of course Cara’s previous DVD “The Redcastle Sessions” are all shining examples of how well this minority music can flourish in the art of visual presentation. Cara will require no introduction for those that have followed her burgeoning career from the early days with the band Oige (and yes, I’m pleased to say “I was there”) to the full-blown heights she has arrived at today. A thoughtful selection of songs predominantly selected from her critically acclaimed album “Hill Of Thieves” plus extras including “Black Is The Colour” and “There Were Roses” along with a set of tunes “The Knotted Hanky/The Huntsman/The Gold Ring” and you have a perfect evening. Although the DVD is squarely focused on the lady herself, Dillon’s associates as one would expect are a who’s who of the Celtic music scene and in this respect we have Ed Boyd (guitar), Zoe Conway (fiddle), James Fagan (guitar/bouzouki), Brian Finnegan (flute/whistles), Sam Lakeman (piano/guitar), Eamon Murray (bodhran/shaker) and James O’Grady (Uilleann pipes/low whistle). Full credit must also be given to the excellent camera crew (I think I counted about five) who between them managed to capture the musicians flailing fingers and plenty of smiles from both the audience and band. The only thing I can find at fault with this otherwise well produced DVD is the ‘behind the scenes’ extras which is a video played over and over again…three times actually…accompanied by different songs. Cheap, but not so cheerful – Hey Ho but I suppose you can’t have everything.

PETE FYFE