SKIPINNISH – Steer By The Stars (Skipinnish Records SKIPCD28)

Steer By The StarsSkipinnish have had a spectacular couple of years since the release of The Seventh Wave and now, as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they find themselves at the top of the tree in contemporary/ traditional Scottish music. Now an octet with Angus Tikka being replaced by Charlotte Printer on bass and fiddler Archie McAllister they press on with a new album, Steer By The Stars, to mark their birthday. Angus MacPhail is still at the helm as principal songwriter with Norrie MacIver on lead vocals and the twin highland bagpipes of Andrew Stevenson and Alasdair Murray. They point out that the band’s youngest member, drummer Rory Grindlay, wasn’t born when the band first got together.

The sea is never far from Skipnnish’s thoughts, either literally or metaphorically and Steer By The Stars is no exception. The anchors of the opening track, ‘Anchors Of The Soul’ are of the latter variety as the song looks to a bright future for the Gaels. The title track combines both – the singer is clearly at sea but is also thinking about the person waiting at the end of his journey. From now on we’re definitely in maritime mood. The first song in Gaelic, ‘Coire Bhreacain’, is written in shanty form and although my Gaelic doesn’t amount to much, I do know that Coire Bhreacain is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow stretch of water off the northern tip of Jura.

Next is ‘Last Of The Hunters’, one of the big anthemic songs that Skipinnish do so well. It’s a hymn of praise for deep-sea fishermen but Angus isn’t parochial and the name-checks circle the entire British coast. This is a song they’ll be playing until the seas run try. In ‘Land Below The Waves’, Angus writes of the Western Isles and his desire to be out at sea again. It’s back to Gaelic for ‘Thar Sàil (Over The Sea)’, another big song but unless I missed the point, it’s about the ferries that ply the Minch. Although they aren’t named it has to be a nod to CalMac!

‘The Atholl Set’ is the second instrumental track – one for the festival dancers – and we’re just about back on land for ‘Wishing Well’, arranged and produced by Malcolm Jones. It’s what a colleague of ours would call a “swayalong” but I’m greedy enough to want to hear more of Malcolm’s guitar. Phil Cunningham composed ‘The Youngest Ancient Mariner’, a gentle interlude for about a third of its length until the pipes take hold of it. There is a traditional ‘Puirt Set’ next and then ‘Still We Run’ harks back to the thoughts of the opening track. ‘Goodbye’ isn’t completely self-explanatory from the title and finally the band return for a set of jigs.

It only struck me at the end that, in Steer By The Stars, Skipinnish have programmed a live set and then recorded it – with all the ebb and flow you want from a concert. There are several guests, including pupils from two schools on the first track but I should mention Jarlath Henderson, Gordon Gunn and former Runrig keyboard player, Brian Hurren. The guests blend seamlessly and like all good visitors, don’t outstay their welcome. You’ll hear a few bars of whistle or mandolin but only if you don’t let the music sweep you away.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Wishing Well’ – official video:

WEST OF EDEN – Flat Earth Society (West of Music WOMCD12)

Flat Earth SocietyIt’s a touch ironic that one of the best bands currently energising traditional British and Celtic folk music with a contemporary lens happens to come from Sweden. Comprising Lars Broman on fiddle, Martin Holmlund on bass, drummer Ola Karlevo, Henning Sernhede on lap steel and electric guitar and fronted by Jenny and Martin Schaub, the former on accordion and the latter playing assorted guitars, piano, cittern and mandolin, they’ve been playing music since 2005 and this is their eighth album (two of them being Celtic Christmas collections), recorded predominantly in Scotland (in anything from churches to distilleries) and featuring contributions from such folk luminaries as Damien O’Kane, John McCusker and Heidi Talbot.

Unlike some of their past albums, this doesn’t have a conceptual basis, other than generally being about partings and new beginnings, opening with the moody, rumbling percussion, acoustic title track, Jarlath Henderson on low whistle and Jenny, her airily pure vocals at times evocative of Anne Briggs, taking lead on a song about a broken romance in which the narrator’s world has been left flat.

Kicking up their folk rock heels, as the title suggests ‘The Dwindling Of The Day’ concerns the passing of time, Jenny singing about holding on to memories of someone who’s no longer around, slowing down slightly for ‘Horsehoofs & Primroses’, O’Kane on tenor guitar, a traditional-flavoured number of the urge to go a roaming when Spring is in the air.

Henderson contributing harmonies, set to puttering percussion, ‘Pretty Please’ is a liltingly lovely song about being weary of domestic squabbles and “rocking our boat on the wildest of seas”, giving way to ‘Kate, Are You Ready Now?’ as, Henderson on Uillean pipes and Karlevo laying down a slow march beat, Martin makes his first lead vocal appearance on a stirring strummed ballad that puts a spin on the jilted at the alter tale, this time it being the bride who doesn’t turn up while the groom tries to convince himself she’s just running late. Jenny returns for the jazzy ‘Porcelain Days’, hints of Pentangle colouring its lyric about navigating your way through a fragile relationship walking on eggshells and hoping the other partner will stick around as the ice starts to crack.

The first of two instrumentals, ‘Isak/Doris’ combines two fiddle tunes, Duncan Chisholm on the first with its military snare beat before McCusker takes over on the sprightlier second half. Then, it’s on to ‘Old Miss Partridge’, O’Kane on banjo and Jenny duetting with Talbot on a jaunty, accordion-led romp about an eccentric old bird suspected of being a witch and being found dead, blasted by lightning near a tree on the hill, her ghost still wandering at night.

It’s back to melancholia with McCusker providing low whistle for as Jenny sings the simply strummed, strings laden lament ‘Come Winter, He’ll Be Gone’, another song about loss and partings with the changing seasons serving to metaphorically chart the course of the relationship on the album’s most poetic lyric, evocative at times of Christina Rosetti.

Putting on his best Irish accent, the fiddle-accompanied, trotting rhythm ‘Vipers & Fireflies’ is Martin’s only other lead vocal, another song about how our worst nature sometimes gets the better of us and we say things in the heat of the moment we later regret, here using weather imagery as a metaphor.

The final song has Jenny accompanied by McCusker on tin whistle for ‘Peacock Blues’, its lively Irish jig-like tune belying a lyric that returns to a theme of arguments with the narrator being in the shadow of a more dominant personality (“I am the ceiling and you are the sky…you light up the room and I’m in the gloom”), the album ending on the other instrumental, ‘Rowbotham’s Map’, arranged for accordion and fiddle, bringing things full circle with the title referring to the Flat Earth Map of the World drawn up by the artist Samuel Rowbotham around 1873. Flat or round, global recognition for West of Eden among folk circles is long overdue.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.westofeden.com

West Of Eden and friends live at Ben Nevis distillery:

FolkEast announces 2019 line-up

FolkEast

It’s ‘lucky seven’ time for East Anglia’s unique, fast-rising FolkEast – England’s most easterly folk music festival. Not only is it the seventh year the event has been held in the glorious grounds of Suffolk’s 16th century festival but this year it will offer diverse performances on no less than seven stages.

The 2019 festival will be staged between August 16-18 and has all the promise of being the best yet with an enviable line-up of artists from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Poland, Canada and USA.

Leading the way will be formidable folk legend Richard Thompson – a revered singer songwriter and jaw dropping guitarist– who takes to the main Sunset stage as Sunday night headliner. A co-founder of trailblazing folk rockers Fairport Convention, Thompson has carved himself a high class career bringing iconic international status, with anthemic songs like ‘Persuasion,’ ‘Beeswing’ and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ becoming classics. Named as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” he has been honoured with Lifetime Achievement Awards on both sides of the Atlantic – from the Americana Music Association in Nashville, and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – as well as garnering an OBE (personally bestowed upon him by the Queen at Buckingham Palace)

FolkEast will also field some of folk’s finest female artists – opening night headliner will be the brilliantly inspired Scottish singer songwriter and hot property Karine Polwart performing with her Trio (Stephen Polwart and Inge Thomson). Karine (2018 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Folk Singer of the Year) is on a roll having released two hugely successful albums in quick succession – A Pocket Of Wind Resistance and Laws Of Motion and also migrated into the acting world including a role in Radio 4’s drama ‘A Faraway Back Of Beyond Place’, a two hander with Bill Paterson. A songwriter with heart and soul, Stirlingshire-born Karine is a wonderful wordsmith and captivating performer sure to get the festival off to a grand start.

Cara DillonSaturday night at FolkEast will see a very special headline event as the peerless Irish songstress Cara Dillon (“quite possibly the world’s most beautiful female voice” – Mojo) takes to the stage with ‘Cara Dillon and Friends’ celebrating the 10th anniversary of her landmark album Hill Of Thieves which won the coveted Album Of The Year at the 2008 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Derry-born Cara will be joined by the class line-up of husband Sam Lakeman (piano, guitar), Jarlath Henderson (uillean pipes, whistle), Ed Boyd (guitar). James Fagan (bouzouki), Toby Shaer (fiddle, whistles) and Ben Nicholls (bass).

Also from Ireland, the mighty Sharon Shannon Band will be heading to Suffolk. Born in County Clare, Sharon is a show stopping accordionist whose career is soaked in the Irish tradition but takes so many more influences on board. Sharon has played for Presidents Clinton and Obama in The White House, received a Lifetime Achievement Meteor award in 2009, and was honoured for ‘outstanding contributions in music’ at the Irish Books, Arts and Music (IBAM) awards in Chicago to say nothing of her 1991 self-titled debut CD being the best-selling album ever of instrumental traditional Irish music.

Keeping up the Celtic connection, the line-up will be enhanced by Scots-Irish trio Ross Ainslie (Scottish bagpipes, whistles), Jarlath Henderson (uilleann pipes, whistles) and Perthshire’s Ali Hutton whose combined talents create a sound that pushes the boundaries of what Scottish and Irish instruments normally achieve. Dubbed “the new stars of Celtic music,” they’ve crafted music that bursts with fresh energy.

Photograph by Warren Orchard

FolkEast is also thrilled to announce that the eloquent and exquisite English singer-songwriter/guitarist John Smith will join the 2019 line up. Born in Essex, raised by the Devon seaside, and kicking off in the bars and clubs of Liverpool, John has released six albums including his most recent Hummingbird, with over 10 million Spotify streams. His distinctive, gravelly voice has been heard by audiences all over the world in living rooms, festival tents and sold-out concert halls. Steeped in the lineage of British folk, taking his cue from Richard Thompson and John Martyn, Smith has evolved a transatlantic blend of fingerstyle and slide guitar techniques and a repertoire of up close, no hiding place songs of life and love. He has opened for folk greats including John Martyn, Davy Graham and John Renbourn, who called Smith “the future of folk music”.

CalanFlying the flag for Wales will be the effervescent five-piece revivalist traditional band Calan, who sing in both Welsh and English. The band formed in early 2006 when its members ages ranged from just 13 to 22. In 2008, they created great excitement at the Inter Celtic Festival, becoming the only Welsh band to win the coveted international folk band award. They also won best group at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, Brittany. Playing accordion, harp, guitar, fiddle and Welsh bagpipes, they also have their own champion step dancer.

One of the most singular events on the UK festival calendar, FolkEast was launched six years ago by husband and wife John and Becky Marshall-Potter.

Rekindling the ancient Eastfolk moots on the Glemham Hall estate where for three days a year the folk from the East would meet kith and kin at harvest time for “a bit of a do”, this gathering has Suffolk running through it like letters in a stick of rock – from its locally sourced fare to its suppliers, arts and crafts.

The festival, with its ever present mythical emblem The Jackalope, offers a refreshingly different line-up across its seven stages (including the ‘Sanctuary’ stage at St Andrew’s Church, the open air Sunset Stage and the hidden woodland solar-powered Soapbox Stage), with two authentic ‘village’ pubs serving competitively-priced ales (including Suffolk-based Green Jack Brewery’s festival ale Green Jackalope) plus possibly the smallest pub in the UK, the 6 x 4’ Halfway Inn.

Then there’s the FolkEast Art Arcade, packed dance programme, archery, donkey rides, children’s activities (including den building, storybook making and a mud kitchen linked together in a special new children’s trail) yoga, poetry, storytelling, the Eastfolk Chronicle Kinedrome (showing folk and local interest films) and tours of Glemham Hall by estate owner Major Philip Cobbold.

On board again this year as a media partner will be BBC Radio Suffolk.

The Early Bird Festive Ticket offer is now open until January 6, 2019.

Advance weekend tickets are available price £110 (adult), £99 (full time students, 65+ ) and £75 for Youth tickets (12-17 year old) which must be purchased with an adult ticket. Family weekend tickets for two adults and two 12-17 year olds are £340. A great offer sees free admission for children aged 11 and under; camping under canvas is £20 and camping on wheels £30. More information: info@folkeast.co.uk

As a seasonal bonus those buying tickets by December 16 will be entered into a Santa’s Folk Stocking competition with two goody-filled FolkEast stockings up for grabs.

Located close to the A12, the festival will also be running shuttle buses to the site from Wickham Market station.

Festival website: www.folkeast.co.uk

“In a world where there are hundreds of festivals, FolkEast prospers by doing something unique and doing it brilliantly” – RnR Magazine

MAEVE MACKINNON – Strì (Own Label, MM003)

Launched this weekend as part of Celtic Connections 2018, comes Maeve Mackinnon’s third studio album, Strì (meaning “strive”). After a couple of years of touring with Stepcrew and others, Mackinnon returns to home turf with an album of songs with a distinctly female perspective.

Inspired by Mackinnon’s love of waulking songs, this collection bears all the hallmark strong rhythms of work songs, like opener ‘Iomaraibh Eutrom’ (“Row Lightly”) with its hypnotic rowing pace. There’s also an evident relish in playing with assonance and alliteration in the language.

The lyrics (in translation) form a brutal poetry. Often these little hunks of plain-spoken, stark phrases hang together with a dark twist involving betrayal, or a loss of love or life. But it’s as repeated, sung phrases that they come alive with their own musicality.

Knowing Gaelic may help comprehension, but it’s certainly not essential to appreciating the vocal skill and dexterity in pieces like ‘Puirt-a-Beul’ (“Mouth Music”) – a “hidden” track that runs on from ‘Moch An-Diugh A Rinn Mi Eirigh’ (“Early Today I Rose”). Then there’s the not-quite-rapping, tongue-twisting ‘Bodachan a’Ghàrraidh’ (“Little Old Man In The Garden”) with its loose, funky guitar undercarriage. (And this song even fades out, like some contemporary radio playlister).

What the Scots generally do seem to have is a sound grasp of how to respect and refresh their traditions with judicious use of the studio toolbox, and Strì is no exception. So, occasional processed vocals, industrial metallic sounds, scratchy electronics and even an almost club-like rhythmic regularity on can be found here, all of which help to keep these songs feeling right up to date.

Producer/arranger Duncan Lyall successfully marshalls an array of top musicians including Jarlath Henderson, Ali Hutton, Martin O’Neill, Patsy Reid and Kathleen MacInnes, amongst others, whilst keeping a firm hold on the balance of instrumentation and sympathetically fleshing out Mackinnon’s warm tones.

Most of the songs here may be from the Gaelic tradition, but Mackinnon does include one of her own compositions. Following a crackly announcement in Spanish, it’s quite startling to hear English lyrics again. ‘We’re Not Staying’ is a complex tale of flight and persecution, nicely told with an emphasis on the disruption of migration and the wistful sense of temporariness.

In short, Maeve Mackinnon has made, in Strì, an album that is a real pleasure to listen to, relishing in all its rhythmic twists and turns. She has taken traditional forms and given them a contemporary edge, and the women’s stories that she sings are just as relevant as they ever have been.

Su O’Brien

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Artist’s website: www.maevemackinnon.com

‘Iomaraibh Eutrom’:

Maeve Mackinnon – new album

Maeve Mackinnon

Contemporary Gaelic Singer Maeve Mackinnon releases her third studio album in February, 2018. Strì is a collection of songs in Gaelic and English, based on the themes of work, exile and struggle, from a woman’s perspective.

Strì means to strive or struggle in Gaelic. My original idea was to revisit the songs I love, particularly Gaelic Waulking songs. Waulking songs are work songs traditionally sung by women in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They were hardy, tough women and they sang of battles, tragedies, breakups and romance. I realised midway through recording that nearly all the songs are from a female perspective, and the messages within them are so current today on many levels”.

The album is produced by multiple award-winning producer and bassist Duncan Lyall (producer of Scots Trad Music Awards’ Album of the Year 2015 for Treacherous Orchestra’s Grind along with many others!).

Strì features guest contributions from musical luminaries such as Kathleen MacInnes, Martin O’Neill, Patsy Reid, Ali Hutton, Duncan Lyall, and Jarlath Henderson alongside longtime collaborators Ross Martin and Brian McAlpine.

“The stories, melodies and rhythms convey so much. Whether you speak Gaelic or not, I think people can hear the power of feeling in these songs”.

Strì is launched on Sunday 4 February at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of  Celtic Connections 2018.

Artist’s website: https://www.maevemackinnon.com/

MARY ANN KENNEDY – An Dàn (Arc Music EUCD2737)

An Dàn Mary Ann Kennedy describes this album as Gaelic songs for a modern world. An Dàn means…well, dàn means song but it also means destiny, which may be Gaelic humour. Mary Ann is from Skye and is, of course a Campbell. She is well-known as a broadcaster and producer as well as singer and is an authority on Gaelic language and culture.

We are used to albums of Gaelic songs being firmly traditional but An Dàn is rather different. Mary Ann has written all the music and some of the lyrics, the rest coming from various poets and writers. Mary Ann’s family album, Fonn, recorded as The Campbells was all traditional but sounded remarkably modern. By contrast, An Dàn is modern but sounds, not traditional, but a little old-fashioned. The songs are underpinned by Mary Ann’s piano and features four string players and what is virtually a choir of backing singers which makes some of it a bit sweet for my taste.

The album is often very beautiful. Mary Ann’s voice is exquisite and Finlay Wells’ guitars add so much – just listen to that sublime lead on ‘Grioglachan’ – but it is the digressions that create the most interest. ‘Òran do dh’Iain Dòmhnallach’, for example, features old field recordings of Tswana singers. It all makes perfect sense in context but it also makes you pay attention. ‘Taigh An Uillt’ features some almost jazzy guitar with Nick Turner’s bass and an uncredited drummer and is, for me, the most beguiling track.

‘Dàn Ùr do Fhlòraidh NicNìll’ begins with a marvellous cacophony and Jarlath Henderson features here on Uilleann pipes but doesn’t get many opportunities to cut loose. For the Gaelic speaker this is undoubtedly a fascinating blend of old and new but for a Sassenach like me it won’t feature among my favourite Gaelic albums.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Mother Glasgow’ isn’t on the album but you can see why we have chosen it: