The second crop of fruit from the joint project between Sam Carter and Jim Moray brings in Stuart Provan on drums and adds Archie Churchill-Moss’s melodeon to Tom Moore’s violin with Barnaby Stradling on bass.
As with their Salvor debut, it’s rooted in traditional folk songs given a contemporary and often off-kilter treatment with contemporary resonance, case in point being album opener ‘Babylon’ which, opening with a radio broadcast sample, takes the shapenote hymn by the scruff of its neck and lurches into a driving rock drum beat bulked up with electric guitars and brass, the “Babylon’s falling” chorus refrain chiming with its described reaction to current British and US politics.
The drums and guitar solo may lean to the heavier side of folk rock, but there remains a definite traditional air to the 19th century transportation ballad, ‘Black Velvet Band’, set to a new, moody and slow-paced six minute plus tune by Moray that’s a far cry from the familiar rousing Dubliners’ version, the verse melody leeching off the similarly-themed ‘The Whitby Lad’.
The Roud collection also provides the source for ‘William Glenn’, Carter taking nasally lead on a nautical tale of mutiny, superstition and the crew casting overboard the captain they deemed responsible for the storms, a rousing, urgent shanty-founded interpretation learned from Nic Jones with the addition of new lines based on Tony Rose’s version as ‘Sir William Gower’.
Written by Moore, ‘The Ombudsman’ provides an instrumental break, violin naturally to the fore over a dampened bass drum thump, the initial nervy African-textured guitar work giving way to fierce, almost prog-folk riffs, the fury subsiding for the leaving song ‘Far In Distant Lands’, another shapenote hymnal, taken from The Southern Harmony 1854 as ‘328 Missionary Farewell’, it’s timely echoes of the migrant crisis delivered over a wheezing drone and a tinkling repeated keys pattern, building to a climax with wind effects before its final ebbing way.
It’s back to sea for the album’s lengthiest number, ‘Captain Kidd’, the Roud broadside about the legendary alleged pirate who was executed in politically controversial circumstances in 1701, the tune based on ‘159 Wondrous Love’ from The Sacred Harp, starting out in acoustic mode with Moray’s vocals accompanied by fiddle and drone before erupting around the two minute mark into steady-paced but full-blooded electric folk rock.
Another folk standard ballad, ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, the Suffolk-set true story of how Maria Marten was shot dead by her lover William Corder who was subsequently tracked down, found guilty and hung in 1828, events also giving rise to a popular melodrama and something of a local tourist industry, with even part of Corder’s scalp, ear attached, being displayed in Oxford Street. Unusually sung from Corder’s viewpoint, it’s set to a folk rock combination of ‘129 Heavenly Amor’ and ‘146 Hallelujah’, two tunes by shapenote composer William Walker that appear in The Sacred Harp, and featuring an almost Byrdsian jangling guitar solo. A fine companion piece to ‘The Murder Of Maria Marten’ recorded in 1971 by Shirley Collins and The Albion Band.
Featuring in both the Child and Roud collections, ‘Serving Man Become A Queen’ gets a sweeping rework, barreling along on both a newly written Moray tune and a borrowing from The New York Trader as it moves from high velocity drums-driven urgency to a slower passages with a brief touch of almost Bach organ.
The penultimate track and another nautical tale, here about one of three Scottish brothers who turned to piracy to support himself and his siblings, ‘Henry Martin’ begins with clattering African-styled percussion from Laurence Hung before Provan’s drums and glowering electric guitar take control, the number venturing into almost improvisational jazz rock territory towards the end. It ends in suitably jaunty form with melodeon akimbo and fiddle surging for ‘Drink Old England Dry’, a song originally written in response to Napoleon’s boastful threats to invade and drink the country dry, the French subsequently variously substituted by the Germans and Russians, but here reworked to tone down any pro-Brexit sentiments with Moray and Carter trading the new verses and joining together on the suitably rowdy, glasses raised chorus.
Invented in 1844 by Scottish mathematician Hugh Blackburn, a harmonograph is a mechanical device that uses two balanced swinging pendulums to draw geometric pictures, two different but equal forces working in perfect harmony to create a complex whole. What better metaphor for the musical symbiosis of False Lights could you ask!
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Her third album in four years, this is also the Barrow-in-Furness singer-songwriter’s first to comprise solely of self-penned, non-traditional material. It’s also a concept album of sorts in that, exploring the tensions and conflicts of a young woman living in London, it’s ordered like a three-act play, opening with songs of the uncertainty, confusion and displacement that ensue from being cut loose from the safe havens of education and family, continuing through imagined stories based on particular paintings and the way in which the subjects’ identities have been fixed by the artists, finally returning to reality with a newfound clarity and redefined sense of self.
Produced by Jim Moray, who also contributes an assortment of instruments, and featuring Beth Porter on cello, Matt Downer on double bass and Byrds legend Chris Hillman on pedal steel, the fingerpicked title track follows a brief instrumental intro, clearly nodding to such influences as Jackson C Frank, moving on to the leafy folk of ‘A Winter’s Blues’ which, with its circling guitar pattern, sounds like a sort of upbeat Nick Drake. Hillman is to the fore on ‘Crook of his Arm’, a lovely reminiscence of her father and his inability to keep her safe from the ways of the world in her determination to carve her path, while protective parent/ restless daughter themes also concern the frisky, percussion-driven ‘Mother Make My Bed’ featuring Nick Malcolm on trumpet.
Things slow down on the medieval hints of ‘Greenwood Side’, Millais’ Ophelia providing the impetus for the first of the painting songs, moving on to the piano-backed ‘Emma’ (other than the lyrical mention of being painted in blue, there’s no indication, on either the album or website, as to the source of the inspiration) and the cello accompanied ‘Jane Grey’, sung in the voice of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for just nine days, and inspired by the picture of her execution by Paul Delaroche. By contrast to these tragic heroines, the subject of the livelier strummed ‘Billy Waters’ (guessingly based on the painting by David Wilkie), again featuring Malcolm, is a one-legged black busker, who used to play violin to theatre-goers in the streets of London in the nineteenth century and, shortly before he died, was elected King of the Beggars in the parish of St. Giles.
Opening with the simple fingerpicked ‘Coming Back Around’, the third act rounds up proceedings with ‘A Quiet Word’ (a brass burnished restlessness/parting song which borrows its opening line from Macbeth), the traditional-hued ‘A Rose’ which highlights her soaring vocal range and, finally, returning home in the banjo-flecked ‘When The Whisky Runs Dry’, older and wiser with a bruised, but not regretful heart. Being honest, I don’t think this is the album to bring any major breakout success into the folk mainstream, but it will certainly delight her existing following and surely encourage curious newcomers to stay around to see where her journey takes her next.
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The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.
Hailing from Sussex and Evesham respectively, the pair are steeped in the folk traditions of English songwriting with influences drawn from, among others, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson, June Tabor, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. Their joint debut, Seas Are Deep, was a collection of well-known traditional numbers, while the follow up, Fire & Fortune, mixed traditional and self-penned material to sublime effect.
Taking its title from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Mortality, with the sort of pensive and melancholic mood that implies, the same applies here, Clarke writing the words and music and providing recorder, sax and flute with Walker handling the orchestration arrangements and playing guitars, mandolin, banjo and keys, joined by John Parker on double bass, Ruairi Glasheen on percussion and Jim Moray on piano as well as an array of backing musicians on strings and brass.
Of the three traditional numbers, it’s fair to say that the best known will be ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, Clarke’s fairly familiar forlorn interpretation offset by a bold arrangement that weaves its way from keyboard drone through medieval coloured flute to puttering drum rhythm, Spanish guitar and parping sax. Introduced by willowy recorder and flute, it’s preceded by the courtly textures of ‘The Queen of Hearts’, cello and acoustic guitar crafting a stately pavane setting, while the third offering is a more traditional folk reading of ‘I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight’ accompanied simply by fingerpicked guitar.
With its pizzicato violin and lush strings, self-penned, dreamy ballad opener, ‘Silverline’, is an early taster of the new richness and delicacy in Walker’s classical inspired arrangements, a development reinforced by the short, cello and violin accompanied ‘A Simple Refrain’ on which Clarke’s joined on vocals by Sam Brookes for a tender love song swathed in pastoral clouds.
Things heat up a little rhythmically on ‘It Would Not Be A Rose’, strings circling around acoustic guitar and hand percussion as Samantha Whates’ backing vocals blend with Clarke’s pure, leafy tones. ‘The Tangled Tree’ is another number steeped in natural imagery that addresses its theme of caged spirits and the cruel passing of time with a slow sonic gathering built upon ghostly multi-tracked backing vocals, somber piano and backwards guitar.
Things take a diversion for both ‘I Never Learned French’, a reverie of regret in a retro 30s frame, dawn breaking over the Paris skyline to the strains of a muted, melancholic trumpet, and, a personal favourite, ‘Moving Speeches’, a sprightly snare beat and banjo-accompanied skip through American folk backroads, Clarke sometimes sounding spookily like Denny. It comes as something of a shock, then, to slip into ‘Mainland’, a four minute experimental number that opens to the desolate sound of a sparse cello drone, siren call and breaking waves before the arrival of Clarke’s quivering, emotionally numbed vocals against an electronic backdrop as the number gradually swells over scuffed drums and treated guitars in a manner that suggests a darkside version of Clannad.
There’s similar experimentation at work on ‘Earth And Ash And Dust’, ushered in on a pulse of backwards treated guitar giving way to a scattering of sombre Spanish guitar notes as Clarke’s vocals eventually merge with the wordless backing to become the choir of some Renaissance cathedral frozen in time.
Things are more restrained for ‘Now You Know’, a slow, measured ballad with Walker’s simple repeated guitar pattern adorned by sweeping strings and French horn, with the album ending its journey in the early hours at some dimly-lit cellar bar blues club with a sleepy-eyed jazz trio and strings section for ‘Water To Wine’, Clarke evoking vintage Janis Ian with a resigned reflection on a self-denying uncertain future as she resolves to “do something good with my life” but must “accept that whatever I find it won’t be mine.” Whatever the future holds, it will be the more bearable for their music.
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Featuring Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Bella Hardy, Jim Moray, John Smith, Hannah James, Rachel Newton & Emily Askew
This 14 track CD showcases the multi-artist commission from Folk by the Oak and the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) inspired by the music, the people, the myths and the stories of the Elizabethan age.
From John Smith’s darkly brooding track ‘London’ reflecting on life as a peasant in Elizabethan England to Nancy Kerr’s deeply moving ‘Shores of Hispaniola’ examining the era’s slave trade; The Elizabethan Session is a ground breaking album of exceptional new music that beautifully conjures up the spirit of the age. It reflects the collective talent of some of the cream of the contemporary folk world, who lived and worked together for five days in March 2014, absorbing the spirit of the era and translating it into outstanding new music.
The work was premiered at Hatfield Old Palace where Elizabeth I held her first Council of State, and Cecil Sharp House, home of EFDSS and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. It was also performed at the festival Folk by the Oak, held in the field with the oak tree where legend claims the young Princess Elizabeth learnt of her ascent to the throne.
Produced by Andy Bell (The Full English) and recorded at Hatfield’s Old Palace and Cecil Sharp House, The Elizabethan Session is set to create its own place in musical history when it is released on September 8.
Featured on BBC Radio 3 In Tune and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, and reviewed in The Guardian, Times, R2, fRoots, Living Tradition and Songlines, The Elizabethan Session was supported with funding from Arts Council England and the PRS Music Foundation.
Sunday Times essential new release
‘A fine artefact of an inspired project’ – Fatea
Named as one of the best folk albums of 2014 by the Daily Telegraph – ‘A bold triumph of imagination and musicianship from eight of the UK’s top folk musicians’
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“There is an assumption common in some quarters that history is all about the past”, says Dr Ian Mortimer in his sleeve note. “In reality, history is about you and me.” That view was certainly taken on board by the “folk supergroup” (Dr Mortimer again) who were locked up at Monnington House until they had written an album. In this case the gaolers were The English Folk Dance And Song Society and Folk By The Oak.
This is a sometimes revisionist view of the first Elizabethan era sometimes applying 21st century values to 16th century events. I’m no historian and cannot comment on the accuracy of the songs in The Elizabethan Session but I can’t help feeling that few songwriters would have penned ‘The Oak Casts His Shadow’ or felt the need to. That it was Nancy Kerr who did so shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise and she almost immediately has a sly dig at Richard III – or at least the Tudor propaganda version – in ‘Suspicious Mind’ written with John Smith. Nancy also opens the proceedings with ‘The Shores Of Hispaniola’, a brilliant song which considers the slave trade from the point of view of a woman left behind, presumably in West Africa. You might get the impression that Gloriana doesn’t figure as a feminist role model for her.
The song that perhaps best encapsulates Mortimer’s dictum is ‘Hatfield’. Bella Hardy begins from a childhood memory of her sister playing Elizabeth at the house to consider the queen’s troubled childhood. For the most part, however, the view is that of the underdog. Martin Simpson contributes a short, bitter song on the death of Kit Marlowe – Shakespeare doesn’t get look-in – and the countryman in John Smith’s ‘London’ dreams of the great city and wishes for a better life.
Instrumentally we also have Rachel Newton, Hannah James and Emily Askew who add an almost orchestral feel to some tracks, aided by two fiddles and Jim Moray’s keyboards, of course. The song they wrote together, ‘Eve’s Apology In Defence Of Women’, takes words by the Elizabeth poet, Amelia Lanyer, and adds decoration from Martin Simpson’s banjo. That’s not quite as anachronistic as it sounds: banjos were known in the Caribbean in the early 17th century. Later Rachel appropriates words by Marlowe and Walter Raleigh for ‘Come Live With Me’ with an accompaniment of her harp with bells and frame drum by Emily.
The Elizabethan Session is a complex album. At first I was irritated by the modern slant on the history of the period, something that always puts me off, but soon I was seduced by the music.
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