Kicking off at the end of February at Lincolnshire’s historic Ropewalk, on the site of a former 19th century rope making factory, the tour concludes in April at the former Dorset home of Frankenstein scribe Mary Shelley.
The thirteen date jaunt will see the award-winning quartet perform material from throughout their career, including new tunes from their impending seventh album. Yet-to-be-titled, the release forms part of The UFQ’s 10th anniversary celebrations, which will run throughout 2019 and see the band enjoy further live shows, major festival appearances, and more.
Taking a break from recording, UFQ co-founder Tom Chapman said: “We debuted a few new tunes on our autumn 2018 tour, and the response was fantastic. So we’ll be road-testing more new numbers throughout these dates, dropping them into the set alongside established fan favourites and the occasional rarity.”
Discussing their year-long birthday celebrations, Tom said simply: “We can’t believe it’s been ten years … and the new material’s sounding really special!”
Formed in the summer of 2009, The Urban Folk Quartet excel playing live, hosting high-energy, genre-defying acoustic shows that leave audiences breathless. Comprising of fiddle player and guitarist Joe Broughton, fiddle player Paloma Trigás, percussionist Tom Chapman and banjo/ guitar player Dan Walsh, the quartet’s dazzling musicianship (and showmanship) finds four artists at the very top of their game.
It was way back in 1999 that guitarist/ vocalist Kevin Dempsey (Whippersnapper, Dando Shaft, Dave Swarbrick) and fiddle and mandolin player Joe Broughton (then in The Albion Band) first teamed up.
Since then, the duo have performed extensively, heading out across 20 countries, and releasing three much valued albums – Every Other Word (1999), Freehand (2004), and Off By Heart (2017).
Combining emotive songs, unrivalled musicianship, impromptu banter, and a spectacular high energy show, Kevin and Joe never fail to create a spellbinding atmosphere with songs and instrumentals that are rooted in ‘folk’ music, but also call on sounds and styles from the four corners of the world.
Although both artists continue to pursue their own career paths – Joe with The Urban Folk Quartet and the giant Conservatoire Folk Ensemble; Kevin increasingly as a solo artist, but also with various other musicians including, most recently, Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee – the duo continue to reunite for their annual summer fiddle/ guitar workshops and, when their schedules allow, live shows.
Celebrating two decades of collaboration, the duo’s spring 2019 appearances promise a broad mix of material from across their career, along with new songs (mooted for their fourth album), and a few last minute surprises.
“It really doesn’t seem 20 years since myself and Kevin first began playing together! Time really flies when we’re on stage … and off stage too it seems,” laughs Joe. “I always look forward to our annual reunions – Kevin is one of the UK’s best acoustic guitarists and the shows are a joy to play.”
Says Kevin: “I can still remember the day I was first introduced to Joe, then a young musician whose reputation was growing. We really hit it off. His reputation has grown further since those early days, and playing together is always great fun – for us and the audience.”
Visiting the docks first, this is a sort of continuance of a previously unfinished story that mixes together past recordings, new material, readings and film clips, opening with an echoey Hutchings reading an extract from John Donne’s poem of parted but constant adulterous lovers ‘Elegie XII’ with JJ Stoney providing keyboard effects. It’s followed by a 1985 live recording of ‘Kitty Come Down The Lane’ by the Ashley Hutchings All Stars, featuring Clive Gregson and Polly Bolton, and, in turn, with another reading, this time ‘The Meadow’, a single line extract from Louis MacNeice’ ‘The Strings Are False’.
The first new recording comes with the pastoral ‘Art Nouveau’, exploring the woman as flower metaphor, co-written with Ken Nicol, sung by Barry Coope and featuring string quartet arrangement by Joe Broughton, with himself on violin and Jo Hamilton on viola.
Another reading, ‘St. Valentine Day Sonnet’, is one of Hutchings’ own, about getting a rose tattoo, written in the manner of Donne, then it’s back to 1987 and a recording of the bouncy ‘Trip To Bath’ by The Albion Dance Band, Bolton again on vocals. Jane Wildsmith provides the voice of Pat in ‘Sultana Cake’, a brief extract from a letter, then it’s into the second new song, Tim Walker on trombone and Chris Sheldon on banjo for the New Orleans-influenced ‘Cul-de-Sac’, a playfully wry reference to how the original romance ended. Another live recording, the lost relationship ‘Our Stolen Season’ comes from a 2000 Rainbow Chasers concert, Hamilton on vocal and Ruth Angell on violin, followed by the first of the film clips, a brief extract (in French but translated in the booklet) from Alain Resnais’ 1960 Last Year In Marienbad before Fred Claridge’s drums introduce the Western-movie soundtrack flavoured ‘Devil-may-care In Our Dancing Shoes’, a down to the crossroads lost souls number co-penned with son Blair Dunlop who also plays acoustic guitar, that brings Pat back into the picture with the lines “Years passed by, then out of the blue/ The call of the road and a text or two.”
Michael Maloney voices an excerpt from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, followed by another French film clip, this time ‘It Was My Heart’ from Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Boi de Boulogne, the screenplay by Cocteau. Then, preceded by a lengthy introduction in which Hutchings explains the background to Gloucester Docks (and the title’s links to both the psalm ‘By Waters Of Babylon’ and Elizabeth Smart’s ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept’ as well as offering a Tristan and Isolde context to the story of doomed love), a 1988 All Stars concert recordings of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ featuring just Bolton and John Shepherd’s keyboard.
The last of the new songs, again written with Dunlop, and featuring both him and Nicol on electric guitars, brings things up to the present day with the lyrically optimistic ‘Thirty-two Years And A Lifetime’, which, after the initial set-up, breaks out into a punchy, upbeat folk-rock melody that may well have travelled over the Cork and Kerry mountains.
It ends with the brief spoken ‘Epilogue’ which brings the lost love back into his life, the pondered question “What is to become of us?” possibly answered as the tracks flows into an arrangement of the traditional ‘French Catholic Wedding Tune’ with Stoney on churchy organ and Becky Mills providing the choral vocals.
Having duly conjured a romantic glow, the second disc beats the heart with a collection of all new recordings, again intercut with clips and readings, that gets under way with rising star Kitty Macfarlane on acoustic singing her own ‘Avona And The Giant’, a song based around the legend of the Bristol giants Vincent and Goram and how, after losing the love of Avona, the latter through himself into the river, his torso forming the isles of Steepholm and Flatholm.
Macfarlane also closes the album, this time, preceded by an extract from the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, with her arrangement of ‘Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun’ from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
In-between clips are taken from the 1932 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s WWI story A Farewell To Arms with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of the Light Brigade and, given the theme, what else but Bogart and Bacall in Casablanca, here in the form of the “I remember every detail” scene.
There’s readings too, Michael Maloney giving John Donne another outing with ‘Aire And Angells’, Hutching and cheering crowd with 30 seconds of ‘If Love Has Wings’ from The Marriage of Figaro (Beaumarchais not Mozart) and a brace of Chekhov with two extracts, pre and post-marriage, from the playful ‘Notes from the journal of a quick-tempered man’.
There’s only one previously releases track, ‘Welcome To The World’ taken from The Albion Band’s eponymous 1999 album, the remainder being all new material. Evoking formative Fairport folk rock and preceding the Donne, ‘Above The Angels’ is sung by Mills with Nicol and Dunlop on electric guitars and Stoney tinkling the piano, ‘If There’s No Other Way’ is an acoustic, strings-arranged Hutchings/Broughton ‘love in vain’ ballad with Bolton on soaring vocals and, revisiting bird imagery, simple acoustic ‘The Swift’, with its title wordplay, is written and sung by Mills.
There’s two traditional numbers, ‘Polly On The Shore’ (or at least an except therefrom) providing a solo showcase for Dunlop, accompanying himself on electric guitar, while, co-produced by Joe Boyd, ‘Sykaleshe’ is a love song performed in their native tongue by Albanian folk outfit Saz’iso, and which seems likely to be an outtake from their 2016 album At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song. Which just leaves ‘Lost In The Haze’, father and son teaming for a first time ever I saw your face memory of first love recalling how Hutchings was smitten by a girl he met as part of a 1964 Methodist Youth Club ramble though Hertfordshire, immortalised in the photograph in the superb accompanying annotated hardback lyric booklet.
The original ‘By Gloucester Docks I sat down and wept’, released in 1987, ended on a painful note, but it finally now has a happy coda; after waiting by the Quay for 30 years, Hutchings’ ship has come in.
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“Things often get out of hand when working with the Folk Ensemble,” reckons founder and leader Joe Broughton. “You just mention an idea and before you know it it’s ten times bigger than what you intended – I guess because the band is ten times the size of a normal band.”
With fifty members, The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble has never been a ‘normal band.’ A perfect example of that in action is the band’s latest release, ‘Sleepy Maggie’. It began life as a one-off, stand-alone track, before ideas of an EP took hold, and it eventually spiralled into a ten-track album!
“The ideas started flowing …” explains Joe of what soon became Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities, and features a succession of radical revisions of an already radical take on a traditional track, calling on chunky guitars, EDM, beats and Chinese grooves, and more. If Joe told you there was a kitchen sink in there – you wouldn’t argue.
The arrival of ‘Sleepy Maggie’ coincides with the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s own mini-festival, the appropriately named Power Folk 5. Taking place in their hometown of Birmingham and featuring such special guests as Will Pound, Threaded and the Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar Trio, along with DJ spots and appearances from many ensemble members, it regularly sells out in advance – and this year is no exception.
“Power Folk really is a unique event,” says Joe, who founded the group 21 years ago. “With almost 100 musicians playing over the course of the day and the evening in such an intimate venue, it’s powerful and really exciting.
“I always make sure that there are brilliant new bands that nobody has seen before, as well as established acts that everyone wants to see. Everyone playing has some kind of link to the Folk Ensemble, which gives it a really close family vibe.
“Even though it’s just in a pub, it’s the best pub in the world!” he says of The Spotted Dog, in the city’s Digbeth area. “Added to this is, we still keep to high production values with great sound and a slick show – where appropriate!
“There’s a BBQ and a few other interesting little things to do while you are there too. I think it always sells out because it’s just how a gig should be – friendly and laid back, but with a well organised killer show and a good bar!”
To cope with the increased demand for tickets, Joe’s expanded the event, increasing capacity, but believes the relative intimacy of the venue is very much part of the appeal.
“Well, we have sold more tickets and added an hour to the programme since last year, but I really don’t want it to change too much,” he says. “If it got too big I think it would spoil what is good about it.”
Last year saw the band, based at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, celebrate their 20th anniversary with a Birmingham Town Hall concert featuring as many former members as they could fit on stage, a studio album (the Folking.com acclaimed Painted), and a lauded summer tour, which concluded with a storming Shrewsbury Folk Festival set.
“It was just an incredible tour, everywhere we went felt like a huge party to me. I’m so pleased that everyone got on board with the 20 year anniversary theme because really it’s only me who has been doing it for that long! It really meant something to me that everyone celebrated …”
As fifty members squeeze into a tour bus over the summer, taking in Green Man and Kendal Calling, as well as several headline dates, Joe is already setting his sights on 2019, and keen to keep the momentum going.
“Looking further ahead we have plans for another full album – but I really want to do a live album, because I love live albums. There’s also a rumour that we’ll be making our first trip abroad…”
It’s been a heady 12 months for The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble. Their acclaimed studio album, Painted, racked up a string of jaw-dropping reviews, and the collective also guested on Fairport Convention’s acclaimed 50:50@50 album.
Meanwhile, in their hometown of Birmingham the full band stunned commuters at Britain’s busiest railway station with a pop-up gig, and they wowed audiences at one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebrations outside of Ireland – for the second consecutive year.
Now the stage-shaking 50-plus ensemble is heading out for their annual summer tour (which includes the fifth edition of their very own festival, Power Folk), and are set to release a remarkable new mini-album, Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities.
A four-and-a-half-minute instrumental, lead track Sleepy Maggie perfectly encapsulates the ensemble’s richly layered and powerful sound. With sweeping strings, rolling percussion, tight brass, a fleeting guitar solo, and an unexpected Eastern vocal incursion, it’s a dramatic track, both muscular and delicate, oozing global influences.
Says band leader Joe Broughton: “’Sleepy Maggie’ is a traditional tune which we’ve deconstructed and rearranged in typical ensemble fashion, pulling in ideas from various members of the ensemble to create something that sounds very very different from versions you might have heard before. The roots of the tune remain – which you can hear in the fiddles at the beginning – but the new arrangement heads off to some interesting and surprising places.
“It’s supposed to be deliciously over the top!”
The deconstruction continues with a series of surprising remixes and re-imaginings by various members of the ensemble that pushes Sleepy Maggie further into new musical territories.
“The idea of remixing the track is very much in keeping with the group’s approach to making music, of using what could be a straight-forward melody as the basis for a tune and seeing how that can be developed, or pushed, to create something that still acknowledges the original source, but is somehow transformed into something new and exciting,” explains Joe, adding the release took on a life of its own.
“This project started out as the single ‘Sleepy Maggie’, and after I mentioned the possibility of doing some remixes, in the pub after rehearsal one night, the ideas started flowing. Before I knew it I had club remixes, Chinese groove-monsters, full on drum’n’bass and more flowing into my inbox. I thought perhaps we could release a few of these with the single, but they just kept on coming.”
Hence it’s now a 10-track ‘mini-album’!
Formed in 1997 by fiddle player and arranger Joe (The Urban Folk Quartet, The Albion Band, Joss Stone), The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s energetic live sets are a sight to behold, featuring a 15-piece horn section, four cello players, five percussionists and four electric guitarists, plus fiddles, flutes, clarinets, euphonium, tuba, and accordion! They also all sing too.
Though rooted in traditional folk tunes, the personal influences and interests of each member shapes the set-list, pulling in everything from full-on rock grooves, to funk, jazz, hip-hop and reggae, to sounds from Eastern Europe and Asia. It’s a sound they’ve dubbed ‘Power Folk’.
In their 21 years, the band – based at the prestigious Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – have packed out the Royal Albert Hall, and played some of the biggest festivals in the UK.
2018 sees the ensemble return to Kendal Calling (with The Libertines and Run DMC) and Green Man (with The War On Drugs and Fleet Foxes), as well as bring together their full line-up for their one-day mini-festival, Power Folk 5 (10 June, Birmingham).
Says Joe: “Our main aim is to send people home a little happier than when they arrived.”
Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities is released on 10 June 2018 (CD, digital download, streaming via SAE Records), and the band tour from May through to July.
Kevin Dempsey and Joe Broughton have been in the business for so many years and in so many line-ups that it seems impossible to count. You can mention The Albion Band, the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, the Urban Folk Quartet, Dando Shaft, Whippersnapper and Lazarus before you have to stop and think. Kevin and Joe have worked together for almost two decades and Off By Heart is their fourth album as a duo.
The record opens in a rather unexpected way. You might have thought that two such celebrated instrumentalists would kick off with something to get the feet moving but instead they begin with Kevin singing ‘Resurrection Jack’, an anti-racist poem by Evangeline Paterson which Kevin has set to a simple and deliberately un-sensational tune. The story itself is a moving one but also told in very unemotional terms. That is followed by ‘Wheels Of The World’, a traditional Irish song explaining why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Who says folk music isn’t relevant?
Of course there are instrumental fireworks and they begin with ‘The Post Truth Reel’ a tune that Joe describes as having “some slightly bits, some positive bits and a bit of reflection”. Next are two linked tunes. ‘Just Before The News’ and ‘De Pascale’ were written around the death of their friend, renaissance man Ernesto De Pascale’ and into them is poured all the emotion they can find. Fittingly, they sit at the heart of the album.
The album closes with two more instrumentals and two traditional songs. ‘Wicked Polly’ comes from the Ozarks and Paloma Trigás adds massed violins and ‘Two Constant Lovers’ is from Sussex with all sorts of things going on behind Kevin’s voice. ‘La Moreau’ is a two-part tune, or rather one tune played in two very different ways, and the final tune is ‘The Recovery Shuffle’ – a bluesy guitar riff over which Joe has written a jig. There is a great deal to enjoy here.
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