MERRY HELL – A Documentary: A Year in the Life (own label)

A Year In The LifeExactly what it says, A Year In The Life follows the much acclaimed and awards-festooned Wigan outfit across the course of a year from February 2018 to February 2019, from rehearsals and hometown gigs to meet and greet Q&A sessions (why are you called Merry Hell?) and festivals, from Portugal to Skegness. As John Kettle stresses from the start, while their familiar live format is as a quintet, Merry Hell are, in fact, 12 piece, including not only keyboardist Lee Goulding, fiddler Neil McCartney (who made the documentary) and drummer Andy Jones who roll up for the recordings and larger stages, but also their manager, Damian Liptrot, merchandisers Julie McKiernan and Mike Jones, and designer Julian Watts. They are, as the film makes clear, very much a family in more than the literal sense of the three Kettle brothers and John’s wife Virginia.

Going behind the scenes, to their homes and into dressing rooms (at one show Virginia marvels how they all have their own, including Damian), each gets their own turn in the spotlight, talking about their background, their role in the band, offering up anecdotes and chatting about their favourite books. For Virginia it’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which she read because she wanted to be like the cool girl in town she’d seen reading it, Nick (filmed with the backdrop of a Merry Helloween banner in St Helens) recalls first encountering The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy while Bob talks of George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, affording an opportunity for a trip round their native town and a visit to the actual pier, which, and I’m sure most wouldn’t have known this, was actually the loading bay on the canal where they put the coal on the boats. Virginia, on the other hand, takes us on a tour of Chester to where she moved from Manchester in 1982 and kicked off her music career at the Raven Folk Club (chatting to one of the long-standing organisers, Nick Mitchell), taking in the suspension bridge from which she and he mates would dive into the river and an old Anchorite cell.

As with their music, the personal and the politics go hand in hand, the different members talking about their convictions (Bob notes how the world needs more kindness and Andrew talks about the need for a global ecological consciousness) and how the need to keep what they do and sing about real. Surprisingly, perhaps, the music itself doesn’t play a prominent role in the film, there are snippets of songs from shows or rehearsals (including their support acts, such as Ragnari). But none are talked about individually or (save for Virginia’s ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ over the end credits) played in full, although there are marvellous extracts of the band performing with the Commoners Choir and, with snatches from ‘Bury Me Naked’ and ‘We Need Each Other Now’, the 210 strong Rabble Chorus. As the notes on the back cover say “Merry Hell offer joyful, uplifting folk-rock with a message for troubled times”. This documentary affords an insight into why and how.

Mike Davies

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‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video (and why not?):

CORRIE SHELLEY – Forget Me Not (own label CSSSMCD003)

Forget Me NotSince the release of her previous album I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Corrie Shelley although I’ve not yet heard her perform live. Although I don’t claim to know her, I have an inkling of what she’s about and that helps. Forget Me Not sounds rather more uniform than The Leaf And The Cane, perhaps because of the smaller band: Stephen Shelley, Les Hilton and producer John Kettle with Nicki Louise playing bass on one track. That said, the sound is big and rich – indeed ‘My Hands’ is pure folk-rock but Corrie has the voice to handle it.

Some of the inspiration comes from her family but when you read that the opener, ‘I Wish I’d Listened’, comes from what her father said in the car on the way to her first wedding you know that she hasn’t lost any of her bite. ‘The Box’ might be about that same husband but I can’t be sure but ‘Alice’ is a much gentler song concerning her mother in law’s experiences as a war-time evacuee. ‘My Hands’ is for Corrie’s son and ‘Clocks’ for her grandfather while ‘Recognition’ continues a theme from her first album and is about her mother.

‘Culloden’ is one of Corrie’s historical songs which she says was inspired by Outlander and I really like the addition of a snippet of ‘The Skye Boat Song’ at the end. The television show, Nashville, inspired ‘Wine & The Liquor’ but Corrie doesn’t countrify the hell out of it – just a restrained lap-steel break by Les who doesn’t touch his harmonica once. The deaths of major musicians over the last few years gave rise to ‘Hard To Believe’, something we’ve all felt recently. ‘Sit Down Together’ was co-written with Bob Kettle and has something of the style of one of his Merry Hell anthems and ‘Big Man’ is just for fun – at least I hope the Johnny Cash riff wasn’t intended seriously.

Forget Me Not is another really good record and, although she may not want to, I do think that it’s time that Corrie got herself a deal allowing her to do things on a bigger scale. My copy came with a packet of seeds (do they all?) – forget me not, of course.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Clocks’ – official video:

Vision Thing biography

Vision Thing

Vision Thing are mostly bass guitarist Paul Cunliffe, Pete Cunliffe on acoustic guitar, David Windsor on violin and vocalist Cherlene Walmsley. On big occasions they are joined by Phil Ware and Jon Ormrod on cajon and djembe, Jan Hough on bodhran, drummer Darren Leonard and electric guitarist Liam Halsall. As they say: it is a bit like Schrödinger’s band, they are not in the band and in the band all at the same time.

John Kettle of Merry Hell is their producer and engineer and sometimes plays guitar and bouzouki as well.

They say of themselves:

We make relaxed and entertaining music for people sick of the mainstream. We class ourselves as ‘Alternative Folk’ both in genre and as people. We feel that lyrics and the ambience of the music is more important than being famous or making money.

With lots of radio play in the US with the hit song ‘Barcode’, Vision Thing have made friends in unlikely places for a band from Liverpool and we hope to see you out and about at one of our gigs.

Recently Vision Thing have played many festivals including The Diggers Festival, Bickerstock Festival, Green Slate Festival as well as supporting bands like Merry Hell at Sold out concerts with concerts at The Floral Hall Southport, The Cavern Club Liverpool (3 times), The Zanzibar Liverpool, The Old Court Wigan, The Lomax Liverpool and many more.

“Vision Thing are a brilliant band! They opened up our last Wigan Diggers Festival – created a beautiful, relaxed, atmosphere that got the day off to a great start.”
– Bob Kettle: Merry Hell & Diggers Music Festival Organiser

 

VISION THING – When We Were Astronauts And Other Stories (own label)

AstronautsThe follow-up to last year’s Trysting Tree EP (the tracks of which all appear here), the sleeve echoing the title of David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, this is the album from the north-west quartet which, hopefully, will provide lift-off to getting the far wider acclaim they deserve.

Vocally fronted by guitarist Pete Cunliffe and Cherlene Walmsley, who share the lyric credits, with Paul Cunliffe on bass and David Windsor on violin, they’re joined on various tracks by Merry Hell’s John Kettle, who also produced much of the material and contributes both bouzouki and programmed drums.

Sung by Walmsley and anchored by Windsor’s fiddle, it opens with a Cunliffe track from the EP, ‘Silver Darlings’, a shantyish number that tells of the hardships of a small fishing community near Wick in the late 19th century faced with dwindling stocks of herrings, the silver darlings of the title, the chorus calling them to their nets.

Striking another socioeconomic note, Cunliffe takes over for ‘There Is A Seam’, the fingerpicked guitar, bass and fiddle affording a suitably moody backdrop to a song about the Lancashire coalfields during the bitter struggle between the miners and the Thatcher government in the 80s as he sings how “The pits and the people, they are the same.”

Again underscoring their ability to craft a memorable and infectious chorus, Walmsley’s ‘Twenty Thousand Feet’ takes a romantic turn for a song about the giddy feelings of falling in love and the sense of finding home. Then it’s back to a protest undercurrent for Cunliffe’s ‘Haul Away’, a fiddle-led swayalong shanty sung in the voice of a young Bridgewater lad press-ganged into taking the King’s Shilling, saving his galleon when it was attacked by Spanish ship only to drown, his tale narrated by his ghost back in the local inn.

The EP title track, penned by Cunliffe and sung by Walmsley, another brooding number, featuring Jan Hough on bodhran ‘The Trysting Tree’ draws on the tradition of how certain trees were chosen as meeting places to arrange and finalise such things as sealing truces or exchanging prisoners, the song sung in the voice of the tree, witness to historical record.

The tempo and mood take a sprightlier turn in the Walmsley-sung ‘Magic Hour’, Windsor’s fiddle accompanying her on a rainy but warm-welcoming journey round a Scotland’s Western Isles in that moment of the day when “the clouds break over the mountains/And sunlight bathes the sea.”

The airy joyfulness is short-lived, however, the track being followed by the achingly melancholic ‘All The Bonny Birds Have Flown Away’, Cunliffe on lead and Walmsley providing harmonies on an anti-war song written for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice talking of loss, of the broken bodies and souls, and the impact of “hell and hatred” on both humans and nature.

With Windsor’s sympathetic fiddle to the fore, the echoey sung ‘Lullaby For The Forlorn’ sustains the melancholia before Walmsley’s equally mournfully-paced ‘Carry Me Down To The Shore’, also from the EP, heads back in time to sing of a Viking warrior’s thoughts as he’s carried to the ship that will be his final resting place and of the Valhalla that awaits.

The album’s longest number at over eight minutes, the suitably cosmic and atmospheric and suitably spacey title track with its nagging guitar riff, ethereal low whistle, contemplative fiddle, dreamlike vocals and choral harmonies finds Cunliffe musing on childhood games and the passing of time, and innocence, as we grow older.

It ebbs into the distance to be followed by the glorious final track, strummed guitar, keys and fiddle taking wing on ‘Murmurate (Safety In Numbers)’, a song inspired by and describing the murmurations of starlings, dancing “in the half-light of dusk/In pirouettes of trust” that, in its line “shall we gather one and all, from factory roofs and village halls, brought together in our call to sing”, delivers a metaphorical message about the strength of solidarity. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, When We Were Astronauts has its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground, make space for it in your CD constellation.

Mike Davies

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‘The Trysting Tree’:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC – live at The Old Courts, Wigan – 29th April 2018

Merry Hell Acoustic
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.

Jenny ColquittSupport came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.

If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished –  I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.

They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.

As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.

The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video:

MERRY HELL – Bloodlines (Merry Hell Music MHMCD 0116)

bloodlinesI was always a fan of The Tansads back in the 90s and the reunion of three Kettle brothers, singer Andrew, guitarist John and mandolin player Bob, along with John’s wife Virginia, in 2010 under their present name has done nothing to change my mind. Bloodlines is their fourth full-length album since then, the first to feature the voices of all eight members (the others being keyboardist Lee Goulding, Neil McCartney on fiddle with bassist Nick Davies and drummer Andy Jones comprising the rhythm section) and not only continues to see their political veined folk flourish, but also takes both that and the songs of personal relationships up a few notches.

It opens with ‘We Need Each Other Now’, John’s stirring anthemic cry for unity in a world divided over a martial beat and ringing guitars, a theme further explored on Bob’s swaying folk rock ‘Come On, England!’, here, again featuring the band’s massed voices, focusing at the divisions at home, a call for arms in a show of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and defence of people’s rights in the face of the troubling rise nationalism and racism in the name of the red, white and blue.

Sandwiched between is the title track, penned and sung by Virginia, a song that, presumably inspired by the current trend to trace family trees, again celebrates connections, this time within the family and generations, scraping fiddle and tumbling drums providing the song’s spine. ‘Coming Home Song’ is another from Bob, a heartfelt call for peace born of the refugee crisis sung a capella by himself, Andre, Virginia, Neil and Nick, while, again raising the anthemic flag and setting a martial beat, ‘All The Bright Blossoms’, on which he’s joined by Goulding on writing duties, addresses mortality and how love lives on in memory.

Virgina provides two in a row, echoing the theme of ageing on the acoustic slow guitar and fiddle waltzing ‘When We Are Old’, which she also sings, and striking political notes with ‘Stand Down’, a defiant message from those seeking freedom, mercy and justice to those who seek to oppress and exploit. Co-penned by John and Bob, the weary ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is another call to action, and not sing lullabies to our demons and simply “lie there and wait for the end to come.”

‘Chasing A Bluebird’ is something new from the band, the first to be written by McCartney, a country tinged waltzer duet between Andrew and Virginia about an inconstant restless lover leaving broken hearts behind, carried along, as you might guess, on a fiddle tide.

The final four numbers are all from Virginia. The traditional coloured ‘Over The Wall’ a rousing tale of a now or never prison escape by men locked up for striking for better pay and this, in turn, leads into the dreamy ‘Under The Overkill’, pizzicato fiddle and snare introducing a tumbling celebration of a love affair and its “wonderful moments in glorious technicolour”, Andrew providing the chorus refrain to her verses.

She shares credits with Bob and Goulding, who also wrote the music, for the penultimate ‘Man of Few Words’, another tender love song – a la ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ – about being unable to express what you want feel, before bringing things to a close with ‘Sweet Oblivion’, a playfully frisky, mandolin and fiddle driven hoedown, each member taking a bow on their respective instruments, about seizing love and life (“kiss me like it was the last night on earth”) and not going grimly into the dark night. If I was planning a party for the apocalypse, this lot would be top of the list for the house band.

Mike Davies

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Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us. Can’t find what you are looking for? Search Amazon Store below.

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Come On, England!’ – live at the Citadel, St Helens: