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:

PHIL DOLEMAN – Skin & Bones

Skin & BonesIn recent years the ukulele has become increasingly prominent in my life as a music teacher and workshop organiser, so it was with a degree of keen anticipation that I opened Phil Doleman’s first full studio album, Skin & Bones. He may be unknown to many folk fans, but he looms large in the ukulele world with his infectious enthusiasm for old-timey blues, classic 1920s jug band and ragtime. For many this album will be instructional – how to present well-known songs, suited to the instrument, without the bland relentless 3-chord strumming that gives the ukulele a bad press. If used well, it can be both rhythmic and melodic, as demonstrated here in accomplished finger picking that creates variety and a degree of light and shade. In the ukulele world few can get anywhere near the giddy heights of technical brilliance achieved by, for example, James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro; but Phil Dolman shows what can be achieved with intelligence and diligence.

Phil’s competent playing extends to guitar, banjo, bass, harmonica and nose flute, though he’s also joined here by five other musicians and his very own Beehive Ukulele Club who sing heartily on ‘Diddie Wa Diddie’. My favourite track is a quite sophisticated arrangement of ‘You May Leave’ on which, surprisingly, he manages vocally to sound very much like Ry Cooder. The final track, recorded on a wax cylinder, is an opportunity for him to tip his hat to the first generation that created the music he evidently loves.

Jon Bennett

Artist’s website: http://phildoleman.co.uk/

‘You May Leave (But This’ll Bring You Back)’ – live:

THE GLOAMING – Live At The NCH (Real World CD/Vinyl)

Live At The NCHIt almost goes without saying that Martin Hayes (fiddle) and Dennis Cahill (guitar) have shaped Irish traditional music for the last quarter century and are recognised the world over for their sublime lyrical and melodic interpretation of almost everything they touch. What has kept them fresh and relevant across the years is their willingness to collaborate with musicians as diverse as Paul Simon and Yo Yo Ma while always returning to those within their own fold. They still perform as a duo but have periodic outings with the bigger sound that comes from the 5-piece The Gloaming, formed in 2011. Live At The NCH refers to Dublin’s National Concert Hall which now has become an annual pilgrimage for a seven night bonanza. Would that I could be there!

Cleverly, the band’s producer Thomas Bartlett started with six tracks from the band’s two studio albums and, for the live performance, allowed them to expand into six lengthy arrangements that encompassed other songs and tunes. Iarla O Lionaird’s plaintive Irish language vocals dominate three tracks, though my promotional copy gives no clue as to what the songs are about. Instrumentally, the sparse piano of Thomas Bartlett is striking but what really intrigued me was the Hardanger d’Amour (5+5) Norwegian fiddle of Caoimhin O Raghallaigh. The top five bowed gut strings plus the five sympathetic strings below give the fiddle a wonderful resonant sound. It’s both sonically and visually pleasing. Indeed, the whole album transports the listener to another calmer, holistic place.

Jon Bennett

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Artists’ website: http://www.thegloaming.net/

JAKE WALTON – Silver Muse (CM0001)

Silver MuseFolk music, as opposed to singer-songwriting or the many facets of acoustic music, has a sense of place and history. It is defined by social context. Nevertheless, one small niche within the folk traditional defies the here and now and fosters the notion of a spiritual ‘otherworld’, a dreamy predilection that allows poets and sages to have flights of fancy around a speculative anchor of mystic ‘truth’ that supposedly underlies everything we are and everything we do. It was particularly pervasive among some late 19th century romantic poets such as W.B.Yeats , Arthur O’Shaughnessy and George Russell whose work also happens to have coincided with the first folk revival. Jake Walton’s Silver Muse not only sets to music some of the classic work of these poets but also embraces the spiritual zeitgeist of their era in his own compositions. In this respect he is deliciously out of kilter with almost all contemporary mainstream folk music.

So if we are “World losers and world- forsakers on which the pale moon gleams” (O’Shaughnessy), let’s not be too harsh on Mr Walton for not cutting the edge of contemporary sounds. Let’s assume that the rather bland repetitive rippling guitar that cloaks almost every track on this album is intended for some greater purpose. Let’s also hope that the distinctively fey 1970s flavour of the whole exercise will appeal to those who wondered whatever happened to Amazing Blondel and Vashti Bunyan. But I’m left wondering why it is that only one track – ‘Beyond The Veil’, co-written with Jez Lowe – has any discernible “song-ness” and structure.

Oh dear, I tried and tried again to like this album. This is, after all, Jake Walton who partnered with Jez Lowe for ten years and pioneered the UK hurdy-gurdy revival. His mark on British folk music is undisputed. Indeed, Silver Muse makes no apology for returning to Jake’s earlier work that allows him muse again on “the moon being my constant mistress” and “helping me reconnect and remember the time before we lost touch with the un-seen”. Perhaps with some spiritual succor and a spell in his native Cornwall I’d understand. For now, though, he’s lost me.

Jon Bennett

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Artists’s website: www.jakewaltonmusic.co.uk

‘Silver Muse’ – official video:

THE POOZIES – Punch (Schmooz SCHMOOZCD003)

PunchI was amused by the quote from Eilidh Shaw (fiddle, vocals) who says that the Poozies are probably fortunate that the charge of witchcraft has gone out of fashion; otherwise they’d be in trouble. In Punch there’s certainly a mischievous mix of musical mayhem, spellbinding showcase instrumentals and probably some frogs legs to boot. True to form, The Poozies are unencumbered by conventional folk idioms, slipping and sliding between cool jazz cadences and the more structured strathspeys. Fortunately, boundaries are never pushed too far and the whole thing hangs together beautifully, albeit with a shimmer of post-modern irony. I just loved it when on ‘Plecthumb’ the tune is suddenly punctured by an almighty scream from one of the women!

Looking back, The Poozies were initially the established harp duet of Mary MacMaster and Patsy Seddon (of Sileas) joined by Sally Barker and Karen Tweed. Always an all-female ensemble, they rode the wave of new Scottish music in the 1990s. One shouldn’t forget they also introduced us to Kate Rusby at that time. There have been many personnel changes since, and only MacMaster remains from the original line-up. Fiddles have replaced harps as the predominant sound and there are no fewer than three fiddle players in the current band: Eilidh Shaw, Sarah McFadyen and Tia Files.

The four women keep you on your toes, and there’s never a dull moment. The stomp box and bass drum allow for gear shifts just when they’re needed and the keen rhythmic edginess serves them well in ‘Knees of Fire’ and ‘Bloodknot’. There’s an even spread of songs and tunes, from the frivolous ‘Soaking’ to a traditional Scots Gaelic ‘Ailein, Ailein’, one of my favourites. Their harmonized vocal talents are particularly noticeable on the final alluring track, ‘Easily Led’ which brings the set to a relatively quiet, though indubitably classy, finish.

So much good music is coming out of Scotland these days, a credit to serious recognition and investments made in traditional arts. We shouldn’t take it for granted. Enjoy the renaissance and marvel at just how good these musicians are and how much memorable fun they can pack into nine tracks.

Jon Bennett

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Artists’ website: www.poozies.co.uk

‘Knees Of Fire/The Chase’ – live:

MOONRAKERS – Tides (own label)

TidesFirst of all, I’d like to make it clear that we’re not reviewing Tides because one of the key members of Moonrakers is also a member of our writing team. No, we’re reviewing it because they are one of the very few bands to acknowledge Francis McPeake’s claim to ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ which makes them alright in our book.

Tides is the band’s fifth album and the first by the current line-up: Jon Bennett, Liz van Santen, Sarah Fell and Eleanor Dunsdon. At first hearing I was tempted to describe it as folk-rock without the rock – there is no bass and percussion is restricted to bodhran and cajón – because the band imparts an upbeat, positive feeling to acoustic music. The instrumental line-up includes bouzouki, Celtic harp, concertina and five-string fiddle which gives great variety to the music.

Moonrakers’ repertoire mixes original and traditional songs, tunes and a somewhat unexpected cover of Huddie Ledbetter’s ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’. The opener is Bennett’s ‘The Singer’, a sort of post-protest song, perhaps a nod of acknowledgment to Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and others of their ilk who took their songs to the streets. That is followed by Scott Skinner’s ‘Glenlivet’ featuring Eleanor’s harp and Liz’s fiddle. Next is a traditional song, ‘The Ploughman’, and Moonrakers have set out their stall for our delectation.

Other significant tracks include Bennett’s ‘Black Beach’ about redundant Northumbrian miners scraping a bit of extra money by gathering sea coal and the Appalachian ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies’ featuring Sarah on lead vocals, a role she shares with Jon. Sarah’s voice is clear and strong and one of the band’s great assets. Finally, they take ‘Thousands Or More’ at a cracking pace, quite unlike the way it can be dragged down in mass singarounds.

I think the description I was searching for earlier is “sparkling” which is really what this album is.

Dai Jeffries

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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.

Artists’ website: www.moonrakers.net

‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ – live: