Singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson releases brand new studio album Rooted on August 30 on Topic Records. Produced by Andy Bell and recorded in Sheffield and Oxfordshire, Rooted will be available on CD, LP and digital with the deluxe 2CD and deluxe digital versions including a bonus disc of instrumentals, Seeded.
Summing up the themes of his new album, Martin says:
“The music and songs embrace nature and travel, mental health, real life stories, loss, politics and history… and the threads that bind all this together can be followed back a long way, to 1965 when I got my first guitar and started to soak up material and ideas at a very rapid rate.”
Rooted features an array of stellar guest musicians, including Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola), Andy Cutting (melodeon and diatonic accordion), Liz Hanks (cello), John Smith (electric guitar and vocals), Ben Nicholls (string bass and electric bass guitar), Julie Matthews (vocals), Alan Barnes (clarinet), Max Simpson (vocals), Amy Smith (vocals), Chris While (vocals) and Tom A Wright (drums and percussion). Richard Hawley and Dom Flemons contribute backing vocals and bones respectively to first single ‘Neo’ (out 21st June). As well as vocals, Martin himself plays banjola, 5-string banjo, 6-string fretless banjo, electric bass guitar and electric and resonator guitars!
Hand in hand with his long and storied solo career, Martin has been central to seminal collaborations like The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Simpson Cutting Kerr. He has worked with a dazzling range of artists from across the musical spectrum: Jackson Browne, Martin Taylor, June Tabor, Richard Hawley, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Thompson, David Hidalgo, Danú, Richard Thompson and Dom Flemons, to mention a few. He is consistently named as one of the very finest acoustic, fingerstyle and slide guitar players in the world and is the most nominated musician in the history of the BBC Folk Awards, with a remarkable thirty-one nods. A true master of his art.
Reunited after a 21 year gap in 2017, Daphne’s Flight brings together the talents of five highly acclaimed singer-songwriters: Julie Matthews, Chris While, Melanie Harrold, Helen Watson and Christine Collister for a veritable rootsy flavoured supergroup!
Last year’s Knows Time, Knows Change, the surprise (and belated) sequel to 1996’s eponymous debut, was accompanied by a successful UK tour which has now resulted in a third album from the quintet. The soon to be released Daphne’s Flight Live features a collection of songs from both their studio albums, along with several new choices, and arrives with a series of live appearances beginning at Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival (24-27 Aug 2018).
“We all bring two songs to the table that we think will work as a group,” explains Chris While, of the group’s way of working. “These [songs] can be original new songs or covers, they can be old songs too that we think are worth re-working.
“If one or two of us don’t think a song will work, out it goes – obviously it can only work if the whole group loves the song. As everyone is very versatile and has vast vocal ranges, dynamics and experiences, the decision of who will sing what is really easy, and it just falls into place.”
Despite their long period of silence, everyone in Daphne’s Flight has remained close, often performing with each other in various combinations. As a result, they work well together, dividing roles between them.
“We are all very old friends now,” says Chris, who is also one half of a firmly established duo with Julie. “I have known Christine since the ’80s and Mel, Julie and Helen since the early ’90s. We want what’s best for each other and are a very supportive and diplomatic group.
“Of course, as we all live so far apart, really far – Essex, London, Sheffield and The Isle of Man – a lot gets decided on the phone, email and FaceTime regarding the managing of the group, but when we rehearse we spend up to a week together, which is really bonding and amazing, and the songs really flow.
“In between, I do the website, Julie and Christine take care of social media, and this year Mel and Christine have been doing lots of interviews and media stuff.
“Helen Watson grows marvellous vegetables and makes us laugh,” she adds with a smile.
The live album sums up the group’s approach perfectly, and finds them calling on a variety of influences from traditional and country (Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s ‘From The Heart’), to gospel and soul (Percy Sledge’s ‘Out of Left Field’).
“Daphne’s Flight is steeped in the heritage of contemporary and traditional music,” says Melanie. “Our repertoire ranges from the fantastical of myth and fairy tale to songs of land and plough, of growth and renewal. In our set there are tales of seas and safe harbours and anthems of political social and economic change.
“We unify these influences through beautiful layers of blended harmony, inspired arrangements and ‘stop you in your tracks’ singing,” she says. “We are a very British band of women with a world of experience, embracing the land of the Celts and the Saxons, the mountains of Appalachia and the basin of the Mississippi.”
Although Daphne’s Flight are very much active, all members continue to juggle the group with their own projects.
Says Chris: “Well Julie and I never seem to stop. We are performing in BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night on the 9 November  with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a life-long ambition of mine to sing with a great orchestra. The theme is Radio 2’s Ballads of the Great War. A lot of the songs were written by the brilliant Julie, and I got to sing many of them.
“Then we have the Ballads Of Child Migration UK tour (November), which is very exciting. The awesome line-up is Barbara Dickson, narrating, singer songwriters, me and Julie, Jew Lowe, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, Boo Hewerdine and John Doyle. And the band, as always will be John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick, Andy Cutting and Andy Seward … wow! The show is a very levelling and emotional experience and the music is beautiful with a large screen featuring testimonies from former Child Migrants.”
And then there’s a certain significant birthday looming …
“2019 is the 25th anniversary of the duo,” Chris confirms. “Julie and I will be recording a new album in the spring followed by a busy festival season in the summer all leading up to a big autumn tour to celebrate our silver jubilee!
“As well as all the wondrous things that Chris has mentioned we have coming up, I’m also excited to have been asked to be part of another songwriting project in 2019 that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the peace celebrations after WW1 along with Greg Russell, Findlay Napier and Bella Hardy,” interjects Julie.
The others are just as busy.
Helen: “I have been working with Snake Davis (horns) and Dave Bowie Jnr (double bass) for several years now, and we have gigs coming along into next year. No plans for any solo stuff now. Happy in collaboration!”
Christine: “I’ve been blessed with numerous collaborations over the intervening years and there was a ten year period where I was a predominantly solo performer. More recently I’ve been working with a brilliant Australian guitarist – Michael Fix – and have worked in Australia for a number of years, and we’re now branching out into the UK performing scene, with a handful of shows this November, and a three week tour in October 2019. We have one studio album, Shadows and Light, and a second one in the making ready for next year’s UK tour.
“I also have a delightful but intermittent musical partnership with Dave Kelly (of Blues Band fame) … we have a live CD with our band The Traveling Gentlemen from 2006, but only a few weeks ago performed as an acoustic duo at the Vancouver Island Music Festival. We enjoyed it so much we’re planning a duo tour for next May,” says Christine, whose first two studio albums, Blue Aconite and The Dark Gift of Time, have been re-released “as a double CD package with a foreword from myself talking about my thoughts on then and now. Quite a ride!”
Melanie: “I am working a new CD of original songs with Harvey Summers at Broadoak Studios in Bexhill. I also develop, write and arrange for performing amateur a cappella choirs. In June, Vocal Chords Choir launched Songs of Protest in aid of Praxis at The Conway Hall in London. In the autumn of 2019 we will be presenting our project on Home and Homelessness. Trade Winds is a multi-access European women’s choir that develops collaborative cultural exchanges with choirs throughout the community.”
So where does that leave Daphne’s Flight?
“We plan to do more,” says Christine, suggesting new material for a 2019 studio album will be aired for the first time at Towersey.
Dave Burland may have recorded one of the definitive folk albums of the seventies but he’s always been a rocker at heart as anyone who has been in the same room as Shagpile will testify. Alongside him in The Awkward Squad are two members of that band, Dave Fisher and Bryan Ledgard and their first album, Okkard, is a perfect example of having fun with the music they love.
The big noise here is Fisher on keyboards and steel guitars and I’m guessing that he takes the lead on ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ which is built on piano with three voices on the chorus. The Awkward Squad take it a little faster than is usual with odd little twists in the phrasing that makes it much brighter than the dirge it can become. It’s electric piano that introduces the opening track, ‘Reynardine’ with solid guitar and drums from Ledgard. Burland’s distinctive laid-back delivery adds to the gentle rolling feel of the arrangement. He switches to mandolin for Terry Allen’s ‘New Delhi Freight Train’ over Fisher working the left hand end of the keyboard.
What they do to ‘Country Life’ is quite amazing. A not-quite honky-tonk piano is matched with a sort-of syncopated vocal line and Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ is given a full-blown nightclub feeling with backing vocals courtesy of Chris While and Julie Matthews. It’s not all fun, though. ‘Kitchener’s Finger’, written by Burland, is paired with ‘The Bloody Fields Of Flanders’ and ‘Lamkin’ is as dark a version as you could wish to hear, fleshing out the “mason” storyline.
‘Long Distance Love’ and Steve Goodman’s wonderful ‘City Of New Orleans’ are more familiar territory – this is possibly the best version of the latter that I’ve heard – and I was convinced that the final track, ‘Spencer The Rover’, appeared on Dave’s first album, but of course it doesn’t. As far as I can tell this is the first time he’s recorded it. No matter; it’s a perfect Dave Burland song to bring Okkard to a close.
It’s been 14-plus years since Fairport Convention’s chief songwriter, co-lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, songwriter-musician and all-around renaissance man David Hughes, and Chris While and Julie Matthews (the renowned folk duo While and Matthews) joined together for a holiday side project called St. Agnes Fountain, fondly dubbed the Aggies by loyalists.
The quartet and its fans will tell you their musical magic is only fully unleashed during their as-soon-as-they-are-announced sell out concerts across England. That is further reason to celebrate the artistry of their albums. Christmas Is Not Far Away, the Aggies’ just released ninth album, is now available online and at upcoming shows.
The album features the Aggies at their best – both individually and as a group. Chris Leslie’s bewitching musicianship (don’t miss ‘Old Time Christmas on the Front Porch’), Ms. While’s and Ms. Matthews’ enchanting harmonies (‘Shadows of the Past’) and Mr. Hughes’ amusingly irreverent word play (‘Immortal Irreverent’) combine to make this a stand out offering.
At first, I was disappointed by a few songs on this album including ‘The Heart of Christmas Day’ by Ms. Matthews.
Perhaps that’s because a disproportionate number of artists who released holiday albums this season have included several songs aimed toward the despondent. Over the Rhine’s Blood Oranges in the Snow, comes immediately to mind. But Over the Rhine acknowledges their holiday music is for those who struggle with the season.
When I originally heard the song penned by Ms. Matthews, I thought it was a bit of an outlier in an otherwise joyful album. I was wrong. The more I listened, the more I found that and other atypical Aggies’ songs intriguing, especially as they are sequenced.
Christmas is Not Far Away is a charming respite from the too jolly and too sorrowful holiday music that is readily available. Like the Aggies’ tour, expect this album to become a part of your holiday tradition.
Everyone remembers the charity version of ‘Perfect Day’ with its myriad of voices from the pop and rock world.
Let’s hope everyone will also remember the upcoming answer from the Folk World – ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ – with a plethora of voices from across the acoustic folk and roots spectrum representing the great and the good, young and the old, seasoned and emerging, all on the same single. The group is called The Armistice Pals and is releasing a fitting tribute to Pete Seeger, who sadly passed away this year as well as marking the 100 years anniversary of the breakout of the First World War. All profits will be distributed between four peacekeeping charities.
However, perhaps it’s not a perfect world after all and the late Pete Seeger’s classic anti war song, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’, points a finger at the carnage, supposedly ‘ the war to end all wars’ which tragically mislead us to believe it was worth the sacrifice. The sacrifice, not only of the lives of those who died, but the resultant desolation and struggle of the loved ones who were left behind. Whole swathes of communities were left bereft of their young men-folk who trustingly signed up into ‘Pals Battalions’, many of whom were never to return, with those who did too often spending lives blighted by the experience.
Armistice Pals is the name of the folk community ‘super band’ who are all performing on this single, which is due out on Remembrance Sunday, 9th November 2014. It was the brain child of Damian Liptrot (manager of folk-rock band Merry Hell), who, as the project expanded, has invited Folkstock’s Helen Meissner on board as co-organiser. The project has attracted over 30 names including Chris and Kellie While, Julie Matthews, Judy Dyble, Christine Collister, Dave Swarbrick, Ray Cooper, Sally Barker, Peter Knight, Boo Hewerdine, Gavin Davenport, Blair Dunlop, Lucy Ward, Ken Nicol, Merry Hell, Luke Jackson and Kelly Oliver. A line up so good that, were it to be a festival, it would undoubtedly be the event of the summer.
The single will be released via the usual digital outlets as well as a physical CD and as a nod to the historical element, a limited edition vinyl 45, on new community label, Folkstock Records.
As this is intended to be a community project, we are inviting Folk Clubs across the country to contribute by organising an ‘Armistice Pals Night’ during the week of the release of the single. This can take any form but should include a collective version of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ at some point during the evening, followed by a passing round of the hat to support the Armistice Pals charities.
Gavin Davenport (much vaunted solo singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, award winning, ex-Albion band member).
Gren Bartley (the spine tinglingly beautiful guitarist, banjo playing poet).
Helen Watson (Singer/Songwriter, multi genre artist, producer and erstwhile member of Daphne’s Flight, Carmel and Sons of Arqa, as well as taking a great photo).
Johnny Coppin (broadcasting singer-songwriter, ex-Decameron and now sufficiently multi-faceted to be considered a true diamond).
Judy Dyble (singer/songwriter, ex-Fairport, nearly King Crimson and Facebook dog blogger).
Kellie While (singer-songwriter considered to have one of the outstanding voices of her generation, ex-member of The Albion Band and so much else, her arrival makes The Pals a family affair as her mother and sometime singing partner Chris is also involved).
Kelly Oliver (singer/songwriter, guitarist and harmonicist who has taken Boots Of Spanish Leather to places most of us can only dream of).
Ken Nicol: (globetrotting, guitar endorsing, ex-Albion Band and Steeleye Span virtuoso).
Kevin Brennan MP (an accomplished musician, fan of folk music and passionate supporter of live music).
Lavinia Blackwall (the vocalist who is both a Trembling Bell and a Crying Lion).
Linda Simpson (singer/songwriter, ex-Prog/Folk/Rock legends Magna Carta and supplier of some ideas that are so good that I’d like to present them as my own).
Lucy Ward (singer/song writer and possibly the current heart of British Folk Music as she gets played on virtually every folk show I listen to regardless of the other tastes of the presenters!).
Luke Jackson (bright young purveyer of Fumes and Faith).
Merry Hell (8 piece folk-rocking explosion of melody and joy).
Ninebarrow (award-winning, Dorsetshire folk duo).
Patsy Matheson (singer/songwriter, spent time Waking The Witch, now The Domino Girl).
Peter Knight (singer/fiddle player, Gigspanner, Feast of Fiddles, Steeleye and holder of the world record for continuously playing the violin whilst travelling up and down the lift in the Empire State Building).
Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers (30 Year veteran of punk-folk luminaries, The Men They Couldn’t Hang).
Ray Cooper (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, ex-Oysterband and now a pearl in his own right).
Richard Ryall (singer/songwriter, member of the band Litmuss and he comes from a land Down Under).
Robb Johnson (Irregular singer/songwriter and social conscience).
Said The Maiden (3 rising doyennes with harmonies the envy of angels).
Sally Barker (folk singer and by popular acclaim, the true winner of The Voice).
Sian James (Singer, writer, harpist, composer, conductor and actress from Wales, a big Armistice pals ‘Creoso’ to her).
In addition, there is also The Pals Chorus, made up of friends and members of several folk clubs who will be recorded together to help swell the voices and to represent the fact that this is a true community project.
Chris While and Julie Matthews have been making music together for twenty years now, first with The Albion Band and currently with St Agnes Fountain as well as solo and as a duo. They make classy records and this, their eighth studio album together, is no exception.
The album opens with the up-tempo, vibrant ‘This Beautiful Life’, a song which could open or close a live set with equal impact. Here it sets the tone of a record which is full of optimism even when the subject might suggest otherwise. Better perhaps to say defiance in the face of catastrophe: Christchurch after the earthquake and 9/11; or stoicism when times are less than perfect. The new Radio Ballads song, ‘Nie Wieder’, about German Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann, is the epitome of Julie’s song-writing. There is no triumphalism in her belated honours in her homeland but the statement that ‘nothing cleans the memory’ leaves a deep sense of sadness.
The core band of Howard Lees (some nicely understated lead guitar), Neil Fairclough on bass and drummer Bryan Hargreaves are again in residence with brief guest appearances from Kellie While, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting. With Chris and Julie on acoustic guitars and keyboards the sound is big but never fussy. It can be gentle as on ‘Hope Springs’ or rock like a good ’un as on ‘Broken Crash Barrier’. Infinite Sky is another fine album from Chris and Julie. Dai Jeffries