Paul Johnson speaks to Ken Nicol at The Great British Folk Festival 2018

Ken Nicol
Ken Nicol at The Great British Folk Festival 2018

As the curtain was raised on another year of The Great British Folk Festival – it was for me my first year at this event – a newbie to a festival that has now established itself at a major player on the folk festival circuit. Being my first trip, I wanted to pre-book a couple of interviews with some of the artists that were performing  – and one person I was interested in finding out more about, was the ex Steeleye Span, Albion Band and Magna Carta guitarist and singer Ken Nicol.

The set and performance was excellent… one man… two guitars and a ukulele with a few great heart warming stories thrown in that held and enthralled the audience.

Over the years, Ken Nicol has built up a huge reputation as a singer songwriter – and a fairly useful… in fact totally brilliant guitarist in his own right. Ken tours regularly all over the world and has a growing legion of loyal fans. I was intrigued to find out more about the man and his work – and caught up with him after he opened the festival on ‘Reds Stage’ in Skegness.  We spoke about performing solo, medication, health and spiritual song writing.

This is what he had to say.

Paul Johnson

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Artist’s website: https://kennicol.com/

Here is Ken performing I.H. or his Scottish Tune as he calls it.

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – Paradise And Thorns (Talking Elephant TECD410)

Paradise And ThornsDivided into two discs, Gloucester Docks Revisited and Other Tales Of Love, Paradise And Thorns finds “the single most important figure in English folk rock” (© Bob Dylan) revisiting his seminal autobiographically- based 1987 solo work (already the subject of a live version and revised re-issue) in the wake of reuniting with the old flame (never identified but likely named Patricia) around which it was based and complementing this with a collection of his personal favourite love songs and stories.

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.

Mike Davies

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

Click to order featured CD/ Vinyl/Download/Book/DVD

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.

Artist’s website: www.ashleyhutchings.co.uk

As close as we can get to a relevant track – ‘Dancing Under The Rose – Again’:

The Armistice Pals

armistice pals header non internetEveryone 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.

If you would like to know more about the project, all the artists, the charities and the inspiration can be found at http://www.armisticepals.com or contact us direct via armisticepals@hotmail.co.uk

We hope that you will feel able to enlist and offer your support.

Helen and Damian
for The Armistice Pals

THE ARMISTICE PALS: A FULL LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS

Attila The Stockbroker (poet/musician and sheer force of nature, whose father survived the Somme).

Billy Mitchell (one time Jack the Lad, ex-Lindisfarne and much else besides).

Blair Dunlop (One of our brightest, youngest singer-songwriters, currently telling tales from the ‘House Of Jacks’, he also found time for a stint in The Albion Band..).

Bob Pegg (Storyteller, singer-songwriter and member of the legendary Mr Fox).

Boo Hewerdine (one time Bible basher, all time songwriting phenomenon).

Chris While and Julie Matthews (singers, songwriters, multi-instrumentalists, award winners in their own right and members of more prestige bands and projects than you can shake a stick at).

Christine Collister (one time She Devil, ex-Daphne’s Flight, much sought collaborator and loved by Q magazine).

Dave Mather & Peter Robinson (singer/songwriters (one of them has written an opera you know), ex-Houghton Weavers, stand up comedy and currently presenters of Salford City radio’s first folk show).

Dave Swarbrick (simply a living legend. As it says on the flyers, ‘needs no introduction’).

Edwina Hayes (multi-million You Tubed singer-songwriter with the ‘sweetest voice in England’).

Eric Bazilian: (Hooter, hitmaking songwriter worldwide for self and others, now he’s One Of Us!).

Flossie Malavialle (multinational singer et chanteuse aussi, gig travelling traffic reporter).

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.

BLAIR DUNLOP – House of Jacks (Rooksmere Records, RRCD112P)

Blair_Dunlop_-House_of_Jacks_Son of Ashley Hutchings he may be, but ‘Something’s Gonna Give Way’, the riff driven opening track on his sophomore album, firmly suggests the influences of Seth Lakeman and, more pointedly, especially in the third person narrative murder ballad lyrics about school bullying revenge, Richard Thompson.

In tender musical contrast, the fiddle-soothed ‘Fifty Shades Of Blue’ is a slow waltzing meditation on denial that (soaring vocal intro recalling Chris De Burgh) gives way to a title track anchored to the heart and its sometime inability to articulate the depth of its feelings. Clearly not a songwriter to settle for simplistic clichés and the mundane, ‘Chain By Design’ is a simple acoustic slow march exploration of determinism and free will, the more progressive folk rock sonorous, organ underpinned ‘Different Schools’ addressing the need for and barriers to communication and, inspired by Robert Hasting’s poem and, set to a scurrying fingerpicked rhythm, ‘The Station’ muses on life’s journey to its final destination and appreciating the scenery along the way.

Even football serves as a philosophical springboard as nimble fingerpicked guitar instrumental Viola’s Reverie paves the way for The Ballad of Enzo Laviano, the tale of a young Italian footballer (Dunlop a supporter of Spurs and ACF Fiorentina) from a small Sardinian club about to transfer to Naples, a story of difficult choices and decisions (complete with a Godfather reference) etched to Morricone-moody Thompsonesque slow burn bluesy guitar notes.

Perhaps not quite so intellectually weighty, two numbers share the title 45s, a brace of songs about the same fictional Soho nightclub; the first (c69), a bustling snapshot of the 60s London folk scene that namechecks The Kinks, Dylan and (in a somewhat scornful reference) Jackson C Frank, with the music, the pills and a prince and pauper equality where no one cared “if you were loaded or you’re broke”. The second, (c14), brings it up to date with a memorable melody, catchy chorus, Knopfleresque guitar line and a rather more cynical portrait of a sticky floor, self-serving egos, VIP fast tracking, vacuous songs and a clientele of 16 year olds that ensures “a small guy like me sets themselves for a fall”.

Produced by Mark Hutchinson who also contributes guitar alongside such musicians as Guy Fletcher, Tim Harries and Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell, the album ends with the only non-original, the simple voice and guitar ‘Song Of Two Bridges’, a cover of a track penned by his father and erstwhile Albion Band colleague Ken Nicol, a touching acknowledgement of his roots on an album that firmly points to his future.

Mike Davies

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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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.

KEN NICOL – Tidings (MVS Sound Limited MVS CD002)

I suppose it’s probably a little early/late for this review but anyone who knows me knows I can’t get enough of Ken Nicol’s accomplishments as a guitarist…another thing is my enjoyment of nostalgia particularly at Christmas time. Well here’s a recording that hits the mark on both counts. Coupled with his consummate instrumental skills Ken has managed to encompass practically every favourite Christmas song and carol on one album in an instrumental tour de force. Included on this recording are the traditional offerings “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “We Three Kings”, “Good King Wenceslas” and even a sprinkling of more ‘modern’ numbers “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” not forgetting his own – ‘in the idiom’ title track. If that doesn’t wet your appetite then I don’t know what will. A cracking album that can be played at anytime of the year to impress your friends!

PETE FYFE

Artist Website: www.kennicol.com

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS & KEN NICOL – Copper, Russet And Gold (Park Records PRKCD109)

Ashley Hutchings proves a fine songwriter on the strength of this recording and opening with “I Am Prologue” there’s a sense of pomp in the lyrics that suits the image hinted at on the superbly subtle cover of the CD booklet. Not one to rest on his laurels Ken Nicol, a great all-rounder makes use of his musical skills in the role of multi-instrumentalist (guitars, mandolin, percussion and keyboards) underpinned by Hutchings bass guitar. The ‘music scene’ in general also owes Mr Hutchings a debt of gratitude for the theatrical overtones that run throughout this recording extending to the track “Five-barred Gate” where he utilises the spoken word sparring with Nicol’s not inconsiderable vocal talents. With contributions from Becky Mills on “Wink Of An Eye” and “Raggle Taggle Lad” and Abbie Lathe on “Never The Same Again” this is the kind of CD that you will gain something from on each repeated play. Of course, for those of us that have followed Ashley’s career from the early days of “The Complete Dancing Master” and “Rattlebone & Ploughjack” narrative plays a huge part in the creation of many of his projects and the collaborative efforts of both artists should be commended and one that we should happily bestow the time honoured quote “Quintessentially English”.

PETE FYFE

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

Click to order featured CD/ Vinyl/Download/Book/DVD

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.

Artist Website: www.parkrecords.com