BELLA HARDY – Postcards & Pocketbooks (Noe NOE12CD)

Postcards & PocketbooksI still tend to think of Bella Hardy as one of the bright young things of folk music but she has already done more than enough to justify Postcards & Pocketbooks, a double-CD retrospective, all the tracks remastered by Ian Carter. Bella is an old-style fiddle-singer, a 21st century songwriter and just about everything between. She can bring power to traditional songs and weave old themes into new songs and you can never be sure where her muse will lead her next.

The first disc opens with ‘Learning To Let Go’ from her poppy album, Hey Sammy, built on the pounding drums of John Blease. It sounds like the song of someone still seeking a way forward and if it’s autobiographical then that might explain Bella’s frequent changes of approach. That’s followed by the almost traditional ‘Whisky You’re The Devil’ and her award-winning ‘The Herring Girl’. This could be a traditional song or, at least, a traditional story but there is not hiding its provenance. You might expect ‘Sylvie Sovay’ to be traditional but here again Bella just takes the names and the germ of the theme and works them into something very new.

‘Maying Song’ and ‘The Seventh Girl’ are largely old songs and the first half ends with the first of two unreleased tracks, the gorgeously pure ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’.

The second disc opens with a new version of ‘Three Black Feathers’, the song that first made her name. Here it’s pared back to a simple guitar accompaniment by Sam Carter and the experience of nine years is obvious in Bella’s voice. Sam is there again on a new version of ‘Time Wanders On’ and the second previously unreleased song, ‘Tequila Moon’. Other standout tracks in the half are ‘True Hearted Girl’ – a robust version of ‘When I Was On Horseback’ – ‘Walk It With You’ with vocals by Kris Drever and the marvellous ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’.

The set ends almost where it began with ‘Redemption’ from Hey Sammy followed by the closing ‘Tequila Moon’ based on a chunky guitar part. I’ve heard most of Bella’s albums but Postcards & Pocketbooks succeeds in giving a different overview of her career – a mix-tape that entertains and makes you think a little more deeply about what you’re hearing.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: https://www.bellahardy.com/

‘The Herring Girl’ – live:

THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: https://www.thelostwords.org/

[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video:

LAU – Midnight And Closedown (Reveal REVEAL078CD)

Midnight And ClosedownFollowing their tenth anniversary retrospective Kris Drever, Aidan O’Rourke and Martin Green return with an album of new music and Midnight And Closedown is certainly new.

It opens with a stunning song, ‘I Don’t Want To Die Here’. Drever says that the album is about islands and the listener is left imagining some God-forsaken lump of rock out in the ocean or wondering whether “here” refers to a state of mind or circumstances. Paul Simon wrote ‘I Am A Rock’ about just such a man and that theme is at the forefront of Midnight And Closedown. A long fiddle intro resolves into another song, ‘She Put On Her Headphones’ – the modern method of isolation – and that is followed by ‘Toy Tigers’ which I’m still deciphering. That’s three songs in succession: what’s going on?

‘Echolalia’ is the nearest we get to a “traditional” Lau instrumental track but even here Drever adds some la-la-la vocals and the beginning and the end. ‘Itshardtoseemokwhenyourenot’ seems to link an old and a new Lau. Martin Green’s electronic percussion pounds and Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddle pulses and dances as the track briefly breaks into something resembling rock’n’roll in the middle. It really is a terrific song and is only bettered by ‘Dark Secret’. The slightly sinister lyrics seem to be about therapy, at least in part, and drinking and I can’t believe that it is in any way autobiographical. Drever sings of being “born on the Isle Of Horses” which could refer to Shetland but I don’t want to follow that trail any further.

‘Return To Portland’ is the album’s second big instrumental piece with Green and O’Rourke trading lead lines and Green doing very much what Brian Eno did back in the day. There is noticeably less accordion here than we’re used to. Finally we have the acoustic ‘Riad’, written by O’Rourke although all three share writing credits, harking back to the band’s early days.

Midnight And Closedown is as brilliant as it is unexpected. Decade was full of the power and sheer volume that characterised Lau’s earlier work but this seems like a whole new direction.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: https://www.lau-music.co.uk/

‘Echolalia’ – live:

SIOBHAN MILLER – Mercury (Songprint Recordings SPR002CD)

MercuryTo be brutally honest, if this were Siobhan Miller’s first album and I was listening cold I probably wouldn’t have got past the first three tracks. I loved Strata – it was the perfect blend of new and old, of traditional songs and covers – but Mercury is pop music, well made and sophisticated, true, but pop music nevertheless. All the songs are originals, some written with Euan Burton, Louis Abbott and Kris Drever, performed with a fashionably modern band, embellished with violins and brass.

I’ll temper my criticism a little. The third track, ‘Strandline’ attracted my attention and the fourth, ‘The Western Edge’ is excellent. I hoped, at that point, that Siobhan had turned her back on foolish notions but, sadly, I was disappointed. A major problem is the absence of lyrics: they are not printed on the cover and, although we’re promised them on Siobhan’s website they are nowhere to be found. With everything that is going on around her musically, they are essential. Even the star guests like Eddi Reader and Kris Drever are lost in the wall of sound that Burton, Abbott and Iain Hutchinson generate.

The title track, which opens the album, actually sounds rather interesting on subsequent listenings – I can make out something about picket lines and throwing stones but it’s lost. The second track, ‘Sorrow When The Day Is Done’, is a nicely upbeat song but the combination of Abbott’s drums and John Lowrie’s piano overwhelms it. It’s rather like an episode of Masterchef – I can appreciate the skill and see the ideas going into the dish but there are far too many of them and the finished article is unpalatable.

I am so disappointed with Mercury. Come back to us, Siobhan, please.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.siobhanmiller.com

‘Mercury’ – lyric video:

CARA DILLON – Wanderer (Charcoal CHARCD009)

WandererFollowing last year’s release of her first Christmas album, Upon A Winter’s Night, Dillon returns to secular form with a predominantly traditional collection, again produced by and featuring husband Sam Lakeman.

Pivoting around an underlying theme of transition and departure, whether that be through emigration or the search for love, it keeps the instrumentation spare and intimate, predominantly built around Lakeman’s piano and/or acoustic guitar, but also with occasional contributions from Ben Nicholls on double bass, Niall Murphy on fiddle and both John Smith and Justin Adams on acoustic and electric guitar, respectively.

There are two original numbers, the first up being the piano-accompanied ‘The Leaving Song’, inspired by “living wakes” held for those about to emigrate in pre-war Co.Derry with its lyric about a mother bidding farewell to a son seeking his fortunes in some other land, with a reminder that he can always find his way home. The other, the penultimate track, the simply styled metaphorical ‘Lakeside Swans’ touches a similar note, here concerning migrants and refugees and the decision to leave their homes.

There’s also a cover, the album’s final track being their dreamily lovely piano-led arrangement of ‘Dubhdara’, the slow-swaying sailing out Celtic anthem written by Shaun Davey for his 1985 album Granuaile.

The remaining seven numbers are all traditional, some familiar, others less so, case in point being the opening Ulster thoughts of home folk song ‘The Tern And The Swallow’ with its references to Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Northern Ireland, and Slieve Gallion, the mountain in Co. Londonderry. Also with their roots in Derry and nostalgia for home, ‘The Banks Of The Foyle’ concerns a girl forced to leave her true love by cruel misfortune but then learning he’s remained constant in her absence, while, featuring just Dillon and Lakeman’s guitar, ‘The Faughan Side’ conjures memories of an emigrant to America of happy days spent by the bridge of Drumahoe over the titular river.

A fine, yearningly crestfallen reading of the much recorded ‘Blackwater Side’ leads the charge for the better known songs, with its tale of a young lad lying his way into a maiden’s bed with false promises. This is complemented by ‘Both Sides Of The Tweed’, a traditional number given a makeover by Dick Gaughan, here presented in simple style with Dillon’s pure vocals and Lakeman’s piano. She’s joined by Kris Drever who duets and plays guitar for ‘Sailor Boy’, the album’s obligatory death song (you know the plot, maiden dies from grief when her sailor lover drowns) with Murphy on wheezing fiddle. Which just leaves a haunted interpretation of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, which, combining emigration and thwarted love and arranged for piano and fiddle, is fittingly set to the tune of ‘Lord Of All Hopefulness’.

Her most reflective and most musically introspective album to date, the spare arrangements putting the spotlight on her warm, crystal clear vocals, it is arguably also the best of her career.

Mike Davies

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

Promo video:

BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017 Winners Announced

The winners of the Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017 have been announced in a ceremony broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall, London.

Now in their 18th year, the Awards are a key highlight of the folk music calendar and serve to raise the profile of folk music. Talent, new and old, received accolades including Folk Singer of the Year, Best Duo, Best Album, Musician of the Year, Young Folk Award and more. Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented to Ry Cooder and Al Stewart.

American roots-rock musician and songwriter, Ry Cooder, took to the stage for a rare UK performance, singing Jesus On The Mainline. A career-long champion of folk music, he is renowned for his inspired slide guitar playing, and through his own work and collaborations with others, from The Rolling Stones to The Chieftains and Buena Vista Social Club.

British singer-songwriter Al Stewart also took to the stage for a performance of his 1977 song, On The Border. Al started his career on the 1960s London folk scene, and has worked alongside Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page, John Renbourn, Rick Wakeman, Tori Amos, Roy Harper and many more. Appearing at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970, he became known for his brand of folk-rock, which he combined with tales of characters and events from history. He’s best known for his 1970s hits Year of the Cat and Time Passages.

Tony Blackburn presented Al Stewart with his award and regaled the audience with his own personal story of Al. He explained that in the early 1960s, he had in fact been the lead guitarist in Tony’s own group, ‘Tony Blackburn and the Swinging Bells’.

Tony said: “We used to practice at my parents’ house and, as good as he was, he always played his electric guitar far too loud as it always drowned out my vocals… The fact I’m here tonight will do Al’s credibility a lot of damage but I don’t care as I’ve enjoyed playing ‘Year of the Cat’ very much over the years and I haven’t seen him in a long time. It really is an honour to present this Lifetime Achievement Award to such a talented musician.”

The evening opened with a rousing performance by Afro Celt Sound System. And across the night there were spectacular performances from Shirley Collins MBE (performing Washed Ashore), Daoirí Farrell (Van Diemen’s Land), Jim Moray (Fair Margaret And Sweet William), Billy Bragg (I Ain’t Got No Home), and Fara (Three Fishers).

There was a powerful and moving performance taken from the Ballads of Child Migration, which tells the story of the enforced migration of over 100,000 children to Australia and Canada between 1863 and 1970. The specially-curated performance was narrated by Barbara Dickson with original songs performed by Kris Drever, Jez Lowe, While & Matthews, Boo Hewerdine, O’Hooley & Tidow, John McCusker, Andy Cutting and Michael McGoldrick.

Folk icon Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame, to celebrate his lasting influence. Billy Bragg performed a special tribute with a rendition of Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home. The celebration marked 50 years since Guthrie’s death in 1967, aged 55. The musician wrote some of the most enduring standards in the genre with his life and work dedicated to supporting and documenting the rights of workers and the downtrodden. His songs have been covered by countless singers from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga and he was a mentor to a young Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Lewis Carnie, Head of Radio 2 said: “Huge congratulations to all the winners of the Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017 – the calibre of all the nominees was outstanding. This annual event is a wonderful celebration of the vibrant folk music scene and tonight’s show was spectacular, featuring some of folk’s most long standing, biggest and newest stars which Radio 2 is committed to supporting throughout the year.”

The Folk Awards will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 9 April at 10pm as an hour-long highlights programme which will include all the performances.

Alternatively, click on any of the links below to see the individual performances:










The full list of winners:

FOLK SINGER OF THE YEAR presented by Sharleen Spiteri
Kris Drever

BEST DUO presented by Peter Lord of Aardman Animations
Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton

BEST GROUP presented by Sir Ray Davies
The Furrow Collective

BEST ALBUM presented by Mark Kermode
Songs of Separation – Songs of Separation

HORIZON AWARD presented by Rachel and Becky Unthank (of The Unthanks)
Daoirí Farrell

MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR presented by Gus Unger-Hamilton from Alt-J
Rachel Newton

BEST ORIGINAL TRACK presented by Susie Dent
If Wishes Were Horses by Kris Drever

BEST TRADITIONAL TRACK presented by Pauline Black of The Selecter
Van Diemen’s Land by Daoirí Farrell

BBC RADIO 2 YOUNG FOLK AWARD presented by Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention
Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD presented by Tony Blackburn
Al Stewart

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD presented by Nick Lowe
Ry Cooder

HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE
Woody Guthrie

Building up to the Awards, Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime programme was broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall. In the show, Simon counted down the Top 10 Most Played Folk Songs on Radio 2. Compiled by PPL, the Number 1 track was Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ Wild World – released in 1970, which featured on his fourth album, Tea for the Tillerman. It wasn’t released as a single in the UK, but reached No 11 on the US Billboard chart. Jimmy Cliff released his recording of Wild World in 1970 – produced by Cat Stevens – reaching No 8 in the UK; with Maxi Priest hitting No 5 with his version in 1988. Cat was presented with the Lifetime Achievement honours at the Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2015. Number 2 of the Top 10 Most Played Folk Songs on Radio 2 was Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Hymnal; at No 3 was Bellowhead’s Roll the Woodpile Down; at No 4 was Meet Me On The Corner by Lindisfarne; No 5 was Underneath The Stars by Kate Rusby; at No 6 was River Man by Nick Drake; No 7 was Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys; No 8 was Thea Gilmore & Sandy Denny’s London; at No 9 was Streets of London by Ralph McTell and at No 10 was Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford and Sons.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens said: “I’m surprised that we actually pipped to the post all these great folk singers and that it’s still being played. That makes me feel very satisfied and it shows that the song and the meaning is still relevant. Of course it is relevant because wild world is exactly what it is and exactly what we’re living in right now and it’s getting wilder perhaps.”