MARTIN SIMPSON – Rooted (Topic TXCD598)

RootedDid you know that Ernest Shackleton considered a banjo essential to mental health on his expedition to the South Pole? Neither did I but it’s one of the fascinating facts I gleaned from Martin Simpson’s sleevenotes for his new album Rooted. Mental health is one of the themes of the record and, being a banjo player himself, I reckon that Martin has a head start on some of us. It’s one of the reasons why the album resonates with me.

As you might expect Martin mixes original compositions, traditional songs and covers. Here, Martin’s new songs lean towards the American traditional style so the opener, ‘Trouble Brought Me Here’ sounds like it could be a hundred or so years old. The second track, ‘Kimbie’, is traditional and includes some of those “vagrant stanzas” that he’s fond of. By this time, you’ll be relaxing into the music and the distinction really won’t matter.

Rooted boasts a fine supporting cast including Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr, John Smith and Ben Nicholls plus five backing vocalists but Andy Bell’s production and engineering ensure that Martin’s voice, guitar and/or banjo ride smoothly on top of the arrangements. I’m not totally convinced by one track and that is ‘Hills Of Shiloh’ which was very popular back in the 80s. It’s not the song but Martin takes it a little too quickly for my taste and the arrangement is rather too involved.

There are some great stories in these songs, though. ‘Ken Small’ tells of a man who laboured to unearth a tank from Start Bay left there after the disastrous Operation Tiger in 1944. ‘Joe Bowers’ came from Hedy West and is a relative of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike’ and ‘Henry Gray’ is about a piano-player who was a member of Howln’ Wolf’s band and also worked with Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. Martin was invited to play with his band – what can you say? Robb Johnson’s ‘More Than Enough’ was a song that Roy Bailey played and Martin sang it with him in hospital just before he died.

The bonus disc is a set of instrumentals two of which are sung in the substantive set. I get the feeling that Martin let his hair down just a little – playing guitar is no joking matter – and invited the band to do the same. There are a number of songs that I haven’t mentioned; all as good as the ones I have and you’ll find that Rooted is a sublime record.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.martinsimpson.com

‘More Than Enough’ – with a story to tell:

Martin Simpson announces new album

Martin Simpson

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.

Artist’s website: http://www.martinsimpson.com

There is nothing from the new album out there yet (apart from a 41 second teaser) so here’s an old film of guitar mastery:

Plus, as an additional treat, here is a second video (this time, from the folking archive) – Louisiana 1927 from Gosport and Fareham Easter Festival in 2010.

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Vision & Revision (Topic TXCD597)

Vision & RevisionIt can’t have escaped your notice that Topic Records is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. We’ve already had selected deluxe reissues of important albums but how can you really celebrate a catalogue as vast as this? Vision & Revision, subtitled The First 80 Years Of Topic Records, is the solution. Twenty artists, mostly from the younger generation, perform a song that was released on a Topic record some time in the last eight decades. I must congratulate Glen Johnson and Michael Mastrangelo who curated the set but I’m intrigued to know how they set about their task. Did they select twenty songs and parcel them out – surely not? So they must have picked twenty performers and turned them loose on the archives. Each one has a story and you’ll get dizzy following the cross-references.

The first disc opens with one of the old stagers, Martin Simpson, who sings ‘Beaulampkin’ which appeared on his first album. Martin didn’t join Topic until his third record but he learned the song from Hedy West’s Ballads. Of course, Sam Kelly learned ‘Shawnee Town’ from Martin and the baton moves on again. Another veteran is Martin Carthy who cites Sam Larner for ‘Napoleon’s Dream’. Martin heard Sam perform when he was just a teenager and Emily Portman gives Waterson:Carthy as the source of ‘The Bay Of Biscay’ – fifty years separate the two inspirations.

Martin is mentioned again by Chris Wood as the source of ‘Fable Of The Wings’, the Keith Christmas song adapted by Brass Monkey. It’s an unexpected choice and Chris takes it back to something like the guitar original. Anne Briggs is mentioned more than once and Kitty Macfarlane goes as far as singing ‘Go Your Way’ while Olivia Chaney borrows ‘Polly Vaughan’ from Hazards Of Love. Nancy Kerr namechecks June Tabor, Oysterband tackle Nic Jones’ ‘Seven Gypsies’ – an excellent reading of the song – and Peggy Seeger goes to Mike Waterson leaving The Oldham Tinkers to sing ‘Dirty Old Town’.

Another unexpected treat is Richard Thompson’s ‘The Light Bob’s Lassie’, a version of ‘Katie Cruel’ and there are two voices I haven’t heard before. The first is Irish singer Lisa O’Neill who sings ‘As I Roved Out’ with a mighty voice that takes absolutely no prisoners. The second is Lankum – please don’t ask me why I haven’t heard them before – whose lengthy take on ‘The Sea Captain’ closes the second disc.

There’s probably a great pub game to be had from matching twenty singers to twenty songs from the Topic catalogue but this is the official version. Sadly I won’t be around to hear what they select for the second eighty years.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

Martin Simpson – ‘Beaulampkin’ :

Topic Records celebrates its first 80 years

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.

With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.

For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.

“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg

This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.

Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

SHERBURN – BARTLEY – SANDERS – be.guile (own label SBS001)

be.guileIf like me, you tend to dig out the old Last Night’s Fun CD’s and wonder what would have happened if Nick Scott had been woven into a Fairy Queen folk tale, whilst being held in the arms of Chris Sherburn and turned three times into a snake, a lion and finally a suitably clothed, rather attractive and talented female fiddle playing singer in black leggings and floral dress, then you are in for a treat!

LNF always gave you a great night out, got you lost in those beautiful meandering tales such as ‘The Tinkerman’s Daughter’ and played raucous sets at the speed of a stream train. You always looked forward to Chris introducing the songs which would usually involve something Nick Scott related. From a scrapheap challenge reference as Nick assembled his pipes before a tune to Chris inviting the ladies in the audience to take Nick out on a date. In fact, the way Sherburn held the audience with his unique blend of impromptu observational banter made them much loved by festival audiences far and wide.

After the band split, Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley did a few festival and gig appearances as a duo and recorded a CD but it always left me wondering if another trio project was ever going to be on the cards again and if so, who it was going to be with.

Well even a pair of rough old diamonds like Chris and Denny sometimes need smoothing out and polishing up a little and what better way of buffing them up than introducing the lovely and talented Emily Sanders on vocals, fiddle and viola to the fold.

It’s really thanks to Terry Oliver that this project ever came together at all. It happened back in 2016 when the new trio played a Thursday afternoon concert at the Whitby Folk Festival and it was Terry’s suggestion that they record a CD.

be.guile is a fine record, it keeps that tried and tested Sherburn – Bartley formula of vocal, guitar and Wheatsone concertina and marries it together with Emily’s lead/ vocal harmonies and fiddle. The album also has some great guests, Andy Seward, Martin Simpson and Chris Miley together with Phil Beer in control of mastering.

The track selection and placing also works really well and is listed as follows:

  1. William Taylor (feat. Andy Seward on Double Bass).
  2. Next Market Day.
  3. Sammy’s Bar.
  4. Seven Curses (Feat. Martin Simpson on Slide Guitar).
  5. Adieu Lovely Nancy.
  6. New Railroad (Feat. Martin Simpson on Slide Guitar and Andy Seward on Double Bass).
  7. The Tinkerman’s Daughter/ The Holly Bush (Andy Seward on Double Bass).
  8. Bright Blue Rose.
  9. Bantry Girtls Lament/ Bulgarian Red/The Fisherman’s Lilt (feat. Chris Miley on Snare Drum).

Like the definition, the album sets out to charm and enchant, it may deceive you in to thinking about Last Night’s Fun but its actually a new day, spent in pleasant company.

Darren Beech

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Here is a performance from 2017 of Emily singing ‘Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’ from the Downend Folk Club

MARTIN SIMPSON – Trails & Tribulations (Topic TSCD593)

Trails & TribulationsMartin Simpson never disappoints, whether live or on record, but rarely does he surprise. Rather he evolves over time and emerges with something new and different as he has here. Trails & Tribulations is his 20th solo album in a career going back to the early seventies. You sort of know what to expect – Martin is equally drawn to the English and American traditions; he will have borrowed a song or two and written a couple more; there will be a variety of guitars plus banjo and ukulele and it will probably all come together with a fine group of musicians supporting him. And, of course, you’ll be absolutely right.

What’s new is a richness to the music which I suspect comes from working with The Full English and Simpson Cutting Kerr. Both Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr feature here as does percussionist Toby Kearney, guitarist John Smith, Ben Nicholls on bass and Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals. Toby is generally restrained but the percussion is more noticeable than I remember. Take the first track, Jackson C Frank’s ‘Blues Run The Game’. It’s a short song but Martin takes his time over it, warming up his fingers as he does on stage as the introduction emerges. Bass and percussion provide an unobtrusive foundation and Martin tops everything off with Weissenborn decoration. Next is Emily Portman’s ‘Bones And Feathers’, which he has been singing for a year or so now, and which features banjo – not one of Emily’s chosen instruments. Martin owns it now.

From the Americas we have ‘Thomas Drew’, which would appear to be a distant cousin of ‘John Hardy’, ‘East Kentucky’ and ‘St. James Hospital’ but the first two are written by Martin and perfectly match the period feel – he had me fooled. From the English tradition come ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ and ‘Reynardine’. That leaves four others. Charles Causley’s ‘A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon’ – music by Alex Atterson – has also been in Martin’s live repertoire for a while and it sounds like a song he would have written if someone hadn’t already done so. ‘Maps’, ‘Jasper’s/Dancing Shoes’ and Ridgeway are three more of Martin’s songs, continuing the semi-autobiographical style that began with ‘Never Any Good’.

Trails & Tribulations will be available in multiple formats including a deluxe double CD with six extra tracks including my all-time Simpson favourite, ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’. I’m holding out for that!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.martinsimpson.com/

‘Blues Run The Game’ – live:

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