BELINDA O’HOOLEY – Inversions (No Masters NMCD53)

InversionsIf you’ve followed Belinda O’Hooley’s career you’ll be aware of what a fine musician she is and you will have noticed how her talents have grown and developed in the decade that she and Heidi Tidow have worked together. It’s a big step from lugging an electronic keyboard up folk club stairs to playing the Steinway in the Purcell Room, although Belinda and Heidi are sufficiently down to earth to still do the lugging when necessary. Incidentally, Heidi produced and recorded Inversions and provided backing vocals and the voice of the two spoken word pieces so she wasn’t far away.

It’s been quite a year for the duo with ‘Gentleman Jack’ playing in the nation’s living-rooms every Sunday evening and “Little Crumb” expected in October. It’s not surprising that Belinda has embarked on a solo project nor that it was recorded on her favourite piano in the Machynlleth Tabernacle but I have to say that some parts of the album are not what I was anticipating. The development of Inversions began with ‘The Bonny Boy’, which Belinda played at her father’s funeral in 2017. You couldn’t sing the song to Belinda’s development of the tune any more than you could sing ‘Skibbereen’ over Michael McGoldrick’s Uillean pipes but you could manage a verse or two of ‘The Hills Of Greenmore’

Inversions begins and ends with two accompanied poems. The closing piece, ‘My Father’s Reel’, is sometimes a biography of Belinda’s father, sometimes her autobiography and this is her voice we hear. It might be a good idea to play this track first before starting at the beginning – for me it provides a context for what has gone before. Three of the original compositions concern the couple’s love of hill walking – not in their native Yorkshire this time, but Snowdonia. ‘Felingerrig’ is one of Belinda’s more majestic compositions full of big chords, Heidi wrote ‘Aran Fawddwy’ for her favourite mountain and Belinda composed ‘Cadair Idris’, a piece that could have come straight out of Wagnerian opera but also gives us the sound of good Welsh rain.

Inversions is a fascinating album, full of unexpected twists and turns and one which will keep you engrossed for hours.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.ohooleyandtidow.com

The Inversions documentary:

KATE RUSBY – Philosophers, Poets & Kings (Pure PRCD53)

PhilosophersIncredibly, Philosophers, Poets & Kings is Rusby’s 17th studio album in just over 20 years. Once again, a collection of the traditional and self-penned with a couple of covers for good measure, it pays homage to her Yorkshire roots, both musical and personal, as well as furthering her exploits into electronic realms with Moog, synths and programming.

It opens though without any techno frills on her setting of a traditional song, ‘Jenny’, which, although I’ve been unable to track down its provenance, I would assume to originate from Yorkshire and tells the playful tale of Yorkshire Jen, the long shout outsider who proves to have the stamina to stay the course when the others can barely trot. As befits the subject, it builds into a sprightly drum thumping number that features cornet and flugelhorn, Michael McGoldrick on flute, double bass, diatonic accordion and Ron Block on banjo as well as Damien O’Kane on guitars and vocals. Not only that, it’s reprised in a remix version as the penultimate track that strips out flute, bass and accordion and replaces them with Anthony Davis’s programming for which you might want to break out the folk glow-sticks.

Horses also get a mention in the languidly paced ‘Bogey’s Bonnie Belle’, a much recorded bothy ballad about impregnation out of wedlock and the class system divide popularised by Scottish Travellers, here featuring O’Kane on tenor guitar, Ross Ainslie on whistles and moody Moog provided by Duncan Lyall. Apparently, when she was young Rusby’s family had a Staffy named after the song, which leads nicely into the swayalong title track. Another traditional song set to a new tune, celebrating the inspirational power of the vine in promoting poetry and song that namechecks Diogenes, Plato and Democritus it also harks to wine-fuelled family singsongs and, who knows, may well have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’.

The first original number comes with ‘Until Morning’, a twinkling I’m by your side lullaby of sorts essentially about how it’s always darkest before the dawn, followed by the two covers, first up being a rousing reading of Thompson and Swarbrick’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’ from Liege and Lief, although fiddle is conspicuous by its absence, substituted by whistles, Moog and programming. The second is a rather more left field choice, being an emotionally plaintive take on Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ featuring just Rusby and O’Kane’s tenor guitar, Rusby having first performed it on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show.

Co-penned with dad Steve and featuring wheezing accordion and whistles, the whimsical lurching ‘The Squire and the Parson’ is apparently based on a local folk tale involving much strong wine, a night-time coach journey and the two characters mistaking each other for a highwayman and knocking one another about.

A bittersweet mood shrouds ‘The Wanderer’, a poignant self-penned story about a man from her village suffering from Alzheimer’s who spends his time walking in search of his lost soul mate. Staying local with a dedication to the Barr Family who host Rusby’s Underneath The Stars Festival, ‘The Farmer’s Toast’ is another airy, waltzing accordion-based arrangement of a song originally published as a broadside in the early 19th century celebrating the idyllic pleasures of farming life a century earlier.

That soul-swelling sense of joy spreads over the Rusby original ‘As The Lights Go Out’, on which, joined by Chas MacKenzie on electric guitar and Sam Kelly on vocals, another anthem to hope in the face of loss, grief and doubt as she sings about facing the dawn with a smile and how “Tonight the stars are yours and mine.”

It closes though on a much darker note the self-penned ‘Halt The Wagons’ conceived as a lullaby to the 26 children, 15 boys and 11 girls aged 7-17 from Silkstone, who, in 1838, were drowned in the Barnsley Huskar Pit disaster when the coal mine shaft in which they were working was flooded in a freak storm, their bodies found with their arms around each other for comfort. Written to commemorate the 180th anniversary, it features evocative Yorkshire brass and euphonium but, more movingly, 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir of the same ages and gender, recorded underground at the National Coal Mining Museum of England. It’s impossible to listen to without welling up.

The booklet features quotes from three Greek philosophers, among them Aristotle who said “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” Kate Rusby bears the torch.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

‘Jenny’ – live:

DIANE NÍ CHANAINN – Idir Muir Agus Sliabh (Cló Iar-Chonnacht CICD 207)

Idir Muir Agus SliabhAs the cover makes clear Idir Muir Agus Sliabh is a collection of Irish traditional songs – there is a Scottish interloper but we’ll let that pass. Three songs are in English, the rest in Irish and Diane Ní Chanainn has eschewed the Celtic ambient style for something more earthy and real. Reknowned as a Sean-nós singer, she is here supported by a cast of musicians that money alone couldn’t buy. At the core is Manus Lunny, who also produced the album, Liam Bradley and James Blennerhasset. Then we have contributions from Donald Shaw, Neil Martin, Charlie McKerron and pipes, whistles and flute from Martin Crossin and Michael McGoldrick.

There’s everything from a lively drinking song, ‘Nil sé ‘na Lá’ to the lovely romantic ‘An Draighneán Donn’ and the regretful ‘Geaftaí Bhaíle Buí’ but even here the band combine to give what could be a wistful song an unexpected drive. Two of the songs in English are ‘Lough Erne’s Shore’ and ‘The Mountains Of Pomeroy’, both of which I heard for the first time last year. The latter is a variation on the Reynardine story, rather more complex than the common versions and also a marching band tune. The third is the immigrant ‘Broom O’ The Cowdenknowes’ which I’m always happy to listen to.

Idir Muir Agus Sliabh is a splendid, multi-faceted collection of songs which Diane, Manus and the supporting musicians have crafted into an album which is at once traditional and also geared to contemporary tastes. Don’t worry about the language problem; there isn’t one. The meaning and emotion of the words are delivered by the performance and the arrangements are superb, particularly Martin and Michael’s decorations.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: https://www.cic.ie/

Diane Ní Chanainn live:

EDDI READER – Cavalier (Reveal 077CDX)

CavalierForty years into her career, Reader’s 11th solo studio album, Cavalier, continues the recent trend of mixing original and traditional material with, naturally, something from Robert Burns.

Recorded in Glasgow and co-produced with husband John Douglas, and featuring a plethora of musicians, Boo Hewardine, John McCusker, Siobhan Miller, Phil Cunningham and Michael McGoldrick among then, it opens on a traditional note with the gently waltzing Irish tune ‘Maiden’s Lament (An Charraig Donn)’, with whistles, Martin Kershaw’s clarinet and Miller and Annie Grace on backing. The first of the original numbers comes with the poppy Douglas co-penned ‘Wonderful’, a song about learning to let go of trying to control your children’s lives as they transition to adults, the collaboration (along with Simon Dine) also providing the hushed slow waltzer ‘My Favourite Dress’, a nostalgic song reminding how short life is, written for his aunt Mary, in care and suffering from dementia.

It’s Douglas who provides the equally poppy, R&B brass-embellished uptempo title track about sharing the load, his other credits including the slower sway of ‘Fishing’, a number about learning that troubles always pass, even rainy evening, and the following ‘Maid O’The Loch’, a number written as a fundraiser to refurbish the titular boat that takes tourists around Loch Lomond. He also shares a co-write with Phil Cunningham on the gradually swelling ‘A Sailor’s Farewell To The Sea’, the latter putting words to the latter’s Christmassy instrumental and featuring both brass ensemble and accordion.

Hewardine provides two numbers, the first being the 50s-like jazzy shimmering, brushed drums, clarinet and brass-kissed ‘Starlight’ (to which Reader added a final verse), given a Mills Brothers-styled arrangement. The other, ‘Old Song’, takes on a very Scottish waltzing feel courtesy of Alan Kelly’s accordion, a romantic hymn to how music can touch memories and lift hearts.

Turning to Reader’s solo material, coloured by whistles and accordion, ‘There’s A Whole In The Desert Dear Darling’ is a swaylong waltzing lullaby of sorts written in memory of Milou Bedssa, a close friend from her teens who had recently passed away. The other is the album’s penultimate track, the lovely, ukulele-accompanied, percussion rippling ‘Go Wisely’, another song for the kids, both a benediction as they embark on their own lives and a reminder that phone calls don’t cost a lot.

Which just leaves the other traditional numbers. Given a rolling and tumbling Celtic rhythm, ‘Meg O’The Glen’ takes its lyrics from two 18th century poems by Paisley’s Robert Tannahill telling the tale of a lass of low fortune being forced to marry a rich old man she didn’t want, song seguing into an instrumental coda of Jerry Holland’s ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel’.

Found among songbooks during a late relative’s house clearance, picked out on the harmonium inherited at the same time, ‘Deirdre’s Farewell To Scotland’ is based on the Celtic myth ‘Deirdra Of The Sorrows’, about a pregnant Irish girl forced to seek sanctuary and the fate of her daughter, the story resonating with the contemporary refugee crisis.

Learned from a version by American jazz singer Kurt Elling, ‘The Loch Tay Boat Song’ is familiar number of love and leaving in the Scottish tradition, here given a laid back late night jazz arrangement for Steve Hamilton’s piano and dedicated to Davy Steele. It’s followed in lively fiddle-laced and wheezing accordion style by ‘Pangur Bán And The Primrose Lass’, a cocktail of an Irish poem about a cat hunting mike (the title translates as White Cat) that rolls into the instrumental interlude, a tune that apparently appeared on an early 70s Steeleye Span album as ‘The Primrose Lassie’, originally collected by Douglas’s great uncle, Irish song archivist Colm Keane. It features Monica Queen on harmonies, prompting thoughts that’s she’s long overdue an album of her own.

And so, Douglas on piano and McCusker on fiddle and whistle, it ends with another nod to her favourite Scottish songwriter, a four verse version of Burns’ classic ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. She says she chose the album title to reflect how she’s feeling. The thesaurus defines it as offhand, high-handed or careless, but also, as a Caballero or a Quixotic figure. Long may she tilt at windmills.

Mike Davies

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

‘Wonderful’ – official video:

DAMIEN O’KANE & RON BLOCK – Banjophony (Pure Records PRCD48)

BanjophonyIf you’re not a fan of the five-string egg-slicer you might be thinking of moving on but hold hard there, stranger. This is no ‘Duelling Banjos’, last one to the end gets the beers in mayhem-fest. The object of the exercise was to pair the 5-string banjo of the American tradition with the Irish style of tenor banjo playing but Banjophony does more than that. Most of the music here is contemporary, mostly written by O’Kane and Block with two each by Michael Mooney and David  Kosky and a traditional tune that crept in when no-one was watching.

Have a look at the cast list and you’ll realise that this is something rather special. There’s Stephen Byrnes on guitar, Duncan Lyall and Barry Bales on double bass, Michael McGoldrick on whistle and Stuart Duncan on fiddle just for starters. Indeed, we’re half a minute into the first set, ‘Miller’s Gin/Potato Anxiety’ before we actually hear a banjo courtesy of a lovely guitar intro from Byrnes.

Some tunes sound traditional – Block’s ‘Battersea Skillet Liquor’ is classic southern banjo picking topped of with fiddle – but more sound like new music written with the banjo in mind. O’Kane’s ‘Ode To Aunty Frances’ is a beautiful piece that could be arranged for any instrument(s) you fancy and still sound good. ‘Crafty Colette’ is another tune that approaches the banjo lead slowly and that lead, when it arrives, can best be described as “thoughtful”.

The band are very tight and Byrnes has contributed to the arrangements as has Kosky and all the music was recorded live apart from two double bass parts which came from Tennessee. You can almost feel the rapport between the musicians particularly when a tune doesn’t quite behave as expected. The title track is like that and is well-named.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ websites: www.damianokane.co.uk / www.ronblock.com

This short teaser video is all we can find:

McGOLDRICK, McCUSKER & DOYLE– City Roots Festival, The Junction, Cambridge (27 February 2018)

McGoldrick, McCusker & Doyle
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Even on this icy night, the venue is full, the crowd enthusiastic – a significant portion seemingly also having attended the recent Transatlantic Sessions. It’s the second visit to Cambridge in very short order for this trio of musicians and they are most warmly welcomed back. (As a side note, it looks like a simple accident of timing prevented Transatlantic Sessions from inclusion in this year’s City Roots festival).

Arriving slightly late (delayed by a missing bike lock key), the band is already underway, so it’s John Doyle’s Child song ‘What Put The Blood’ that makes the first impression. John McCusker follows with a trio of songs from his Hello Goodbye album incorporating a tender tune for his daughter, called ‘It’s A Girl’ with a strathspey link into ‘Billy’s’, a reel for Billy Connolly.

Doyle then takes up an elegant, restrained electric guitar for ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’, about the mass death of thousands fleeing the famine en route to Canada. Doyle’s plainly touched by a recent meeting with an elderly woman in Scotland who’d somehow survived this horrific ordeal.

Mike McGoldrick’s seemingly bottomless lungs and dancing fingers are in fine form as he takes the reins on ‘Leaving South Uist / Lochaber Badger’, two tunes learned and loved from earlier Transatlantic Sessions. To round off the first session, the crowd joins in with the deceptively jolly sea shanty ‘Billy O’Shea’, a cautionary tale of pressganging and death. Doyle momentarily loses his thread and, casting heavenwards for inspiration, he fills on guitar, greeted by an encouraging roar of support from the audience as he finds his place once more. It’s reassuring to know that even the most gifted among us is only human, after all!

A quintet of tunes including ‘Keane O’Hara’, ‘Rip The Calico’ and ‘Coming Of Age’ opens the second session, all taken from the new album, The Wishing Tree, and followed up by ‘Across The Western Ocean’ a downbeat sea shanty learned from Doyle’s father. The band happily jumbles over the various tune titles, finally settling on a relaxed, “they’re all on the CD” – which pretty much sums up their easy-going unforced rapport, the kind that only years of friendship can bring.

When they play, it’s a different matter altogether. There is a precision and clarity that unites them. Totally focused, totally in sync, every note is played cleanly: no smudging, blurring or elision. From bow strokes, to finger placing to chords, the line of the music is always sharply defined and crisp, no matter how fast the tempo gets.

They’re superb quick-change artistes too, swapping out instruments mid-tuneset in the blink of an eye, not missing a beat. Starting on whistles, McGoldrick switches to flute and McCusker to fiddle, whilst Doyle changes guitar. As the tune gathers pace, the sheer physical effort is etched on their faces and in their body movements, with Doyle arched over his instrument, practically driving it into the floor. Afterwards, McCusker only says drily, “Well, that went slightly faster than we’d hoped”.

Doyle presents his murder ballad ‘Burke And Hare’, with its chorus based on a children’s rhyme, and ‘The Apprentice Boy’ (aka ‘Charming Anne’) which he introduces as “an optimistic song – my only one”. McCusker’s tender ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ provides a tender, wistful interlude.

The audience remains utterly engaged and absorbed, rocking out with the faster numbers, quietly attentive on the slower ones. At the end of the show, there’s uproarious applause and foot-stomping until the band returns with an encore of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’.

Never having seen this trio play before (I know), their superb musicianship delivered so much more than expected and, mostly, with apparently effortless ease. What an absolute pleasure to share in their warmth, intimacy and richly talented company for the past couple of hours.

Su O’Brien

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Believe it or not, these guys don’t have a dedicated web-site.

Live at Warwick Folk Festival: