JON WILKS – live in Birmingham

Jon Wilks

Kitchen Garden Café, Birmingham. June 9, 2019

Now based near Winchester, but making a welcome return to his hometown of Birmingham, opening with his reading of the Incredible String Band’s ‘October Song’, Jon Wilks made an all too rare live outing in support of his album, Midlife. It’s a collection of traditional folk songs from in and around Birmingham, most of them pretty obscure, but it’s testimony to his passion for the English folk tradition that he’s not only tracked them down to record and perform, but he’s learnt about their origins and the singers from whom they were collected.

That passion informs his live shows, the songs liberally sprinkled with anecdotes (‘babysitting’ Martin Carthy being a particular gem), humour and history, his singing and personality hugely engaging. Here were tales of, among others, a somewhat corporeal randy spectre (‘Colin’s Ghost’), of night visiting in your work shoes (‘Navvy Boots’), a 19th century Dudley protest about animal cruelty (‘The Trial Of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act’), star crossed lovers (‘Birmingham Sally’), wife selling (‘John Hobbs’), forced marriage (‘There Was An Old Man Who Came Over The Sea’) and the particularly pertinent ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’, about a chap returning home to find the city changed beyond all recognition. Not only Birmingham, and the Black Country, his set took a tour around the Midlands, from Newbold to Staffordshire, even cajoling the audience into joining in with the slavery-themed shanty ‘Shallow Brown’, originally collected in Dartmouth. You also got to learn what trepanning actually means (ensnaring rather than brain surgery) and that there are some twenty-three references to it in the Cecil Sharp archives!

Encoring with ‘Holly Ho’, collected in the 50s from long gone Halesowen pub The Cross Guns, new verses apparently added every week by the customers and quite possibly the only song to ever mention Phil Drabble, the original presenter of BBC’s One Man and His Dog, Jon Wilks is the sort of performer folk circles mean when they talk of the living tradition.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: https://jonwilks.online/

‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ – live:

Read Mike Davies’ review of Midlife here

MASSY FERGUSON – Great Divides (North & Left NL001)

Great DividesA meat and gravy roots rock bar band powered by driving guitars, fronted by bassist Ethan Anderson and guitarist Adam Monda with Dave Goedde on drums, Massy Ferguson occupy much the same blue-collar Americana territory as Drive By Truckers, The Hold Steady and The Jayhawks. Since their last album, 2016’s Run It Right Into The Wall, they’ve expanded from a trio to a four piece with the addition of keyboardist Fred Slater and Great Divides also sees the return of pedal steel to the sound courtesy of J Kardong.

Again, balladry doesn’t loom large, kicking off in explosive style with ‘Can’t Remember’ with its maelstrom of guitars and pounding drums underpinning a catchy chorus song about how, recently arrived in Seattle, the 21-year-old Anderson met the cocktail waitress he’d end up marrying.

Reining the pace in just a notch, ‘Drop An Atom Bomb On Me’ brings Slater’s keys into focus for a bluesier groove before fellow Seattle vocalist Adra Boo joins them on the military march beat and ringing anthemic stadium guitars of ‘Maybe The Gods’. ‘Rerun’ keeps the energy flowing but is something of a filler before getting to one of the few slow numbers, the intimately sung reminiscences of ‘Saying You Were There’ conjuring Springsteen thoughts before ‘Don’t Give Up On A Friend’ has him reflecting on his teenage years to a number over which the ghosts of Warren Zevon and a few werewolves clearly hover.

The longest cut and something of a musical spin, ‘Momma’s In The Backseat’ stays in teenage memories as it unfolds a cautionary tale finding yourself out on the road at night (“if you’re out after eleven, you’re probably up to no good”) , just over the county line, being tailed and getting into an altercation to a driving chugging bassline, walking beat and semi-spoken verses as Anderson admits “I told her about the fight, but what I wanted to do was wrap myself in that old Star Wars blanket, and go to sleep. But I didn’t say that at the time”.

‘Saddest Man’ comes with a steady metronomic drum beat and pedal steel, the melody line soaring to the chorus skies before ‘Wolf Moon’, the second of the ballads, as, to pedal steel and Slater’s piano, Anderson, now a father, passes the wisdom of the road to his kids, the album ending with ‘They Want That Sound’ that opens with echoes of The Church’s ‘Unguarded Moment’ and launches into what is essentially a rework of the tune to Eddie & The Hot Rods’ ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’.

Brash, punky, rooted in hard won experiences and dues paid in an endless strip of barrooms, they don’t come with any pretentions to reinvent the wheel, just to keep it rolling. Ride with them or get out of the way.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.massyfergusonband.com

‘Maybe The Gods’ – official video:

THE LITTLE UNSAID – Atomise (Reveal 080CDX)

AtomiseOver the course of three albums (four if you count the instrumental Electronic Sketches) and two EPs, West Yorkshire songwriter John Elliott has become the bard of mental illness and emotional isolation. Atomise, their first for Reveal, takes its cue from the current climate of division and unrest, but seeks out the pools of light in the darkness, those small moments of connection.

Atomise opens with the evocative line “I dangle from the world/A milk tooth from a gum” on the piano and cello notes of the plaintive ‘Human’ as he sings about the contemporary malaise of drugs overwhelming the sense of self. Fingerpicked guitar and strings guide ‘Screws’ and its sense of mentally drowning and of a lover no longer seeing fairytales but “demons chewing Rorschach butterflies”.

A wash of synths flow through ‘Story’ and its attempt to make sense of things and “stay wired to the brain”, ‘Spiderman’ spinning a web of puttering drums and piano around its images of mortality, conjuring thoughts of Peter Gabriel that spill over into the scratchy textures of watery swirling synths of ‘Music’ as he wryly notes “I’ve got all kinds of suffering/To celebrate.

The steady rhythm title track soars to an epiphany of “I love you unfathomably” and a resolution to see the world “with clearer eyes” before ‘Road’ travels along pulsating hypnotic percussive beats on a song of driving (literally or metaphorically) to a lover’s side while, the stripped back strummed ‘Ignited’ returns to the feelings of exploiting his struggles and self-doubt for the purpose of art, wary of making them “something cheap and sentimental”.

A heady cocktail of Radiohead and Gabriel with its fidgeting synths and minimal piano. ‘Particles’ dissects a doomed relationship with its “prescription drugs and dead eyes” as cello swells, the musical mood shifting for the brooding, technofunk bass of the rhythmically loping ‘Chain’. The album closes with the skeletal introspective synths and strings of the pensive, pessimistic ‘Moonrise’, quite possibly the only song to feature the word ‘deracinated’, before hope arrives on the heartbeat of the whisperingly tender ‘Willow’ as he sings of how you first have to acknowledge the hurt before the healing can begin and that “you don’t have to fight by yourself”. With all its psychosis, self-examination and the struggle to rise above the crushing doubts and its self-destructive tendencies, art-folk music for the 21st century doesn’t get much better than this.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.thelittleunsaid.com

‘Human’ – live:

BARD EDRINGTON V – Espadín (own label)

EspadínBorn in Alabama, raised in Tennessee and now based in New Mexico, Edrington brings together the variations within the musical cultures, as well as his work running a landscaping business with wife and backing singer Zoe Wilcox, on Espadín, his first solo venture, that charts his family’s journey from the high ridges of Tennessee to a Mexican coastal fishing village by way of Santa Fe, as well as other travellers’ tales, rooted in the people and the flora and fauna along the way.

It opens with ‘Maidenhair’, a fingerpicked folksy number embellished with fiddle and, banjo, the title referring to the green, silky leaves growing along the steel walls of the Slickhorn Canyon in Utah through which the Jan Juan river runs as he sings of “the greens of our dreams”.

‘Eyes On The Road’ revs up the engine for a clattering, harmonica wailing slab of dirty rockabilly before things calm down on the circling fingerpicked patterns of Riverside Blues (“working like a man with nothing to lose”) that features Boris McCutcheon on mandolin and rattling background percussion from Michel Chavez.

Mariachi trumpet backdrops the dusty waltzing ‘Take Three Breaths’ recount a journey he and a friend took down the Camino Real, 1500 miles from Santa Fe to Chacala, a fishing village in Nayarit, by way of their truck being sideswiped in Sonora, paying bribes in Mazatlan (to a cop after being pulled over for not wearing a seat belt) and visiting the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Sinaloa. Arriving in Oaxaca, the title track tells of the mezcalero who distil the titular wild agave into mescal, Edrington conjuring Van Zandt and Clarke while Karina Wilson paints the track with cello, viola and fiddle.

It’s back to delta blues for the shuffling brushed snares of ‘Mississippi Flows’ with David Barclay Gomez on accordion, the rhythm riding the rails on Two Ways To Die’ as, lost in the desert, Wilson’s fiddle is given its head and Freddy Lopez takes things out on harmonica wail.

The focus shifts to the stories of those who also looked to bridge the two worlds, ‘Painted Pony’ a simply strummed swayalong cowboy campfire tune (albeit with music box piano accompaniment), throaty electric guitar riffery underpinning ‘Mango Tree’, a bluesy rock celebration of the Mexican climate, while ‘Gold And Black Mare’, a hanging song about horse stealing, a fatally demanding lover and murder, melds traditional folk and Southern Gothic blues.

Arguably, the album’s two strongest tracks are those that are stripped right back, the acoustic blues ‘Spread My Wings’ featuring just his guitar and Lopez’s harmonica solo while ‘Rendezvous Duel’ heads into Appalachian territory with Wilson’s fiddle and Edrington’s banjo, sung in the voice of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson as he returns to his wife to swap stories. And there it stays for the final number, ‘Southern Belle’ with its handclap rhythm, accordion, banjo and Sarah Ferrell providing the harmony vocals, a Civil War story of a wounded Union soldier being cared for by a Confederate woman.

A Bard is, of course, a celebrated professional storyteller, a poet, a travelling minstrel. His folks named him well.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.bardedrington.com

‘Espadín’ – live:

THE PAUL McKENNA BAND – Breathe (own label PMB002CD)

BreatheA Glasgow-based five-piece, lining up as Robbie Greig on fiddle, Conar Markey on banjo, bouzouki, mandolin and guitars, percussionist Ewan Baird, Conal McDonagh providing pipes and whistles with McKenna on guitar and piano, Breathe is their fifth album. Produced by Mike Vass, this time around it’s all original material save for an urgent reading of the Irish traditional Fanad Mare, the Donegal name for ‘The Nine Points Of Roguery’, a reel written by Fiddler Doyle of Fanad after supposedly experienced a vision of a druid while returning home from a dance party and based around the rhythm of his horse’s hooves.

Breathe opens with the balladeering title track, one of the four solo penned McKenna numbers, which, coloured by Uillean pipes, is a tenderly simple love song delivered in his distinctive, warbly vocal style. Played out on acoustic guitar, ‘Holding On’ is similarly restrained number about memories and mortality, while, (incorrectly numbered on the lyric booklet) ‘Open Road’ is a wistful reminiscence of a past relationship set to percussive puttering behind the circling guitar pattern, the last being the Irish migration-themed album closer ‘Foreign Land’ with its woodwind intro and a narrative about a fifteen-year-old becoming a man working in the mines before finally returning home.

Two numbers are co-writes with Canada’s Dave Gunning, first up being the piano-based, pipes and fiddle shaded ‘Never Seem To Leave, a song about a relationship broken by the conflicting desires of wanderlust and staying put, and the nimbly fingerpicked ‘Beyond The Day’, another song about the road and what lies ahead, more specifically after death, McDonagh proving brief pipes solo midway.

The remaining co-write is with Australian songwriter Liz Stringer, the musically atmospheric ‘Broken Houses’, yet again a number about themed around migration in the quest for a better life and memories of home.

Fingerpicked, softly sung and coloured with pipes and whistles, the final song is a cover of ‘The Molly May’, written by Canadian bluegrass/Celtic singer-songwriter J.P. Cornier (and himself a collaborator with Gunning) which, featured on his 1997 release Another Morning, fits neatly into the album’s pervasive themes as the narrator, recalls his years as master of the titular fishing boat before, too old to man the wheel, he finally watches it meets its end at the hand of an inexperienced boy from Canso.

One of Scotland’s most respected folk outfits, their name lauded from Ireland to America, they baffling remain little known this side of the border. Hopefully, Breathe will change that.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.paulmckennaband.com

‘Beyond The Day’ – live: