MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – Come Hell Or High Water (Gypsy Eyes Music)

Come Hell Or High WaterIf you feel that ‘Southern folk golem’ Holcombe’s croaky roll-up rasp suggests he’s been shovelling coal dust of his cereals and makes Tom Waits sound like Perry Como, then you’ll be pleased to hear that on his latest album, Come Hell Or High Water, his third in as many years, is leavened by vocal contributions from Iris DeMent and Greg Brown. If you’re a fan regardless, this is just icing on the cake.

It opens with ‘Left Alone’, a Prine-like strummed song about an old friend, a “veteran Vietnam killing machine” that takes on a wider resonance about soldiers who sink into self-destruction when they return home only to be abandoned by those they served. A similar concern for the nation’s invisible people fuels the simply scuffed deMent duet, I Don’t Wanna Disappear Anymore’ as he sings “I love to work and keep my head above water/It’s hard to live in the darkness”.

That same sense of not belonging informs the mandolin flecked shuffling ‘New Damnation Alley’ and its image of America’s economic divide, of the “billionaire barbarians” cruising their corporate “clipper ships for slaves”. An equally desolate vision shapes the fingerpicked acoustic blues ‘Legal Tender’ with its images of a drug money economy with “trailer meth labs round the corner” and how “pharmaceuticals paint the sky and fill the cemeteries”.

‘It Is What It Is’ takes a tribal blues stop rhythm with Jared Tyler on Dobro as he sings about doing what you gotta do to make it through but still being able to “walk away free and clean”, while ‘Black Bitter Moon’ serves another cautionary note about the coming “rain and the dread” that balances image of community bonds with ones of domestic abuse.

The album’s mood rarely wavers throughout, ‘Torn & Wrinkled’ a rumination on growing old and a feeling of never living up to his father’s legacy, the fingerpicked slide blues ‘October Mornin’’ a spare traditional folk-blues like number about being lost in a spiritual darkness, the cruel cold of winter and living on the skids the core of both ‘The Old North Side’ and ‘In The Winter’.

Again duetting with deMent, when he sings about being his ‘Brother’s Keeper’, you might expect a crack of light, but it would seem that in contemporary America there are no good Samaritans reaching out to the “breadlines of the bones”, compassion lost “beyond the weepin’ screams”. It’ll come as little surprise then that, another Prine echo, the mandolin bedecked ‘Merry Christmas’ is anything but with its family portrait of “rockin’ chair grouchy gums” and how “daddy’s drunk doncha know it”.

On the CD inner sleeve, he includes a section from a painting by Kylie Harris based on Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments Of Guitar Playing, one of which is “Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument. You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.” This album reeks to high heaven.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on 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:

‘Black Bitter Moon’ – official video:

RIBBON ROAD – Paper Dolls (Shipyard RRD011)

Paper DollsThe follow-up to Our Streets Are Numbered, one of my favourite albums of 2016, the Heslop family, songwriter Brenda, husband Geoff and daughter Jill, here joined by their other daughter Anna on piano. Just as past albums have addressed the 80s Miner’s Strike and social housing in former mining communities, Paper Dolls again draws on songs specially written for a social project, this time for Newcastle University and trauma associated with domestic violence. Brenda spent two months working with a domestic abuse survivor at a Middlesbrough women’s group, from which five songs emerged inspired by their stories, with a further four already written to stimulate discussions.

Brenda, accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar, opens with the achingly moving title track, a song about the widespread buy often unseen existence of domestic abuse with a chorus calling for the unity and solidarity of its victims/survivors.

Introduced by Jill’s accordion, the gently swaying, tenderly sung ‘Round And Round’ talks of the broken record nature of abuse and apology, the narrator finding the strength to break free of the cycle and reclaim her identity, “whoever she is”. With a slow mazurka waltz tempo, ‘It Comes Visiting’ again concerns the way historical domestic abuse traps its victims, the fear and helplessness always coming back, “washing my legs away” and keeping them in the ruins.

Dating back to 2009, accompanied by just guitar and with Geoff and Jill on harmonies, ‘It Couldn’t Last’ is a beautifully sad song of regret about broken promises and the emptiness that consumes when love is lost that sounds like one of the best things the McGarrigles never wrote.

A solo a capella number from Brenda, the stark, traditional-sounding ‘Living With A Stranger’ details the guilt those who suffer abuse often feel for not having had the strength to speak out and shine a light on their ordeals and the complicity of those around them, while, backed by piano and accordion and with a deceptively waltztime lightness, ‘Suddenly’ recounts how, sometimes, when the sun is out and you’re feeling good, just the sight of a couple holding hands or a picture in a shop can confront you with the reality of your situation, the sense of being alone with the horror film running in your head, and overwhelm you.

Again striking traditional notes, vocals backed by Jill’s accordion, Geoff’s harmonies echoing Brenda’s vocals, ‘Do Unto Others’ is another song about female solidarity, about those who have experienced the pain reaching out a hand to those others lost in a world of hate.

Echoing its sentiments, as the title suggests, again reminiscent of the McGarrigles, ‘When The Bad Is Past’ is a song of hope that, at some point, someone will recognise what is happening and reach out and the darkness will way to light.

A reminder that escaping from abuse is never easy and often impossible, especially if you believe you can’t, and how, even if you do, you can still end up broken, it ends with the resigned, mournful piano ballad ‘No-one Crying Over Me’ as, in what sounds like the emotional peak of an unwritten musical, Brenda sings “I’ve covered up/To hide my shame/And it’s broken me, I’m broken/Choking inside these chains, Fear is all there is, just like it always is.

While I think that it might have been better to close on a positive note reflecting the support out there for survivors that can help lead to building new lives and new selves, this is unequivocally both an outstanding and important musical work that deserves to be heard and, more crucially, listened to.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Living With A Stranger’ – live:

TOWN MOUNTAIN – New Freedom Blues (own label)

New Freedom BluesBased in Asheville, North Carolina, New Freedom Blues is the quintet’s sixth studio album which, while their feet are still firmly planted in the bluegrass pastures, extends its horizons to more modern forms of farming. As such, it’s a kick drum that underpins the title track opener, straddling traditional banjo and fiddle bluegrass and new shapes on a song about the ambivalence of gaining independence but at the expense of ending a relationship. Things get frisky with ‘North Of Cheyenne’, doubtless causing sighs of relief among longtime fans and genre devotees fearing the band might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Indeed, the new directions here are subtle rather than major adjustments, such as utilising a full drum kit (manned by Miles Miller from Sturgill Simpson’s band) for the first time or picking different banjo or mandolin notes and, as such, numbers like ‘Lazy River’, the fiddle driven instrumental ‘Tar Heal’ and the stomping ‘Life And Debt’ certainly won’t scare the horses.

However, elsewhere slow waltzer ‘Pamlico’ has shades of The Band while both ‘One Drop In The Bottle’ and ‘Witch Trials’ swap the mountain still for the honky tonk and ‘Way I’m Made’ has string band swing sensibilities. They also team up with emergent Appalachian country star Tyler Childers who co-wrote and sings on album closer ‘Down Low’, a bluesier outlaw country number haunted by the ghost of Waylon Jennings.

Well aware of on what side their bread is buttered, it may upset the bluegrass applecart, but it’s good to hear them redistributing the load somewhat.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Life And Debt’ – live:

CHRIS CLEVERLEY TRIO – Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham

Chris Cleverley Trio

Already well-established as a charismatic performer on the folk circuit and a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter as well as hugely accomplished guitarist, this hometown gig, the first of the award-winning club’s new season, served to launch his new trio format comprising himself, Kim Lowings and Said The Maiden’s Kathy Pilkington, who also plays banjo and woodwind.

Following an opening set by Minnie Birch, herself a frequent Cleverley collaborator, the trio took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendition of ‘The Old Man From Over The Sea’, Chris taking lead and the two girls crooning harmonies and joining in on the chorus, a ribald Irish ballad from the Anglo-American tradition about a young woman encouraged by her mother to have it away with some grey-bearded old bloke who ultimately proves to be sexually inadequate.

Cleverley strapping on guitar and with Kathy on banjo, ‘You And I Belong Together’, a new self-penned number, proved a rousing Americana stomp, setting the musical backdrop for a rendition of the traditional American folk classic ‘O Shenadoah’, a number he’d recorded on his debut album, elevated to even greater heights by Kathy’s clarinet and her and Kim’s complementary pure-voiced harmonies, the latter airily soaring, the former slightly earthier.

Two further numbers from Apparitions follow, the American folk coloured ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, Kathy back on banjo and Chris strapping on electric guitar, and the waltzing ‘Missing Persons’, explaining that, as the songs age so they change, the new format affording a chance to reinvent rather than simply retread.

The girls temporarily leave the stage for two solo Chris numbers, the ridiculously catchy as yet unrecorded ‘The Low Light Low’ which promises to be a highlight on the next album and, in a tip of the hat to the man who inspired him to learn guitar, a version of ‘Barrack Street’, a traditional tale of a sailor’s misfortune in Windsor, as learned from the Nic Jones album Penguin Eggs (and also on Said The Maiden’s A Curious Tale).

Ending the first set on another terrific new song, ‘Rachael’, the second began one more in a capella mode with another traditional ballad, his time from Scotland, with each taking a verse of ‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ before heading into Appalachian territory, Cleverly on banjo for ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ off his debut.

Setting the scene by recounting how he and Pilkington had taken some time during their summer Scottish dates to explore the blooming heather, they followed with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, given a more uptempo strummed tempo than is usually the case. A number he’s been trying out on recent dates, Steve Miller’s 70s classic ‘The Joker’ might not immediately strike you as folk club material, but in the trio’s hands it works brilliantly. Then it was time for another solo spot. Having already reminded that he gives good between song banter with an amusing story about the animated video for ‘The Day Before The Dawn,’ thoughts of fox-inspired merchandise for babies and a toddler getting up on stage and dancing, he recalled how after reading The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he was inspired by the beautiful grotesques on the fringes of society to write the subsequent song, ‘The Rafters’.

At this point, Kim and Kathy step off and Minnie Birch steps up to duet with Chris on ‘Glitter’, a song off her own debut album they’d been performing on their dates together, before everyone assembles for Birch to sing lead on ‘Up And Down’, a song inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream she wrote for The Company of Players, the Shakespeare-inspired project of which they comprise four of the nine members. And, returning for a well-deserved encore, it’s from this too that comes ‘But Thinking Makes It So’, a Cleverley-penned number inspired by Hamlet and the theme of mental illness, not only one of the very best songs he’s written, but one of the finest in the contemporary folk canon this century. An outstanding finale to a tremendous show.

Cleverley is set to record his new solo album in November and, while both Lowings and Pilkington will be involved, it won’t be a Trio project and there’s no further live shows from the line-up until next autumn. It would be an act of human cruelty to wait so long to hear them again, so, just perhaps, a live in the studio EP of the set’s covers and traditionals might not be too much to hope for. Make it so.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

Performance: 26 September 2018

‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ – live in the front room:

YOUNG WATERS – Young Waters (own label YW1)

Young WatersNow trading under a rather more attractive moniker (borrowed from a Scottish Child Ballad) than their previous appellation as Snufkin, guitarist Theo Passingham and percussionist Kerry Ann Jangle sharing lead, Liam O’Connell on double bass and harmonies, violinist Calum Smith and Rowen Elliot on viola, made their recording debut with 2016’s Live At The Fayre and Young Waters, recorded at Real World, is their first studio outing.

Describing themselves as twisted neo-folk, they hark very much to the late 60s/early 70s prog folk sound embodied by the likes of Incredible String Band, Comus, Dando Shaft and Trees with a dash of Phillip Glass and John Taverner for good measure. As such, they’re unlikely to tickle the fancy of your average folk club attendee, but those who fancy something more challenging and who have the patience to listen will find much to appreciate.

They open with one of six Passingham-penned numbers, mournful violin and double bass setting the tone for the sparsely arranged ‘Dust’ before his and Smith’s reedy vocals arrive along with lines like “We begin to rust/Return to dust/Just another day in the paradise circus.” It’s followed by the only cover, Smith taking lead on Jesca Hoop’s ‘Enemy’, taken a slightly slower pace than the original, the violin and guitar arrangement impart an almost Appalachian feel.

At just over four minutes, ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’ is the shortest number, a fingerpicked filigree of acoustic guitar accompanying Passingham’s high nasal vocal and the pastoral wordless choral vocals on an Icarus-referencing lyric about mortality in which a doctor and a teacher introduce some youth to cigarettes and wine, respectively, a dose of cynicism trickling through the line “putting faith in medicine is just placing a bet.”

O’Connell’s bass starts ‘Bleary Eyed’ on a deceptive slow note before the rhythm picks up to a sprightlier, choppy tempo, with plucked strings and strummed guitar working together to create the kaleidoscope of musical colours. Smith’s violin taking the spotlight, ‘Weary Soul’ extends to over seven minutes of such Passingham musings as “I was born a weary soul/Already tired of this world/How did I end up here?” the interwoven vocals taking an almost liturgical form, the tempo switching from sombre to fiery fiddle passages.

The last of the studio recordings, the equally introspective, vocally clipped ‘Eternal Bliss’ again suggests a pessimistic worldview, underpinned by moodily wistful bass and strings as Passingham states his doubts of but need for a utopian relationship (“You wrote me a list for eternal bliss/But it didn’t exist/So we don’t need this”).

The last two tracks were recorded live in the nearby Norton St. Philip Church (a sort of home from home for Passingham who used to sing in a church choir), the first (giving rise to the album’s cover) being the traditional tragic accidental true love slaying Irish ballad ‘Polly Vaughn’, sometimes known as ‘The Fowler’ and ‘The Shooting Of His Dear’ or ‘Molly Bawn’, here featuring Smith singing a capella with Passingham on counterpoint harmonies.

It ends with another original, the medieval-tinted ‘Swimming Pool’, bass and strings first setting the scene before the interwoven vocals arrive, the rhythm and tempo again shifting course over the six and a half minutes of the self-questioning slightly ominous lyrics “If life is a swimming pool/How do I swim?/Something in the water makes my eyes sting so much/Is it me, am I the one who fought?/Or is there something wrong with the water?

Take off the arm bands and immerse yourself.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website:

‘Bleary Eyed’ – 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

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on 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:

‘Wonderful’ – official video: