ROBB JOHNSON – Ordinary Giants (Irregular IRR223)

Ordinary GiantsAt first glance Ordinary Giants seems like a sequel to Robb Johnson’s wonderful Gentle Men but it isn’t. It’s more of a companion piece; there is no formal spoken narrative – Robb won’t spoon-feed us, although he helps us along here and there – and the album encompasses the last hundred years of British history interleaved with the story of his family and in particular his father, Ron Johnson. It’s rather like an audio advent calendar with each track displaying a snapshot of a moment in time. This is a triple-CD set with a book so it isn’t something you can rush through nor, I suspect, will anyone listen to it in a single sitting.

Although the songs are arranged with a light touch there is a big supporting cast; among them Roy Bailey, Matthew Crampton, Rory McLeod, Phil Odgers, Tom Robinson, Miranda Sykes as the main female voice, Boff Whalley, four community choirs, Frances O’Grady and Dennis Skinner. Robb wrote nearly all the songs – there’s a traditional tune, a couple of borrowed melodies and the assistance of Robinson on ‘Holding Hands With Hitler’. He succeeds in capturing the style of each period, particularly in the first part, covering the years 1918 to 1939 and puts the most appalling words in the mouth of Adam Clayson as the Mosley-supporting Major Utterswine. The problem is that the same words reappear in the third part covering the period from 1970 to the present day.

Inevitably, Ordinary Giants, is a very political record; you’d expect nothing less from Robb, but the politics are embedded in the words of ordinary people and often creep up on you when you’re not expecting them. The first ‘Lou’, one of Frances O’Grady’s three spoken word pieces is a perfect example, starting innocently enough but ending in verbal conflict. There are causes close the Robb’s heart such as ‘Craven Vale Hall’, dated 1958 and celebrating the building of the first post-war care homes.

The final tracks of the second disc and all of the third can be quite painful because Robb’s view is that things haven’t changed that much and it’s hard to argue with him. The songs are peppered with political slogans and he makes his points with humour and sharp insights in songs like ‘Goalkeepers’ and ‘Who Buggered Bognor?’ but beneath that is the realisation that we’re still fighting the same battles in whatever guises they appear.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

There are no videos from this album yet so we’ll have to make do with this:

GRACE PETRIE – Queer As Folk (own label)

Queer As FolkThe only time I saw Grace Petrie on stage, I was bowled over. I bought an EP and was impressed by that. Always her own person and doing things her way, Grace could now be on the verge of a breakthrough. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, Queer As Folk is a properly funded album produced by Matthew Daly, who also plays drums, and mixed by Neil Ferguson. Some stellar friends joined her: Miranda Sykes on bass, Hannah James on accordion, Nancy Kerr on fiddle, Belinda O’Hooley on piano and Caitlin Field on bass and percussion. Grace is powerful enough on her own but this gathering pushes her on to another level.

Queer As Folk opens with ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, a remarkably understated take on Ian Campbell’s ‘Old Man’s Song’ dragged into the 21st century. Its quietness adds to the power of Grace’s words but up next comes an up-tempo reading of Graham Moore’s ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, its pace suggesting a sense of impatience and leaving the listener breathless. ‘This House’ concerns the death of a father, whether Grace’s own we are not told, full of a sense of emptiness like the house he’s left behind. ‘Baby Blue’ is about love betrayed and the powerful ‘Pride’ puts it into context and is where the band comes into its own.

These two songs lead into the superb ‘Black Tie’, which takes the form of a postcard to Grace’s teenage self, reassuring her that it all will work out and containing one of the best rhymes of the year. Grace is affirming her identity here as if we were in any doubt about it. It would be a great single except that it wouldn’t get radio play – the rhyme I mentioned would see to that.

The other cover is ‘Beeswing’. I tend to get a bit protective about Richard Thompson songs but Grace doesn’t need to make many changes except to lose the word “man”. But, and it’s a big but, she misses out the verse about marrying Romany Brown. Why? Is L all right but not B? That’s a disappointment. Nancy and Caitlin give it a folky swing on fiddle and bodhran and it’s one of the best arrangements of the song I’ve heard.

We’re back to politics with ‘Farewell To Welfare’, a song with a really powerful wrap-up but then ‘Iago’ seems to contradict ‘Black Tie’ and I’m still figuring that one out. The closer, ‘Northbound’, sets the life of an itinerant musician to a rocking country beat and is a great way for the record to sign off. Queer As Folk may well turn out to be one of my albums of the year – it’s not perfect but it’s not far off.

Dai Jeffries

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 folking.com 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: www.gracepetrie.com

‘Iago’ – live:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Resound (Shrewsbury Folk Festival)

ResoundCurated by Hannah James and released by Shrewsbury Folk Festival, Resound is a multi-tasking album. Firstly, it’s a tribute to Alan Surtees, founder and organiser of the festival and secondly, it’s a fundraiser for the Alan Surtees Trust which aims to give grants to young musicians and new musical projects. All the music comes from artists who have been associated with Shrewsbury over the years, often through projects commissioned by the festival.

The album has been, for the most part, cleverly sequenced. It opens with Oysterband’s powerful acapella version of ‘Bright Morning Star’ which certainly makes you sit up and pay attention and follows that with Jon Boden’s mighty ‘Audabe’. The foot comes off the loud pedal just a little wiith Patsy Reid’s ‘Thugainn’. I like the way that ‘Song For Lola’ by Lucy Ward is followed by Fay Hield’s ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ – two unashamedly northern voices side by side. Perhaps living in those climes during my formative years has made me equate the accent with authenticity. I wish that Kefaya’s ‘Indignados’ had been placed beside Grace Petrie’s ‘They Shall Not Pass’ – two songs about Spanish politics, albeit separated by several decades should be available to compare and contrast. The Demon Barbers’ version of ‘Ranzo’ is as good as anything they do but perhaps it could have been saved for a big finish.

The album now turns to pastoral themes. ‘The Lincolnshire Song’ by Miranda Sykes is gorgeous (although I’m holding out for the Peak District, Miranda) and Leveret’s ‘Bagpipers’ is one of their gentler pieces. ‘Vanished Birds’, another fine song by Jack Harris is followed by the lightest version of ‘Neil Gow’s Lament’ I’ve ever heard. Hannah modestly saves her own contributions for late in the proceedings. First comes ‘Tuulikki’s Tune’ from her Jigdoll album and then ‘Order & Chaos’ by Lady Maisery.

Karine Polwart’s ‘We’re All Leaving’ makes for an appropriate ending although I can never decide if a record like this is better served with a period of reflection at the end or something rousing and defiant. Whatever you think, you should buy this album – you wiill enjoy it and you’ll be contributing to a good cause.

Dai Jeffries

Project website: www.shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk/more/alan-surtees-trust/

‘Tuulikki’s Tune’ – live:

GLYMJACK – Light The Evening Fire (Storm Lantern GLYMJACKCD001)

Light The Evening FireTo describe Glymjack simply as contemporary English folk would be rather inadequate. It is acoustic roots, lyric-driven with a nod to soft rock, peppered with a little Americana, and anchored here by two traditional English songs to establish the home ground. Thus Glymjack arrives all guns blazing with a finely produced sound and a galaxy of star guests that give an unequivocal seal of approval to their debut album Light The Evening Fire.

First, some name checking. In the driving seat is singer-songwriter Greg McDonald (accordion, bass, cuatro, guitar, tenor guitar, mandocello, mandolin, piano, vocals) who has written eight of the ten tracks. Adding flair and colour to the now-touring trio are Gemma Gayner (violins, violas, vocals) and Dickon Collinson (bass). The hallmark of the album is sophisticated arrangements with multi-instrumental and harmonic delights provided by a line-up of well-known guests from the folk world: Phil Beer, Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes, Sam Kelly, Evan Carson, Louise McDonald, Tom Peters and Claire Portman. I read elsewhere that McDonald has been in the Phil Beer band, hence the reciprocal collaboration.

The word glymjack is Victorian slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Many of McDonald’s songs are London-centric and the lyrics clearly reflect current social issues. But here’s my major gripe: why, when the lyrics and subject matter are so important, is there no booklet or word sheet in the CD, or indeed anything that tells you the background to the material? One could argue, I suppose, that if the lyrics are clearly audible (which they are), nothing else is needed. Well, I may be slow, but two hearings later I still don’t quite grasp the meaning of ‘The Wolf Who Cried Boy’. ‘Bright Sparks’ makes reference to folk heroes such as hedge preacher John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 peasants’ revolt, and to the suffragettes. I’ve no doubt that McDonald is a fine song writer, but some of the songs reflect particular events and concerns for which the listener (or is it just me?) needs at least a clue.

‘Bows Of London’ and ‘The Sweet Trinity’ are fine renditions of traditional songs, showcasing one of the many pleasures of the album – the rich harmonies. To conclude – thumbs up for a decidedly delicious and very English set of songs steered admirably by arrangements from the very best of the folk hierarchy.

Jon Bennett

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 folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’s website: www.glymjack.com

‘Bright Sparks’:

Glymjack’s debut album is on the way

Glymjack

Produced with Show of Hands’ Phil Beer, and featuring Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes alongside Sam Kelly percussionist Evan Carson and fiddle virtuoso Gemma Gayner, English folk-roots act Glymjack’s debut album Light The Evening Fire is released this month.

Previously described as “a dynamic, fiddle driven force to be reckoned with” (Maverick), or simply “brilliant folk music” (fRoots), Glymjack’s music is pitched somewhere between the gritty Americana of Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen and the string-laden indie-folk of Blue Rose Code.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Greg McDonald’s original songs are unflinching in their dark vision of Brexit Britain. Title track ‘Light The Evening Fire’ steels itself against the coming darkness with angry defiance as McDonald reels off a list of what he’s prepared to burn to get through the night while Knightley and Beer chant “On the fire! On the fire!” Meanwhile the anthemic ‘Made In England’ depicts homeless soldiers sleeping on the streets of London, and the epic ‘Hope Point’ takes a road trip through rural counties where immigrant gangs face exploitation and worse.

There’s traditional English folk music here too, of both the dark-hearted balladic kind on ‘Bows Of London’, and the festival-pleasing kind on a fiery rampage through the seventeenth century traditional tune ‘The Sweet Trinity’.

The album closes with the epic ‘Bright Sparks’, a tribute to two beacons of English progressive politics, fourteenth century radical John Ball and suffragette Emily Davison. Based on a speech given by the late Tony Benn at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival where he and McDonald shared a bill five years earlier, it signs off with an anthemic sing-along as defiant in the face of the Trump era as it is celebratory of its heroes’ inspirational legacy: “When all light’s lost in the dark”, Glymjack’s assembled cast roars, “I just close my eyes and I see bright sparks”.

Fittingly, the name Glymjack is itself a nod to a dark chapter of English folk history, taken from Victorian criminal underworld slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley’s roles in the making of the Light The Evening Fire album mark the creative zenith of a musical relationship that began when a teenage Greg drunkenly cornered the pair with a demo at a gig – an incident, immortalised in the Show Of Hands song ‘Be Lucky’, which would ultimately lead to Beer suggesting the studio collaboration out of which Light The Evening Fire grew.

Throughout 2018, Glymjack tour as an acoustic trio with Greg joined by Gemma and bassist Dickon Collinson, delivering a high energy, harmony-rich set of hard-hitting originals, English folk songs and fiddle tunes.

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 folking.com 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: www.glymjack.com

Introductory video:

Show of Hands at Wells Cathedral – Friday 3rd November 2017

Almost exactly seven years have passed since Show of Hands last appeared before an audience at Wells Cathedral; an interval of time that many would conclude has seen the world become an ever-more uncertain and unpredictable place. In these days when the news amounts to a cavalcade of increasingly unsettling events its reassuring that some cherished institutions remain steadfast and dependable, enshrining values that continues to inspire. As part of the fittingly titled ‘Sanctuary’ tour it was a joy to see two much revered institutions reunite – musical act and sacred building – each casting the other in new and unexpected light.

The first member of Show of Hands to appear before tonight’s audience – a congregation comprising the band’s staunchly loyal audience and the cathedral’s parishioners – was Phil Beer. Illuminated at the altar, Beer introduced the evenings supporting artist, Kirsty Merryn. His warm words of praise were swiftly borne out by a distinctive set, most notable for Merryn’s liquid clear voice cascading over the deft piano runs of her original compositions. Many of the songs, drawn from Merryn’s debut album, ‘She and I‘ provided a fresh perspective on the achievements of esteemed female figures from history including Jane Austen and Grace Darling. As ever, Show of Hands had picked an artist to accompany them on this tour of cathedrals who genuinely was the ‘special guest’ of the evening rather than a mere supporting artist.

When, after the interval, the band appeared it was, as is so often the case, without any grand gesture or musical fanfare. Instead the performance began with the solitary figure of Steve Knightley walking down the cathedral’s central aisle as he gently intoned the words of ‘The Old Lych Way’, a composition by Topsham songwriter and musician, Chris Hoban. The song focuses on a longer and yet more ancient route that traverses a remote stretch of Dartmoor along which the faithful would bear the deceased to a final resting place at Lydford Church. A suitably contemplative and mystic atmosphere was conjured beneath the Cathedral’s hallowed arches, setting the tone for much of what was to follow. Next came ‘The Preacher’ from 1995 album ‘The Lie of the Land’, a song in which the prayers of a lonesome island-dwelling cleric lead to guilt and self-recrimination.

While some of Show of Hands best loved numbers were absent from this evening’s performance – there was to be no regaling of ‘Cousin Jack’ – this was entirely fitting since the set list had clearly been compiled to highlight the spiritual questing evident in so much of Show of Hands’ material. Phil Beer, a more vocal presence during this evening’s show than is often the case, offered an exquisite rendition of Sydney Carter’s masterpiece ‘The Crow on the Cradle’, a song that focuses on the power of mankind to avoid the horrors of war.

Throughout the evening Show of Hands’ stunning music was complemented by equally impressive lighting effects. The St. Andrew’s Cross, an enormous arched structure that occupies the east end of the nave was often spectacularly lit while the carved stone work that lies immediately behind it was frequently illuminated to produce a striking contrast. As Steve Knightley himself pointed out, the band’s music became in this context just one element of the experience. Perhaps the lighting was at its most dramatic during a rendition of ‘Innocent’s Song’, the words of Cornish poet, Charles Causley set to music. As the song was performed the massive stone backdrop was bathed in red – powerfully representing the blood of the innocents murdered by the biblical King Herod. Another highlight was Phil Beer’s tune ‘Gwithian’, the music’s urgent fiddle-driven rhythm increasingly intensified by the hand claps of an enraptured audience.

At intervals throughout the evening Show of Hands were joined by the Dartmoor Folk Choir whose contributions highlighted the anthemic quality of many of the songs while providing an apt accompaniment for performance in a cathedral. Also present at times to further embellish the music with accordion was Chris Hoban, who Knightley commended as a songwriter who “sometimes writes better songs than me”. When at an earlier point in the evening Show of Hands double-bassist Miranda Sykes, sang a captivating version of Hoban’s song ‘The Lilly and the Rose’ it was difficult not to agree.

The great care evident in the content of this evening’s show in terms of the songs chosen, guest musicians and lighting design all served to elevate Show of Hands’ performance far beyond the ordinary infamous while reconfirming the outstanding quality of so much of their material. An inspiring evening indeed.

Tim Carter – Presenter – ‘Off the Beaten Track’ www.somervalleyfm.co.uk

Artist Web Links: https://www.showofhands.co.uk/ – http://kirstymerryn.com/