AOIFE O’DONOVAN ­– In the Magic Hour (Yep Records B016LKYKVW)

In The Magic HourCall me crazy, but I hear a bit of Patti Smith in Aiofe O’Donovan’s startlingly lovely new album In the Magic Hour.

No, she’s not following in Smith’s punk-rock vocal-guitar shredding wake. But she does share Smith’s rare gift of waving deeply personal meditations in her lyrics a la Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and a handful of other boldface Americana songsmiths.

On the ten songs on this, O’Donovan’s second solo album, the Crooked Still alum melodically analyzes the intersections of ambition, loneliness, family and solitude. But unlike the full-on assault of much of Smith’s punk rock, O’Donovan wraps her words around impressionistic sounds reminiscent of some of the work of The Beatles (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Revolver), Tori Amos (Scarlet’s Walk comes immediately to mind) and other dream weavers.

You’ve likely read some reviews comparing O’Donovan – who is joined by guests including Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile – with Patti Griffin and Shawn Colvin. Certainly songs such as the richly textured folk-with-Celtic ‘Magpie’ can bring those artists to mind.

But O’Donovan is no Griffin- or Colvin-come lately. Her song ‘Detour’ suggests as much Emmylou Harris as it does Griffin and Colvin while ‘The King of All Birds,’ with assertive strings and vocals would slip comfortably into a set by Amos.

When O’Donovan was writing the songs for this album, her family patriarch died. Indeed, his singing is heard on a snippet of the traditional Irish song ‘Donal Og’ and the album’s artwork features a 7-year-old O’Donovan frolicking in the small Irish town of Clonakilty on a visit to her grandfather.

The Boston-area born, Brooklyn-based O’Donovan is only 33, decades younger than Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and her other reported musical idols but this album proves her musical soul is just as old.

Nancy Dunham

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‘Magic Hour’ – official video:

CATHRYN CRAIG AND BRIAN WILLOUGHBY – In America (Cabritunes CAB008)

In AmericaIt’s difficult to write about In America, the latest album by Virginia-born singer Cathryn Craig and the British guitarist Brian Willoughby without sounding like a fan girl to the nth degree.

Many a night I’ve been in that state somewhere between awake and asleep with Craig’s rhapsodic vocals accompanied by Willoughby’s masterfully emotional playing coursing through my mind. I can only imagine that the duo is among the rare musicians that envelope themselves in their music, much as the Frank Sinatra embodied the lyrics, which he sang.

Although Mr. Willoughby and Ms. Craig have each extensively worked with A-list artists ranging from The Strawbs to Nanci Griffith and Chet Atkins, their work is as individual as their duo. Consider the album’s title track on which Ms. Craig’s voice takes on a rare ethereal quality that puts me in mind of the haunting vocals of the late Mary Travers of Peter Paul & Mary on such songs as “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Yes, it’s that haunting.

And the beauty of her voice combined with Willoughby’s guitar mastery never falters as the duo works through a host of poignant songs including ‘These Old Stone Walls,” and “Whatever Is For You,” both ruminations on our lives’ journeys.

Joining the duo are a host of luminary musicians including Jeff Taylor (Vince Gill/Time Jumpers), Fran Breen (Waterboys, Saw Doctors), Dennis Bryon (Amen Corner/Bee Gees), Pat McInerney (Nanci Griffith, Doc Watson), Brent Moyer (Lynn Anderson), Andy Reiss (Reba McEntire/Time Jumpers), Ron de la Vega (Nanci Griffith), and Richard Bailey (Steeldrivers).

As you’d expect, the playing is superb and elegantly woven among the duo’s work thanks to engineer/producer Thomm Jutz.

Perhaps the superlatives in this review do put me in super fan territory but one listen to the new album by rare artists that infuse their music with heartfelt spirituality and you’ll be one, too.

Nancy Dunham

Artists’ website: www.craigandwilloughby.com

‘Malahide Moon’ – live:

RIC SANDERS’ TRIO – Standin’ On The Corner (Dotted Line Ltd. DLCD001)

RIC SANDERS’ TRIO – Standin’ On The CornerIn a lot of ways, it’s difficult to review an album by an artist to whom you feel emotionally attached. You struggle to maintain your credibility as a critic but it’s difficult not to make excuses for some musical stumbles.

Rejoice! Standin’ On The Corner, the new album by Ric Sanders’ Trio, is just as brilliant as one would hope. It’s so good, in fact, that it should make critics’ ‘Best Of’ albums for 2015. And it should certainly make any blues-jazz- and yes, folk lovers’ gift lists this holiday season.

Sanders, the virtuosic violinist from Fairport Convention, and band mates Vo Fletcher and Michael Gregory have joined together to reintroduce some of their favourite songs to modern music lovers.

The title track (not to be confused with the 1950’s pop hit ‘Standing on the Corner’) kicks off the album with an exuberant boom, finding Sanders in fine and fluid form as Fletcher joins in with sterling guitar work and vocals – including some fine yodeling! – all grounded by Gregory’s steady percussion. The joy and agility found in their musicianship clearly comes from their years of playing together in various bands.

“Vo and I met in Birmingham when I was about 18,” said Sanders. “He didn’t sing much in those days but we kept bumping into each other and playing.  About 15 years ago, Vo and Michael and I started to get together somewhat regularly and play, just for fun.”

And that fun has turned into a triumphant reimagining of many blues’ songs some of which, including the title track, have been sited as contributing to the birth of rock.

“It is very much the blues end of country, the way we do it,” said Sanders noting the trio perfected their rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers-penned song during some of those informal  just-for-fun sessions. “We started playing it at gigs and as soon as we started the audience started dancing and singing.”

It’s easy to understand why that – and the other tunes on the album – would bring people to their feet. The blues numbers on the album – mainly researched by Fletchers and Gregory – are a true blast of Memphis’ – and the Trio’s – best.

Even if you’re not a fan of the original ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ – written by Rodgers and George Vaughan – you’ll be hard-pressed not to love the rendition on this album that finds the trio in sterling musical form behind Fletcher’s lion-hearted voice.

But don’t think this is all high-spirited hi-jinx. The trio shows their softer side on such numbers as Mississippi John Hurt’s classic ‘Lewis Collins.’ And the bonus track of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” is just plain fun.

“Another essential thing we did was [record the album playing] all together,” said Sanders. “It’s really the only way you can record this stuff. Basically it is all live takes, warts and all.”

And listeners will hear that’s the perfect way to hear them.

Nancy Dunham

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Artists’ website: http://www.folkcorp.co.uk/ric/ric.htm

‘Standin’ On The Corner (Blues Yodel No. 9)’ – live at The Lighthouse, Deal:

Chris Leslie announces new album

Chris Leslie announces new album

Yes, it’s true.

Somehow between writing and performing with Fairport Convention, working on his side gig with St. Agnes Fountain and collaborating with other musicians, Chris Leslie has carved out enough time to write and record a new 12-track solo album that he hopes to release around the first of the year on his own Paws Records.

“I’m really pleased with it so far,” said Leslie of the album. “I play some of the brand new songs in my solo gigs. They have seated in nicely.”

The album, which has a working title of Turquoise Tales, after an instrumental track he wrote for this album, includes three songs that he recorded with Fairport and has rearranged

Think of the songs as something akin to a book series installment as literate Leslie continues to illustrate the rich history of his Oxfordshire homeland through song.

Such was the case a few weeks ago at the Wessex Acoustic Folks Club, Blandford, Dorset. Leslie played his song ‘The New Fiddle’, which features the story of 18th Century violinmaker Benjamin Banks of 1760s in Salisbury.

“To make the club night extra special, Salisbury resident Trevor Marks brought his Benjamin Banks violin to the club,” said Kathy Dunn, who attended the performance. “Chris played it while singing the song.”

The multi-instrumentalist also melded Native American-flavored tunes into his set list with several songs including ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac’ by Michael Martin Murphy.

Little wonder that Mark Pidgeon was jovial in announcing that Leslie agreed to become and patron of Wychwood Folk Club.

“Our club is yet to reach two years old so getting the word out to the local populace has been hard work,” said Pidgeon. “Having a patron, especially a really big name like Chris Leslie as our figurehead helps, to spread the word that we are a serious folk club and not a Singaround/Karaoke type of club that are springing up in pubs/bars everywhere in the U.K….We are serious about the music we put on and are trying to mix some of the top local artistes in with the more established names.”

If you want to see Leslie in a solo concert, hurry. He only has a few dates left until he begins touring with St. Agnes Fountain and others.

Nancy Dunham

As a nice addition to this fantastic article, we have also included the Interview that Darren Beech and Paul Johnson did with the lovely Chris Leslie backstage at Cropredy 2015. Click on the player below to start the interview.

Chris Leslie Crop Interview Photo 2015

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THE PORTRAITS – Lions And Butterflies (Sensorypulse Records SPCD006)

THE PORTRAITS Lions And ButterfliesWhat you might not know about music critics’ jobs is that the work can be boring, if not down right disheartening. Go ahead and roll your eyes now and grumble about first-world problems. Yes, critics have posh jobs.

Still it’s tiresome to hear artists’ sermonize about “organic” processes that lead them to give voice to the downtrodden, while many offerings – especially from U.S. artists but, as an American, I’m biased – sound as if they rolled off an assembly line sporting all the individuality of Henry Ford’s original Model T.

It’s difficult not to become jaded.

Then you happen across alluring British folk-classical-New Age fusion – in this case The Portraits’ newest album Lions And Butterflies – and you experience a burst of joy similar to the ones you experienced as a kid when you first discovered artists whose music spoke directly to your heart.

What sets Lions And Butterflies – which will be released on October 2nd – apart is not just the delicate blend of folk, jazz and classical sounds or the rhapsodic melding of the voices of husband-and-wife duo Jeremy and Lorraine Millington.

The Portraits’ music is powerful because it springs from deeply, reflective individual musings on a wide spectrum of conditions. One look at the artists’ extensive song commentary proves the point.

Songs take shape around such divergent topics as work by novelist David Nicholls, reflections on the underlying meanings possible in the South African nightscape, and the overwhelming sorrow that likely consumed Bob Geldof when his daughter Peaches died.

Powerful stuff.

Perhaps the duo’s meticulous examination and presentation of their ruminations on life’s condition isn’t surprising when you consider the passion they brought to recording the single ‘The Rest of Time,’ which spotlights the tragedy of deaths due to blood cancers. Rather than call on celebrities for a poppy, ‘We Are the World’-reminiscent project, the duo recorded voices of 2,000 people across the U.K., and released a song so catchy that it charted on iTunes.

What makes The Portrait’s music stand out, though, is that it shape shifts (with apologies to Robert Plant) into whatever state the listener chooses.

Yes, ‘Walls of Silence,’ the Nicholls-inspired piece, is about the seeming futility of succeeding in London and other creative mega cities, but it’s also a soothing mid-tempo rollick. And while ‘Exile’ may be written as commentary on the state of Russia during the past few decades, it’s easy to close your eyes and drift into the delicate harmonies that soar over the violin and soft percussion.

You can focus on the smart discussion about class commentary on ‘Small but Strong,’ as a fervent call-to-arms but it’s also a soulful, mid-tempo mix of classical and folk.

Whether you choose to absorb The Portraits’ musical messages or simply let the elegant but accessible tapestry of guitar, violin, cello, upright bass, and other instrumentation mix with silky vocals that envelope you is your choice.

But Lions And Butterflies, proves that music is not dead, as Sinead O’Connor and others lament. It just needs to be championed.

Nancy Dunham

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‘Fairy Lights’. The Portraits live at Glastonbury 2014:

Fairport Convention – Nancy Dunham analyses Myths & Heroes and talks to Chris Leslie

FC2015

What is Fairport Convention doing, releasing such a modern, rocking record this far into the band’s life?

Don’t they know groups are supposed to settle down into complacency certainly after they’ve been kicking around for decades?

Myths & Heroes, the band’s newest release, has blindsided some critics and plenty of fans with its contemporary, cultured sound, that ranges from the up-tempo and, yes, rocking, title track to the haunting ‘Weightless/The Gravity Reel,’ to the reflective instrumental ‘Jonah’s Oak.’ Even many traditionalists who nitpick the past 20 years of albums and grumble that the group should continually mimic hits from its infancy grudgingly admit this album is superb.

Dave Pegg, who became Fairport’s bassist in 1969, thinks this album is clearly among the group’s best if not its finest.

Fair enough. It’s tough to measure albums such as the much-lauded 1969 Liege & Lief, against this or other contemporary music for a myriad of reasons. most subjective.

It’s also unfair. Fairport is a very different band today than it was years ago. While some compare Fairport to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, there’s a clear distinction. The Dirt Band hasn’t deviated from its original sound. And although there have been various players in the line up, the current group has, more or less, been with the band since its 1966 inception with keyboardist Bob Carpenter joining about a decade later.

Pegg and guitarist, co-lead singer and founding member Simon Nicol were with Fairport in its earliest days but they each have worked with an array of musicians beyond Fairport including Art Garfunkel, The Albion Band, and Jethro Tull.

Add to that the additions of fiddler Ric Sanders (1985), multi-instrumentalist, chief songwriter and co-lead singer Chris Leslie (1996), and drummer Gerry Conway (1998) who each brought an abundance of top-flight musical experience and influences from playing with divergent artists as Simon Mayor’s mandolin quartet, Soft Machine, Paul McCartney and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and you understand why Fairport is unafraid to journey into new musical territory, despite some fans’ wish that they continually reinvent the past.

As Nicol consistently says, it was never their goal to become their own tribute band which is why, he always adds, the band never looks to replace a band member with an artist of similar styling. It’s also a fair guest that is why the band continually seeks contributions from outside songwriters including Ralph McTell and Anna Ryder whose songs are exquisitely featured on this album.

FCM&H“Looking backward is fine,” said Leslie, whose love of early Fairport Convention music led him to teach himself fiddle and master it to such a degree that he eventually joined the band. “But a band really needs to move forward. That’s especially true of a band like Fairport. There have been some wonderful people that have come through the ranks.”

Leslie spoke with affection of songs from the band’s earliest albums and noted how daunting it was to reinvent them for the group’s 2012 release By Popular Request and Babbacombe Lee: Live Again.

“We pulled it off and it sounds like our current line up,” he said. “But it’s good to move forward.”

Of course that doesn’t mean that Fairport ignores its history. Every show includes classic hits and its newest release includes songs with heavy traditional vibes. Consider McTell’s ‘Clear Water’ – which includes a pretty darn contemporary beat behind Nicol’s robust vocals, jut a few tracks from Leslie’s acoustic, lilting ‘Theodore’s Song.’ And it’s difficult not to liken Rob Beattie’s ‘The Man in the Water’ which Fairport filled with luminous harmonies, light percussion and Celtic harp, to something a bit more new age in the best sense of the world.

It’s easy to understand why Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and other virtuoso talents in Fairport’s past are held in such high regard. But Myths & Heroes proves that Fairport’s current line up deserves just as much reverence.

Nancy Dunham

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Fairport Convention play the title track from Myths & Heroes: