MARTIN SIMPSON – Rooted (Topic TXCD598)

RootedDid you know that Ernest Shackleton considered a banjo essential to mental health on his expedition to the South Pole? Neither did I but it’s one of the fascinating facts I gleaned from Martin Simpson’s sleevenotes for his new album Rooted. Mental health is one of the themes of the record and, being a banjo player himself, I reckon that Martin has a head start on some of us. It’s one of the reasons why the album resonates with me.

As you might expect Martin mixes original compositions, traditional songs and covers. Here, Martin’s new songs lean towards the American traditional style so the opener, ‘Trouble Brought Me Here’ sounds like it could be a hundred or so years old. The second track, ‘Kimbie’, is traditional and includes some of those “vagrant stanzas” that he’s fond of. By this time, you’ll be relaxing into the music and the distinction really won’t matter.

Rooted boasts a fine supporting cast including Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr, John Smith and Ben Nicholls plus five backing vocalists but Andy Bell’s production and engineering ensure that Martin’s voice, guitar and/or banjo ride smoothly on top of the arrangements. I’m not totally convinced by one track and that is ‘Hills Of Shiloh’ which was very popular back in the 80s. It’s not the song but Martin takes it a little too quickly for my taste and the arrangement is rather too involved.

There are some great stories in these songs, though. ‘Ken Small’ tells of a man who laboured to unearth a tank from Start Bay left there after the disastrous Operation Tiger in 1944. ‘Joe Bowers’ came from Hedy West and is a relative of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike’ and ‘Henry Gray’ is about a piano-player who was a member of Howln’ Wolf’s band and also worked with Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. Martin was invited to play with his band – what can you say? Robb Johnson’s ‘More Than Enough’ was a song that Roy Bailey played and Martin sang it with him in hospital just before he died.

The bonus disc is a set of instrumentals two of which are sung in the substantive set. I get the feeling that Martin let his hair down just a little – playing guitar is no joking matter – and invited the band to do the same. There are a number of songs that I haven’t mentioned; all as good as the ones I have and you’ll find that Rooted is a sublime record.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.martinsimpson.com

‘More Than Enough’ – with a story to tell:

Martin Simpson announces new album

Martin Simpson

Singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson releases brand new studio album Rooted on August 30 on Topic Records. Produced by Andy Bell and recorded in Sheffield and Oxfordshire, Rooted will be available on CD, LP and digital with the deluxe 2CD and deluxe digital versions including a bonus disc of instrumentals, Seeded.

Summing up the themes of his new album, Martin says:

“The music and songs embrace nature and travel, mental health, real life stories, loss, politics and history… and the threads that bind all this together can be followed back a long way, to 1965 when I got my first guitar and started to soak up material and ideas at a very rapid rate.”

Rooted features an array of stellar guest musicians, including Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola), Andy Cutting (melodeon and diatonic accordion), Liz Hanks (cello), John Smith (electric guitar and vocals), Ben Nicholls (string bass and electric bass guitar), Julie Matthews (vocals), Alan Barnes (clarinet), Max Simpson (vocals), Amy Smith (vocals), Chris While (vocals) and Tom A Wright (drums and percussion). Richard Hawley and Dom Flemons contribute backing vocals and bones respectively to first single ‘Neo’ (out 21st June).  As well as vocals, Martin himself plays banjola, 5-string banjo, 6-string fretless banjo, electric bass guitar and electric and resonator guitars!

Hand in hand with his long and storied solo career, Martin has been central to seminal collaborations like The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Simpson Cutting Kerr. He has worked with a dazzling range of artists from across the musical spectrum: Jackson Browne, Martin Taylor, June Tabor, Richard Hawley, Bonnie Raitt, Danny Thompson, David Hidalgo, Danú, Richard Thompson and Dom Flemons, to mention a few. He is consistently named as one of the very finest acoustic, fingerstyle and slide guitar players in the world and is the most nominated musician in the history of the BBC Folk Awards, with a remarkable thirty-one nods. A true master of his art.

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There is nothing from the new album out there yet (apart from a 41 second teaser) so here’s an old film of guitar mastery:

Plus, as an additional treat, here is a second video (this time, from the folking archive) – Louisiana 1927 from Gosport and Fareham Easter Festival in 2010.

NANCY KERR & JAMES FAGAN – An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James Fagan  (Little Dish LiDiCD003)

An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James FaganTwenty years playing together! It seems like only yesterday they were cast in the role of ‘brat pack’ young folk upstarts. And now we’re talking the language of ‘retrospective’ with a new offering An Evening With… to showcase the impressive repertoire and instrumental prowess that has kept them at the top for this long. A live album is always a risk; you can never quite rekindle the full experience of being there. But they’ve made a good shot at it, with recordings from two shows – Hertfordshire and Sheffield – just as it happened. The exceptional sound quality doesn’t mask the participation of the audience who sing in harmony with Nancy and James on two tracks.

The songs include some of their most requested from the previous five albums – ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘Anderson’s Coast’ – plus some previously unrecorded tunes such as Willy Taylor’s ‘Sir John Fenwick’. Nancy’s stellar album Instar also gets a look in, with ‘Fragile Water’; but for many of us who’ve seen them live, the big number is ‘The Flaming Drones’ intertwined with the melody of ‘Dance To Your Daddy’, in which Nancy sings one melody while playing another on the fiddle – how does she do it?!

‘The Herald Of Free Enterprise’ is about the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster, a song written by Robb Johnson and famously recorded by the late Roy Bailey. James added it as a tribute to Roy, and also because it includes some very fine audience chorus singing. Taking us into antipodean romantic poetry is Henry Lawson’s ‘The Outside Track’, set to music by Gerry Hallom and beautifully sung here by James with Nancy adding some tasty harmonies.

It’s been nine years, a house move, and two children since the duo’s last album, and both James and Nancy have branched out into their own respective projects – The James Brothers, The Full English and Melrose Quartet to name just three. They both come from renowned musical dynasties and this album is proof again that roots music runs deep through their every vein.

Jon Bennett

An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James Fagan is now available to pre-order.

Artists’ website: www.nancykerr.co.uk

‘The Outside Track’ – live:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Vision & Revision (Topic TXCD597)

Vision & RevisionIt can’t have escaped your notice that Topic Records is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. We’ve already had selected deluxe reissues of important albums but how can you really celebrate a catalogue as vast as this? Vision & Revision, subtitled The First 80 Years Of Topic Records, is the solution. Twenty artists, mostly from the younger generation, perform a song that was released on a Topic record some time in the last eight decades. I must congratulate Glen Johnson and Michael Mastrangelo who curated the set but I’m intrigued to know how they set about their task. Did they select twenty songs and parcel them out – surely not? So they must have picked twenty performers and turned them loose on the archives. Each one has a story and you’ll get dizzy following the cross-references.

The first disc opens with one of the old stagers, Martin Simpson, who sings ‘Beaulampkin’ which appeared on his first album. Martin didn’t join Topic until his third record but he learned the song from Hedy West’s Ballads. Of course, Sam Kelly learned ‘Shawnee Town’ from Martin and the baton moves on again. Another veteran is Martin Carthy who cites Sam Larner for ‘Napoleon’s Dream’. Martin heard Sam perform when he was just a teenager and Emily Portman gives Waterson:Carthy as the source of ‘The Bay Of Biscay’ – fifty years separate the two inspirations.

Martin is mentioned again by Chris Wood as the source of ‘Fable Of The Wings’, the Keith Christmas song adapted by Brass Monkey. It’s an unexpected choice and Chris takes it back to something like the guitar original. Anne Briggs is mentioned more than once and Kitty Macfarlane goes as far as singing ‘Go Your Way’ while Olivia Chaney borrows ‘Polly Vaughan’ from Hazards Of Love. Nancy Kerr namechecks June Tabor, Oysterband tackle Nic Jones’ ‘Seven Gypsies’ – an excellent reading of the song – and Peggy Seeger goes to Mike Waterson leaving The Oldham Tinkers to sing ‘Dirty Old Town’.

Another unexpected treat is Richard Thompson’s ‘The Light Bob’s Lassie’, a version of ‘Katie Cruel’ and there are two voices I haven’t heard before. The first is Irish singer Lisa O’Neill who sings ‘As I Roved Out’ with a mighty voice that takes absolutely no prisoners. The second is Lankum – please don’t ask me why I haven’t heard them before – whose lengthy take on ‘The Sea Captain’ closes the second disc.

There’s probably a great pub game to be had from matching twenty singers to twenty songs from the Topic catalogue but this is the official version. Sadly I won’t be around to hear what they select for the second eighty years.

Dai Jeffries

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Martin Simpson – ‘Beaulampkin’ :

VARIOUS ARTISTS – From Here – English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2 (From Here Records SITW011CD)

From Here Volume 2Curated by Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel, the second volume of From Here is every bit as intriguing and entertaining as its predecessor. Recorded wherever the artists were with just two microphones, these performances are sometimes raw and earthy and sometimes delicate and beautiful. Some of the artists are well known, others less so and same is true of the music.

There is a sort of chronology about the album. It begins with what Nancy Kerr calls a mediaeval song, ‘Gan Tae The Kye’, which she pairs with a popular north-eastern tune ‘Peacock Followed The Hen’. From the same geographical area comes ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ sung by Rachel Unthank and I must admit that I’ve never really listened to it properly. It’s a lullaby, yes, but with a very hard story wrapped up in it and Rachel’s matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the hardship. The first instrumental set is the delightful ‘Cottenham Medley’ by C Joynes, about whom I know almost nothing.other than the fact that he lives in Cambridgeshire. The other two sets are from the north-east: Kathryn Tickell’s dazzling ‘Bonnie Pit Laddie/ Lads Of Alnwick’ and ‘Nancy Clough’ by Sandra and Nancy Kerr, who thus gets to open and close the set.

The chronology begins to break down now. Richard Dawson’s ‘The Almsgiver’ sounds old but which Richard wrote recently and is perfectly in keeping with the feeling of the project. You may think you know ‘Barbera Allen’ but this version by Mary Hymphreys & Anahata will be new to most listeners. Coincidentally (or not) it also comes from Cottingham. June Tabor revisits ‘The Kng Of Rome’ and rising star Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne tackles ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. There are two distinct versions of this song, both by Charles Coborn, and Cohen goes for the political one. Both this and ‘The King Of Rome’ are set around the turn of the 20th century even though the latter was written much more recently. Appropriately, they are followed by Grace Petrie’s ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, her updating of a song that began with the words “At the turning of the century…”, a clever juxtapositioning. Politics – although with a small “p” – return with Chris Wood’s ‘So Much To Defend’ which would appear to be made up of true stories.

Other, but not lesser, artists are Cath & Phil Tyler, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp and Belinda Kempster, who is the mother of SITW’s Fran Foote and a very fine singer, now working as a duo with her daughter. That sort of emphasises the idea that we’re listening to a continuing tradition that has been caught in a moment of time.

Dai Jeffries

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Nancy Kerr – ‘Gan Tae The Kye/Peacock Followed The Hen’ – the video of the recording:

Topic Records celebrates its first 80 years

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records is a deluxe double CD and double vinyl of the cream of contemporary British folk artists interpreting a song of their choice from Topic’s vast back catalogue (the only stipulation being that the song was at some time released on Topic). It includes newly recorded and never-before-released tracks by Martin Simpson, Richard Thompson, Lankum, Peggy Seeger, John Smith, Sam Lee, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Lisa O’Neill, Oysterband, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lisa Knapp, Kitty Macfarlane, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys, Emily Portman & Rob Harbron, Rachael McShane & The Cartographers, Eliza Carthy & Olivia Chaney and The Oldham Tinkers. These artists have delved deep into Topic’s treasure chest to pull out all manner and variety of ballads and broadsides and breathed new life into them.

With its origins in the Workers’ Music Association, through the mid-20th century folk revival to the present day, Topic Records has established itself as not only the pre-eminent British folk music label, but one widely respected throughout the world. Topic has survived, grown and flourished – proof, if any were needed, that “grass roots” interest in traditional music, the artists and the label itself, has remained constant and strong. Topic has released some of the most influential folk recordings of modern times by a host of revered artists, from Anne Briggs to Peggy Seeger to June Tabor to Ewan MacColl and many, many more.

For 80 years, Topic Records has been a fervent and consistent champion of “the people’s music”. During that time, it has withstood wars, shortages, austerity, economic disaster, the vagaries of fashion, corporate onslaught and various cataclysmic shifts in the fortunes of the recording industry, to retain its proud and distinctively individual role as a beacon of integrity and true values. This fortitude has resulted in its unquestionable claim for being the oldest, surviving truly independent record label in the world.

“Folk music never goes away. You may not hear it, but it is always there, just over your cultural horizon. It lives in families, in communities, in the villages and towns and cities, and in the hearts of the people. Each generation takes what it needs and gives what it can to the tradition, each wave of newcomers turning another furrow, sowing new seeds. For eighty years, Topic Records has played a major role in this process, ensuring the old voices are still audible and creating a space for those that hear them to make new recordings of their own. Formats come and go, but like the music, Topic endures. Long may it do so.” – Billy Bragg

This 20-track double album comes in CD and vinyl gatefold formats, both housed in a special deluxe, debossed, silver foil-blocked sleeve. The vinyl issue is limited to 1000 copies only. A digital version of the album is also available.

Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records will be released on May 31st 2019.

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