Mick Ryan is, as we all know, is a prolific song-writer and skilled at melding his ideas into shows or folk operas as he is happy to call them. Here At The Fair is his sixth such show and, as always, he has assembled a fine cast: Heather Bradford, Alice Jones, Pete Morton, Geoff Lakeman and the trio Granny’s Attic – George Sansome, Lewis Wood and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.
Ryan’s shows are usually historical and/or political subjects so this particular fair is set up in a country town in 1850. Initially it’s all very jolly with the instrumentation featuring reeds and euphonium echoing the sound of a fairground organ. The various characters introduce themselves and comment on their lifestyles. Ryan is generous in sharing out the parts with Geoff Lakeman playing Doctor Maldini, the snake-oil salesman; George Sansome as a ballad-seller; Heather Bradford plays the fortune-teller Madame Lavengro and Pete Morton is allowed to go completely over the top as Professor Sleary, the owner of the flea circus. Ryan plays Vincent Crummles, the showman, with Alice Jones as his daughter. Aficionados of Charles Dickens will recognise the names.
Gradually, a darker story begins to emerge. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne plays the clown Steven Starling who, we learn, is searching for his father. The second disc begins with Maldini recalling the events at Peterloo and Madame Lavengro remembering the last great Chartist meeting. There are other missing persons in this story – is there a link between them? As the show progresses the characters confess the truth about the hardship of their lives in a travelling show, admit that their best days are behind them and confront the truth about themselves. Any more information would be spoilers.
Mick Ryan’s songs are always singable, which is why so many people borrow them, and even in the darker moments of Here At The Fair there is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Things may be bad now but they were good once. Sadly, in the words of ‘If Only’, there is no going back so everyone blinks back the tears and looks forward.
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The Fellside Recording label has been a major force in independent folk music recording for 42 years and has over 600 albums to its credit, many by some very big names in the genre. Now, Paul and Linda Adams have decided to slow down, and though the label remains in business, it will have a lower profile and won’t be taking on new artists. The end of an era, but by no means the end of the story. Destination is a mighty collection of tracks – three CDs worth – specially recorded by some of the many fine artists who’ve been associated with the label, plus some archive material.
The material here covers the spectrum from dance tunes to modern songs by treasured artists like Peter Bellamy (two of his Kipling settings are provided here, one sung by Terry Docherty) and Alex Glasgow, to a wide selection of traditional songs (even the occasional Child ballad). Well over half the tracks here have not been released previously. Given the calibre of the musicians here, that alone has to make it worth buying. There are also a handful of unusual jazz performances from Fellside’s sibling label Lake.
Because of the sheer number of tracks provided here (64!), my usual practice of including a full track listing didn’t seem altogether appropriate. Here are just a few more of the performers and writers who are represented in this collection, which may be enough to persuade you to take a closer look: Jez Lowe, Bram Taylor, Steve Turner, Pete Morton, Bobby Eaglesham, Sara Grey, Alistair Anderson, Paul Metsers, Brian Dewhurst, Bob Davenport…
Here are few tracks that stand out for me personally, but there’s such a wide range of artists here that your personal highlights might be quite different
Maddy Prior’s unaccompanied ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’, proving that Steeleye Span maybe always needed her more than she needed them. (Not that I didn’t like the Steeleye version.)
Swan Arcade’s stunning version of Sting’s ‘We Work The Black Seam’.
The much-missed Vin Garbutt singing ‘Boulavogue’.
Hedy West singing ‘Little Sadie’ – as Pete Seeger said when she sang it on his Rainbow Quest series in the ’60s, “That’s the real thing…“
Peggy Seeger’s exquisite ‘Single Girl’ – if my ears don’t fail me, from a 1958 recording with Guy Carawan.
Diz Disley and friends in full Django/Hot Club mode on ‘Shine’.
Marilyn Middleton-Pollock’s version of ‘Melancholy Blues’, recorded long ago by Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds.
Bob Fox’s version of Alex Glasgow’s ‘Standing At The Door’. A fine performance from someone who’s no mean songwriter himself.
Tom Kitching & Gren Bartley with a blistering performance of ‘Whisky Head’.
But there are too many classy tracks here to list all the ones I can imagine myself listening to for a long time yet.
Buy it. You’ll certainly find enough tracks to make it worth your while.
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Dai Jeffries talks to Kara about their comings and goings
This has been a turbulent year for our friends Kara. It began with the departure of Gary Holbrook and the search for someone who could learn the repertoire in a very short time. It ended – well almost ended – with guitarist and songwriter Ben Honey leaving the band because of work commitments and relocation and another search was underway. In the middle of all this Kara recorded their second album, Some Other Shore. Daria Kulesh picked up the story for me.
“The second album was a make-or-break moment. Replacing Gary was much trickier than we thought – we tried a couple of people and things were not working out – nobody’s fault, it just seemed that the stars we against us – and we knew that we couldn’t lose all that momentum. At the same time we knew that we had to make the album and the album launch tour happen and we only just managed to get the record out on time.”
Kate Rouse, singer and dulcimer player, reflected further. “In the end, the year has turned out really, really well. Gary’s work was building up and up and I think he was always going to be the first person who struggled. His was a tough role to fill but we completely fell on our feet with Phil Underwood. There are lots of musicians round here – Russians – but they want to do something very, very pure and are not so interested in the creative element.”
And then came the enforced departure of Ben Honey. Daria again:
“Hopefully, as a songwriter, Ben will remain very much a part of Kara – that was the first question that we asked him, that and whether we could play his songs with the new line-up. His answer was a resounding yes.
“When we cast our net in searching for a new band member our first approach was to ask the guitarists on the scene because we already had Ben’s songwriting in the bag so how about we find a really, really amazing guitarist? But the problem there is that the amazing guitarists tend to be very, very busy so we thought that sometimes you have to think outside the box and look for another songwriter and once we started asking songwriters the response was much more encouraging. Then I thought ‘why don’t I ask one of my favourite songwriters who, I think, encompasses a bit of the madness of Kara’ [and who happens to live a few miles down the road]. I called him and by the next morning he’d said yes.”
Kate: “Before, Daria kicked herself that she’d known Phil for ages and hadn’t thought to ask him so this time we thought ‘sod it’. I didn’t matter how cheeky it was – if you don’t ask you don’t get. Pete, bless him, practically bit our hand off. The creativity of the project appealed and, certainly, our early rehearsals have gone really, really well. Even when he’s winging it it all goes “whoop” and when he nails it completely it’s going to be pretty special.”
Cue Pete Morton.
“A number of things have come along that make it a perfect idea for me. I do so much of being a front man; predominantly solo and a few other things like the Christmas show, but it’s mainly me and I’m always playing that same role. What was lovely was that I got a phone in the middle of the day from Daria and for the first time in my life someone has asked me to join their band and it was one of the most beautiful feelings I ever had.”
I should say that our meeting was in danger of falling apart at this point in a welter of emotion and hugs but Pete held it together. “I’m not being over-dramatic here, there is substance to this. Being a front person people think that you’re the person in authority and I don’t always see things like that. I like the idea of being in the situation of playing the guitar, being in that different dynamic; it just fits in with everything I want to do now.”
Dare I ask how Pete sees his role in the band developing? “I just like the idea of playing Ben’s songs on the guitar and playing along with the tunes. I’ve played a lot in ceilidh bands and it’s nice to do that. I’m interested in being involved in the vocals but that’s Daria’s role. I like the theatrical aspects and I like the idea of occasional duets but that’s further down the line.”
Phil Underwood arrived – Kara were meeting for a photo-shoot and rehearsal – and chaos almost reigned but I did want to ask Phil how he felt about joining a band, learning the back catalogue and recording an album within the space of a few months, only to find a key member leaving.
“There was a lot of work to get into it but Ben made the decision that was right for him and I think it’s timely in a way. It’s wonderful that Pete has come along and I think we’re going to go in a different direction. Ben saw himself as the engine-room of Kara and that helped me because it settled me into the band and gave me enough leeway to put my mark on the band.”
So was there a feeling of ‘oh, no, what have I let myself in for now”? “Absolutely! It’s that kind of band. It’s a great band. It’s a very quirky and lively sort of band and everybody in it is quirky and lively which reflects in the music. I’m really looking forward to what Pete’s going to bring.”
The light was beginning to go, there were wardrobe decisions to make and Phil was eager to show off his newly-acquired 1963 long-necked Pete Seeger banjo so it was time for me to go. We’ll hear the results of all their efforts when Kara return to live performance next month. I, for one, am looking forward to it.
I may have asked this question before but why isn’t Pete Morton a huge star? He’s a fine singer with an engaging stage presence and, more importantly, he’s a writer of superb songs, ten of which are to be found within this rather unassuming sleeve. So why isn’t his name on everyone’s lips?
The opening track, ‘The Herefordshire Pilgrim’ takes the style of William Langland’s Piers Ploughman to a logical, if rather over the top, conclusion. It reminds me also of Belloc’s The Four Men and, oddly, Bob Dylan’s ‘Dignity’. It’s a complex song, full of words and ideas and I really feel the need of the lyrics which aren’t included. There are a couple of fraps here. The first is ‘Poverty Frap’ which uses the chorus of ‘Poverty Knock’ to link thoughts on sweatshop workers in Bangladesh and the original Lancashire mill workers. The second employs the chorus of ‘The Rigs Of London Town’ to consider the plight of trafficked sex-workers in ‘Slave To The Game’.
‘One Hundred Years Ago’ is the story of Pete’s grandfather who was wounded and captured in the Great War before eventually being repatriated. It’s a rather jolly song but the point being made is that without the enemy the wounded soldier would have died and Pete wouldn’t be around to tell the story to his children. I think that’s a cause for celebration, don’t you? Another standout track, mixing history and modern concerns is ‘Old Boston Town’, an attack on the arms trade and, finally, ‘Oh What Little Lives We Lead’ puts everything into perspective.
Pete is supported by his regular cohorts plus Ciaran Algar who adds some gorgeously simple fiddle to ‘The Herefordshire Pilgrim’. Jon Brindley plays (presumably) the clever guitar bits while Pete is singing and Chris Parkinson provides various free reeds and piano. On paper it seems very simple but it works so well.
The Land Of Time is another superb album from Pete Morton – now get out there and make him the star he should be.
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We don’t hear anywhere near enough of Pete Morton here in the south. It’s as though Yorkshire knows when it has a good thing and won’t let him escape although if this set is any guide he’ll be the last man to be seduced by the bright lights and the good life.
The record opens with ‘Farmer’s Boy Frap’. I thought at first that “frap” might be a cross between rap and frappuccino® as the subject is mainly milk and how farmers are exploited by supermarkets and big business in general – a contrast between those who can do and those who can only sell. Actually frap = folk rap: a tumble of contemporary words linked to a traditional, or semi-traditional, theme and chorus. Possibly the best is ‘The Manchester Rambler Frap’, hence my careful distinction.
This is very much a political album. Pete sets out his manifesto in ‘The Journeyman’ – his description of himself – beginning with the re-nationalisation of the railways and he surveys the heroes of the underdogs in ‘Rambling Through Old England’ name-checking Wat Tyler, George Fox and Titus Salt. ‘Corporatocracy’ predicts Sonmi-451’s world in Cloud Atlas and that isn’t so far away. For light relief we have ‘The Love Of You’ and ‘Bedside Song’ – Pete has always had a romantic streak – but it’s the other songs that matter here. Or is it? Without humanity the corporatocracy will become all-powerful.
Pete is accompanied by Maggie Boyle, Chris Parkinson, Jon Brindley and James Budden with Linda Adams adding chorus vocals. Fine musicians all, doing exactly what is needed to carry the songs and their complex lyrics while Pete himself balances on a torrent of words. This is an excellent record.