John Richards is credited on his new CD Bring Back The Spring as “John Richards, Songwriter”. And it is indeed quite possible that you have never heard John himself or the many bands with which he has been associated. But there is a good chance you know songs of his through versions recorded by Robin Dransfield, Downes and Beer, Mike Silver, Fairport Convention and other luminaries. Nevertheless, he seems to work tirelessly around the West Midlands despite his intention, announced some years ago, to concentrate on songwriting rather than continuing to gig with the full John Richards Band. Bring Back The Spring reflects his intention to leave behind as few uncompleted songs as possible, and a good thing too. His own vocals, guitar and bouzouki are augmented by a galaxy of fine musicians and singers, including daughter Emma Jones, Mike Silver, Phil Beer, and Paul Downes, and other longstanding collaborators such as Jim Sutton.
Here’s the track list:
‘Tutchen The Jed’ (touching the dead) is a bizarre murder ballad based on superstitions of murderers who were identified by a corpse that bled in their presence (cruentation).
‘Hallsands’ tells the story of a Devon village virtually destroyed by excessive dredging in order to provide sand and gravel for the naval dockyard at Keyham. Very effectively sung by Emma Jones.
‘Look In Their Eyes’ was co-written with Mike Silver, and is an excellent song about immigration and false promises. “They came when invited to make a new start / and find a new life for their children.“
‘Yellows & Blues’ includes the line that gives the CD its title: it’s a contemplative song with a typically singworthy chorus.
‘Young Thomas’ is an absorbing story song about an instance of therianthropy – people who can change into animals (or vice versa). Phil Beer’s fiddle solo towards the end of the song is particularly effective.
‘Never Trouble Trouble’ is a rather classy number with a blues feel.
‘Threadbare Coats’ was also co-written with Mike Silver and contemplates chilling issues of trial by the media and exploitation of the victim.
‘No Blacks, No Irish & No Dogs’ is the final song in this collection co-written with Mike Silver, and addresses the issue of ongoing prejudice with individual stories. I imagine the man from Arkansas in the first verse was Bill Broonzy.
‘Mary Stone’s Waltz’ / ‘The Marigolds’ Waltz’. The waltz that follows this story song was written by Jim Sutton.
‘Cats Eyes & Stars’ is a story song with a distinctive acoustic rock and roll feel.
Despite its funereal subject ‘The Ballad Of An Ordinary Man’ actually has a rather uplifting chorus. I like it a lot.
‘Mrs. Allcock’s Millionaire’ has an attractive melody and makes a good point about not being a “would-be millionaire“.
The lengthy ‘The Unknown Soldier’ / ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ strays into Eric Bogle/Bill Caddick country with its reflections on the Great War, and is a creditable addition to that body of work.
It doesn’t seem to be John’s way to name names, but ‘A Bitter Thing’ is clearly about Alan Turing and “the prejudice of fools“. A very effective song.
‘Billy Shaw’ makes a trenchant political point about war and how people with good intentions are exploited for military purposes – “we went to war on a lie” – and makes a fine end to the album.
Bill Caddick regarded John Richards as “One of our finest writers and singers.” The vocals here by John and Emma are never less than pleasant, and there is indeed quality song-writing here, in some ways reminiscent of Caddick himself, with stories old and new. I can only hope that John has enough songs in him not yet written to lure him back into the studio at some point. But if not, Bring Back The Spring is still a creditable end to his recording career. Certainly I’m glad to have finally become acquainted with his music.
Covering four decades 30 Songs, a new compilation from the Stroud-based singer-songwriter amply serves, were it needed, to underscore his status as one of the folk world’s finest alumni. Compiled as two CDs (that one’s red and the other blue surely a Beatles nod), with the second disc a personal acoustic selection, it spans material from his solo debut, 1978’s Roll On Dreamer, to 2014’s Borderland with a roll call of guest musicians that include Phil Beer, Mick Dolan, Mike Silver, Dik Cadbury, Bill Zorn and Pete Acock, not to mention actor Anthony Head who lends backing vocals to ‘Believe In You’ from 1979’s Going Back.
That appears amid the first fifteen tracks, the same source album also providing the Jackon Browne influenced ‘Part In My Heart’ and the hymnal-like ‘We Shall Not Pass’, both featuring Beer on violin. In fact the basic track for the opening uptempo and ‘When All Is Said And Done’ was recorded for the same sessions, eventually ending up on the now impossible to find 1986 charity album Where Would You Rather Be Tonight. It’s one of two charity recordings, the other being the gentle ballad ‘It’s With You That I Will Stay’, another winter hymnal-coloured number that appeared on 1989’s For Every Child.
His third album, Get Lucky has the lion’s share of selections, first up being the upbeat ‘New Day’, followed by the Eltonish piano-based ‘Catherine’, a ballad once rumoured Cliff Richard was considering recording, ‘Celebrate My Life’, ‘First Time Love’, another piano ballad, and, lifted as a single, ‘Everybody Knows’.
Still in the 80s, ‘Keep A Little Light’ comes from 1985’s Line of Blue while English Morning offers a dramatic setting of Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘East Wind’ before moving into the 90s and, featuring trumpet, another poet, this time Charles Causley whose ‘Innocents’Song’ was given a big building treatment on West Country Christmas and was later covered by Show of Hands.
1993’s Force of the River accounts for the remaining two numbers, an edited version of ‘Border County Road’, apparently written on the A49 between Leominster and Shrewsbury, presumably not while driving, and the near six-minute ‘May Not Be Far Away’, co-written with keyboardist John Broomhall and featuring showstopping exultant guitar solo from Mick Dolan.
Turning to Disc 2, it opens with ‘Rydal’, written after his first visit to Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount and featuring on Line Of Blue. The same album also yields ‘Hallelujah’, an anti-war number written during the Falkands War, and, written to commemorate the 375th anniversary of Bermuda, the potted history ‘Pride Of All The Ocean’ featuring just Coppin on acoustic guitar.
One of his finest albums, Forest And Vale And High Blue Hill was a setting of poems from Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds, represented here with a shimmering piano and violin setting of Leonard Clark’s ‘This Night The Stars’ celebrating the view across the Severn Vale from the Forest of Dean and, with Geoff March on cello, ‘Costwold Lad’, written by Frank Mansell for his father, the last of the line to farm near Bisley. He also goes to the Mansell well for ‘The Holy Brook’, an unpublished poem with March’s cello and Paul Burgess on violin from Early Morning.
Remaining with the poets, Edge Of Day was his 1989 collaboration with Laurie Lee, here showcased with the lovely keyboards accompanied ‘On Beacon Hill’ while, written for a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, there’s ‘Come Live With Me And Be My Love’ which, despite being from 1997’s The Shakespeare Songs, was actually a poem by Christopher Marlowe, the other bard being John Drinkwater whose 1914 ‘Moonlit Apples’ was set to music for a show named A Slice of Apple and subsequently recorded for 2014’s Borderland with Burgess on recorder.
Fellow folkie Mike Silver provided the lyric and acoustic guitar for both the bluesy ‘Survival’ and the folksier ‘We Had It All’, both lifted from 2005’s The Winding Stair, the title track of which, a tribute to Dublin bookshop, also appears. Johnny also teamed with Silver for their collaborative 2007 album Breaking The Silence, playing guitar and sharing vocals on ‘Postcards From Cornwall’, co-written with Dave Bell for a Decameron reunion concert in memory of their early days in the county. It was after the band broke up that Coppin went solo and it’s from that debut album that the remaining two songs come, the fingerpicked ‘Never Lost For Love’ and, written after a tour of Ireland, one of his simplest and finest numbers, the piano and violin sway of ‘Angelus’.
His last studio album now three years ago, it’s time he was back in the studio, but, for now, both as an introduction to his work for newcomers and a treasury for the faithful, consider 30 Songs an early Christmas gift.
Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from Show Of Hands, a band that is one of the most recognized Folk acts of the 21st Century. So much so I’m writing this review with some trepidation as I only became aware of them when they toured their last album with the wonderful Megan Henwood (who I’d really gone to see!!) in 2016.
With eight new original songs from Steve Knightly, this thirteen track album doesn’t disappoint. Regular Show Of Hands gig goers will be familiar with many of them as they have been ‘road tested’ by the band either at solo gigs or together as band. An example being the Cornish reggae ‘Dreckley’ which Steve performed at Towersey (which has become a bit of an earworm and is now in my head all the time).
As well as Cornish reggae, there are other diverse sounds such as the Eastern feel to ‘Mother Tongue’, a really full sounding track which rolls along at a steady pace and has a haunting feel to it.
This album has a fourth member with Cormac Byrne (who toured with them last autumn) adding percussion to Miranda Sykes double bass, and Phil and Steve’s multi instrument contributions. There are also contributions on keyboards from Matt Clifford.
The album includes the Kirsty Merryn song ‘Forfarshire’ on which Steve sang on her album She And I, this version has Miranda joining Steve on vocals and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s album, on a collection of instruments from mandolin to percussion. Miranda also takes the lead vocal on ‘Make The Right Noises’.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’, is given great treatment by the band and although I don’t know the original I suspect this is a much jauntier version. Phil’s vocals come to the fore on Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’, another song I remember from live shows and Adrian Mannering’s ‘My True Love’.
The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone! So this is a great listen, but to get the full Show Of Hands effect go and see them live as they are consummate storytellers, entertainers and musicians and you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
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With its arresting cover of a felled marionette, Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from one of the most prized acts on the folk roots circuit.
Show of Hands’ first key release in more than three years, the 13-track album brings eight keenly awaited new songs (and a co-write) from the pen of Steve Knightley, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most inspired and original songwriters.
Phil Beer is the ‘master decorator’ of the songs – a brilliant, consummate multi-instrumentalist while long term third member Miranda Sykes is back on board with her eloquent double bass and vocals after her sabbatical – and Cormac Byrne and his feted percussion skills (witnessed on last autumn’s UK tour) bring a vibrant fresh dimension to the party.
Rolling Stones collaborator Matt Clifford adds his keyboard skills to some tracks and an impromptu collective known as The Bridge Hill Shanty Men are the icing on the cake, weighing in with rousing choruses.
Possibly their most commercial release to date, Battlefield Dance Floor is an exuberant, lush, full-blooded album co-produced by the in-demand Mark Tucker and Knightley – Show of Hands’ first release since 2016’s The Long Way Home.
An album of broad brushstrokes, it mixes songs of despair and displacement, emphatic songs, tongue-in-cheek songs, poignant songs and carefully chosen covers into a classic Show of Hands package with wide appeal.
Knightley is a highly talented songwriter who has a great knack in addressing serious and pertinent issues with really catchy lyrics. Top class performances are guaranteed wherever they play” – Songlines
It bursts straight in with Knightley’s ‘Lost’ – a slickly produced, multi-layered and poetic opener – on the surface a number inspired by the story of doomed Devon sailor Donald Crowhurst who died while competing in the 1968 single-handed, round the world Golden Globe Race –but with a deeper theme summed up by Knightley as “a maritime-themed song about masculine despair.”
Catching the listener unawares the mood swerves abruptly to the upbeat, jaunty, genre-hopping title track as Bhangra meets Morris, a seed sown by Show of Hands’ recent close encounters with Johnny Kalsi’s The Dhol Foundation.
Politics and history graduate Knightley name checks some of the greats in history (Wellington, Drake, Churchill, Monty) in this savvy song of eve-of-battle drunkenness with its catchy rugby chant style chorus. Juxtaposing battle readiness with pre-battle abandon it travels through time from the Battle of Agincourt to D-Day and is littered with clever lyrics: “It’s a ballet not a battle/A salsa not a siege” and its ‘Tomorrow it’s a battlefield/tonight it is a dance floor” refrain.
A trademark Knightley song is shaped in the sublime ‘Just Enough To Lose’ – a poignant tale of failing love delivered by his distinctive voice. “It was just between the sowing and the reaping /You told me our crop was bound to fail’, the regret underlined by Beer’s beautifully judged fiddle and Clifford’s keyboards.
Some years ago Show of Hands joined forces with exiled Chilean musicians to form the band Alianza so the theme of displacement is one well known to them and here it is explored in the Knightley-Johnny Kalsi co-write ‘Mother Tongue’, a stand-out track on the album penned soon after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The atmosphere-charged song is given a haunting, spiritual edge by the enigmatic chanting of British-Asian performer Shahid Khan.
There are songs with a lighter touch – the percussive, tongue in cheek ‘Cornish reggae’ of ‘Dreckley’, the tale of a Home Counties relationship threatened by the lure of the West Country replete with pasties and Poldark! It even includes a nod to The Great British Scone Debate – clotted cream or jam first on your Devonshire scone?!
Sykes takes lead vocal on the wry Knightley original ‘Make The Right Noises’, a cynical look at how we fake concern and enthusiasm because we think we should – concluding that ‘of the virtues sincerity is the most underrated’.
It’s over to Beer to take centre stage on a cover of Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’ – a gem of a road song which suits his voice – and flawless guitar work– perfectly while he also takes the microphone to deliver ‘My True Love’ – a gentle ballad written by Dubliner Adrian Mannering who Steve and Phil encountered on the Brighton folk scene back in their 20s.
‘You’ll Get By’ is a song of hope and reassurance for the older generation facing the array of life’s ups and downs (not just the province of the young!) and drums roll as ‘Swift And Bold’ marches in. A Knightley song written for 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment at a special celebratory concert at their Exeter HQ – at which to his surprise he was made an Honorary Rifleman – brings the battlefield back into view, with the Bridge Hill Shanty Men in full flow. Named after the regimental motto it’s a song which Steve was proud to write.
He says: “Being awarded the title of Honorary Rifleman meant I joined my grandfather and step brother in re-establishing a close relationship with the regiment.”
Steve also revisits a haunting song he first sang on Kirsty Merryn’s debut album She And I.
Merryn’s spellbinding ‘Forfarshire’ tells of lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling and her father William and Grace’s heroic rescue of shipwrecked mariners. In this version Steve is joined by Miranda and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s 2017 release. A useful man to know Gerry also plays myriad instruments on the track – mandolin, piano, fiddle, bass guitar, tenor guitar and percussion.
The album ends with ‘No Secrets’, released as a single to coincide with Show of Hands’ incredible fifth sell out of the Royal Albert Hall in 2017, celebrating 25 years of this unique band. Upbeat and breezy Steve describes it as a distillation of some sage advice given to a fellow folky on his wedding eve.
A classy cornucopia, it’s an album that successfully melds vintage Show of Hands and brand new material, infusing influences old and new and this time – as a four strong band – with even greater depth and panache.
Says Steve: “With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we’ve dreamed of making for twenty five years!”
The music is sharp and the armoury is strong. Battlefield Dance Floor reinvigorates Show of Hands’ unshakeable position at the front line of folk.
Show of Hands will showcase songs from Battlefield Dance Floor on a 22-date autumn-winter tour of England and Wales (October 30-December 7). The album will be officially released on September 27, 2019 under licence to Proper Music Publishing and will be distributed by Proper Records.
Steve Knightley has said “Show of Hands is still a duo consisting of Steve and Phil. Miranda and Cormac have solo careers in their own right and whenever they join us they are always name checked as such! We are absolutely delighted to have them on board for this year’s Autumn tour and next year’s festival season.”
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25-27 October 2019
It has attracted and inspired some of the biggest names in traditional folk music, and, in October, the Baring-Gould Weekend celebrates its 20th year.
Today, the folk festival takes place at venues in the Dartmoor town of Okehampton in West Devon, but for the first few years, it was held in the nearby rural villages of Lewdown and Bratton Clovelly. An odd setting for a musical festival, perhaps, but one that made perfect sense.
The Baring-Gould Folk Festival – as it was then called – was named in honour of the prolific song collector from Dartmoor, the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould. The squire and parson from Lewtrenchard (1834-1924) spent many years in the latter part of the 19th century, travelling around Devon and Cornwall, collecting traditional folk songs directly from the voices of the people who sang them.
The volume of his song collection wasn’t realised until the founders of Devon-based music and education charity, Wren Music, started to do some digging. By the time they’d reached the end of their search, Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker had discovered almost 1,000 songs.
The collection forms a significant part of The Full English – a national collection of traditional songs managed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. And, says Paul:
“In terms of the melodies, it’s the most beautiful of all the song collections in England. Baring-Gould saved them, and we found them.”
Which all goes to explain why, when Wren were asked to organise a folk festival, they decided to stage it in Baring-Gould’s parish. Among the performers at that first Baring-Gould Festival in 1999 were folk grandees, Martin Carthy & Norma Waterson, Anita Best, Cyril Tawney and Newfoundland folk singer Jim Payne.
Twenty years on, and the event has evolved into the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend & Song School. The 20th anniversary event takes place at locations in Okehampton on 25-27 October, with the song school on 21-25 October.
“We quickly outgrew the villages,” said Paul. “The country lanes couldn’t cope, and neither could the pubs!”
There have been other changes along the way, too. A few years ago, the event underwent a name change to dispel any idea that it was a typical festival in a muddy field: “It’s not like any other folk festival,” said Marilyn. “Our venues offer an intimate setting so the audience is really close to the performers, and you can appear alongside the festival artists at some of the gigs. You can sit and listen, or you can take part. And we create an orchestra and a choir over the two days that anyone can sign up to, and they get to perform at their own special concert at the weekend. It’s the spirit of the event that’s so different and unique.”
While it might not be as big as some of the UK’s other annual folk festivals, its influence in promoting traditional music and providing a stage for emerging singers can’t be over-stated. It has been the inspiration behind many of today’s brightest young folk stars, such as Sam Lee. For Sam, the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School is something of a spiritual home. He attended the song school as a student several years ago and returned as a tutor in 2014 and again in 2016.
Regulars down the years include the festival’s patron, Phil Beer, from the folk duo, Show of Hands, and legendary American folk singer-songwriter, Peggy Seeger, who is patron of Wren Music. Artists from the new folk generation who have appeared include Georgia Lewis, Lady Maisery and Jim Causley.
There’s usually a different theme to the festival each year. Last year, it featured up and coming young folk singers; this year, it has an international flavour, with the return of overseas artists who’ve appeared before with great success: Sos Cantores from Sardinia, Dandari from Latvia, and Funi (Chris Foster and Bara Grimsdottir) from Iceland. Also lined up is Thomas McCarthy from Ireland, multi-instrumentalist Lauren Eva Ward and English folk singer James Findlay, who took the song school last year.
The school is always led by a leading personality in the world of traditional song and this year, Wren have secured Tim Van Eyken, who was one of the first to play Songman in the stage production of War Horse. After years of acting in theatre and on TV, Tim is returning to his roots as a folk singer.
“The reason the festival is going stronger than ever is because folk music is now so huge”, said Marilyn. “There’s been a folk explosion in the past few years. When we started the festival, you couldn’t find a folk club anywhere. Now they’re everywhere. And we’ve got people like Jim Causley and Sam Lee bringing it to a big new audience.
“I think traditional English folk music is in safe hands. And the Baring-Gould Weekend is playing its part in the revival.”
A Baring-Gould weekend ticket is £50, with a 4-for-3 offer. Visit the Wren Music website to book tickets and for details of all the performances and individual concert prices. www.wrenmusic.co.uk
Daria Kulesh is a very highly-rated performer in the hallowed virtual halls of Folking.com, so I count myself as rather lucky to have got a review copy of her forthcoming CD Earthly Delights, due for release on May 31st 2019. Once again, she is supported by an impressive selection of musicians. As well as many names already familiar from her previous CDs and/or live performances (all reputable musos in their own right, of course), three tracks also feature characteristically fine fiddle from the Phil Beer (tracks 4 and 9) and Tom Kitching (track 1). Most of the production is expertly handled by Jason Emberton, who also contributes much of the accompaniment.
As you’d expect, there are several songs here that derive from Daria’s Russian and Ingush heritage and her knowledge of Slavic folklore, but this time she’s cast her nets a little wider, without compromising her ability to tell a story in song.
Here’s the track listing.
Daria’s lyrics to ‘Golden Apples’, with music by Igor Devlikamov, are based on a Russian folk tale concerning the Firebird, though not the story that forms the basis of Stravinsky’s ballet. An exhilarating start to the album.
‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ is Richard Farina’s lyric to the tune better known as ‘My Lagan Love’, a glorious melody collected by Herbert Hughes in Donegal in the early 20th A sensitive reading with restrained instrumental and vocal accompaniment, rather than the full-on harmonies of Sandy Denny’s version. Closer, perhaps, to the gentle orchestration of the version recorded by Mimi Farina after Richard’s death, though Daria’s vocals are more animated and accurate in pitch. (I still love Mimi’s version, though.)
‘Shame Or Glory’ is by Daria, and makes the very valid point that a McGonagall or Florence Foster Jenkins has the same drive to create and succeed that characterize more “successful” creators, and we should respect that. The arrangement has a sort of Kurt Weill/cabaret feel that I find very appealing. I like the interplay between Jonny Dyer’s guitar and Marina Osman’s piano, too.
‘Earthly Delights’ is another of Daria’s own songs. One of the ‘delights’ of Daria’s songs for me is the way that a line will sometimes spark an unexpected association, like the echo of ‘The Two Magicians’ in ‘The Panther’, from her last CD. In this case, it’s the line “Strange fruit in the garden of earthly delights“. The subject matter is far removed from Meeropol’s protest against lynchings, being more about the message that “If seeking pleasure and following your heart doesn’t hurt, subjugate or break others…then perhaps it’s a natural way to be…?” Yet there’s something very apposite about the last verse here: “Oppressed and oppressor…One person’s wrongs are another one’s rights.” An accomplished performance of a delightful folky tune with stunning fiddle from Phil Beer.
There are many Slavic folk tales about rusalki (water spirits), often translated into literature and music – Dvořák’s opera is a particular favourite of mine. Daria’s ‘Rusalka’, however, is based on a short poem of 1819 by Pushkin, as translated by John Farndon and adapted and shortened by Daria, who has set it to music. Its presentation in this slightly condensed form does it no harm at all.
Daria’s ‘Vasilisa’, previously released as a single, draws its theme from a Russian fairy tale in which the heroine encounters the supernatural Baba Yaga. While the story to some extent resembles the Cinderella story, Vasilisa seems morally more ambiguous. Oddly enough, the modality of the melody makes it a highly suitable companion piece to ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, though the instrumentation has a decidedly Asian feel.
‘Morozko’ is another of Daria’s retellings in music of a Russian folk tale, with accompaniment that stresses its Eastern European origins.
‘Cap And Bells’ is an effective setting by Joseph Sobol of a poem of W.B. Yeats, from Sobol’s theatrical cycle In The Deep Heart’s Core: A Mystic Cabaret, with most of the accompaniment carried by Marina Osman’s piano.
An unexpected inclusion is Percy French’s ‘Pride Of Petravore’. I have to admit that Daria makes the best of its tortuous Irishisms, though.
Daria’s ‘Made Of Light’ is, in more than one sense, a lighter song, almost a ballad, augmented by Jonny Dyer’s expressive trumpet. Lovely.
‘Greedy King’ sets Daria’s lyric to a tune by the multi-talented Jonny Dyer, and melds a Soviet joke and the story of the Wise Men of Gotham into a telling commentary on the sad state of today’s world (not to mention yesterday’s!). The lyric may sound like a counsel of despair, but musically it offers a suitably upbeat finale.
Where Long Lost Home can be seen as a very personal journey into Daria’s own family history and heritage, Earthly Delights draws on a wider range of source material that still comes over as essentially Daria: some beautiful melodies, fascinating lyrics, all exquisitely sung and adventurously arranged. If you’re not familiar with her work, this is a good place to start.
The CD will be launched at Dunton Folk on 1st June 2019.