DICK GAUGHAN – Handful Of Earth (Topic TTSCD005)

Handful Of EarthOf the twenty-some albums that Dick Gaughan has recorded, Handful Of Earth is generally held to be his best. That’s tough, given that it was his fifth solo record and is almost forty years old. Personally, I lean towards Parallel Lines, his collaboration with Andy Irvine, but Handful Of Earth has more than stood the test of time since its release in 1981.

I remember remarks made by Dick at a couple of gigs – where and when I can’t recall – but what he said stuck with me. The first was about the Scots language which he employs here. It’s not Gaelic nor is it, as he explained, English with some unfamiliar words but a unique tongue. Sadly, its use gained him the reputation of being hard to understand but like all good art his music requires a little work by the listener and these days we wouldn’t even think such a thing.

The set opens with ‘Erin-Go-Bragh’ featuring Brian McNeill’s fiddle and Phil Cunningham’s whistle. It’s essentially about racism and its narrative is akin to asking a young British Asian where in Bangladesh he was from. And if you think that doesn’t happen… Next is ‘Now Westlin Winds’ from the pen, at least in part, of Robert Burns. It’s become very familiar now but Gaughan’s version is remarkably unsentimental for what is essentially a love song. ‘Craigie Hill’ is probably Irish in origin despite there being a Craigie Hill near Perth and another near Kilmarnock but Gaughan mixes Scottish, Irish and even English songs with little regard for geography.

The other remark I remember is to the effect that the first victims of the British Empire were the English, an opinion he expresses in his notes introducing ‘World Turned Upside Down’. It may turn out that the English and the Welsh will be the last victims, too. Scotland will have enough sense to get out in time. ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ is another song that has perhaps been over-sung but here again, Gaughan delivers an unsentimental reading, one of the few I still care to listen to.

Dick Gaughan was as famed for his guitar playing and so the first side of the original pressing closed with ‘First Kiss At Parting’ – his own composition – and the second begins with ‘Scojun Waltz/Randers Hopsa’ again featuring Brian McNeill on fiddle and bass. The second tune is Danish – I forgot to mention them earlier. The last three songs are all “contemporary” for want of a better word. The first of them is Phil Colclough’s ‘Song For Ireland’, ostensibly a hymn in praise of the beauty of that country but with a sting in the tail as the singer looks to the north. Ed Pickford’s ‘Workers’ Song’ gives the album its title and is still terribly relevant today. Finally, Dick straps on his Telecaster again and is joined by Phil Cunningham and Stewart Isbister for his most famous song, ‘Both Sides The Tweed’. This was a traditional song but, as Gaughan explains in his notes, he didn’t like the tune and rewrote the words!

I suspect that most of you have a copy of Handful Of Earth but if it’s lost or worn out you can scarcely make a better purchase than this Topic Treasure.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Now Westlin Winds’ – live from 1983:

FLOOK – Ancora (Flatfish 006)

Ancora“Ancora impara” said Michaelangelo, aged 82, and I probably don’t need to tell you that means “I am always learning”.  [I suspect you might – Ed.] That’s something that Flook have taken on board with their first album since Haven in 2005. Flook didn’t go away in those 14 years, playing festivals, live shows and tours so why the lack of studio material? As Brian Finnegan says, “We…took a break in 2008, followed our hearts and instincts and went our separate ways; had kids, got hitched, loved, lost, explored the musical world…” Now they’re back with a Ancora, an album that shows that even iconic bands don’t rest on their laurels but continue to look for the new. This album will delight their many fans, attract new ones and be listened to by anyone who loves tradition as played by four experts.

Flook formed over 20 years ago, winning Best Band at the BBC Folk Awards in 2006 and at their heart still retain original flute and pipers Sarah Allen and Brian Finnegan, now joined by Ed Boyd (guitar, piano) and John Joe Kelly (bodhran). As well as the band the album includes a who’s who of guest musicians including Phil Cunningham, Philip Henry, Patsy Reid and Niall Murphy. There’s even Mark Tucker playing the theramin. The quality shines through and every track, none traditional, on the album is spot on. Hang on, didn’t I say the traditionalists will love it? Yes, I did because tradition doesn’t just mean it has to have been around for years. The 12 tracks on the album are formed from twenty tunes of which the majority are written by Allen and Finnegan but they also use works of contemporaries such as Jarleth Henderson, Sam Lakeman and John McSherry. It’s a living, breathing tradition.

The overall impression of the album is quality musicianship. The playing is precise and tight, they make it sound all very easy and natural, with the music flowing seamlessly. As an album of purely instrumental work it gives you, as the listener, a choice of dipping in and out or listening straight through. I’ve found it ideal to put into the car stereo for the trip to work, it has a running time of just under 50 minutes, and arriving in a much better frame of mind than I would normally do. Opening the album are two tunes by Finnegan; ‘Reel For Rubik’ and ‘Toward The Sun’. As expected the flutes dominate but the piece moves up through tempo and intensity and introducing the other instrumentalists.

This change in pace and style is common throughout the album, but never becomes rollicking. Probably my favourite piece, although a difficult choice to make, is Allen’s ‘Companion Star’ which is absolutely beautiful. It flows so well, at a gentle pace, and it’s very easy to imagine oneself on a boat just drifting along following that star. The segue into ‘Coral Castle’, co-written by Finnegan and Ashley Broder lifts the pace and introduces further instruments but again the title fits the piece, and anyone who has dived a coral reef will recognise the rhythm of life within it. .
I could easily have chosen ‘Turquoise Girl’ as another favourite track. This is a set of four tunes by four different composers, again flowing smoothly, with a faster pace that certainly gets the toes tapping. I can imagine it going down very well during a live performance.

This is certainly an album you should buy, a milestone from an iconic band, and get it now so that you can say you had it before the inevitable awards come along, because it will gain many Instrumental Album of the Year plaudits if there’s any justice in the world.

The album will be released on April 12th but is available to pre-order now through the website. Alternatively I’m certain it will be available at live shows and Flook will be taking it on tour throughout 2019, covering most of the country from Findhorn to Sidmouth.

Tony Birch

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‘Reel For Rubik/Unto The Sun’ – live:

EDDI READER – Cavalier (Reveal 077CDX)

CavalierForty years into her career, Reader’s 11th solo studio album, Cavalier, continues the recent trend of mixing original and traditional material with, naturally, something from Robert Burns.

Recorded in Glasgow and co-produced with husband John Douglas, and featuring a plethora of musicians, Boo Hewardine, John McCusker, Siobhan Miller, Phil Cunningham and Michael McGoldrick among then, it opens on a traditional note with the gently waltzing Irish tune ‘Maiden’s Lament (An Charraig Donn)’, with whistles, Martin Kershaw’s clarinet and Miller and Annie Grace on backing. The first of the original numbers comes with the poppy Douglas co-penned ‘Wonderful’, a song about learning to let go of trying to control your children’s lives as they transition to adults, the collaboration (along with Simon Dine) also providing the hushed slow waltzer ‘My Favourite Dress’, a nostalgic song reminding how short life is, written for his aunt Mary, in care and suffering from dementia.

It’s Douglas who provides the equally poppy, R&B brass-embellished uptempo title track about sharing the load, his other credits including the slower sway of ‘Fishing’, a number about learning that troubles always pass, even rainy evening, and the following ‘Maid O’The Loch’, a number written as a fundraiser to refurbish the titular boat that takes tourists around Loch Lomond. He also shares a co-write with Phil Cunningham on the gradually swelling ‘A Sailor’s Farewell To The Sea’, the latter putting words to the latter’s Christmassy instrumental and featuring both brass ensemble and accordion.

Hewardine provides two numbers, the first being the 50s-like jazzy shimmering, brushed drums, clarinet and brass-kissed ‘Starlight’ (to which Reader added a final verse), given a Mills Brothers-styled arrangement. The other, ‘Old Song’, takes on a very Scottish waltzing feel courtesy of Alan Kelly’s accordion, a romantic hymn to how music can touch memories and lift hearts.

Turning to Reader’s solo material, coloured by whistles and accordion, ‘There’s A Whole In The Desert Dear Darling’ is a swaylong waltzing lullaby of sorts written in memory of Milou Bedssa, a close friend from her teens who had recently passed away. The other is the album’s penultimate track, the lovely, ukulele-accompanied, percussion rippling ‘Go Wisely’, another song for the kids, both a benediction as they embark on their own lives and a reminder that phone calls don’t cost a lot.

Which just leaves the other traditional numbers. Given a rolling and tumbling Celtic rhythm, ‘Meg O’The Glen’ takes its lyrics from two 18th century poems by Paisley’s Robert Tannahill telling the tale of a lass of low fortune being forced to marry a rich old man she didn’t want, song seguing into an instrumental coda of Jerry Holland’s ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel’.

Found among songbooks during a late relative’s house clearance, picked out on the harmonium inherited at the same time, ‘Deirdre’s Farewell To Scotland’ is based on the Celtic myth ‘Deirdra Of The Sorrows’, about a pregnant Irish girl forced to seek sanctuary and the fate of her daughter, the story resonating with the contemporary refugee crisis.

Learned from a version by American jazz singer Kurt Elling, ‘The Loch Tay Boat Song’ is familiar number of love and leaving in the Scottish tradition, here given a laid back late night jazz arrangement for Steve Hamilton’s piano and dedicated to Davy Steele. It’s followed in lively fiddle-laced and wheezing accordion style by ‘Pangur Bán And The Primrose Lass’, a cocktail of an Irish poem about a cat hunting mike (the title translates as White Cat) that rolls into the instrumental interlude, a tune that apparently appeared on an early 70s Steeleye Span album as ‘The Primrose Lassie’, originally collected by Douglas’s great uncle, Irish song archivist Colm Keane. It features Monica Queen on harmonies, prompting thoughts that’s she’s long overdue an album of her own.

And so, Douglas on piano and McCusker on fiddle and whistle, it ends with another nod to her favourite Scottish songwriter, a four verse version of Burns’ classic ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. She says she chose the album title to reflect how she’s feeling. The thesaurus defines it as offhand, high-handed or careless, but also, as a Caballero or a Quixotic figure. Long may she tilt at windmills.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.eddireader.co.uk

‘Wonderful’ – official video:

HANNAH RARITY – ‘Neath The Gloaming Star (Own Label, HR085NEA)

Gloaming StarWinner of 2018’s BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician award, Hannah Rarity, has just successfully crowdsourced her debut album, and it’s exquisitely lovely. ‘Neath The Gloaming Star’ can only – rightly – enhance her growing reputation within Scottish traditional music.

Rarity has that crystal clarity often found in female Celtic voices, but with a misty breathiness around the edges. Her pure diction makes it a joy to follow her expressive storytelling as she makes tiny tweaks in rhythm or tempo, acutely adjusting phrasing to keep the listener hanging onto every word.

Opener, ‘The Moon Shined On My Bed Last Night’ foregrounds that voice, sparsely instrumented with piano and guitar. As the verses progress, the instrumentation intensifies and her singing gains force. It’s a strong start on an album of well-judged arrangements, like the loose groove and layered vocal of title track, ‘Neath The Gloamin’ Star At E’en’. There are other neat touches like the descending fiddle phrase as ugly witch ‘Alison Cross’ strikes her reluctant suitor down to the ground. Only some brief electric guitar harshness on a slowed-down ‘Braw Sailin’ On The Sea’ provides a minor jarring moment.

A couple of songs from Rarity’s 2016 EP, ‘Beginnings’ are redrawn here for a bigger band. Andy M Stewart’s ‘Where Are You (Tonight, I Wonder)?’ is thoughtful and intimate, taken slowly, underpinned by dark strings, piano and muted whistle, yet some of its former intensity is subdued. Conal McDonagh’s elegant whistle also rounds out a fuller arrangement of that lively tale of mistaken identity, ‘Erin Go Bragh’. (The short, fronted ‘a’ sound used here for “bragh” might well be logical, but it rather irksomely defeats the song’s internal rhyme scheme).

Both of Rarity’s featured self-compositions slot deservedly well into the album. The modernity of ‘Wander Through This Land’, punctuated by a soft, militaristic drum, is evident in its choppier phrasing and rhythms, whilst ‘Wasting Time’ reveals an intriguing, throatier aspect to her voice.

Moving performances of ‘Land O’The Leal’ and ‘Hallowe’en’ are reminders of the strength of Rarity’s interpretative talents, while Davy Steele’s ‘Rose O’Summerlee’ makes a perfect album closer, the vocal interwoven with Phil Cunningham’s tender accordion is simply stunning.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.hannahrarity.com

‘Land O’ The Leal’ – live:

Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham announce major Scottish tour

Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham

Together Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham have established themselves as the epitome of excellence in the world of traditional music. With their musical magic and quick-witted humour they will pull your emotional strings one moment and have you falling off the seat with laughter the next.  Mike Russell has described them as “probably the best traditional musicians you are ever likely to hear”.

Phil, who is Artistic Director of Scottish Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, had the wonderful opportunity in 2014 to perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony alongside Nicola Benedetti. He also arranged & co-produced Pumeza Matshikiza’s performance of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’. Phil also arranged and co-produced tracks on Nicola Benedetti’s most recent album Homecoming, and works with John Ashton Thomas (Hollywood film orchestrator and composer) on orchestration and arrangements. This year Phil is also working on a new BBC series on piping.

Aly, who now holds 5 honorary Doctor of Music degrees, and was honoured in 2013’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, with a lifetime achievement award. His now world acclaimed Transatlantic Sessions  went network in the USA in 2014. Aly continues to develop the series, while also touring in the autumn each year Aly Bain, Ale Möller & Bruce Molsky.

Scottish August & September Tour dates for 2018 and booking details for all concerts (there are a lot of them) can be found at www.philandaly.com

Live at Inverary:

SIOBHAN MILLER – Strata (Songprint Records SPR003CD)

StrataScotland is currently blessed with a crop of superb young female singers and Siobhan Miller is right up there in the top section of that list. Although still a young lady, she has been prominent on the folk scene for many years, appearing at clubs, concerts, festivals and regularly on television. She deserves it! Her father before her was a product of the Rutherglen Academy Ballads Club run by folklorist and author of the Scottish Folk Singer and 101 Scottish Songs! Norman Buchan. Her dad, Brian Miller, was only a year behind me in that school and the grounding we got there set us and our families up for a career in folk music. It is now in our blood!

Strangely enough, I can identify her father’s influence in Siobhan’s choice of material for this CD…although more than capable of it, as heard in the final track – Andy M Stewart’s ‘The Ramblin’ Rover’, Siobhan does not try and ram Scottishness down your throat. Some of her tracks have almost an English sound to them. Possibly only people with fifty plus years involved in folk music will understand what I mean by that.

Strata is a fabulous CD that I will listen to over and over again, and that is due, simply, to Siobhan’s beautiful singing. There is no overstretching, no screeching and no overdoing the grace notes – she just sings, beautifully! She has been clever in choosing a section of songs for the CD that we all know, and then making them her own. One of the first songs I ever learned was ‘The Unquiet Grace’ and I thought I maybe didn’t need to ever hear it again. However, Siobhan’s version is superb and emphasises just what a great song it is.

I cannot give the production full marks. It is generally well produced but the over-prominent bass could have ruined it all for me, especially in the first couple of tracks. It is interesting to note that the producer of the album is also the bass player on the album!

Possibly, Siobhan could have been a bit more adventurous in her song selection because she has such a wide repertoire of songs that I have heard her sing. Whatever, she has chosen eleven great songs and you will love them all. She does emphasise that the song selection process “is the culmination and an illustration of her musical journey to date”. She has long been keen to record these songs as a tribute to her many influences including Sheila Stewart, Dick Gaughan, Gordeanna McCulloch, Rod Paterson and her father. She includes tracks from Bob Dylan and Ed Pickford.

My favourite Siobhan is when she is getting suck into a song with great gusto. With the exception of the final track, Siobhan’s voice on the CD is generally more soft and throaty. It reminds me of Kate Rusby and that does disappoint me a bit. A star should never remind me of another singer, it should be the other way around. Still, her singing is still great. Just imagine how great I think she is on her up-beat, get stuck in there girl, stuff.

She is supported by a fabulous group of musicians including Aaron Jones, Phil Cunningham, Kris Drever, Aiden O’Rourke and many more. My final assessment – really great album. Would I want Strata in my collection? Of course, I would go out and buy it.

Fraser Bruce

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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.siobhanmiller.com

‘Bonny Light Horseman’ – live with her band: