It’s been far too long since we’ve heard from Navaro. Steve Austin has posted lots of pictures from his narrowboat where the majority of So Long Wichita was recorded but there hasn’t been much music. This is their third album and is rather stripped down from its predecessor, Home Is Where Your Heartlands. The songs are, in the main, short and this time Navaro haven’t printed the lyrics but that isn’t really a problem – the vocals are crisp and clear.
The trio have three distinct voices and styles. The opener, Pete White’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, is up-beat and poppy and laden with harmonies and if it was aimed at radio play, it’s a cracker. His second song in the set, ‘If Only’, is in the same vein as is ‘One Day At A Time’ but I can’t help thinking that there isn’t an established place for bands like Navaro. Fifty years ago they would have given Peter, Paul and Mary a run for their money but they don’t have the resources of a big record company behind them.
So Long Wichita is a fine album that whips by in a flash and that may be its weakness although in these days where digital music prevails and you can select a single track to buy it may be a strength. OK, enough philosophy. The second track is Steve’s romantic ‘In Midnight Sky’ decorated by James McNair’s lead guitar. Steve has a smooth voice that suits this style of material but he allows Beth Navaro to take the lead on the more up-tempo ‘Poetry In Motion’. The title track is inspired by a “close encounter” with Jimmy Webb but whether this was walk-by or something more meaningful we aren’t told. In keeping with its inspiration it quotes from Joni Mitchell, which always worries me, but I guess that it’s only us oldies who would still recognise the sources.
Mark Stevens adds drums to seven of the ten tracks and PJ Wright plays a grumbling rocky lead guitar part on ‘One Day At A Time’ but otherwise it’s down to the multi-instrumental talents of White and Austin. It’s great to welcome Navaro back again.
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So Long Wichita is a ten song collection. The title track and even the impetus to record again came from an encounter with a legendary songwriter. Jimmy Webb was speaking and performing for BBC Radio 4. One of Navaro was in the audience and was so forcibly reminded of the importance to him of Jimmy Webb and his contemporaries, that he went home and immediately wrote a song in homage. The next day he sent the song to Jimmy Webb via his wife who handles his correspondence. She graciously replied and said she was listening to it on the plane back to NY and how it brought tears to her eyes. She said she’d play it to Jimmy and with that kind response the energy was found to record “Navaro 3”.
The album finds the trio of Beth Navaro, Pete White and Steve Austin back on the Grand Union Canal where much of their debut album, Under Diamond Skies, was recorded. Recording with a view of the woods and the water lends a certain calm and organic feel to the long hours involved and perhaps the end result. Beth, who is now also a professional candle maker, brought regular gifts to the sessions that only enhanced the experience of being together. Once again the differences between the three vocalists and the blend of these differences in harmony is front and centre. There are fewer guest musicians than on the 2012 Heartlands album but Mark Stevens (LJE/TradArrr) drums on much of it and when PJ Wright blasts in on ‘One Day At A Time’ there’s no mistaking who just walked into the room!
Navaro will be performing this spring and summer. Dates begin at the Stables, Stage Two on Saturday 30th March.
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If you’ve ever been to a Cropredy Festival you’ll know exactly what they do on Saturday. They gather together a bunch of former band-mates and old friends and play a mammoth set long into the darkness (subject to health and safety restrictions, of course). These days, Fairport Convention don’t need an excuse to mount a celebration but 2017 marked the band’s fiftieth anniversary and so this was the perfect opportunity to tell the band’s story in music – although not strictly in the right order. Thus we have What We Did On Our Saturday, packaged in an homage to their second album.
The album begins with their first album and (almost) their first line-up. For younger readers that was Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble now with Dave Mattacks on drums. They kick off with ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’ and ‘Reno Nevada’ and I was impressed at the way Richard played the sort of guitar lead appropriate to 1967. He couldn’t help himself, of course, and went off on one but I don’t suppose that anyone complained.
Chris While took over on lead vocals for ‘Suzanne’, a slightly less off-the-wall arrangement than the original. Chris does a very good Sandy Denny particularly on the rockier numbers but she’s her own woman and the grace notes and decorations are all her own. Judy and Iain get time off and the others take it in turns so the current line-up doesn’t actually appear until ‘Crazy Man Michael’ when Gerry Conway briefly wrestles the drum stool away from DM. The remainder of the first disc is taken up with selections from Liege & Lief and Full House and they keep ‘Sloth’ to under ten minutes.
The second disc opens with ‘Now Be Thankful’, a song which Chris Leslie is rapidly making his own, even though Richard elbows him off the mic on this occasion. It’s worth noting that Chris doesn’t get a break after the third track until the Fotheringay homage of ‘Ned Kelly’ and ‘Rising For The Moon’ which feature Sally Barker and PJ Wright and introduce Maartin Allcock to the stage. The latter is a feature of the revamped Fotheringay’s set but sadly, of course, Jerry Donahue isn’t available. I have to say, in passing, that Simon does a wonderful job with ‘Fotheringay’. Maart gets to lead ‘A Surfeit Of Lampreys’ and Ralph McTell takes centre stage for ‘White Dress’ but Simon keeps ‘The Hiring Fair’ for himself.
There is only one song that originates with the current line-up and that’s Chris Leslie’s ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ and now we’re on the downhill run. You know how it ends: ‘Matty Groves’ – with both drummers – and ‘Meet On The Ledge’ with everyone back on stage.
As you might imagine, I own a lot of Cropredy recordings and all have their own attractions. For me the 25th anniversary set stands out while the earlier ones: A.T.2 and The Boot have the particular ramshackle charm that we used to associate with Fairport Convention thirty-odd years ago. What We Did On Our Saturday is tight and slick without much in the way of stage chatter – an appropriately serious set to go with such a milestone in Fairport’s history. Exemplary performances as we’ve come to expect, of course, but sometimes I do miss Simon playing rhythm viola!
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Between their first and second albums Mark Jolley left has Tradarrr to be replaced by Tim Harries (more serious folk-rock credentials) and Phil Bond has moved on with his place taken by singer, fiddler and pianist Gemma Shirley. Thus Further Tales Of Love! Death! And Treachery! sees a seven-piece band plundering the English folk tradition even further.
This is straight down-the-line folk-rock – no Ralph Vaughn Williams or Oliver Goldsmith this time and individual members of the band have taken songs and done their own thing with them rather like Steeleye Span in their pomp. Some of the songs are perhaps not very well-known. Greg Cave reworks ‘The Bonny Lass Of Anglesey’ as Martin Carthy did forty years ago. ‘Dream Not Of Love’ was collected by John Clare and adapted by Cave and Guy Stevens as was ‘The Crafty Lover’. Similarly, Cave amalgamates several variants of ‘The Bailiff’s Daughter Of Islington’ and throws in a Stones’ riff for good measure.
The material that is more familiar can come as bit of a surprise. ‘Rap Her To Bank’ is now almost pretty – just don’t let the Wilson Family hear it – and if I didn’t know better I’d say that Pete Scrowther and PJ Wright didn’t really understand what the song was about but the final verse is a protest at the closure of the mines so I know that’s wrong. Instead of a song of anger at a tragedy it is here presented as something like a lament but with Mark Stevens’ cornet and Wright’s electric guitar giving it an edge. It took me a couple of plays to get into it but I think I understand what they’re doing now. Marion Fleetwood’s interpretation of ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ is quite sensuous – we all know that it’s about sex but it’s not always presented quite so blatantly.
‘Lowlands Of Holland’ and ‘Spencer The Rover’ are pretty faithful adaptations but the instrumental set ‘Madame Bonaparte/The Golden Eagle’ gives the rock part of the band free rein. PJ describes Further Tales Of Love! Death! And Treachery! as “still with the silly name but a serious bid, musically” – he knows that I really don’t like the band’s name – and I can’t argue with any of that.
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The title track is a new recording of the song she wrote for 2015 Poozies album, Into The Well, featuring real rather than electric piano, given a softer feel and with Tom Bull on double bass, Sally Barker’s follow-up to Maid In England, the 2014 album on the back of her appearances on The Voice, is woven around a theme of abandonment and putting your heart back together.
One of the first reactions to being dumped is want retribution, and smoke-wisped jazzy blues opening track ‘Emperor Of Cool’ taps into the narrator’s embittered feelings towards the ex who cruelly tells her, “the harmony to all of your songs” he only dated her for a bet, sharing his less attractive attributes with whoever she meets.
Realisation of being broken arrives with the early Dylan influences of ‘I’m Not Whole’, the acoustic guitar riff behind the piano written and played by her son, its lyrics built around imagery of the sea and being washed up on the shore. Delivered against a steady acoustic guitar pulse and streaked by pedal steel, ‘Like Sugar’ offers a different spin, a woman lonely while her soldier husband is away at war being courted by a local chancer bringing food and stockings and offering to help with a little DIY.
Picking up the ‘Ghost Girl’ imagery and running with it, ‘Vampire of Love’, featuring Sally on piano and guitar, is a slow dance romancer with a 30s styled waltzing chorus that, set in Victorian England, draws on the dangerous sexuality embodied in the Dracula-inspired seducer.
The mood shifts again for the 60s R&B sultry groove of ‘Hand of Fate’, apparently written for Tom Jones and inspired by the offer of major label deal following The Voice, one which, perhaps wisely, she declined. Bolstering the instrumentation with keys, slide and electric guitar (Knopfleresque solo provided by PJ Wright), the country tinged ‘Mr Bang’ apparently has its inspiration in a difficult and troubled chap who also happened to be very loud drummer.
If it’s been about loss, betrayal and loneliness so far, the even more country slow waltz ‘Two Hearts’, again featuring pedal steel and with Ian Crabtree on Spanish guitar, addresses the possibility of finding new love, hope tinted with hesitancy.
Underpinned by double bass, the earlier jazz vibe resurfaces for the smoky, finger clicking ‘Queen of Reckless Feelings’, a lyrical throwback to Barker’s earlier and less complicated singleton days. She reminds me here slightly of Janis Ian, as indeed she does on the spare acoustic ‘Tell It Like It Is’, a brittle break up of an affair number, even if the publicity blurb evokes Dory Previn, another 70s singer-songwriter doyenne of songs about spurned and discarded lovers.
The album ends with Glenn Hughes on piano for the brief instrumental ‘Theme to ‘Ghost Girl’’. But, before that pedal steel, Spanish guitar and the theme of new but difficult starts are reprised with the folk and country tones of ‘Canada’, a strummed first person narrative of hardships suffered by settlers encouraged by the British Government to emigrate there in the early 1800s on the back of the fur trade boom and build new lives for their families. Some went under, but many more survived and emerged stronger for the experience, which, in a nutshell, is the message at the core of this fine album.
The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.