The new Ralph McTell CD Hill Of Beans, due for release on the 20th September 2019, is apparently his first collection of original material since Somewhere Down The Road in 2010, though he’s been keeping busy with other projects such as Songs For Six Strings and two albums with Wizz Jones. Hill Of Beans is also notable in that it reunites him with Tony Visconti, who played such a large part in his early recording career.
The promo copy I received gives no details of the other musicians participating in the recording, unfortunately. I don’t suppose I’m the only reader of these reviews who likes that sort of detail, but I suppose in the end it’s what comes out of the hi-fi that really matters.
Here’s the track listing.
‘Oxbow Lakes’ is a quirky application of a geological metaphor to a human relationship.
‘Brighton Belle’ combines a reminiscence of a rather beautiful train with family history, a little like ‘Barges’ on the Not Till Tomorrow Is it his own family history? It’s a bad idea to assume that a songwriter – or any kind of writer – is writing about himself. I suppose it doesn’t matter: Ralph has an enviable ability to make any story he tells sound like his own.
You may already be acquainted with ‘Clear Water’ from the version by Fairport Convention on Myths And Heroes, if not from Ralph’s own concert performances. The strings and heavenly chorus in this version are not altogether to my taste, but there’s something uplifting about the song.
I suppose it’s inevitable that ‘Gertrude And Alice’ should introduce its theme of the relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with Parisian-flavoured accordion: in fact, it’s a charming arrangement, slightly reminiscent of ‘Maginot Waltz’ in its period charm.
‘Gammel Dansk’ has a somewhat klezmer-ish orchestration and echoes (to my ear) of Brel, Brecht and Cohen. Really rather impressive.
‘Shed Song’ is as curious a topic as the title suggests, describing the man shed as a “church of masculinity“. Yet set in the context of a family history and married to a particularly attractive melody and orchestration, it turns out to be one of the standout tracks.
The story told in ‘Close Shave’, in contrast with the orchestration of some of the other tracks, is carried only by Ralph’s ragtime-soaked guitar. Not a classic of the genre, perhaps, but pleasant.
‘When They Were Young’ features more accordion and strings against a meditation on age and first love. It’s actually rather charming.
The waltz-time ‘Sometimes I Wish I Could Pray’ feels unnervingly like a country song. But it’s growing on me.
The title track, ‘Hill Of Beans’, quotes heavily from the movie Casablanca while somehow telling a more personal-sounding story, apparently relating to his days of busking in Paris.
‘West 4th Street And Jones’ is a live performance, simply carried by Ralph’s guitar and harmonica. Somewhere recently, I saw this described as Dylan-ish. Well, for Ralph it would seems that for Ralph the early romance between Dylan and the late Suze Rotolo – as forever remembered on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – still permeates West 4th Street, but there’s a wistfulness to these words that is quintessentially McTell. If there’s a classic on this album to match ‘From Clare To Here’ or ‘Maginot Waltz’ or even ‘Streets Of London’, this is probably it.
What can you say about Ralph McTell? For many of us, he’s provided some of the soundtrack of our lives for many decades. His singing is never less than pleasant, and his guitar playing, rooted in blues and ragtime, is exemplary. But it’s his songwriting that is his greatest strength, broad in scope but somehow always true to himself. I suppose any song is in some sense a story, but there are few who can tell a story so well in song as Ralph McTell. Hill Of Beans is not (yet) my favourite McTell album but it’s certainly not a disappointment.
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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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When RALPH McTELL wrote ‘Streets Of London’ it was a song of its time. Everyone, but everyone, sang it. In the intervening decades it became a song that we heard but didn’t really listen to and, of course, Ralph had to sing it everywhere he went. The thing is, nothing has improved in the last fifty years and Ralph has returned to the song with a new version featuring ANNIE LENNOX and THE CRISIS CHOIR released as a single for the benefit of the homeless charity Crisis. If that doesn’t convince you to spend 99p on it, there’s Richard Thompson on guitar, too. Download from: smarturl.it/streetsoflondon
‘A White Cliffs Christmas’ is the new single by folk collective 51:13. It was written by Nick Esson who says that “my hope was to ameliorate the vibe of the 1970s Christmas song with the contemporary experience of being a parent and grandparent at this time of the year”. You might expect a measure of cynicism but no, this a genuinely joyful song even though “the turkey’s frozen and I don’t like greens”. It’s really uplifting and half the profits will go to the Dover Soup Kitchen. Buy from: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/51132
If you’re looking for cynicism look no further than PROSECCO SOCIALIST, a new trio featuring a gravely Dave Rotheray, Eleanor McEvoy at her hard-bitten best and Hull’s “living legend”, Mike Greaves. ‘This Dog’s Just For Christmas (Not For Life)’ attempts to answer John Lennon’s famous question: “And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?” and Dave’s list involves seventeen Guinness extra-cold and a Jaegerbomb, not to mention a jaffa cake vodka shot. It’s a great song with the witty, acid lyrics you expect from Eleanor and it really is our sort of Christmas! https://www.facebook.com/proseccosocialist/
JARROD DICKENSON is mellow and nostalgic on ‘Christmas Time In The City’. It’s a country song topped off with steel guitar and packed full of Bing Crosby, coloured lights, freshly fallen snow and couples in love. American audiences will love it but it’s only just on the right side of parody. The bluesy, piano driven, ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, written by Charles Brown more than fifty years ago is more like our idea of nostalgia. https://www.jarroddickenson.com/
ALEX HEDLEY’s new single is ‘Let It Roll On’ and it has nothing to do with Christmas. Alex is the frontman of Dorset band Saturday Sun and the single comes as a taster for his solo EP, This Life, released next month. The single is built on acoustic guitar and harmonica and you might label it Americana except that it has a decidedly British feel of existential misery. Alex has been likened to many other artists but you might be hard put to find the common ground – he really is an original. www.alex-hedley.com
Sky Arts is to broadcast a major television documentary to mark the fiftieth anniversary of legendary folk rock band Fairport Convention. Titled Fairport Convention: Folk Heroes, the 70-minute film will be transmitted at 9pm on Saturday 25 November 2017.
The film tells how five young musicians in North London formed Fairport Convention during 1967’s ‘summer of love’. The band went on to shake English folk music to its roots by fusing it with rock, an approach which outraged some purists but delighted a new and devoted audience.
In the subsequent five decades, Fairport Convention has attracted widespread critical acclaim, won a coveted BBC Lifetime Achievement Award, and Radio 2 listeners voted Fairport’s groundbreaking album Liege & Lief ‘The Most Influential Folk Album of All Time’.
The documentary has been made by London-based independent producer Special Treats Productions. The company’s previous television music documentaries include XTC: This Is Pop, I’m Not In Love: The Story Of 10cc and the award-winning film UB40: Promises And Lies.
The film features rare archive interviews and footage as well as newly-filmed interviews with the current Fairport members and, among others, Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews, Judy Dyble, Joe Boyd, Ralph McTell, Maddy Prior, Bob Harris, Suggs, Rick Wakeman, Steve Winwood, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
Through these interviews, the film examines Fairport’s first five years in detail, including the tragic motorway crash which killed drummer Martin Lamble. It goes on to explain Fairport’s pivotal role in the evolution of British folk-rock; how the band fostered major talents such as Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick and spawned other notable bands including Matthews Southern Comfort, Steeleye Span, and Fotheringay.
The story is brought up to date with contemporary material filmed at Fairport’s annual ‘own brand’ music festival held at Cropredy in Oxfordshire. The closing sequence features the band’s 2017 festival performance when virtually all the surviving former members joined the current line-up on stage.
Producer/Director Charlie Thomas has been working closely with Fairport for over a year. He says: “Our aim is to explain how important Fairport’s influence has been and continues to be – in other words, why the band matters.
“We have not set out to make a comprehensive, year-by-year history of Fairport; that has been done before. The film concentrates on two periods – the first five years and the band today. The result is a celebration of a very British institution and an assertion of Fairport’s continuing relevance.”
Last year I was a Cropredy virgin, but this year on THAT field in August, I knew what the score was. Well, until I tried to do the camping and putting up the tent thing! Every year will bring new things I guess!
Arriving at the Folkmaster’s abode on Wednesday 9th August, things were in full swing for the journey to meet the other Folkingdotcommers in Tesco car park, on the outskirts of Banbury, early the following morning. The kitchen sink was being loaded into the Folkmaster’s car in an orderly fashion, and it was suggested that if I hadn’t bought wellies with me, that I should go out and buy some. Talk about the 11th hour, I found a store and paid for them at 5.29pm when the store closed at 5.30! I was a bit anxious at this point as surely it wasn’t going to rain? I don’t do wet camping, I don’t do camping generally!
Sparrow spit early Thursday morning came, and off we went to Banbury. Not a bad journey, although I slept most of it! (NO – I wasn’t driving)! We all arrived at mostly the same time, Paul, Jonny Mac, No Chance and ourselves were too early for breakfast, so spent some money in Tesco, before we had breakfast. Full English were ordered by all but 2 of us, and then off we set, into the midst of Cropredy bound Festival goers. All wanting to get the best fields and parking. Last year I remember the queues, but this year was plain sailing. We soon found out why, because loads of others had started out before us, so we should have forgone breakfast! We were shepherded in to Field 7B, ended up right in the middle of the field, miles away from the few loos and the even fewer showers. I was panicking already!
Tent time. Paul was in his van, so all he had to do was connect his awning. Few minutes and he was ready. No Chance had a smaller tent and he knew what he was doing, Folkmaster had a new tent which was an air based one, so he got his instructions out and sorted his out, Johnny Mac was ably putting his tent up, and there was little old me, with a new tent. Poles and all.
I tried, dear readers, I really did. The lads were brilliant though, and thank them all for it. It was suggested I wore my new wellies, as mud could well be present, due to the onslaught of rain in the days leading up to the Festival. Visions of Glastonbury encroached in my mind……
We were a bit early when finished, as we couldn’t get into the arena field until 2pm, so were twiddling our thumbs for a while. The usual banter flowed. We were expecting another member of the Folking team – Paul Johnson – but he was nowhere to be seen or heard, so we did the Chariots Of Fire walk with our chairs and bags and waited for the gates to open. On the way there, we were serenaded by medieval musicians, Myal Pyper, who were a delight to listen to.
We finally got in, and headed for our usual spot. Looking at the Stage we headed left, near Leon’s food stall, always a lovely experience to savour their food. The queue for Fairport merchandise was already growing rapidly and that did not stop all day and evening. The staff in that tent were heroes! It was the same the following day!
4pm finally arrived and Fairport Acoustic opened the Festival. Riotous applause from the crowd, a full packed arena, for the Thursday is not what usually happens apparently. A mostly cracking line up and one that I didn’t want to miss. Feast Of Fiddles came next featuring an array of the best fiddle musicians this country has produced, such as Peter Knight of Gigspanner, Hugh Crabtree – melodeon player with attitude, Garry Blakeley, Tom Leary, Ian Cutler, Brian O’Neill and Fairport’s own superb fiddler – Chris Leslie. Phil Beer, Marion Fleetwood and Sophie Crabtree came on later on in the set to enhance the line-up, totalling nine fiddle players! Legendary drummer Dave Mattocks was over from America, Martin Vincent and Dave Harding on guitars and Alan Whetton on sax and keyboards. Awesome!
Show of Hands next – favourites of mine, they played an absolutely blinding set. Highlight was their rendition of Don Henley’s classic – ‘Boys Of Summer’. The whole field was talking about how fab it was.
Chris While guested for ‘Dark Fields’ and it was indeed a lovely occasion to witness her singing on this again. Phil told us that he will be virtually taking next summer off to revive his Folkboat activities, which is why this year they have so many festivals booked and Steve will be doing solo work next summer. Really enjoyed the whole set.
Eventually we met up with our lost team mate – Paul Johnson – who had had a nightmare putting up his tent apparently, and his mobility scooter had a flat battery. Could only happen to Paul!
Next up – The Trevor Horn Band – consisting of three producers – Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson and Lol Crème (of Godley & Crème) who had played and or produced songs for other artists. A kind of covers set but all perfectly connected to these three fine producers. They sounded good too. They got the crowd going and singing along to numbers we all knew, such as ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Relax,’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, ‘Rubber Bullets’ etc. They have over 200 hit singles and albums to choose from and it was very pleasant and lively set. Nice mix.
Headliners for Thursday evening were The Divine Comedy. Frontman Neil Hannon came on and his first sentence had the ‘f’ word in it. He seemed star struck initially about the big crowd and following Trevor Horn and Lol Crème. He didn’t do it for me but I hear that they went down well with some people.
Friday came and rain was forecast. Oh no!! Kick off was at midday after the gates being opened at 11am for the festival goers.
Paul Johnson tests the folking digital interview recorder on Paul Miles, the original co-founder of folking.com – its quite funny so we have kept it in…
Josie Duncan & Pablo LaFuente (2017 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award Winners) opened up the proceedings and I could see why they had won this accolade. Scottish traditional, Gaelic, and other influences, songs from the mines and cotton mills. They have played some well-known festivals including Cambridge and in their short time together, are certainly making a mark for themselves.
Another favourite of mine – Gerry Colvin Band – delighted the crowd, for those that were aware of his music and for those that didn’t. A cracking set from Gerry and the Band. Gerry is a delight to watch and although is so hyper, can sing, play and write a fab song. Particularly ‘Watching Feathers Fall’ from his Colvin/Quarmby days. Nick Quarmby, Gerry’s sidekick who left us last year, would have been so proud of Gerry taking centre stage at Cropredy. Gerry gained a lot of fans during that set.
A Cropredy moment for me was asking Gerry later, as I came across him backstage, how he felt and could obviously tell he was ecstatically happy, he said he had met Pet Clark. She spoke to him and said get out of her dressing room. I’m sure he was joking, he usually is!!
Quill were a new name to me. Quite Gothic and I thought the lead singer Joy had a little Kate Bush about her. They have been going since the 70’s, have loyal audiences, and are amazing story-tellers. Really enjoyed them.
Darren Beech and Paul Johnson caught up with Joy from Quill shortly after the set. The Elephant in the Room EP that Joy discusses in the interview will be released on the 23rd of August.
Next up Gigspanner, who a lot of folks were waiting to see (especially the folkmaster, the editor Dai Jeffries and Paul Johnson who are huge fans). While I admire their immense talent, I am not a huge fan myself, but respect that Peter Knight and the Big Band are all superb musicians. They are a little too trad for me.
CC Smugglers were another new one on me, and were superb, in my eyes. The effervescence of the lead singer was palpable and infectious. His shirt was wet through by the time he finished. The rain had arrived by this time but didn’t dampen theirs or the audience’s spirits. CC Smugglers are a band of buskers, who had come together, to form this band. They have even performed at Glastonbury! Definitely ones to watch.
Darren Beech and Paul Johnson caught up with Chris on the Friday.
The annual Chris Leslie Cropredy interview has become a bit of a tradition for us at folking.com and Chris tells us that he looks forward to it as much as we do.
Click the play button below to take a listen.
The absolutely brilliant Pierce Brothers twins came on to a stunning welcome. They were so happy to be there and in tears of happiness! Great guys, great musicians, great energy and great stage presence. So glad the organisers brought them back after last year’s success. Something that is rarely done two years on the trot. I hope they make it third time lucky.
The amazing event of having Petula Clark attend her first festival ever at Cropredy was certainly a scoop. A favourite of my mothers, she would have loved it. Pet at 84 years of age looked and danced as though she was in her 50’s. She sounded great. She performed her hits pitch perfect and aired some numbers from her new album – From Now On, Awesome. She had the crowd eating out of her hand, and they all sang along. A very special moment. Pet did say at the end of her set that she had enjoyed it immensely, and she certainly seemed to have done so, from the audience’s point of view.
Headliner for Friday evening was the Folk Rock Legend Richard Thompson OBE. A co-founder of Fairport in the 60’s he helped pioneer British Folk Rock. He is known as one of the world’s most critically acclaimed and prolific songwriters. He didn’t disappoint. Just amazing. You would have thought four guitarists were on the stage and it was only him, doing it all. His fingers were a blur as he worked so fast. I had the pleasure of meeting Richard at the signing his new album – Acoustic Classic 2, and he was very quiet and unassuming, and lovely to talk to. No ego at all.
I will say at this point that compere for the weekend was Anthony John Clarke, who did a marvellous job of introducing artists and keeping dedications flowing and read them out to the audience. Excellent choice for an MC.
Richard Digance was missed from his usual spot on kicking off proceedings on the Saturday, but he sent a message to say he was busy touring and not to forget his album and books in the merchandise tent. When he came on to the big screens, the audience applauded him, even though it was a pre-recorded message. Lovely.
Richard’s slot was taken by the Ashley Hutchings Morris On Band, who did a marvellous job of performing some classics from the Morris On album, and we had Morris Dancers dancing on stage to complete the scene. Hankies were at the ready and the audience took part in what is usually Richard Digance’s attempt at getting the whole crowd to wave hankies Morris style! A superb sight to see.
Next up ex-Fairport member Judy Dyble and the Band Of Perfect Strangers who took us on a musical journey, ending with her promoting her autobiography – An Accidental Musician – published last year.
Plainsong included another ex-Fairport Member – Iain Matthews and was formed 45 years ago. A very pleasant set, and Iain obviously has his fans.
I then went to try and find a shower, hopefully no queues at this time, so sadly I missed most of the Cats In Space set. I could hear them from afar, but they were visual, and glad I could see even a short bit. Surprisingly only formed last year, they were a tight knit of pop rock genre. All six of them. I enjoyed what I saw. Blew a few cobwebs away!
Marillion followed. Not my cup of tea, but they clearly had their fans there, and were enjoyed by them.
Scottish multi award winning singer-songwriter Dougie McLean OBE followed. He has a global following. I hadn’t seen him before, and certainly did enjoy his set. Full of stories and song, and lots of audience participation. Particularly on his ‘Caledonia’, which has a high regard in Scotland. He also has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Superb.
Now was the time for the BIG set!!! Three hours of Fairport and friends. And what a gift to us!!
Difficult to put this all into words as to how the atmosphere of what it was. You just had to be there. Fairport’s Golden Anniversary and an extremely emotional crowd.
Their guests came on during the course of the evening. The wonderful Chris While who picked up the vocal batton for Come All Ye, The Deserter, Tam Lin and Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Richard Thompson came back into the set after the early years stint for Walk Awhile, Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman, Sloth, Now Be Thankful and Sir Patrick Spens. As did Judy Dyble for I Don’t Know Where I Stand andIain Matthews for Time Will Show The Wiser, Reno Nevada and Suzanne in the early years opening piece. Ralph McTell sang us a version of ‘White Dress’ which was the song Dave Swarbrick wrote for Sandy Denny. That was Ralph’s only contribution, which was a shame as he is a great favourite of the Cropredy crowd. All the Folking Team gave a big cheer and Paul Miles kept saying I love him, I love him I don’t know how many times, bless him! Don’t we all!
Former Fairport member Maartin Allcock dazzled us with A Surfeit of Lampreys and Jewel in the Crown with his playing and that electric blue suit . He looked very dapper. We had Sally Barker who also sang ‘Rising For The Moon’, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks joining Gerry Conway on drums and percussion. Such a wealth of talent, emotion and music was enjoyed by all. The finale of ‘Meet On The Ledge’ had the audience spilling tears all over the now dry grass.
You came, we saw, and you conquered Fairport and all. Congratulations on your Golden Anniversary can’t wait for next year for the start of a new decade.
So here they are: the Folking Award winners of 2017.
First of all, a big thank you to everyone who voted – more than 20,000 votes were cast. Congratulations to the winners and commiserations to the runners-up, although all our nominees are winners to the writers who enjoyed their music, either live or on record, over the last year and placed them on the short list. Here are the public vote winners and now, may I have the first envelope please… no, not that one!
Soloist of the Year – Ralph McTell
Listen to the Darren Beech/ Paul Johnson interview with Ralph at Cropredy 2016 here
Best Duo – Show Of Hands
Read all about Show Of Hands’ Big Gig at the Royal Albert Hall here
Best Band – Harp And A Monkey
This was a very close vote but we’re delighted that Harp And A Monkey triumphed in the Best Band category even though they narrowly beat another of our favourites.
As before, there are no actual trophies to present (but if anyone would like to tender for making some in the future please let us know). However, everyone on the long lists and on the short lists as well as the winners can rejoice that they made an impression on a lot of people during 2016.
Have another great musical year!
The Folking team
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