When I first heard the Rheingans Sisters I hoped that they might bring something new to the folk music of Derbyshire where they grew up. Instead, they have fixed their attention on composition and songwriting and the result is their third album, Bright Field.
The sisters are much travelled. Anna now lives in France and Rowan is a go-to violin-player for many distinguished musicians as well as being one third of Lady Maisery and one-sixth of Coven. This album was recorded in Wales under the supervision of Dylan Fowler who also adds bass guitar and tabwrth when required – and if you’re wondering what a tabwrth is, so was I – it’s a small drum or tabor.
There is a wildness, an exoticism about Bright Field. It opens with Anna’s tune, ‘Glattugla’, which was inspired by a winter spent in Trondheim and has an unmistakeable Scandinavian vibe about it, as does ‘Swinghorn’ which was also written in Norway. Snow and ice features quite a bit. The first song, Rowan’s long ‘This Forest’, is nothing less than a history of the planet in the form of a dream and she envisages the end of our world under a blanket of snow. It’s a superb song and probably the highlight of the album.
Anna’s French influences are present in the shape of two bourées and a song, ‘Appel’, which is about wanting to go south because the north wind is freezing her – and that’s as far as my French takes me. Finally in this Francophile segment comes ‘Lo Segoner’, a traditional branle. The title track is a long instrumental written by Rowan terminating in a poem by R S Thomas read by Dafydd Davies-Hughes. I particularly like ‘Edge Of The Field’ which I’m guessing is the final plea of an old horse for a dignified ending. It’s remarkably moving.
There’s a lot to listen to on this album and much to enjoy and the sisters’ current tour would make for an excellent night out.
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Coven aren’t so much a group as a collective made up of three elements. On the one hand there is the musical delicacy of Lady Maisery and on the other the homespun Yorkshire charm that O’Hooley & Tidow exploit. In the middle is Grace Petrie, a thorn between two roses, and more of her anon.
They originally came together three years ago to celebrate International Women’s Day, which coincidentally was the date of this event, and their show still has that as its central theme. Lady Maisery opened with ‘Sing For The Morning’ from their latest album followed by ‘Portland Town’, a remarkable arrangement featuring fiddle and feet before finishing with ‘The Crow On The Cradle’.
Next came Grace Petrie who I hadn’t heard before. She’s something of a fire-brand and the wit of her stage chat carries over into her writing. Her first song, ‘A Revolutionary In The Wrong Time’, describes her career: “not folky enough for Whitby; not cool enough for Cambridge” is her self-deprecating description. The second song, written for her niece Ivy, describes rushing away from Glastonbury to be home for her arrival. It is probably the most unsentimental sentimental song you’ll hear and Grace wrapped up her set with her contender for the new national anthem, ‘God Save The Hungry’. I really liked her and her crusade to prove that there are still protest singers around – and that there is still a need for them.
Belinda and Heidi chose three songs about inspiring women: ‘Beryl’ and ‘The Pixie’ from Shadows and ‘Too Old To Dream’ from their first album. Three songs about three very different women in very different circumstances.
Coven only sang six songs as a unit, the six that appear on their EP, ‘Unholy Choir’, and I found that a little disappointing. The first of these closed the first half: Rowan Rheingans’ new setting of ‘Bread And Roses’ which dispenses with the martial rhythm of the more usual version.
The second set followed a slightly different pattern. O’Hooley & Tidow opened with ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘The Needle & The Hand’ before bringing the whole group together for ‘Coil & Spring’. Lady Maisery did likewise with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ and ‘Order And Chaos’ before ‘This Woman’s Work’. Grace’s two solos led into ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ to close the show.
Well, of course, there were two encores; The Roches’ ‘Quittin’ Time’ and ‘Never Turning Back’ and Coven really gave us our money’s worth with a show that lasted well over two hours and never outstayed its welcome. There are five gigs left on this tour and that will be it until next year unless the rumours of summer festivals are true. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me explain. Coven combines the prodigious talents of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and Grace Petrie. They have worked together, when commitments permit, for about three years having got together for International Women’s Day but Unholy Choir is the first time they have recorded. A word of warning, though, this six-track EP will only be available at gigs on their tour starting on March 1st.
Much of the material is drawn from back catalogues but these are all new recordings that combine the power of six voices and their instrumental skills. The opening track is ‘Coil & Spring’, written by O’Hooley and Tidow with the assistance of Boff Whalley about the Pussy Riot protest. I must have chosen itself as it gives the EP its title. Next is ‘Bread & Roses’. Rowan has given the song a new tune which makes it less of a march with a much more English feel. An inspired move.
‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice and Kate Bush’s song gives the group something to get their musical teeth into but, being old and male, I prefer ‘Quitting Time’ by the late Maggie Roche. Its footloose feel is enhanced by Belinda’s rolling piano but softened by the sweetness of six voices in harmony. Grace wrote ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ and she sings it an appropriately confrontational style. The message is simple: get out there and do something, however small.
The final track was recorded live. It’s Pat Humphries’ anthemic ‘Never Turning Back’. It’s a song I didn’t know from a writer I hadn’t heard of but I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pat knew Pete Seeger. Coven sing it a capella (the way Pat does) using the natural acoustics of Cooper Hall where they made the record and it brings the set to a rousing, optimistic close.
You have twelve chances this year to hear Coven live and acquire a copy of Unholy Choir. Don’t miss out.
There’s a new gang in town and if their publicity photographs are any guide they mean business. Coven combines the talents of O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and singer Grace Petrie. Belinda O’Hooley explains how it all came about.
“We were introduced to Grace’s work by Huw Pudner at The Valley Folk Club in Pontardawe. He was raving about her, and around the same time, Jude Abbott from the No Masters Co-op was also singing her praises. We watched some of her stuff on YouTube and thought she was such a firebrand, standing up for what she believes in and doing great things for women. We spent a summer doing the same concerts at festivals as Lady Maisery and were blown away by their live show. We got to know them along the way. Heidi and Rowan chatted about doing something as a collective at some point, and here we all are!
“Coven was Heidi’s idea. She had previously set up a Women Make Music night in Huddersfield and had experience of this sort of thing. Both Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie were well up for forming a collective with us and celebrating International Women’s Day in a series of concerts. The first Coven tour was just three dates which all sold out. The second year, we played ten dates and this year, we’ve got twelve.”
The name could be something of a hostage to fortune. Whose idea was it?
“I can’t remember who thought the name up, it wasn’t me. I think it suits us; a gaggle of witches.”
I couldn’t possibly comment on that but the press photos seem to suggest that Belinda and Heidi are the dominant force. Either that or it’s a case of big’uns in the middle and little-uns on the ends.
“Ha! I think it looks like me and Rowan have got married and the rest of Coven are our bridesmaids. Elly Lucas took the photo at Kellam Island in Sheffield. We love the way she utilises the background of a rusty metal fence with the sunlight, to create texture and atmosphere. She’s a bit good. Looking at that photo, I wouldn’t want to mess with any of us.”
Again, I couldn’t possibly comment but what can we expect from a Coven gig?
“The show consists of us performing separately in our bands and also collectively together on existing material and also songs that Coven members have brought to the group. Over the course of the last two tours, these songs have taken on a life of their own and it has been very rewarding and exciting to record them and make an EP.”
Having developed rather below the radar over the last couple of years, Coven are embarking on a fully-fledged tour in March. Can we take it that Coven will be an on-going project?
“I think all of us want Coven to be an ever developing project as we all have so much to give to it. We all seem to get on really well and there is room for creativity and expression both individually and as a collective. It helps that we all like vegan food too. Hannah James is the most wonderful vegan chef, and kept us all fed beautifully for the five days we spent at Cooper Hall, Frome recording the EP. Fay Goodridge invited us there, and through their bursary scheme, we were able to record in their extraordinary venue. This EP, recorded by me and Heidi and mixed and mastered by Neil Ferguson will be available initially exclusively on the tour”
Instar is term given to an intermediate stage of an animal’s life-cycle, most usually applied to insects. It explains the rather disconcerting cover image and suggests that Nancy may one day make an album called Imago. This is complex album with roots in the natural world and the Sweet Liberties project and as its title indicates it’s about transition and impermanence whether by natural processes or by man’s intervention.
I’ll start in the middle with ‘Fragile Water’ which is one of the album’s key songs. It’s derived from/inspired by ‘The Great Selkie Of Sule Skerrie’ and from that starting point it looks at our perception of ourselves – our self-identity, if you will. It’s also a superb piece of writing; words that are simultaneously simple and complex with a beautiful tune. Before that ‘Written On My Skin’ is a song about blood. “Last night I ran with Reynardine” is the opening line as Nancy invokes a symbol from the tradition that everyone will recognise but it’s really about sexual assault and alludes to the fact that acts of parliament are written on vellum – supposedly a symbol of permanence.
The Sweet Visitor Band on the album are Tom Wright, James Fagen, Rowan Rheingans, Tim Yates and Greg Russell – all five sing and three are multi-instrumentalists as is Nancy herself. CJ Hillman guests on three tracks and this line-up could be termed folk-rock – sometimes it leans that way – but can also be quiet and delicate.
I was fortunate enough to hear Nancy and the band on the final date of their recent tour and the insight gained from hearing her talk about her influences is so important. Three books inspired the music: Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Helen Mcdonald’s H Is For Hawk and George Monbiot’s Feral – if you want to dig deeper there is your reading list.
I can honestly say that there isn’t a song here that I’d skip over. There’s the folky humour of ‘Farewell Stony Ground’ vainly trying to conceal a serious point and ‘Oh England What Seeds’ about the Tolpuddle Martyrs but also for all the people that the Empire transported around the world. ‘Gingerbread’ is their Christmas single and even that has a down-side and ‘Crow’s Wing’ was inspired by seeing a peregrine falcon in the middle of Sheffield. This is definitely a candidate for album of the year.
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Their third album in as many years, after the two-handed format of The Hum and the limited hand-signed micro-release Summat’s Brewin’, the duo’s fifth studio outing, Shadows, sees them return to the fuller sound of their first two albums with a post-Bellowhead Pete Flood on drums, Andy Seward on double bass, frequent collaborator Jude Abbott providing brass and Rowan Rheingans on fiddle and viola. There’s also a, perhaps surprise, appearance from Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers contributing electric bass guitars and Ebow.
With songs about home, the environment, nature, inspirational women and social issues, it’s familiar territory, comprising a couple of covers alongside the self-penned material, the latter including two instrumentals. But familiarity doesn’t breed complacency, and the writing and performances here as every much as impassioned as any fledgling act looking to make an impressive debut.
It opens with a love letter to their home, ‘Colne Valley Hearts’, and the strength and fortitude it instils, the songs itself beginning with birth (“smacked me head coming out, made me rugged, shoulders broad. Ready to carry, ready to work”) as Belinda provides jittery piano accompaniment to Heidi’s vocals, the chorus refrain “cold hands, warm hearts lighting up the cut tonight” as much a defiant anthem of Northern pride as “the fog on the Tyne is all mine”.
From Huddersfield, the album expands to take in the bigger picture with the first of the socio-political numbers, the trumpet-streaked ‘Made In England’. Written in response to the worrying rise of UKIP a few years back, it draws as much on music hall as it does traditional folk it’s a ‘Ballad of Britain’ for “you everyone that inhabit dear old Albion”, a rejection of the UKIP view (and that of “Mosely’s henchmen” before them) that “foreigners are thieves and perves” who just “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap”, and a celebration of multiculturalism “with me ruby murray, kebab in a hurry, fags and Becks from the corner shop, head to toe in Pradamark.”
Equally pointed, based on an old Sunday School hymn titled ‘Little Reapers’ and sung with starkly interwoven voices, sombre piano ballad ‘Reapers’ is in the voice of a child and initially appears to about innocents, leading lost souls to God, but, in the second verse takes on a darker hue that explains why it is dedicated to all children abused at the hands of the Church.
The abuse of children, in this case their forced migration to Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1970, is at the heart of ‘The Dark Rolling Sea’. It’s actually a short piano instrumental that grew out of Tidow’s obsession with an instrumental passage in ‘Why Did I Leave Thee?’, a setting of a poem by child migrant Frederick Henderson, the duo set to music for last year’s Ballads Of Child Migration album. The other instrumental, a solo O’Hooley composition, is the simple but no less resonant title track, which, played on the Machynlleth Tabernacle Trust’s Steinway, she says reflects how playing piano helps express emotions she finds hard to verbalise.
It’s not all gloom. ‘Blankets’ may concern baby elephants orphaned by poachers or human-wildlife conflict (it’s inspired by the David Sheldrick Widlife Trust in Kenya), but its tremulously crooned, brass and piano slow waltz focuses on the brightly coloured blankets that give them comfort, safety and warmth. Likewise, turning to inspiring women, the uptempo ‘Beryl’ is a tribute to Beryl Burton, a Leeds cyclist who, despite chronic health problems, became a champion racing cyclist, the track taking an appropriately jaunty approach with the sort of breezy chorus Gracie Fields who have loved. This is followed by its companion piece, the piano tinkling ‘The Pixie’, another tribute (commissioned for the WWI commemoration event at 2014 Glastonbury), this time to Oxenham’s Daisy “Pixie” Daking, a dance teacher and member of the Cecil Sharp’s EFDS, who, in 1917, went to France as part of the YMCA to boost the war-weary troops’ morale by teaching them morris, sword, and country dancing, something she continued until 1919.
Of the album’s two covers, one is the strings-adorned ‘River’, Joni Mitchell’s Christmas-set bluesy regretful rumination on a lost relationship, a song they featured in last year’s winter shows in Marsden, while the other, the dreamy and rather lovely piano ballad ‘Small, Big Love’ was actually penned for them by Kathryn Williams and Graham Hardy to celebrate their wedding.
Which leaves ‘The Needle and the Hand’, a key track yet also the only number that doesn’t have an annotation in the lyric booklet. However, gradually swelling on drums and swirling strings, rhyming pewter and fuchsia and with lyrics that concern changing seasons, regeneration, tattooing – or rather beautilation – (it actually features the sound of a tattoo needle) and memory, it draws on Tidow’s own troubled childhood as seen through now adult eyes and concerns guilt, love, self-worth, self-discovery and embracing the fullness of life. These are shadows you really do want to lose and find yourself in.
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