JOHN SMITH – Hummingbird (Commoner COMM01CD)

HummingbirdJohn Smith is a name I’ve been circling around for some time without actually hearing him so I was delighted when his new album, Hummingbird, his sixth, fell into my lap. I now have some serious catching up to do. If you haven’t encountered him yet you should know that John is a fine fingerpicking guitarist and songwriter with a very individual take on traditional songs.

John names his influences as John Renbourn and Richard Thompson. The former is obvious from his guitar style and the latter becomes so with the opening song in this set. ‘Hummingbird’ is a beautiful song of love yearned for, gained and lost and also a middle class homage to ‘Beeswing’. If you’re not immediately grabbed by it you should be listening to some other music. The second original song here is the fiery ‘Boudica’, the story of Iceni queen bolstered by strings and the third is the long modern murder ballad, ‘Axe Mountain (Revisited)’, which comes straight after the traditional ‘Willy Moore’. Whether this is actually a murder ballad is hard to say, although the set-up of the first three verses suggests it, but it feels more like a story of thwarted love and suicide.

It’s John’s approach to traditional songs that really engaged me, though. He approaches them as though they were modern with a changed note here and there and a contemporary inflection in his voice. ‘Hares On The Mountain’ has more recorded versions than you can shake a stick at but he makes you listen to it afresh as he does with ‘Lord Franklin’, a favourite of mine, I must admit.

The odd man out is Anne Briggs’ ‘The Time Has Come’ performed in the style of a sixties guitar player which is entirely appropriate given that John learned it via Renbourn. His band is used sparingly; there is lovely bass from Ben Nicholls and fiddle and whistle from John McCusker with Cara Dillon adding vocals to the closing ‘Unquiet Grave’. Sam Lakeman’s production is perfectly restrained and perfectly judged even when a song like ‘Axe Mountain’ is a temptation to pile on the drama.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Hummingbird’:

John Smith unveils debut single from new album

John Smith

John Smith had just announced the release of his new album Hummingbird.  It features appearances from Cara Dillon, John McCusker and Ben Nicholls, and will be released on October 5th on his own Commoner Records (via Thirty Tigers worldwide).  He had also announced a huge UK headline tour (29 dates throughout October & November), and made the track ‘Willy Moore’, taken from Hummingbird, available to stream now.

An independent musician who has toured the world for almost fifteen years with his guitar and suitcase, he has independently released five albums, supported the likes of Ben Howard and Damien Rice, won critical acclaim in the UK and abroad, and performed a session guitarist and singer for the likes of Joan Baez, Lisa Hannigan and Martin Simpson.

Following his performance last weekend at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and having been played for the first time last night by Mark Radcliffe on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, John Smith can today reveal ‘Willy Moore’, the first song from his soon to be announced new album.

Recorded at Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio in March, John explains how the track came into his life.

“Collected in Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, no-one knows who wrote it, but it’s probably from the early 20th century.  I first heard this performed by the gentleman genius Wizz Jones. It’s a heart-breaking account of two young lovers’ tragedy.”

Listen to ‘Willy Moore’ here:

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Live Dates

04 October Aberdeen The Lemon Tree
05 October Ullapool Guitar Festival
10 October Cork  IE Coughlan’s
11 October Cork IE Coughlan’s
12 October Limerick IE Dolan’s
13 October Dublin IE Unitarian Church
14 October Bangor NI Studio Theatre
17 October Chipping Norton The Theatre
20 October Whitby Musicport Festival
21 October Liverpool St George’s Hall
22 October Gateshead Sage Gateshead
24 October Leeds The Wardrobe
25 October Sheffield Picture House Social
26 October Thames Ditton The Ram Club
30 October Newbury Arlington Arts Centre

01 November Bury The Met Arts Centre
02 November Scunthorpe Cafe Indiependent
03 November Halifax Square Chapel
04 November York The Crescent
07 November Middlesbrough Town Hall
09 November Bristol Rough Trade
10 November Plymouth Barbican Theatre
11 November Dartmouth The Flavel
12 November Exeter Phoenix
14 November Southampton The Brook
15 November London St Pancras NEW Church (Bloomsbury)
16 November Brighton Unitarian Church
17 November Guildford St Mary’s Church

CARA DILLON – Wanderer (Charcoal CHARCD009)

WandererFollowing last year’s release of her first Christmas album, Upon A Winter’s Night, Dillon returns to secular form with a predominantly traditional collection, again produced by and featuring husband Sam Lakeman.

Pivoting around an underlying theme of transition and departure, whether that be through emigration or the search for love, it keeps the instrumentation spare and intimate, predominantly built around Lakeman’s piano and/or acoustic guitar, but also with occasional contributions from Ben Nicholls on double bass, Niall Murphy on fiddle and both John Smith and Justin Adams on acoustic and electric guitar, respectively.

There are two original numbers, the first up being the piano-accompanied ‘The Leaving Song’, inspired by “living wakes” held for those about to emigrate in pre-war Co.Derry with its lyric about a mother bidding farewell to a son seeking his fortunes in some other land, with a reminder that he can always find his way home. The other, the penultimate track, the simply styled metaphorical ‘Lakeside Swans’ touches a similar note, here concerning migrants and refugees and the decision to leave their homes.

There’s also a cover, the album’s final track being their dreamily lovely piano-led arrangement of ‘Dubhdara’, the slow-swaying sailing out Celtic anthem written by Shaun Davey for his 1985 album Granuaile.

The remaining seven numbers are all traditional, some familiar, others less so, case in point being the opening Ulster thoughts of home folk song ‘The Tern And The Swallow’ with its references to Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Northern Ireland, and Slieve Gallion, the mountain in Co. Londonderry. Also with their roots in Derry and nostalgia for home, ‘The Banks Of The Foyle’ concerns a girl forced to leave her true love by cruel misfortune but then learning he’s remained constant in her absence, while, featuring just Dillon and Lakeman’s guitar, ‘The Faughan Side’ conjures memories of an emigrant to America of happy days spent by the bridge of Drumahoe over the titular river.

A fine, yearningly crestfallen reading of the much recorded ‘Blackwater Side’ leads the charge for the better known songs, with its tale of a young lad lying his way into a maiden’s bed with false promises. This is complemented by ‘Both Sides Of The Tweed’, a traditional number given a makeover by Dick Gaughan, here presented in simple style with Dillon’s pure vocals and Lakeman’s piano. She’s joined by Kris Drever who duets and plays guitar for ‘Sailor Boy’, the album’s obligatory death song (you know the plot, maiden dies from grief when her sailor lover drowns) with Murphy on wheezing fiddle. Which just leaves a haunted interpretation of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, which, combining emigration and thwarted love and arranged for piano and fiddle, is fittingly set to the tune of ‘Lord Of All Hopefulness’.

Her most reflective and most musically introspective album to date, the spare arrangements putting the spotlight on her warm, crystal clear vocals, it is arguably also the best of her career.

Mike Davies

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Promo video:

CARA DILLON – Upon A Winter’s Night (Charcoal CHARCCD008)

upon a winter's nightIn the absence this year of a new Kate Rusby festive collection for folk fans to warm their chilly cockles, Cara Dillon, aided and abetted by husband, musical partner and producer Sam Lakeman, steps up to the seasonal plate for her first Christmas offering, Upon A Winter’s Night, an 11-string stockingsworth of traditional nuggets, hymns and originals.

It’s one of the latter, the title track, written by Sam and Noah Lakeman, that kicks things off, a jaunty Nativity scene setter that also features Uilleann pipes, Luke Daniels on accordion and Kathryn Roberts on backing vocals. There’s three other originals, Cara and Sam providing the piano backed ‘Standing By My Christmas Tree’ with its interpolation of ‘Silent Night’ and bells-pealing keyboard notes as well as the simply arranged lullaby closer ‘Mother Mary’, he on acoustic guitar and she joined on vocals in the final refrains by a family affair of Colm, Noah and Elizabeth Lakeman. The third is Sam’s own instrumental contribution, a lively woodland romp with ‘The Huntsman’, again featuring Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes and Daniels on accordion alongside fiddle from Niall Murphy and James Fagan’s bouzouki with Ben Nicholls providing stalwart bass.

The other numbers are the couple’s arrangements of, by and large, very familiar seasonal tunes, first up, introduced by Murphy’s fiddle sounding like a hunting horn, being a traditional folk-sounding reading of ‘The Wexford Carol’ that gathers to fulsome fiddle finale. Rather less known, based on a traditional Polish carol, ‘Infant Holy, Infant Lowly’ is another lowing lullaby and introduces John Smith on guitar. Considerably better known is the evergreen ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, here taken at a swayalong tempo on the back of fiddle, pipes and accordion and featuring guest viocals from both Roberts and Sam’s father, Geoff.

By contrast, while often given a rousing chorus flourish, here ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ is an altogether more contemplative affair etched out by just her voice and Sam’s piano, a fine companion piece to the wholly a capella ‘O Holy Night’, Adolphe Adams’ 19th century setting and translation of a French poem (Midnight Christians) on which she duets with older sister Mary, their version joining a list that includes Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Bing Crosby and, more recently, Ellie Goulding.

This is, in turn, followed by another breath of fresh winter air with ‘Mary Bore A Son To God’, one of the earliest known Irish language carols and sung here in the original Gaelic (‘Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia’),a slightly softer reading than that previously done by Horslips with Henderson’s Wilson taking the fiddle parts.

Finally, once whisperingly recorded by Bono, there’s another traditional Irish carol, ‘The Darkest Midnight’, which taken from the Kilmore Carols collection of South Wexford (albeit a trimmed down version) is again arranged for just her voice and Sam’s acoustic guitar and piano, another lovely grace note to a collection that very much has its mind set on celebrating the real meaning of Christmas. A touch more contemplative than Rusby’s South Yorkshire offerings perhaps, but likely to prove an equally enduring bauble on folk’s festive fir.

Mike Davies

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HIDDEN PEOPLE – Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman

“HIDDEN PEOPLE” is an apt title for this long-anticipated debut CD from husband-and-wife duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman.  They have been lynchpins of the UK’s burgeoning folk-acoustic revival over the last two decades – but a case, perhaps, of always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Now, at last, it’s their turn to burst out from the shadows of their siblings and former musical partners to make a big noise in their own right.  This bold and superbly – crafted album includes eight self-penned songs, one traditional arrangement and a poignant cover version.    With Kathryn’s sublime voice and effortless delivery, Sean’s masterly guitar arrangements and the sonic quality of the production this CD, this is one the most eagerly awaited modern folk albums of the year.

The esteem in which they are held is reflected in the list of artists who queued up to make a contribution: Sean’s famous brother Seth Lakeman; the award-winning Irish singer Cara Dillon (who is married to another brother, musician and producer Sam Lakeman); Levellers’ lead singer Mark Chadwick; veteran folk troubadour Dave Burland, singer-songwriter Jim Moray, Megson’s Stu Hanna, Caroline Herring from the USA and Greta Bondesson from Sweden’s sister trio Baskery.

Steeped in the English tradition, Yorkshire-born Kathryn, 37, was a teenage sensation in a duo with Kate Rusby. They made the Folk Album of the Year in 1995, “Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts”, and Kathryn also won the first-ever BBC Young Folk Award as a solo singer.

They both teamed up with the three Lakeman brothers to form the folk -pop “supergroup”, Equation, which was signed to Warner Music’s cool ‘Blanco Y Negro’ label.  Rusby and Seth then left to begin successful solo careers.

Equation, with Kathryn and Sean at the head, spent more than five years touring in the USA and performed at top venues from New York to Los Angeles. They played the legendary Newport Folk Festival, the Golden Gate Festival inSan Francisco, the Strawberry Festival in California’s Yosemite National Park, the Rock ‘N’ Roll hall of fame in Cleveland and concerts from Arizona to Seattle, Chicago to Denver, Boston to El Paso.

“We must have seen more of America than most Americans” says Sean.” An incredible experience and a unique musical education.”

Meanwhile, Seth Lakeman wrote his seminal “Kitty Jay” album, which led to a Mercury Music Prize nomination – and a musical roller coaster ride. Sean was at his elbow, playing guitar as Seth achieved international fame with subsequent albums. Gold and silver albums sit on Sean’s walls, as producer of Seth’s groundbreaking CD’s, one of which (Poor Man’s Heaven) became the rarest of things, a folk album in the Top Ten.

Like Kathryn, Sean’s musical pedigree is formidable. After emerging on the English folk scene as one of ‘The Lakeman Brothers’ he studied jazz and contemporary music at Leeds College of Music. But he learned more by staying at the Yorkshire home of family friend and guitar maestro, Chris Newman, and touring the UK’s folk clubs with veteran folk fiddler Tom McConville.

Kathryn and Sean have had a low profile as a duo over the last eight years. As Sean toured the world with Seth’s band, Kathryn has been busy at their hideaway Dartmoor home raising twin girls, Poppy and Lily, who are now nearly five.  Now, finally, they have found breathing space to produce “Hidden People” for the Navigator label and will be heard performing live throughout the summer and autumn at festivals and gigs.

Kathryn’s vocals – lush, sultry and faultless – are the signature of the album. She has an extraordinary range, from husky to soaring. She also provides all the piano, keyboards, flute and woodwind. Sean contributes six-string guitar, mandolin, bass guitar, bouzouki and of all things “wooden ruler bass.”

The sonic quality of this CD is testimony to Sean’s impressive production and recording skills and demonstrates why other folk artists and bands like the Levellers have beaten a path to his door to employ his services as a producer.

The tracks on “Hidden People” range from Kathryn’s haunting lead vocals, to rousing a cappella harmony, mellow and heart-rending piano ballads, foot-tapping rockabilly beats, tunes with a world-music tinge and full-on folk-rock. Yet the core of the album is good old-fashioned story-telling.

“These are stories, first and foremost,” says Kathryn, but she warns, “My home-life is so ‘roses round the cottage door’, that I tend to prefer music with an edginess, so some of the tracks on the album are quite dark and brooding, to say the least.” The messages and meanings behind these songs belong to the “Hidden People.”

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Latest festival and tour dates: http://www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/gigs/

Folking.com’s favourite Radio 2 moment…

The Radio 2 Folk Awards are chosen and voted for by a panel of professionals (broadcasters, promoters, festival organisers and record companies) who all work in the world of folk, acoustic and roots music. These people (now in their hundreds) are asked to nominate and vote for the people that they consider to have produced and performed the most outstanding work during the past 12 months.

For folking.com the 2002 Folk Awards was a haven for such music. It not only celebrated the pioneers of the genre but also gave birth to something very special, a new energised passion for the music and a new set of ambassadors for the tradition.

Many of the artists that pioneered the folk-culture movement in the early “noughties” were in the room on the night of 11 February 2002. There were performances from Eliza Carthy and Cerys Matthews. “The Barnsley Nightingale,” Kate Rusby, performed “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies” which she had written for the late, great singer-songwriter Davy Steel. Martin Simpson’sThe Bramble Briar”, (in my opinion one of the greatest folk albums of all time), was awarded “Best Album”. Arguably the greatest ambassador of the tradition, Martin Carthy, was awarded “Folk Singer of the Year” and the icing on the cake was having him accompany Martin Simpson on his live version of the much-missed Cyril Tawney’s classic “Sammy’s Bar”. The award for Best Group was such a close run thing that year, that either Show of Hands, Old Blind Dogs or Tarras could have pipped Cherish the Ladies to the number-one spot post. The “Guv’nor,” Ashley Hutchings, presented Nettlebed Folk Club with the “Good Tradition Award and Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull presented the “fabulous, fruity, funky, fecund, Fairport 5Fairport Convention, with a “Lifetime Achievement Award”. Best Live Act went to the rambling, constantly-touring inspiration that is Rory McLeod.

Willy Russell presented Ralph McTell, (in my view, one of the finest singer-song writer of all time), with the second of the night’s “Lifetime Achievement Award”. Jim Moir, the man that cared enough to put the money and passion behind the Folk Awards idea in the first place and the man that presided over the format and programming of Radio 2 at the turn of the century to make it the most listened to Radio Show in the country, awarded The ChieftainsIrelands Musical Ambassadors” with, the third of the night’s  “Lifetime Achievement Award”. I clearly remember the first words Jim said when he came out on stage “What an evening”. It certainly was Jim!

Out of all of the live acts mentioned above, any of them could have been chosen as a classic performance. However, I have chosen Cara Dillon’s “Black is the Colour” as my favourite of the night.

For folking.com, this performance represented the beginning of this exciting new change in folk music, as it was the first time in years that a folk artist and a traditional folk song were taking pride of place on the Radio 2 playlist. Johnny Walker, who presented Cara with the award for “Best Traditional Track”, summed it up perfectly by saying that “Cara had the courage to resist corporate pressure to commercialise her music and change it to try and get it to a wider audience and instead the audience has come to her”. This was an important point which could be cited as one of the fundamental reasons why the music is so strong today. A certain pre-Mercury Music prize nominee, Seth Lakemen (now truly an ambassador in his own right), accompanied Cara on backing vocals. The whole piece was woven together beautifully by the piano arrangements written and performed by Seth’s brother, Sam Lakeman. Darren Beech – June 2011

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