As the curtain was raised on another year of The Great British Folk Festival – it was for me my first year at this event – a newbie to a festival that has now established itself at a major player on the folk festival circuit. Being my first trip, I wanted to pre-book a couple of interviews with some of the artists that were performing – and one person I was interested in finding out more about, was the ex Steeleye Span, Albion Band and Magna Carta guitarist and singer Ken Nicol.
The set and performance was excellent… one man… two guitars and a ukulele with a few great heart warming stories thrown in that held and enthralled the audience.
Over the years, Ken Nicol has built up a huge reputation as a singer songwriter – and a fairly useful… in fact totally brilliant guitarist in his own right. Ken tours regularly all over the world and has a growing legion of loyal fans. I was intrigued to find out more about the man and his work – and caught up with him after he opened the festival on ‘Reds Stage’ in Skegness. We spoke about performing solo, medication, health and spiritual song writing.
This is what he had to say.
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Welcome to the 2017 Folking Awards. Last year’s inaugural poll was such a success that we had to do it again. The nominations, in eight categories, come from our ever-expanding team of writers and were wrangled into shape with sweat, tears and not a little blood by the Folkmeister and the Editor.
There are five nominees in each category, all of whom have been featured in the pages of folking.com in 2016.
As with the format last year, all are winners in our eyes. However, its not just down to what we think, so again, there will be a public vote to decide the overall winner of each category.
Soloist Of The Year
Cathryn Craig & Brian Willoughby
Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater
O’Hooley & Tidow
Show Of Hands
Afro Celt Sound System
Harp And A Monkey
Nancy Kerr and The Sweet Visitor Band
Best Live Act
The James Brothers
Robb Johnson and the My Best Regards Band
Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Mad Dog Mcrea
Tall Tales & Rumours – Luke Jackson Ballads Of The Broken Few – Seth Lakeman/Wildwood Kin Preternatural – Moulettes Somewhere Between – Steve Pledger Dodgy Bastards – Steeleye Span
Rising Star Act
The Brewer’s Daughter
Said The Maiden
Emily Mae Winters
Best International Act
The public vote closed Midday Saturday 22 April 2017 and the winners have now been announced HERE
If you would like to consider ordering a copy of an album for any of our award winners (in CD or Vinyl), download an album or track or just listen to snippets of selected songs (track previews are usually on the download page) then type what you are looking for in the search bar above.
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In an age when it is not uncommon for an artist to take five years to follow up a successful album, the creativity that Steeleye Span displayed in their early years is still astonishing. In the decade between their debut and 1980’s Sails Of Silver, they released twelve records alongside touring the world and enjoying a string of hits. Now with their 50th anniversary fast approaching, the band have come close to matching that work rate – readying themselves for the release of Dodgy Bastards, their eighth album in twelve years.
Such inspiration has come both from the individuals involved (Steeleye mainstays Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp and Liam Genockey alongside Jessie May Smart, Andrew Sinclair and Julian Littman in the current line-up) and the source material. Having set the writings of the late Terry Pratchett to music on the successful Wintersmith album and revisited their own past on 2015’s Catch Up, this latest outing finds them returning to the folk tales and characters that have always been at the heart of the Steeleye sound.
Dodgy Bastards draws on the work of 19th century American scholar Francis James Child and his collection of English and Scottish Ballads. The album is appropriately titled, containing stories of murder, religion, incest, skulls, honour killings and tormented spirits – the perfect subject material for Steeleye Span’s dark take on the music of the British Isles.
Such epic tales require a suitable musical backdrop and the record is firmly in the band’s classic musical mould. ‘Brown Robyn’s Confession’ sets the tone but with a new twist, violinist Jessie May Smart taking the lead vocal before the distinct tones of Maddy Prior join her on the striking chorus. Elsewhere each member plays their part, allowing the music to explore a variety of different paths as the songs ebb and flow in keeping with their characters and events – with Prior and Littman even adding a spoken word / rap element to long time band favourite ‘Boys Of Bedlam’.
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It is that time of year again and I had an invite to join the lads from folking.com and ‘do’ the 2016 Cropredy Festival. As a Cropredy virgin and non-camper, three days before the event I was filled with trepidation and angst, although the music beckoned! How could you not with such a line up?! This is what kept me going.
I arrived at Folkmaster Towers the day before, to be greeted by camping equipment and God knows what else – strewn all over the front lawn. Were we packing for the army? Decisions of which tent to take, go wash this, do that, but it kept my mind off sleeping in a cow field the next night! I announced I had bought a pop up tent for the occasion as it was quick and easy to put it up, I confidently said, I was told they are a nightmare to put down……..that’s another story!!! A visit to Waitrose followed the front lawn episode.
The day dawned. We were to meet the rest of the team at the ungodly hour of 7am at a service station over an hour and a half away. Everyone turned up at the appointed time, and we sped off in convoy to all arrive at the same time, to be in the same field and set up the Folking.com camp. Paul turned up with a transit van, complete with proper bed, fairy lights, toilet but no kitchen implements or the food and cooking equipment he was supposed to be bringing.
Great start but we had a laugh! We ended up in Field 4, full of cow pats but no cows thankfully. My tent went up a breeze with the help of the wonderful Chris, but our Beloved Leader was hampered by a slight drizzle and size of his tent, and then fluffed about filling it with comfy mattress and everything including the kitchen sink. Jon, Chris myself and Paul just amused ourselves while we were waiting the two and a half hours it took him to create the classic boudoir experience for himself which was only marred by the forgotten sarong which was meant to have provided some sort of Bedouin shade.
Onwards to The Field…. The Festival was opened by Fairport MC – Anthony John Clarke and Thursday kicked off with a Fairport Acoustic set, lots of people already in attendance and we had a good view from where we were, and two huge screens were either side the stage for those further back.
I was on photo duty, so could get to the stage area easily to capture the artists. One of the acts – Coco And The Butterfields were a new name to me and were suggested by Debs Earle and her daughter Rosie from Folk In The Barn, to the Fairport Team, and a good choice. Energetic vocals from these Canterbury buskers.
These were ably followed by Hayseed Dixie, whom I have wanted to see for ages. A rip-roaring Bluegrass Rock with attitude!
Madness with front man Suggs, completed the first day as Headliners. They certainly didn’t disappoint and belted out their hits and more with gusto.
We returned to our tents. I discovered a hill where my head was going to be and managed 4 hours sleep!
Friday dawned very hot, not normal Cropredy weather I’m told , went off for a shower to find the Cricket Pavilion showers blocked. I was the last one and was told I couldn’t have a shower there. Darren suggested that I should have used the excellent Fairport free ones (which he promised to point out to me, but never actually got round to doing). This advice was provided after he paid his two pounds fifty at the Cricket Pavilion, had queued, showered and dressed within ten minutes… Well, if it was going to happen to someone… It was going to happen to me! By this time the acts had started and I missed A J Clarke and Peggy, also BBC R2 YFA winner Brighde Chaimbeul, although I could hear them. Thankfully I surfaced for the female rock duo – Sound Of The Sirens who I had seen earlier this year supporting Rick Astley, they are a favourite of R2 presenter Chris Evans, have performed at Glastonbury, and are so energetic and a joy to watch and listen to. Definitely ones to watch out for.
I had to visit the medical tent… again… it could only happen to me… went in to get some different tablets for a water infection as the ones I had were not working and came back out having being wired up to an ECG machine for an irregular heartbeat. I said I had a Festival to go to, was a first time camper, had a shower disaster, had lost my tooth brush, so what did they expect!? If my ticker was dicky it would last until Sunday! (No alcohol had been consumed by the way).
Another band I enjoyed but had heard before were Willie And The Bandits who are labelled as a classic blues rock band, but they are so much more. They have played Glastonbury and all over Europe. The Cropredy crowd loved them.
Next came festival favourites Steeleye Span with Maddy Prior, who had everyone on the field eating out of their hands. Performing a mixture of songs including their latest album – The Wintersmith and of course – All Around My Hat! In 47 years, the band has notched up a family tree of member changes and like Fairport, have been one of the bands responsible for putting folk-rock on the map. They still sound great!
Friday ended with Headliners – The Bootleg Beatles – who have appeared some years ago at Cropredy. As expected, they belted out a variety of Beatle Hits and a couple of dress changes denoted different eras the Beatles went through. “George” wowed the audience with a fantastic rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I think Cropredy were lucky to get them as they are touring all over the world shortly. Apparently they are the most successful Beatles Tribute act ever. I’m not surprised. Fabulous!
After the main act finished, the rest of the crew (all bar Chis and me) headed off to see the other Paul, Mr. Johnson who was camped near the bottom of the disabled field to listen to him do a couple of his own songs as well as meeting up with his daughter and daughters partner “Dave Longboat’ who had lost his way on the Thursday night back to campsite 4, misplaced his footing and ended up in the Canal. Dave asked me to extend his thanks to the Cropredy villagers, who were having a party at the time and came to the rescue with towels. My camping buddy Paul said, “there are only two things that go in a canal, one a longboat and the other is Dave”, hence the name. I believe that the folkmaster penned a poem to mark the occasion and Paul Johnson is rumoured to be writing a tune for it for next year.
Saturday – main day and another hot one in more ways than one – early start for getting a decent spot on The Field. Richard Digance kicked off the day’s proceedings and was so funny. He can sing well too and play a mean old rag! We ended up with 20,000 people plus doing a Morris dance with hankies! Had to be seen to be believed! Good fun.
Other highlights for me were Maia, who call themselves sci-fi folk genre. Certainly different and very watchable. Then we had Gilmore & Roberts who were a duo I had wanted to catch up with and they didn’t disappoint. They played as a four piece band and I enjoyed them very much.
The Pierce Brothers from Australia brought the house down! The brothers were overwhelmed as they had not played such a big crowd before, and seem very humbled by the response they got from the enthusiastic crowd. Fairport’s Simon Nicol said later that The Pierce Brothers had been knocked for six by the audience reaction to their music. Hope to see them back in the UK soon.
Damien Barber and his Demon Barbers was something else! An energetic fusion of song, dancing, hip hop, trad folk, everything all rolled into one. Very visual and entertaining.
Highlight of the Festival for me was the legend who is Ralph McTell. A classic gifted wordsmith, prolific guitarist and a truly genuine guy. The set included, amongst others, Barges, Pepper and Tomatoes and a rousing rendition of From Clare to Here and he had the audience eating out of his hand and rightly so. A truly fabulous performance from our National Treasure. Of course, Streets of London was there as well, and hearing 20,000 or more people singing it, was a joy in itself. You could tell by the huge smile on Ralph’s face when he finally said goodnight that the love was following in both directions with abundance! Lovely that Paul Johnson and Darren (aka Folkmaster) had done such an amazing interview with Ralph the previous day (listen again below).
Fairport Convention ended the evening and the weekend. They opened with some very funny Olympic themed visuals which you can watch again on the “Fairporters” Facebook group if you missed it. Simon Nicol made a superb speech to the memory of Fairport founder virtuoso fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who sadly died a few months ago, but who has left a fantastic musical legacy and will not be forgotten. Dave has inspired so many people to take up the fiddle over the years and will also be remembered for his song writing, sense of humour and character. The compilation of Swarb photos from across the years was also a lovely touch as well.
An outstanding set from Fairport followed which included a guest appearance from 11-year-old blues guitar wonder-boy Toby Lee, who played the lead on ‘Mr. Lacey’ (I think). Plus the traditional ‘Matty Groves’ and of course, ‘Meet On The Ledge’ ending, the point where the field, all twenty thousand of us, unify around the song that examplifies the reason we all go. My team mates and I all linked up together to sing this and felt myself welling up. I had so enjoyed my first Cropredy, been introduced to some new and amazing artists and their music, and was sorry to have to say goodbye for another year. Yes, I will be going next year for Fairport’s 50th year celebration!
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.
It was a time not only of music’s charting big names but also exploration by the Incredible String Band, Dr. Strangely Strange, developing folk rock (Pentangle; Fairport Convention; Steeleye Span), folk boomers pushing boundaries (Mick Softley; John Renbourn to whom the box is dedicated with Clive Palmer), and also a vibrant scene of counterculture comics, Alice in Wonderland on the Beeb in experimental form, revived novels by Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Tolkien, Krishna Consciousness, New Age, and Jesus Movements (one of which is here). David Wells’ myth-dispelling notes tells us that acid-folk was applied in the late ’60s, not retrospectively, as a quieter parallel to acid-rock. Martin Carthy called it “pagan” at the time.
Here, from 1967-72, are not only the famous, plus those of cult status, but also the obscure pressed in a few dozen copies to avoid VAT, unreleased demos, rare singles and soundtrack samples (Magnet, aka Hocket or Lodestone, for The Wicker Man; a very early Vashti Bunyan from Swinging London). It is a cornucopia, an extensive botanical garden of species and one-off hybrids, but why the absence of Dr. Strangely Strange, Forest, Third Ear Band, Blondel, Sweeney’s Men, Strawbs, Dulcimer, Dawnwind, ‘Mac’ Macleod…Why ‘British underground’ without leading Irish or Welsh for what was a cosmopolitan scene? Were Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Joan Armatrading ever underground pray tell? The title seems a bit like a punt into the wrong neighbours’ garden, the link to the sub-title eludes me, but such points are as titchy as a gnat’s boil regarding the overall musical delight. Nowadays box-sets are as much due to label ownership as personal taste or accuracy, hence contents as elastic as an elastic band used to be.
Time’s passing highlights other cultural changes. We now reside in an age of euphemism, a short-cut hybrid language where meaning is shared—but not questioned—and accuracy not a primary concern. Musicians don’t co-operate together they collaborate, as if with an enemy, they are “stars”, “icons”, “royalty”, “heroes”…ad nauseum, and called by pet names as if friends (they have bodyguards against you; evidence suggests they can’t be so “great” because unable to write their own autobiographies—didn’t they go to school?). An undressed woman is called “a lady” or “nubile” (which means of marriageable age, from nuptial) does that mean the photographer is automatically a gentleman? People don’t have children anymore they have “kids” (even falsely translated) which are baby goats and in the 19th century meant gloves. Among the media’s awful replication of Pentagonese (a tool of propaganda) people are now “on the ground”—where else? It means, simply, there. A video goes “viral”: a virus is surely more negative than “popular”. A question is, ridiculously, responded to with ‘you know’ or every second word with ‘like’ (which it isn’t). Many of those on Dust… weren’t underground in the understanding of that time. They were simply not widely known, except perhaps locally due to gigs and debuts.
This has further resonance and relevance because a lot of reviewers mock the lyrics of that period, but that’s like blaming the desert for having sand. It was 1967-1972. Words had reason and sincerity more or less, not unquestioning currency. (Just compare the writing then and now for proof; is it why there are no longer any truly great, i.e. time transcending, writers?) Now musicians aren’t surprised they can make an album without meeting anybody else, simply (literally) by sending digital codes, or people paying to see clones (“tributes”): even the idea would have been unthinkable in 1970. It was not just a time of incredible musical innovation in many genres unseen in previous decades but of fellowship. They ‘worked off each other’. Now everybody thinks (?) technology is communication, quantity not quality (e.g. downloads), hence the decay of linguistic meaning. The music, however, still speaks to us today, and hopefully not as mere nostalgia or ‘weirdness’ seen in current terminology but as elements of connected evolution.
Dust On The Nettles’ 34-page booklet is helpfully more ordered than usual, based on each CD’s running order. There is a healthy smattering from one of the first independent labels, Dandelion: Beau, Bridget St. John (both still active), Principal Edwards, Country Son, The Occasional Word (their two albums of humour and music were landmarks and pass the test of time; ‘The Evil Venus Tree’ imbues a nursery lullaby with menace via duelling acoustic guitars and echo voice), and Kevin Coyne (why ‘Sand All Yellow’ again, from their previous great box Love, Poetry And Revolution?). Even Peel’s chum Bolan is here for Tyrannosaurus Rex’s ‘Highways (Misty Mist)’. Oh, and rare singles on Pye, B&C, Pegasus, Trafalgar, the studio famous for the Thunderbirds theme along with unreleased acetates like an early one by ISB.
The first CD launches with The Pentangle’s enduring advice ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, a merging of the instrument variety of ISB and traditional vocal of Span with Jansch/Renbourn guitars, from their debut Transatlantic LP which only just eluded the Top 20. Appropriately taking the name from an Arthurian legend, their many line-ups formed the bed-strata of great folk-rock ensembles and solo careers. In tune with the time, their singer Jacqui McShee ran a folk club at the Red Lion in Sutton, where the Rolling Stones first met together. From the famous to the legendary are the female-fronted acid-folk bands Spirogyra (from their acoustic debut with Dave Mattacks guesting on drums), Trees (their much covered title-track with harpsichord and double female poetic lyrics), Wight of that isle, and always-uplifting Dando Shaft (a short track from their second album) who don’t deserve to be sent to Coventry from where they formed; they have a very original sound with no fillers. In the same fold now, Oberon, due to their self-released 99-copy album from Radley College’s music room where the masters forgot to lock the percussion cupboard in time here. Also a gem for archivists from the unreleased second album by Paper Bubble, who after their Deram debut backed the kindred-sounding Strawbs in the studio as well as touring together.
Gary Farr sheds his leather, founding The T-Bones that took over a Marquee residency of The Yardbirds, for tweed on a previously unreleased demo of lovely chiming 12-string. His first of three solo albums was backed by Mighty Baby and Blossom Toes, but after a short-lived project with ex-Uriah Heep and failing singles he left the business, like Mick Softley, Marc Brierley and the sitar-musing art student Mark Fry, who returns (again) from his acclaimed album in Italy. The great Clive Palmer ebbs into sugary overdose (‘Stories Of Jesus’), with Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Incredible String Band the lone representatives from 1967. Synanthesia’s sole ’69 LP is featured, sounding from inside a hive or fairy cave, Steve Peregrine Took’s Shagrat in an ultra-rare shelved bit of psych without the electric fuzz (allegedly about a croupier or else the Mandrax drug) while Mary-Ann updates ‘Black Girl’ in 60s style with chirping flute, percussion, and banshee vocal in the misty distance. Comus, the six-piece from Kent, confide that ‘Winter Is A Coloured Bird’ in an eerie example from their pre-LP maxi-single on Dawn Records.
There is no Mr Fox (whose debut was a Melody Maker album of the year) but its Bob & Carole Pegg’s traditional pilgrim-on-the-road-style song of Sydney Carter, who probably contributes hand-clapping here for a cull from their tribute album on Galliard rather than Transatlantic. A beautiful surprise is Chrissie Quayle’s tribute to West Cornwall, on the inaugural album of Sentinel Records—which amazingly has its own fan blog today. (Their use of field recordings includes splashing waves and gulls here, while the label’s later Warm Gold on CD2 pays agricultural homage to North Cornwall with an old ballad ‘Searching For Lambs’.) Chrissie, 17 year-old niece of the actor Anthony, was billed as the, erm, local mermaid by her father, who should have known better but such are the treacherous pools of love. She featured in Clive Palmer’s local The Temple Creatures that alas didn’t record, but also Daylight’s lone RCA LP which achieved radio notice in New Zealand. Their absence here is a pity. Daylight also featured Steve Hayton – guitarist of Daddy Longlegs and harmonica on a Mick Softley B-side – who sadly passed away recently according to their former manager.
The second CD has Steeleye Span from their debut with the fractious Woods on an electric, multi-titled ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’; Joan Armatrading’s sitar-swirling overlooked Cube debut on a track too short for a single, plus unreleased demos by Tyrannosaurus Rex who recorded for the same label (and as usual soon run out of steam here), Fairport Convention, and Incredible String Band’s ‘First Girl I Loved’. The legendary plus obscure all nestle comfortably in the same flower-bed—as one-off recordings often do, in spite of carping reviewers pretending otherwise. Take Gerald Moore’s (‘To Be A) Pilgrim’, as he does from schooldays, later a hardy perennial of pub-rock with G.T.Moore and The Reggae Guitars. Folk-rock that puts you back into those balmy but shadowy far days when whimsical play was de rigueur, even if unreleased at the time.
Slack-stringed bass opens Tony, Caro & John, a trio whose experimental self-financed LP features a vocal uncannily like Mike Heron. Unreleased was Tuesday, here with traditional style lyrics from the west countrymen though they have a collectable single for a very different reason; they later made an album as Casino and the vocalist wrote songs for Cliff Richard. Benjamin Delaney Lion was actually a duo, their Satori (1969) included Donovan and ISB covers (here they cite “be glad for the song has no ending”) pressed in seventy copies by the Brum studio Hollick & Taylor. The five-piece Hunt Lunt & Cunningham’s Pye 7” has a punchy female vocal but no hook. Moonkyte reappear from their rare splendid album on Mother Records and Sunbeam CD, a hypnotic harmonium, sitar and bells dirge that’s a snort in period parlance, more COB than ISB, for whom Peel wrote glowingly on the Bradforders’ sleeve notes but a prophet he wasn’t. A not-their-best from Trader Horne’s (named after Peel’s nanny) eponymous platter on Dawn included ex-Fairport’s Judy Dyble. On the same label was the bucolic Heron, here “in the garden smoking Lebanese beneath the privet hedge” as they did in field (actually two-field) recordings in Berkshire, with bird-song as subtle as the guitar-based harmonies.
The Cambridge duo Melton Constable’s unreleased strum-and-finger-picking with dulcimer describes a local street, while Duncan Browne, with almost flamenco or harp picking and slowed, syllabic lyrics is featured from his Immediate debut LP (five years before his Top 30 hit ‘Journey’). It contained, we’re told, “autumnal vignettes of the grey, closed-on-Wednesday melancholia underpinning suburbia”. Like Kevin Coyne’s ‘Sand All Yellow’ in his own inimitable way. A more traditional cautionary tale, by the moonlit mill, is an unreleased beauty by the Essex quartet Dry Heart, the ballad’s melody just holding back from rock. The Moths with ‘Halfdan’s Daughter’ is a deliciously melodic, rich singing five-piece who recorded at their university and issued only a dozen test pressings. Frozen Tear, who often supported big names in their native west country, issued a local-label 99 copies 7” with Free’s ‘The Hunter’ on the other side of this track that Peel played a couple of times. The echo vocal sounds early 1960s (they did support The Move, The Herd etc) and a bit Forest-like too. Academy Records may be soon releasing an anthology of their career.
More well-known examples on this disc feature Shelagh McDonald, whose private life was as blighted as Sandy Denny’s with whom she is often compared in style too. The title track of her second album merges astrology and astronomy for Stargazer (B&C, 1971) with piano, strings and monastic male choir rejoining the mist at the end. An unissued three-minute demo (February 1969) of Fairport Convention’s ‘Fotheringay’ heralds their turning from West Coast America to nearer home about Mary Queen of Scots, appropriately regarding its title with Sandy Denny’s dulcetry. Another nugget is Parchment, from their rare Light Up The Fire (Pye, 1972), lilting female-sang lyrics of yearning and front-mixed percussion that should be as well-known as the comparable Comus. At least from this track, for in spite of the (subtle) sitar they were a Liverpool-based leading Jesus Movement band, so this is an Easter hymn though one wouldn’t know without being told in the liner notes. It was, allegedly, a minor hit single for the hirsute trio.
The third CD completes the 63-track anthology. Nice piano/acoustic strumming demo by Bill Fay from 1969 with Peter Eden (who produced Donovan’s first session and Mick Softley’s debut in 1965), much-lauded now he doesn’t do much for me. Enduring pleasures include Mick Softley’s swirling ‘Eagle’ from Sunrise with sitar, tablas and unique voice, and Beau’s ‘Silence Returns’ featuring the storming high-point acid guitar from Tractor’s Jim Milne complementing the richness of still-current Trevor Midgley’s 12-string and evocative voice. From the same roster was Country Son’s ‘The Colour Is Blue’, one of the great Dandelion sampler tracks, an earworm of the highest breed (Were their later incarnations as Blue and in Ireland as Foxy ever recorded?); no LP from that duo of Paul Savage and John Hewitt is one of the major regrets about that label. C.O.B’s sitar/guitar classic ‘Music Of The Spheres’, produced by Ralph McTell, vies with Marc Brierley’s debut title track, ‘Welcome To The Citadel’ (CBS, 1969) with subtle horns, both of which stay in the memory long after listening.
Roots are returned to on Anne Briggs’ ‘Standing On The Shore’, a mesmerising Sweeney’s Men song. Important for her close links to Jansch, Renbourn and the fiery Ewan MacColl and wild as Denny, the latter wrote a tribute to her with Fotheringay’s ‘Pond And The Stream’. Like Mick Softley and Kevin Coyne, she didn’t like recording though appeared on an anthology as early as 1963. There was almost a hex regarding CBS singer-songwriters of that time: she, like Softley and Marc Brierley, left the music scene afterwards. Fresh Maggots reappear with dulcimer, bells and strings (absent of the searing fuzz guitar on most of the album) for the flower power ballad of delight ‘Rosemary Hill’. The husband and wife duo Sun Also Rises released one album, which wasn’t helped for being just the second from the small but great Village Thing label although it had a great review in Sounds.
Another group getting YouTube hits is the female harmonies and haunting Marie Celeste, who DIY-released And Then Perhaps in the late spring of ’71 out of Wolverhampton. They also ran their own folk club up the road in Brewood. The female swinger duo Chimera actually did an unreleased album with two members of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac’s later guitarist Bob Weston. Their audition at Apple was liked by two bland-and-smug-is-an-art-form Beatles but blocked by George Harrison. ‘Elegy To A Dead King’, circa 1968, has a very original Chinese-like melody. A B&C picture-sleeve single by Mother Nature (‘Orange Days And Purple Nights’) is the only American-sounding track in the box, as was their follow-up single on Kingdom. Despite being produced by David Hitchcock (Mellow Candle, Fuchsia, Genesis etc) the “blissfully stoned” approach, like the title, was more a paean to what had been by late 1971; according to biteitdeep blog the featured 45 had Radio One airplay by Anne Nightingale and Saville. A compilation of them has recently appeared on Wooden Hill, and earlier under the band name Steepy Rojo.
Most crate-diggers will know Fuchsia, named after Mervyn Peake’s Groan princess, on doomed Pegasus. It has the rather unGormenghast “One day I went to school, the next day I got lost” but then again…A female string ensemble adds a touch of baroque (guitarist Tony Durant apparently reformed the band recently in Australia [he did and they released an album – Editor]). Even more will know Agincourt’s Fly Away, a 13-track self-released two-figure album in 1970, because Record Collector magazine has re-issued it. The dreamy band was a duo with guesting female vocalist and drummer, and one was later with the more proggy Ithaca and the BBC Radiophonic boffins.
Everyone Involved was a collective that printed on the label “Don’t pay for this record, it is free”; the story goes that a member buried a number of them later in the Amazon forest! Either/Or (Arcturus, 1972) presumably nodding to Kierkegaard, shows their campus origins but the pagan witch-wood offering with violin catches attention. One of them was previously in Wild Country, which had two Thunderclap Newman members and a 14-year old vocalist who was later a Miss United Kingdom finalist and cut three Pye singles. Their ‘Silent Village’ here was the inaugural single release by the little-known Trafalgar label two years earlier in London, for a band based in a commune in Liphook Hampshire. A stately, upbeat slice of fey loveliness, a sort of Pentangle spliced with Third Ear Band via Bridget St. John’s lyrics. Tapestry of Delights wrongly titled this band.
Joyful village scenes surface with Music Box’s ‘The Happy King’ (Songs Of Sunshine, Westwood, 1972); could have been a hit perhaps a few years earlier with its powerful vocals and confident, even strident sound. A bit like Dando Shaft, they plied the same Coventry folk circuit. Previously mentioned Wight, who issued a pair of France-only singles as a trio, renamed themselves (as a duo) Shide & Acorn for a 99-issue from the more local Solent label less than a year later: Under The Tree, in an enchanting hand-drawn forest scene cover. There is also a memorable ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Folkal Point, issued on the less than true-to-their-name Midas label in ’72 who should have turned such as this to gold. It blows away the too-polished S&G (lifted from Martin Carthy who taught it to Simon in ’65, resulting in some acrimony), in spite of being by a quartet of teenagers from Bristol. It is a return to the Middle English origins of the ballad, the male-response vocal absent here. Five hundred copies were pressed but fate dealt a blow when half were destroyed in a flood. Their finely-named Cherie Musialik’s spell-binding renditions, along with the band’s guitars ‘n’ banjo, have added to the album’s collectability today.
A clearer example of the box-set’s ethos (like Shagrat) is epitomised by Simon Finn, with ‘Patrice’ from his great-cover Pass The Distance via Mushroom Records. More famous in the field for Magic Carpet, the label (and studio) opposite Camden’s Roundhouse were true counter-culture in squat-like premises above a shop. Some of their releases had to be withdrawn due to disputes over the artwork. The Surrey-born singer, 20 when this LP was released backed by a multi-instrumentalist and percussionist, debuted for a quid at Al Stewart’s Folk at the Marquee residency in 1967. His career has been rejuvenated this century with Current 93, Thurston Moore, and the excellent Copenhagen-based duo of weird and wonderful sound, Blood On A Feather. His second album, Magic Moments, has been released on his own label from Canada where he emigrated to.
For this reviewer the measure of a choice compilation of this genre remains the stunningly beautiful Strange Folk, issued by Albion Records in 2006. But its span was wider in terms of period. No anthems or ego-posing here, no tricks or hype. If you are content that The Byrds didn’t play on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ or only the singer for Love Affair, most of the Beach Boys not on Pet Sounds, Monkees not on their first albums or the Sweet on their first five hits, then the graft, skill and hopes (and honesty) here just might be a revelation for you.
The big folk names are not the Venus Flytraps of this inspired anthology, nor really the legends good as they are: the bouquet permeates the obscure. No weeds, thorns or nettles here, unless you think of home-brew or natural soup. Everyone, of course, will have their own blooms, and there are some really rare ones here. This is a meadow, round the back of the hill we might have gazed at during different seasons wondering what was on the other side but only now stumbled upon. The view can be sometimes breathtaking, spell-binding too: when not, it is never less than atmospheric. No smoke and mirrors, nourishing as good country fare in this age of false-label contents. You just might be smiling all the way home at the value for money.
Brian R Banks
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