SHAKE THE CHAINS – Shake The Chains (Quercus Records QRCD003)

Shake The ChainsEven supposing you knew nothing about this album, a quick glance down the track listing would instantly identify Shake The Chains as a politically conscious project. A new generation of protest songs sit comfortably alongside some old standards.

Despite Edwyn Collins’ complaint in ‘A Girl Like Youabout “too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”, it can sometimes be hard to imagine what it would take, in these trying times, to generate enough protest to effect real change. But here is a delightful set of songs, nonetheless.

Hannah Martin contributes songs of poetic allegory and metaphor. ‘Yarl’s Wood’ evokes the horror of a refugee ending up in a detention centre. The refugee’s flight, “the choice that is no choice” is starkly laid out and overwhelmingly powerful. ‘Song Of The Jay’ uses certain bird behaviours to draw unflattering parallels with some human ones. Similar, but viewed from another angle, is Tim Yates’s song ‘Side By Side’ which delivers a darkly moody lament on social division.

Nancy Kerr delivers a brilliantly tender pairing of poems about Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed under Pinochet’s regime. This lengthy piece allows the purity of the art form simply to shine.

Naturally, these serious subjects deserve gravity, but there is room for humour, too. Greg Russell’s country-flavoured ‘Bunch Next Door’ is a domestic scale witty deconstruction of political villains, while ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ has a drily sardonic air of resignation.

By contrast, Findlay Napier’s songs are much harder-hitting, with a raw passion. ‘Building Ships’ is a poignant song about his father’s experience of the death of that industry. The album’s title track – as well as a rallying call to action – ‘Shake The Chains’ is punchy, feisty and totally heartfelt. Its central chorus is adapted from Shelley’s poem Masque Of Anarchy, about the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, and a much-quoted work of those standing up for the poor and oppressed.

Of the stalwarts, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ has a simplicity, sincerity and even an undercurrent of anger. Likewise ‘We Shall Overcome’ – stripped back, sung a capella (with delicious harmonies) is revealed afresh as a sorrowful yet hopeful anthem.

The live recording gives an immediacy to the songs: the joy of hearing an audience respond suits the nature of the works. It provides a confirmation bias, a reassurance that the listener is not alone, as well as a desperately necessary response to the current madness in the world.

Whilst we can see how much we’ve moved on from the treatment of Alan Turing, as detailed in Kerr’s touching ‘Poison Apples’, it’s also a reminder against complacency. Rights hard-won may be all too insidiously and easily eroded.

It’s a hard album to review without clambering onto the soapbox, so tightly enmeshed are subject and medium. It is a superb album in its own right, with strong songs, gorgeously arranged and performed. It is also deeply moving: keep the tissues handy, there will definitely be something in your eye. Now, get out there and change something.

Su O’Brien

‘If I Had A Hammer’ – live:

GREG RUSSELL – Inclined To Be Red (Fellside FECD281)

Inclined To Be RedWhen he isn’t partnering Ciaran Algar or working with Nancy Kerr’s Sweet Visitor Band and half a dozen other projects, Greg Russell follows another path. Inclined To Be Red would seem to be his first completely solo album even though he seems to have been around for ever…and he’s still only 24. The album’s title has a double meaning, I think. The line comes from ‘Joe Bowers’, a song that dates back to the California gold rush, but many of the songs concern the lives of the working classes suggesting a certain political leaning. Of course it could just be that Greg is of the ginger persuasion.

Greg has written four of the songs here, adapted four more from traditional roots and shrewdly borrowed four others. The opener is one of his own songs, ‘E.G.A’, written for the Shake The Chains project. Its subject is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her fight to become a doctor, the first woman in the country to do so. It’s a masterful piece of writing encompassing Anderson’s life and struggle in under three minutes. ‘Road To Dorchester’ is Graham Moore and Mick Ryan’s song about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and one of the best tracks on the album. Greg returns again to the plight of the working man with Dominic Behan’s ‘Crooked Jack’, a song that I hadn’t encountered before, and Keith Marsden’s ‘Willy-Ole Lad’. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that someone is covering Keith’s songs and Greg’s voice suits this one perfectly.

Three songs concern the life of the itinerant musician. The first, ‘Travelling Onwards’ is autobiographical and Greg suggests that the second, Christine Lavin’s ‘Tomorrow You’re Gone’, is the perfect answer to people who ask him what he does. Her description of a life lived in hotels one night at a time is perfectly judged. The final track, ‘Storylines’, is about the songs that people perform and the attitudes behind them.

Greg is supported, sparingly, by Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion and Tim Yates’ double bass and although they both add colour and shade to the songs I think I prefer Greg’s solo performances. Some of these songs are quite hard-hitting but he doesn’t hit you with them – he just suggests that you might care to listen.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

NANCY KERR – Instar (Little Dish Records LiDiCD002)

instarInstar 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.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

Nancy Kerr And The Sweet Visitor Band live at the West End Centre, Aldershot

Nancy Kerr
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The first time I heard Nancy Kerr play she was sitting primly on stage alongside Eliza Carthy. How things have changed: now she’s front and centre, mistress of her stage with a superb band behind her. The Sweet Visitor Band is a fluid entity. With James Fagan at home on child care duty Greg Russell took the lead guitar role and, this being the last gig of the tour, Hannah Martin stepped in for the very busy Rowan Rheingans – what a super-sub she is. Tom Wright on drums, guitar and pedal steel and Tim Yates on double bass remain in place. In most bands you might call them the engine room but they are much more that.

This tour was to promote Nancy’s new album, Instar, a complex work and Nancy did acknowledge that it was good of us to turn out to hear what was essentially a bunch of new songs. They opened with ‘Farewell Stony Ground’ from the new album, the story of a man who set up a car park on a piece of waste ground and took the public’s money for fifteen years. An urban myth? Can we be sure? The song is a perfect slice of English folk-rock in contrast to the title track which starts with a jazzy feel from the drums.

The band is remarkably flexible. At quiet points, the harmonies of Nancy and Hannah dominated minimal accompaniment; in full-on mode with five voices together and every else going full blast, comparisons with the folk-rock bands of the early seventies are inevitable.

Highlights – I looked at my notes and thought ‘that was good, so was that…’ but ‘Fragile Water’ with Hannah on banjo stands out as does the chugging rhythm of ‘Light Rolls Home’, a song written about Nancy’s end of Sheffield. They closed the first set with their Christmas single, ‘Gingerbread’, not the happiest song as Nancy conceded but it has a hummable tune if you don’t concentrate too hard on the words. The other side, ‘It Was Red’, was the first encore. ‘Kingdom’, which opened the second set, was one of several songs written for Sweet Liberties which appear in new clothes on Instar and is another storming almost-rocker.

It was an excellent show: powerful, thought-provoking, sometimes angry sometimes tender and I do have to give a cheer for the Westy which continues to book the best of folk music acts. It’s great to have such a venue a couple of miles from our front door.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:
Venue website:

BLACKBEARD’S TEA PARTY Reprobates (own label BTP004)

BLACKBEARD'S TEA PARTY ReprobatesBlackbeard’s Tea Party’s fourth album starts out quite gently … for all of ten seconds. Then it launches into one of the strangest songs I’ve heard in many a long year. Stuart Giddens’ ‘The Steam Arm Man’ tells of a soldier who loses an arm at the Battle Of Waterloo with consequences that are something out of The Twilight Zone. Long-standing fans will not be disappointed.

That’s followed by ‘Hangman’s Noose’, an instrumental set which begins with old-timey fiddle from Laura Boston-Barber and then takes of into pure Blackbeard territory. It sounds like the band are having huge fun and perhaps that’s to do with having two hand percussionists instead of a more conventional drum-kit. They manage to be tight and sound loose at the same time. Giddens is responsible for two more of the record’s big songs: ‘The Slave Chase’ – heavily adapted from a nineteenth century song – and ‘Jack Ketch’, the man notorious for taking five strokes of his axe to despatch the Duke of Monmouth and a dozen to execute Lord Russell. All good clean fun for the kiddies.

Tim Yates’ bass is a big sound on Reprobates, featuring heavily on his own track, ‘The Devil’s Doorbell’ and ‘Star Of Munster’. The treatment of Peter Bellamy’s ‘Roll Down’ sounds a bit odd to my ears but I’ve known the original for many years. Its phrasing is altered to fit the traditional tune ‘Tater Patch’ which surrounds it giving it an entirely new dynamic well away from the singarounds where it is usually heard these days. Actually, it’s pretty good now I think about it. The Diggers’ anthem, ‘Stand Up Now’, is really big and funky but ‘Close The Coalhouse Door’, which closes the set, is treated with appropriate respect with the vocal over thudding percussion and doomy fiddle and guitar. It has the Blackbeard’s Tea Party stamp but remains true to its origins which is quite a feat.

If someone asks you what is the point of folk-rock in the 21st century just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘The Ballad Of William Kidd’ – official video:

THE ALBION BAND – Vice Of The People (Powered Flight Music POWFCD02)

The stark acapella ‘calling-on song’ “A Quarter Hour Of Fame” takes a knowing pop at the industry known as ‘pop’ for, if Simon Cowell were to take even the slightest interest in a ‘folk’ band I’m sure he wouldn’t know what to do with them. So, in a track that lasts a mere 44 seconds it would appear the new line-up of The Albion Band mean business much like their predecessor. Forthright views conveyed with a passion were always part of the original band’s make-up thanks due in no small part to the lyrics of John Tams and I’m pleased to say Katriona Gilmore (fiddle) and Gavin Davenport (guitar/concertina) continue in that spirit. Of course, an Albion Band wouldn’t be The Albion Band without the inclusion of at least a couple of trad arr: songs/tunes and in this regard they don’t disappoint with re-workings of “Adieu To Old England” and the downright shanty-rock anthem treatment of “One More Day” where the trademark Stratocaster sound (once provided by Sir Simon Nicol) will leave any festival-going audience with a smile a mile wide. The rest of the band; Blair Dunlop (guitars), Benjamin Trott (lead guitar), Tom Wright (drums) and Tim Yates (bass/melodeon) really are a great ‘engine room’ providing rock solid rhythms and I’d say in conclusion that the band’s name and music is in safe hands. In the words of the great David (we are not worthy) Essex ”Rock On”!