DICK GAUGHAN – Handful Of Earth (Topic TTSCD005)

Handful Of EarthOf the twenty-some albums that Dick Gaughan has recorded, Handful Of Earth is generally held to be his best. That’s tough, given that it was his fifth solo record and is almost forty years old. Personally, I lean towards Parallel Lines, his collaboration with Andy Irvine, but Handful Of Earth has more than stood the test of time since its release in 1981.

I remember remarks made by Dick at a couple of gigs – where and when I can’t recall – but what he said stuck with me. The first was about the Scots language which he employs here. It’s not Gaelic nor is it, as he explained, English with some unfamiliar words but a unique tongue. Sadly, its use gained him the reputation of being hard to understand but like all good art his music requires a little work by the listener and these days we wouldn’t even think such a thing.

The set opens with ‘Erin-Go-Bragh’ featuring Brian McNeill’s fiddle and Phil Cunningham’s whistle. It’s essentially about racism and its narrative is akin to asking a young British Asian where in Bangladesh he was from. And if you think that doesn’t happen… Next is ‘Now Westlin Winds’ from the pen, at least in part, of Robert Burns. It’s become very familiar now but Gaughan’s version is remarkably unsentimental for what is essentially a love song. ‘Craigie Hill’ is probably Irish in origin despite there being a Craigie Hill near Perth and another near Kilmarnock but Gaughan mixes Scottish, Irish and even English songs with little regard for geography.

The other remark I remember is to the effect that the first victims of the British Empire were the English, an opinion he expresses in his notes introducing ‘World Turned Upside Down’. It may turn out that the English and the Welsh will be the last victims, too. Scotland will have enough sense to get out in time. ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ is another song that has perhaps been over-sung but here again, Gaughan delivers an unsentimental reading, one of the few I still care to listen to.

Dick Gaughan was as famed for his guitar playing and so the first side of the original pressing closed with ‘First Kiss At Parting’ – his own composition – and the second begins with ‘Scojun Waltz/Randers Hopsa’ again featuring Brian McNeill on fiddle and bass. The second tune is Danish – I forgot to mention them earlier. The last three songs are all “contemporary” for want of a better word. The first of them is Phil Colclough’s ‘Song For Ireland’, ostensibly a hymn in praise of the beauty of that country but with a sting in the tail as the singer looks to the north. Ed Pickford’s ‘Workers’ Song’ gives the album its title and is still terribly relevant today. Finally, Dick straps on his Telecaster again and is joined by Phil Cunningham and Stewart Isbister for his most famous song, ‘Both Sides The Tweed’. This was a traditional song but, as Gaughan explains in his notes, he didn’t like the tune and rewrote the words!

I suspect that most of you have a copy of Handful Of Earth but if it’s lost or worn out you can scarcely make a better purchase than this Topic Treasure.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

‘Now Westlin Winds’ – live from 1983:

TYLOR & THE TRAIN ROBBERS – Best Of The Worst Kind (own label)

Best Of The Worst KiindOregon-born and Boise Idaho-based Tylor Ketchum is a distant relative of Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, a Texas outlaw and was part of the train-robbing Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, who serves as inspiration for the band’s name and the new album’s six-minute centrepiece, ‘The Ballad Of Black Jack Ketchum’. Part sung, part spoken in the titular character’s voice, set to a largely chugging rhythm and a Tennessee Rose Gretch guitar with the lyrics featuring the title line, it’s a narrative country number recounting Ketchum’s notorious career and Best Of The Worst Kind, which features his image on the cover, is released to coincide with the anniversary of his hanging.

The band comprises Ketchum, his brother Jason Bushman on bass, and the generation older Johnny “Shoes” Pisano on lead guitar and Flip Perkins on drums, the rest of the tracks are more of a Red Dirt country nature, opening with the ringing guitar work and steady drum beat ‘Lost And Lonely Miles’, a life on the road number, has him asking “did you take the hard way, was it the way to go? If you take it easy on yourself you might think you have nothing left to know.” The musical framework’s reinforced with the mid-tempo drawled escape-themed ‘Before It’s Too Late’ and the kickbeat strummed and twangsome shuffle ‘Good At Bad News’ about taking adversity with a stoical attitude.

Featuring lap steel, the reflective Storyteller, an ode to his grandfather celebrating a tale well spun, showcases the band’s slower, more acoustic aspects and squeezes in a reference to James Arness’s role as Marshall Dillon on 60s TV Western series Gunsmoke, as does the resigned closing strings-embossed ‘Place Like This’ where he sings “In a place like this, it’s easy not to give a damn” and the carry on and hope it works out ‘Pave Your Way’, on both of which Ketchum’s underlying John Prine influences make themselves felt.

For the most part, however, things move along at a mid to uptempo pace, the songs built around a memorable hooks-laden melody live, descending chords and a catchy chorus, Ketchum’s laid back delivery and voice at times reminiscent of Steve Earle or Mike Cooley from Drive By Truckers. ‘Still Getting High’, the melody of which in part calls early Guy Clark to mind, takes a swipe at organised religion, suggesting we’d all get along better without it “and see all there is to see before we judge” and how “this black and white world could use a little color”, and the train-time rhythm ‘Fumbling For Rhymes’ turns its eye on making music for a living, and wishing it paid better.

Things get a touch funkier for the bassline led ‘Construction’ (a song that will strike a chord with anyone who’s been delayed by roadworks on their way home) and the choppy Pisano licks and bluesy harmonica of ‘Hide Your Goat’, the title (and lyrical message) a reference to Steve Gilliland’s motivational book Strategies to Stay Positive When Negativity Surrounds You. The remaining track, ‘Few And Far Between’, sees Ketchum share the vocal spotlight in an acoustic-based, mandolin-flecked lovers parting duet with his fiancé, and Pisano’s daughter, Jennifer.

It doesn’t set out to push any envelopes or be more than what it is. What is it is being a solid, highly listenable album of Southern-streaked Americana crammed with hummable tunes and well-crafted lyrics that deserves to find a wide audience.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.tylorandthetrainrobbers.com

‘The Ballad Of Black Jack Ketchum’ – official video:

DAN WALSH – Trio (Rooksmere Records RRCD118)

TrioI’ve always liked Dan Walsh ever since his debut album, Tomorrow’s Still To Come. It was perhaps unpolished by modern standards but the potential shone through every note. Sadly, I was disappointed by his previous album, Verging On The Perpendicular, but I’ve always thought that Dan was at his best with someone to spark off. At first it was Will Pound, then the UFQ and his partnership with Alistair Anderson was something to be seen and marvelled at. Now his trio with Ciaran Algar and Nic Zuppardi have committed themselves to record and, for me, everything is back on track.

All the material is Dan’s except for the closing ‘Sleep With One Eye Open’ by Lester Flatt. We’re told that it’s a bluegrass classic but it seems oddly hard-bitten.  The opener is ‘Late Night Drive’, a real knees-up with Algar’s fiddle and Zuppardi’s mandolin sharing the second lines. Next is the first song, ‘Life On The Ground’, about homelessness and inspired by a lady Dan met on the street. It holds a political message if you listen carefully. ’80 Years Of Pleasant Half Hours’ is a funky tune which lets Ciaran stretch out a bit and ‘Same Time Different Place’ was inspired by a street cleaner in Stafford.

‘Dizzy Heights’ is a real show-stopper, allowing the chaps to explore their jazz leanings and giving Nic a chance to show off, although there are chances to do that a-plenty throughout the record. Dan gets really country on the next song, ‘The Light Of Day’, and reflects on the life of a touring musician on ‘When I’m Back Around’. It’s a familiar theme but done very well in this song. Two more instrumental sets bring us to the Lester Flatt closer. If I were to be critical I might say that it’s an odd note to finish on but it’s such a good song and it’s great to hear Dan, Ciaran and Nic firing on all cylinders.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: https://www.danwalshbanjo.co.uk/

‘Late Night Drive’ – live:

JESSIE BUCKLEY – Wild Rose (Official Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Island)

Wild RoseThe story about how ex-con Glaswegian single mother country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan pursues her dreams of going to Nashville, while I have reservations about the film, which too often resorts to cliché, has one epiphany too many and features a cringeworthy scene with Bob Harris, there’s no doubting either the performance or the singing by its star, Jessie Buckley.

As such, the OST serves as her debut album, in character, featuring the songs, some covers, others original, performed in the film. Irish-born Buckley, of course, is no stranger to singing. She was runner up in I’d Do Anything, the TV show competition to find a Nancy for a new production of Oliver! and went on to appear in the West End revival of A Little Night Music. Not a country fan before she got involved in the film, it’s become a passion and she pours herself into it.

Loaded at the end, four numbers are instrumentals, three bluegrass tunes by The Bluegrass Smugglers and ‘Le Petit Chat Gris’, a fiddle and foot stomp recording by Nashville’s Hillary Klug, the rest are all Buckley.

Things kick off with a punchy full-throated cover of Primal Scream’s ‘Country Girl’ setting the theme and the musical template, immediately reinforced by an equally muscular take on Chris Stapleton’s ‘Outlaw State of Mind’. The covers, many of which tie in with the film narrative, continue with solid readings of two Emmylou Harris classics, ‘Born To Run’ and a yearning ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Going Back To Harlan’ (also popularised by Harris) John Prine’s ‘Angel From Montgomery’, ‘Covered In Regret (Blue, Black & Red)’ by UK country duo Little Blue Numbers, a fiddle-driven romp through Hank Snow standard ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and a brace of gospel-country songs by Wynona Judd, a reflective acoustic picked ‘Peace In This House’ and, underpinned by a tribal bass drum pulse, ‘When I Reach The Place I’m Going’.

The remaining tracks were written in response to the storyline by Buckley herself in collaboration with Simon Johnson, the guitarist with UK Americana outfit Southern Companion (and half of Little Blue Numbers), embracing the gutsy outlaw country of ‘Robbing The Bank of Life’, the drum thump, banjo-flecked driven bluegrass stomp ‘That’s The View From Here (Famous Folk Are Weird)’, and the gentle waltzing inspirational ballad ‘Alright To Be Wrong’. The two standouts, not just of the original material but the album as a whole, are the guitar ringing twangy swagger of ‘Cigarette Row (Five O’Clock Freedom)’, which (briefly heard in the film performed by The Southern Companion and hopefully scheduled for a stand-alone EP of non-Buckley tracks in the film) deserves to have others queuing up to cover, and the film’s gradually building closing showstopper, ‘Glasgow (No Place Like Home)’, a slow swaying track that fully showcases Buckley’s immense vocal talent and gets a live recording reprise as a bonus track at the end of the album.

This is unlikely to do a Star Is Born in the charts, but when it comes to singing country, Buckley can hold her own with Lady GaGa any day.

Mike Davies

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Website: www.wildrosefilm.co.uk/home/

‘Boulder To Birmingham’ – live on RTE:

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble announce tour dates

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble are heading out for their annual summer tour.

Dates for the 50-piece group include their debut appearance in a cathedral, and conclude with the prestigious Festival Finale spot at Towersey Festival, one of the UK’s oldest music festivals.

Their appearance at Lichfield Cathedral – the country’s only medieval three-spired cathedral – is in aid of the magnificent venue and When You Wish Upon A Star, a leading charity which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.

Other tour highlights include hosting Power Folk 6, in their home city of Birmingham. A one-day mini-festival (and guaranteed sell out), this year sees the group perform alongside invited guests such as singer-songwriter Kevin Dempsey (Dando Shaft, Swarb’s Lazarus, Whippersnapper), new folk/ fusion band Gathering Tides, and trio Threaded.

The jaunt kicks off with a special two-set show at their Conservatoire HQ. Due to the logistical challenges of performing with such a sizeable company, this is the first time the entire ensemble have played their complete live set on home turf in several years.

Says band leader Joe Broughton: “Every year we bring something new to the ensemble’s shows, and this year is no exception. Throughout the summer we’ll be playing plenty of the old favourites, yet with some slightly different arrangements. But we also have some amazing new tunes, which are just getting better and better every time we perform them.

“With this number of musicians on stage at any one time, things never stand still. It’s just a joyous, joyous thing!”

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s energetic and powerful live sets are indeed a sight to behold, presently featuring an 18-piece horn section, five cellists, seven percussionists and five electric guitarists, plus fiddles, flutes, clarinets, euphonium, and accordions! They also all sing too.

Though rooted in traditional folk tunes, the personal influences of each member steers the set, pulling in everything from full-on rock grooves, to funk, jazz, hip-hop and reggae, to sounds from Eastern Europe and Asia. It’s a sound they’ve dubbed ‘Power Folk.’

Formed in 1997 by fiddle player, arranger, producer and tutor Joe Broughton, they’ve played dozens of major music festivals, released four lauded albums, established their own annual mini-festival, packed out the Royal Albert Hall, become an online sensation, and provided the launch pad for countless other acts.

In the last 12 months, the ensemble have unleashed the exceptionally diverse Sleepy Maggie mini-album, recorded their first ever professional music video, and in March they brought shoppers to a standstill with a pop-up performance at the famed Bull Ring, in Birmingham – one of the country’s busiest retail centres.

Featuring dazzling work-outs with all 50-plus musicians alongside hushed solo performances, here’s a rare chance to really experience the shape-shifting collective in all their spectacular glory as they head out on tour …

Artists’ website: www.folkensemble.co.uk

‘Sleepy Maggie’ – live:

Tour Dates

Friday 3 May 2019

The Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 200 Jennens Road, Birmingham B4 7XR
8pm   £12
Tickets via: eventbrite.co.uk

Thursday 9 May 2019

Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS13 7LD
Gala Fundraising Concert in aid of When You Wish Upon A Star
7pm   £25

Thursday 23 May 2019

Leek Arts Festival, Foxlowe Arts Centre, Market Place, Leek, Staffordshire ST13 6AD
8.30pm   £15.50

Thursday 30 May 2019

Alexander’s, Rufus Court, Chester CH1 2JW
8pm   £10/£12

Friday 31 May 2019

Forest Arts Centre, Old Milton Road, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6DS
7.30pm   £14

Saturday 1 June 2019

Sutton Village Hall, 1A High Street, Sutton, Bedfordshire SG19 2NE

Thursday 6 June 2019

Ashcroft Arts Centre, Osborn Road, Fareham, Hampshire PO16 7DX
7.30pm   £14

Friday 7 June 2019

Huntingdon Hall, CrownGate, Worcester WR1 3LD
7.30pm   £17.50 (Concs £16)

Sunday 9 June 2019

Power Folk 6, Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B12 0NH
With the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble and special guests, including Kevin Dempsey, Gathering Tides and more …
From 3pm   £17 (TICKETS LIMITED)

Monday 26 August 2019

Towersey Festival, The Thame Showground, Kingsey Road, Thame, Oxfordshire OX9 3JL
Day Tickets: Adult £46; Youth £32; Child £21; U5 Free

BEAU – Damascus Road (Cherry Red BEAUDR1)

Damascus RoadCelebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of his debut album for John Peel’s Dandelion Records, Trevor Midgley follows-up Rattle The Asylum Bars with another playful but biting collection of 12-string led protest song commentaries that again reinforces his status as a British answer to Phil Ochs.

He kicks off taking a swipe at the back scratching that goes on in the world of Freemasonry – although clearly with wider implications – on jauntily catchy folk blues ‘Men of the World’ in which a wealthy, well-connected drunk driver gets his mates to pull a few strings to make things go away and, as a bonus, sends the bill to Her Ladyship.

The #MeToo movement spawns the sprightly waltztime ‘Kitten Kaboodle’, described as a “a traditional casting couch ballad” about a voluptuous blonde actress playing the game to land a part in a James Bond movie, the producer showing her his ‘thingamabob’ as “one of the perks of the job” and acceding to the director’s wandering eye and his penchant for ‘close-ups’. Of course, being who he is, he can’t resist courting controversy by suggesting that this is a two way game, since, “her Oscar performance, above and beyond/Brought Kitten a part in another James Bond”.

The punningly titled ‘Lacey Fayre’ muses on how the fight for female emancipation by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst has somehow ended up being manifested in the right of today’s liberated women to go out and get blasted on cheap vodka, getting fixed up in A&E, go clubbing and become social media celebrities for their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, political targets include duplicitous diplomats whose immunity puts them above the law (‘The Great Game’), subtle and covert Machiavellianism through which strong states dominate the weak in which wars are fought on very different battlegrounds (‘The Quiet Ones’), and, a particular catchy highlight, ‘Demagogue Rules’, a sort of primer for climbing the political ladder on the backs – or more particularly the fears – of others.

Inspired by an overheard conversation between a social worker and a rough sleeper, ‘Let’s Get The Show On The Road’ is one of two numbers that touch on tragedy where it’s the innocents that pay the price, the other being the sobering ‘Child Of Aberfan’, a reminder that corporate accountability remains a nebulous concept, just as when, back in 1966, Lord Alfred Robens, the then chair of the NCB opted to not visit the disaster until the following day as he had a more pressing appointment being installed as the first Chancellor of the University of Surrey. He also declined to fully fund the removal of other such coal tips and no charges of corporate manslaughter were ever brought. Did someone mention Grenfell?

‘Damascus Road’ itself is another number that draws on real events, here the 2017 massacre of 58 and the wounding of over 850 more when, in his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Stephen Paddock opened fire, with an arsenal of legally owned weapons, on concert goers attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, for motives never ascertained. The allusions of the title and the lyric reference to Jesse James tell their own story.

Elsewhere, ‘Disciples’ addresses how, especially in the worlds of politics and entertainment, there’s always someone prepared to defend the indefensible, while ‘Rear View Mirror’ notes how history is written by the victors and collective (and personal) memory isn’t always attuned to the reality as myth becomes accepted as fact, a case in point being the fanciful legend of Washington and the cherry tree.

Ostensibly a true autobiographical tale, ‘The Ballad Of Tom Titterington’s Horse’ involves a fruiterer, his cart, a foul smelling horse, the narrator’s gran and a little matter of a child’s blackmail to get a top of the range new bike because “needs must when the devil drives”. The message about how the ends justify the means leads neatly to the final track, ‘The Party Must Go On’ which again touches on #MeToo and the way those captains of industry somehow think they and their actions are beyond the law when celebrations might get a little out of hand, because “Who is not entitled to a frolic and jape? / Ignore the gutter press equating fondling with rape”, but that, of course, leer in place, they should always “Remember, show our lady friends the utmost of respect”.

Unfortunately, even protest singers aren’t immune to the meddling of corporate discretion and of the need to be “awfully polite”, hence the original cover for the album (Saul impaled on a spear with a cowboy hat on it) being replaced by one more deemed less ‘offensive’ and more innocuous and bland. I look forward to a song about it on his next album.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.trevormidgley.com

‘Demagogue Rules’ – official video: