We return to the Wesley Centre in Maltby after a hiatus to see what we have been missing out on. We haven’t been since Covid and are looking forward to a night of live music.
The Wesley Centre is still a nice intimate venue with friendly serving staff and the all-important raffle to host the folk-gig night “Firbeck Live” which continues to gather some cool folk artists. As pointed out, Miranda Sykes herself is not touring extensively until her own new album release and upcoming work with other bands, yet she is here and she is playing to a pretty full audience.
It is a set of two halves. Sykes’ first is her self proclaimed, “songs that I like and random numbers” and the second is where she delves into songs from her “Farmhouse Sessions”. The whole selection is light with a few forays into more traditional faire (notably the Bonny Light Horseman), but generally taking a comfortable and popular collection of blues and acoustic numbers that have been influences on Sykes. We have seen her before and have always been impressed of the road she has taken and her tales of being on the road. Contributing to many albums and travelling from Yorkshire across Europe in a number of groups, including her part she has played with the Show of Hands group; Sykes is a musician who is a pleasure to hear .
Sykes voice is more towards the softer and quieter scale, punctuated with a great clarity like that still hummingbird picture you see with it’s wings mid-motion. Her voice is somewhat like suede in that her lilt is versatile and can take a bit of punishment while retaining a glossy alllure. Metaphors aside, this is the best we have heard her voice in the few years since we last saw her and it was only better thanks to the great sound engineering work on the night.
There were some standouts from the sets, her rendition of Karine Polwart’s, “Only One Way” from the Faultlines album is a good one. Each pluck of the double bass was like a leg on a blues freeway you are hurtling down, building on the night wind in your hair. However one like’s their blues, this is a sharp number and performance. Kerr’s cover of Nancy Kerr and James Fagan’s “Sweet Peace” did it justice. Her voice managed to encapsulate the original’s duo dynamics with her own range and steady guitar strums. Gentle, spiritual and stirring it is a reflective cover of one of our favourites. A particular crowd pleaser was Sykes’ performance of “The Lincolnshire Song” a song peppered with heart and familiarity, which the audience were jubilant about hearing.
Sykes’ tunes contain echoes of counter-culture and kindness without being a harsh political denouncements calling for blood. This is seen in tracks such as Nancy Griffiths’ “Time of Inconvenience” with it’s especially boingy bass that thumps to the rhythm of technological commentary. The theme of joy and light is furthered with a rendition of Chris Hoban’s “Stay Close to Me”, a particularly poignant and pretty number penned during the time of Covid, which resonates through it’s call to hope even at a time when things were less certain for the future.
The songs and others point to a relaxed, happy evening. Warming and restorative, it is a pleasure to see Miranda Sykes again for a delightful evening at a great venue.
Check out Miranda Sykes’ website for details of further tour dates here
Timely, persistent and quiet. The natural world continues to spill forth from Ninebarrow’s fourth album, in all the best ways.
Those quiet boys of folk, Ninebarrow, have been keeping themselves busy during the lockdown.
Well, when we say quiet, we acknowledge that ever since their debut album they have been anything but; with recognition from the BBC2 Folk Awards and numerous magazine and online publications, becoming a pillar of Lyme Folk Festival as well as their books and commissions they have been involved in. But then “quiet” is all relative and you can still be softly spoken while still working hard.
In these strange times the duo of Jon Whitley and Jay Labouchardiere have been, in fact, quietly working on their latest folk album “A Pocket Full of Acorns”. This disc looks to the natural world by specifically relishing in the human experience of it. One of the few pleasures that has not been totally off-limits during the lockdown here in the UK is the great outdoors; it appears that the nation’s love of the countryside has been reignited somewhat as it becomes the go-to meeting space. With this in mind, Ninebarrow should be in a good position as the British countryside serves as the primary inspiration for their brand of folk, it has been their muse from the very beginning and it is what they are good at singing about.
With “A pocket full of acorns” (their fourth album) there might be a temptation to wonder where Ninebarrow has left to go with their brand of softly spoken, nature-infused folk which has served them well up to this point. Well, it seems that whilst their newest pastures are not far from the homestead we see once again that their conviction, appreciation of a simple message, and crystal clear vocals win the day against possible dissenters. To understand we could consider a bottle of olive oil. It is a hugely popular item in a kitchen and is quite ubiquitous as so much cooking requires it. For the oil to be special and stand out it has to excel in quality against its competitors. Luckily, if Ninebarrow’s combined duo vocals are like olive oil, then we can safely say that this album is beyond extra virgin.
In exploring the roots of this work, let us now turn to the tracks.
The namesake of the album, “A pocketful of acorns” is a good place to start. The song is directly inspired by a vice Admiral in the Napoleonic times who considered the need for trees for the future of the Navy and the Country, and as a result, always carried some in his hands as he walked. When you listen, there is this pensive, personal consideration of responsibility that comes through the song. On top of this, the simple reigns supreme as the listener re-experiences the wonder of holding a potential natural wonder in their hands, ready to unfurl upwards. As such we consider actions we might take to help preserve the future. The piano is like an old wooden emissary of the woods swaying and creaking as the duo lay down this sympathetic and spiritual track and tt is, in our opinion, as close to anything they have produced that represents the core message intention and purpose Ninebarrow possess as songwriters. For additional kudos, as a part of their album release the duo are embarking on the task of planting 1000 native English trees and several shrubs which is intended to cover the carbon footprint for them touring the album. They are (so to speak) putting their money where their mouth is here, and it is a credit to their message.
Another track which exemplifies the light-touch of the album is “Nestledown”. At their most understated, the duo gently speak as if their song is the secretive sounds of the Earth’s hum, the patter and scrape of the earthworm with their guidance to the seedlings looking to grow and thrive, “there’s warmth in the air.. But nestle down deep.” Taking inspiration from the local Dartford Warbler (who braves the British cold and doesn’t migrate) and a desire to “looking forward to longer days” it is almost trance-like, taking the simple concepts of light and heat and hits the primal feels. It allows us to imagine we are of nature seeking the simple clarity of nature’s desires away from the complexities of social constructs that are divorced from nature. Instinctive and atmospheric, it is another wonder added to the disc.
“You Who Wander” is everything that is the joy of the different seasons. A bouncy rendition of the English tune “Speed the Plough” with an added exuberant splash of percussion. It is great in it’s vocal observations of those small joys such as “the glint of the Winter and the promise of Spring”. A song about rambling, it is somewhat of a prayer for walkers to have a fair day and to put your best foot forward, maybe for all sorts of things in life. It is like a feast for the optimist and a small, warm hug for those listeners who are under the weather.
One feeling the audience might express on a cursory listening is that Ninebarrow take few diversions from enjoying the countryside. This isn’t strictly speaking true though as further attention shows us they do deviate from their theme here and there. If something else takes your fancy there is the cover of Patrick Wolf’s “Teignmouth” about a train journey from London to Cornwall with the weary character of the song glimpsing half-truths in his window’s reflection (and the closest you might hear Ninebarrow being sombre). There is also the exceptionally well known song of “Hey John Barleycorn” that in it’s barley goodness is like a smooth amber ale as it reaches the back of your throat. Barley is natural but the feeling has always seemed to us to be about nature personified instead of the observed murmurations in the skies. The strongest diversion from the nature theme however has to go to track 3, “Under the Fence”. Inspired by a documentary of the detainment camps in Calais, the song is a pretty strong blow to the heart. Quite haunting, but not too bleak in delivery,“But the girl still dreams of friends and school. But life is harsh and fate is cruel”, it reminds somewhat of Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission”. It’s latter piano presence is noticeably penetrating and a reminder that Ninebarrow can sing folk songs outright, or they can adapt them to a more contemporary singer-songwriter vibe without much difficulty. Either way it is an engaging number, a flip of expectations and probably one of the best songs on the disc.
So we come to the summary.
In its dedication to warm, clear lyrics and message the album’s peacefulness goes for the jugular. Ninebarrow continue to expand their catalogue of nature folk in a way which encapsulates the “everyman” enjoyment and quietness of their surroundings. They are not the tsunami that rages upon the land, they are the ripple of a koi biting the surface of the water or a hummingbird effortlessly hovering in place. The mellow sound of Ninebarrow is quite fetching, the pair continue to write a good selection of songs from their source material and this album has the potential to transport their message far and wide. We recommend a purchase for that drive down the Dorset coast, the Peak District or any other part of nature’s gift to open the mind a little to the experience.
As often is the case, “A Pocketful of Acorns” is available from several stockists, though we always recommend purchasing from the artist directly if possible.
An album indistinguishable from the nature it is set in, Sturgeon’s expertise ensures a multi-layered, emotional linchpin of folk
Now even deeper into the cold of Winter, we come to ponder Jenny Sturgeon’s latest work “The Living Mountain” originally released on 16 October 2020. Sturgeon’s first album “From the Skein” was an enjoyable and accomplished work exploring myth, humanity and nature which seriously tickled our fancy back in 2016. Now she is back from the heat of that debut, not so much with a left-turn but rather a wonderful refocus of energies. Jenny Sturgeon’s second solo album “The Living Mountain” is a project that somehow sees both the grand scheme of the living world on it’s canvas as well as being a focused lens examining nature’s fundamental parts.
The CD is methodical in it’s examination of themes in such a way that sets itself apart from the more human myth-centred works of her first album. The reason for this is that it is highly inspired by nature writer Nan Sheperd’s book “The Living Mountain”. Like a matroyshka doll, the album moves from grand vistas of “the plateau” to the more intricate workings of nature such as “birds, animals, insects” before venturing inward to “man” and later “being”, each piece seemingly fitting in another and becoming grander. Sturgeon walks the chapter structure of the written form and brings her interpretations of each to the CD. Growing up in the Cairngorms and her own academic background (PhD in seabird ecology) mean that there is a perfect marriage of the emotional and intellectual bridge that gives the album a legitimacy of its own as an informed perspective.
We start this journey wide and far with Sturgeon’s first track “The Plateau”. The instrumentation is a sweeping, embracing gale that has the characteristic of the natural world; Sturgeon’s vocals are cool to the touch and the lyrics are poetic. Rising like water vapour it then drops gently like a spinning, winnowing feather from it’s solitary downy nest as it transitions to the second track. Here the album commits confidently evoking nature metaphors with you “taken downstream.. Propelling forward” both in the physical and mental. The track feels like snapshots of a raw, primal comfort as Sturgeon’s voice calls from the warming harmonium and blankets the listener in a peaceful embrace that reaches outwards.
Throughout the album the percussion, sounds of nature and vocals embrace like grass snakes in the long lawn. For ourselves it stirs a memory of the excellent audio design and layering of the natural world in Lisa Knapp’s “Till April is Dead: A Garland of May”, but to that album’s light and renewal, this is an Autumn gathering of firewood as a dark season counterpoint which excites the senses. “Frost and Snow” is a good indicator of this with it’s sounds of ice bobbing in water and ice cracking in sheets. Thoroughly cool, Knapp’s voice is a reverberating polar vortex moving through the land and searing the tree branches. Incredibly important, Surgeon’s work whispers tales from our natural selves, seemingly from within the chill of our bones themselves.
The album does take some detours from these broad characterisations we attribute too. Brushes of heat delightfully touch the face in “Air and Light”, for example, a guitar led joy that feels like the sun reaching around your bedroom door awakening you to the day ahead. “The Plants” is another bright number with an earthy, spiritual vibe that is a shared, positive energy as the song proclaims “we are of the sun”. You can picture the sprouting green shoots clumped together, reaching upwards and being at one with the solar rays. “The Senses” is a track which feels like a bow that has tied up all the joys of walking, climbing and being with nature that Sturgeon has touched on on the album and presented it as that thoughtful, unexpected gift that you are given from an old friend.
“The Living Mountain” is an album that is steeped in examining the bonds of humanity and nature through Sturgeon’s own joyful experience making this a potent work of psycho-geography. The Highlands are clearly a cherished place in the singer’s heart, and through the immediacy of this album, we can share in this. Rarely do we come across an album that is so wind-bitingly sensory and quietly grand about the natural world. Credit must be given all round for the additional musicians who have performed as if emerging from the trees (Grant Anderson, Andy Bell, Mairi Campell, Su-a Lee, Jez Riley French), the field recordings that elevate this above a safer more conventional nature folk album (Magnus Robb & The Sound Approach) and Andy Bell (mixer/producer) who makes your safe warm indoors sound very much like the wild, beautiful majesty of the outdoors.
A great sensory experience, a peaceful living and breathing work this is an album whose a fire crackles and pops against the dark wonderful night and it is definitely worth your attention.
If you are interested in hearing more about this labour of love, you can head to buy the album here. Sturgeon has also delved deeper and involved several individuals from all different fields in the making of this project for “The Living Mountain Conversations”. You can check that out here too.
Russo’s album is a brighter, more focused affair that lets the positive rays of growth bring more optimism to her delightfully individual music.
To Be Released: Late November 2020
Gathering her ideas from the characterful stream of her mind and hewing a sound from the knotty avant-garde folk tree, Lizabett Russo continues a work very much her own with more integration of her core ideas around nature, personal anxiety and politics. With “While I Sit and Watch This Tree” it also feels that Russo is letting the background sing as much as her own interesting, searching voice.
“While I Sit and Watch This Tree” sees Russo (classical guitar, charango) joined by the musicianship of Graeme Stephen (electric guitar, loops/effects, piano), Oene van Geel (cello, viola, percussion), Udo Dermadt (various percussion, clay pot). Interestingly, the album itself is being released by not-for-proft charity, “Last Night from Glasgow” which strives to provide artists, “fair remuneration for their work” and is funded by patrons. They have some enticing options for supporters and if this piques the reader’s interest, is well worth a look at, (https://www.lastnightfromglasgow.com/).
Lizabett Russo is a Romanian-born (now Scotland-settled) artist with wide-ranging vocals that can swing around a point like a pencil in a metal compass, pleasantly drawing patterns only she can see. It has always seemed to us that Russo’s signature style could be how she musically captures the “meeting of her thoughts” within a song. The joy in this is when she begins with one idea there is often no certainty about where this will end up in terms of style, beat and genre. When these shifts happen her ideas clash in a great auditory drama and the song becomes something else altogether; jazz moves to folk, to expansive poetry and far beyond. Therefore, it is rare that Russo’s music is a steady-paced jog in the countryside, it is more akin to orienteering upon a craggy rock face with various dashing and walking speeds, the wonder of finding the puzzle, and wading through water while the sun bakes your muddy jersey.
“While I Sit and Watch This Tree” continues this stylistic motif in parts (and Russo’s great voice endures) but this time there feels more like a greater continuity to the tracks and it’s cognitive, political and natural folk music is layered around a vision which is more optimistic, and probably less mystifying than her previous works. What do we feel about the songs?
“Two Hands Together” is the musical fusion of a union rally call stretched across the drums of a shamanistic greeting. The song asks for the listener to “get up and fight, get up and see what is there to see beyond the horizon” as it calls the “brother” and “sister” to action. The hands clap and the spirit of rebellion splashes up onto the jungle raft as it moves along. It is a song about the destruction of the rainforest in Ecuadar,and in character it feels much like the protest is coming from “within”the trees and the cultures of the area. Atmospheric and spiritual, it appeals to the senses with it’s peaceful yet pleading message.
The track “I Was Young When I Left Home”, is as nostalgic and delicately skipping a track as you might find from the young artist. It’s a moody assortment of piano and jingly percussion which begins like the building bustle of an Alpaca textile stall in the morning. As it starts the track’s colours glow and Russo’s ideas firmly greet each other in a busy kind of joy. By the second half, it is a track that has ascended like red vapour from a heavenly candle, flickering for a moment in the mind. It seems to play like a contrast between her life now and from her past. Russo paints not an unhappy picture of her youth, but with the contrasting styles of the track you wonder if she considers her current creative life akin to spiritual enlightenment, as she has noted previously that music is not considered a profession in Romania and more a “hobby”. Whatever it’s intention, the song presents two distinct and interesting sides of Russo’s character.
“Depending” is a song like an anagogic spray of glitter and lights crackling in the heavy, damp air. It starts brimming with Russo’s echoing vocals portraying a contented inner voice with some solid, earthy strings backing this up. Much like Heraclitis’ famous wisdom, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Russo explores virtue and time within one of her more simply structured songs on the disc. With a clear message and voice that sounds like it hovers over swarms of heady springtime bees. It is a nice entry among many.
Russo’s cover (her only one here) of “The Water is Wide” is also a welcome addition. Russo takes on a folkier track than usual and the results are a song of easy listening that sings lightly of transformation and joy. Voice and lyrics are still front and centre, but unlike other versions (such as Karla Bonoff’s) it has both a stronger world feel, and both instrumentation (particularly the charango) and composition are more wedded to the elements of Nu-Folk. Russo gives us two co-existing ideas; one is her future character singing with a care-free confidence of a dilettante as she looks back at her migration. The second is the content of the song which hints at past Russo’s worries about impending travel and starting a new life. It is a cheerful affair though and a worthwhile cover.
So with the latest offering from Lizabett Russo we get a sunny, idea-filled exploration of Russo’s own beliefs and history. Her music reminds of the art of Scott Maismithi with it’s sharp, bright colours showing the natural landscape like a musician’s heart and soul in bloom. Moreso, it shows that Russo has much more to say about her life as well as ways to say it.
As the fourth album of Russo’s catalogue, it is possibly the most joyfully introspective but also a perfect starting place for those new to her works so we recommend that you check it out.
“An album that refreshes and surveys the ground covered up to now. Saskia continues to sculpt her clay of gentle-folk into a pleasing and healing treasure.”
Released July 31st 2020.
Our Pick: “Write me a Song” (Track 5)
From the brightest, warmest and sunniest part of folk music’s acoustic heart comes musician, Saskia Griffith Moore (or Saskia, for short) with her new album entitled “Are You Listening?”
Much of Saskia’s music and character does indeed seem to come from this place. From London to the West Country and back again, Saskia has transitioned from therapist to singer and throughout has shown to be a dedicated and uplifting artist whose social media often have some sunny rays to share around. We have been listening since Saskia’s debut “Gentle Heart” in 2016 where we summed up her work with the simple sentence, “It’s ‘gentle’ nature is a strength”. This is very much still the case as this most recent album is part one of a two disc release in association with the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation Inc. and both share in their collaboration the values of optimism and inspiration. Saskia’s hard work is paying off.
As a kind of “best of”, this is a good and fitting catch-up point for those not previously following Saskia’s work. The disc is a series of songs that dance in the huge, shiny fog-lights that are her sweet acoustic guitar and warm, enveloping voice. It is positive to the extent that even when tracks approach the soul-searching mainstays and companions of acoustic guitar such as “a long life” and “possible regret” (Write Me A Song) show up, Saskia’s will still not bring the rain clouds and misery. In this regard the album seems like a perfect fit for peaceful souls who surround their worlds with positivity and joy (or those that would like to little more in). It is a key characteristic of the work here, and an infectious one.
There are several tunes to like here.
“These Hours”, co-written with Clive Gray and with Australian songwriter, Cooper Lower, is a snappy song about friendship which glows with the warmth of deep bonds and the knowing of the bumpy road that is life. Other tracks roll in like cut grass, such as “Come Comfort Me”. Much like the “perfect, golden face” in the song, there is a gentle heat hiding a quietly fierce passion as Moore’s guitar rolls like Spanish sun and an air cooled with cocktails. Feeling and place don’t collide, but rather lie alongside each other on the beach and gently turning to catch the rays.
Another great number is “Wash it Away” with its Country nods. More than a skin deep Country-feel, it fully captures the faith aspect of that world of music. Closing your eyes and listening to the words, it’s minor harmonies wash over, and both in word and character the theme of devotion is like a coastal salt spray. Perfectly pitched and quietly joyous, it is one of our favourites.
That being said, “Write me a Song” is probably our number one pick from the album. The track considers a man (possibly later in life) who has seen and done much, clearly seen a lot of bloodshed. He is settling down and has decided to end his wandering. We cannot say that the theme is unique and groundbreaking, but much like Saskia’s only cover on the disc (“Hallelujah”), the strength of the tender conviction in her voice gives it a glow of its own like a constellation of fireflies at dusk.
Some say Saskia’s music is a “balm for our times”, we cannot really argue with this. Saskia is a reminder of another era that seems far away in time and space yet one that is craved for by many. That being said, there is a lot of original music here and the album is a testament to quiet power and observation, and (in all the best ways) seems very wedded to the artist and her outlook on life. In a politics heavy, frightening time, this album serves as a respite to the negativity, and is a solid buy. A little nostalgia and warmth goes a long way and not taking a political angle is definitely a selling point for many.
Check out the video below and Saskia’s website for more details, www.saskiagm.com