Time moves on and once again we return to Village Folk in Chellaston to see what folk wonders are in store at the Lawns Hotel.
For those not yet acquainted in South Derbyshire, Village Folk is a consistently welcoming, entertaining and inclusive folk-gig night that takes place once a month. Without fail they attract big, successful modern and classic folk artists who always get a friendly embrace. Over the years they have managed to tempt the likes of Martin Carthy, The Dovetail Trio, Ninebarrow and Geoff Lakeman to the mix; long may they continue to do the great things they do. Check them out at www.villagefolk.org.uk
We managed to pop down the long road from Sheffield to see the wonders-of Yorkshire-by-way-of-Wales-and-Beirut, the “Trials of Cato” as they make their first appearance here. The Trials of Cato is made up of the trio of Robin Jones (mandolin, tenor banjo, vocals), William Addison (irish bouzouki, vocals) and Tomos Williams (guitar and vocals).
As the gig starts, the band have a glint in their eye as they tell us about how miserable they made their old landlord (Cato) and how this came to be their name. No, it is not some kind of historical, Britain-shattering court battle or a moral quandary a brave Spanish knight might have had around his true love or his duty as a soldier, but it still entertains massively.
How can we describe The Trials of Cato? Well we have already made a start, by calling them “Welsh Folk Heralds” in the title of this post. They are indeed as their set includes almost never-heard folk ballads such as a version of “Haf”, which they describe as a “garden song”. This song is like a child dancing around a maypole or a relaxed glance into a sun-drenched vineyard. Their set comes to life as it conjures all the very best memories and impressions of the summer festival season. Hearing this at the height of the sun will be a very good pleasure indeed.
On listening you notice that the clarity of their instrumentation playing is dazzling. The closest thing I can compare their determination and energy to is that of a band of geese feasting on a freshly opened packet of crackers. You notice this particularly on the uplifting tracks such as the soul-raising set “Difyrrwch” where the performance winds and builds like a rising minaret or “Kadisha” that makes the feet move in ways most unexpected yet natural.
The Trials of Cato don’t stop at these sugar-rush classic folk tunes though, there are some slower and more political moments. “These are the things” casts a wayward eye that purposely does not settle (it was noted by the band that this was their “general protest song”). They are right to say this, it does have an almost Monty Pythonish ability to protest in every way possible without actually saying what has put a bee in their bonnet. This is just a light jab though as it is a rousing song and it’s generality is a good sign, it means everyone will be able to project their annoyance be it at politics or the flavours of Walkers Crisps and this song should provide a good amount of catharsis. This protect is double-downed on with their version of “Tom Paine’s Bones”, a rally for standing up for what is right and to not be afraid of bringing the revolution.
From seeing these three cavaliers live we are under little doubt that the hype surrounding “The Trials of Cato” is totally justified. They are as fresh as newly cut grass bringing to the folk table a little magic and inventiveness. The seeds have been sown, their time in the sun is now and harvest is a long time off yet.
Check out more at “The Trials of Cato” website about their excellent “Hide and Hair” album https://thetrialsofcato.com/ . If you can get to see them they have many, many more tour dates. We recommend you put down that real ale at home and get yourself to a venue for a fresh, hand-pumped beer and a chance to see some new stars in the constellation of folk. https://thetrialsofcato.com/live/
We are sure there are more than one or two Show of Hands fans out there.
After all, anyone who enjoys folk of the rock-heavy kind with a side of introspective political lyrics and powerhouse anthems are bound to have heard of these influential artists, especially through the very different folk scene in the 90’s.
An important part of Show of Hands ethos is introducing new artists to the folk world, as well as giving them a little push and some encouraging words. Their efforts have helped bring wider public attention to artists such as Jackie Oates, Jim Causley and many others.
With this in mind we turn to Miranda Sykes, except with Sykes we have a slightly different story. Where are we going with this? Well first of all, who is Miranda Sykes?
Miranda Sykes is an artist who has cut her teeth in a number of different lineups and bands be it with folk-rock band Pressgang, a folk and roots due with Rex Preston or as part of a group dedicated to playing workshops in care homes and hospitals. By 2002 she had joined Phil Beer with guitar and then on from that she joined Show of Hands with her impressive Double Bass and guitar skills. On stage she strikes as someone who works hard and has doubtlessly experienced many different interesting facets of the music scene. She certainly does not seem afraid to try new things.
Sykes had a boost within the folk world from her turn in Show of Hands (she was a popular addition). She then turned her attention forward to solo work to see where her next steps lay. A couple of years ago Sykes took the plunge and toured with her “Borrowed Places” concept. Sykes described the album as “looking back” in the sense that it covers the geography of her youth, the rural Lincolnshire area and memories around this. We did not hear much of it ourselves but many that did describe it as a “beautiful”, “gentle” work. Having heard her rendition of the carol, “The Lily and the Rose” at a Show of Hands concert, we cannot endorse this sentiment any more strongly. So what now?
Now we find that Sykes is on tour again and comes to the delightful “Village Folk”, a monthly gig at The Lawns Hotel in Chellaston. Radiating warmth and welcoming to all without any exclusivity or inward-looking, Village Folk certainly takes in the most wayward travellers, gives them a dose of fine entertainment and sends them on their way. With a great sound setup, intimate atmosphere and a friendly environment we do not hesitate to make many trips all the way from Sheffield to see them, http://folk-phenomena.co.uk/village-folk/. We therefore look forward to Sykes taking the stage.
To start, let us say that Sykes has a lovely voice. Somewhere between cherry blossom and praline; Sykes is smooth, articulate and clear. This might not sound like saying much, but clarity of words could be considered like a commandment on one of Moses’ stone tablets to some folk fans. Sykes gives us more than ample chance to evaluate because on stage it is just her and the double bass (occasionally her guitar), and I don’t spot any foot pedal looping going on. “My Heart’s Where My House to Be” is an unaccompanied number that illustrates this with a loving gaze back and it’s title coming around and rousing the crowd more at each sing back.
We are also fond of the song “Fishing”, a song which we see much of Sykes herself in. It is about the practicals, about the craft and the doing and also the fond memories come with doing what we do, here it is fishing of course. Images of the coral reefs, the making up of the line and the landscape flood the senses as Sykes describes a picturesque scene of nostalgia. Sykes gentle guitar is like the bright heart-beat of the sun, the lapping of the river shore, it is all bright and clear.
Sykes also has some great call-outs to other folk artists as well. There is the still, sweet joy of friendship celebrated in her cover of “Sweet Peace” by Kerr & Fagan (which could be one of our new favourites). Capturing both voices in her hands Sykes shows the kindness of mind and heart with this selection, her voice like a delicate glass swan. There is also a cover of the bluesy “Running Out of Road” by Steve Tilston. It’s inclusion is an inspired one as Sykes’ voice descends to the more haunting and bruised voice of the genre and it gives us a chance to continue to experience Sykes’ undisputed talent on Double Bass. Its always good to see someone with mastery of this epic instrument, its even better to hear an affecting number brilliantly sung alongside.
There is a lot else to enjoy too. The most charged song that resonates with us is the song “Double or Quits.” It is a song that starts about a boy with an aerosol can and his criminality being laid bare, but the majesty in it all is it is an incredibly pointed song. Like a burglar treading softly in a wealthy home, Sykes’ is taking a crowbar to the floorboards and quietly exposing the riches within, or rather here it is the hypocrisy of sections of society. She points at the town planners closing down buildings at the expense of others, the police can take away the liberty and the high authority with their finger on the button of war and makes a case for the lack of proportionality for a crime committed. In terms of intrigue and political commentary, it is one of our favourite inclusions to the set and album, and Sykes’ performance gives a good powerful punch to the message.
Overall it is a great evening. Miranda Sykes is one of those artists who appeals to the sensitive souls amongst us. Her songs call wistfully to other times and places and there is a layer of innocent joy amongst it all like marzipan on a birthday cake. As she works in the solo capacity, she has an eye for nature and people and is a treat to be in the presence of. We are very much enjoying her solo efforts so far, we look forward to hearing more in the future.
So it’s been a few weeks since the Hebden Bridge Folk and Roots Festival, where the sun started to emerge and the musicians came out to entertain. We had quite a few highlights from the festival with (for us) an array of new talent and artists to share with the world.
Stay with us a while and have a read and listen to some of the acts that you missed!
THE LANDLUBBERS, MORRIS AND.. BACK TO THE FUTURE?
The weather was as fine as could be, so a little outdoor song and dance always goes down well.
Near the bridge in the Town Centre we came across a motley group of Landlubbers (we wonder if they hate the sea or they were the tailend of an insult and the name stuck). However their name came to be they were as briny a crew or shanty singers as you could want. We thoroughly enjoyed their singing so much it made us wonder if their boat was on the river behind. A good crowd, and a great part of the festival.
There was some Morris Dancing as well! You can’t have a Folk Festival without a bit of Morris (knowing my luck I won’t have to sit too long at my computer desk and await a festival without Morris to get in touch!) It was good to see an all-woman Morris Dance, and here they all are.. I presume as washerwomen. That reminds me, I have some shirts to dry! Heres a video to whet your dancing needs.
Ok.. we know that Chuck Berry did it long before it featured heavily in that 80s sci-fi comedy classic, but I’m a relatively young guy.. it’s the first thing that comes to mind. I have to sadly regret that I did not get these guys’ names as we were just passing, but we seriously felt that it was a great energetic aside to the day.
On Sunday we got to see a few artists in the excellent Trades Club where the beer flowed liberally. It was also a fine place to be eating a bit of Thai food that was on the go as well. One relatively new artist was Trixxi Corish a singer-songwriter covering a number of different genres including folk and country, but intriguingly she brought some spoken word as well. Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the set that she had a bad throat, she went on to sing a number of traditional tunes as well as an excellent cover of “Fields of Gold.” Her monologue about a Southern Irish woman managing with anxiety and depression was really thoughtful and natural; she has strengths in song and in word. A great up-and-coming artist and spoken word performer, we saw some magic there, and we raise our glass to her future successes (especially if this was not her running at 100% !).
LOGAN & MANLEY
There were many fine artists to be seen amongst the picturesque surroundings and the old cobbled paths, it is a mammoth task narrowing it down. But as the mind’s eye roves back over the festival the clear breakout from the festival for us was Logan and Manley. As soulful as a spicy tea and a demonstration of a charging elephant into the music scene, Logan & Manley were something else indeed. Breaking the civility of Folk Gigs and getting people dancing to their sultry, emotional beat they kicked serious ass. As we said on Twitter:
“The most interesting duo we have seen live in recent memory. Exceptional presence and burning talent. Logan & Manley stole the show in many ways at Hebden Folk Roots Festival. Soulful and energetic they work it with unfettered talent.”
Their simple pairing of vocals and guitar with added flourishes of percussion and a good use of looping vocals brought the house down. Some favourites of what they performed included the “Tell Him (Her)” a cover of Lauryn Hill, the warm rush of frothy milk on expensive coffee of “Meteor Shower” (the opener), and “Wait a While”, a jazz/funk backing which should do plenty to cement the pair as icons.
Forward in style and approach, a ferociously dynamic presence, and great musicianship could be enough to convert this website to “Soul Phenomena.” Do not miss under any circumstances.
HENRY PRIESTMAN, LES GLOVER AND THE MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE
As the day turned to night, Henry Priestman et al. reminded us that in a rather jolly fashion that in that transitional stage of life akin to being a teenager, things can stop making a lot of sense. In fairness, it wasn’t a set that dwelt on the twilight years experience as there were plenty of politics (Goodbye Common Sense, Not In My Name), folk (Ghost of a Thousand Fishermen), and fatherhood (He Ain’t Good Enough For You, We Used to Be You). With songs that are always something different and a good connection with the audience you are always on to a winner.
From what we saw from the festival of a whole, Priestman and band were of the most energetic and delightfully irreverent in all the best ways. Accessible, catchy and pop-infused it was supported by songwriting not unlike strong, thick treated timber cladding. If the music garden of your mind requires something extra, these guys are the shed you have been looking for.
THE HARMONY JAR
For the cheery, dream-like “in between” time from the early morning entertainment and the build up to the evening showstoppers we had the pleasure of listening to the trio known as “The Harmony Jar.” Rather melancholic but also soothing and touching, The Harmony Jar excel as Americana, perhaps how you imagine the killer knots on a barbed wire of a fence. Singing about love, the prickling apologies of loss and leaving a husband (How We Part), angst through ukulele (Before You Are Through) and a more than serviceable cover of “The Way it Goes”, The Harmony Jar bit off a lot, but it wasn’t more than they could chew on. One of our favourites, we look forward to hearing from them in the future.
At one point during the festival it felt necessary to go rustic.
In terms of American Folk, you can’t get much more old-timey than some Woody Guthrie, who was as much a symbol of protest and liberty as a singer. This is definitely something we can say we like from our folk from time-to-time and Will Kaufman did not disappoint. As his page declares he is, “widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on Woody Guthrie” but it wasn’t just his academic credentials or his musicianship that impressed. He’s a thoroughly nice, extremely knowledgeable guy who told tales of Trump of old (Trump’s father) who was a less than stellar property landlord (with the song, “I ain’t got no home”), Mexicans and about a remarkable individual “Stetson Kennedy” a folklorist who infiltrated the KKK and gave away their secrets and codes to the radio.
There is something incredibly apt about an expert on a pioneer of folk following in his footsteps through both word and song.. Will Kaufman does that and does not disappoint.
And Many More..
There were many, many more great acts too.
Off the top of our heads: Reg Meuross (one of our perennial favourites) was playing his heartfelt, socially conscious brand of acoustic song to great effect, Steve Tilston brought the backbone of folk to the stage, and his daughter Molly Tilston performed a great dark folk set which much, much promise. The Roger Davies Band was one of the most confident and slick on stage and the Jon Palmer Band pretty much cleaned up with their jaunty songs that at times explored the best part of folk-pop. Here are some final clips to get you in the mood.
All-in-all Hebden Bridge was a good time, a great slice of local talent and a testament to West Yorkshire.
This year we liked the central location and how close the venues were to one another meaning it is very difficult to miss the acts you have been dying to see! Great shopping, great food and atmosphere, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what went down at the weekend beneath the warming sun but we hope this brings you a bit of a flavour.
“Strong of purpose, unbridled in energy… Steamchicken’s sound is a surprise to many, but a disappointment to none”
There are plenty of good reasons to hide away. It could be the dark, a moment of reflection, or even (at the time of the his writing) to get away from scary snow beasts clawing at your door. Whatever your plan, it is always good to have an accompanying soundtrack to your thoughts (particularly if you are under the weather). The question is then, “Who do I listen to?” Well if you are looking for entertainment and especially to lift the heavy weight of your heart.. then the band “Steamchicken” is the answer. Who are Steamchicken?
Comprised of Ted Crum (Harmonica, Bass, Melodeon), Andrew Sharpe (Piano), Joe Crum (Percussion), Mandy Sutton (Tenor Sax), Becky Eden-Green (Alto Sax, Bass), Katy Oliver (Trumpet), Matt Crum (Soprano Sax, Melodeon), Tim Yates (Bass) and Amy Kakoura (Vocals) they are not so much a band but an army of music makers. Steamchicken in their own words are, “Folk with a twist, with huge dollop of blues and ska.” We can’t really argue with this, their feathery wings cover a wide range of influences. It would even be insufficient for us to add that there are elements of reggae, swing and jazz there too because that is the tip of the iceberg to the expansive and inclusive of their sound.
From beginning to end their set is like a child running around in a toy store with the energy and excitement galore that explode from this ennead of artists. There are brass instruments aplenty which blast from left to right and all around, some truly beautiful, sustained harmonica, and the grounding of excellent bass and keyboard, a rich goulash of melodic possibilities that swirl around lead singer, Amy Kakoura. Everything is played exceptionally, the person sat next to us in the theatre are particularly impressed with the drumming which has a rich, technical and clean sound (Joe Crum) but we personally cannot really point anything out in particular. It would be like commenting on your favourite stripe on a tiger.
What we enjoy about seeing Steamchicken is there is a song for every occasion, and then a few more- it is a comprehensive selection. Some of their early opening songs include “Landslide”, a jazz-filled upbeat song about misery and melancholy, their off-beat retelling of “Brigg Fair” with shades of blues and trip-hop aka. Portishead, and Amy Kakoura’s soaring vocals on a streetwise cover of “When I Get Low I Get High.” It is enthusing to see a varied set and the band’s ambition of perpetuating and developing their sound into something wholly theirs. There is a level of mastery here that is cemented with Kakoura’s luscious and varied vocals. After 20 or so years of different lineups and styles, the animated whole of the musical performance might make this the Ziggy Stardust moment of the band.
Steamchicken always come across as a force of nature and there is something primal that is stirred by their sounds. The perfect example from their set is “Western Approaches” (a favourite of ours), a song that makes a boating holiday become more of a tale of adventure in the face of briny elements. When you are just reeling from the fun and frivolity, the set takes a sharp turn in a different direction with the introspective “Gypsy”, an altogether creepier and darker take of Raggle Taggle Gypsy (perhaps the polar opposite of a more jaunty version such as Fay Hield’s). For people of the shadowier persuasion, their song “Foot Falling” has a kind of gallows humour married to and excellent sing-along, dance-along tune about a goddess with a wild, macabre streak who gives a brutal response to the suggestion that she should get married (a fantastic number).
Along with some favourites they also played a few new songs for the audience. There are some good songs here, our favourite is without a doubt “Violet Lane”, a track about enterprising “ladies of the night” and their plans for rich gentleman who visit. They end, as always with an encore of a song that is to them as the night is to Batman, 1947’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” as fun a tune as you could ask to hear.
It’s not just that the music is great and that they are well rehearsed, Steamchicken clearly love what they do. Much like the train in their Johnny Cash tribute, they keep rolling. There is no dead time in their set, there are a few good-natured quips here and there between band members and a warm audience presence, but primarily it’s a musically rich set that goes at a good pace speed from song to song.
We strongly recommend for folkies, non-folkies and for anyone who doubts that live music can get you moving in your heart and in your feet because these chickens sure can fly!
For more details about Steamchicken check out their website here which has details about their most recent album release, “Look Both Ways” (I presume when crossing the road!)
Also check out their 2018 tour list here to see when they are playing near you!
If you still haven’t had enough of Steamchicken, check out my other half’s interview with the Chickens not too long ago here.
Ahoy! Circumstances all over the place and a packed schedule of festivals has meant that I am on the folk treadmill to returning to writing about the music I love.
I am not very far along it yet, but one event I wanted to talk about prior to the last festival I attended is the “Dovetail Trio” at Village Folk in Chellaston, Derbyshire. For the sake of the the vast gulf from when I was able to see these lovely people and my report, let me head this post up with “Better Late Than Never”.
Some will say 2015 was a good year for folk, others will shake their head in disagreement, and many will probably not remember at all. I admit my memory is like a like a cheese grater where the bits of cheese stuck between the gaps is all I can hope to retain. One thing I am sure of however is that “Wing of Evening” was a a fantastic album with a ferociously collected energy and traditional charm. This album with Leveret’s “In the Round” are two albums that have made me put down the lager and reach for the warm bitter and grudgingly accept that traditional folk is no bad thing. This is not much of an embellishment, after first hearing “Wing of Evening” I went and checked my temperature to be on the safe side.. the only fever I had was “folk fever” (you probably didn’t hear that here first). So all-in-all I have wanted to see the Dovetail Trio for a good while, and being here at Village Folk to witness them is a very good place indeed.
It continues to be an intimate venue with some great acoustics. For myself it is as good as folk music can be in a small venue as it is a friendly environment without being too harrowing for newcomers, for the casual there are few rules to learn apart from sitting back and listening to some great tunes. On this occasion it isn’t full to the brim, more the pity really for if you haven’t heard of the Dovetail Trio you invariably would have seen the one of the artists in their other great folk projects.
Comprising of Jamie Roberts, Rosie Hood and Matt Quinn, “The Dovetail Trio” are a likeable bunch. Young in their years, earnest in their skills and with a focused presence there is little to dislike. Rosie takes lead vocals (for the most part, but not always), with an added guitar (Roberts) and concertina (Quinn) in the mix too. Much like their website they go for simplicity and clarity by playing well-known songs exceptionally well (with some original ones thrown in the mix too). If folk music is like a sack of apples then the Dovetail Trio is the rush of emotion you feel seeing a snake leaping out the bottom of said sack (do snakes eat apples? Please tell).
Their set was very good indeed. They play some excellent numbers from the album including the especially tearful and grim “Frozen Girl” (you can probably guess how that track ends), “Poison in a Glass of Wine” and the historical, charismatic “The Rose of York.” It wasn’t all songs from the album though, I particularly notice the rip on the “herring song” (presumably the “octopus song”) which hilariously details the uselessness of the Octopus’ limbs one at a time. The humour is constant throughout the set. If they aren’t discussing the best ways to evaluate pubs (quality of chips apparently, CAMRA should re-evaluate their life goals) then they are putting in their shout out to Robot Wars and the Tree of the Year competition (all fine shows, I did in fact vote for a tree in that competition but not a British one- boo, hiss). They sound great together and seem academically interested in the construction of folk stories as they enjoy telling us the origins and parts of what they perform. There is a lot of zeal for this whole area, particularly from Rosie.
They played some personal favourites too, their version of “The Lady and the Soldier” (or “Bold Grenadier”) is a a stark, sweet number with the the soldier of the piece being rather sad about giving up strong beer for wine or whiskey in his travels, but hopefully not the woman he is having his way with away from his “beautiful wife.” The traditional element of “The Dovetail Trio” is really good, Rosie certainly sends up the audacity of the sailor prior to the song and then gives it a care and non-judgemental revelery of the number in performance. The “Oak Tree Carol” was also very good, and crowd favourite “Two Magicians” is as good as ever (and in my opinion one of the best versions of it going).
So a very fine gig indeed. How else can I describe The Dovetail Trio? A band with loads to offer. Their reverence for older numbers is matched only by their energy and vigour, imagine Batman’s butler Alfred really polishing the silverware and bringing an immaculate sheen to the household treasures. If anyone can convert a traditional-sceptic it is these guys. I would recommend the album if you have missed it already.. and keep your eyes open, I am sure they will touring again in the near future!
If you have missed the album I would recommend getting it, go to Rootbeat Records here or check out other popular stockists!
Village Folk are a top bunch, so also check out their website here for upcoming events in particular their upcoming presence at the urban extravaganza that is Derby Folk Festival! (website here).
Check out one of their old promotional videos below:
In my past posts about Village Folk I have alluded to the venue (The Lawns Hotel) in Chellaston being very much like a fortress.
On reconsideration, it may in fact be more like a castle. Whatever your mythological leanings and interests one thing for certain is that within English music Martin Carthy is a wizard. Not a pinball wizard, not quite Gandalf or Merlin, but certainly a folk wizard of some sorts who lives and breathes the music he plays. You could also call him a bard as he is also an example of a widely touring artist often on the road, and at many fine establishments.
In April we see ourselves back at Village Folk to see Martin Carthy for what can only be described as the most recognisable act they’ve had to date. I don’t know anyone (outside of indie folk, anyway) who would not know who Martin Carthy is and his part within the jigsaw of acoustic music and history really. With 50 years of performance under his belt in a number of high-profile lineups and a Radio 2 Lifetime Award he is not really a guy who flies under the radar, but on the other hand he is as much a man as any other with an air graciousness and a down-to-earth personality. He fits well with the warm reception that Village Folk brings and it seems that the audience agree. Seats are packed closely, the venue sells out quickly and the action begins.
Taking the stage for the latest, big-name show (joining some excellent previous acts such as Sam Kelly, Harp and a Monkey too) tonight it seems especially the case that there is an understanding and a knowing nod that Martin Carthy is as big as an act as you can get; everyone is incredibly excited. He is a leading figure in the folk tradition; if the country had a hall of folk heroes with statues and everything (it might do, I don’t know), Carthy would be there in Marble, tall and proud with his head turned as he tunes his acoustic guitar for the next beguiling rendition. On a personal level Martin Carthy always interests too. The joy I get from stories;how they are told, collected and adapted is a hallmark of Carthy’s talent, and I take great interest in how he collects and interprets what he hears. He is a stellar example of reproducing and adding to folk songs but also adapting and taking great pleasure from what he does. As far beyond the hobbyist as you can imagine, he is fully aware of his efforts to change the meaning, context and life of a song and put his indomitable spin on it. A wizard he truly is as he resides in a world of tales, half-truths, history and lore that through history are whispered from mother to son and father to daughter. You cannot help but be dragged in by the atmosphere and wonder. What does Martin Carthy play?
He specialises in older songs, ones with a bit of legs to it that have been in our oral tradition for a long time. Nothing is quite as old-time and brimming with powerful energy as the deliberate and honoring “John Barleycorn”. It could be a very old song indeed, it could be much more recent than you think; opinion differs just as it does about the theme of the song. It could be a song about the death and resurrection of the Corn King or maybe just about brewing. Either way Carthy’s take has the sound of a song from history and quite unlike the modern age. His fingers strumming an ancient tone, his voice is like the village elder who keeps the law and keeps the community safe; all eyes point to the stage as Carthy explains the song a little. Even more intricate guitar work is seen in the militant, cyclic rhythms of “Downfall of Paris” another song from antiquity, but perhaps easier to confirm as a historical piece as it was played in the battlefield of Napolean’s armies. Carthy continues to tirelessly hold up these traditions and keep their fires alive and burning through the the arteries of the country. It is thankful he stopped a while in the centre, as some consider the Midlands where the heart is. Quite hypnotic and a sound to behold, his music is something else.
I am especially pleased to hear Carthy’s version of “My Son John” which was performed under the “Imagined Village” super-group a few years back. One of the first takes of a folk song I ever heard, Carthy’s quiet emotion and spinning, melodic fingers coupled with the sharp political lyrics of the time is for me a distinct political and personal memory that is awakened. As a reimagining and contemporary take on the aforementioned John” who loses his legs at war into the (relatively) modern soldier who steps on a min in Afghanistan, it still has a punch that is only enhanced by a richer, more varied and extended set of lyrics. Another favourite of mine that he performs is “A Stitch in Time” (Mike Waterson’s song). Explaining it’s origins in Hull and the Daily Mail he interests and stokes the curiosity by telling us it is not the “urban legend” we may think it is, and is very much real. In short, the wife of a not too pleasant man gets her revenge on his physical manner by stitching him to his bed while he sleeps.. the kind of thought of that could wake you with a cold sweat in the middle of the night. I’ve heard Lucy Ward’s cover which slows things down a little and adds the malice to proceedings; it is especially good to hear Martin Carthy sing it as the dry narrator, gently mocking the man and celebrating this folk-horror retribution with his expressive voice.
There were these and many, many more songs too such as traditional “Green Broom” and “Long John” too (who is especially tall and disliked by the King) with a number of narrative avenues that are visited throughout the course of the set. Telling stories as he re-tunes his guitar between songs (no rack of guitars in sight) and glows under the pale lights of one of Derbyshire’s most intimate venues, and the crowd loves him. A man with much to share and with a love for the genre that is rarely equalled he continues to cast a spell on the folk world.
Martin Carthy is indeed continuing to tour the UK both at larger venues and Folk Clubs, see details here.
As part of their “Out of the Ordinary Tour”, Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry are bringing their particular brand of folk to the unusual, historical and downright spooky buildings of the UK. At this leg of the tour I have managed to catch them as they arrive at Derby Gaol; a working, historical museum. From the outside looks like a kind of medieval fort, inside a dungeon shrouded in darkness, the walk up is particularly interesting as in the groups there is a collection of equipment both of execution and pain. It is usually host to it’s own brand of entertainment in the city but for this night only it hosts the aforementioned duo famous for winning a Radio 2’s folk award for “Best Duo” in 2014, playing a show at the Royal Albert Hall (with Show of Hands in 2012) and with producing an array of well-received albums through the years. It is a nice touch to add a bigger air of wonder to your works by performing in these spaces, it brings the history of folk music a little closer to now.
The gaol has been bought by a paranormal investigator and ghost hunter (Richard Fenix) and has hosted a number of local folk nights over the years, perhaps on a quiet night when the air is still and the crows at bay, you can hear the rattle of chains and the anguish of a musician trying to tune his banjo in the dark. As the shady door-keep eyes the customers coming in he carefully opens bottles of Hobgoblin Gold to pass onward as we sit at tables with themed Gothic candle holders, a skeletons hand held upwards. Guitars are lined up monstrously next to dark figures down the dimly lit corridor, one cannot tell if it is a singer or a prop? The ambience is startling. As everyone is seated we find the duo arrive under the cover of half darkness; we huddle near the coal fire making the night even more special as it spits large chunks of coal and ash against the fire guard throughout the set.
Fans of Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry will attest that I would not have needed any sorcery to appreciate and understand their songs from history, though many of those subjects do touch on the dark and seething underbelly of humanity (some fine folk staples). A combination of interesting instrument setups and changes, and the duo’s crystal-like vocals ensure that there is something quite interesting to hear and with a nice degree of variety.
Prior to this show I had only caught snippets of their pretty extensive work even with my best listening efforts, for someone like me “Out of the Ordinary” is the kind of tour that appears to be the “best of” tour in that it covers a lot of ground and is a fantastic catch up. Acolytes of the pair will also appreciate a reasonable amount of new tunes (maybe 3-4) in the set that they are taking out into the dark (around 2-4 songs). So by all means, their best work is not behind them.
So there is a great mix of older works and newer tunes. “The Last Broadcast” was a lap guitar garden dance in paradise. Following on from Henry’s wry consideration of the number of strings and exactly how many of them would be precisely tuned for the occasion we get a more upbeat numbers. It takes it’s time, waving Asian silks as it goes, showing Henry’s early musical influences in India to their best. For this song it is more a dungeon in Delhi than Derby, but it is excellent stuff. Also there’s the expansive and dynamic reworking of a Morris track, “The Cuckoos Nest” (they figure it could no longer be a Morris track as it had been slowed down a fair bit) leading into “Old Adam The Poacher.” Some lovely vocals alongside guitar and banjo accompaniment, if it is indeed a Morris track putting on the brakes has allowed it’s more winding, evocative nature to come out.
As mentioned, the gig is a good opportunity to catch some newer tracks in development for their next album “EdgeLarks”. “Signpost” was an interesting one. Written in Tasmania by Hannah Martin it highlights the worst pangs of homesickness while you are awash with the blues, “15 miles from paradise… 95 miles from nowhere else.” Looking at the kindness of strangers and losing oneself in a strange place, it is good modern fodder for a folk inspection. “Albatross” is a special track too. Described as a “happy” track, maybe a bright and tangy pickle within a cheese sandwich of cheese, “Albatross” is the duo’s self-proclaimed revival song they penned to explain the endangered nature of these birds (and also folk musicians!). Martin’s voice is a deep, hushed and undulating song that revels in it’s gentleness, “may the winds of the earth, guide your little boat.” A ditty that smells of fresh breeze and sea salt, it has an understated starkness, so if you like that kind of thing and you like your folk to revealed by the bright, bright sun; this song is for you. This track is available exclusive downloadable number, I find it nestled in the folds of the incredibly practical tea-towel they have for selling.
Proficient with multiple guitar, banjo, fiddle and voice; the biggest surprise was probably the foot-operated shruti box and also the performance of “Train; I wanna boogie.” It’s extensively layered time keeping with the beat, and quick pace is an explosion on the harmonica. I have heard songs in different sets that try to recreate the train experience (off the top of my head, “Steamchicken” do this) but very few capture the subtle intonations of the steam train, it’s moving wheels and the klaxon. I’m still not quite sure how Phillip Henry does it, I did not really get a view of him playing the harmonica so for all I know there might have been an actual train on the stage behind that pillar! As with the venue, some things are better kept as mysteries!
An interesting evening and a good showcase of work to date, performances in these places of dark history do get the mind turning and throw in another element to music; it enhances an already selection of songs. Hannah and Phillip share a strength of purpose, some really discerning lyrics and sharp vocals as well as an army of instruments that change throughout the set. An enjoyable evening, a nice idea, head along if they are touring near you.
To check out the spooky locations of their music, check out the website here. There are still a few dates left and a library tour after that.
Isembard’s Wheel sit between modern indie folk and more traditional folk fare that should properly interest the industry both as a great live band and one with crossover appeal.
The Shakespeares Pub in Sheffield is hosting some great artists; some new and some established. I don’t want to gush too much, the pub gets a lot of praise for it’s real ale, and (for me personally) a pretty extensive catalogue of whisky too. If you are in the steel city, I say check it out (go here)
Relatively speaking Isembard’s Wheel are fairly new to the scene, though they have appeared in a few prestigious places (Warwick Folk Festival), and have had a mention on BBC Introducing too. Tonight we see them for their album launch of “Common Ground.” It is a rather joyous affair with fire dancers, some warm-up acts and some great beer on tap.
There is definitely something here with this band. On listening I would say that their music could be considered a kind of keystone of folk music. It is like an indie folk band in terms of arrangement and instruments but there is a keen, natural eye that looks to traditional folk for songwriting and themes which goes beyond most indie folk artists; and this for me is pretty exciting stuff. Many an hour can be spent debating what “folk” is and lamenting on the state of live music or volume of young audiences but truly a band like Isembard’s Wheel (in my mind at least) has the potential to be the bridge or even reception room to the vast, varied and interesting genre of folk music.
Before the group takes the stage we are treated to some support acts. Acoustic singer/songwriter Jordan Wrigley took the stage first.
Jordan Wrigley, from Wakefield is a student of Law at Sheffield Hallam. He has performed during SHUfest (a celebration of talent at the University) and a few other places too. There are no dusty tomes to be seen or any interrogation of witnesses, for his knowledge of performance is up for judgement on this night.
Wrigley has an enthusiasm and also brings a quiet sensibility to his set and character. A good and practised voice, his cover of “The Banjolin Song” from Mumford and Sons benefits from being a more stripped down version of the song. I prefer it to the hit number which is more buried in layers of reverb and production and in hindsight too many expected conventions. Wrigley’s effort draws in more attention to the lyrics and celebrates the acoustic form as much as a bear celebrates honey. He also plays Paulo Nutini’s “These Streets” too laying down a consistently positive attitude throughout the course of the songs. All this being said, in the best possible way, his own songs overshadow the covers and hint at a deft hand for folk writing; for example “The Charge”, a song heavily influenced by the Charge of the Light Brigade. Quite persistent in how it grabs you, there are some interesting storytelling elements within and of the soldiers’ lived experience. With a little more instrumentation and arrangement that could bring the deeper boom and impending doom of this subject matter further to the listener’s consciousness, the song’s could shine even more and would not be out of place on a veteran folk artist’s album. He also shares an original song based on Wuthering Heights, and some more familiarity with a bit of Springsteen. It is good to see consummate ukelele play and a positive reception to this set from the audience. In sum a refreshing amount of variety, a good opening and an artist to keep an eye on.
The second warmup act is The Idolins. Somewhere between the Cranberries and The Corrs the group occupy a scene within pop-folk with a seasoning of rock. Coming to the stage with candor and some Nottingham charm thrown in, The Idolins have got a long reach and appeal to listeners who enjoy different genres; their talents have not gone unnoticed by BBC Radio 6 for example. They have a lineup that includes original member Karen Smalley-Turner (vocalist, songwriter, guitar), Nick Scott (guitar, harmony), Mark Rice (percussionist), Dukes (bassist) and Hannah (cello). “The Idolins” have a sweet sound, the voice is not syrupy in-your-face sweetness but rather an ambient sweetness; like the marshmellows in a Rocky Road. They previewed “Refuge” adding some banjo to this as yet unrecorded number. Rolling in bass there could be some comparisons made with this song to Natalie Imbruglia, though with a more social-issues subject matter, it is quite thoughtful and enchanting. A favourite for myself is their new single, “Seasons.” More of a ballad, the fiddle sounds especially good and the lyrics tangle themelves around the concept of seasons of the relationship’s temperment and life. Nicely worded and like a quiet blustery day it captures the idea and gently spins a story of colour, intensity and sadness; worth an exploration. There areplenty of other tracks to be enjoyed too including the self-professed “Skunk Anansie-like” track “Safety Net” with it’s heavier rock and “Nothing Missing” where slight world influences with great rhymes and an anthem to sing along to. A lot to like on the way to Isembard’s Wheel, check out the Idolins website here with details of purchasing “Seasons”, their most recent single.
Before we get there though I would like to give some applause for “Jackdaw Circus” who provided some fire-based entertainment on the evening. I don’t think I’d seen a firewhip before, the closest I’ve ever come to it is the energy whip in the 80’s He-Man film (I was young and my taste went astray). It was great, I’ve seen a few circus acts in the past, but these guys were something else; you can tell that they have performed in Edinburgh Fringe in the past. Funny and political and really practised, the duo of this fire-taming group entertained between artists and as performers some of the friendliest people you can meet. Their skit around different Countries was particularly good. If anyone reading needs to book some entertainment; you can’t go wrong with these contemporary Denis the Menace, fire bard types. Check out their site here.
Isembard’s Wheel- Album and Gig
So this brings us to the main act “Isembard’s Wheel” launching their album “Common Ground.”
Comprising Alexander Isembard, Edward Young, Toby Morris, Rebekah Foard, Joss Mann-Hazell we get a great combination of lyrics, guitar, banjo, double bass, and fiddle that shakes the Shakespeare, sparks the light fittings and generally throws both feet forward into the world of folk and live performance.
“Rauccous” is not the right word, but there is a lot of energy here and for a debut album from a relatively new group there is a fearless attempt to try and cram in a number of genres, and like a pirate who has ransacked the sinking ship, the gamble pays off. The positive qualities of young musicians is sometimes attributed to a lack of restraint over genre and previous traditional material, I would say here that “Common Ground” doesn’t fit this mold. It instead is a large showcase of musical forms and niches that are performed very well within their own genres and then brought together here. It is quite sharp about how the group does it, it is not an album that feels like it stumbles at any point and whilst reverent of different works, it never slows to catch it’s breath. For example they do a more than serviceable cover of “Adieu, Sweet, Lovely Nancy” with an Americana influence and layers of strings making it more of an anthem than you might imagine. As it progresses it goes a bit mad and just after the middle we arrive at Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it bursts out and gets the crowd going, for younger readers there is actually a bit of Green Day going on in this performance (yes, I am aware they aren’t a new band ha ha). The good thing you feel from their performance and the disc is that these are not token references, there is a love for what has come before.
“Ask the Time Away” is similarly nimble number leaving with little time to gasp with a rewarding and almost pop voice awash with like the light flashes from artist’s palette, “I could make the finest work of art, it would soon fade.” More dancing is inbound with “Turner’s Bones” which has the youthful energy of indie folk of kicking a positive beat to life with it’s characteristic big drum, it’s a song that enjoys itself it reminds of that first hint of sun in the Spring that laps at your door. They are certainly adding something to the folk genre. Their sound has a lightness of touch in lyrics that reminds me of the rather prominent group at the moment “Ninebarrow” with the dwelling on the influence of the rocks, the birds and the green landscape that gives rise to inspiration and celebration. “Isembard’s Wheel” take introspective lyrics and take them down on a whitewater raft. Their sound seems very much to be situated in the Sheffield with influences from the Peaks and their songs have a naturalistic feel to them like the Green Man himself is roaming the Damflask reservoir or pottering across rocky outcrops at Mam Tor. As a local there are a lot of different landmarks and energy of the land that they have in their collective musical aura.
There is versatility in the album tracks that comes across on stage. Taking the group somewhat out of Sheffield and perhaps with Westward eyes looking back in time, “Sowain Tul” is an A Capella joy, a frontier kind of reflection of life and death that you might find being tackled by someone later in life. You can almost feel the hot wall of Arkansas air and the spirit of contentment wash over “So when I stand over my bones, ever more beneath the leaves.” It’s harmonies are top notch and percussion, foot stomps and thumps really vigorous and catchy. “Horse on the Hill” is one of my favourites with it’s adventurous and zesty series of strings, banjo, fiddle, guitar all coming together to express the burning candle of love,”you are the dawn on my day.” Possibly a prehistoric love with the “Horse on the hill” being one of the giant figures of a horse carved into the hillside from ancient civilisation, the song does what the band does best; mingling the old with the modern and making something very interesting from it. The voice is uplifting and sounds great alongside the rich soundscape and some nice touches of lyrics and melody that is inescapable, “I thought myself a man before I became a boy.”
In the flesh they are an enthusiastic group who had a large mixed-age audience. There is a lot of crossover appeal with their songs concerning all matter of subjects that are held together by a coursing tide of nature and history in it’s discourse. Their set is quite loud as a vehicle for their creative energies, the crowd are equally enthusiastic and engaging; a quiet set of folk ballads this is not. But then not everybody does that, and the folk industry should be happy indeed with a band such as this which has faceted a musical sculpture which is not just indie-folk but has a place in myth-making and traditional folk music too. Quite fearless with musicianship that combines energy and sensitivity, Isembard’s Wheel should be on your radar.
Isembard’s Wheel have a tour coming up, check out their website for details and where you can purchase their new album, or check out their Facebook Page for more details
Some emotionally grey, but not dismal tones as Yorkshire local Andy Whitehouse launches his thoughtful solo piece in Sheffield.
The Heeley Institute is a like a small crab, delicate yet intricate and versatile with a beauty in it’s design.
It isn’t the largest space but it has hosted some of the biggest acts. Recent winners of the Radio 2 Folk Awards, “The Furrow Collective” performed there last year (I luckily managed to get tickets for this) so it’s not just me who finds the place magical. You can’t get much more intimate, it’s like a pub but without the potential for loud interlopers during the set (definitely a bugbear of mine). Put simply, the Heeley Institute is a rather special place and while it is home for the night for big artists, it is also a venue for local musicians. On this night in March it is the launching pad for Andy Whitehouse’s solo album “Almost Home” alongside some supporting acts.
Residing in Sheffield Whitehouse usually plays in the band “The Silver Darlings” with a jazz rock and blues edge. Going solo, his sound has changed a little. It is moving a bit more towards the sullen than it might have done before and while doing it, it still retains it’s introspective angle that characterises “The Silver Darlings”. Like black silk moving across a dressmaker’s table, the songs roll through the sewing machine of music as the artist negotiating the edges of genre, creating stitches in the leathery Blues of the album. Not bright and cheery in the everyday sense it is a moody set that invites comment and reflection; if this appeals to your sensibilities then the music from the whole event will be right up your street .
On the night, Andy Whitehouse is joined for the festivities by a couple of support acts: the pretty dark Richard Neuberg and a fairly new, acoustic duo Mike & David.
Mike & David bring an early bit sensationalism and cabaret to the evening kicking things off. Playing a few tracks to get the crowd going there were some joys to be heard. The pinnacle is a rather delicious cover of Pete Burns’ “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” One cannot really argue with a great stage presence and more sass than a sarsaparilla smoothie. As a cobra ready to strike, you get the feeling that there is some untapped potential here, a duo with more places to go. Richard Neuberg was less of a cabaret motorshow and more a lone bounty hunter doing laps around an inky, dangerous pit. Dark clouds descended as he sang, his words almost slow clap to the man in black himself. Some great songs ensued like the swirling “Summertime” and it’s grim words, “what we burn we betray” and the chasing, affecting guitar and song of “Gold in the River.” There is more that can be said, but check out his website and have a listen to his work (here). At this point the seeds of melancholy have been cast and the grim rider has mounted his steed as Andy Whitehouse launches into his album.
“Almost Home” starts and ends with the sound and feeling of travel; it’s opening track looks inwardly and folkily to the nearby places of Yorkshire with “The Daleman’s Litany.” Previously tackled within the genre by Tim Hart & Maddy Prior, Christy Moore, and Roy Bailey to name just a few, Andy Whitehouse’s version can be described as being despondent, downtrodden and pained in feeling. Throughout the song there is a kind of chamber harmony, bringing a spiritual dimension to the song and making the man who has seen and done many things more of a living pilgrim than anything else. There is a feeling of weariness too; the guitar has the odd scratchiness to it and the song feels a bit detached like that the floating feeling of sleep from the lorry driver speeding through long roads of neon lights. Whitehouse lists the well known Yorkshire towns of the song “Hull”, “Halifax”, and “Keighley” to name a few with him being like the “eternal wanderer” who is never at peace. Some good exploration and it’s own stamp of identity, Andy’s first track is a banner for tracks to come.
If “The Daleman’s Litany is broad and spiritual “Beauty Before Darkness” is like a mirror ball that casts light and shadow on a relationship. Whitehouse wrestles with the starkness of the song. displaying shades of grief and angst throughout the lyrics. It could be the notion of love between troubled people, it also be the finality of one’s own life; Whitehouse’s delivery allows the audience judgement. It takes its time savouring the storm. With it’s waves of emotion from Whitehouse’s delicate vocals combined with the dark night mood guitar we get a poignant number with sad undertones, “Love is like a sunset, it’s beauty before darkness.” One of my favourites on the disc, a good second track and an enticing number, with it’s inner eye working overtime.
“Cherry Blossom” also has quite a bit of charm being is an off-beat song with bass and light touches of percussion that sound like the dropping of crystals. Much like “Beauty Before Darkness” it is laced with possible undertones. This one is like a song of addiction calling of loves past, occupying a kind of space between the waking world, the world of memories and the one of dreams. “as the sun comes up again, nothing soothes the pain.” If it isn’t obvious Whitehouse’s album and performance seems to call from quite a macabre and sulking place deep in a the middle of a goth gathering; though it never feels like posturing of for it’s own sake and there aren’t any elements of pretension. If it just a good fit of mood to lyrics. The sweet spin of brown sugar as it is swallowed by a frothy coffee I love the austere edge of the song, the deliberateness of the performance and places that Andy reaches for.
There is a brief interlude with “Jessica Faith” as a lighter instrumental and “Like the tide” has some more joyous moments too. “Almost Home”, on the other hand is like a late night drive over Sheffield’s local snake pass with the fog rolling in. Guitars harass from all angles and the darkness creeps in, the guitars work really well on this track; something about the whole sound, the atmosphere gives a shiver of timelessness, of thought melting into the road and dead of night. An extremely, evocative track it is the mind racing to the unknown wilderness, the sharp noire and stillness that you find in Murakami’s “After Dark”novel. Great, I love it.
If there are similarities between this and Whitehouse’s work in “The Silver Darlings” it is the joy for the blurry edges of genres and the murkiness of some of the songs. It is a blue splashing of paint blending into obsidian, a delightfully inner world being dragged out of the depths of the mind. It is not the album for those that prefer their world-view through the lens of a rainbow and sunshine, it instead it hangs out with Reece Shearsmith in the woods with a blues guitar and a sense of parnioa. Check it out if this sounds like your kind of thing, “Almost Home” is available on Amazon (here) as well as Bandcamp (here) for purchase.
Steamchicken is a universally fun and energetic band boasting shamelessly soulful vocals and a catchy, booming brass-line.
Somewhere between a smoky jazz outfit and a blues brass extravaganza, “Steamchicken” are a group who set out to entertain, and do so in spades. Much like the wise, old traveller from a Western or the steely glare of a a wizened sensei in a martial arts movie, it feels very much like the band has seen and experienced a lot; their music reflects a fusion of life experiences, musical history and stage presence. As a result it’s very hard to dislike the work they are doing here and there is a lot of widespread appeal. Comprised of a huge roster (or is that rooster?) Ted Crum (Harmonica, Bass, Melodeon), Andrew Sharpe (Piano), Joe Crum (Percussion), Mandy Sutton (Tenor Sax), Becky Eden-Green (Alto Sax, Bass), Katy Oliver (Trumpet), Matt Crum (Soprano Sax, Melodeon) and Amy Kakoura (Vocals) it is clear there is a large brass influence to the mix, (which I love to bits). It also means that there should a bit of instrumentation for everyone (though maybe not shruti box enthusiasts). The addition of Amy Kakoura’s voice is like the aroma of flowers in a beautiful display collection that draws the crowd in and fitting along the steely harmonica and chasing piano quite nicely.
It is always a pleasure to see the chickens in action, and on this day they certainly were poultry with a purpose. “Steamchicken” come to the Bury Met to perform in the smaller space at the venue; not quite the scene from a New Orleans club basement (the seats are too comfy for example) but certainly an event and show with energy, pizzazz and a rather enviable lineup of songs to influence and entertain. It is an intimate space and like the friend you knew at school that smoked menthol cigarettes in the rain, it is rather a cool companion to the larger concert room upstairs; it felt like hanging out in the world’s best basement conversion with friends as you set the worlds to rights. On this day it was the album launch for their latest collection called, “Look Both Ways”, sensible advice for chickens and humans alike.
One of the joys with the group is that they tread not too softly upon a number of genres and gladly share in the fun with the audience. On entry to the gig, Steamchicken gave out a number of stickers (some were left pointing, others right pointing). This was not obviously apparent but whichever way you pointed (ooh err) had a bearing on how you participated in one of the songs, either as the train klaxon or some wheels rollin’ on down the track. Lets say I rolled alongside a lot of others, fun was had all round and we certainly were getting somewhere. From their years doing ceilidh and previous band reforging with Amy Kakoura, they are definitely ploughing ahead. It was a fun show, it really doesn’t take an over imagination to work out that they would fit well at a number of folk festivals. What of the music they played on the evening?
Their songs ranged from folkier numbers to full blown blues and jazz, an instrumental number and doses of the musical influences for ska. Whilst showcasing some tracks from the new album there were some numbers drawn from the band’s previous works too. Of the folkier stuff they tackle there is the folk classic “The Oak and the Ash” with some wonderfully sad piano with a voice like an expressive vine wrapped around a tree, a tightening and heart tugging presentation. From the new album, “Big Tin Horn” is a further example of them working with a sound that crosses genres. Somewhat a folk shanty, somewhat swing and also ska/jazz backing it reminds just how fun music can be. Like the friend who is centre of attention at a gathering who also drags up the mood, the energy; it is breathless, the gentle breeze and sun of Spring. The brass takes on a life of it’s own and the nautical interludes are truly exquisite, “dance to the rhythm of the marching band, dance to the coming of the dawn” (probably my favourite track from the new album). “Mary and the Soldier” was another track from the new album, one of most expressively old-world numbers sounding like it is running through a forest of expressive accordion and deep, longing song (a song Dylan and others had recorded in the past). The most committed song to the idea of folk on the album, it is folky jazz at it’s best; if they were children stealing biscuits from the biscuit barrel they would leave no trace, likewise here folk is combined with their jazz instrument leanings in a seamless way.
Another track “Jericho” is something else altogether though exactly as you would imagine with a hallowed call, soulful wall shattering melody from the brass and Old Testament name dropping, “Joshua”, “King Saul” and all the other big names from the time and place. War-like in tempo it is the heavy cavalry within a medieval army, especially so as other artists with songs that call upon this event from the Bible (K.D. Lang, Hilary Duff, Kelly Oliver just for starters) take either a more oblique, saccharine or personal narrative approach to the imagery (in that order). Steamchicken’s take was kind of “in your face”, a confident cousin telling you to take the risk to swing across a stream on a rope or the artillery firing in a Napoleonic regiment. “Western Approaches” remains a favourite, transplanting you from the certainty of things to a storm brewing on the open sea and the quickening of pace. Starting in a swing fashion, the drums call out the certainty and ebbing of the sea; then as it progresses the band blows left and the band blows right, as it takes off and picks up pace. It certainly brings the adventure of sailing forward and revels in the joys and fears of this ancient pastime and trade.
The band have put in a scattering of covers to their new album, they all fit remarkably well though and their spin on things are always interesting and add something to the track. “When I get Low, I get High” is a streetwise, urban rumble of a song, a mindful cover to include on the new album. Though a cover of a 30’s track, it does do it’s own thing and their performance showed a smoldering Amy Kakoura. It is high kicking, it growls and pounds the burning sidewalks with it’s presence, and whilst it isn’t Ella Fitzgerald’s signature bite, Kakoura’s voice reaches around and brings a class of it’s own, “My man walked out, now you know that ain’t right, well he’d better watch out if I meet him tonight.” If you wanted a snapshot of Kakoura’s versatility in soulful voice, this might be the track that you go to first. Quite possibly a monumental influence for the band name, “Ain’t Nobody here but us Chickens” is one their finishers, a swing mainstay of a song and an indicator of their vintage soul their cover is up there with the best (and their chicken impression is one of the best I’ve ever heard).
A fun evening for all really. There are always several head nods to yesteryear but the band themselves carry a fresh, vibrant strength of voice and backing. There is a lot of variety here, a very good fit in musicians and throughout the set several “spotlight” moments where an “old time” glamour is presented on stage and you lose a little sense of the present. A great venue, a great band, a great night (for everyone).
Steamchicken’s new album “Look Both Ways” (released on 10th Feb 2017) can be bought here and they are doing a few dates later in the year (check here)