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Acoustic Americana Appalachian British Duo Electronic Folk Music Gig Historical Trad Covers Traditional

Derby Folk Weekend – 30 September 2023

After the events of the first day, the second day at Derby Folk Weekend really kicked into gear and we were delighted to see known artists and some new faces who have been making the rounds on our social media feeds.

Apologies must be made as we were unable to go and see the political powerhouse that is Maddie Morris (https://www.maddiemorrismusic.co.uk/), or the stalwart Winter Wilson (https://winterwilson.com/) during our stay, though they would undoubtedly be well received by the audience. There were a few artists that we managed to see:

Frankie Archer

(https://frankiearchermusic.com/)

Frankie Archer is an artist who relatively described as, “a bold mash of electro alt-trad”. We are certainly inclined to agree with this descriptive statement.

Archer’s use of loop peddles and other technology along fiddle do the job of honouring the Northumbrian tradition and leaning on the inherent sadness or joy of the tracks without distorting them all out of recognition. Think of a shiny slinky, coiled and full of kinetic energy which to the unsuspecting child is an explosive, magical stepping instrument of movement and purpose.

Archer’s version of the old, old tune “Lucy Wan” is a good, personally grief-stricken take of the old murder ballad from the woman’s perspective. The samples drip behind the fiddle foreshadowing the grisly end, and whilst the brother of the piece does not get his comeuppance, so to speak, his guilt plays a darker course in end. Archer continues her wealthy showcase of her home area with a lively rendition of “Elsie Marley” that weds you to the time and place, as well as “Peacock Follows The Hen”, sounding more like it’s self then some of the other numbers. Archer is a fresh, assured start to the second day, an artist that should certainly assure all those electronic soundscape tinkerers and trad lovers that there is always room for reinterpretation. This along with her determination and drive for women’s persepective in folk make her a must see for us.


Jim Moray

(https://jimmoray.co.uk/)

We then put our hands together for Jim Moray.

Moray is the kind of artist with an esoteric mix of songs and subjects that are really appealing such as the curious “The Straight Line And The Curve”, a song about John Dee, an occult advisor to Elizabeth or, the exceptionally strong closer to the session, “Sounds of Earth” detailing the Voyager spacecraft and the audio recordings stashed on it. Moray himself is a lynchpin in several aspects of the modern folk scene with his indelible mix of traditional songs and original material, and his application of producing skills in support of newer artists such as Frankie Archer.

The audience seemed in particular anticipation for Moray, most likely because of his grounding in traditional numbers (a Child ballad, a broken token, a classical regional piece) and the variety he trundled along with him. A nice treat was him taking the stage with Frankie Archer to perform the aforementioned “broken token” song, “Jenny Of The Moor” , a beautiful inclusion to a good set. Moray has an enviable reach and seems to be especially dedicated to the folk scene, we look forward to seeing more.


Threaded

(https://threadedmusic.com/)

As the darkness is looking to fall, the evening lineup starts with an intriguing group from our homeland (The Midlands). Comprised of Jamie Rutherford (guitar/lead vocals), Ning- ning Li (violin/vocals) and Rosie Rutherford (clarinet/vocals), Threaded’s sound is not merely a vein of optimism but rather a left ventricle pumping in the spirit of high adventure and fun into proceedings. Their music is not initially familiar to us, but there is a spark which resonated somewhere and then we realised why. They have been involved with Red Earth Theatre, the excellent Deaf-accessible, story-telling wondermachine that we have previous reviewed (see our review of Soonchild from the annals of history here). This explains why their wide-eyed creativity and joy has a place with us.

There is a lot to like to here starting with; “The Colony”, an unruly, bright song about massive ants, “The Lady Next Door”, a situated and loving piece about one of Rutherford;s neighbours, and a newer number “Raven Road”, a song full of warning and woe. Threaded’s music has a kind of family-friendly wonderment about it. You could call them the “E.T.” of the folk world as their tunes are the musical equivalent of the fruits of Steven Spielburg’s producing flair. If you get the chance, you should check them out.


The Magpies

(https://www.themagpiesmusic.com/)

The late part of the evening was allowed to soar a little higher with a chance to see The Magpies Duo (Bella Gaffney and Holly Brandon), the TransAtlantic Folk Band that hops all around the musical variations of the Atlantic. We have been vaguely aware of their journey whilst we were becoming new parents but missed them on the live circuit following this and Covid and everything else, so this was a rare pleasure. Their music is always moving like a bee collecting bits of pollen and influences from all over.

There is the earnest sounding “No More Tears” from the “Tidings” album, a quiet but forthright break-up song, the bouncing “Colin’s Set”, a modern tune written by Holly and arranged by the group, and the old-time Appalachian Song “Fall on My Knees” of (as the group rightly points out) a guy being “overly dramatic”. Their set was characterised by a dry humour, and excellent musicianship from their growing catalogue. They also gave the crowd what they wanted with (what they are well known for) their cover of the Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)” that takes the jazzy electric synth and holds it down to an earthy, woody folk standard.


So all in all, a great second day, stay tuned for our third and final day writeup!

Categories
Dark Folk Duo Electronic Folk Music Folk Stories Historical Myths Nature Folk Poem Review Spoken Word Synth

Swift Wings and Lost Stones – Live Gig Review

University of Sheffield Drama Studio on 13 November 2022

Enable US Project https://performancevenues.group.shef.ac.uk/about-us/enable-us/

We had the pleasure of attending an event which marks the shimmering of the air and the slipstream of the horror season as we move from the month of Halloween and into the one of even darker nights and exploding lights. 

With a strong connection to Folk Horror, early 20th Century, poetry and traumatising children’s television (which is slightly before my time), we are treated to a thoughtful, exploratory evening of two parts, namely (i.) a lecture on the Avebury stones, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, and ideas around them, and (ii.) a musical gig that provides atmospheric samples and song over essential poetry. This all takes place within the cool, intimate wings of the University of Sheffield’s Drama Studio.

To start, we meet David Bramwell, author of “Cult of Water” as he looks into the Avebury Stones, his experiences and connections with the children’s show, “Children of the Stones”. It is an intriguing, enlightening talk and not exclusively for its educational value. Brawell does an almost Dave Gorman thing by pursuing the history of a fake stone head that was part of an April Fools Joke around Avebury and where that indeed may lead to. Along the way there is a joyous, informed exploration of monuments and interpretations of their purpose. His playful manner does dig into some of our most basic preconceptions sometimes such as, “Cavemen didn’t live in caves, they could build houses, no-one would ever live in a cave.” That raised a good laugh. 

The theme of our preconceptions is the starring role here as Bramwell gives us a glimpse of what a particular brand of children’s programme was in the 70’s (I will give you a clue, terrifying). On one hand he looks at the notion of celebrity through history; and on the other he dips his toe into counterculture views of the stones when he recalls discussions with musician and celebrity Julian Cope. As you would expect, when Cope gets involved it goes, in all the best ways, from him dipping his toe in to losing a leg to an alligator under the still waters. 

The second half brought us to a gig by Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus with tracks from their swift wings album. Here the ambience of the venue at Sheffield Drama Studio (which we haven’t mentioned yet) really came into its full. Sparse lighting, an enigmatic triangle of candles and the aetheric, sight saturating brightness of Wendy Pye’s nature visuals. 

Combining Krauss’s haunting vocals,  recorders, flute and synth loops with Justin Hopper’s assured narration, we enter the world of Victor Neuburg, a more-than associate of Aleister Crowley and the poetry he produced through his own press. Before the performance there was some context to Neuburg’s life and viewpoint which complimented the open, peaceful messages of the first half of the evening. Neuburg clearly suffered through life, but many of his joys are also scratched deep into the velum of his work, where many of his poems spring from (only having been uncovered this very year). Some of our favourite of the chilling but often bursting-with-life tracks include, “Frenchlands” an upbeat, woodwind-fuelled, mustard-yellow haze of a dream that precipitates the mind like a passing ray of sun on the face. “Coombes” a more future-centric track which can hit like a kind of spiritual cyborg, ruminating on “ghosts”, and the the otherworldly purgatory, grey and flat “October” feeling that trying to escape the taunt of spiraling, embracing thorns. Joy and gloom, the call of history and the spirit of doing justice to this creative, obscure soul is a great way to spend an evening. The album itself will undoubtedly be an interesting staple for folk fans, folk horror enthusiasts, poet-chasers and magickal practitioners all alike and together in appreciation.

Thoughtful and enjoyable as both a nostalgic folk horror memory, an exploration of counter-cultural notions (such as water dowsing), and a call to pre-Christian beliefs it was a great night amplified by the immersive, humbling and spiritual power of Swift Wings’ performance.

If you are interested in having a listen to the album, then click on to their Bandcamp here, or checkout a sample video below.

Categories
Album/EP Reviews Folk Music Historical Vitality

Kirsty Merryn – Our Bright Night (review)

Released 24/04/20

Singularly beautiful, contemplative and dark. Merryn’s second album is a creeping jaguar in the rainforest of folk.

When you think of 90’s films with pianos.. What comes to mind?

Is it “King Ralph” (1991) with John Goodman playing “Good Golly Miss Molly” in formal attire and bragging about his Rolling Stone Collection, or maybe it is Matt Damon and his exquisite side-parting in “The Talented Mr Ripley” (1999)? Or something a little lighter like “Big”?

We have to admit that our mind first races towards “The Piano”, a 1993 New-Zealand period film about a young woman with a failing arranged marriage. She gives piano lessons to a man called Baines in order to get her piano back in her possession; it is a beautiful, sensual and ruminatory film.

Why do we mention this? Well Kirsty Merryn the piano-folk, singer of stories has arrived with her second album “Our Bright Night” and with it certain expectations. There is an image in the film that always sticks out to me. Near the beginning the beautiful instrument of the piece is left abandoned on the beach (it is tricky to move). Later on it is transported and effectively held to ransom by Baines in exchange for the aforementioned piano lessons and (consensual) sexytime. 

Photo by Todd Macdonald (https://vimeo.com/toddmacd)

What we are getting at is that much like that piano in the film, the “tricky” second album must feel like moving a mountain to create, especially as Merryn’s first outing “She and I” was a powerful celebration of incredible women from history which shone from beginning to end. Whether this is just some musician’s ghost story, a cold hard fact or somewhere in between could be a source of worry. But actually, much like “The Piano” and it’s savage vistas, this album turns out to be a beautiful meditation with a touch of the wild to it. All-in-all it is a quieter affair than “She & I”. Rather than the explosive joy and spontaneous hugs from mission control when the space mission launches, it is the quiet reverence as the large, looming wondrous sight of Mars fills the viewscreen.  Let us see this and look at the songs more closely.

The album has an epic wedding train of an entry with “Twilight/Banks of the Sweet Primroses”.  Merryn demonstrates from the beginning that her pianos and vocals are as strong and enticing as each other. On “The Banks of Sweet Primroses” we are also treated to Phil Beer’s enrapturing violin that contribute to a reworking that is like a grand stage curtain cloth. It isn’t Luke Kelly’s “rustle through the trees” or Clarke & Walker’s “echo in a woodland glen but rather like the unearthing of an archaeological find with its earthy, scholarly sound. A good place to start.

Photo by Todd Macdonald (https://vimeo.com/toddmacd)

“Constantine” is one of Merryn’s songs about a beach in Cornwall that early in her writing career inspired her. It is a grand  evocation of an attentive piano and longing vocals from both Merryn and Alex Alex (who joins Merryn here). It could also be a song about drugs, possibly the depressant kind as Merryn muses, “I feel your icy water cover me”. It is a gentle brush with the psyche on a cooling night with Merryn and Alex calling to lovers within nature, within the world. Quietly trembling and shaking with simplicity, “Constantine” is an excellent track.

There is also more traditional fare to re-examine. Merryn’s take on the “Outlandish Knight” can be described simply as anger-incarnate. You can picture the character is shaking her head at her deed of killing the man looking to drown her in the brine (as he had six others). Merryn’s voice maintains it’s quiet dignity whilst exuding pure judgement and righteousness in this vigilantism. Through choosing this traditional ballad and modernising some of the lyrics, Merryn infuses this with song with terror the likes of which we have not heard since Grimes’ “Oblivion”. Whichever way you look this is a celebration of powerful women both very different and very similar to her muses in  “She & I”.  

Photo by Jonathon Cuff (http://www.jonathoncuff.com)

“Mary” is virtually a row of sunflowers as Merryn tackles the often-mentioned subject of a “traditional courting song”, except with a slight twist. Trees become telephone masts and electricity pylons and the seafront has been “tarmacked” in a possible near future. Unlike many folk songs, its a song that surprisingly does not linger on outrage for nature being stripped or for industrialisation taking over. This does make it kind of refreshing. Think of the romance in Jon Boden’s “Afterglow” except that the post-apocalyptic Orwellian-hellscape only happened in Croydon. Lyrically beautiful and excellently sung and played (like all the tracks here), this song is inspiring in its foresight. Whatever the future holds, there will clearly be more industrialisation in some areas of the world (hopefully not everywhere). Just as old and current folk songs talk about heather, fields, the sea and places of beauty; folk songs of the future will take place in these other environments and maybe they will be considered old, beautiful sites of yesteryear. Whatever the case, a great song.

There is much else to like here such as the ghostly soft tones of Sam Kelly luring a woman to her death in “Shanklin Cline” with the dropping in of ominous minor keys and haunting longing, a galloping song about theft by the higher-ups in “The Thieves of Whitehall” and (probably) Merryn’s most stark and emotive song of passing to date in “The Wake”. 

In sum it is fearlessly mixed (Ben Walker) and mastered (Nick Watson). The quiet moments are thoughtful, Merryn’s voice soars in tandem with the piano like a pair of hawks and neither get lost in the twirling hurricane that is the mixture of percussion and strings. At times Merryn’s album is like a tragic fairytale. There are twinkles of light on the black sea of space (which feels very much like the album’s namesake) but as the dark themes of ill deeds  emerge the work is grounded in the vast moorlands and gritty folk-horror of history. Another way to look at the contrast is that there is a kind of gallows humour spread around like marmite on a piece of sourdough, but also the joy of shared bread eating.

Photo by Todd Macdonald (https://vimeo.com/toddmacd)

If you had not guessed, we cannot recommend this album enough. 

Go and buy this while you can, there is part of the tapestry of your mind yet to unwind. 

Check out a sample video below, we recommend buying from Kirsty’s website herself at https://www.kirstymerryn.com/shop

Kirsty’s online album launch was on 1 May on Facebook. If you want to listen a little more before purchase, then check out the video link on her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/kirstymerryn/

Categories
Album/EP Reviews British Folk Music Historical Sea Folk Traditional

Reg Meuross – 12 Silk Handkerchiefs (album review)

Let us turn to Reg Meuross and his new album and project “12 Silk Handkerchiefs”.

Constructed and composed alongside Brian W Lavery (who is the author of “The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster); the album is a remembrance of the great Hull fishing tragedies of 1968 (of which there were three in quick succession). The album turns its gaze to many of the individuals involved and has a part dedicated to Lillian Bilocca. Lillian Bilocca worked in the fishing industry and courses through her family’s blood; the album pays tribute to her extensive and sustained work to improve safety legislation for fishermen following these tragedies.

So it is true to say that this was a tragic series of events, and a dark passage in Hull’s history.   

(Creator: RACHEL SNOWDON )

In this disc,  Reg Meuross doesn’t just create an effective memorial but also an artifact as it is one of his most living, breathing albums of his recent work. This takes some doing, especially when taking into consideration his “Faraway People” album, itself a great disc and chronicle of modern living. Like a quiet summit, the album communes and hears the voices of singers locals to Hull as Sam Martyn and Mick McGarry join Meuross on the disc. Their inclusion is a good one. Alongside Lavery’s narration these three form the foundations of local history by bringing their social knowledge to the compositions. Surprisingly, Meuross rarely takes vocal lead; he allows these connected voices to breathe life-affirming wind into a work of family, community and heartache. This decision is central to the album and it’s concept, though certainly not due to any lack of skill on Meuross’ part. Lesser artists might have felt left out, but Meuross is selecting “realness” over “ego” and the album is all the greater for it.

There are thirteen tracks on the album with roughly half being narration. The spoken word tracks set the scene and welcome you with to the context of each song. It is atmospheric and builds understanding. Even if for some reason, the theme of the album wasn’t for the listener; it is an excellent work for seeing the art of songwriting. The narration sits next to the songs like a beautiful ash wood next to a hunting bow, you can see the structure and design side-by-side. The spoken word adds a lot by generating a rather poetical ambience, in some ways like  “Under Milk Wood”. The descriptions carry to the time and place and you feel for the people it talks about. More than entertainment for it’s own sake, the CD is a time capsule and valuable memory of history.

Creator: RACHEL SNOWDON

Looking at the tracks there is much to enjoy here. A thread that runs throughout is Reg’s excellent acoustic tones that are like grand Egyptian hieroglyphics; recognisable, solid and stand the test of time. Their levity compliments the sometimes sadder aspects of the stories being told.

“Wash Her Man Away” is a superstitious number, as the wives of fishermen will  touch no laundry while they are out or their man will be washed away. Wife and “Ray”. It is a calming number that, much like the figures of the song, mask a niggle of anxiety and worry. McGarry’s voice conveys these themes well with his layered presentation. God-fearing and cracking in mild fear the track is almost a prayer, which no doubt those washing women had on their lips and in their hearts.

Creator: RACHEL SNOWDON

In “I am a Fish House Woman” we see the character of workers in the industry again; this time they are gutting fish and plunging their hands into warm water to fight off the bitter cold.  Martyn’s voice has a fragility reflecting the emotional core of the fish house woman who present a tough armoured exterior that can “give as it gets” and appears to be “getting on” with a strong inner resolve for what seems like difficult and cold work. The sense you get is that the fishermen were at great risk but the other parts of the industry weren’t a rosy picnic either. Each song on the album paints a little corner of the tragedies and the many faces of it. Martyn has been described in other publications as being “reminiscent of Maddy Prior”. I cannot argue with this assessment, it is very apt and she is a credit throughout the album.

As is the case in some of the best folk (you might not agree), the happiest tune often has the gloomiest or saddest of context that sits in the lyrics themselves.  In “John Barry Rogers” we see this in example as the title character goes to lengths to save the first mate Harry Eddom; the song laments as McGarry reaches the notes of woe while the acoustic guitar skips to the beat of a lively pub discourse. Similarly Reg’s vocals on “The Man The Sea Gave Back” is especially true of this with the rousing hummingbird of woodwind that plays through the dire warning, “When you go fishing from the sea. Beware the sea does not catch thee”. It is a great number, a melodic joy whose gentle laps at your ears belie a raging and invisible terror from the deep blue. 

Creator: RACHEL SNOWDON

Do we recommend “12 Silk Handkerchiefs”? Yes We Do.

Reg’s album is a gift to Hull and as essential to fans of maritime history as the fishing net is to the trawler. It is realistic and in places sombre without being a dirge. Held fast by Meuross’ light and playful instrumentation; a devilishly difficult balance of seriousness, respect and a positive tone is struck in the album. This is an essential purchase for fans of Meuross, especially as several of his hallmarks can be seen here. A difficult subject matter is here treated with care not so much a solo work; to the great credit of Meuross but more a work of community and history.

And this makes it very valuable indeed.  

Reg is bringing the album on tour, check out the website to make it to what will be a great addition to folk history and performance at http://www.regmeuross.com/events/

Categories
British Debut Folk Music Folk Stories Historical Trad Covers Traditional

Geoff Lakeman at Village Folk – 17th March 2018

There is procrastination and procrastination. I mean I have thought about painting the walls in my office a beautiful forest green for weeks (and haven’t managed yet) but sometimes people put off really big things, things that matter. In the world of music there are bands who take their sweet time between album releases. For example Daft Punk took 12 years between “Human After All” and “Random Access Memories” and The Who went from 1982 to 2006 without a further album release in the middle. You have groups like this, then you get Geoff Lakeman.

Geoff Lakeman is a surprisingly low-key figure in a flock of Lakemans, but there are few that will not recognise the name at all. Many are well known folk artists after all including Seth, Sam and Sean Lakeman, all artists very present and productive in their folk projects, but what of Geoff? Well if Lakemans are like springs of musical versatility then perhaps you could say that Geoff is the “limestone” that helped these waters emerge. As father to the others, he is the unsung song,the unseen wind that performed folk as a family for several years only taking it up full-time when retiring from a long, distinguished career in wall-street journalism. So when we think about time taken for artists to release work, few will match Geoff’s record of waiting until his 69th year to put his thoughts on to silver disc.

But it is well worth the wait, our review of it is here and tonight he plays at Village Folk in Chellaston.

Making his way in a rather quiet and unassuming manner, Geoff took the stage to show us what he knows. Perhaps this element of Geoff taking his time to make a disc from his 40 years of performance is what makes listening to Lakeman now a special and privileged event.

It is a refreshing set. Lakeman skips across the Atlantic on more than one occassion bringing us “When the Taters are Dug” and “A Wide, Wide River to Cross.” The former being a delightful ditty about rural life from Maine, the latter is like a spiritual hymn with it’s powerful resonating introspection, the singer reaches far and wide in both location and tone. The crowd are rapt and attentive as he holds the stage for his own, it is a delight to see him touring. Delicate in character Geoff also sang “Someone waiting for me”, a track not found on “After All These Years” and when he comes back to our shores he storms in with an original number “Tie ‘Em Up”, based in history but eerily relevant to today’s issues to do with fishing quotas.

Geoff also plays one of our personal favourites “Rule and Bant” about a couple of tin miners trapped in the ground following an accident in the 1800s. An emotional number, Geoff’s voice is quite elastic here portraying fear, good cheer and mystery. Politics gets as good as a visit as history too with Lakeman playing an excellent cover of “England Green, England Grey” by Reg Meuross instead swapping out the fine guitar work for his own concertina. As becomes apparent, the set has more than a few flashes of politics and history and has an awful lot to say much like the aforementioned Meuross who alongside Geoff are likewise chroniclers of our modern injustices. The joy of seeing Geoff is that he embodies the soul of folk music as he plays alone with a rare concertina quality with no production tricks, echos or otherwise. For many this alone is folk music at it’s purest, like col0ssal veins of iron before they are treated to become stainless steel. People who like their songs about the working man will not be disappointed here.

In person and in performance there is isn’t a big band or a wall of sound but does not suffer for it. It is quite a pertinent observation as Lakeman jokingly tells the audience about the creation of the album. It is pretty entertaining to hear how it came to it’s current shape, especially at one point where Geoff sends a track off to Sean doing the production to add in another instrument and it comes back with more backing and Kathryn Roberts’ voice appearing on the number as a surprise. His laments about being coerced into including the track “Doggie Song”by said Roberts are also entertaining as he becomes concerned about being remembered for the guy who sings about “dog turds”. The risks of musical typecasting is certainly real!

As well as showcasing a large amount of the album’s tracks, Geoff took some delightful sunny detours. He sings “The Seeds of Love”, that old, old classic collected from Cecil Sharp and a jaunty, folky version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Making Whoopee” that makes really does the earth move. These little moments of sweetness and humour really bring a roundedness to the set elevating it above the preconceptions that some might have about folk music, e.g. that it’s all about death and seriousness.

So in a strong, simple performance whose strength is it’s simplicity and clarity, Lakeman shows us he is an entralling, generous and accomplished host. The set brims with stories, the room sways and sings along in time and the night is awash with a quiet energy that fills the corners of the Lawns Hotel.  A great night,  a thorough, committed performance and as always a gracious, attentive and warm reception by this night’s organisers, definitely give one of Geoff’s gigs a go.

Check out Geoff’s website for more information about where he is touring here!

Village Folk is one of the best live venues we have been to.. granted we write for them, but we also believe it is a great atmosphere, a welcoming family of people and a special night out, check out their website here to see which folk act they are getting next (they get some of the best) http://www.villagefolk.org/

Categories
Album/EP Reviews British Cabaret Energetic Folk Music Folk Stories Historical Myths Trad Covers

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman – Personae (2018) Album Review

“Sharp, witty and accomplished there is a class to Roberts & Lakeman’s new album that cannot be measured on any known scientific apparatus”

Album: Personae

Producer: Sean Lakeman

Tracks: 10

Iscream Music Records (2018)

Released 9th March 2018

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman are indeed a famous duo. Maybe the best known in folk circles due to the two well-deserved wins for “Best Duo” at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. People always presume that the difficulty in fame and music is in the ascent, but surely Lords and Ladies have the added pressure of walking their parapets safely once they have been built. Roberts and Lakeman haven’t  installed a hand rail on their high wall though to keep them safe however. They are still dancing, leaning over the outcrop, shouting to the crowd and having a regal ball in plain sight. Their new, fifth album “Personae” is an album of energy showing no lack of original ideas, adventure or showmanship in the realm of fantastical stories.

It all starts with the cover photograph (by Niki Bidgood) which is either an otherworldly rodeo or Roberts is performing a superhero feat of strength with her hips. It is warmly baffling, but in the best possible way. Perhaps as the album is called “personae” it is in the spirit of one “reining” in their outward appearance. The whole scene is like a painting where your eyes cannot be trusted- here you wonder if it is sea or land, it could be either. Whatever the intent, there is a lot of fun to be had here and this definitely spills over to the album. It spills over despite any attempt to keep it contained like a rainbow bucket filled with sparkles.

The CD starts with a belting version of Child Ballad 265, “The Knight’s Ghost”. The duo’s rendition makes it rather a favourite for ourselves. We love traditional and maintaining the way things have been; here the song isn’t just elaborated, it is upgraded.  Like most ballads the advice of the story inside is of mixed quality. It does remind how grief can make us take rash actions (as the main subject begins revenge against those that she thinks have done her husband harm) though maybe in everyday life we cannot rely on our late partner’s ghost pointing out our errors.  For an opener on an album it is a vivacious interpretation that benefits from clear guitar work and emotive, nuanced vocals. It is quite a powerhouse. Sam Kelly’s additional vocals are characterful and fitting. Overall when thinking of the track, going back to the comparison rodeos, this song is much like that the bucking animal who sprints out at the fire of the gun, it bucks and hops and is determined and fierce. A great opener.

Track 3 “Tribute of Hands” is an original fast-paced number that brings some more of the myth to the table. Inspired by the story of the founding of Antwerp the duo have managed to create something as bloodthirsty and grim as any song from the folk song canon, and it fits especially well. Along other tracks, It forms a  backbone of tracks about history; legends with a slight fairytale kick and mischievous attitude that give the CD a fantastical anchor. The woodwind in the middle ramps up the mystery and wonder, it is as much of the song as dry ice is in a Prince music video. It all works very well as it speeds along exuding charm. We need more fantastical stories of this kind being brought to life, though this might mean I would stop reading fairytales.

“The Street of the Cats Who Dance” is our favourite of the quintessential piano-led ballads on the album. At first we thought the song might refer to Istanbul which I believe is heavily linked with cats, but the song actually refers to St. Malo, a town in France. In history the governors had the idea of unleashing hungry dogs at night to enforce a curfew on wrongdoers. Night time curfews and nightwalking in history are fascinating reading (I have a great book to recommend on this), but this aside the cats are dancing because the dogs were eventually banned from being used in this way following a particularly gruesome death. The song is incredibly well mixed, Lakeman has created some good harmonies of Roberts’ voice which shines throughout. The song has stirrings of early Tori Amos which, in my opinion,  always gets the senses going. This is no Amos tribute though, it moves it’s feet to it’s own beat. It is hard to imagine who else would have the presence to take this song on in the future, but for now this is the least of our concerns.

 

There are many other fine tracks on the album. The vaudeville, “poison club” exemplifies the mischievousness, playful nature of two folk artists quite perfectly listing some of the best ways substances to have fun to (or die from). Their cover of Sandy Denny’s “Solo” is pure beautiful intention, and “Old, Old, Old” (about a Seychelles tortoise) could be part of a growing tradition of the duo pointing out remarkable creatures  in the world around us. Throughout Lakeman doesn’t miss a beat in the instrumentation. It is a credit to his mixing that the weapon of choice on whatever song he is performing on sounds more like a pumped-up army as opposed to a single man, the depth across the disc even on more poignant numbers like “Independence” is breathtaking.

We cannot fault this album. The disc is thoroughly entertaining diving right in and waving to the crowd; it is a work that will be spinning in our music player for periods of time not yet anticipated. For any sci-fi fans it is fairytale in a similar way to Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who with it’s kind of cool, slightly unusual but prestigious appearance.

Another way to understand the value of this album is to imagine that in the depths of Winter you were cold and someone recommended you buy this disc because it would keep you warm. You might don your pickaxe and hard hat to go down the mine in preparation for finding some coal, but what you would find  instead is a cave of diamonds from floor to ceiling that shine in the dim amber light of your torch. Take the bag that is your heart and fill it to the top.

Which is just as well because energy prices are going through the roof.

“Personae” is best ordered direct from Roberts & Lakeman at: https://www.kathrynrobertsandseanlakeman.com/

My other half recently interviewed the duo, find out their favourite poisons here, http://www.lastnightidreamtof.co.uk/music/kathryn-roberts-and-sean-lakeman-interview/

(I do not claim ownership of pictures and media referenced in this article, they belong to their respective holders).

Categories
Album/EP Reviews baroque British Debut Energetic Folk Music Historical Trad Covers Traditional Vitality

The Twisted Twenty (Debut Album) Review

THE TWISTED TWENTY

From: Penny Fiddle Records

Tracks: 8

With: Holly Harman (baroque violin, vocals), Alexis Bennett (baroque violin, guitar, bodhran, electronics), James O’Toole, David Rabinovici (baroque violin), Ewan Macdonald (Cittern), Lucia Capellaro (baroque cello), Carina Cosgrave (baroque double bass

Producer: Sam Proctor

 

Zesty yet focused, the Twisted Twenty’s Debut is a fantastic window to the Baroque era that you don’t want to close.

As bright and bold as the assorted splashes on their front cover, “The Twisted Twenty” arrive with their baroque-character instruments and are on a mission  to bring back 17th and 18th Century folk melodies (but were they ever truly out?)

Launched early in the year, their self-titled debut album does indeed deliver on this mission, and it does in the form of a mostly instrumental warm brew that shares a rather rich concoction of strings, other instruments and a scattering of almost marshmallow vocals. Whilst I can fantasise about hot chocolate, I am saying this from the cold, steadfast shell of Autumn, but the album is quite firmly a Spring album (it did come out in April).

It could be the image of spirals of hay and scattering straw with the welcome lightness of touch of Ruidleadh mo Nighean Donn – Cuir I Gluin Air a Bodach which seems to be capturing rays as it plays or the slightly mischievous and joyful collection of instruments of Track 1, The Ragged Sailor Set in all of it’s sparky, plucky energy; there is a good sense of fun which plays throughout the disc. The mixing is top notch, unlike Morecambe and Wise in some well-resourced sketch, you never feel that an instrument is jostling for the limelight, the cello and double bass do not announce their arrival and refuse to sit down; it all works together very well indeed.

 

SONY DSC

There is a lot to like, the regality of James Oswald’s, The Banks of Forth/She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked is intriguing. Their take on Arthur McBride is a gently moving, and rather earthy as the focus is drawn to the larger stringed instruments. The base is a quiet shudder, maybe the earth giving way for a seedling to grow. When he hear some traditional song lyrics such as those for The Three Ravens, we are not disappointed. Holly Harman’s voice reaches with a kind of sadness and fitting lament of the said ravens in the story who are eyeing a potential meal that ultimately they do not get.. The melody has a cool, sparseness like the chilled intake of breath before Three Good Fellows the following track which is a short but exuberant number is tailed by a stocky, gallant bodhran that gives it a definite kind of kick.

Everything is in it’s right place and this album is a great introduction to this period of history. Fresh and restless it is a dog’s bright keen eyes to it’s walking lead, one cannot deny the confidence that the Twisted Twenty walk in with here. For a man who likes his vocals and lyrics, The Twisted Twenty sit up there with Leveret at the few predominantly instrumental groups who I like to listen to, and when they do tackle lyrics it is as glorious as a dancing cat.

Check out the Twisted Twenty’s webpage, it is cool and puts mine to shame! There are some samples there https://www.thetwistedtwenty.com/

The best place to buy their album is from the Bandcamp page here, https://thetwistedtwenty.bandcamp.com/album/the-twisted-twenty

 

If this does not sway you, check out the video below:

 

 

 

Categories
Acoustic Gigs Historical

Hannah Martin & Phillip Henry – Music in the Dark – Derby Gaol 11th May 2017

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.

http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/shows.php

 

 

 

Categories
Album/EP Reviews Folk Music Gigs Historical Nature Folk

Isembard’s Wheel “Common Ground” Album Launch @ Shakespeare’s – 1-04-17 Sheffield

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.

Introduction

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.

 

Supports

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.

https://youtu.be/uGQO6LPJrxQ

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

http://www.isembardswheel.com

https://www.facebook.com/isembardswheel/

Categories
Dark Folk Folk Music Gigs Historical

Harp and a Monkey @ Village Folk – 25th February

Once again I was released from the steel gates of Sheffield and able to descend the long-winding roads to Derbyshire. There I went to see the latest artist “Harp and a Monkey” to perform for a throng of rapt Derbyshire people at the “Village Folk” session in the The Lawns Hotel, Chellaston. Continuing to draw crowds and some distinctive guests (Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys next) it is an honest pleasure to have travelled to see a great venue and lovely bunch of people that are really doing things right. Furthermore, they will once again be at Derby Folk Festival this year (as will I); so if you get a chance (and can get a ticket) get yourselves down to Chellaston, site here and to the Derby Folk Festival, (see here).

On this day it was “Harp and a Monkey”. Before the gig, I cannot say I had heard their musical repertoire before, the name conjures images of either the most exotic folk group or a children’s book that encourages the shyest of animals to take up an instrument (it is more the former, but someone should write the latter!) There seemed a lot of bustle before the performance; social media and conversations seemed to revolve largely in excitement around their anticipated rendition of “The Molecatcher” (Roud 1052) largely associated with Bernard Wrigley (with an awesome singular voice). On reflection, this was indeed well justified; but before we get to the heart of historic infidelity and why wronging people in dangerous professions is a bad idea for your health (and pocket), let me talk more about Harp and a Monkey.

Dressed as if going to find the Mancunian equivalent of the Haggis creature they cut a rather interesting sight. Lancashire with a capital “L” they are rather good ambassadors for the county, it is pleasing to hear songs around local industry and history, and they have found an eclectic way of telling these stories. Lead singer, Martin Purdy reminds me an awful lot of Christopher Eccleston. Perhaps if he weren’t playing a tune and singing he would be method acting as the guy who is soon going to unleash all crazy hell on some poor soul. As it happens he was rather more collected and (as per his stories on previous feedback from folk veterans) he instead gave his furious intention and movements to the glockenspiel instead of a line of dialogue. He certainly gave his glockenspiel all he’s got; you don’t hear enough glockenspiel really in the general sense of music. Harp and a Monkey do present an awful lot of glockenspiel but all of it welcome and part of the overarching charm is how it’s keys allow us a glimpse into some of the different characters of songs. The last time I heard it being played with great effect was Princess Chelsea’s excellent “Lil’ Golden Book” album and that was 2011 (and it’s not strictly speaking folk), so kudos to the group for this choice. Along with the banjo, guitar and sometimes the aforementioned harp we get a wall of sound that illustrates tragedy (e.g. The Manchester Angel) or even some sweeter sounds (Flanders Shore), and this continues with their addition of electronic sampling and voice. These later inclusions permeate through several songs and give the air an otherworldly feel to the extent that when listening it sounds a bit like the veils of reality have been shaken and you are peeking into a parallel world. This other dimension would be one where mainstream folk went somewhere slightly esoteric in the 80s and never stopped for air to the present day. It is a definitely something to experience, and also something quite evocative.

This is all great stuff, “Harp and a Monkey” use some quietly, elegant application of their instruments throughout which leads to a rather unexpected but solidly authentic capturing of the tone and subject matter of their songs. The idea of folk music that tells stories is always appealing, and “Harp and a Monkey” have a few to tell especially as their set splits across their earlier and later work, as well as songs from their work, “The War Show” taking into song some accounts of the first World War. They do cover a lot of ground be it people’s experiences in the war “The Soldier’s Song” or the heartfelt tribute of “Bowton’s Yard”, a putting to song of Samuel Laycock’s poem about his neighbours at Stalybridge, a textile town. The band’s version of this is quite homely, celebratory and proud; it has a chasing glock, and successfully paints a bird’s-eye view of ordinary people living in a street and their lives. It’s warm vocals and roots in describing community is a great addition to the set. “Pay Day” likewise touches on these themes as it exemplifies the workers laments, “oh no you’ll never know how far you’ll fall, oh you’ll never know how deeps the hole.” Some slightly understated accordion, crisp banjo and accompanying guitar build a nice, slightly jaunty track amongst a set with a reasonable amount of darker material.

Speaking of the dark, “Willow and the Ghost” is a favourite of mine. A song about a ghost sighting and a tragedy is probably as folk as you can get in this musical set and in the genre fully. That being said there is something rather stripped back about it here. It isn’t the arrangement, because the glock, banjo, and guitar are quite a moving storm and when joined with some background samples you could believe that it was a folk turn for “The Human League” (going back to the earlier analogy). Instead it’s main appeal is to do with the content (though it is performed very well too). A song with melancholy, it is itself a spectre as it has the sad visage and a fatal accident within the lyrics, but unlike many songs there doesn’t seem to be a resolution; nothing is learned, someone’s life doesn’t suddenly prove worthwhile, and the skeletons of family history are not laid to rest. I quite like the fact that it is stark and simple in this regard with the lyrics, “there I saw a young girl slip into the deep” and then it turns particularly miserable, “I saw her drown, I saw the dress weigh her down.” It doesn’t let up, “Harp and a Monkey” should not stop writing these songs, that’s for certain.

So as mentioned at the beginning of this page, we have to talk about “The Molecatcher.” Coming with as much menace as you like (and then some more); the band’s take on the cuckold’s reaction to a young man visiting his wife is pretty grey in morals. The harp is eerie, the whole affair sounds like it is wrapped up in a fairytale as much as history, but the type of fairytale where right and wrong has no place. After all, the Molecatcher in the story is in every sense a cuckold, he seems content with the financial recompense and  blissful ignorance of what is happening despite the trap setting for the unwitting lover. An old song and one from history showing people at their most complex and morally ambiguous, the group do such a good job with their interpretation with the odd jangle here and a grim turn of voice that somehow casts judgement on the listener as if asking “what is wrong with this scene?” It will clearly ring out in times and years to come with it’s catchy, black nature,”Woe to the day, woe to the wedding vows, woe to the day”. In absolute contrast, the set finished on “Katy’s Twinkly Band.” Conceived following a comment by a young daughter at the pub that the band started playing in they have imagined an upbeat song to match what she called them (the “Twinkly Band.”) Ending on an optimistic, child-like and light note it talks of the sea, the birds and a kaleidoscope of other imagery it sets. Perhaps there is still time, perhaps it is the “Sasha Fierce” to their “Beyonce” but instead with the grittier role being the everyday, and the cheery the other face? Either way a humorous and exceedingly sparkly entry.

Who will like “Harp and a Monkey”?

Fans of history to be sure, my review has barely scratched their works  around World War I (and there is a lot of poignancy to be had there).

They are not a standard setup by any stretch of the imagination, but their songs are gloriously steeped in the family and working class to the extent that it takes centre-stage throughout. Furthermore their sound is very needed; folk with some modern influences, but ones that actually draw a lot of emotions that are often neglected in this material through the glockenspiel, harp, and banjo together. When playing the stage becomes like a kind of human echo chamber, it is how you’d imagine people’s stories travelling across space and between the stars, there is  a certain beauty in the darkness and “Harp and a Monkey” has found it.

Check out their webpage here, if you are interested in upcoming Village Folk gigs, please go to the page here.

See a couple of samples below (the first from the excellent Bury Met). Give them a go- they are on tour too, so check out if they are playing near you!