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!



Album/EP Reviews Historical Irish

Lorcán Mac Mathúna – Visionaries 1916 (album review)

Folk music that tackles some stirring source material that should not be forgotten. There is a roving central passion that brings both a delightful sense of joy and personal isolation to the works within. The album dwells very much in the topic it is exploring.

The year 2016 will be seen as a year of upheaval and huge changes in the political sphere of these isles with the EU referendum.
Whichever way people of the nation voted and what the impacts (positive and negative) of this choice are, we can say it was that, a choice.

After this event but before the new year the album, “Visionaries 1916” was released (October) which marked the 100 year anniversary of a huge event in history much more turbulent and antagonistic than the current age, and with an exceedingly difficult choices individuals of Ireland were making in the face of English rule. In 1916 there was the “Easter Rising” in Ireland as revolutionaries seized a number of areas in Dublin city in an attempt to establish an independent Irish Republic away from England, as was said, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Many lives were lost during this time, innocent individuals got caught in this major event of street fighting, artillery fire and an estimate of 485 people lost their lives (with over a half being civilians). On top of this, independence did not come straight away and it was not immediately a positive outcome; it did however help crystallise an Irish identity that would lead to Independence further down the road. This album by Lorcán Mac Mathúna (voice) includes Íde Nic Mhathúna (voice), Martin Tourish (accordion), Daire Bracken (fiddle, guitar), Eamonn Galdubh (uillean pipes, saxophone, flute, bodhrán), and Elaine O’Dea (spoken word) works through the songs and poems of influential thinkers Plunkett, Pearse, Connolly, Mac Diarmada, Ceannt, Clare and McDonagh, with an emphasis on Plunkett and Connolly. Arts Council Ireland have provided some funding for an interesting album concept indeed.

The album design is remembrance through and through. There are photographs of the revolutionaries with their considering eyes, with hope and a spark of better things to come. In respect to the package design and case, the contents match the subject matter enormously. It is full of poems, lyrics and explanations of the circumstances at the time, poets are included and speak their piece too and there is quite a lot here for someone coming to this time and place in the world through new eyes. This means that it effectively puts a good deal of respect into history and the complexities of characters within it at the expense of a more stylised and streamlined presentation. It could not have been any other way, or should be, it aims for the folk fan with a patience for learning and reading and evaluating and captures all sides. By explaining the “awkwardness” of one revolutionary (Pearse), and the “unlucky in love” Plunkett we see a moral and character complexity that is quintessential for folk music of this kind; it also gives us a good insight into the poetic inspirations of the authors and the songs giving contextual information for this unfamiliar with the revolutionaries. But what of the music itself?

There are some interesting tracks here. The first track, “Daybreak” bursts into your senses and refuses to be contained. A surprising clash of saxophone, fiddle, and accordion it conjures a breaking of thought like harsh water scattering of waterfall rocks. Plunkett’s poem fortifies in the chest, the yearning in the singing voice is expertly matched by the chasing fiddle (Daire Bracken) and instrument of sultry nights, the saxophone (Eamonn Galldubh) that all meld into a powerful and emotive entrance. It conjures images of a deep thinker, a darkly, silent man who reads with full knowledge of conflict to come. Irresistible and charming, the track reflects Plunkett’s sensitive nature, it pierces the still emotional depths of a man wanting both a new freedom and identity as well as more luck in love, “for you have flung a brand, and fixed a spark. Deep in the stone, of your immortal fire.” Track five,”White Dove of the Wild” brings a wider more sweeping and less pacey interpretation of Plunkett. The rhythm in your minds eye takes a backseat as Lorcan Mac Mathuna finds and accentuates an almost cosmic nature to the poem, lingering over the words but allowing a slower, more pronounced soundscape to form from a solemn voice and accordion. “Daybreak” is catharsis through honest work and the outdoors, “White Dove of the Wild” is the firing of neurons as the narrative of a recently read book begins to rearrange in your dreams. Both stirring, both effective.





















For track four, one of the James Connolly’s poems “We Only want the Earth” is put into song. The composition offers persuasiveness and persistence in a voice that feels very much that it speaks from a group soul which is both jolly and spirited. Both singers (Lorcan Mac Mathuna and Ide Nic Mhathuna) project huge emotion that conveys yet with some added deft flute work here (Eamoon Galldubh). The instrumentation and yearning vocals bring a bright vibrancy to this song of the people, the “mirth” of the poem is emphasised and projected outward despite the serious desire and wish. The energy within the Irish tradition flows through this track freely and is much a character reference for the people and history of this place as any.

The albums inclusion of An Dord Feinne (Óró sé do bheatha abhaile) is essential for a work such as this with it being the song of rebellion. The arrangement and singing gives it a rather militant “in the field” feel particularly compared to other interpretations (i.e. Sinead O’Connor and The Dubliners), it works really well and shines like the heart of a poet under a grimy, sodden exterior; a thinking man becoming a man of action through necessity.  This is not an isolated effect on the album. An aspect of many of the performances here is the feeling that they are putting flesh to these darker quieter moments by adding a realism that permeates through your speakers. In track 9, Fornocht do Chonac (from Pearce) the song could be the laments of men in prison awaiting their executions, mulling their actions over and considering their love for their country. Under a sound cracking fiddle, a sad flute interlude, and incarcerating accordion (Martin Tourish) it reaches some quieter, darker moments that nevertheless glow with a black shine if inevitability. Likewise the final track, “Lament for Thomas McDonagh” is a beautifully sung poem that feels like the still ocean, awash with a piercing moonlight across the water’s surface. There is foreboding as Lorcan describes when, “the Dark Cow leaves the moor”, his voice is a tight rope, a straining oar, and all-in-all a great solo effort.


A lively arrangement with a breath of life on to old history, it clearly is infused with reverence. It’s delivery is traditional, heartfelt and rich with some delightful counterpoints of vocal harmonies. It manages to show and transmit the hope of these revolutionaries through soundwaves, through a tight collection of instruments that are all undoubtedly working to this end. It would be wrong to suggest that it is always an easy and jaunty listen, revolution is often bloody. Mac Mathuna has managed here to keep the focus on the glimmers of optimism in the writers, despite the difficulty of this time. Fans of history, politics and poetical should give this album of Irish identity a good listen and it was a very characterful addition to 2016’s folk roster indeed.

Check out the video below see if you would like to give the album a go!

You can order the album here on their website, where there is also details of their remaining tour dates in Wexford, Dundalk, Dublin and Cork.