During a brief hiatus to the excessively cold weather last month, I had the pleasure of heading down to Chellaston in Derbyshire for a gig at the Lawns Hotel to see Merrymaker.
High over the street like a small fortress on top of a rocky outcrop; the Lawns Hotel is indeed a hotel (and pub) that has a partnership with a rather pioneering and friendly organisation called Village Folk. Village Folk is a family (not just in saying, there are family working together here) who host an evening a month with a band or folk artist to bring a little entertainment and heart to the local area. I came across both the band (Merrymaker) and organisers (Village Folk) last year at Derby Folk Festival and situated within the Clubrooms they did a great job continuing the tour de force of Derby known as Winter:Wilson (see their site here). Introducing some newer and lesser known groups and giving them a chance to shine they were a great companion to the main acts in the square and more than the added bonus of being out of the heavy rain that weekend.
Relatively new to the organisation of live music, Village Folk are doing exceptionally well. They are getting good attendance and in a time of uncertainty around the viability of live music they are also attracting some recognisable and influential names to their midst (e.g. Sam Kelly soon and Martin Carthy in a couple of months), but it would not work if they were not lovely people with some serious love of the events that they are showcasing. Not a huge venue and also not a folk club; it manages to combine the good running and sound quality of the former with the intimacy of the latter, and it does it well. I certainly have my fingers crossed that they will have an involvement in Derby Folk Festival this coming year! What about the gig?
The great urban sprawl of my my younger years always comes racing back when I hear the dulcet tones of Dan Sealey (vocals, guitar) and Adam Barry (keyboard and others) with their West Midlands swagger, a series of sights and sounds never really seen or heard in my now native Yorkshire (much to it’s loss). They were joined by Nikki Petherick (whose accent is a direct contrast, perhaps sounding like an Inspector Morse extra) and Hannah (whose surname they could not decide upon) who brought additional guitar and violin respectively. In terms of a general sound, Merrymaker are a kind of entertaining scattering of folk with large elements of acoustic rock, which proves a good foundation for an interesting night out and it makes sense as Dan heralds from 90s rock outfit, Ocean Colour Scene. They have a boyish charm too on stage which is offset to some degree by Nikki giving as good as she gets in retaliation to the guys banter. The recent addition of violin is a boon too as Hannah’s classical training brings an extra dimension to Merrymaker’s more guitar heavy numbers whilst also having the potential to bring back the urban rock sound of the 90’s if needed. How would I describe Merrymaker’s songs?
Their songs are much like their stage presence in that they often come with a high dose of humour and/or self-deprecation (Adam spent a large amount of the gig concerned with his “fresh from the laundy-but-not-yet-dry trousers” that he apologised for wafting into the audience). This all creates a good environment for their slightly political angle as they performed songs with a focus on Donald Trump (which they played a rather 60’s pop “Coming Up Trumps” that they described as “a stupidly stupid song for a stupid person”) and another about the Syrian Refugee crisis which they curated from comments on Twitter “Nobody Here Wants a War.” With videos of these song posted online they show a versatility in form to their songwriting. The Trump song is indeed “a stupidly stupid song” but it is so good at being it, “Nobody here Wants a War” is more solemn but really well worked from the source material. Merrymaker’s music as a result has a bit of a bite, but rather than the deeper laceration from a jackal it is more like a nip from a well-meaning Brittany spaniel. And while the present world is too much for some, the band also delved into some nostalgia which was to be had from the Ocean Colour Scene days with a slower paced version of “The Riverboat Song” (admittedly not my favourite re-envisioning), and the Stranglers’ “Duchess” (quite good indeed).
However they go about things, there is always some sunshine and comedy too. “Midst of Summertime” is a song from their time as the band Merrymouth and it is played in earnest with a really a cheerful, leaping in the rays kind of quality. Once again the violin in it’s live state lifted the track even higher; making it a heather-tinged song that leads to quite a smile. Some might say it makes one exceedingly “merry”. The biggest laughs come from a song about a man having to do chores on a Sunday (because he doesn’t mind what he and his wife does all day, when the amber glow of ale is at the back of his mind) which goes down really well the audience alongside “This is England”, a comedic song with some sober thoughts within. A song about the attitudes of their local pub regular, Roy, who at 88 is miserable and bemused in equal measure by the changes that have happened in society it paints a hilarious but empathic picture of a person that everybody knows.
The band unapologetically have fun throughout and this helped by their setlist that combines their political leanings and observations, but also the everyday without a Poe-face to be seen.
A great venue, a caring and passionate organisation and a fun, relatable band amount to a good night out. Check out Village Folk’s website for some great upcoming artists here, and for more information about Merrymaker, click here.
For one night only the Studio space of the Crucible was turned into a a kaleidoscope of story, wonder and history with a combined storytelling and musical performance of “Fire in the North Sky” by Adverse Camber. There were birds, bears, men forging with gold and silver, and other incredible creations told and performed from the Kalevala, a hundred thousand lines of collected story traditions from ancient Finnish history so rich in material you feel that the show barely scratched the surface of the epic. Collected by Elias Lonnrot in the 19th Century it was brought to life by Adverse Camber, an independent production company that curates original, expansive stories from another time and another place, and works with artists and venues to transmit these tales more valuable than silk to a modern audience. They are quite local too coming from Derbyshire, and much like their other recent work I reviewed, The Shahnameh (here), there is an energy and excitement to their show which balances the need for telling stories that stand up on their own merits. Not only this but the company manages it without unnecessary set-pieces of over-the-top props that could dilute the richness of the story, the oral tradition takes centre stage. Credit to the producer, Naomi Wilds for shaping the show and director (Paula Crutchlow) for moving the pieces, the Studio was a particularly good choice to host such a program. The decision to use the Crucible Studio meant that quite an intimate connection could be forged with the audience that neither cramped the audience or dwarfed the performers; much like in Goldilocks, the size was just right. The words flourished on the boards of the stage and there was no danger of there being much empty space in the audience as the pre-show interest must have been immense with the studio being fully packed out to the gills and rapt in attention.
“Fire in the North Sky” does not have a single theme as such running through it. It is a series of stories with certain characters rotating, appearing and disappearing into the ether which echoes the variation and improvisation of these sung stories in antiquity. Like a river the whole thing moves a winding course as a necessary and inescapable aspect of storytelling but there in presentation there was evidence that the tales chosen are sufficiently different in order to provide at least one tale of interest to each audience member. There is a cast of four and all are utilised in connecting to the audience in a different way; Nick Hennessey took the lead in the engagements and telling stories, Anna-Kaisa Liedes and Kristiina Ilmonen brought a bewildering myriad of voice improvisations and Tima Vaananen performed his kantele playing skills throughout linking the stories together. It does mean there is something that everyone will enjoy and given as the performers are folk story and music academics, there is a feeling of being part of something that is well researched and conveyed that adds an extra dimension to the raw draw of a pub yarn from old friends.
With the stories themselves there is certainly an interesting array with several of them touching on the notion of humankind, godhood and the pure power of knowledge. As expected there is morality seeping through the seams where some questionable choices are made by the characters but there is also the heroic ideal shown with individual mortals making bold and beautiful choices in this a strange ancient world. A favourite is the story of Ilmarinen, the blacksmith who upon losing his wife decides to forge a new wife from gold and silver to “fill the space” on her pillow and bed where her head and hip were.
Despite his toil and looking like he would fail at some point. he does indeed forge a new women but comes to to the realisation that she is cold to the touch. It is part allegory for the futility of substituting human love for material love and part warning of the limits of man’s power (especially well communicated by Nick Hennessey who you can practically smell and feel the sweat and scorching tools as he works the blacksmiths fire).
In another story, Ilmarinen is being forced to forge the Sampo, a magical mill that creates grain, salt and gold, a veritable philosophers stone plus. An enigmatic device to us, but clearly the most life sustaining and valuable commodities of the age. Here both Anna-Kaisa and Kristiina Ilmonen create a vivid scene as the metal goes in the fire and comes out in a number of forms such as a crossbow, a ship. a cow; in the audience the tension rises and the instrumentalists add layers of wails and hisses that are somewhere between creature, human, and material. There is a noticeable breadth and variety of sounds that emerge of a degree and quality I have not yet heard in equal during another storytelling event. At times in the show it felt like you could get lost in thick conifer forests that had sprung up around, and the lush grasses had risen from our seats for the precision of the elements of the soundscape that are introduced are second to none.
There are also some other familiar figures such as shape-changing witches, the magical musical player Vainamoinen who brings to things to life with his kantele, and Lemmionkainen a youth restored to life through the maternal questing on his mother; it is an exciting spectacle from a rather unknown storytelling region from my own experiences, but on that draws parallels to other more familiar cultures, e.g. Osiris in Egyptian mythology for example who body is pieced back together. Tima Vaananen certainly brings some magic with the music throughout and the authentic addition of this old instrument seems as essential as the Finnish self-deprecating wit. It’s presence acts like the thread that holds the seams of the epic together. The theatre experience is encapsulated with a free programme that is given out which explains the song and story style, the history of the region, and crucial information about the characters focused on. It is a good starting point for anyone keen to learn about Finnish myth an itself a nice souvenir.
In just the two Adverse Camber productions I have seen I have been impressed. There is a great variety between the two but both share a great selection of stories, the curation of some less obvious but interesting material for the audience, and some warm story-telling. Out of the two, Fire in the Sky had a bigger cast, probably more musical and backing variety (but then there is a bigger cast) than the Shahnameh. The Studio allowed the story to progress across the bigger space but the Shahnameh necessarily had to make more creative use of the space and set pieces when I saw it in the smaller Derby venue (which did add some charm). They are minor comparisons and differences, both are a great showcase of talent, a veritable saga of morality and creation, and most importantly an enjoyable night. If you get the chance to see an Adverse Camber work go and see, prepare to be educated and entertained in uncountable ways!
If you want to check out Adverse Camber and their upcoming work, check out their website here.
I do not claim ownership or copyright on the above publicity pictures, see Adverse Camber’s website for more information.
Derby Folk Festival has been a really good event, I have seen some great acts over the three folk-filled days and wanted to give a rundown of the bands that have come on to my radar since the weekend. There were many big names, there were some energetic new acts and a variety of performances that covered the entire folk spectrum, some I have written about more than others- it is no indication of who I thought was the best (that would be a hard task).
Grab yourself a hot drink, sit back and have a peruse below. Feel free to add comments, let me know what you enjoyed and who you’d recommend to see in the future!
The Shahnameh: Book of Kings
Filled with stories heaving with imagery, colour and flash in a series of tellings from the poet Ferdowsi over a thousand years in the past, “The Shahnameh” feels like the influential, cultural artifact that we have never heard of. Persian in origin and epic in nature, the atmospheric music (from Arash Moradi), sheer experience and versatility of the main storyteller (Xanthe Gresham Knight), creative use of scenery, and the gentle, engagement of the audience all contribute to an extra special piece of theatre. See my full post on it now here.
Derby has it’s own brand of Celtic Folk Rock. I never knew because it has been hiding for a few years, but the Rattlers are back.
The Rattlers were big in the 90s, a local treasure of sorts but split in 1999 to do their own solo work and things apart from each other.
Coming back together at the Old Bell ballroom for the first time in a good while it certainly felt that anticipation was going to be high from fans. Playing to a mixed crowd of some young, some older. the room seemed to teeming with gold memories and remembered riffs, and it is fair to say that as they did come back, they accomplished a powerful and dedicated set. I will be the first to admit that I do not run towards folk-rock as my first choice in a festival but The Rattlers gave me a taste of what I was missing in having this misapprehension. One of my favourite songs had to be “Down, Long Way Down” a highly rocking, energetic snake of a song from yesteryear telling of misfortune and the poor educational qualities of gun-play. It struck a chord (in my heart) and reminded me of the great variety of folk music and rock and how sometimes you want something with a bit more legs. The much more folky number, “Roll Away the Blues” was also an encouraging and rousing song and worth the entrance alone to see these guys.
The Old Bell Hotel was a cool venue, the oldest pub in Derby with wonderful memories carved into the wood and fantastically situated in the heart of the city. In a sense they are a bit like guardians of Derby’s rock soul, Thor in Asgard. The Rattlers were rocking with the best of them and even if this grandiose description is too much, on another level it felt is like a few hours with some good mates. Time doesn’t seem to have faded their joy and with their slight blues influence,throng of electric guitar and hint of fiddle they are certainly a gem of a band that Derby needs to return in full. A showcase for homegrown live music, it’s honest and melodic rock which blows away the pretension of lesser musicians into the water with their solid, polished performance.
This is the first time I had seen and heard Mawkin in any shape or form. As I often do, I heard several good things about them all over the place and wondered if they lived up to the hype attributed to them.
On the stage they performed a number of songs from their third studio album “The ties that bind” and Mawkin were good. In fact they did live up to the hype and then a bit more. A defining part of their music is it’s energy and crossover feel. It would be wrong to categorise their music as second wave ska, but their guitar anthems and undeterred lyrical style does feel like jelly from a similar mold. “Jolly Well Drunk” particularly illustrates that as it shares as much with ska-based drinking songs as it does folk singing songs (see Reel Big Fish’s “Beer” as an example). It isn’t quite as fast as some punk, and it’s not as deliberate as some folk, but being driven by a young, brash and per the title “Jolly” approach it is more the planned staggering of a night out at pub stops than the “lets see what happens” night that ends incredibly messy. One of the added intriguing aspects of performance is the division of their singing voices. The songs where David Delarre lead are kind of rougher, folk and rock for the everyman who is working by the sweat of his brow; songs led by James Delarre are more like the nobleman watching the landscape with mild interest and amusement; these contrasts and differences really build a versatile band. Another great song was “Shangai Brown” described as an “anti-shanty” song that talked about the horrors and misfortune of going away on a boat and warning that the better life is the simple married one. Fresh with great punch and a killer chorus, it lingers in the mind and shows great inventiveness in flipping the concept over. This is all incredibly fun, quintessential folk that I would gladly see again.
Granny’s Attic are a group that is definitely needed, their very existence could single-handedly quell the fears of any traditional folk fans worried about the continuation of the form in years to come, but Granny’s Attic are making a concerted effort to take primary interest in folk of this kind.
When they perform, the joy is in their energy as they literally cannot keep still. It’s not the well co-ordinated, choregraphed jumping of 30+ year olds like myself working out their moves and hoping to appear younger, but it doesn’t need to be; they are loving what they are doing, and they are doing it well. Much like hot air being breathed through a furnace of folk they have a certain amount of swagger but immense humbleness and respect for the audience. Their organic being is supplemented with confidence in more spades than a deck of cards, “Death of Nelson” is sung with grandeour by the members of the group and “Royal Oak” kicks along at a frightful pace before mentioning their other songs. They are a likeable bunch with one happy, one happy go-lucky, and another with the prophetic voice of doom you get in traditional folk that adds a wonderful character. They are quite possibly a glimpse of the future, it is hard not to feel that they are having some good mentoring and at are building up their repertoire for times to come. One thing is certain, they don’t really need any help with stage presence or enthusiasm, the love is deep and honest without a shadow of a doubt.
What can I say about 9Bach?
Before the festival I listened to their video, saw all their promotional material, and stared into their neat publicity pictures that see them looking either (a.) cool or (b.) enigmatic. Then they appeared like the still centre of a whirlpool in the Marquee as the rain swept around outside and the festival tent shrugged off the typical Derby weather with indifference. I was not entirely sure what to expect, a question mark hung over decidedly idiosyncratic music and their seeming religion of ignoring genre, but their performance made things pretty clear.
It was actually something special. Before you even attempt to go any further, the songs are quite haunting, ethereal and somewhat spectral without consideration of the meaning of the lyrics. “Anian” (also the name of the 2016 new album) is like a funk loop, in it’s performance and tension it fills the gap that exists between full new-age soundscapes and traditional folk based on (and describing the relationship with) the land. There are hints of this within the performances, and as a non-Welsh speaker I would possibly have skirted around the meanings in the songs and relied on my own imagination for what the lyrics were conveying (which might not have been the worse thing, but probably a reduced experience) but Lisa Jên did a good job of explaining and conveying their reasoning for each song’s existence and character. Anian for example it is about the sensory and spiritual connection between people, something untranslatable in English and the song “Llyn Du” on the other hand describes a tormented, frightening black lake Queen that lives in the body of water and haunting your dreams. Jen’s voice is a rising, piercing sound amongst the amorphous cold waters, and the bass sounds like it is propelling a river of stone through the waves. The whole thing is primal and atmospheric and in a positive way, unsettling. The song, Witch Place,a story about a man who disappears and the ominous appearance of red-tinged soil that is discovered by his wife soon after near a church steeple. The song is penetrating, dark and clandestine and reason itself for us to hang, or at least dangle the folk label above 9Bach for disbelievers. My favourite track was “Wedi Torri” (It’s Broken), the harp solo was immensely cerebral, the harmonies enthralling and gentle, and the whole song is balanced on a knife edge of fragility, like a crystal swan figurine on the edge of a shelf. It is a poor comparison, but the last time instrumentals moved me in a similar way was the unstoppable nightmares I got when listening to Radiohead’s Kid A album. It’s not nightmares as such here, the music is really good and emotive; it feels like it is opening the floodgates between imagination, reason, and wonder and giving you a glimpse of musical spiritualism. The whole performance was great and in content it was a huge contrast to the other folk at the festival. Somewhere between Enya and the dark, gritty industrialism of 1990’s Portishead, the band is unabashedly confident and deserving of praise. Much like Jên’s fantastic star dress she appeared in their music is only just of this earth and lustrous in it’s beauty.. I will certainly be getting my hands on the albums when finances permit.
I had a bit of time and managed to catch Merrymaker in the Clubrooms at Derby, I have recently written about their recent charity single “Nobody here wants a war” here. A worthwhile cause in itself, it was especially good in such an intimate venue. Village Folk took the room and filled it with some fine folk paraphernalia; photographs of the artists they have previously hosted (at their regular Chellaston sessions, see here) and gave a warm welcome to guests within. Their first year in the role (last year it was Winter:Wilson who spent a good time this year in Derby Cathedral) they were a great addition to the festival. Merrymaker themselves are also undergoing a readjustment and change of scene with Dan Sealey (Merrymouth, Ocean Colour Scene) and Adam Barry (Merrymouth and The Misers) being joined by solo artist Nikki Petherwick from Oxfordshire, bringing some new ideas and direction. As part of their set they played “Nobody here wants a war” with some class, as well as some of their older material which worked well such as “In the Midst of Summertime” a pacy, springy number that felt like rolling meadows and a fresh breeze. Their performance was well rehearsed, yet casual and the addition of Nikki gives them a fuller flavour of sound, her performance of “The Oak Tree” was acoustic simplicity but also categorically beautiful. Towards the end they played”This is England” a definitive track detailing an 85 year old’s perceptions of the Country that he grew up in, in my line of work something I hear quite often. It’s content, empathy and humour is not unlike Oyster Band’s more famous hits, but less bombastic taking aim and hitting out at celebrities and modern culture in equal measure.
The Young ‘Uns
The Young’Uns were in attendance on the second day and brought their signature, popular and rather denuded version of folk music to a rapt audience. Much like that bit in films where a noble warrior puts down his weapon and fights with fists alone, the Young’Uns opt for folk in it’s rawest, human crux form with several a capella numbers combined with interesting modern influences and topics. The Young’Uns also have the bonus of having gut-wrenchingly strong, exploratory voices and a timeless tradition to their sound and craft which is rightly recognised by folk artist aficiados. Their song “Carriage 12” is like a song from a Western, you can imagine whipcracks, dusty sand and people drinking very bad rye whisky in the background. This it might sound like but in subject it tells a tale of the foiled terrorist plot that occurred on a carriage from Amsterdam to Paris in recent news but as if it had happened over a hundred years ago. The Young’Uns are creating modern mythologies using old standards and showing good mastery of Americana while they are at it. They really are the real world equivalent of the “Soggy Bottom Boys” with the amount of people that packed the room out to see them. Another one of their songs “Dark Water” made a lasting imprint too as is a poignant song constructed from the broken English of a refugee coming to this country on a raft. Resonating outwards and engulfing the audience there was nowhere to hide from this track. There is a braveness to The Young’Uns music which doesn’t shy from modern attempts to hide ugliness in society or how human beings treat each other. It plainly and melodically communicates what is happening and lets the audience make’s it’s mind up. It all still manages to entertain and move despite the risk that the music could use the veneer of the past to shroud the significance of what is being sung about, in fact it holds up the stories for all to see. This talent and driving moral compass makes the Young’Uns a force of authority for the heart of folk within the music community.
On the third day Ninebarrow had the task of entertaining following the aftermath of what seemed like torrential weather. Despite this, their early slot, and a few minor technical hitches early on they went on and impressed me and the rest of the audience enormously. They have a particular brand of folk music that returns to nature and explores it’s uses (hence their name), and it is these inspirations that make their sound as inspired as it is. In this regard they have a gentle folk sound with hints of Simon and Garfunkel in their delivery and harmony. When singing “The Weeds”, a song about a man who has lost his home and life when he makes the rash decision to leave his wife or “Bold Sir Rylas” their darkest cover about the exploits and murder of a bloodthirsty witch, they sound quite uplifting no matter how dark the material. Their frank joy makes opening a bag of moths in a sack factory seem like the most innocent, happy thing you could ever do. Playing fairly light instrument-wise they rely on their affable voices to sweep the songs along which they do with aplomb, but there is an added distinction to their soundscape for they use a reed organ quite extensively. This is a relatively modern sounding take on the folk heritage, and such an integral part of the band that I would fear that removing it would likely remove the modernity, edge and anything of value still present within the song. As a band that Growing all the time and turning a few prominent heads we have certainly not seen the last of Ninebarrow.
Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater
Like a pint of the black with a rum chaser the pairing of Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater effectively portray a duo of mutual somber jibes and a suppressed manic, mutual deprecation of each other which works for the audience’s amusement. It is of course how many double acts work but their use of stage presence and humour is really well-timed; a few bad pun-like jokes (I actually love bad puns) and a bit of tomfoolery, they would not be out of place at some good venues of the Edinburgh Fringe should their muses depart in the same direction. If this sounds like it is uninteresting chaos and a slight, it certainly isn’t because much like their approach to music and use of technology they are innovators and their performances feel well practiced and organised. In order to add depth and fill a space around the two artists, several instruments such as harp and double bass (and sometimes voice) are recorded by Ange on a loop pedal and used throughout the song performances to great effect, but it would be nothing without what is played and Ange Hardy’s singular voice. Playing several tracks from her quite wonderful Findings album the corners of the Guildhall Theatre shook with the immense concentration of the crowd upon the musical performance. Together they pay wonderful, constructive tribute to songs of old with renditions of “The Pleading Sister, “The Trees They Do Grow High”, and little-heard “Bonny Lighter-Boy”. Her voice seems limitless, their chemistry undeniable, and all-in-all a very good addition to Derby Folk Festival.
Apologies if your favourites are not mentioned, I would love to hear your impressions of the Festival in the comments below.. this just a snapshot of a wide range of exciting folk artists that were there on through the weekend. I cannot wait til next year.
Admittedly one of the two acts that drew me to the the new festival in Doncaster (South Yorkshire Folk, Roots and World) at the Leopard, “Said the Maiden” fantastic in name, and beginning to flourish in notability. They are like a group on their way up to the horizon, the sun might be setting in other places but they are rising. Having played with the late, highly-influential fiddler Dave Swarbrick on tour, occupied their own tour spaces and won the Isambard Folk Award in 2015, they occupy a particular niche which they do surprisingly well in. Their delivery and subject matter is generally traditional folk elements, but their enthusiasm and confidence gives it an exceptionally original edge.
For anyone not familiar with their work they are Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton, a trio of women that bring the sea, mystery and the best sensibilities of folk music storytelling to an acapella form. Somewhat like Lady Maisery (though earlier in their journey) but choosing to dwell on the darker side of things for now they wind a story here and there and bring a kind of light menace to the subjects of their work through their harmony.
After an initial release of “a curious tale” in 2014, and their their recent maturing of sound EP “of maids and mariners” they have also been involved in a great collaborative work with supergroup “The Company of Players” with the likes of Kelly Oliver, Kim Lowings, and Lukas Drinkwater (and many others) in celebration of the works of Shakespeare. Alongside other fledgling and interesting sounds must have been a boon, they are working on a new album and expectations are unsurprisingly high for what they will bring next.
At the Leopard in Doncaster their set included a number of great songs including a rendition of 1870’s “In the Pines (also known as “Where did you sleep last night?”) where they gave a grand and solemn focus to the tragic and well known number, a faithful and interesting “Spencer the Rover”, and a slowed down, more punchy cover of “Jolene”. These all shared a high benchmark of quality though the highlights of their set were probably their version of “The Soldier and the Maid”, and their own song “Polly Can You Swim?”
The STM version of “The Soldier and the Maid” (Trooper and the Maid) sounds the marching energy of the soldier at war, in this respect it arguably trumps some of the more traditional renditions which seem plodding in comparison. Their three voices are almost like spirit narrators or the young maid’s turmoil manifest on stage. As they sing they details her joy, her worry as the voices of reason within the Maid’s mind; the aforementioned pace fits both the growing lust and the speed and urgency of the call to war within the song. If you can get hold of a copy I recommend it.
“Polly can you swim?” is a song entrenched both in subject and delivery of the sea shanty. It has the themes of classic folk and theatre (women dressing as men), the romanticism of setting (on a boat at sea), and the piratical chanting of the eponymous title of the song. When it came on there was a slight buzz, the audience got right into it. Much like my recent review of Jenny Sturgeon and her song “Raven”, there is a rhythmic hymn within the song; it mocks, it excites, and it fits seamlessly into history. People in times to come will think it is a much older song than it is, which is some achievement as it is extremely hard to establish convincing modern mythology in the traditional style and not look like a maligned smuggler of floral tea.
Said the Maiden more than lived up to expectations. Their set was brooding and professional, their voices were like vanilla coconut, sweet but textured with the grit of hard living which sounds great from a relatively young band.
These chickens can play, in a dynamic, captivating performance that stays in the mind
I have recently had the good fortune to be very pleasantly surprised at a local gig in Sheffield; I scoured the ‘net looking for something I’d not heard of and the name “Steamchicken” leapt out at me from the digital screen. Part cuisine, part jazz sounding, it is a name which surely brings uncertainty and surprise so I decided to give it a go; I am so glad I did. Taking place at Shakespeares Pub at the beginning of their tour is a good choice, the pub itself is a good night out by anyone’s money in virtue of the boxes it ticks. Traditional pub? Check. Tons of whisky and real ale? Check again and that’s before checking the furniture that has turned a blind eye to modern pretensions.
In virtue of it’s location as a kind of outpost from the real-ale rich pubs of Kelham Island it ranks up there with the more interesting and honest drinking nights out you can have in Sheffield. This praise comes without any commercial pressure to publicity plug the pub, I strangely only came across it’s existence last year despite living in and out of Sheffield for the best part of 12 years and genuinely find it as a great discovery.
On arrival I was handed one of Steamchicken’s flyers, it has a proud vote of confidence written on it from Blackbeard’s Tea Party who say that:
“It’s a scientifically certified fact that no mammal can listen to steamchicken and resist dancing”
BTP have a strong reputation and this might be enough to seal the deal for many many live music enthusiasts especially if they are fans of the aforementioned band.. but then you hear Steamchicken amongst the pretty packed space at the top of the Shakespeares pub and realise that something quite special is happening and it’s not just all hype.
And they weren’t doing it alone either.
To start the gig had the pleasure of Robin Garside’s warm up act, which as a very well-known local folk musician is a mark of distinction. Robin has been involved in the business of folk for quite a while having as he describes it “done the rounds of the British folk club circuit for years” as well as being involved as a tutor at Barnsley College for their music degree and leader of Sheffield Traditional Fiddlers Society. He has obviously reached the heart of folk and is playing it for all to see as he selected a distinctive set of simplistic, powerful and often incredibly comedic numbers.
He starting with a mildly-disclaimered song “40 miles” warning that is has a rude subtext. In this song you can see some odd connections (most which are probably not intentional) with the Proclaimers. His “40 miles” might be less than their “500 miles” but the subject of Garside’s song is instead relieved that the object of his affection has “opened the door and let me in”. It is a sharp contrast to the pleading of the Scots brothers in “Make my heart fly” that they “can’t do any more to get inside your door”; is the lesson here that Robin has better dance moves and has the key? It is a delightful start that paints a picture of a witty artist who draws the crowd in through the clarity of his music and playing and size of his heart.
He followed later with a song about vegetarianism, an unlikely topic to first springs to mind in folk (unless maybe you are a fan of Merry Hell maybe) but it is a comic wonder of a track where rabbits, fish, and English breakfasts together lament the fact they were going to be eaten and wildly protest to the singer. It is slightly surreal and incredibly jaunty number and a love the fact it is somewhat existential in that it sees a slight absurdity to existence. The humour would not work without Garside’s solid playing and strong voice though, so it is a good job he brought them too!
Another highlight by Garside was a more than serviceable cover of “January Man” by Christy Moore. It is a relatively ballad with a economical arrangement about each month in the year and how it is a character much in the same vein as the nursery rhyme, “Monday’s child”. Robin maintains the simplicity, authenticity and wonder of the track as he strums through the phases of the year from cold to warm describing the frost and wonder within, “the poor November man sees fire and mist, and wind and rain and winter air.” There are some great descriptions here which leads me to feel that it is a song that clearly needs more widespread attention then what it currently gets.
All in all worth the price of admission, and that is before we get to Steamchicken.
Steamchicken are a particularly energetic and fun group comprising the fantastic Amy Kakoura on vocals, Matt Crum on sax, Katy Oliver on trumpet, Becky Eden-Green on Alto Sax, Mandy Sutton on Tenor sax, Benn Wold and Joe Crum on percussion, Ted Crum on harmonica, and Andrew Sharpe on piano. As can be seen they are brass heavy, and it is this that brings an enviable character to their sound and creates bridges between the genres that they play.
They are somewhat complex and also intriguing with definitive drumming and a sound which describes their interests in folk, jazz, soul and funk in equal measure. For myself it also brought flashbacks to the 80s and 90s too with more than a touch of second and third wave ska. Many of their original numbers reminded of the first and second No Doubt albums and Amy Kakoura certainly has the kind of genre defining sound of early Gwen Stefani and the sense of fun that came from this era of music. The group’s membership has grown over the 20 years that the artists have known each other but regardless of how long each member has been in the band, their coming together show a very apparent level of rehearsal and confidence and the more recent faces have added a nice diversity to their newer tracks. So what of the tracks?
“Boom boom, out go the lights” has the character and energy of a bombastic soul-pop number which contains a dollop of grooving interludes and an engaging harmonica input which is intensely and tightly woven into a light-touch film noire backdrop. It is both punchy and accessible and under the hot pink haze of Shakespeares you could almost see the cigar smoke and neon lights encircling as touching the night air. Similarly there was “Wake Up Juice” a fun, bluesy look at the idea of divorcing booze following a heavy session the night before. Regret might be a common theme in blues music (and this was no exception) but still it carried a resonance and was an interesting inclusion to the session, not least due to the rich of it’s imagery and exploration of “blood on the windows.. blood on the walls”. You can feel the agony wrought into the music here of the hangover and the wonderful passion of misery. We also got some foot-stomping action from some signature Ceilidh songs (old Joe’s jig) and a fine cover of the old song “O Mary don’t you weep” with a bit of audience participation for the famous chorus.
My favourite song of the evening was undoubtedly “Sailing in August” based on Becky (the Alto Sax’s) Summer Holiday. The holiday itself was said to be a mixed affair, but I couldn’t say that for the song. There was a briny, blazing vocal from the lead singer and the song sounded like where it was in absolutely the best sense. The brass moved left to right and there was the sound of the breeze along with the chorus “and the wind blew”. It certainly felt like you were taken out of a place and put into another (which is something for my internal cynic to learn from). Top notch in every sense, atmospheric to the hilt and a belter of a track.
Steamchicken are melodic with a big band sound, an expressive blues singing voice and some accomplished forays with popular numbers as well as their newer tracks. It felt at times that the room struggled to contain them, it certainly feels like Blackbeard’s tea Party were being overly cautious with their remarks given the richness and energy of sound. Along with the great warm up of Robin Garside it is true to say there is something here for everyone too and it is family friendly. It is rare that I instantly think of seeing a repeat gig in the near future but on the strength of character, sound and charm that they bring, it is not too distant or unwelcome thought to have.
Steamchicken are still on tour, details here for a show near you all over the Country and at several Folk Festivals.
For further details of their band and album releases, go here.