Northern Sky Archive 2010

Janet Robin – Everything Has Changed | Album Review | Hypertension | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.01.17

On the sleeve that accompanies the new album by Janet Robin, Everything Has Changed, we have the singer-songwriter-guitarist coming at us purposely with her acoustic Taylor – brandishing it more like – all smiles and ready for action.  No stranger to the big stage, Janet Robin has worked with the likes of the Lindsey Buckingham Band, the Meredith Brooks Band and Air Supply and has made a reputation for herself as an outstanding guitarist who is equally at home with the Taylors as well as the Fenders and is fearless in her approach.  Michelle Shocked reportedly suggested that Robin is “one of the best guitarists in the country: male or female”.  Assuming that the country in question is America, then that’s a pretty hefty responsibility, to be one of the best amongst that particular bunch of musicians.  Sporting a variety of stage costumes and big hairdos throughout the 80s, including spells in garage and glam rock bands, most notably Precious Metal, Robin cut her teeth on the LA rock scene, which paved her way towards working with the likes of the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist and gained her a reputation of being a first rate musician.  Recorded in the tranquillity of Cash Cabin, a ranch on the outskirts of Nashville once owned by Johnny Cash and June Carter, now in the hands of their son John Carter Cash (who also produces this album), the songs on this, Robin’s fifth album, show a marked maturity in terms of both song writing and musicianship.  Most of the songs on the album are from Robin’s pen with the exception of a couple of non-originals including Cindy Walker’s “Dream Baby”, gorgeously sexing up the Roy Orbison hit in the process with a memorably cool groove and the more contemporary PJ Harvey powerhouse “This Is Love”, complete with a sneering guitar solo midway through; either performance a worthy contender for first single from the album status.  In the only instrumental piece on the album “CHR Number 137”, Robin slips into the sort of acoustic pyrotechnics Stephen Stills was once known for, a sort of Jimmy Page circa Led Zep III mode, which also accompanies the video feature included on the disc, which has Robin wandering around the sprawling grounds of Cash Cabin, featuring the iconic recording studio where much of Cash’s later work was recorded, with Cash memorabilia scattered randomly about the place, together with various chickens, goats and erm.. llama?  I think the word I’m looking for is.. anyway..  Although this is a world away from Robin’s forays into the heavy metal world of Precious Metal, the music on Everything Has Changed maintains a hard edge but has reached a maturity that successfully straddles the boundaries of rock, pop and Americana in more than a pleasing way.

Cherry Lee Mewis – Southbound Train | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.01.10

When I first picked up from my door mat the envelope containing the new Southbound Train record by Cherry Lee Mewis, I found it difficult getting past the name on the sleeve.  Was it a joke?  The name sounded very much like one of those highly irritating tribute bands I have an aversion to and I was almost expecting a handful of accurately executed versions of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On”.  Never judge a book by the cover nor a CD by the artist’s name I always say.  I kind of stick by this otherwise I would never have heard Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, now would I?  Cherry Lee Mewis is a twenty-four-year old female singer-songwriter from North Wales with a voice that means business.  This is her second album, the first outing being Little Girl Blue from a couple of years ago.  On Southbound Train Cherry mixes eight self-penned originals with songs from another era all together such as Charlie ‘Papa’ Jackson’s “Shake That Thing”, Memphis Minnie’s “Kissing In The Dark” and Koko Taylor’s ballsy “All You Need”.  Cherry betrays her age with performances of some of the most gritty songs from places so far removed from North Wales and from a time that bears no resemblance to that of today.  I’m pleasingly reminded of early Janis Joplin or at the very least the late and much missed Jo Ann Kelly, particularly in Cherry’s handling of Memphis Minnie’s material.  Cherry’s take on Blind Willie McTell’s distinctive vocal is realised superbly well on “Oh Lord Send Me an Angel Down”, which features Max Milligan’s authoritative acoustic guitar sparring expertly with Marc Patching’s informed Dobro, more than adequately making up for Blind Willie’s distinctive 12 string.  Of Cherry’s own songs, “Time Limits” is more contemporary in feel, with a sprightly McGuinniss Flint “When I’m Dead and Gone” style mandolin rhythm, together with Cherry’s own harmonica and Mulligan’s bottleneck guitar, grounding what is essentially a pop song, with a rootsy feel.  A more sensitive side of Cherry Lee Mewis is revealed on her own ballad “Something You Can’t Have”, co-written with co-producer Max Milligan, which closes the album.  Although in this song we may have witnessed a brief moment of vulnerability, I can’t help but feel that when I do eventually get around to seeing this five-foot-nothing stick of dynamite, the stage will be alight with fire, passion and a rawness that is sadly so rare these days.

Bellevue Rendezvous – Salamander | Album Review | Journeyman | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.01.10

Bellevue Rendezvous are an instrumental trio from Edinburgh featuring the varied talents of Gavin Marwick on fiddle, Ruth Morris on nyckelharpa and Cameron Robson on cittern, guitar and jaw harp.  Edinburgh based Gavin Marwick is no stranger to the Scottish music scene and has performed at many festivals, concerts, theatres and dances throughout the world with various bands and combos including Journeyman, Iron Horse, Cantrip and Burach as well as serving as a session musician for literally a who’s who of performers including The Unusual Suspects, Wolfstone and Old Blind Dogs to name but a few.  Fellow Journeyman band mate Ruth Morris is also a predominant force on the Scottish music scene playing fiddle, whistle and piano as well as the intriguing Nyckelharpa.  Cameron Robson is from Denholm in the Borders and is steeped in a rich musical heritage, whose father Wattie Robson is a renowned borders fiddler.  Together, the trio Bellevue Rendezvous fit dove-tail-like and create an exciting sound, offering something slightly different from the usual traditional outfit.  Formed in 2006, the trio came together to combine this very unusual collection of instruments in order to create a new and vibrant sound, which lends itself more to World Music than specifically Scottish traditional music.  The compositions of Salamander, their second album release and successor to 2007’s Tangents album, borrow from the traditional musical sources of a diverse range of places such as Serbia, France, Brittany, Macedonia, Poland, Canada, Scandinavia as well as England and Wales.  Reuben Taylor’s production maintains a crisp sound throughout, which sees that neither main instrument overshadows the other, with particular attention to ensuring the cittern, which provides much of the rhythm on which to rest the dance tunes, isn’t lost in the mix.  “Gabriel’s Step/Byss-Calle No 32/Hasse A’s” opens the album and sets out clearly the trio’s statement of intent, probably to get you up on your feet for a good dance.  Most of the selections on the album derive from dances throughout Europe including freilachs, reels, schottisches, polskas and dances from the klezmer tradition.  The traditional “Makedonska Devojche”, which translates to “Macedonian Girl”, as any self respecting A Clockwork Orange student would have already gleaned, has the band pondering over whether this might be the best tune in the world.  The jury is out on that for now, but I can concede that it’s certainly very much one of the most haunting tunes I’ve heard this year at any rate. 

Fiddler’s Bid – All Dressed in Yellow | Album Review | Hairst Blinks Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.01.10

I’m probably the wrong reviewer for this as I’m a long term believer in the ‘less is more’ concept, especially when it comes to fiddles.  In fact I am pretty much grounded in the opinion that one fiddle is really enough in any context.  Ok, maybe two as long as they’re scraping along in harmony.  Don’t misunderstand me, I adore hearing a fiddle on any piece of music, whether it be a jig or a reel, or whether it accompanies a good song.  Jackie Oates provides a soundtrack to my life at the moment, but a roomful of fiddlers gives me a nose bleed.  Combos that have variations of the word ‘fiddler’ in their name (Blazing Fiddles, Feast of Fiddles, Fiddler’s Bid) usually make me catch up on things in the beer tent at festivals and the opening piece on All Dressed in Yellow provides precisely the reason.  The Fiddler’s Bid “Ode to Joy” has all the correct ingredients for a good old knees up on the Shetland Islands granted, but on the ipod, in the car or here in my cluttered manspace, it cannot escape its purpose, that of a dance tune, specifically to dance to.  It might be the fact that I’m blessed with two left feet that I avoid a good deal of instrumental folk music, but I’m also endowed with great patience and therefore I was pleased to persevere with the new Fiddler’s Bid album as one and a half minutes into the next piece, the fiddles suddenly stop and Fionan de Barra’s guitar bursts in like clouds opening to reveal the sun.  “Apo Fetiar Top” abandons all that Beryl Marriott type strict tempo piano stuff that should only really be heard on New Year’s Eve and with the help of Catriona McKay’s Hendrix-like clarsach playing, I find myself surprisingly excited once again.  Yes I’m aware that those of you who have a framed picture of Ali Bain on your mantlepiece might be rosin’ up your bows to throttle me with, but the less is more concept is not only present in my love of folk music but also in jazz too.  The Miles Davis Quintet any day over Count Basie.  At first I thought this album was an EP with just six tracks to go on, but then most of the pieces are pretty long, none more so than the album’s epic closer, the title track “All Dressed in Yellow”, an astonishing fifteen minute opus that includes seven pieces, that steadily builds from “Simon’s Wart”, with its sprightly fiddle and clarsach duet, by way of some traditional Swedish music “Bingsjö lilla långdans” and culminating in the sublime traditional Shetland air “Aa Dressed in Yallo”.  There is no question that Andrew Gifford, Chris Stout, Maurice Henderson and Kevin Henderson are incredibly versatile fiddle players and that the rest of the band, Catriona McKay on clarsach and piano, bassist Jonathan Ritch and guitarist Fionan de Barra provide sterling support to what is essentially complex instrumental music, so don’t be put off by my initial comments.  If you like Shetland fiddle music, you will love this.

Gerry McNeice – Small Town Boy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.02.10

I’ve been bumping into Otley based singer-songwriter, musician and bassist Gerry McNeice quite a lot just lately, who seems to be getting around just about everywhere.  If he’s not playing upright bass with the Duncan McFarlane Band or Morrising-On with some Flash Company, then he may well be appearing in your neighbourhood with a bunch of fine musicians who form his own band featuring Horizon Award nominated fiddler Katriona Gilmore, bassist Ruth Wilde and son Liam on guitar or with the vastly expanded Gerry McNeice Orchestra, who make an impressive noise and leave not much room to spare on stage.  It’s fortunate that Katriona is a slight little thing otherwise she would more than likely have partner Jamie Roberts’ trombone in her ear at some stage!  Somewhere in the middle of all this Gerry manages to produce records and Small Town Boy pops up fourth in a collection that already includes Audiographs (2000) Crazy World (2006) and a live album Live in the Courthouse (2007).  After a few runs through Small Town Boy has left a good impression on me and not just because it includes some familiar goodies such as the traditional “Flash Company”, reminiscent of the arrangement the young Martin Simpson created for June Tabor in the days we used to catch the genius guitarist seated next to her on small South Yorkshire stages in the early 1980s, complete with green snotocaster and sneering youthfulness!  Nor is it the inclusion of Richard Thompson’s sublime “Beeswing”, which in all fairness is a brave move, to put down on record such a well loved Thompson favourite, but I guess as long as we think in terms of ‘homage’, then everything is hunky dory.  It’s with the original songs though, that has caught my attention here and none more impressive than “Danger Sign”, a father/son song of warmth yet devoid of overt sentimentality, that stays in your head once heard.  Co-produced by Katriona Gilmore, another hard working musician who pops up so much I swear there’s two of ‘em, the album has a home-made feel but maintains a consistent ‘sound’ throughout, with a crisp acoustic guitar ground augmented by banjo, mandolin, fiddle and melodeon.  On “Home”, the aforementioned Jamie Roberts provides some atmospheric trombone playing, which blends perfectly with Jude Rees oboe, bringing a beautifully nostalgic feel to an exceptionally good song.  Katriona’s “I Know You” finds its way onto the album and is given a suitably fine arrangement with Gerry and Kat playing all the parts Mike Oldfield-like.  The traditional songs that Gerry has carefully chosen for Small Town Boy, such as “The White Cockade” and “Braw Sailing”, sit so well beside Gerry’s own songs, in particular “The Legend of Black Jack” and also with the stunning arrangement of “Circle for Danny”, written by Duncan McFarlane, that like Jez Lowe for example, it’s difficult at first to tell what’s new and what’s as old as the hills.  That’s good folk music I reckon.

Macmaster Hay – Love and Reason | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.02.10

The very idea of a collaboration featuring little other than harp and drums at first seems a little adventurous, but this new album by Mary Macmaster, one of the world’s leading innovators of the harp and it’s various cousins, including the clarsach and the Camac elecro harp, together with notable drummer and percussionist Donald Hay, Love and Reason comes over as a sort of Celtic Meeting of the Spirits, with some delightfully inventive arrangements and a surprisingly full sound, bearing in mind that there’s just the two of them.  Loaded with sound effects and sampling, Donald Hay and Tim Matthew’s brilliant production allows each of the instruments to be heard, probably as well as they can be heard, Mary very much at the top end and Donald very much at the bottom, with a variety of samples floating somewhere in the ether; ever present but never cluttering or cloying.  Those who are familiar with Mary Macmaster’s work over the past couple of decades with Sileas and The Poozies, will already be well aware of her credentials as a first rate harpist, but in this setting, we are hearing a different side to her playing, which leans very much towards a more ambient new age feel, despite the album’s mix of traditional and contemporary material.   Donald Hay’s command over the technical side of drums and percussion and their ongoing relationship with sampling gadgetry, helps make each individual piece of music special here, and gives the album as a whole, its heart.  It’s little wonder that he is in such demand as a percussionist by the likes of Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Kris Drever.  The songs included are equally divided between Gaelic and English and on the whole, carry a melancholy air, particularly on the achingly sullen “Weary”, which is beautifully fused with “The Dresden Reel”.  If ever music was made to convey a mood, then this one hits the nail on the head.  On the sleeve notes Mary reveals that “Soraidh Leis Bhreacan Ur” was learned on a bus in Germany, whilst she and Cathy Ann MacPhee were laughing and singing their way around the autobahns.  I wonder whether it’s coincidental then that “Thograinn Thograinn”, has me unavoidably thinking in terms of Karen Matheson singing over a Kraftwerk backing track?  A crazy thought granted, but Macmaster and Hay make this work incredibly well.  “Pibroch”, subtitled “Lament For The Children”, sounds for all intents and purposes like an accompanying audio track to a post modern installation in Tate Modern, contending for the Turner Prize, with its slightly disturbing gurgling baby sampling over some trance-like harp wizardry.  If the album does sometimes come across as a Celtic Tontos Expanding Headband, then it is with the song writing talents of Edinburgh’s Sandy Wright, that brings it back to Earth.  Love and Reason includes two songs from his pen, the plaintive Mary Cullen, which was written about Wright’s grandmother, who coincidentally shares the same name as Macmaster’s own mother and the second, “Shining Star”, a song so good, it hasn’t only found its way onto this album, but also onto the eagerly awaited second solo album by Kris Drever, Mark the Hard Earth, due for release soon.  Although Love and Reason comes over very much as experimental music, I would rather think in terms of it having more to do with the organic development of Scottish music.  So much more interesting than straight forward strict tempo jigs, reels and strathspeys.  It’s the kind of record that deserves to be played over and over again and upon each new listen, something new is almost guaranteed to come from it.

O’Hooley and Tidow – Silent June | Album Review | No Masters | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.02.10

I think I know Belinda O’Hooley reasonably well, if not quite so much personally, then certainly through her songs.  Yes I’ve bumped into her in clubs and at festivals over the past few years, where we’ve chatted together half a dozen times and shared a joke or two.  We’ve played at the same birthday parties, sat in the same audiences, propped up the same bars; I’ve even had a pint with her wonderfully charming dad.  Over the years I’ve always enjoyed her songs and her stage manner.  There’s also been the odd occasion where I’ve found her particularly nervous before entering the snake pit at festivals, only to catch up with her later to find that everything went superbly well, no worries there.  Going on before Show of Hands at the Shepley Spring Festival last year and then again appearing just before Billy Bragg at the Beverley Folk Festival, Belinda and Heidi faced big audiences bravely prior to the release of this their first album together and at the same time have showed remarkable flair in both their stage manner and in their performances alike.  This isn’t easy music by any means and on stage I would have thought it particularly demanding.  Although this first full length album comes after a year of feeling their way through the cluttered landscape that is the folk world and seeking out new audiences as a duo, the partnership of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow goes back probably further than you might think.  In 2006 they could both be seen playing gigs as part of the Belinda O’Hooley Band together with two male musicians, Josh and Isaac if memory serves, whilst Belinda’s main musical priority back then, was as one quarter of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, whose contribution to the band’s first couple of albums cannot be disputed.  On this, the duo’s first album (as a duo), not only do we see a handful of welcomed additions to Belinda’s canon of songs, half of which were co-written by Heidi, but also evidence of further developments as a first rate arranger.  Enjoying a songwriting and performing partnership as well as a close life partnership, the pair speak enthusiastically about the niche they seen to have carved out for themselves.  “Overall it’s absolutely brilliant” says Heidi, “because when Belinda was in the Winterset we had an awful lot of time apart and that was really difficult for us.  We’re not one of those couples that like spending a lot of time apart, so it works really well for us.  It’s lovely to just enjoy the atmosphere of going on the road together, plus we work together musically really really well.  We rehearse a lot at home together and that’s the benefit of living together, that when we feel inspired we can just get up and start writing something”.  That quality time at home has now manifested itself into an extraordinary album of new material, with a couple of traditional songs worked into the mix, as well as an old live favourite, the uncompromising “Cold and Stiff”, which the duo cheekily dedicate on the album sleeve to new label mates Chumbawamba.  Co-produced by O’Hooley and Tidow with the mixing and mastering skills of that particular band’s Neil Ferguson, Silent June has an impressive cast of musicians including Uiscedwr’s Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne, fellow ex-Winterset bandmate Jackie Oates and members of Jackie’s own band, James Dumbleton and James Budden, together with a fine string quartet consisting of Nia Bevan, Raymond Lester, Jayne Coyle and Damion Browne.  Having invested in some ‘posh recording equipment’, the duo has spent some considerable time between August and November 2009, refining their sound and recording the results for the No Masters label.  With artwork and photography depicting the duo as fully paid up members of the Noël Coward Piano Incineration Society, Silent June opens with the melancholy “Flight of the Petrel”, a steadily building opus incorporating string quartet, Belinda’s distinctively sensitive piano arrangement and two seriously aligned voices that perfectly capture this poetic observation on our relationship with nature in a troubled world.  There’s an increased confidence apparent in Heidi’s contribution to Silent June, which I imagine has come from a year of touring and playing some of the larger stages in the country.  When I spoke to Belinda and Heidi last Summer, it was clear that Heidi was the relative newcomer to the spotlight and was happy to be under the wing of the much more experienced Belinda: “She’s had to kind of really face her demons and get up there like a rabbit in the headlights initially but she’s getting more confident and I think because I’m her partner as well, maybe she trusts me more”.  That trust has proved fruitful and the songs co-written by the duo on the album have a marked maturity, particularly on the epic “Que Sera”, the song from which the album’s title derives.  On the page “Que Sera” is but a short poem inspired by the heroic war nurse Edith Cavell, but is transformed into an epic tour de force with the help of the magnificent string quartet direction of Melanie Purves.  For those who have managed to catch one of Belinda and Heidi’s gigs recently, “All Stand in Line” will come as no surprise.  With a piano motif that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rick Wakeman prog-rock extravaganza, the Philip Glass inspired arrangement, featuring Anna Esslemont’s violin and Cormac Byrne’s inventive pulsating percussion accompaniment, the song’s uncompromising lyrics remind us that Belinda still has things to say.  O’Hooley and Tidow’s faithful handling of traditional material shows that although the music is very contemporary in style, they both have an allegiance to their Irish Roots.  “Banjololo” is typical of Belinda and Heidi’s shared sense of humour, a short unaccompanied children’s song, which ends with a wonderfully cringe-worthy sound bite of a breaking guitar string.  However many times I hear this, I can’t help cringing when that string goes.  “Spancil Hill” on the other hand is a more solemn traditional immigration song from County Clare, beautifully arranged by Belinda, Heidi and Jackie Oates, who also provides some inimitable octave fiddle work along with James Dumbleton’s intuitive guitar throughout.  Taught to Belinda by the aforementioned Seamus O’Hooley, the dad I shared a pint with, “Spancil Hill” reveals a remarkable sensitivity and an informed understanding of traditional song.  Over the years, Belinda has become known for her dry sense of humour, her sensitive piano arrangements and her resilience to change.  For those of us who have been lucky enough to see her in the relaxed setting of a backroom bar, playing the old songs or camp renditions of pop classics such as “Sunny Afternoon” or “Money Money Money”, as well as her ongoing love affair with Bonnie Tyler, there is also the ongoing selfless work Belinda carries out in care homes, where she entertains the elderly with her vast knowledge of songs from another time.  Belinda speaks enthusiastically about this side to her work.  “They’ve taught me a lot of the songs actually.  They really love the romantic 1930s songs, “When I Grow Too Old To Dream” is one of them, “I’ll Be Loving You Always”, “Pal of My Cradle Days” is also a lovely one, it’s a song that a daughter would sing to her mother, ‘I gave you all the wrinkles’, it’s all that kind of stuff, which is great.  Oh they love, and I love as well, Latin American music; I love all the dance stuff, so on my Bontempi organ you know, I can press a button”.  Which brings us to the heart of Silent June.  “Too Old To Dream”, Belinda and Heidi’s homage to the many Edith’s of the world, those ladies (and gents) who reside in our many care homes throughout the country, living peacefully with their memories, is a beautiful performance, embracing elements of Romberg and Hammerstein II’s original song as well as incorporating Irene Rourke’s enchanting intro.  For those new to O’Hooley and Tidow, you need look no further than this as a fine example of what makes this duo different from anything else on the scene today.    

Anna Coogan – The Nocturnal Among Us | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.03.10

There’s very little on The Nocturnal Among Us that gives us a clue to Anna Coogan’s original plan to work in the field of Opera.  After becoming disillusioned with the academic constraints of Salzburg, coupled with equal measures of home sickness and love sickness, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter found inspiration in the singing of Alison Krauss in 2001, returning to music after a short spell away, picking up her guitar once again and almost immediately forming her own band Anna Coogan and north19.  Strauss to Krauss you might say.  Two albums down the line, Glory (2004) and Sleepwalker (2007), the band called it a day and after some soul searching, Anna returns with her debut solo album, accompanied by a bunch of fine musicians including JD Foster on guitars (who also produces), Austin Nevins and Scott Hampson also on guitars, Geoff Hazelrigg on bass and guitars, Brooks Miner on keyboards and Eric Hastings on drums.  Most of those names also helped out in other areas such as engineering, pre-production and sleeve design.  Recorded in just eight days, the eleven original songs on the album showcase Anna Coogan’s unmistakable and assured voice, from the radio friendly “Dreaming My Life Away” to the brooding “Coins on Your Eyes”, each accompanied by some fine musicianship and thoughtful arrangements.  “Back to the World”, the album’s opener, eases us into Anna’s world with an arrangement that augments its dark musical undercurrent with a voice of convincing vulnerability.  Revisiting “Holy Ghost of Texas”, which previously appeared on Glory, Anna presents a slightly mellower feel than the original recording, adopting a sparse arrangement reminiscent of some of Cowboy Junkies’ most atmospheric work, especially in the occasional guitar flurries.  The songs here are deeply personal, especially “So Long Summertime” which together with all the other songs on the album, almost provides an epitaph for a lost friend.  With an impressive forthcoming tour schedule, the songs comprising The Nocturnal Among Us will no doubt serve Anna well, whether you catch her at a concert hall in San Francisco, a folk club in Falkirk or the smallest house concert in the back of a van.  I certainly look forward to catching her at one of those soon.

Society – Songs From The Brickhouse | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.03.10

It seems a well trodden path to cite The Band as an influence on much of today’s Americana, with many artists at some point being compared to arguably the most influential band of the last forty years.  Some deserve that recognition more than others it has to be said and it should be seen as praise indeed, bearing in mind that those five musicians made some of the most ground breaking music of our time.  In some cases however, the comparison is less deserved.  Who for instance can forget music journalists noting that teeny um-boppers Hanson bore a slight similarity, albeit on helium?  On Society’s Songs From the Brickhouse the comparison is right on the mark; it wouldn’t be beyond comprehension to imagine the opening song “Fool’s End” slipping in between “Look Out Cleveland” and “Jawbone” without so much as a flinch.  Remarkably, Society were formed an ocean away from the Woodstock Mountains in West Sussex, but they sound anything but British.  The band comprises of Matt Wise (Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica), F. Scott Kenny (Drums, Vocals) and Andrew Prosser (Bass, Vocals) subsequently replaced by current bassist Ben Lancaster and their strongest point it has to be said, is in their tight three part vocal harmonies, at times echoing the sweetness of Crosby, Stills and Nash, whilst at others the earthiness of Manuel, Helm and Danko.  Their other strong point is in the consistently good sense of melody; most of the songs here are instantly memorable in their melodic construction.  The Brickhouse refers to the studio in Brighton, where the bulk of this album was recorded.  With the help from a bunch of select musicians including Deadstring Brothers’ Spencer Cullum on pedal steel, Dave Berliner and James Batchelar sharing keyboard duties and Sarah Gonputh providing some violin, Society bring a fresh contemporary sound to music grounded in another era.  If some of the songs do inevitably draw the listener’s attention to Big Pink era roots rock on the East Coast, certainly “I Watch the Rain Fall Out of You” and “Back In The Woods”, then on others like “I Do Belong” we have all the hallmarks of West Coast country flavoured pop rock.  “On My Way” is where John Haitt meets the Heartbreakers head on.  Knives owes more of a debt to that glorious point in time where the Stones met Gram Parsons and is one of the album’s stand out songs.  The album closes with a simple country blues with “When the Lights Go Down” featuring some sparring bottleneck guitar and McGuinness Flint style mandolin, bringing with it a lightness of touch that leaves you either wanting more, or the immediate desire to flip the needle right back to the start.

Kim Guy – Wednesday’s Child | Album Review | Wyrdwyrks Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.03.10

Previously known for her work on such projects as Elowen and the Rowan Amber Mill, Cornwall-based Kim Guy has me wondering how she finds the time to fit it all in.  Her latest venture comes in the form of an atmospheric debut solo record on which the singer/multi-instrumentalist arranges and plays everything herself.  It’s dark and melancholic but Wednesday’s Child is certainly not full of woe.  Hard working and focused, Kim presents an album of familiar songs that are stamped with her own indelible mark.  On her previous projects, both of which are still going strong, we are reminded of that oft-quoted remark ‘I don’t really like folk music, but I like all that stuff in The Wicker Man’.  I guess the music Kim is associated with would be right down their country lane, assuming those people were indeed talking about the music and not Britt Ekland’s strange dance routines.  I think what they are saying is that they are drawn to ethereal Pagan ritual music, which has an enigmatic magnetism.  Kim has this in buckets.  Wednesday’s Child does start with several startling beats from what you imagine to be a very large primitive drum, not difficult to imagine Christopher Lee banging along to whilst dancing up the lane wearing a dress, but that’s where the similarity ends.  The album plays out to be both charming and engaging and as far removed from that strangely inhabited remote Scottish Island as possible.  The song selections come from a wide spectrum including both traditional and contemporary but all with a cohesive unity.  Revisiting Neil Young (“Old Man” was included on the earlier Elowen album), Kim transforms “Like A Hurricane” into a pastoral hymn rather than the grunge anthem it has always been fondly remembered as.  Like the opening song, “Rolling of the Stone”, “Blood and Gold” returns to ritualistic chanting and heavy drum beating with Andy Irvine and Jane Cassidy’s Romanian song, originally sung by Lucienne Purcell on Irvine’s Rainy Sundays Windy Dreams album and then again by Silly Sisters Maddy Prior and June Tabor on their No More to the Dance album, the title of which was taken from this totally absorbing song.  Anguish and torture comes into play with Tears For Fears’ “Watch Me Bleed”, which is handled with warmth and sensitivity and is as far removed from the synth-rocker we all remember from the 1980s on that band’s debut album.  Paul Simon’s “Sparrow” is also given the ethereal Kim Guy treatment, removing the Spanish influence of Simon and Garfunkel’s original altogether and becoming somehow quintessentially English.  Touching on what we might all agree to be two quintessentially English voices, we come to Richard Thompson and Steve Knightly with “Dimming of the Day” from the former’s quill and “Exile” from the latter’s pen.  Both songs are stripped down to the essentials with sparse piano accompaniment and both sit nicely along side each other here.  With three well known traditional songs “Rolling of the Stone”, “She Moved Through the Fair”, notably re-named “He Moved Through the Fair”, strange given that it’s an instrumental, and finally the “Unquiet Grave”, Kim’s Tubular Bells excursion demonstrates an artist at work and the fruition of all those many days sat before the old tape deck double tracking.  Swapping her bike for a guitar at the tender age of ten was also an inspired decision.

Jess Morgan – All Swell | Album Review | Amateur Boxer | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.03.10

It seems an age now since I first encountered Norwich based singer-songwriter Jess Morgan in the Basement Bar in York one chilly October evening way back in 2008, the performance of which left a memorable impression on me; it must have, I still think about it.  In the meantime a handful of songs have surfaced on the Crosses EP, which was a taster of things to come.  Now the full length album All Swell is ready to be released in April and two of those four songs, together with a handful of others have finally reached this reviewer’s ears once again.  They say first impressions are important and in the case of that initial performance, which included the memorable “Due Grace Coming”, which thankfully opens this album, together with “Crowsong” and “Onyx”, I feel I have once again been re-acquainted with some old friends.  “Crosses” had already provided a taster being the lead song on the EP and this reviewer had already taken the opportunity to wax lyrically about it on its original release, therefore I’ll endeavour to concentrate on the other goodies here for now.  Recorded in Bergen, Norway and co-produced by HP Gunderson, All Swell provides an accurate snapshot of what you get from a live Jess Morgan performance and I imagine there’s been little or no fussing about with spit and polish here.  In fact on “Pamela” for instance, we hear all the sniffing and breathing that makes for as realistic a performance as possible.  I personally would hate a polished studio enhanced album from Jess, preferring to keep such raw talent real.  Jess has an extraordinarily original voice with the closest comparison being that of Melanie, the 1960s hippie songstress who transformed the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” into a classic.  Together with that distinct voice, Jess writes songs that take on an unusual bent.  There’s nothing ordinary in the subject matter and we are occasionally shocked by her candour.  “Prize Pig” for instance opens with the line “My first black eye came from you”, which hints at a darker side to Jess’s writing.  “Pamela”, which incidentally provides the album with its title, exemplifies perfectly Jess’s command over story telling with this extraordinary tale from another time.  Speaking with Jess last August the songwriter explained her love of story telling.  “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved writing stories and being able to do it to music is a real treat but.. and this is not in an arrogant way, I could write ten stories like that but only some of them make it to songs that I would play live because I only want to really write about things that people can relate to and find interesting otherwise it’s not really folk music, then it becomes something more self indulgent”.  The thing with “Pamela” is that it takes place in a different time to what we are now and they are characters.  The words’ detail is around Pamela’s father who will do this and do that, but really it’s about how the main character feels about Pamela and I hope this comes through in the song, about feeling that maybe you shouldn’t love someone who’s been through such a terrible tragedy but maybe now certain things are out of the way you might go for it.  That’s the main thing and I think people definitely could identify with that and whatever time in history it is or whoever you may be”.  If ever there was any doubt as to the importance of in the development and progression of current music then here’s a case in point.  It would be fair to say that this record probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day but for a chance meeting between Norfolk’s Jess Morgan and Norway’s HP Gunderson this particular social networking site.  A friendship ensued and after a couple of visits to HP’s Norwegian studio, where much of the album was recorded in the most spontaneous fashion imaginable, over a coffee table with a microphone hovering above as the two musicians drank tea from cups the colour of the album sleeve, eleven tracks were produced as predominantly one-takes, maintaining the freshness they thoroughly deserve.  The entire album is tastefully done with consciously limited instrumentation, no drums for example.  Jess’s distinctively percussive guitar together with HP’s slide and pedal steel provides the main body of the overall sound with additional Norwegian musicians Morten Skage on double bass, David Vogt on fiddle and Jorgen Sandvik playing sitar on the traditional sounding original Talisman, bringing this particular Norfolk based Americana (with a slight Scandinavian angle) to life.  With a now established connection between Norfolk and Norway, Jess begins a new journey with this album, which will be heard much further a field, as the singer embarks on a short coffee house tour of New England.  I on the other hand, wait patiently for the eagerly anticipated tour of ‘old’ England, where I shall be the first in the queue.  A delightful debut.

April Maybe May – April Maybe May | Album Review | Seahouse Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.04.10

It’s probably more relevant to re-name this duo ‘August Possibly September’ as we are thrown into the grasps of summer with eleven bright and breezy songs on April Maybe May’s debut album.  Formerly known as Fallen Leaves, Rosie Hillman and Matt Kassell have embarked on this latest musical journey with a handful of warm and delicate arrangements, recorded in the comfort of their home in Barrow in Furness on the coast of Cumbria.  Seasalt provides a slice of pure escapism for those of us who have missed the warm season, complete with seagull sampling.  Conceived as a basic two guitar acoustic duo album, with a clear emphasis on the songwriting skills of both Rosie and Matt, the subsequent addition of bass and drums and a range of delightful additional atmospheric instruments and sound effects, the emponymously titled debut creates an inescapable desire to dream along as the sounds flood over you like a cosy quilt.  Forced to change their name after discovering the punk band The Fallen Leaves, which would have been slightly disappointing for fans of both bands alike if the two were ever confused at the box office, the newly re-named April Maybe May, coined from Rosie’s reply to questions about roughly when the album would be ready, fit neatly into the role of indie-folk-pop if indeed we must have a pigeon hole for them.  Whilst “Back To Me” and the banjo-led “Home”, the banjo courtesy of Wes Martin, echoes such bands as The New Pornographers, with their instantly accessible pop charm, songs like “Bed” and “Lost” bring forth a much mellower soundscape to rest the duo’s lyrics upon.  “Sugar and Mess” has a brooding atmosphere which borders on melancholy, but is instantly reconciled with the jazzier Smile.  Prefaced by some studio larking, “The Girl Next Door” provides the album with possibly the most radio friendly sound on the album, a breezy pop song destined for the open top car brigade this summer.   

Otis Gibbs – Joe Hill’s Ashes | Album Review | Wanamaker | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.04.10

When Billy Bragg invited Nashville-based Otis Gibbs up onstage at the Wold Top Marquee during last year’s Beverley and East Riding Festival, we knew instantly that this singer-songwriter was the real deal.  Vocally a mixture between the Toms Waits and Russell and physically a hybrid of Billys Gibbons and Connolly, Otis Gibbs growls from the heart with a voice not unlike a set of rusty harvesting blades.  Much more than just a folk singer, having allegedly planted over 7,000 trees, slept in hobo jungles, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains and having been strip-searched by dirty cops in Detroit; not the usual common or garden folkie it has to be said.  He even has an FBI file.  Having toured extensively, Gibbs frequently finds himself travelling across America and further a field, chronicling the world around him both in song and with a remarkable series of stunning monochrome photographs.  Growing up in Wanamaker, Indiana, Gibbs’ first stage appearance was at the age of four, singing the old Jimmie Rodgers song “Waiting for a Train”.  Much of his formative years were spent in bars, where he sang for tips, which was then transferred into more booze for his uncle who was supposedly looking after him.  Eventually dropping out of a conventional lifestyle and with a meagre income found himself sharing apartments with artists, musicians and radicals during which time he began writing literally hundreds of songs.  Some of those songs materialised on a couple of albums 49th and Melancholy (2002) and Once I Dreamed of Christmas (2003), a seasonal collection of songs written for people who don’t particularly like Christmas.  One Day Our Whispers (2004) gained critical acclaim and spoke to those who felt uncomfortable with the direction America was heading.  Billy Bragg included “The Peoples Day” in his Wall Street Journal list of the Top Five Songs with “Something to Say”, placing Gibbs alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry and The Clash.  Last year’s Grandpa Walked a Picketline saw Gibbs touring once again re-visiting the UK, Ireland and Holland and spending six weeks in the top five on the Americana Radio Chart in the States.  Otis Gibbs’ latest offering Joe Hill’s Ashes follows hot on the heels of Grandpa Walked a Picketline and features a handful of Nashville-based musicians on hand to help out including Thomm Jutz (bass, mandolin, vocal), Deanie Richardson (fiddle), Mark Fain (upright bass), partner Amy Lashley (vocal) and Pat McInerney (drums).  Co-produced by Gibbs and Jutz, the album has a crisp acoustic sound which brings to life the twelve songs covering a range of topics including departed friends, reminiscences of youth, West Virginia mining disasters and Greyhound buses.  If Woody Guthrie wrote some of America’s greatest anthems from the caboose of a speeding freight train then “The Town That Killed Kennedy” chronicles many similar journeys but from the seat of a Greyhound bus.  There’s a lot to observe from the window of a bus and Gibbs vividly captures the desolation and loneliness of such journeys borne out of poverty.  As he rightly says, you only travel across America on a bus when you’re too broke to fly.  Two songs speak of departed friends from two different angles.  Whilst “Where Only The Graves Are Real” provides a cautionary tale of maintaining an awareness of who your real friends are, “Something More” tenderly ponders on the question of why the good die young and eulogises absent friends.  The heart of the album can possibly be found in “When I Was Young”, a beautiful reminiscence of maternal childhood, where Gibbs recalls with clarity his earliest memories of sitting in his mother’s arms with his ear pressed against her chest, her voice leaving an indelible mark upon him.  Packaged in an authentically designed sleeve with Shelby Kelley’s etchings depicting itinerant worker and labour activist Joe Hill, Gibbs latest album is immediately fulfilling, rich in content and furthermore, reminds us once again that the legacy of Woody Guthrie is still very much alive and well.

The Wynntown Marshals – Westerner | Album Review | Charger Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.10

Formed in Edinburgh in 2007, the Wynntown Marshals’ debut album Westerner showcases that rare ability to sound every bit as authentic as most of their American counterparts with tight arrangements and effortless flair.  With a slight nod towards the likes of The Jayhawkes, Wilco and Ryan Adams, the ten originals and one cover, “Ballad of Jayne” originally by LA Guns, make up an impressive kick start to what promises to be a fruitful recording career.  Their live work has been noticeable in their support spots for such as Chuck Prophet, Richmond Fontaine and Jason and the Scorchers.  Entrusting production duties to Graham Deas whose credentials in the studio include working with KT Tunstall and Super Furry Animals, Keith Benzie’s songs are given the time and effort they richly deserve and the results are immediately impressive.  Joining Benzie, the other Marshals are Keith Jones on drums, Iains Sloan and Barbour on various guitars and Murdo Macleod on bass.  The acoustic guitar at the beginning of the album’s opener “You Can Have My Heart” indicates that this is not going to be an all out rocker of an album and there’s an even distribution of more sensitive songs such as the Neil Young inspired “All That I Want” and “Thunder in the Valley” as well as the instrumental “El Prado”, whilst the country rockers “Nelly”, “48 Hours” and “Two’s Company” showcase the band’s tight rhythmic unity.  “Gil”, with its Band-like chorus, is custom made for encores and one imagines lighters held aloft or at the very least, that inescapable last waltz on the dance floor.  Probably the most unusual song on the album is “Snowflake”, whose central character is the world’s only albino gorilla.  Snowflake was known to the thousands who visited Barcelona Zoo in order to meet its most beloved character, before the gorilla’s sad death as a result of skin cancer in 2003.  There was a despairing sense of loneliness that you couldn’t help feel when you came eye to eye with Snowflake and the song, written from Snowflake’s perspective as an orphan in the world, captures this sense of melancholy particularly well, despite its jauntily rhythmic backdrop.  “Divine Compassion” delves into the murky waters of war, with a brooding hard rock undercurrent; a wander into the apocalyptic heart of darkness with a late 1960’s psychedelic feel, which shows yet another side to this promising band.

Trent Miller and Skeleton Jive – Cerberus | Album Review | Hangman Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.04.10

The guise of Trent Miller and the Skeleton Jive suggests that the London-based singer-guitarist has cobbled together a band for his debut record Cerberus, but it appears that Miller is on his tod on this one.  Armed with just guitar and harmonica rack, together with a world weary booze-drenched vocal, the blues tinged acoustic rock sounds for all intents and purposes like it’s been dredged out of the Louisiana swamps and onto the back porch.  With more than a couple of references to Robert Johnson, the Italian-born songwriter presents his own particular brew of gothic avant-country and bluesy folk tales.  With its brooding and bleak sleeve design, courtesy of Gustave Dore’s illustration of the legendary multi-headed hound, Cerberus demonstrates Miller’s multi-headed approach to his own songs, often simplistic on initial hearing but with a hidden depth that transpires upon each subsequent listen.  “Calvary Mountains” has the bleakness of a Townes Van Zandt blues, complete with vodka bottle in one hand and coke bottle in the other.  The mood of the album can almost be identified in the song titles alone; “Six Feet Under”, “Tombstone Eyes” and “Hellhound Train”, not to mention “Scream Your Last Scream”.  If the subject matter lingers in an underworld of doom and gloom, there are some lighter moments in the arrangements such as the swirling carousel feel on “Secret Fires” and the cowboy campfire jauntiness of “Coyote”, both of which stay with you long after you’ve popped the album back on the shelf along with the Gram Parsons and the Gene Clark’s.  There’s no escaping the fact that this is the darker side of Americana and although you feel Miller hasn’t quite sold his soul at the crossroads, he may have temporarily loaned it.

Nicky Swann – Matches and Dispatches | Album Review | Self Release | 23.04.10

The county of Devon is becoming such a rich place for music these days, I have a feeling there’s something in the water.  Singer-songwriter Nicky Swann is by no means ‘run of the mill’ and apparently has no quarms in presenting us with the burden of pigeon hole-ing.  Equally comfortable with country-tinged rock n roll “Crash and Burn”, cool summer jazz “Hold On” and folksy ballads “Little Bird” and “Amy’s Waltz”, Nicky Swann runs the veritable gamut of styles and moods but retains a consistent thread throughout that is uniquely her own.  Being forced into taking on the role of her own guitarist after going through the fruitless auditioning process in the wake of splitting from her long term duo partner, Nicky’s self determination resulted in re-inventing herself as a singer-songwriter in her own right, with a bunch of new songs, some of which found their way onto the Burning Bright EP.  Three of those songs, “Good Advice” (re-titled here as “Amy’s Waltz”), “Wheels Keep Turning” and “One Step Up” have joined a further ten tracks to make up the Tom Joyce produced full-length Matches and Dispatches album due for release in May.  After recording and performing with fellow Devon artists, Phil Beer and Jackie Oates respectively and winning the Artsbase singer-songwriter award, Nicky has gone on to share the stage with the likes of Clive Gregson, Roy Bailey and Megson as well as visiting American artists Corrine West and Brooks Williams, in opening and support spots, providing her with a suitable apprenticeship as a live performer.  The album was recorded in nearby Cornwall at the Sawmills Studios, where the singer-songwriter surrounded herself with an array of first rate musicians, which includes Rick Foot on double bass, James Sharp on drums, Bethany Porter on cello, Olivia Dunn on violin, Alan Cook on pedal steel and Dobro and Brian Garrett on guitar.  Almost unrecognisable from the original Mop Tops number one hit, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is given the same sort of treatment Alison Krauss gave The Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, with a gorgeous guitar and cello arrangement, the latter courtesy of Bethany Porter, reminding us once again that great love songs work so much better in a stripped down context, up close and personal.  Likewise, “In Too Deep” offers a passionate and emotional performance that makes it all the more believable.  “Tuesday’s Lament” shows another side of Nicky’s writing and once again sets out to prove that mundane everyday stuff can be just as appealing as the profound, until you realise that is, that it’s no ordinary day at all, with the heartbreaking revelation in the final verse.  The song lyrics of this and four other songs are included in the handsome booklet accompanying the album.  Rounding things off with a gentle lullaby, adapted from the traditional Welsh poem Ar Hyd Y Nos, “All Through the Night” confirms that Nicky Swann is certainly an artist to watch in 2010 and beyond.

Brooks Williams – Baby O! | Album Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.04.10

Statesboro-born Brooks Williams releases his 17th album and brings with it a veritable feast of feel-good blues, utilising his trusty bottleneck and resonator guitar to great effect throughout.  The album, mostly made up of self-penned songs with a nod to one or two country blues giants such as Son House on “Grinning in Your Face” and Mississippi John Hurt on “Louis Collins”, demonstrates some tightly arranged goodies, which brings out the very best in the guitarist’s supporting cast; Jethro Tull’s David Goodier on bass, Little Johnny England’s PJ Wright on Dobro, pedal steel and slide guitar, Keith Warmington on harmonica and Helen Watson providing backing vocals.  BABY O! was recorded in Bristol here in the UK but sounds for all intents and purposes as if it was recorded in one of the juke joints along the Mississippi.  With the guitarist’s heavily gaffer-taped stomp box in full flight, “Walk You Off My Mind” offers some sweaty blues whilst “Last Chance Love” is probably more ‘Hank’ than ‘Big Joe’ Williams.  With a fine performance of Muddy Waters’ “Sugar Sweet”, written by Chief Records founder Mel London, Williams and Co provide an infectiously rhythmic groove that almost beckons the most left-footed of us onto the dance floor.  Testament to his informed guitar playing, Williams was recently listed in the top 100 acoustic guitarists, a list that included the likes of Doc Watson, Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins, yet you never get the sense that Brooks is over-milking it technically.  The emphasis is on the quality rather than the quantity of notes, although it has to be said the title cut demonstrates some intuitive sparring between Williams and Wright.  As the mother of all gospel songs, Williams’ instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” comes over a little more like Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” with all its back porch intensity.  The funky “Moon On Down” is reminiscent of Last Record Album-era Little Feat and makes me wonder why Williams wasn’t invited to the post Lowell George party?  Lyrically, the album provides some good story telling, especially on the opening song “Frank Delandry”, which addresses the legendary and quite obscure New Orleans guitarist that most locals of the time claimed to be the best.  Unfortunately we’ll never know as it was well before someone had the good sense to invent the black platter with the little hole.  Closing the album is Duke Ellington’s late night crooner “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, with a soulful vocal performance from Williams and solo guitar accompaniment that makes you want to have been around in the studio at the time.     

Lau Vs Karine Polwart – Evergreen | E)P Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.04.10

If like me, you were always convinced that Lau was a perfectly formed entity, comprising of three outstanding musicians; one who provides a distinctively fluid fiddle sound, another whose dual role is to provide the robust bottom end as well as throwing in the occasional discordant flight of fancy, that often leaves your jaw on the carpet, and last but certainly not least, the guitarist who alternates between ‘sensitive’ to ‘exhaustingly rhythmic’ in a hair’s breadth and who also provides the band with its lone voice.. then think again.  There was something apparently absent from the overall sound of the band and we didn’t realise it.  The addition of a female voice was the missing ingredient and for this splendid EP, we can rejoice in the now perfect circle.  To be honest up until recently I was never a fan of the ‘EP’ generally, as a product, much preferring to lose myself in at least an hour’s worth of music, rather than just a sample.  Evergreen gives us just over twenty minutes of excellent music, long enough to keep our full attention and not too long to warrant including fill-in tracks.  It’s an indication that there are still smart minds operating in the folk world and this collaboration, like all the other collaborative projects Karine gets involved in, works tremendously well.  The title song is a Polwart original, with an arrangement credit for the rest of the band; a true collaborative effort.  The other four performances are well chosen adaptations of contemporary songs by other acclaimed writers.  Lal Waterson’s songs, like Van Gogh’s paintings, were seemingly only understood and appreciated by a few and like Theo Van Gogh, certainly by members of her own family.  Then in light of her sad passing in 1998, a whole new awakening occurred and her songs have now been celebrated by many and are now being rewarded with the attention they deserve.  “Midnight Feast” is nothing short of stunning and Kris Drever delivers a faithfully sensitive version of the song here.  No one does ‘bleak’ quite like The Unthanks, but Karine Polwart and Lau manage an almost Hardy-esque arrangement on Dave Goulder’s “January Man”, featuring a vocal duet between Polwart and Drever.  If there’s a necessary need to escape bleakness, look no further than Blue Nile’s feel good and optimistic “From Rags to Riches”, which has a sprightly plucked-violin jauntiness about it, which celebrates being in love, albeit with just a particular feeling together with a wild sky.  “Lord Yester” goes back to The Corries days, when the Peebles baker George Weir would provide Roy Williamson with gems of contemporary folk songs, that sound very much as if they came from the tradition.  If you like Karine Polwart, you’ll love this, if you like Lau and you were thinking of buying this, in Kris Drever’s words (and spoken in a rich Orkney accent here..) “you’ll need to”.

Texas Tornados – Esta Bueno | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.05.10

With the passing of both Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm, it was almost taken as a given that the Texas Tornados would never see the light of day again and their extraordinary Tejano brand of Tex-Mex would be assigned to the annals of history.  As history has shown though, the music world keeps on grooming enthusiastic and talented offspring to slip into dad’s shoes.  Shawn Sahm has teamed up with his dad’s former comrades Augie Meyers and Flaco Jiménez and has produced the first recording from the band in over a decade.  Esta Bueno! (translated as ‘It’s Good’) features five previously unreleased vocal performances from the legendary Freddy Fender together with a sterling performance from the master of the conjunto accordion, Flaco Jiménez.  Other musicians tempted back include the original band members Louie Ortega on guitar, Speedy Sparks on bass and Ernie Durawa on drums.  From the opening bars of “Who’s to Blame, Señorita?” through to the soulful “Girl Going Nowhere”, featuring the late Doug Sahm, the album is a veritable feast of good time dance tunes and late night crooners each conjuring the mood of the music of the Texan and Mexican border towns.  Infectious dance tunes such as “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like I Like” and “Velma from Selma” sit well aside the ballads “Tennessee Blues” and “If I Could Only”, each recreating the sound that made the band so popular the first time around.  “In Heaven There is no Beer”, sung in both English and Mexican, demonstrates the Tornados zest for fun and to a beat that makes it practically impossible to remain seated throughout.  The fun side is echoed in the title song, which indicates in no uncertain terms the resulting issues of consuming jalapenos in familiar Tornados style.  Because this collection was made up with remnants from the last pieces of the Tex-Mex jig-saw puzzle, with contributions from those musicians no longer with us, it would be a shame not to see the new Texas Tornados continue, at least for a little while longer.

Hungrytown – Hungrytown | Album Review | Listen Here Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.05.10

At first glance you might think you’d inadvertently walked into a scene from Annie Hall, with Alvy Singer and his eponymous heroine Annie, not so much wrestling with lobsters or watching the sun come up over Brooklyn Bridge, but maybe that memorable scene of Annie doing her cabaret turn.. la-di-da, la-di-da.  With a name like Rebecca Hall, we could for all intents and purposes be dealing with one of Annie’s siblings.  One thing is for sure, Annie’s kid sister can certainly sing, and sing very well indeed.  Joking apart, the Hungrytown duo are a delight to listen to.  At first I wasn’t too sure, it all sounded a little too retro, like re-visiting The Springfields or The Seekers, but after a couple of listens, this fine debut is quite intoxicating.  Vermont’s Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson have a gentle no nonsense approach to both their delicious harmony singing and their easy going playing.  It’s never overtly old timey nor fundamentally bluegrass, but a rich mixture of various styles and influences, with an immediately accessible and radio friendly sound.  There’s something of A Mighty Wind in both their appearance and their song structures, but it’s really more pastiche than parody.  Even though it is a retro style reminiscent of the early 1960’s folk boom, you never feel that the duo are anything other than sincere in their endeavours.  “Lucille, Lucille” is a gentle starter, which introduces us to the voice that dominates the entire album, with a fine supporting cast of musicians including Zack Deming on banjo and Jeff Vogelsang providing additional guitar.  “Sylvie” is a variation of the traditional “Once I Had a Sweetheart” with a fine vocal performance by Rebecca, augmented by some fine interplay between violin, cello, oboe and Celtic harp courtesy of Eric Lee, Suzanne Mueller, Fredric T Cohen and Cynthia Hughes respectively.  “Weep Not For Me” provides the album with a lilting lullaby of startling beauty whilst “Troubles Change Direction” is typical of Hungrytown’s harmonies, where Rebecca’s voice is complimented by Ken’s unmistakable intuitive harmony.  None of the songs on Hungrytown are new exactly, all of the selections being written over the last decade from Rebecca and Ken’s “On the Other Side” from 2000 through to the later songs “November Song” and the infectious “Rose or the Briar” from 2006.  The album closes with a pretty faithful version of the Gene Clark/Jesse Davis classic “With Tomorrow”, echoing the original’s fragility but losing none of its power.

Joanna Chapman-Smith – Contraries | Album Review | Woundup Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.05.10

Joanna Chapman-Smith’s follow up to her 2007 debut Eyre Corvidae takes us on a journey through the contraries in life, taking William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a premise, exploring the polarised opposites of right and wrong, mind and body, good and bad.  With a real tangible handle on composition, the young Canadian songwriter incorporates Latin, gypsy jazz and blues influences as a basis to rest these explorations upon and apparently with seamless precision.  With a sense of gypsy cabaret and a hint of the burlesque, the compositions on Contraries range from the soulfully emotional to the whimsical, but all with an easily accessible quality.  Whilst “A Glass of Right and Wrong” takes a quizzical look at relationships through a liquid metaphor, the autobiographical Urbanality, reveals the songwriter’s dreams of travel and alternative living, recalling her youth spent scraping a living as an artist between the two cities of Toronto and Vancouver.  With no small measure of candor, Joanna’s frustrations of being tied to the city reveal an inherent desire to travel and to get away from it all.  Now well travelled, Chapman-Smith has spread her music around from Canada to the US, Europe and New Zealand, delivering tight musical soirées with a pinch of bohemian spirit, armed with a steadily growing repertoire of memorable songs of her own as well as gracing other’s albums with her voice and clarinet, such as those by fellow Canadian-based artists CR Avery and Sarah MacDougall.  The IMA award-winning “Melodies”, with its quirky introduction and lilting French accordion/clarinet-led accompaniment, shows Joanna at her most comfortable, with an irresistibly swirling waltz-time dance.  The tightly arranged instrumental “Klezbian Mother” provides a potential soundtrack to a Jewish or Greek wedding, with sprightly clarinet and accordion forcefully duelling at the side of the dance floor; a coda is also provided in the form of “Dub Mother”, delicately played as the bride and groom leave the party and the guests disperse.  The haunting “Between the Minds”, has an ethereal quality, largely due to the fragile whistled melody that ties the song together, featuring brothers Tim and Dan Chapman-Smith, providing whistling and vocal duet respectively.  If fragility is exemplified in “Between the Minds”, then melancholy is hinted at in the closing “Carnival Song”, which laments the passing of time.  Joining Joanna on the album is a fine assembled cast under the guise of The Tryst, comprising Dawn Zoe on accordion, Justine Fischer on bass and Wayne Adams on drums, whilst Joanna takes care of guitar, clarinet and keyboard duties.  Futher support comes in the form of Christina Zaenker on cello, Marc L’Esperance on tenor sax and violin with additional vocals by Carolyna Loveless, Sarah MacDougall and Chris Suen.

The Whybirds – Cold Blue Sky | Album Review | Little Red Recording | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.05.10

Alt-country rockers The Whybirds’ second record and follow up to their self-titled debut of 2008, once again demonstrates the band’s no nonsense approach to hard-rocking Americana, despite the band coming from Bedford.  Produced by Tom Peters (Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), Cold Blue Sky maintains a distinctive sound throughout even though the songs included are divided almost equally between the four songwriters in the band.  Faithful to the energy of a Whybirds live gig, the band refuses to hold back on the volume and the full blown semi-grunge thrust of solid rock chords form the basis of this record.  The opening song, Taff Thatcher’s “Glow”, takes on the familiar tempo changing precident exemplified by some of Grunge’s pioneers such as The Pixies, Pearl Jam and Nirvana but with a distinctly country flavour.  The more laid-back acoustic songs form a welcomed counterpoint to the rock driven bulk of the album.  Luke Tuchscherer’s plaintive “Morva”, a tale of unrequited love and the resulting refuge of substance relief is handled in an altogether soothing manner.  Not the usual sort of lyrics from the drummer of a band.  Likewise, the title track Taff Thatcher’s “Cold Blue Sky” borrows from Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” in style and provides the jewel in this particular crown.  The only collaborative composition on the album, the Banks/Tuchscherer co-written “Wild, Wild Wind” alludes to the rock n roll notion of self discovery, getting away from the proverbial small town and hitting the road.  With Dave Banks and Ben Haswell sharing guitar duties, Taff Thatcher on bass and Luke Tuchscherer on drums, The Whybirds seem to be hitting the road quite a lot and are steadily gaining a reputation as one of the hardest working bands in their field.  Having had initial sessions involving acclaimed producer Elliot Mazor, whose credentials include Neil Young, Janis Joplin and The Band no less, the band’s reputation continues to spread in a notably healthy manner.

Pete Dilley – Forecast | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.05.10

More and more we see young emerging artists taking their tentative steps in music whilst still at school; the bulk of Ella Edmondson’s debut Hold Your Horses being written at the age of 15 for example or Ruth Notman’s early song compositions being done as school projects, complete with dodgy Westlife type key changes, or more famously Adele, banging out an entire multi-platinum album’s worth of songs about a ‘rubbish’ relationship whilst barely out of a school uniform, and countless other similar stories.  The title of Pete Dilley’s second album Forecast started out as a GCSE art project, whilst the accompanying song and instrumental piece “Forecaster” and “Forecast” respectively, were written at a similarly early age.  Dilley’s strength is in his guitar playing it has to be said; by his own admission, Martin Simpson is rarely off the player and some of that dexterity is apparent in Dilley’s finger-style playing.  The opening instrumental title track demonstrates a respect for his instrument and straddles the boundaries between Classical, folk and blues, with a discerning appreciation of composition for the former and a healthy use of both bottleneck and DADGAD tuning for the latter.  While “Until Tomorrow” leans more towards a modern pop sensibility, with a little help from Steve Wilson’s bass and some additional electric guitar and harmonica, Dilley’s sense of composition can stray into late 1960s West Coast pop/rock, reminiscent of Love and Country Joe and the Fish, especially on “Never Ending Page”, with its electric guitar and mandolin exchanges and Summer of Love feel.  “Heartache in Disguise” shows a more sensitive side of Dilley’s singing and playing, with some beautiful guitar passages as Dilley temporarily wears his heart on his sleeve, as does the oldest song on the album “Regrets”, albeit with some new lyrics as Dilley explains “some new regrets needed to be added”.  “Forlorn Child” on the other hand owes more to traditional song and utilises a complex guitar arrangement reminiscent of the aforementioned Martin Simpson.  It comes as little surprise these days to hear songs written about dads, from Ewan Maccoll’s “My Old Man” through to Simpson’s “Never Any Good” or in this case, Dilley’s “Old”.  The fact that dads tend to be much closer to us now as opposed to archaic Victorian standards, where dad would be virtually on a different planet in terms of generational differences.  Dads and sons are more like brothers in our time, which therefore helps to create a much stronger bond, making it possible to connect through song, whilst at the same time avoiding sentimentality.      Mirroring the winter theme of the album sleeve photographs, “Loch Rannoch (I Know the Winter)” was written almost to order, to be included in a Christmas special for Tony Hitchcock’s radio programme on Sine FM.  Deeply melancholic, the song includes some empathetic violin courtesy of Sue Hill.  Having recently reached the finals of the BPAS Young Acoustic Roots Competition held at the 2010 Wath Festival and also being included in the steadily expanding roster of artists supporting Folk Delivering Hope, appearing on the charities first compilation CD with “Jack’s Song” from his debut Said and Done, there is little doubt that we are witness to a new budding talent.

The Annie Duggan Band – If I Knew Then.. | Album Review | Clarksdale | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.06.10

With Ann Duggan’s distinctive voice backed by a pretty tight rhythmic unit courtesy of the newly re-named ‘Annie’ Duggan Band, comprising of Rob Hines on guitars, Alan Shotter on bass and harmonica and Gordon Taylor on drums and backing vocals, Ann’s fourth album blends country, folk and rock to create something distinctly their own.  If I Knew Then… once again demonstrates something of a rarity; the successful transition from a young girl whose musical calling was not at first apparent, to a mature artist who seems to have been born to sing.  Ann Duggan began singing by chance when asked to help out Norfolk-based songwriter Colin Granger who had penned a number of songs but was in need of a voice to blaze their trail.  Until that moment, Ann had little or no interest in singing but rose to the challenge and in the last ten years hasn’t looked back.  Four albums and countless gigs down the line, Ann has blazed that trail which has taken her from the East Midlands to the States and back, sharing stages with such Blues greats as Larry Garner, Lonnie Shields and Mr. Johnnie Billington.  The songs on this latest collection indicate that Ann’s singing career shows no signs of waning as she continues to grow as a vibrant light on the live music scene.  Those songs are at times reminiscent of early Richard and Linda Thompson, with “Ain’t That a Shame” being a suitable counterpart to Bright Lights, largely due to Rob Hines’ mature guitar style and Granger’s comparable lyrics.  The treatment of Granger’s lyrics differs greatly from song to song with “Shooter’s Last Ride” being fairly typical country rock fare, whilst “Sucking Down Air” has all the hallmarks of early 1970s riff-rock blues.  The funky “Travellin’ Man Blues” on the other hand leans more towards Doobie Brothers type West Coast pop, a clear indication of Duggan’s versatility as a performer and Granger as an all round songwriter.  The three songs not from the pen of Colin Granger includes Billy Joe and son Eddy Shaver’s delightfully optimistic “Live Forever”, which in the hands of Ann Duggan is much more ballad-like than Shaver’s original.  Gordon Taylor contributes two songs, the jaunty “Taking Me Out Tonight”, which makes a good companion to “Ain’t That a Shame”, and the folky “Dream of You” featuring the only additional musician on the record, Kerrie Vernon, who contributed the violin solo as well as a good deal of hospitality during the making of the record.  Rounding off with “Worn Out Blues”, a power ballad that wouldn’t be out of place as the live show closer with lighters aloft, the Annie Duggan Band continue to develop their own brand of mature bluesy country rock.

Demon Barbers – The Adventures of Captain Ward | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.06.10

Just when it seemed the world was bereft of a super hero, along comes the formidable Captain Ward, the swashbuckling pirate extraordinaire, as created by Tony Hall for the cover of the third full length Demon Barbers album The Adventures of Captain Ward.  The cover, reminiscent of the Mothers of Invention’s memorable Weasels Ripped My Flesh LP sleeve, has all five members of the core band featured in cartoon form on the inner sleeve, being marched overboard via ‘the plank’ by either Damien Barber himself or by his intimidating English concertina.  It’s a fun start to a thoroughly engaging record.  By Damien Barber’s own admission, recreating any band’s live set in a studio environment is always difficult to say the least, but the general intention to capture some of the spirit of the Demon Barbers’ live set is definitely present on this new record.  This is probably the closest the band are likely to get to that specific sound, a sound and spectacle that in no small way contributed towards the band’s success at last years BBC Folk Awards, when they came away with the Best Live Act award.  No one seriously expects the same experience when listening to a new Demon Barbers CD to that of feeling the stage reverberate to the stomp of Dogrose Morris, or the clatter of swords and the vibrant display of clog dancing and colour; so it’s with the song selections, the performances and the production we concentrate upon here.  Peter Bellamy is the source for the title song “Captain Ward”, which opens the album with a pulsating off beat electric bass and some intoxicating fiddle/melodeon interplay, suitably forming the basis for Damien Barber’s authoritative storytelling.  The core band of Damien Barber on guitar and English concertina, Bryony Griffith on fiddle, hubby Will Hampson on melodeon, Lee Sykes on bass and Ben Griffith on drums is augmented by contributions from the extended team of cloggers Hannah James, Tiny Taylor and Laura Connolly, with additional vocals from Fiona Taylor as well as some beatbox pyrotechnics courtesy of John (JB) Stuckey.  Bryony Griffith’s version of “The Bonny Labouring Boy” (“Bonny Boy”), borrowed from Frank Purslow’s “Marrowbones”, is one of the highlights on this album, with a fine assured vocal performance and building rhythm from the rest of the band.  Bryony’s distinctive vocal can also be heard on “The Magpie”, a retelling of the old children’s nursery rhyme and the live show-stopper “Soul Cake”, which here incorporates some of the less visual beatbox shenanigans of JB.  The beatbox is no better utilisedby than during “Calling on Song”, which also incorporates the percussive sound of clog dancing, together with Bryony’s rich and intuitive fiddle playing.  Ed Pickford’s “Pound a Week Rise”, memorably recorded by Dick Gaughan in 1986, sees the Demon Barbers entering political territory, with Damien Barber’s convincingly authoritative vocal carrying the song to the end.  “Three Drunken Maids” on the other hand shows a more fun loving side to the band.  With an almost ‘punk anthem’ attitude mixed with a Ska flavour, this old traditional romp of a song, sounds for all intents and purposes like a report on any bog-standard Saturday night out in Donny (where the album was coincidentally recorded).  The instrumental pieces on the album, “Munchen Fest”, “Harry’s Hornpipe” and “Kiss Me Quick My Mammy’s Coming/The Queen of Sluts”, measure up to the songs equally as they demonstrate inventiveness and flair in each case, from Will Hampson’s “Munich Oktoberfest” inspired knees up to Bryony’s jazz inflected set of hornpipes.  The Grateful Dead’s outlaw song “Friend of the Devil” from the band’s seminal American Beauty album makes an unexpected appearance here.  Citing Chris Smither as the source of this version of the song, the band create a completely different feel good sound, which works equally well on record and in live performance.  Completing the thirteen selections on the album is the traditional “Three Ravens” learned from the singing of Sheffield-based singer Fay Hield, no stranger to both Damien Barber and Bryony Griffith, both who have worked with the singer in highly regarded combos over the years such as the much missed Witches of Elswick.  Satisfying their audience’s appetites temporarily in 2008 with the stop gap release of the mini-album +24db, Captain Ward has been a long time in coming but finally serves to prove that the Demon Barbers are now a force to be reckoned with both on stage and now in the studio. 

Winter – A Matter of Time | Album Review | East Central One | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.10

Looking every bit Johnny and Edgar’s kid sister, AnnaLena Winter (no relation) has rock chick written all over her, from her faded denim jeans and black leather jacket upwards as she sits for the cover shot, not exactly smiling, but with grinning, almost confrontational eyes.  Seated to the left side of a set of leather twin seats, which have ‘waiting room’ written all over them, we get the impression that AnnaLena is not prepared to wait around and needs to be onstage, her natural comfort zone.  Fronting the Swedish band named after her, AnnaLena’s latest eleven songs find themselves on this their fourth album release since the bands’ inception in the late 1990s.  A Matter of Time also sees the arrival of new guitarist Fredrik Lidin to the fold, joining the long established rhythm section of Abbe Abrahamsson on drums and Johan Strömberg on bass, together with AnnLena’s own guitar and distinctive vocal.  The album opens with the driving title track “Matter of Time”, an almost pleading song of hope, that ponders the rekindling of a lost relationship.  There’s an immediate sense that the lyrical content of the album is not going to solve any of the world’s problems nor ponder too long on the big questions, but as a statement of personal love issues and relationship entanglements, AnnaLena sets out her stall quite adequately from the outset.  The melodies are often pleasing such as “Face on the Wall”, “Book of Love” and the sublime “A Minute Away”, which has more than a nod to the genius of kd lang.  Both “Crazy” and “Pretender” also compete for stand out song status, both of which have all the attributes of a freeway classic.  The closing song on the album puts aside all the potentially radio friendly open top car anthems and provides the album with its heart, a moment of sensitivity on the gorgeous piano led “Nothing Without You”, which deserves to be played, often.

Richard Kitson – Home and Dry | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.10

Barnsley-based Richard Kitson has been playing around the South Yorkshire area since 2004 as a solo singer-songwriter/guitarist.  Having dabbled in the post-punk band Strawberry Jack in 1999 he went on to further dabble in a handful of blues-based outfits before heeding to the urge of trying his hand as a solo performer.  Influenced by the likes of Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Rory Gallagher and Big Bill Broonzy, Richard learned his craft as countless others had done before, by wearing out the record collection whilst snapping a few strings tuning up and down between standard and DADGAD no doubt.  The familiar route of first hearing Bob Dylan and then following the obligatory adventure of discovering the past, uncovering along the way the delights of early country blues giants, the Big Bills, Mississippi Johns and Libby Cottons, not to mention the Woody Guthries, Cisco Houstons and Rambling Jacks, brought to this pair of impressionable Barnsley ears, a growing fascination with the music; so much so, that the act consuming these influences became just as important as breathing.  Home and Dry captures some of those endeavours with fourteen self-penned songs, each borrowing from a veritable catalogue of blues and folk styles hand picked along the way.  The haunting “Robin Hood’s Bay” is certainly reminiscent of Jansch’s distinctively heavy-handed guitar approach that can be heard on such memorable songs as “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning” and “Blackwaterside” for instance, while “Redundant Blues” owes more to Wizz Jones both in terms of the derivative guitar style and the lyrical content.  Meanwhile, the instrumental “Gypsy Vanner” sees Richard tipping his hat towards Classical influences and the piece is played here with focus and assurance.  Richard manages to bring all these influences together to make them his own.  Richard’s own developing style of guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Hold the Line” and “Elope” is less noticeably derivative and serves to underpin the content of some of the more sensitive songs on the album.  Having said that, for one of the most sensitive songs included here, Richard returns to one of his main influences with the Jansch-worthy lullaby and lilting guitar accompaniment on the dreamy “Tears”.  With a supporting cast of friends such as Kat Gilmore on violin, mandolin and backing vocals, Marjorie Paterson on cello, Leon Davies on drums and percussion and Gerry McNeice (who gets where water can’t) on double bass, Richard has produced, along with Dean Jordon, a record that suitably sums up what you are likely to hear at one of his live appearances.

The Quebe Sisters Band – Timeless | Album Review | Fiddletone | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.10

When you first hear the sibling harmonies of Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe on this record, you would be forgiven for thinking these recordings were made several decades ago in the heyday of Bob Wills’ particular brand of Western Swing, especially when backed by the tight rhythm section of Joey McKenzie on guitar and both Drew Phelps and Dennis Crouch sharing upright bass duties; little wonder then that the album is entitled Timeless.  Drawing from the influences of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the Sons of the Pioneers, Benny Goodman, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and the Mills Brothers to name but a few, Timeless is a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a selection of songs and tunes from another era entirely.  Recorded in the idyllic setting of the Cash Cabin Studio, way out in the woods of Hendersonville, Tennessee, guitarist Joey McKenzie found himself at the helm of this project.  A champion fiddler himself, McKenzie knew instinctively how to get the best out of the three fiddling siblings, all of whom had been mentored by both himself and his wife Sherry.  Staggeringly, the Quebe Sisters’ first record, Texas Fiddles was entirely instrumental, which is rather like imagining an Everly Brothers record without any singing on it.  These voices have to be heard to be believed and this record gives us ample opportunity to catch up with those voices on such songs as “So Long” to the “Red River Valley”, “Georgia on my Mind” and “Along the Navajo Trail”, all of which demonstrate a tight understanding of harmony, way beyond their years; hard to believe they’ve only been singing professionally for five years.  Their playing abilities were noticed slightly earlier after each of the sisters took up the fiddle simultaneously, having attended a fiddle contest in Denton, Texas in 1998.  Being knocked out by the sound of the instrument, the sisters endeavored to pick up everything by ear, trawling their combined record collections and coming up with something fresh based very definitely on something old.  Their fiddle playing is best exemplified on their instrumentals and one or two are included on Timeless, notably the old Bob Wills tune “Twin Guitar Special”, the traditional “Speed the Plow Medley”, Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special” and Duke Ellington’s legendary “Take the ‘A’ Train.  The real delight in the Quebe Sisters Band’s music is when they combine the two such as on the infectious “Roly Poly”.  Championed by such artists as Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Buffett and Marty Stuart, the band recently picked up two celebrated awards, Group of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists and the Crescendo Award by the Western Music Association, indicating that the Quebe Sisters are beginning to be recognised by their peers and a steadily growing fan base.  The Fort Worth-based group has so far played all the prestigious gigs including appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, the Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center as well as some of the major festivals and concert halls throughout North America and Canada.  Pleasingly, we will have an opportunity to see the Quebe Sisters Band at the Cambridge Folk Festival this summer and this reviewer has every intention of claiming a front row seat (or patch of grass) for himself.

Daniel Hertzov – Believing | Album Review | Red Cat Productions | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.07.10

There is little on Believing, other than the name Hertzov possibly, that indicates this singer-songwriter originates from Moscow.  Having lived in the USA for the best part of his life, Daniel has crafted his musical endeavours whilst listening to rock music in Boston.  Eventually moving to the UK where he now lives and works, in Glasgow to be precise, the songwriter has gone on to produce a memorable debut, containing a dozen well-crafted and melodic songs.  Equally at home with sensitive balladry “Trust the River”, “6 Years” and grungy rock “Down at the Park”, “Saviour”, Hertzov crafts his songs with a distinctly Americana feel.  Both mandolin-led “Tumbling Down” and “Away and Shelter” offer a lighter approach to Daniel’s songwriting, the latter celebrating the fact that when the chips are down, the music survives.  Whilst “Jewish Bride” may be seen as the single throw away song on the album, it does offer a taste of Hertzov’s wry sense of humour, Tymon Tymanski’s scat vocals as well as a nod to Hertzov’s Jewish roots; sensibly placed at the end of the track listing.  With contributions from Marcin Galazka on guitars, Alan Scobie on keyboards and percussion, Craig Strain and Tymon Tymanski on bass and Fraser West on drums, Daniel Hertzov has delivered a thoroughly engaging debut.

Larkin Poe – Spring | EP Review | Edvins | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.07.10

In the long lamented vinyl days, interestingly enough making their return with a vengeance, my understanding of the initialism ‘EP’ always stood for ‘extended play’, roughly defined as a ‘single’ with a couple of supplementary tracks included.  Larkin Poe’s Spring EP with no less than nine songs is for all intents and purposes a full blown album for my money, not just because of the length of play, but also because it’s a complete and beautiful statement; one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.  Larkin Poe are essentially the remaining two siblings after big sister Jessica left the Lovell Sisters trio in order to return to her studies, get married and have some time away from music.  Rebecca and Megan have teamed up with Daniel Kimbo on bass and banjo, Mike Seal on guitars, Chad Melton on drums and percussion and Jonathan Maness also on percussion to create an astonishingly mature sound, which blends bluegrass, roots and rock to create their own brand of exciting Americana.  Named after the siblings’ great great great grandfather Larkin Poe, Rebecca and Megan, merely 19 and 20 respectively, continue where the trio left off, further developing their highly skilful playing of mandolin, guitar and Dobro, as well as highlighting each of their own individual vocal credentials, previously used to good effect on the Lovell Sisters two records When Forever Rolls Around (2006) and Time To Grow (2009).  Rebecca in particular has an instantly recognisable voice, full of character and depth and therefore the focal point of this record.  Whilst “Long Hard Fall” and “We Intertwine” maintain that unique balance between pop melody and bluegrass integrity, both “Burglary” and “The Principle of Silver Lining” bring out an interesting darker side to Rebecca’s song writing, possibly drawing from another Poe of the Edgar Allan variety, particularly in the latter, with its haunting theme of darkness.  With an edgy rock base, both performances demonstrate Rebecca’s relaxed liaison with a much raunchier bluesier music.  Lowell George would be nodding approval for certain.  As the band prepare for their forthcoming British tour, the Spring EP prepares us for what’s hopefully to come.  Roll on Summer!

Skerryvore – Skerryvore | Album Review | Tyree | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.07.10

The third album from one of Scotland’s most exciting bands to emerge over the last decade.  Formed in 2004, Skerryvore have shaped their unique sound, which fuses traditional dance tunes with a hard-edged rock base and a healthy leaning towards soulful country balladeering.  Formed on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides, Alec Dalglish (guitars, mandolin, vocals), Barry Caulfield (bass), Martin Gillespie (bagpipes, accordion), Daniel Gillespie (accordion), Craig Espie (fiddle) and Fraser West (drums) together with a couple of guest players Alan Scobie (keyboards) and Duncan J Nicholson (bagpipes) have captured some of the rawness of their live sound on this eponymously titled third release.  With the aesthetics of a regular boy band, the more sensitive ballads such as “Smile in the Stars” and “Hold Me Tonight” are almost in danger of rivaling those of Westlife, but are fortunately rescued by gorgeous instrumentation and in particular the sensible use of bagpipes and accordion respectively.  The band’s good sense to avoid cringe-worthy key changes mid-song is also a plus.  It’s with the uptempo songs that Skerryvore excel, all of which manage to create this unique blend of country-flavoured Celt-rock.  “Good to Go”, “Simple Life” and the album’s opener “Path to Home” incorporate driving rhythms worthy of any open-top car drive through the desert.  Then there’s the instrumentals.  There’s almost an expectation that the instrumentals included on the album will constitute run of the mill jigs and reels exercises but in this case nothing could be further from the truth.  Inventive, exciting and thoroughly engaging, the gutsy “Wit’s End” with its rock-riff opening, the funky “Angry Fiddler” and the sublime “Gairm A’Chuain (Call of the Sea)”, all demonstrate a band working together in complete unison.  Closing Skerryvore is a live recording of the Patsy Cavanagh anthem “Home to Donegal”, which captures that end of gig moment perfectly.  Mac MacKinlay of the Shepley Spring Festival says he always likes to go out with bagpipes at his festival, therefore the services of a Scottish band is usually required.  This year was no exception and Skerryvore’s mixture of Celtic folk rock and stomp folk with a country flavour together with a healthy dose of bagpipes did the trick and I dare say it won’t be for the last time.

Ewan McLennan – Rags and Robes | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.07.10

Anyone familiar with Ewan McLennan’s music, either having seen him perform at a festival or folk club, or having heard him on the wireless recently, will no doubt be aware that some of the songs on Rags and Robes first appeared a couple of years ago on his self-titled home-made debut.  As is the case with many artists these days, once they manage to secure that all important record deal and have the backing of an established label, in this case those nice Adams people at Fellside, then it’s prudent to retrace one’s steps and re-record some of those initial attempts in order to present a proper and worthy debut.  Ewan McLennan has done just that and has now released a stunning collection comprising of a handful of familiar traditional songs, one or two contemporary ballads and a couple of self-penned originals.  With an exceptionally graceful guitar style and distinctive voice, the traditional material such as “Tramps and Hawkers”, “As I Roved Out” and “Arthur McBride” appear to have been given a new lease of life.  The crisp guitar sound and confident singing voice, reminiscent of Handful of Earth period Dick Gaughan, has that immediately accessable quality about it.  With the formidable talents of both Peter Tickell (fiddle) and Jackie Oates (viola and harmony vocals), the album is garnished with a sprinkling of intuitive and empathetic accompaniment; a seasoning that complements the song choices particularly well.  For those who recall that iconic moment when Joan Baez sang “Joe Hill” at the Woodstock Festival, reminding many that a folk song can be just as powerful as a Hendrix guitar solo when in the right hands, then the song returns afresh with a haunting viola accompaniment courtesy of Jackie Oates, and is in good hands once again.  Ian Campbell’s “Old Man’s Song” is given some pretty convincing unaccompanied treatment, a song infinitely more engaging when sung with such a determined voice.  Likewise, the instrumental “Jer the Rigger/Flowers of Edinburgh” demonstrates Ewan’s skill as an accomplished acoustic guitarist.  There are shades of Martin Simpson in McLennan’s technique, but that’s hardly surprising, McLennan being one of Simpson’s students.  The two originals included here, “Another Morning’s Beggar” and “Yorkshire Regiment”, are both of a topical nature, the former addressing homelessness and the latter pondering this ridiculous mess we’ve once again found ourselves in out in the Middle East.  The two songs sit seamlessly amongst the Burns, the MacColl’s and the traditional.  Familiar to many a festival goer over the past couple of years, Ewan McLennan offers something honest, representative and special to take home with them.

More from 2010 to follow shortly.