Archive: Live 2016

Chris Wood | Live Review | The Art Club, Bath Street, Glasgow, Celtic Connections 2016 | Review by Keith Belcher | 16.01.16

In the past I think Chris has had some concerns about his acceptance north of the border.  Tonight’s audience certainly gave Chris a very warm Scottish greeting, leaving him in no doubt that he was both appreciated and welcome.  His backdrop at the prestigious Glasgow Art Club was one of the grandest fire places I have seen outside of a stately home.  Lighting was almost non-existent.  I did think, for one moment he was going to come out with the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to be a member of any club that would want him as a member but he refrained.  He seemed in good spirits and unusually opened the show by thanking the sound person, a task usually reserved for the end, joking that it would serve well setting the bar high at the start.  This gave a good indication that Chris was happy with the sound on the night.  He opened with an almost whispered “Cold Haily Rainy Night”, keeping the lyrics and sound low as the song is, after all, about someone trying to quietly gain secretive entrance to a lady’s bedchamber.  “C’mon you remember” he joked to the audience.  A change of pace and era followed with his travelogue “None The Wiser” followed written on the 2-month tour where he was Joan Armatrading’s “bitch”, his words not mine.  A wonderfully true and witty observation on life as seen on the tour.  His guitar style on this song emulates the rhythm of wheels on the road.  Joking about his missed market opportunity he sang one of his grown up love songs, the very beautiful and poignant “Sweetness Game”.  A good sign of Chris’s happiness with sound is the speed he plays and sings.  The better the sound, the slower and more extended the phrasing, this was evident tonight.  A new as yet unrecorded song next, about another market opportunity, minor league football, a subject in his opinion not widely appreciated by his audience.  Possible title could be “Margate 3 Faversham 0” or “Only a Friendly”.   Nevertheless, his acute observation of the commonplace and ability to put it to song is wonderful.  He mused, to the amusement of the audience, on how anyone could have writers block with the current world around us.  Another new song, a follow on to “Hard”, written about his daughter fell in his category of ‘empty nest songs’.  This song, possibly titled “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” reflects on his grown up daughter, her flat, her mad landlady, part time employment, second hand hoovers and more insightful observations that Chris Wood excels at.  I’ve heard this song a few times and love it, judging from the applause so did the rest of the audience.  Taking a risk Chris performed his version of the unofficial English National anthem “Jerusalem”, where he questions rather than makes statements without the strident Sir Charles Hubert Parry tune.  A very funny impersonation of Billy Bragg doing the song preceded his version, he strayed briefly into political discussion, possibly testing his ground.  The audience listened intently and the applause was great.  A total change of tempo and weight brought the set to an end with Ronnie Lane’s very jaunty “The Poacher”.  I overheard many discussing the songs during the interval.  Always a great sign for a songwriter.  The second set opened with a supposedly true story, the traditional “Lord Bateman”.  This was followed by the modern true story of Jean Charles de Menezes in the chilling song “Hollow Point”.  A rambling chat about autodidactism and the origins of Chris’s guitar followed the huge applause for “Hollow Point” and long distance walking.  The connection being that the next song, another as yet unrecorded song.  This was another travelogue of observations from a long walk starting at Tower Bridge.  I would imagine this song will be titled “So Much to Defend”.  Definitely my favourite song of the last year.  Who else covers topics such as cooking sauces, zero hours’ contracts, using skype, yoga nights, take away food, gyms, fund raising charity runs and much more so eloquently in one song and with such a catchy tune that it could well eventually be covered by many others in many styles.  He really should record and release this song (hint, hint!).  Ray Davis of the Kinks was always regarded as the poet of the common man.  I think his title has been usurped by Chris Wood in recent years. A massive amount of applause followed this song.  A fair amount of banter was exchanged about ‘upper’ songs before his other ‘happy song’ – “My Darling’s Downsized”, another grown up love song, raising more than a few chuckles.  “Spitfire” was repeatedly requested and eventually played.  I haven’t heard him do this for a couple of years so it was a great treat.  For anyone not familiar, Chris emulates the sound of the Spitfires engines while singing.  A wonderful song.  Before what is his usual finale Chris talked of the difficulties of an English folk singer playing in Scotland.  On the evidence of tonight’s reception, he need have no more fears about being welcome.  The ever so slightly Country and Western “More Fool Me”, another unrecorded song officially finished the set.  Those wishing to record his shows on their phones to put on YouTube should take heed of the lyrics.  The crowd were not going to let him leave without an encore and what we got was Chris’s take of Martin Carthy’s version of Keith Christmas’s “The Fable Of Wings”.  This is a song he has taken to playing a lot just recently.  I have said a lot about Chris’s song writing but I really shouldn’t neglect his sparing but superb guitar style.  It’s mainly delicate and seemingly restrained but couldn’t match his songs better.  The notes in a similar way to Martin Carthy accentuate his words.  On the evidence of the night he need have no fear about future Scottish visits.  Perhaps a tour to launch a long overdue album of new songs.  I hope so in the near future.  If there is room for one cover on any new CD then Chris’s take on Smoky Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” would be a good contender.  A whole new genre of Folk Soul! (Not performed on the night).

The Ballads of Child Migration | Live Review | New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall | Review by Keith Belcher | 19.01.16

This was the live show of October 2015’s album Ballads Of Child Migration.  The album was originally commissioned for the current V&A exhibition On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants.  Audio and visual clips were from an Australian film, as yet unseen in the UK, The Long Journey Home directed by Emily Booker, based on the book The Forgotten Children by David Hill.  The many new songs and music cover not only emigrants to Australia but also Canada; commemorating a chapter of our recent history that many would have liked to remain ‘kept quiet’.  The songs and narration deal with the enforced migration and in some cases subsequent ill treatment of the more than 100,000 children who were sent unaccompanied to the colonies and Commonwealth between 1869 and as late as 1970, with many never to return.  That is not a typo it really did continue until 1970!  Government schemes sent children aged as young as 3, without their parents’ consent or knowledge, overseas for official promises of a better life.  Some fared well finding good loving homes but in many cases, abuse and loneliness was common and systemic.  Many were used as cheap labourers or servants in remote outposts.  Brothers and sisters were often separated and told their parents and siblings were dead.  The majority of the children, over 90,000 were sent to Canada.  The migration to Canada of children under 14 was banned in 1924.  Organisations then turned their efforts mainly to Australia where more than 7,000 were sent until the late 1960’s.  This disgraceful and shocking chapter of or history finally got recognition and an apology from then PM Gordon Brown on 24th February 2010.   For some reason, possibly the uncomfortable subject matter which could cause one to question so called men and women of God, philanthropists and our leaders, the show didn’t sell as well as expected.  A friend commented on the fact that the photographs of the children at the time were very familiar and it could have been us!!  The audience can always sense whether the artists performing are moved by subject matter and it was very obvious that everyone on stage was and had been moved by the stories they were telling in song, tune and narrative.  At the last minute it was moved from the very large Concert Hall to the smaller New Auditorium.  The house band was the first on stage.  Boo Hewerdine, Kris Drever, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Andy Cutting and Andy Seward.  Not a bad line up by anyone’s standards but it didn’t end there.  Narrator Barbara Dickson introduced the show and house band.  The first performers Chris While and Julie Matthews, ably backed by Barry Coope and Jim Boyes, all Radio Ballad veterans told the story of many leaving for Australia in a song “Small Cases Full of Big Dreams”, the title really says it all.  The lyrics were moving, ‘With a lie for most of their lives they’ll believe, They’re bound for paradise, for better lives, Small cases full of big dreams’.  The house band provided a haunting backdrop with Mike McGoldrick’s whistles merging beautifully with Andy’s box and John McCusker’s fiddle.  Next on stage were Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow and Jez Lowe. Jez must be one of the main ‘go to guys’ when a project like this is considered.  Before they performed Barbara gave more information about how the schemes had the approval of the Governments over the years, the Church, philanthropists and even the Royal Family.  The first of the audio visuals was presented before the next song.  Throughout the show there was a large screen situated above the performers which showed actual footage and audio clips from the now quite elderly children who were shipped abroad.  They told of the promises they were made.  Jez took lead vocals on “Barnado’s Party Time”.  A brisker number illustrating the bright promises made to the children.  Barnado’s Party was a suitcase label that adorned the cases of many young migrants.  “10,000 Miles” had wonderful harmonies lead by Barry and Jim, it told the story of many Scottish children sent to Canada.  This song was an addition for the night and didn’t feature on the album.  Barbara commented on Britain’s history of using emigration as a cheaper alternative than the cost of the Work Houses.  John Doyles song “Liberties Sweet Shore”, performed by Kris Drever eloquently told the tale of those sent forcibly to Quebec, making the point that in many cases passage was paid for by landlords as it was cheaper than paying work house costs.  ‘Two pounds a head for the passage, With ease our landlord surrendered, And wiped his hands clean as he tendered, From a distance he watched us go’.  A song I have heard John perform many times but never with the superb set of backing vocals that Kris called on for this performance.  Again a very haunting instrumental backing.  John McCusker is surely one of the best composers of bitter sweet melodies.  It has always eluded me why John Doyle never performs this or other of his songs while playing in Transatlantic Sessions but that’s another matter altogether.  Jez paraphrased the phrase ‘Sending Coals to Newcastle’ with a song about the Snow family, “Snow to Nova Scotia”.  Mike McGoldrick put down his pipes and whistles and played the Bodhran for this.  When you have John McCusker sitting next to you playing the whistle you can do that!  Barbara told with aid of an audio visual about the ideas that a brand new start severing all ties with previous life was often thought best.  This involved separating siblings and even placing them in different countries.  Chris and Julie sang their own composition, the very moving “Pinjarra Dreams” which told tales of separation and loneliness.  ‘Now I labour on the land, just an unpaid hired hand, And the burning sun it shines from morn till night, No mother’s loving arms, no father’s tender charms…’  Barbara then told of the lies some of the children were told before leaving to give them an expectation of ‘sunshine and roses’.  “Landfall” followed with Jez taking the vocal lead, a story of the joys and expectation of landfall after the ocean journey.  Over the years Jez has contributed greatly to this and many radio ballads with deftly written songs of social commentary.  Barbara with audio visual aid talked of the Church’s role in migration.  The Glasgow Youth Choir in suitable period dress assembled at the back of the stage to aid with the hymn “Whither Pilgrims Are You Going”, telling of going to ‘the better land’, many children were ‘encouraged’ to sing hymns at the dockside before boats embarked.  It told of how ‘Christ is waiting to receive us in that bright and better land’.  On that thought the first half ended to tumultuous applause, the audience having plenty to talk and think about during the interval.  A beautiful John McCusker composition “Leaving All We Know” opened the second half.  John’s fiddle and melody lines beautifully augmented by Andy’s box and later by Mike’s flute.  This was a refreshed version of a tune John wrote for his masterpiece Under One Sky which is (in my opinion) a CD every music lover should have in their collection.  Everyone waited for the final notes to fade before applauding.  Another moving audio visual followed telling tales of children arriving at remote destinations in Australia, many realising they were no longer in transit and this was it for the foreseeable future.  Julie’s song “Alien Land” with opening and closing notes from a didgeridoo played by guest Johnny MacAdam and sung by Chris and Julie with harmonies from Belinda and Heidi described the exiled orphans’ feelings, ‘Am I forsaken, am I forgotten, all hope taken of ever going home, What did I do, why was I damned and banished here to this alien land’.  A report from the 1870’s told that many emigrants were felt to have ‘bad blood’ and had become ‘plague spots in the areas’, hmm does that sound familiar?  Jez led on “Tainted Blood”, aptly exploring this point, ‘I saw three ships sailing high and tall, Beware that tainted blood’.  On this song Andy Seward swapped double bass duties with Kris Drever to play banjo.  The abuse in the name of religion and use of beatings to ‘purify the soul’ was dealt with next, one 13-year-old emigrant was beaten so badly his back was broken by a cane.  Regular beatings for minor causes were not uncommon.  His crime – oversleeping and being late for dairy duties!  “Devil’s Heart” sung and written by Chris and Julie sang of the evil men and women involved as the children’s answers to the hymn “Whither Pilgrims Are You Going”, ‘and now I lay me down to sleep and pray to God my soul to keep, But the one who answers in the dark, Is a holy man with a devil’s heart’.  A brutal institution in Freemantle run by the Christian Brothers which was built by the labour of children of all ages was the subject of a song by Boo Hewerdine and Kris Drever.  Lives were controlled and regulated by the Village Bell and the bullies.  “Village Bell” the name of the song.  Boo emerged from behind his music stand for this song.  Many of us hadn’t really seen him until this point.  Along with Jez, Boo is also one of the ‘go to guys’.  His prolific sing writing ability aptly displayed here.  Heidi and Belinda followed with a song “Two Mothers”, inspired by the film Oranges And Sunshine by Jim Loach.  Although the song is not on the CD it can be found on Belinda and Heidi’s CD The Hum.  Michael McGoldrick played Uilleann pipes for additional atmosphere.  An audio visual detailing the scars both mental and physical followed, this was particularly upsetting for many and Barbara was visibly moved by the film clip.  This was followed by a guest appearance by Eddi Reader both playing accordion and dueting with Boo on his very moving composition “The Man (Woman) That I Am”.  Next was a poem written over a hundred years ago by a returning migrant and set to music by Belinda and Heidi “Why Did I Leave Thee?”  The acknowledgement and apology from Gordon Brown followed.  Having seen this show, I along with probably most of the audience was more moved than when he made the statement back in 2010.  After that clip Barbara thanked everyone as well as inviting them back on stage and joined them in singing, much to the delight of both audience and cast, the reprised “Small Cases Full of Big Dreams”.  It would be safe to say that not only members of the audience were visibly moved but also many members of the cast who must have gone through a whole gamut of emotions during their involvement and research on this project.  The applause went on for some time, the discussions about the subject matter even longer.  This was a very memorable and moving night.  The relatively small audience who witnessed it were truly privileged.  Let’s hope that it can be performed again and visually recorded so that others can see and hear and realise this all happened not that long ago.  Thanks to Kit Bailey for the set list at the end of the show and Bryan Ledgard for the stunning audio visuals.  The CD in booklet form contains much more information on the topics covered by these songs as well as the song lyrics and the composer’s thoughts about the songs and their inspiration.

The Pitmen Poets | Live Review | Cast Theatre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.01.16

The Cast Theatre in Doncaster provided an ideal venue for this the thirteenth date of the Pitmen Poets’ current eighteen date UK tour, which brings together the combined songs, stories, poems and reminiscences of four noted singers and musicians from the North East of England.  With around 450 people passing through the doors of the popular Doncaster venue, the stage was set for an evening of entertainment of a different kind; songs specifically centred around a subject that is still raw in this neighbourhood.  The Pitmen Poets loomed large on the projected backdrop as people made themselves comfortable for what promised to be an uncomfortable ride.  One of the broad range of emotions that such a show brings with it manifested itself as anger with the opening chant of Jez Lowe’s “These Coal Town Days” ‘Howay man, they’re liars and they’re cheats’, repeated in unison by Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe as random archive images flashed upon the giant backdrop screen.  The show has been described as ‘An epic journey through the life and times of the people who made their living in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields’, which pretty much sums up the show.  Using the original Pitman Poet Tommy Armstrong’s material as a basis for the show, such as the light-hearted music hall-inspired “Stanley Market” and the sobering “Row Between the Cages”, peppered with original songs by Jez Lowe (“The Pitmen Poets”, “The Judas Bus”) and Billy Mitchell (“Shiftin’ to the Toon”), the variety of songs, poems and banter covered the essence of coal mining life from its beginnings to more recent events, which eventually led to the obliteration of communities.  Although the archive photographs, etchings and film footage that dominated the backdrop were somewhat random, there were one or two moments when the footage only too accurately matched the songs, such as the moment Jez Lowe sang the opening verse of “The Judas Bus”, when along came an old charabanc carrying the blackleg miners through the picket lines.  It has to be said that there were plenty of opportunities for collective jeering throughout the show, whenever footage of politicians and pit management popped up on screen, such as the NUM’s 1984/5 propaganda poster showing Margaret Thatcher apparently stealing from the striking miners, but the Doncaster audience remained silent and thoughtful throughout, taking each image in as the moving soundtrack continued with powerful songs that resounded throughout the theatre.   It would have been a little too daunting to sit through an entire concert of such powerful and thought-provoking songs without one or two moments of light relief, ably provided by Billy Mitchell, whose reminiscences of coal mining family life – outside loos and the ‘hard play areas’ of Northumberland – illustrated the less serious side of coal mining life.  Jez Lowe’s Country influenced “The Ex-Pitmen’s Potholing Pub Quiz Team” and Bob Fox’s crowd-pleasing “The Sheel Raw Flood” also encouraged smiles from the stalls as their onstage banter indicated only too well that the four singers were obviously enjoying themselves just as much as the audience.  A good night for the Pitmen Poets, an excellent night for Doncaster.

The Rails | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.01.16

Once again the ‘Backroom’ at the Greystones was suitably business-like for another gig, in an ever-expanding list of successful live events to be staged at the popular Sheffield venue.  The stage was initially set for the support band, a local duo comprising singer-songwriter Chelsea Alice Scott along with husband/partner Josh, which consisted of just a couple of guitars and a white Vox pre-amp on an otherwise empty stage.  The familiar sound of Anais Mitchell’s “Young Man in America” played over the PA system as the audience were seated.  Not so much packed to the rafters it has to be said, but certainly more than enough bodies around all of the tables to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.  One or two white Christmas decorations were still hung from the now famous monochrome backdrop as the duo took to the stage for their opening set, which was respectfully received by the audience.  The Rails, also a husband and wife team, featuring Kami Thompson and James Walbourne, brought to the stage a slightly intense performance tonight; you may be forgiven for fantasising on the image of the Pretenders guitarist jumping off stage at any given moment and wrapping his guitar around someone’s neck, such was the aggressive fervour in which he attacked his guitar, with an almost consistently pained grimace upon his face throughout the set.  It’s a rock and roll pose he’s entitled to exhibit, which comes with a talent to go with it; a sort of David Rawlings with clenched fists.  His musical partner beside him – his right hand woman so to speak – stood almost motionless, visually reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet yet audibly the hybrid of two music greats of any genre, with genes shared not only with mum and dad (Richard and Linda), but also with an equally successful sibling.  Promoting their current seven-song EP Australia, which is made up of predominately traditional material, along with one or two originals, the duo opened their set with their arrangement of “I Wish, I Wish”, demonstrating from the start the duo’s credentials for superb harmony singing, present throughout the rest of the set. “The Trees They Grow High”, a song apparently learned from a Martin Carthy LP that James picked up in a Holmfirth Oxfam charity shop for the princely sum of £1.50, once again showed just how tightly the duo’s vocal harmonies have developed over the last few years since they began working together in 2011, despite Kami losing control momentarily during the final verse.  A swift whiskey soon sorted that out.  The more familiar songs from the duo’s repertoire, notably “Bonnie Portmore”, “William Taylor”, “Breakneck Speed” and the title song from The Rails’ debut album Fair Warning, incidentally the first LP to be released on the famous Island ‘Pink’ label since the early 1970s, were all performed superbly, albeit with a more stripped-down to essentials arrangement to the album versions.  If the duo were prolific throughout the set with great songs, then their song introductions, verbal communication and general chit-chat was kept very much to a minimum, despite Kami’s smirking and well-timed aside “I’m known for my banter”.  Leaving the stage after performing “Fair Warning”, the audience demanded an encore and were pleasantly surprised and duly gratified when the duo returned to perform not one, not two but three more songs, James’s own “Mandy”, from an earlier EP, West Heath, Edwin Collins’ “Low Expectations” and finally the lilting Country-influenced “Habit”.  I then joined the queue to buy the EP which was selling like hot cakes.

Cheikh Lô | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.01.16

The bar on the first floor of the Grand Theatre building, home of Opera North, just next to the Howard Assembly Room, slowly began to fill as I made perfect good use of a cup of coffee before the show.  I’d never before noticed the two grand chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling above the bar nor the unlit lantern tucked away in an alcove above the doors, which were being guarded by a uniformed attendant until the sound check was done.  I say ‘uniform’ as if a black shirt and maroon waistcoat counts as such.  A young music student newly arrived at the Leeds College of Music sat next to me and enquired where the Howard Assembly Room was.  “It’s through those doors right there” I said, before embarking on a pleasant conversation with her.  I didn’t catch her name, but I soon discovered she was a musician who had worked in West Africa, hence her visit to the venue tonight.  This is one of the things I like about this venue; it doesn’t take any effort to spark up a conversation with those around you.  Tonight, the young student, myself and around a couple of hundred other people were at the Howard Assembly Room to see the Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô, together with his six-piece band.  Completing his short three-date UK tour, the other two shows being staged in both London and Glasgow, the singer and multi-instrumentalist slowly approached his centre stage position, his brightly coloured tunic hiding an extremely slender frame, echoed by those worn by the rest of the band.  His familiar dreadlocks were tucked away under a large beanie hat, beneath which his weathered rumpled features were almost entirely eclipsed by gold-rimmed John Lennon shades. Cheikh Lô armed himself with a couple of drum sticks and for the next ninety-minutes, beat out some of the most uplifting rhythms the venue has ever witnessed.  With no support band, the sound of Senegal soon filled the theatre and people were up dancing both at the back of the hall and up on the balcony.  Opening with the soulful Sante Maam from the singer’s mid-Nineties period Ne La Thiass album, the band demonstrated from the start their impressive and empathetic cohesion, especially within the percussion section, the band boasting both a drummer and a percussionist, together with Cheikh Lô himself leading many a furiously flamboyant flurry by way of his twin timbale, cowbell and splash cymbal set up.  The guitar and tenor saxophone added the melody lines throughout, with the singer occasionally picking up an electric rhythm guitar, as the band traversed the prolific Cheikh Lô repertoire, with earlier songs such as “Boul Di Tagale”, “Ne La Thiass”, “Guiss Guiss” and “Doxandeme”, together with one or two selections from the singer’s latest release Balbalou, including “Degg Gui”, “Doyal Nanu” and the title piece.  Speaking only six words in English throughout the set, “Will you sing with me please?”, Cheikh Lô found some fellow Senegalese fans in the crowd, who shouted up a few encouraging words, creating some friendly banter, especially when the singer discarded his jacket before taking to the drum seat for a riff-laden jazz workout, which the audience greeted with provocative whoops and hollers.  At 60, the Dakar-based singer embodies a wealth of musical influences from Cuban rhythms to Afro Beat with a nod towards reggae, which at times leads to confusion that he might actually be Rastafarian.  Cheikh Lô is in fact a member of the Baye Fall, a movement within the Mouride Sufi order of Islam, whose followers also wear dreadlocks as part of the order’s customs.  After about ninety-minutes of highly infectious syncopated rhythms, jazz-inflected sax solos and uplifting songs to dance to, the band left the stage to thunderous applause, followed by demanding hand claps and determined foot stomping for what seemed like minutes rather than seconds.  Heeding to the audience demands, the band returned for the one encore, the singer having removed his specs for the first time.  No one left the auditorium tonight in the slightest bit unfulfilled that’s for sure. 

Vieux Farka Toure | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.02.16

The last time I came to the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds was just over a week ago, when I was here to see a great set by the Senegal singer and percussionist Cheikh Lo.  As I was leaving the venue I noticed a record shop almost directly over the road, Relics Records, and made a mental note to pop in on my next visit to the city.  This afternoon I drove into Leeds a little earlier than usual to do a spot of what I think I do best, that is to browse through old LP records, the two ounces of black plastic with a hole in the middle variety, which in my case has always been akin to looking through old family photographs; memories of the past immediately springing from the gatefold sleeves, a memory of a time before the CD jewel case and minute insert where the printed word is only detectable with the help of a microscope.  Whilst browsing the bargain bins, the vintage jazz section, the Steve Miller Band’s back catalogue and in particular the store’s impressive Jimi Hendrix collection, I was reminded that the artist I was in town to see tonight has himself been referred to as the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’, a nice moniker to have and behold, although I should imagine a bit of a chore to live up to.  Tonight as I took my seat for what promised to be a remarkable show (at least I hoped so, as it was my job to remark upon it), I began to think what Jimi Hendrix might have made of these surroundings.  I would imagine that the guitarist’s pyrotechnic shenanigans at Monterey wouldn’t particularly go down as well with Opera North’s current health and safety policy.  To be honest I don’t think Vieux Farka Touré would really be up for pulling such a stunt, not in Leeds at any rate.  What he was up for doing though was to entertain a packed room with his own particular brand of Sahara blues, a music that apparently runs in the family.  Born in Niafunké, Mali in 1981, the son of legendary Malian guitar player Ali Farka Touré, Vieux was encouraged by his father to follow an entirely different path, that of a soldier, rather than becoming a musician like his dad.  It was the intervention of family friend Toumani Diabaté, a musician who played at this venue last year with his own son Sidiki, who convinced his friend that he should allow his son to become a musician.  Although Vieux Farka Touré is now known as a guitar player, his first forays into music was as a drummer and calabash player, presumably to shrug off his father’s initial influence, but eventually the genes dictated and a blues guitarist he became.  The Jimi Hendrix comparison was most noticeable tonight in the actual band format of guitar, bass and drums.  Joining the guitarist on stage was Jal and Biguy on bass and drums respectively, pretty much emulating the power of such trios as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Rory Gallagher’s Taste, but with their own specific African slant on things.  Vieux was quick to say after the show that this wasn’t really a band, which I read to mean that the focus of the show was the singer/guitarist with a hired rhythm section.  This may or may not be the case but the tightness of the overall sound indeed felt like a band.  Although the show was hugely enjoyable with the audience being treated to some exceptional musicianship throughout, there were times during the set where I found myself desperately hankering for some of the collaborative sounds the musician has brought to us through his records, such as the sound of the aforementioned Kora players Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, the Israeli pianist Idan Raichel who plays beautifully on Toure’s Mon Pays release and more recently the American singer Julia Easterlin, whose collaborative album Touristes is Vieux Farka Toure’s most recent release.  But we can’t have it all.  With little dialogue between the songs, the guitarist encouraging the audience to ‘move’ in their seats, demonstrating what he meant by ‘moving’ beneath his rich golden tunic.  The audience were soon moving, not only in their seats but out of them, in the aisles and up on the balcony.

Mulatu Astatke | Live Review | Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.02.16

Mulatu Astatke’s Peace, Love and Ethio-Jazz Tour brought the seventy-two year old pioneer of Ethopian jazz to the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds this evening for a thundering ninety minute set.  The revered vibraphonist brought with him a slick ensemble of seven musicians to wow the packed Yorkshire concert hall with a series of mostly self-penned compositions from an artist who, since erupting onto the scene in 1963, has not only carved a musical niche entirely of his own but has also collaborated with the cream of world music, including Mahmoud Ahmed and Duke Ellington, during his fifty-two year career.  Tonight, however, the focus was on Astatke’s unique Ethio-Jazz sound, led fiercely by Mulatu’s sinuous, resonating vibes whilst the engine of Alex Hawkins’s deep chunks of piano, John Edwards’s organically fluttering bass, Danny Keane’s beautifully nasal cello and Tom Skinner’s confidently steady drums rumbled with perpetual excitement behind.  That spreading liquidity of sound was dappled throughout with the physically demanding percussion of Richard Olatunde Baker who, during “The Way to Nice”, held the audience in a bubble of enchantment as he beat a solo path with his bongos and congas towards a haunting outburst of African chants.  Providing the jagged edge on the machine of Astatke’s impressive ensemble were trumpet wizard Byron Wallen, who swapped brass for conch to calm the erratic fervour of the wonderful Chik Chika, and London-based saxophonist James Arben who, like his fellow musicians at this evening’s consistently inventive concert, revelled in pushing his instrument to its very limits in order to explore the possibilities of its sounds.  But whilst most of tonight’s performances had the audience captivated with frenetic rhythms and improvisations, peaking with a gob-smacking energetic solo from bassist John Edwards during “Chik Chika” which could easily have seen off a less robust instrument, it was, perhaps, “Motherland” – Astatke’s meditative hymn to his native Ethiopia – that prompted a standing ovation at the show’s climax.

Gretchen Peters | Live Review | City Hall, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.002.16

After almost 45 years of attending concerts at Sheffield’s premiere venue, there’s still something quite thrilling about approaching the imposing building, with its grand classical architecture and stately steps.  The entrance to the Ballroom is to the right of those steps, just around the corner to the side of the building.  ‘It’s taken me ages to circumnavigate the building to find this door’ said one disgruntled punter, who obviously went the wrong way around.  The Ballroom itself reflects some of the City Hall’s fine exterior architecture, with the seating area flanked by a dozen white Doric columns as the 400 plus audience took their seats for the first of two sets by the New York-born singer-songwriter.  By her own admission, Gretchen Peters was pretty much ignored in the States during the early years of her career, not so in the UK though, where the Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s music was embraced quite early on by such broadcasters as Bob Harris and the late Terry Wogan who the singer paid tribute to tonight.  Arriving in the country at the end of last month and with just three more shows to go on this 20th Anniversary tour, the Nashville-based singer showed little sign of fatigue although at one point she jokingly quipped ‘at the end of the tour we always play better.. but smell worse’.  Perhaps the flowers were on stage for more than decorative purposes then?  After the show, Gretchen also spoke of missing her dog, which might possibly have been heightened by the appearance of an inanimate canine, who sat at her feet throughout the show.  Celebrating twenty years since the release of her debut album, The Secret Of Life, the tour focused on some of Gretchen’s most familiar songs from that period, such as “On a Bus to St Cloud” and “When You Are Old”, all the way through to her most recent album Blackbirds, with “When All You Got is a Hammer” and the title song, co-written by Ben Glover.  To accompany the tour, the singer has also just released a two-disc CD retrospective The Essential Gretchen Peters, most of which was covered tonight in Sheffield, including such memorable songs as “The Matador”, “Hello Cruel World” and “Guadalupe”, co-written with Tom Russell.  Gretchen told me after the show that it was difficult to know which songs to include and more importantly which ones to leave out.  ‘On reflection..’ Gretchen admitted, ‘“Idlewild” should’ve gone on the new compilation’  The song may have missed out on the selection for the record but it was very much there in all its thought-provoking glory in the set tonight.  Standing centre stage throughout the two sets, just taking to the piano for the one song “Independence Day”, which opened the second set, Gretchen surrounded herself with her ever-present musical collaborator/husband Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, together with a couple of musicians from Northern Ireland, Colly McClean on electric guitar and pedal steel, and Connor McCraynor on both electric and double bass.  Connor also provided some percussive stomp box in lieu of a drummer.  Finishing with an encore featuring Rodney Crowell’s Country rocker “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, Gretchen and her band left the stage, leaving behind a seemingly fulfilled audience, who rewarded the singer with much applause and the knowledge that she would be welcome back in these parts at anytime.

Ryley Walker with Danny Thompson | Live Review | The Ropewalk, Barton upon Humber | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.02.16

The unfeasibly long single-storey Ropewalk Arts building is set amongst a cluster of river cottages in the shadow of the imposing suspension bridge on the south bank of the Humber, on the outskirts of the small community of Barton upon Humber.  Arriving early in the hope of catching Ryley Walker and Danny Thompson for a brief and informal pre-gig chat, I soon discovered that the two musicians were running a little late due to traffic problems on the motorway and so I took the opportunity to walk along the riverbank taking in the extraordinary views of one of Britain’s great architectural feats, the Humber Bridge.  With no sign of either Ryley Walker or Danny Thompson, or indeed tonight’s support singer Meg Baird, I settled for a pint of Guinness in the nearby White Swan, where The Carpenters dominated the juke box.  ‘I love the Carpenters’ confessed the woman behind the bar as she cleaned glasses.  I decided not to get into that particular conversation no matter how inviting it may have been.  The pleasant February afternoon soon turned into drizzly evening as dusk approached over the Humber.  Shortly afterwards every seat in the house was taken for this much anticipated appearance by an undisputed legend of the British music scene, together with the new kid on the block.  I dare say much of the audience arrived with “Primrose Green” whirling around in their heads, serving their anticipation.  In my case it was Walker’s earlier album All Kinds Of You that accompanied my drive along the M180, yet there was something rather exciting about having Danny Thompson along that increased that anticipation level further.  I’m not sure whether Danny Thompson felt a slight tinge of nostalgia as he walked into the Ropery Hall tonight, with the familiar sound of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left playing over the PA system.  The musician was himself involved in that particular project back in 1969, his contribution being his distinctive double bass playing on no less than four of those timeless songs.  The choice of this pre-show music seemed to be fitting, not least for the opening singer, Meg Baird, known to many as the voice of Espers and Heron Oblivion, whose ethereal voice and sensitive songs mirrored some of Drake’s finer moments.  Casually attired in jeans and jumper, the singer settled the audience into the music with half an hour of sublime and enchanting songs, augmented by one or two Drakeian open tunings. It seemed only natural for Danny Thompson to accompany Ryley Walker on this tour, many of the guitar player’s musical influences the bassist has worked with, most of whom are now sadly absent friends; Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, John Martyn and the aforementioned Nick Drake.  Their music has been enhanced by the presence of Thompson over the years, and tonight, Walker’s songs were likewise enhanced by Thompson’s empathetic musicianship.  Whilst Walker was casually dressed with loose fitting shirt and jeans, Thompson looked rather stiff in his black suit, always straight-backed and carefully poised throughout.  He’s no spring chicken it has to be said.  Opening with “Sullen Mind”, the two musicians soon settled into their stride, with little banter other than the odd quip from the Devon-born bassist ‘Thank you for doing a job on Arsenal’ was one, referring to the club’s 0-0 performance with Hull City the day before, or ‘beats Flog It’ on his current musical situation and then ‘oh you young fellahs’ as the guitarist took a swig of Scotch direct from the bottle at his feet.  It was mainly about the music though, with one or two familiar songs such as the exhilarating “Summer Dress” and the expected “Primrose Green”, amongst a set of predominantly newer material.  In closing, the joy of working with Danny Thompson was apparent not only in the smile upon the guitarist’s face but also with the acknowledgement ‘who would’ve thought that someday I’d be eating sandwiches for two weeks straight with this man?’  Hope the sarnies were as good as the gig tonight.

Otava Yo | Live Review | Firth Hall, Sheffield University, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.02.16

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect tonight when I arrived at Sheffield University’s Firth Hall.  The imposing portraits lining each of the walls of Firth Court, an assortment of local philanthropists, master cutlers and benefactors of the earliest Sheffield steel firms, looked on in dignified silence.  Mark Firth stared down from his 19th Century perspective, his rugged Abraham Lincoln expression staring disapprovingly at my Levis and wondering ‘what the heck are all these Russians doing here in my building?’  The clues of what to expect from this evening were not in the fabric of the building itself but rather in the previous few days of watching hilarious video promos of Otava Yo in action, with their familiar white vests, winter hats and unusual instruments, performing such delights as the Russian Couplets While Fighting routine and that song about pancakes.  To the sound effect of birds and croaking crickets inhabiting an imaginary Russian lake, guitarist Alexey Skosyrev casually strolled on stage, followed by bass guitarist Timur Sigidin.  One by one the other musicians followed to a nervous smattering of applause that didn’t quite get off the mark; the audience didn’t quite know what to do.  Attired in what I imagine to be standard working class Russian accoutrement, the six members of the band could for all intents and purposes have come straight out of a Dostoevsky novel.  Opening with the enchanting introduction to “Kamarinskaya”, the band soon found their party feet and if the audience had been in any doubt as to what Otava Yo were all about, it soon became clear in their infectious music.  With a tight rhythm section made up of the aforementioned Alexey Skosyrev and Timur Sigidin, augmented by Petr Sergeev on percussion, each of whom lined the back of the stage, the line-up was completed by Yulia Usova and Dmitry Shikhardina sharing fiddle duties, together with Alexey Belkin, whose battered psaltery looked very much like it had seen some action, each of whom dominated the front of stage.  Alexey, who doubled as the band’s piper, also provided the song introductions, serving as the conduit between his fellow musicians and the audience, some of whom could speak Russian.  After enquiring ‘how many of you speak English?’ followed by ‘kak mnogiye iz vas govoryat Rossii?’, the charismatic musician built some rapport with the audience.  ‘We are Otava Yo who came from St Petersburg to sing a few Russian folk songs for you’.  And this is precisely what the band did for the duration of the generous two hour-long sets.  This is the band’s first UK tour and quite possibly the first time any of the audience had seen them.  Despite this, by the end of the concert, the music seemed very familiar, their highly infectious rhythms evoking the Russian country dance.  I sensed that the multi-generational audience were itching to get up to dance but for some inexplicable reason managed to restrain themselves.  Such familiar songs as “They Wukk Recruit Me”, “Those Pancakes of Mine” and “The Tale of Ivan Groove” rubbed shoulders with a couple of unidentified mountain songs and even Christmas songs, but still no dancing.  The second set saw the band appear on stage dressed in their more familiar white vests and floppy Russian winter hats, opening with their James Bond-styled knees-up “Quadrille”.  For authenticity, Dmitry produced a megaphone for “The Twisting and Turning Blue Scarf”, which was also accompanied by the sound effect of a crackly old 78rpm record.  The theatrics are consistently engaging but never at the expense of the band’s supreme musicality.  Towards the end of the concert, the band pulled out possibly their most beautiful and accomplished piece, a song called Ivan the Crawfish, with its heart-lifting build and ultimate crescendo, but not before Alexey and Dmitry performed their ritual fighting routine to the strains of “Russian Couplets While Fighting”.  After introducing the band and announcing the final song, Alexey invited the audience to get up and dance, something he should have probably done a lot earlier, as the front of stage was immediately filled with folks who only needed to be asked once.  So relieved were the band that they continued with at least a couple more tunes, “Street Cleaner” and “The Story of Dima and Pyeta”, which ultimately brought this fascinating show to a close.  I’m sure it won’t be long before Otava You return to Sheffield.  I hope not.

The Shee | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.02.16

Leeds was its usual busy self by the time I arrived in the city this afternoon as the Saturday afternoon shoppers dispersed and the night owls descended.  With each of the six members of The Shee arriving from all points North, it was a feat of professionalism on the part of both the band and the venue to have the sound checks all done and dusted by easily around five-ish, with even a little time to spare to do a spot of filming for Opera North.  This gave me ample time to have a chat with the ever accommodating Laura-Beth Salter backstage at the Howard Assembly Room.  Celebrating ten years together as a band, The Shee show little sign of fatigue, despite their busy individual schedules.  The six could quite easily have become seven at any given moment tonight, with Lillias Kinsman-Blake’s bump very much in evidence up there on stage, whilst Rachel Newton occupied the extreme opposite side of the stage, not firing on all cylinders (physically speaking) and still nursing a stonker of a cold, which meant the harpist couldn’t speak, let alone sing.  This happened to Emily Portman at Musicport back in October.  The faeries are cursed.  The Howard Assembly Room is an ideal venue for The Shee, the stage offers an almost custom made space for these six musicians to form their familiar crescent.  The acoustics are always good, the lighting perfect and the atmosphere conducive to great acoustic music.  Unaware of the building’s history, I was surprised when support singer Fuzzie Jones pointed out that the place used to be an ‘adult cinema’ prior to Opera North transforming the place into a respectable concert theatre.  Flanked by guitarist Jonny Flockton and Fletch the bassist, the Leeds-based singer provided some self-penned songs to warm the place up ready for the main event.  The Shee’s latest project Continuum, a show the band launched at Celtic Connections recently, sees each of the musicians collaborating with a chosen artist, each one especially commissioned to write a song that would suit their counterpart.  Laura-Beth asked Martin Simpson, who delivered the gorgeous “Dancing Shoes”, which was prefaced tonight by a tune Martin wrote in tribute to the late Jasper King.  Olivia asked Chris Wood who came up with “Cradle Song”, Lillias asked flautist Brian Finnegan who presented her with “Soaring Sea”, Amy asked Andy Cutting who gave the accordionist “Lady Grey” – ‘I’m not sure whether it’s about Newcastle’s Lady Grey or the tea, I’ll have to check with him’ quipped Amy before she launched into the piece.  Shona’s choice was Kathryn Tickell, who provided the fiddler with “O’er Late for the Lasses” based on an older traditional tune.  Fortunately all those musicians agreed and six new pieces were instantly added to The Shee’s repertoire.  All of the songs and tunes were performed tonight, except for the song that Karine Polwart wrote for Rachel, who was unable to sing the song tonight due to her absent voice.  Although the six new commissions, each destined to appear on the band’s forthcoming album Continuum due out later in the year, made up half of the set, the band were only too willing to look back over their ten years together with one or two more familiar songs such as “Troubles” which the band opened with, the sprawling ballad “Eppie Morrie”, also from their Decadance period and the popular “Tom Paine’s Bones”.  There was also a moment of clog dancing courtesy of Amy Thatcher.  Closing with the more recent Inge’s, a set of tunes from the band’s most recent release Murmurations, the band returned for an unexpected request of “Sugar and Pie”.  ‘That’s our most un-PC song’ confessed Laura-Beth, to which the audience member who called for it responded ‘I love it!’  The band muddled through the under-rehearsed song, which provided a fitting end to an otherwise note-perfect concert.

Sam Lee | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.03.16

The measure of a good show can often be judged by the way the stage looks upon arrival.  Tonight the stage was dominated by the huge Steinway standing majestically to the left, rendering the tiny shruti box, casually propped against the centre chair, positively dwarfed in comparison.  The shruti box in turn stood lofty when compared to the smallest instrument on the stage, the Jew’s Harp sitting atop an opened wooden box next to the centre monitor.  Sixteen mic stands suggested the imminent arrival of a full-on orchestra, but alas, Sam Lee would be accompanied by just three musicians; the centre stage was set for the opening act, a duo from Northumberland who go by the name of The Brothers Gillespie. James and Sam, unmistakably brothers, both of whom share not only similar voices but hairstyles too, provided a short and laid-back set of songs chiefly culled from their debut release Songs From The Outlands.  Accompanying themselves on guitars, mandolin, fiddle and shruti box, the siblings introduced the Leeds audience to their dreamy soundscapes with such songs as “Spancil Hill”, “Twa Corbies” and “Devilswater”, reminiscent of Robin and Barry Dransfield, for those old enough to remember.  Sam Lee apologised for appearing like a plasterer on his tea break, attired in a work-like t shirt and jeans, insisting that he intended wearing his now familiar shirt and waistcoat but didn’t want to upstage Sam Gillespie who appeared likewise.  So familiar is the shirt and waistcoat combination these days, that the audience almost insisted that the singer run along and get changed and the singer indeed offered to do so.  A quick glance over at the stage manager proved to be the deciding point on that issue and the show continued immediately, t shirt and jeans and all.  Sam Lee has an almost mystical presence whether in t shirt and jeans, gypsy shirt and waistcoat or top hat and tails. He is surrounded by a mystique that is enormously engaging and utterly spellbinding.  Moments into the ethereal “Over Yonders Hill”, it’s clear that the voice is the most important instrument in the performance, despite stellar accompaniment courtesy of band regulars Josh Green on percussion and Jon Whitten on Mongolian dulcimer, ukulele and grand piano, with Dan Oates replacing regular fiddler Flora Curzon.  I would further mention the sound crew who played their part in making tonight’s performance all the more enjoyable with every word, note and percussive sound clearly audible, their attention to detail admirable and very much appreciated.  As the conduit between the gypsy and traveller communities of the British Isles and the audiences Sam Lee performs before, the songs are beautifully evocative of times past and times present.  Each performance is treated to its own specific setting, with Josh Green occasionally re-organising his equipment to allow the percussionist to be seated on the floor, to explore an entirely different soundscape on certain songs.  The same can be said of the other musicians, including Sam himself, whose shruti drones, jews harp flurries and whistled introductions added to the sonic variety.   With the emphasis being on Sam’s most recent album release The Fade In Time, songs such as “Moorlough Maggie”, “Blackbird”, “Phoenix Island”, “Bonny Bunch of Roses” and “Lovely Molly” made it into the set as well as one or two older songs including “Goodbye Darling” and “Wild Wood Amber”, all of which could certainly be considered a treat for this Leeds audience.

The Coven | Live Review | Slaithwaite Civic Hall | Review by Keith Belcher | 05.03.16

My first journey to Slaithwaite (pronounced Sla’ Wit) was an interesting one.  Lots of very serious gradients, both up and down, before eventually reaching the town which is situated in the Colne Valley, West Yorkshire.  There was running water on the roads and the temperature was just above freezing.  I don’t actually pray but was fervently hoping it didn’t freeze during the show as getting home again might be somewhat difficult.  This show, the third of ten,  was inspired by International Women’s Day and the artists had decided that the would stretch one day to 10 and do a short tour.  Those involved in order of appearance were Grace Petrie, locals Belinda O’Hooley with partner Heidi Tidow and finally Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew otherwise known as Lady Maisery.  The first thing to note was that no act was the headliner, this was a show of equals.  Grace opened, followed by Belinda and Heidi and then Lady Maisery.  Second set saw a reverse running order.  Of course there were some collaborations along the way.  All came on stage at the same time and stayed there throughout.  Hannah James looked to be enjoying herself so much I think she would have been happy to pay for the privilege.  The Nook Brewery from Holmfirth had played their part by brewing a special ale called Coven Beer.  Belinda quipped they had all contributed a lock of hair for the brew.  More on that later.  Grace introduced herself as a Left Wing Protest Singer, think young female Billy Bragg with far more attitude and possibly more humour.  She performed three songs solo on guitar, one angry, “I Do Not Have The Power To Cause a Flood”, her one and only happy “Ivy” and one sad, “Iago”.  “Ivy” told the story of hurriedly leaving Glastonbury in 2014 to be present for the birth of her niece Ivy.  A heartfelt ‘Thanks for not coming during Dolly Parton’ was a memorable line.  Grace then introduced Belinda and Heidi who opened with “The Hum” from the album of the same name.  This was inspired by a house purchase which fell through when the prospective buyers realised there was a constant hum of industry.  Nice modulating harmonies employed throughout.  Another song from the same album followed “Two Mothers”, inspired by Jim Loach’s film “Oranges and Sunshine” concerning enforced Child Migration.  It also features on the very excellent album Ballads Of Child Migration.  A very new fast paced song called Tour de Force inspired by Maxine Peake’s play about legendary local champion cyclist Beryl Burton.  This also featured the first collaboration with  everyone joining in, backing vocalists aptly titled The Berylettes for the evening.  So from Grace’s solo voice to  two voices and now onto three as Lady Maisery started with “Katy Cruel” from Mayday.  Hannah commented how excited she was which prompted a quip from Belinda about having a restraining order on Hannah.  Throughout the show there was much humour, at times everyone on and off stage was laughing.  I wish all shows had such obvious enjoyment from both on and off stage.  Those who have seen Belinda before will know her sometimes dry, humorous asides but tonight she was in exquisitely good form.  Her humour contrasting with Grace’s more direct style.  Lady Maisery play various instruments, Hannah on Accordion, Rowan on Fiddles and Hazel on Harp and Leg-Bells with outstanding three part harmonies.  They use an old style of singing called Diddling or Tune singing, not found so much in Britain these days but still used in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  Following “Katy Cruel” was “Honest Work”, about Sweatshops, thought to be a Todd Rundgren song.  The harmonies on this were just sublime.  A couple of Diddling tunes followed, Bagpipers and Sheila’s 70, the complex vocals and Accordion made this a quite joyous sound which brought more than a few appreciative yells from the audience.  The first real collaboration of the evening brought the set to a close.  Inspired by a female textile workers strike a pizzicato intro led into Rowan leading on “Bread and Roses”.  The, at times, six-part harmonies on this were just delightful.  The line ‘As We Go Marching’ building to a crescendo before switching back to Rowans solo vocals.  The humour continued into the second set with Rowan commenting that she could taste Belinda’s fringe in the beer, Belinda quipping back that she had just found a nit.  Lady Maisery sang “Sing For The Morning” to open the music.  Followed by Leon Rosselson’s very powerful “Palaces of Gold”, a song inspired by the Aberfan disaster.  A very tragic tale told with beautiful acapella harmonies. A very different version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” followed, ‘Is she here?’, quipped Rowan, ‘No , she lives in Linthwaite’, a local joke, Belinda replied.  Next up was Grace who chatted about her continuing failure to sing at Whitby Folk Festival before launching into “A Revolutionary In The Wrong Time” which has the great line ‘I tried selling out but nobody bought’.  I think the biggest laugh of the night came when Grace simulating a hot flush, undid her shirt to reveal a Jeremy Corbyn T Shirt in Superman colours and style.  Possibly one of the few times that  Jeremy has been made a sex symbol as Grace joked about questioning her sexuality.  When the laughter had died down Grace changed mood and sang the anthemic “Farewell To Welfare”, written in 2010 but sadly just as relevant now.  Some great lines in this song eg ‘What’s the use when they are all cut from the same Eton silk?’.  Resounding applause in Slaithwaite for this song.  “If There’s A Fire In Your Heart” finished off Grace’s mini set, this time joined by everyone on stage, the six-part harmonies nicely working with Grace’s more strident style, especially at the end.  Belinda and Heidi sang the very dark, atmospheric and eerily beautiful “Between The Bars”, led by Belinda’s subdued Piano and laced with soaring and powerful reverb and echo effects from Belinda as Heidi took lead.  An anti war song dedicated to the late, great Tony Benn, “Like Horses”, followed before a collaboration from everyone on “Coil And Spring”, a co-write with Boff Whalley being a tribute to Pussy Riot.  Two encore songs brought the show to an end. The first “Quitting Time” by The Roches and then a possibly impromptu “Never Turning Back” performed acapella, off mike at the edge of the stage.  One of those increasingly very rare events where it was truly obvious to all that the artists on stage enjoyed themselves just as much as the audience.  Would that the Brewery or someone could have bottled this show, it would be a real tonic.  A really great night , made all the better by there being no ice on the hills for the journey back home.

Blue Rose Code | Live Review | The Live Room, Saltaire | Review by Keith Belcher | 04.03.16

Following Angel Snow and Matthew Perryman Jones the second great gig in a week at The Live Room saw a return visit of Blue Rose Code (aka Ross Wilson).  Last year Ross was accompanied by Lyle Watt on Guitar/Mandolin and Graham Coe on Cello.  Changes this year saw a Ross with Lyle now titled ‘Wild’ Lyle Watt and his drummer John Lowrie, playing not drums but Keyboards and Accordian and earning the title ‘Jazz Fingers’ from Ross.  As it was official launch day for Ross’s new CD, And Lo, The Bird Is On The Wing many of the songs played were from the new release.  Ross has often been compared to John Martyn and Van Morrison so not surprisingly there was a wide diversity of tempo and mood.  Some of ‘Wild Lyles’ guitar licks were worthy of comparison with John Platania furthering the Morrison comparisons.  It was obvious from the start that both Blue Rose Code and the Saltaire audience were going to have a great night.  With Lyle and John remaining seated throughout the gig Ross virtually bounced about the stage demonstrating both the range and power of his voice by moving in and away from the microphone for effect.  Blessed with a wonderful voice that ranges from a sensual whisper to an angry growl Ross started the night with an extended jazz-tinged “In The Morning Parts 1 and 2” (and possibly 3) from the new CD.  A swirling piano intro from John and wonderful use of Ebow from Lyle to finish the song.  During the night Lyle’s use of Ebow was possibly the best I have ever heard.  Most of the songs in Set 1 were from the new CD.  “Come The Springtime” from debut album North 10 neatly segued into Hugh MacDiarmids poem Scotland with Ross jokingly commenting on his the slick professional arrangement.  “Pokesdown Waltz”, surely a contender for best break up/Divorce song of the last few years had a touching refrain of ‘My One Wish is I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye’.  Not content with playing new songs from the CD Ross sang an even newer unrecorded song “Sandaig”, named after the house of close friends in the North of Scotland .  Ross finished the set with “Oh North” from Ballads Of Pecckham  Rye.  A song about the joys of travelling north, an alien concept to many southerners but there we go.  Another poem put to music opened the second set Acquainted With The Night by Robert Frost.  Again very ethereal use of Ebow and guitar creating an atmosphere that reminded me of John Martyn’s “Small Hours” from One World.  The transition to “Silent Drums” was pure John Martyn.  There were many more familiar songs from earlier CDs in set 2.  From Westeros to Nova Scotia and the immensely well received “One Day at a Time” and “Ghost of Leith” all featured.  The musicianship on the night was tremendous.  Ross half joked that it would be wise to get Lyles signature on CDs, on this gigs performance he wasn’t kidding and if Johns main instruments are drums then I would love to see him live playing them as his Keyboards skill was quite something.  The last song in the show the  energetic Julie was announced to audience dismay but Ross responded with a knowing wink.  Lyle played some wonderful Mandolin and the song had great audience participation in the closing chorus.  A solo Ross took to Keyboards for the first encore song, a beautiful and sensitive song possibly titled “I Don’t Know How To Be In Love” which was followed by a full trio rendition of “Grateful” weaving “Shipley” into the verses.  Both Lyle and John demonstrating their musical chops during this song.  It was very obvious that both the band and audience  had a great time.  Ross stated that the Live Room was  a truly great venue and he paid further tribute to the audience by saying it was obvious the audience were discerning and genuine hard core music fans.  And Lo…., is the third Blue Rose Code full length CD and they just keep getting better.  Ross knows he will be welcome back for a third visit.

Reg Meuross | Live Review | The Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.03.16

This unassuming venue, originally established to cater for the social needs of the local Ukrainian community of Doncaster, seems an unlikely place for a Somerset-based musician to launch his brand new album, but that’s precisely what Reg Meuross did tonight.  A 460 mile round trip, made all the more difficult by the singer-songwriter suffering from the latter stages of a virus, which Reg explained ‘feels like an African evening going on in my head, with cicadas chirping away right here’ pointing to his forehead.  If that wasn’t enough, Reg went on to inform his audience that he had accidentally put petrol into his diesel-fuelled car back in Somerset.  ‘God knows what damage I’ve done’ he pondered, going on to say ‘I don’t like the silence in this room at this stage, it’s slightly worrying’.  This slightly embarrassing topic would pop up now and again during the course of the night.  So with a fuzzy head, which actually took nothing away from the performance at all, along with the worry about his diesel-starved car outside, the popular singer-songwriter appeared on stage at the Roots Music Club this evening ready to entertain a very healthily packed audience here in Doncaster.  His new CD December would feature quite heavily in the set as well as one or two more familiar songs from his impressive back catalogue.  For someone obviously suffering from something he would rather not be suffering from, Reg was on his usual top form both in voice and in his guitar playing, which was made all the more pleasing by having a recently restored 1944 Martin at his disposal.  This may in fact be one of the reasons Reg chose Doncaster for his Northern album launch, as Stu Palmer, the luthier who restored the guitar, not only works just around the corner from the venue and runs the sound desk for the club, but was also a member of the support band Americarnage tonight.  Playing just the one set, Reg opened with a tribute to William Morris on what would have been the leader of the Arts and Crafts movement’s 180th birthday with “What Would William Morris Say?”  Settling into the set with such familiar songs as Tony Benn’s “Tribute to Emily Davison” and the seemingly contentious “My Name is London Town”, Reg worked his way towards introducing a selection of songs from the new album that was being launched up North tonight.  Referring to the content of the new album as ‘miserable love songs’ as opposed to the familiar story songs, Reg pledged to drop them in every now and then so as to avoid hitting the audience with ‘too much misery in one go’.  The first new song Reg introduced was in fact the album opener, the Leonard Cohen-flavoured “When You Needed Me”, which was immediately followed by the tender coupling of “I Want You and She Knew Love”, two songs that immediately tug at the heart strings.  Conversely, the next song was destined to put pressure on other emotions currently being felt in society, a song that addresses the current ludicrous austerity measures, “Far Away People”, which was probably even more poignant to the people in this neck of the woods.  With some fine singalong songs towards the end of the set including “The Goodbye Hat” and “England Green and England Grey”, both of which encouraged some enthusiastic audience participation, the focus was pretty much on the new album, with most of the new songs performed tonight with the obvious exception of “Christmas Song”, and all played in precisely the same way they were in the studio, one man and one rather beautiful guitar.  Reg concluded the set with an audience request, “The Man on the Moon”.  Singer-songwriter Bob Chiswick was the master of ceremonies tonight, his warm humour and casual manner making the evening flow well from the outset.  Earlier in the evening he introduced the local five-piece band Americarnage, led by the aforementioned Su Palmer with his old friend Mick Swinson on guitar, Mike Miller on dobro, Mick Jackson on bass and John McKevitt on harmonica.  The band performed tasty arrangements of such songs as the Dylan staple “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, Goebell Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby” and the standard “Fix Me a Pallet on the Floor” amongst others.  Sandwiched between Americarnage and tonight’s main guest was Sheffield’s own Shaun Hutch, a hard-working singer-songwriter and interpreter of traditional folk songs, who tonight played a short and engaging set, which included such songs as “The Banks of Loch Morlich”, “The Wish” and “Jock Stewart”.

Moonbeams March Weekend 2016 | Live Review| The Bell Hotel Driffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.03.16

If you arrive a little late for an event, in this case a day late, then you’re usually reminded of what you missed the night before by those who have already sampled the beer, tested the huge variety of whiskeys, slept it off and then pretty much settled themselves into the swing of things.  The Moonbeams March Weekend was pretty much in full-flow by the time I arrived at the Bell Hotel in Driffield this afternoon, just in time to catch the young Hull singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, whose midday set was just the thing to help me get settled in at this ungodly hour of almost twenty hours late.  Katie seems to pop up a lot these days, a young musician who appears to be passionate about her music yet continues to maintain an unassuming, almost diffident stage presence.  Selecting from a steadily growing repertoire of self-penned songs, some quite teeny, like “Incense Skin” for instance, Katie relaxed into her set, seemingly equally at home with her own songs, the odd cover, in this afternoon’s case John Martyn’s “Couldn’t Love You More”, as well as the occasional instrumental, including the almost ambient Wyndham Hill-styled “Warehouse One”.  This was a promising start to the day at this year’s Moonbeams March Weekend, which had already previously featured appearances by The Alligators, Flossie Malavialle, Edwina Hayes, Andy Stones and Nick Rooke.  Whilst singaround sessions were to be found in the main bar area throughout the weekend, which would often see some of the main guests popping in for a sing and play, the dining area had been virtually taken over by various art projects, bringing another aspect to the event, which included the involvement of younger people demonstrating their artistic endeavours.  Pete and Polly Bolton, known for their work in the popular local band Whiskey Dogs, presented a relaxed family affair type of set, featuring songs that one imagines the father and daughter have played around the house for years.  Woody Guthrie songs, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark songs, the sort of Americana that appears to run through the veins of at least two generations of the East Yorkshire-based Bolton family.  Whilst Pete selected songs from his vast repertoire of Old Timey material, accompanying himself on both guitar and banjo, Polly contributed some fine mandolin playing as well as those all-important harmony vocals.  With Leila Cooper at the helm of things throughout the weekend, an organiser who works tirelessly to bring great music to the area, the efforts of regular Moonbeams supporters didn’t go unnoticed, such as Andy Atkinson and Martin Pierson, who MC’d both the Town Hall stage and the Maple Room stage respectively, as well as Gerry and Ani McNeice, who both likewise looked after the sound.  Other artists performing throughout the day included Orkney’s Brian Cromarty and Douglas Montgomery, otherwise known as Saltfishforty, Chris While and Julie Matthews, local singer-songwriter Andy Stones, York-based Dave Keegan and Simon Snaize, who wafted in at the eleventh hour as well as the all-female six-piece folk outfit Raven, a band that broke the festival record for the most instruments on stage, including accordion, flute, whistle, guitar, bass, keyboard, ukulele, bongos, djembi, wind stick and assorted shakers, with one or two of the members swapping places throughout the set to spice it up a bit. Spice Girls for a more seasoned audience perhaps?  Freshly relocated back to their home turf after some time in the Lake District, husband and wife team Phil and Jessica Simpson took to the Maple Room stage to headline tonight’s concert.  With Phil playing guitar and Jessica taking her usual stance, which involves hugging an autoharp, the duo provided a fine set that included such songs as Jessica’s own “Molly of the Tyne”, Iris Dement’s “Our Town” and Dar Williams’ “Iowa”, before closing with the Bob Dylan song “It Ain’t Me Babe”.  It has to be said that Holy Moly and the Crackers really did exceed all expectations after illness almost scuppered their appearance at the festival tonight.  Ruth Patterson, an integral part of the band’s sound, was suffering from a chest infection but was prepared to soldier on regardless with a stellar performance.  Once their opening song “Bluebell Wood” was in full flow, the band relaxed into one of their usual high-energy performances which was just right for a Moonbeams event.  Billed as a winter event on the Moonbeams calendar, the weekend served to put most of the regular visitors in the mood for the annual Moonbeams Summer Festival, which takes place at the Wold Top Brewery on the East Yorkshire Wolds near Hunmanby in July.  Once again the festival boasts a highly respectable line-up this year featuring The Treacherous Orchestra, Rura, Hope and Social, The Young’uns, Coco and the Butterfields and many more.  I guess if I can get my own act together, there’s every chance I might just turn up on time to that one!

Rachel Ries | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.03.16

The rush hour traffic in Sheffield was particularly kind to me tonight as I crossed the city towards the Greystones, where I was scheduled to sit down with South Dakota-born singer-songwriter Rachel Ries for a pre-gig chat, which I have to say I was very much looking forward to.  I first heard about Rachel through her friend and musical collaborator Anais Mitchell, who I’d previously sat down with at this very establishment only a couple of years earlier.  I say ‘sat down’ but in fact we actually stood up, out in the car park catching a bit of fresh air whilst her then touring partner Michael Chorney sound-checked inside.  On that occasion, a motorbike rumbled around the neighbourhood, as it noisily serpentined along the Endcliffe streets, finally coming to a halt right in front of us in the car park.  Ah, the joys of background disturbance during interviews.  Tonight, the bar was its usual bustling self as the clientele divided itself into two camps, those who had come along to see Rachel Ries in the Backroom and those who had come along to take part in the pub quiz in the bar.  After her sound-check, which I witnessed from the bar, Rachel joined me for a quick catch up whilst she scrutinised the pub menu.  ‘What do you recommend?’ she asked, assuming I was ah fait with the local cuisine, ‘..the steak and ale pie or the chicken pie?’ she continued.  ‘I’d go for the steak and ale pie if you think you can handle it’ I suggested, unhelpfully.  Later onstage, just after her opening song “Got You Good”, the singer would declare ‘Whist I enjoyed the pie I had moments ago, I’m regretting it very much’.  Well I tried to warn her.  With a vivid red electric guitar and matching lips, Rachel dominated the Backroom stage, basking in the glow of a single white spotlight, whilst delivering a set of highly idiosyncratic self-penned songs before a healthy ‘Wagon Wheel’ audience.  There’s a sophisticated confidence to Rachel’s onstage manner, reminiscent of Devon Sproule, at once at ease with the relatively engaging audience.  ‘It freaks me out when English audiences are so quite when I’m over here’ she said, encouraging everyone to heckle, ask questions, shout out requests and generally enjoy themselves.  ‘Get off’ called out one eager voice.  ‘hmmmm… no’ responded the singer, half decisively.  When Rachel asked if anyone in the audience had any questions, one willing participant immediately responded ‘what’s your favourite dinosaur?’  I was so impressed at just how quickly Rachel returned with ‘the Apatosaurus’, followed by some self-congratulatory words of achievement ‘deep cuts, deep cuts’.  It’s easy to fall in love with Rachel Ries.  After a handful of solo songs to open the set, including “Pleasant Valley Reservoir”, “Better Wife” and “Unkind”, to which the singer quipped ‘pity the man who got that song written for him’, Rachel called upon the assistance of touring partner and cellist Sarah Smout, declaring ‘Sarah’s one of yours’ as she introduced the Yorkshire-born musician to the stage for the remainder of the set.  Once Sarah joined Rachel on stage, the arrangements became more complex, augmented by some fine harmony vocals, especially on the utterly gorgeous “Hands to Water”.  ‘Enough about boys’ Rachel declared as she moved into the ‘Families, Grandmothers and Mennonite’ portion of the set, continuing with one or two songs from Rachel’s most recent full-length album Ghost Of A Gardener, “Willow”, “Holiest Day” and the song the title derives, “Ghost”.  The closing few songs were recently written for Rachel’s brand new Cardinel EP, which features a selection of songs written while on a writing retreat in Rouen last June.  Four of the songs made it onto the EP and three of those songs made it into tonight’s set, those being “Winding Road”, the evocative “Homing” and finally “Anchor”, which served as the finale to the show tonight.  Earlier in the evening, Ian Bramall and Sarah Sharp, otherwise known as Yellowcake, brought to the Sheffield stage a handful of their own self-penned songs, which the duo describe variously as ‘half brooding folk, half silly pop and half bad maths’.  With Ian accompanying himself on guitar, whilst Sarah alternated between piano and violin, the duo performed such songs as “Saints Were Sleeping”, “Unbroken Blue” and the jolly little finisher “Scrubs Lane Kite Flying Club”.  Sandwiched between Yellowcake’s set and the main feature was Rainy Day Club frontman Tom Baxendale, who whilst accompanying himself on both electric and acoustic guitar, was appreciative of the audience’s courtesy, obviously used to noisy bars, as he performed such songs as “How You Gonna Make Me Stay”, “Our Reluctant Host” and the sleek “I’ll See You Again”.

The Unthanks and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra | Live Review | The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.03.16

You really don’t have to have been in the city of Liverpool too long before The Beatles enter your mind; it really comes at you almost subliminally, yet with a discernible force, whether it comes to you by way of the sound of Fab Four blaring out from the taxi radio as it swings by the imposing Radio City tower, or maybe just as the iconic Magical Mystery Tour bus flies by the taxi outside Lewis’s department store, the tour guide no doubt dropping the name George Harrison to spellbound tourists onboard.  Then again it might be a party of Japanese schoolgirls asking the way to the Cavern Club or the myriad of memorabilia items in the various shop windows along Mathew Street.  Liverpool could not escape the legacy of the 1960s even if she wanted to.  It’s not just The Beatles though, or for that matter the whole Mersey Beat sound that Liverpool is famous for; the city has a 175 year old relationship with Classical music as well.  Midway between the brooding Anglican Liverpool Cathedral at the top of Hope Street and the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, known locally as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’, at the other end, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall stands with its brutal brickwork dominating the street where it has stood since it was rebuilt in 1939.  Inside the building tonight, the foyer was busting with activity as visitors picked up their tickets, shuffled to their seats and prepared themselves for something beautiful.  Musicians from the orchestra were already milling about the stage tuning their respective instruments and adjusting music stands, microphone stands and stage monitors as the hall filled to capacity.  Tonight, under the rather lofty heading, A Symphonic Adventure with The Unthanks: Folk Songs Old and New, we would see for the first time, one of the most talked about bands on the current folk music scene performing with a full 60-odd piece philharmonic orchestra as part of the Philharmonic’s 175th anniversary programme, which also sees various other events at the venue in a season of special concerts.  Taking their usual places in the centre of the stage were Rachel and Becky Unthank, slightly further apart from one another than usual, the centre space reserved for the charismatic orchestra conductor Charles Hazlewood, whose highly choreographed body movements would become legendary to those present over the next couple of hours. With all the orchestral arrangements carefully worked out by Adrian McNally, no mean feat for a musician who claims not to read or write music, with technical assistance from Peter Riley (who definitely does), the band were prepared to take a leap into the relatively unknown tonight, with an adventurous excursion into to a rather different musical world.  Opening with “Ma Bonnie Lad” swiftly followed by “Madam”, from the band’s current album Mount The Air, the musicians soon demonstrated that this sort of collaboration can work if enough love and care is put into it.  You sensed immediately that this wasn’t worked up in a couple of rehearsals back at McNally Acres.  Showcasing new original compositions such as the epic “Foundling” and the topical “Hymn for Syria”, as well as more familiar pieces including “Gan to the Kye”, “The Romantic Tees” and “Testimony of Patience Kershaw”, each perfectly suited to larger scale arrangements, the Unthanks soon settled into their surroundings and enjoyed being a part of such a large scale project, if somewhat nervously.  Once in full swing, “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” appeared to transport the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall into a kind of turn of the century Moulin Rouge, with its swirling circus-like middle section, which I’m sure the brass section relished in.  The two sets proved to be musically adventurous, technically interesting and hugely enjoyable with some particularly inspired choices such as Lal Waterson’s “At First She Starts” and Mr and Mrs Wyatt’s “Out of the Blue”, yet it was the finale that placed tonight’s concert in the ‘landmark achievement’ bracket of the band’s ten year career, with superb arrangements of both the King Crimson song “Starless” and the band’s own epic “Mount the Air” which stirred those all too familiar butterflies, followed by a deserved ovation which lasted several minutes.  After the concert, Adrian, Rachel, Becky and Charles fielded questions in pre-arranged Q&A in the theatre bar, where they were happy to talk about the concert itself and their music in general.

Bronwynne Brent | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.04.16

The Ukrainian Centre was the venue for this, one of Bronwynne Brent’s final gigs of her current UK tour, a venue that was quite chilled when I arrived tonight – chilled in both senses of the word, both laid-back relaxed and extremely cold at the same time.  Doncaster appears to be experiencing some difficulty shaking off the winter blues even in the middle of April it seems.  Reassuringly, we were told that the bar steward was on his way and the central heating would be cranked up to eleven before the huddled musicians were through the chilly ordeal of their respective sound checks.  I was there early to meet with the Mississippi-born songstress, who I’d arranged earlier to have a chat with.  Following me upstairs to the quieter and slightly warmer lounge bar, was this slight figure with long flaxen hair and high cheekbones, not unlike a noble Native American, far from her homeland many miles from this dreary Doncaster evening.  Sitting across from me, the singer gave out one of her distinctive laughs whilst confessing that she didn’t have a great deal to say, which in turn introduced me to her self-depreciating wit.  Judging by her songs, I had already deduced that this woman, at the deceptive age of 42, probably had more to say than she was willing to let on.  Displaying one or two signs of fatigue, which is often the case during the last stages of a lengthy tour, Bronwynne said she was looking forward to the final three shows and then would be heading home for a good rest.  Downstairs the show was about to start with two seasoned musicians, New Orleans-born blues guitarist Matt Backer (ABC) and session bassist Phil Spalding (Elton John, Toyah), who went on to perform a high-voltage opening set, including an equally high octane, if somewhat cobbled together Woody Guthrie song, “Vigilante Man”, together with a handful of rock and blues numbers, each with a dominating pulse that threatened to challenge the decibel meter above the stage.  Despite the two musicians having lengthy individual collaborative credentials, the duo were out tonight simply to jam onstage and enjoy every minute of it, even with Backer suffering with the usual symptoms of a seasonal cold (during the sound check he was cocooned within a suitably insulated hoodie).  Relaxed in torn jeans and cowboy shirt, Bronwynne Brent took her seat onstage, flanked by Scots double bassist Euan Burton (Kris Drever, Salt House) and Memphis-based guitarist Joe Restivo (Detective Bureau, The Joe Restivo 4) for the first of two sets.  Those already familiar with Bronwynne’s distinctive voice, possibly through her two album releases Deep Black Water (2011) and Stardust (2014), would certainly not be disappointed with the songs they heard tonight, each delivered with the same strength and vulnerability.  The opening set covered songs from those two records with the occasional standard thrown in.  Starting with “Wrecked My Mind”, the trio soon settled into their stride with one familiar song after the other, including “Like the Thunder” and “Building a Wall”, dedicated to Donald Trump, together with a couple from the latest record “The Mirror” and the poignant “Marrying Kind”, to which Bronwynne confessed ‘I’m 42 and I’ve never been married’, quickly followed by ‘..and I don’t want to be, how about that?’  The trio closed the first set with “Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind”, a song that on the album features some fine mariachi-styled trumpet and an infectious Latin rhythm.  After our chat earlier in the evening, Bronwynne asked me what direction I felt her music should take in the future.  I suggested more of that mariachi-styled music would be just fine.  ‘Maybe I should move to Cuba now that we can go there’ she quipped.  To me both Cuba and Mississippi are equally exotic.  Cuba would no doubt be rather hotter than Doncaster tonight that’s for sure, but there was much warmth emanating from the stage during the course of the evening.  The second set featured more songs from Bronwynne’s back catalogue, including “Love Like a Web”, “Baby We’d Be Fine” and the title song from her debut album, as well as the more recent “Devil Again”, “Heart’s on Fire” and “Already Gone”.  Toward the end of the set, the trio performed the standard “After You’ve Gone”, with some exceptionally tasty jazz guitar playing courtesy of the heavy-eye lidded stony-faced Buster Keaton-esque Joe Restivo, who played like Jim Hall on a summer’s day.  After a couple of sets of great songs, twenty-two great songs to be precise, the trio returned to the stage for a couple more, Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love is Gone”, followed by a bit of Dame Vera, with the audience all joining in with “We’ll Meet Again”, which I’m sure we will.  An excellent night of music.

Martin Stephenson | Live Review | The Heeley Institute, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.04.16

A slight drizzle began to dampen the cobbled streets and overgrown parish churchyard along Hartley Street in the Heeley district of Sheffield, whilst kids kicked a ball against the stone wall of the venue, behind which the stage was being prepared for tonight’s show.  Across the road, the old Victorian school complex, latterly converted into studio spaces, displayed a black and white image of Prince in one of its windows, which had obviously been there for some time, certainly long before recent unexpected events, but still poignant nonetheless.  Upon his arrival in the street, Martin Stephenson chatted to the kids as they played, making the most of the fading daylight, whilst greeting one or two of the early arrivals as he made his way from the car to the door.  I stood by the steel gates trying in vain to shelter from the drizzle, hands in pockets, when the singer passed by, sticking his hand out for me to shake with that familiar smile, a straw hat perched upon the back of his head.  He was running slightly late and still had a sound check to do, although I’m pretty certain he would have preferred to stay with the kids on the street, kicking a ball around.  Tonight’s sold out show could not possibly have been more relaxed, certainly for Martin Stephenson and his audience, although I suspect organiser Andy Whitehouse couldn’t relax until the show was in full flow, having not only seen to it that the singer arrived at the venue safely, followed by standing at the door greeting everyone as they arrived, taking tickets and making sure everyone was okay, after which he jumped up on stage to open the concert with a few songs of his own, including his band The Silver Darlings’ new single Watermark, whilst alternating between two electric guitars.  Only then could he hand over the rest of the night to his guest, take a seat on the front row, sit back and enjoy the show.  The Durham-born singer-songwriter and infectious raconteur started his two-hour set with “Left Us To Burn”, his mid-1980s anti-Thatcher song; although eager to declare that the song has subsequently progressed into an anti-Meryl Streep song.  Complete with a tongue-in-cheek homage to Hendrix with a slice of “Foxy Lady” midway through, the singer soon had the audience in his hands, despite teasing one or two with his mischievous banter.  Chatty and thoroughly engaging as his audiences have come to expect, the singer insisted upon drawing out some audience participation right from the start, introducing the room to some fine call and response Gospel singing, courtesy of Joseph Spence’s “I’m Gonna Live That Life”.  After settling into his set, which one suspects didn’t necessarily follow any set list to speak of, Martin invited his daughter Phoebe up on stage, the two treating the occasion as an opportunity to have a bit of a jam session, with a little Elvis here, a spot of the Reverend Gary Davis there, by way of a sprinkling of the Shake n’ Vac ad, before settling into “Crocodile Cryer”, a song Martin wrote for Roddy Frame as well as being the opening song to his debut LP Boat To Bolivia back in 1986.  Name-dropping as if it were going out of fashion, Martin littered his set with references to everyone from Bob Dylan, Roy Buchanan and Wilko Johnson to Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry, each anecdote slightly more bizarre than the previous one.  It was good to hear some of his earlier songs in the set, such as “Little Red Bottle”, “Rain” and the lounge jazz-inflected “Coleen”, claiming half jokingly, that the guitar accompaniment he’d borrowed from the Mickey Baker Teach Yourself Jazz Guitar book.  Throughout the set, the repertoire flitted between musical genres, including jazz, rockabilly, Doc Watson-styled bluegrass and even reggae, with the Steel Pulse rhythm of “Love for the First Time”.  It would be amiss of me not to acknowledge the work of the volunteers, all of whom proudly wore their green ‘Heeley People’s Park’ t shirts in recognition of their community project to redevelop the green space just across from the venue.  I’m sure this wasn’t lost on Martin Stephenson either, who tonight became part of this close-knit community in the spirit of friendship, music and fun.  Towards the end of the set, Martin rounded things off with one of his familiar songs “Long Forgotten”, before returning to the stage for a couple of encores, including “Map in the World”, which effectively closed the show.  I’m pretty sure the Heeley Institute won’t forget this evening’s concert in a hurry, and all for the right reasons.

Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.05.16

Fifteen minutes before tonight’s concert I settled into my seat in the front row stalls of the Howard Assembly Room, fiddling with my camera and adjusting the settings to suit, when a middle-aged woman sat down beside me and immediately engaged me in conversation.  She folded her walking stick and placed it upon her lap, then turned to me and began to tell me the story of her life, which I found very comforting.  Could it be that modern jazz fans just happen to be generally friendly and talkative, or does the special ambience of the Howard Assembly Room just bring out the best in people?  Perhaps this lady just happens to be a nice person.  Once I was pretty much up to speed with her life, we pondered over what tonight’s concert would bring.  It was immediately apparent to us both that the programme was going to be quite sparse judging by the stage set.  There was just a shiny black Steinway grand piano to the left of the stage, a single microphone stand to the right and an adjustable piano stool in the centre with a square clock leaning against the foot of a music stand beside it.  There are several ways that an artist can successfully entice an audience to be on their side from the outset and tonight Courtney Pine managed to do something that was just right.  Once the house lights faded and eight footlights filled the familiar wooden backdrop with colour, Zoe Rahman emerged from the right hand side of the stage followed by the London-born saxophonist, who paused right in front of my neighbour, bent down before her and took her hand, squeezed it gently and thanked her for coming along to the show; an act of warmth and humility that could not possibly have been lost on the Leeds audience tonight.  Courtney Pine, dressed from head to foot in black, save for the crimson cuffs on his tunic and the orange swirling motifs on his slippers, a yin and yang symbol on each foot, presented a selection of ballads from his recent collaborative release with the brilliant pianist Zoe Rahman, Song (The Ballad Book).  Putting aside his familiar array of instruments from the saxophone family, the musician chose instead for this project the bass clarinet, whilst his collaborator traversed the keys of her own instrument of choice.  Seated at first, with his instrument touching the stage floor, the musician explored every part of the bass clarinet, from the multi-octave range of notes, the idiosyncratic reed technique, the rattle of the keys to the breathy percussive non-notes, not to mention the circular breathing patterns that left not only the musician but the audience momentarily breathless.  Zoe watched intently, her eyes rotating between the keys, the sheet music in front of her and her collaborator a few feet away, an occasional smile exchanged throughout the performance.  Familiar songs were treated to unfamiliar arrangements such as Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice”, the traditional “Amazing Grace” and Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind”, each arrangement providing plenty of space for improvisation from both musicians.  The full range of musical expression was explored from the deepest foghorn-like timbre of the bass clarinet to the bird-like high pitched squeal, ideal for the imitation of the Nightingale busily singing in Berkeley Square, a possible homage to Pine’s London home through the popular wartime song composed by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, which opened the second set.  During the two sets, Courtney Pine occasionally addressed the audience with the sort of warmth and humility we have come to expect from this musician.  After the opening piece he introduced himself and the fact that he loves Jazz.  He went on to inform the audience that his daughter wants to go to university and that ‘of all the places on the planet, she chose Leeds Uni’.  He introduced Zoe as ‘a master of the eighty-eight keys’ and jokingly apologised for running over by ten minutes in the first set.  During the penultimate number, Courtney treated the audience to an improvised medley that included snippets from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”, Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug” and even a spot of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally”, each linked with some fine Coltrane-standard improvisations.  Finishing with Thad Jones’ “A Child is Born”, which not only featured some superlative improvisational clarinet runs, but also some of Zoe’s most expressive piano playing, the two musicians left the stage, Courtney still playing until the stage door closed behind him.

Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.05.16

It was rather a nice touch having Eliza Carthy singing over the PA system as I settled down for tonight’s concert at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.  After experiencing something of an ordeal fighting my way through the massed assembly of women on the Grand Theatre’s staircase, each eagerly queuing to take their seats for a performance of The Bodyguard in the neighbouring Opera House, the sound of the “Thirty-Foot Trailer” brought to me a sense of normality once again.  In fact, Eliza’s voice brought to mind the very first time I saw tonight’s featured artist Teddy Thompson, which was at the Cambridge Folk Festival back in 2006 when two representatives of two prominent folk dynasties came together on stage.  Tonight I was fortunate to find myself in the centre of the gallery, which provides a perfect view of the stage and quite possibly the best sound in the house, with the balcony hovering directly above the sound desk, usually by definition the prime spot.  The support was provided by Sunny Odell, an American singer eager to bond with her Yorkshire audience, albeit through a classic faux pas, declaring that ‘it feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere’.  After one or two Yorkshire dialect impressions, such as an hilarious ‘where’s there’s muck there’s brass’, the singer-songwriter and incidentally the wife of stage and screen actor Patrick Stewart (I Claudius for my generation, Star Trek for next generations), soon won back the audience with her sense of fun as well as her soulful songs; in fact the song that followed, “Family Tree”, wasn’t only the best song of the set, it was one of the best songs of the night.  There was little change to the stage arrangement between sets due to both Teddy Thompson and Sunny Ozell sharing the same band.  The only real visual difference came with the band swapping their uniformly black attire, for vivid red t shirts, adding a smattering of colour to the stage.  Before the band actually joined the singer though, Teddy opened with a couple of solo songs from his most recent album Bella, “I Feel” and “Delilah”, together with a Leonard Cohen cover, “Tonight Will Be Fine”, before the band returned to the stage for the main part of the show.  There appeared to be a physical jump and an audible female squeal, which didn’t come from The Bodyguard next door, but from this audience, when Teddy launched into “I Should Get Up”, a song most people associate with the singer.  With some tasty guitar licks courtesy of Zach Hobbs, borrowing from his grandad Richard’s distinctive technique, the song was pretty much faithfully performed from the album version, together with the title song from that album Separate Ways.  It was a good move to get the well-known popular songs out of the way before focussing on the main business of the night, the songs from the outstanding Little Windows project, in collaboration with LA-based singer-songwriter Kelly Jones.  Stylistically borrowing from the likes of Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, the songs from Little Windows inevitably have a nostalgic feel, employing beautiful harmonies throughout together with an almost tangible sense of a certain time and place.  It’s late 1950s, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, country pop with the occasional twangy guitar.  If Teddy found himself momentarily bereft of a guitar pick, the audience was keen to help with a suitable accessory tossed down from the balcony.  For those who had come along specifically to hear the songs form the new record, then satisfied they surely must have felt when every single one of the songs were performed as perfectly as could be both imagined or expected.  With the Carthy, Thompson and Wainwright dynasties, there is always a sense of family in the air and speaking after the show to guitarist Zack Hobbs, the son of Teddy’s oldest sister Muna, he was quick to confirm ‘it’s just what we do’.  There is a tendency to think that it is all pretty much to do with family, which is probably why we like them so much.  In the spirit of family unity, Sunny Ozell joined the rest of the singers and musicians on stage towards the end, for a rendition of “In My Arms”, before a final encore which saw Teddy and Kelly duetting on “I Thought We’d Said Goodbye”.  Once again the Howard Assembly Room provided a special place to be with a bunch of special people.

Kronos Quartet | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.05.16

It must be twenty years since I first heard Kronos Quartet. Back then, a teenage me thought he’d struck gold as the Quartet’s 1993 collection Short Stories, borrowed from my local audio library, began filling my bedroom with some of the strangest and most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.  Here was a string quartet for whom strings were just one part of the performance.  Indeed, the entire first track on that album is made up of percussive typewriter noises, adding another dimension to the album’s cover art; a vintage Underwood typer engulfed in flames.  Since then, I’ve become very familiar with the boundless invention of San Francisco’s foremost string outfit. Their recordings have explored the music of such respected composers as Philip Glass, Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki as well as breathing new life into the works of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Jimi Hendrix and, more recently, Pete Townshend.  The Quartet has also continued to collaborate with such eminent artists as Terry Riley, Kevin Volans and Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq, further demonstrating their multifaceted approach to world music and, indeed, sound itself.  Tonight, the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds played host to two sets from Kronos Quartet and what the Quartet describes as a ‘bounty of new compositions and arrangements’ collected since their last tour.  Bathed in ambient blue light, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba along with viola player Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang lulled the audience into a state of meditative silence as they opened with a delicate rendering of “My Desert, My Rose”, composed especially for Kronos Quartet by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov.  This ethereal piece gave way to the jagged edges of Satellites by Garth Knox which required that the musicians leave the comfort of their four strings to explore the sonic capabilities of their bows, swished through the air above them with meticulous thrust.  The Quartet’s old friend Terry Riley was represented with a performance of his “One Earth, One People, One Love” from Sun Rings, composed for Kronos by the master of modern minimalism.  The piece, which uses sound samples of readings by poet Alice Walker and Apollo Astronaut Eugene Cernan, demonstrated that the Quartet isn’t shy when it comes to utilising technology in its otherwise organic performances.  Such an approach was explored again in tonight’s closing performance of Donnacha Dennehy’s “One Hundred Goodbyes” which incorporates haunting abstracted recordings of Irish singers from almost one hundred years ago.  Although the Quartet’s dazzling rendition of Pete Townshend’s “Baba O’Riley”, recently performed on the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland, inspired rapturous applause from tonight’s appreciative audience, the unquestionable highlight of the show was a performance of Seiche, a piece especially composed for the Quartet’s current tour by folk musician and member of Lau, Martin Green.  There was a sense of wonder rippling around the room as Harrington and Yang departed from their traditional instruments to play a pair of Kronoscillators, devices constructed by Green and involving stretched metal slinkies and electrified liquorice tins.  When struck with vibrating tuning forks, the slinkies produced a sound not unlike that of sparking electrical points as a tube train rolls into its station or, perhaps what the composer was going for, the sound of undulating waves beneath the surface of water.  A genuinely arresting few minutes in a wonderful evening of awe-inspiring music.

Paul Handyside | Live Review | Doncaster Brewery and Tap, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.06.16

The dimly-lit low stage that occupies one end of the upstairs function room at the popular Doncaster Brewery and Tap was this afternoon suitably equipped for the second visit to the town in recent weeks of the North East-based singer-songwriter Paul Handyside along with guitarist Rob Tickell.  So informal was the stage set-up this afternoon, that the twin speakers were simply perched upon chairs on either side of the stage, whilst a single standard lamp appeared to provide the only illumination as if creating a sense of ambience in a post-Victorian living parlour.  Dressed in black from head to toe, Handyside resembled the gaunt figure of Harry Dean Stanton circa Paris, Texas, minus the red baseball cap and pent-up anger, strolling into a dusty middle-of-nowhere town.  Confident and assured, Handyside delivered a broad selection of songs from his back catalogue, each hand-picked from all three of his available solo albums plus one or two brand new songs.  The audience was already fuelled and primed by the time Handyside took to the stage and was prepared for one or two choice heckles, each of which were suitably fielded by our man in black.  From the very beginning, there was a call for anything by Abba, quickly followed by a broad Irish accent calling out for some Daniel O’Donnell, to which Handyside rather sensibly responded ‘I’m afraid I don’t and never have done any cover versions unfortunately’.  It wasn’t long before Handyside grew aware that this audience was definitely on his side, albeit through some good humoured banter.  Starting the first set with “The Slow Road”, the two musicians soon found their form and pretty much stuck to it for the remainder of the afternoon.  Handyside stood in the spotlight throughout, whilst his musical partner remained seated by his side, embellishing the songs with some empathetic Weissenborn slide, together with some tasty electric guitar solos.  The first time the two musicians swapped their acoustic for electric instruments, to accompany “Let Me Down Easy”, the first song of the afternoon from Handyside’s new album, Tide, Timber And Grain, a perfectly timed ‘Judas’ heckle was successfully delivered, much to everyone’s amusement.  It might be due to the fact that this afternoon’s concert took place in a brewery, that the atmosphere was pretty positive throughout both sets, the rapport between artist and audience enjoyed equally by all.  If the Johnny Cash inspired “Careless Love”, chugged along rapidly as if a streamline train just rolled into town via Doncaster Railway Station, the beautifully tender “Rose of the Street” saw Handyside leave the stage to perform acoustically amongst the small audience, moving from one table to another; a well-timed gesture, which featured some audience participation during the whistled chorus.  ‘I asked for whistling not the fucking Clangers’ Handyside quipped midway through.  After a short break, the two musicians returned to the stage to pick up pretty much where they left off, delivering more songs from the new record, including a solo performance of the tender love song “Should I Leave Your Side” and the more conventional folk-styled “The Whaler’s Lament”.  The friendly heckling continued to the very end as Handyside introduced the final encore song, the lullaby “Goodnight Lover”, to which one male voice from the audience enquired ‘are you a good night lover?’  The ‘Judas’ man immediately responded with ‘picked a right time to come out there didn’t he?’  Such was the banter at Doncaster Brewery this afternoon, which really did help to transform what could have been a flat lazy Sunday afternoon in an upstairs pub room, into a vibrant music venue with a real sense of community and involvement.  If things continue this way, then Sunday afternoons just might become something completely different in Doncaster.  

Corn Potato String Band | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.06.16

Sometimes, when you’re sitting in the audience at a show, the distinct feeling of being at the perfect gig comes across you.  Granted, it may just be a mood thing, or the alignment of the stars or any of the other dippy possibilities, but halfway through the Corn Potato String Band’s first set tonight, I was thanking my own lucky stars that I’d come along to The Greystones and that Maria Wallace of True North Music had invited me.  Things looked promising from the start when the four-piece country band Murston Bapchild and the Braxton Hicks leapt up on stage and began to crank up their homage to Hank Williams/Bob Wills in true Grand Ole Opry fashion.  The Greystones in Sheffield might not necessarily be equipped with the stained glass windows and sainted pews of the Ryman Auditorium, but that’s no obstacle for a band’s Nudie-suited players to make us feel a similar Saturday night Nashville vibe.  Starting with “Hey Good Looking” the band soon settled into their set, which also included such delights as “Moanin’ the Blues”, “Brain Cloudy Blues”, “I Won’t Be Home No More” and the lilting classic “Things”.  The three musicians that make up the Corn Potato String Band were pretty visible tonight before they went on stage, milling about the Backroom and chatting to folks as well as sticking around to watch the support band.  This is another contributing factor to knowing that you’re in the right place at the right time.  The stage was stripped bare after the Hicks’ set, except for a single microphone stand that occupied the centre stage with three fiddles attached.  For anyone with even the slightest understanding of old time American music, the single microphone is always a good sign that things are going to be fine.  The three bandmates, fiddler extraordinaire Aaron Jonah Lewis, full beard and nimble fingers intact, multi-instrumentalist/singer/clog dancer and ‘crankie’ operator Lindsay McCaw and last but certainly not least, banjo maestro Ben Belcher took to the stage tonight with each musician determined to give it all they’d got.  The two sets were packed with traditional and contemporary songs and tunes such as “Hot Lick Fiddlin’ Man”, “Chesapeake Bay” and the title song from the band’s latest release “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet”, interspersed with some down home wit and humour from their own neck of the woods.  Waiting patiently at the back of the stage for its big moment, the ‘crankie’ featured in just the one song, “Rattlesnake Mountain”, which not only told an engaging story in both words and rolling pictures, but also the song gave Lindsay and Aaron the opportunity to do a bit of role reversal, with the former’s fine tenor and the latter’s falsetto.  With plenty of swapping around of instruments, each performance made it difficult to ascertain which instrument each of the musician’s chose as their speciality.  There’s little doubt though as to which instrument was Aaron’s speciality, a virtuoso player of the highest order, he could virtually make the fiddle talk, or in the case of tonight’s finisher “Listen to the Mockingbird”, sing like a bird, or several for that matter, together with the odd swarm of bumble bees.  Joining the trio for the final encore, the four members of the Hicks returned to the stage for an impromptu version of Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa”, which brought the night to a close.  A hugely entertaining and memorable night.

Rokia Traoré – Songlines Series (Yorkshire Festival) | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.07.16

It was with something of a heavy and troubled heart that I approached Leeds Grand Theatre last Wednesday night after hearing of the murder of Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri in Karachi, coming only a few days after the tragic death of one of our own local heroes Jo Cox.  Both share the distinction of being taken from us in the most brutal and pointless of ways and on the eve of the EU referendum, it seemed that despite the perceived status of the world being an extremely small place, it appears that we still have a long way to go in terms of how we should be looking after one another.  Such major distractions are difficult to put aside, even as we take our seats at the Howard Assembly Room for a concert that in effect celebrates world unity through its music, a place we can normally go to forget our troubles.  Sitting in the wings whilst thumbing through the handsome colour programme, a free publication that accompanies the Yorkshire Festival, I noticed that five of its pages were dedicated to the Songlines Series, a series of five concerts that form part of the eighteen-day programme of events, this series organised in partnership with the Howard Assembly Room, Yorkshire Festival and the excellent Songlines Magazine.  The headliners taking part in each of these specific events provides an eclectic programme, which includes Congolese band Mbongwana Star, Malian singer Rokia Traoré, German experimental pianist Hauschka, New Mexico-based duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw and finally Yorkshire’s very own Eliza Carthy with her Wayward Band bringing the series to a fitting close on Saturday 2 July.  Opening the series was the six-piece Congolese band Mbongwana Star, whose dazzling show kept the audience on the edge of their seats – if not out of them – throughout the performance.  It was pretty infectious stuff from the start, or rather from the moment the band’s charismatic singers Coco Ngambali and the highly animated Théo Nsituvuidi Nzonza wheeled up onto the stage via a large ramp that stretched from one side of the stage to the other.  The two frontmen maintained their energy levels throughout the ninety minute show, whilst performing songs from their current album From Kinshasa, including “From Kinshasa to the Moon”, “Malukaya”, “Shegue” and “Susanna”.  Supporting the band was Estère, a young singer/musician from Wellington, New Zealand.  Performing solo, Estère, with her name emblazoned across a board propped up before her, revealed that much of the material performed in her short set originated in her bedroom back home ‘in my pyjamas’ she confessed. With an assured command over her gadget machine, which the performer affectionately referred to as ‘Lola’, Estère delivered such punchy numbers with equally punchy titles as “Control Freak”, “Gun Kid”, “I Can Pay My Rent”, “Jellyfish Stings” and “Culture Clash”.  The following day, our attention turned to Mali as Rokia Traoré returned to the venue for an outstanding two-hour performance with a set consisting largely of material from the singer’s latest album release Né So.  As the lights dimmed around the auditorium, all the attention focused on the doors to the right of the stage as the band casually stepped through them and up onto the stage, leaving a single silhouetted figure alone in the dark, a figure so slight that she could easily have been mistaken for a child.  Stepping up onto the stage moments later, Rokia Traoré made a beeline for her guitar which was propped up centre stage as a gentle applause rippled around the room.  Starting with Mayé from her new record, the singer dominated the stage from the start, making up in musical flair, soulfulness and high energy what she may lack in physical stature.  Revealing songs predominantly from the new record such as “Tu Voles”, “Ô Niélé”, “Kènia”, “Amour”, “Obikè”, “Ilé” and “Sé Dan”, the set also included a couple from Rokia’s back catalogue, “Zen” from the Tchamantche album and the stomping rock and roll of the title song from her last album Beautiful Africa.  Sadly unable to attend the Hauschka and Eliza Carthy events due to other commitments, the festival rounded itself up for me personally with a pretty low-key and highly intimate performance by New Mexico-based duo Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, otherwise known as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, whose adventurous experimentation and musical dexterity on hammered dulcimer, accordion and fiddle thrilled an attentive audience.  The duo’s investigation into Eastern European instrumental music and traditional folk song was well researched, finely-tuned and performed with tangible concentration.  The performance wasn’t intended as a finale to the series, that role being left in the capable mitts of Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, but as a concert in its own right, it was brilliantly executed with the duo leaving the stage and joining the audience in the centre of the auditorium for their acoustic encore.

Moonbeams 2016 | Live Review | Wold Top Brewery, Hunmanby, East Yorkshire | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.07.16

Despite heavy rainfall through the previous night, Friday afternoon saw the Wolds bathed in sunlight once again as the gates opened for the start of the eighth Moonbeams Festival.  This small, unique and compact festival site within the grounds of the Wold Top Brewery on the Yorkshire Wolds saw a steady influx of festival goers of all ages to the sound of the Treacherous Orchestra’s pipes ringing out over the main stage PA, as Ross Ainslie acquainted himself with the sound system during the latter stages of the band’s sound check.  There was a proverbial calm before the storm just prior to the opening of those gates, as Leila Cooper surveyed the site, dressed in white from head to foot, calling ‘five minutes to go folks’ just before the start.  To those who’ve visited this festival since it began eight years ago, the presence of Leila is a reliable one, as reliable as the standard of the beer; the festival never runs out of beer throughout the weekend and the festival’s first lady never runs out of energy.  Between the Main Stage and the Garden Stage, the communal outdoor area soon filled with Moonbeams friends, busily catching up on what’s happened since last year’s event, comparing notes of which bands they are all looking forward to seeing over the weekend and each competing with one another over who has the most colourful festival hat on.  The comradeship is almost tangible as the first few pints of Wold Top bitter are poured, whilst the two stages continue to be set up.  The most immediate sensation you feel when you finally settle in to the swing of things, is just how peaceful and remote the brewery is.  Friday’s blue skies and rolling green meadows stretching out for miles in each direction perfectly complemented the atmosphere of the first afternoon before a single note of music was played.  Opening the festival once again was Barnsley’s utterly reliable Nick Rooke who promptly took to the Garden Stage with his new band, which now includes local musicians Rachel and Phil, known for their work together in the band Under the Bridge.  Once the Nick Rooke Band finished their opening set, the rest of Friday night’s action concentrated on the Main Stage with sets by festival favourites Moore Moss Rutter, Leeds-based Hope and Social, who paid homage to Moonbeams during a chorus of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” and finally the towering force that is Treacherous Orchestra, who brought the concert to a close, delivering a high octane set on the Main Stage.  Saturday opened its bleary eyes to the sound of raindrops on canvas as the festival came back to life after some late nightcaps in the Big Sky acoustic sessions.  The ramblers had already set off for their five mile walk across the Wolds before the rain started.  Kids were playing ball beneath the fluttering rainbow flags undeterred as the Driffield-based singer and Moonbeams regular Edwina Hayes ran through her short sound check.  Her Main Stage set which effectively started the day included a selection of her own songs as well as one or two more familiar songs such as Nanci Griffith’s “I Wish it Would Rain”, Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”.  Whilst Roisin Ban brought a taste of an Irish session to the Garden Stage, Richard Digance prepared for his afternoon set at the festival.  No stranger to Moonbeams, Richard confessed that if he didn’t love the festival so much he probably wouldn’t make the trip up from Salisbury as often as he does.  Most are now familiar with the format at Moonbeams, which is geared so that it’s virtually impossible to miss anything with two main stages running alternately rather than simultaneously.  The mass exodus from one stage to the other throughout the day was well orchestrated with every opportunity for people to stop by Steve’s record shop or maybe kit themselves out with a festival t shirt or woolly hat.  A few smart ‘Moonbeamers’ kids could be seen selling loom band bracelets for charity, raising £52 to go towards other fund-raising objectives for the Bloodwise charity.  There were also plenty of food choices at the festival with Field and Forage, The Hunmanby Pantry as well as refreshing coffee at Espresso Van-Gogh.  The Yorkshire Pizza Kitchen promoted positivity with their sign ‘If you want to see the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain’.  There are two Andys that make Moonbeams what it is; firstly there’s Andy Atkinson, the Main Stage compere who is equally at home with a microphone or in some cases a megaphone, keeping Moonbeams up to date.  Then there’s local singer-songwriter Andy Stones whose appearances always seem to set a family atmosphere whenever he performs, with children running around in front of the stage with their bubble guns.  Andy is a Moonbeams treasure, whose songs should be more widely known. Andy Atkinson, on a couple of occasions, read out Anne Duerden’s poem written in celebration of the event.  Saturday continued with one fine act after the other including the Sam Kelly Trio, who performed a delightfully swinging “Sultans of Swing”, Tom Townsend who returned to the festival with a band that included a three-piece brass section who in turn filled the Garden Stage marquee with a distinctively bluesy and soulful sound.  The Young’uns attracted a full house in the Big Top marquee, which bristled with song throughout their set, where a set of traditional folk songs and shanties was interspersed with some of Sean Cooney’s best known self-penned songs.  As foreseen by the Yorkshire Pizza Kitchen’s sign, a rainbow did appear over Moonbeams, which seemed to wrap itself around the festival site as the evening concerts continued.  Jess Gardham, a wonderful singer-songwriter, who until recently led the band Barcode Zebra, proved her credentials as a free solo agent once again with a set of engaging self-penned songs and one or two well-chosen non-originals.  For their first visit to Moonbeams, the award-winning Scots band RURA stormed through their Saturday evening set winning over the Moonbeams audience as Leila knew only too well they would.  From one side of the British Isles to the other then as Kent’s Gentlemen of Few finished things off on the Garden Stage, this time cleared of seats for a standing finale.  After a brief appearance by some trolls and the Mona Lisa (don’t ask), the climax of this year’s Moonbeams was left in the more than capable hands of the infectious CoCo and the Butterfields, whose mixture of village fete folk and contemporary beat boxing was just the thing to complete what turned out to be yet another superb Moonbeams programme.

Underneath the Stars Festival 2016 | Live Review | Cannon Hall Farm, Cawthorne, Barnsley | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.07.16

If the powers that be were to produce a questionnaire indicating each of the essential factors that go towards making a successful festival, a festival event that would please both the organisers and the site owners, the artists and the stall holders, the staff and the volunteers, the all-important paying public – both adults and children alike – and possibly even the locals who live in the nearby villages, then Underneath the Stars is likely to tick all the right boxes.  Under normal circumstances, this would probably be seen as a sweeping statement; some festivals that have been ‘at it’ for several decades are still learning how to get it right.  What’s really astonishing in the case of Underneath the Stars, is that they seem to tick all the right boxes having been at it for just three years.  The third Underneath the Stars festival took place once again at Cannon Hall Farm in Cawthorne, a picturesque village just outside Barnsley, over one of the finest weekends of the year so far.  The weather was so kind in fact, that it only drizzled for a brief moment or two on Sunday afternoon just so it could present us with the arc of a rainbow, encompassing the entire site, otherwise it was hat weather for pretty much the entire weekend. Cannon Hall Farm is a local attraction in its own right, which has been open to the public since 1989.  In partnership with the farm owners, the Nicholson family, local lass Kate Rusby and her own family production team have united to create a perfect location for this festival, which now attracts a healthy and faithful annual attendance.  From the moment you climb the winding country lane along New Road and onto the festival site, passing the Hollywood-styled white letters that boldly spell out ‘Underneath the Stars’, you sense that something magical is about to happen.  Indeed Rachel Baiman of the Nashville-based duo 10 String Symphony confessed from the main stage during the duo’s Sunday afternoon set ‘we had no idea we were coming to Wonderland’, which is more or less what I thought upon my arrival on Friday morning, making my first visit to the festival.  One of the other things that you notice upon arrival is that you are greeted not by stewards exactly, each with their yellow hi-vis jackets looking like traffic wardens ready to give you a ticket for parking your tent incorrectly, but instead by cheerful smiling volunteers in purple T shirts with the highly welcoming ‘Star Helper’ emblazoned across the front.  Could we possibly be made to feel more at home?  It doesn’t take very long to settle into the swing of things at this festival; local volunteers serve local coffee and cakes, while the kids find a whole bunch of stuff to do in their own dedicated area, which it has to be said is a fairly substantial portion of the festival site.  Children are not a second thought at Underneath the Stars, they are very much part of the festival and indeed great measures are taken to ensure they have as much of a good time as their grown-ups.  Throughout the weekend there are regular stories delivered by enthusiastic storytellers, either in the open air or inside a darkened caravan decorated with pages from books.  Then there are various craft activities and fun things to do throughout the weekend to ensure the kids don’t get bored.  If the festival appeared like Wonderland to Rachel Baiman and myself, then to the kids it probably is indeed Wonderland.  For those who came along to the festival to see their favourite singers, musicians and bands, Underneath the Stars provided a most excellent and varied programme of music over two main stages; the seated Planets Stage and the non-seated Little Lights Stage, with acts alternating between the two allowing for ten minutes in between, just enough time to grab a beer, a bite to eat and bit of fresh air before the next act appeared on the neighbouring stage, all sound-checked and ready to go.  Another stage for young emerging artists could be found a short walk from the two main stages, which featured bands, soloists and DJs aimed at a younger audience.  With Andy Atkinson and Leila Cooper sharing compere duties, the music began on Friday afternoon with The Hut People, who effectively opened the festival with some of their own unique and highly percussive sounds.  Blair Dunlop opened the Planets Stage shortly afterwards with an assured performance, presenting a selection of songs both new and not so new, whilst singer-songwriter Fabian Holland prepared for his solo set next door.  There’s a sense of the proverbial Tardis when you first enter the Planets Stage marquee, it just seems so much bigger inside than the exterior lets on.  Fully seated, the size of the venue at first seemed to tower majestically over the head of little Olivia Chaney, an extraordinary singer-songwriter whose voice and mature songs soon reversed that balance, with Olivia dominating the stage with a superb set that featured such songs as “Swimming in the Longest River”, “The King’s Horses” and topped by a most exquisite reading of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”.  If Olivia Chaney arrived at the festival after a long train journey, followed by a short car ride, then local duo Gilmore and Roberts could possibly have walked to the festival had they not been weighed down by their instruments.  A home festival appearance then for this popular duo, who this year celebrate their tenth anniversary as a joined-at-the-hip duo.  Having successfully spread their wings over those ten years, the duo are now just as popular nationally as they are locally and Friday evening’s concert seemed a bit like a homecoming with the duo performing some of their best known songs.  If Michael McGoldrick and Friends brought a touch of class to the Planets Stage, with some fine arrangements of traditional tunes, Holy Moly and the Crackers transformed the Little Lights Stage into the Moulin Rouge for an hour with the charismatic Ruth Patterson and Conrad Bird at the helm.  The seven-piece North-East based band was very much on form as the audience was encouraged to join the party, with everyone on their feet dancing the night away.  The night however was still very young by the time Vieux Farka Touré stepped out onto the Planets Stage delivering a taste of his own particular Malian blues.  Known as the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’, the singer-guitarist, together with his trio, communicated with the audience in the best way possible, through their infectious music.  Nothing could have prepared the Underneath the Stars audience for the climax on Friday night as Leeds-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Gary Stewart presented his tribute to Paul Simon’s ground-breaking 1986 album Graceland.  The performance was as uplifting as the album itself, with his band faithfully recreating the South African township jive rhythms of “I Know What I Know”, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and the title song, along with a stunning “Under African Skies” and a crowd pleasing “You Can Call Me Al”.  A festival high point that effectively raised the bar musically for the rest of the weekend.  On Saturday, the sleepy site soon awoke to the beating of African drums as children congregated under the Make the Light marquee for an early morning drumming workshop.  The first morning coffee beckoned from the adjacent cafe as the fifteen-strong Grand Old Uke of York entertained in the spirit of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain with a selection of multi-generational rock and pop songs including “Born To Be Wild”, “It Must Be Love” and “Teenage Kicks”, together with the obligatory Beatles and Abba mash-ups.  Meanwhile the powerful voice of Beccy Owen, singer with  from the four-piece band Joy Atlas flittered over the festival site during the band’s morning sound check and then again during the band’s midday main stage performance.  Beccy would also be seen conducting an engaging singing workshop later in the afternoon, reminiscent of a certain nun spinning over the meadows in a popular Sixties musical.  For a more intellectually challenging act, the afternoon saw Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers perform such fine ditties as “I’ve Got My Finger Up My Nose”, whilst the former New (and Old for that matter) Rope String Band frontman Tim Dalling stepped out onto the Planets Stage flanked by guitarist Ian Carr and Tim’s daughter Rhona, a singer-songwriter in her own right, along with bassist Neil Harland, to demonstrate a rather different side to the popular musician than we are used to.  There was a good deal of anticipation prior to the appearance of Union Station’s Ron Block, together with mandolin protégé Sierra Hull, who between them startled the audience with some of the finest musicianship of the weekend.  Later in the afternoon, fiddle player Duncan Chisholm would do something similar albeit in an entirely different musical setting, surrounded by five brilliant musicians.  After Rory McLeod’s engaging set in the Little Lights marquee, the festival’s first lady appeared on the main stage for a fine set of songs that were either old, new, borrowed or notably blue, as in the encore song for which the entire band appeared on stage in blue super hero capes and masks for a performance of “Big Brave Bill”, a song written especially for the occasion about a local hero who likes a drop of Yorkshire Tea, as does the singer herself.  Relaxed, playful and utterly at home on the green pastures of Cannon Hall Farm, Kate Rusby, herself never too far from a mug of tea, invited Ron Block onstage, who stayed there pretty much for the duration of a most engaging set, which also featured such songs as “The Elfin Knight”, “The Ardent Shepherdess” and the audience favourite “Awkward Annie”, complete with both strings and brass sections. Sunday awoke to the sound of drums once again over in the Make the Light marquee, a rude awakening for those who enjoyed a late night after concluding sets by both Dervish and Bye Beneco on the Planets Stage and Little Lights Stage respectively.  The concerts began on Sunday with the gentle sound of Pembrokshire-based singer-songwriter Lowri Evans, whose songs eased in the day with a little less volume than the drums whilst Nashville-based duo Rachel Haiman and Christian Sedelmyer, otherwise known as 10 String Symphony, named after the number of strings in total on their two fiddles, or for that matter the fiddle and the banjo, greeted in Sunday afternoon with a set of Old Time Bluegrass songs.  Standing closely together, huddled around a single mic, the intimacy of their highly rhythmic and syncopated music was evident from the start.  After a solo act, then a duo, it seemed only numerically logical to proceed next with a trio, and an award-winning trio at that.  Talisk have become a much more confident and dextrous trio since many of us first became aware of them at the 2015 BBC Folk Awards, where they picked up the gong in the Young Folk Award category.  On Sunday afternoon, the three musicians mesmerised the audience with some of their most complex arrangements on fiddle, guitar and concertina.  Whilst we’re still counting, let’s add another musician to make the four-piece version of Blue Rose Code, the vehicle fronted by Edinburgh-born Ross Wilson, who touched upon the sort of soulful folk music once produced by John Martyn, before, yes you guessed it, the five-piece Curtis Eller and his American Circus arrived onstage next door, providing a spectacle that the festival is not likely to forget in a hurry.  What Curtis Eller does is hard to explain but easy to understand; it’s Buster Keaton in style, burlesque in delivery and thoroughly entertaining to anyone who actually gets it, especially in a marquee that has easy to climb poles.  Joined by the latest incarnation of the American Circus, the Detroit-born banjo-weilding yodeller romped through a set of crowd-pleasing numbers such as “Taking on Serpents Again”, “Old Time Religion” and “Sugar in My Coffin” whilst flying through the air at regular intervals.  For the slightly less animated Damien O’Kane’s Sunday night set, the entire O’Kane family gathered in front of the stage to see their boy do good.  Joined by his own band, the husband of the festival’s first lady must have been proud to have Kate join him on stage to help sing on one of his established songs Summerhill with daughter Phoebe by their side.  The marquee was packed solid as the band performed songs from Damien’s critically acclaimed album Areas of High Traffic, including such songs as “‘Til Next Market Day”, “The Maid of Seventeen” and “Erin’s Lovely Home”.  As twilight descended upon Sunday night, the Planets Stage prepared for one final spectacular which came in the form of the Demon Barbers XL show, which as always incorporated traditional folk song with traditional and contemporary dance.  With singer, guitarist and concertina player Damien Barber at the helm, who also acts as MC throughout the band’s spectacular show, the Demon Barbers XL glide through a seamlessly choreographed show that celebrates the relationship between song and dance like no other.  With so much going on over the three days, it’s possible to see most things but impossible to see it all and there were one or two acts I caught just the briefest glimpse of such as King Zepha, Kezia, Dancing Years, Jim Evans, West of Eden, Declan O’Rourke and Tantz, not to mention a host of acts over on the Make the Light stage, but what I did manage to catch and pay attention to made for some of the finest performances I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Strangely, as I did some final hugs and handshakes and left the festival site on Sunday night, which I traditionally accompany with the sound of a newly acquired CD by one of the festival acts, blasting out of my car stereo, I reached over instead and inserted into the player Paul Simon’s Graceland album and left Barnsley to the sound of “Boy in the Bubble”, which in a way formed the soundtrack of the festival for me personally.  The very last thing I did before the day was done was to pop next year’s dates in the diary.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2016 | Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 31.07.16

As in the case of most multiple-stage festivals, there are several ways to make the most of the weekend; there’s the painfully well-organised amongst us who arrive early on Thursday, find a comfortable spot in the sun, then take out their newly purchased programmes and meticulously mark each act with ticks and crosses, underlines and parentheses, stars and asterisks, in an impossible endeavour to see everything on the menu.  Then there’s the specialist connoisseur, who has a clear vision of the weekend ahead, only to be devastated once the inevitable clash is discovered (mine this year was definitely Leyla McCalla and Songs of Separation, both on at around the same time on Saturday).  Then there’s the energetic, who take delight in running from one stage to the other, that is, the mighty Stage One, the slightly smaller Stage Two, the Club Tent and then for those who like to chill out, the Den.  There’s those who take their specific ‘creatures of habit’ spot in front of the main stage for the entire weekend, either out in the sun on a deck chair using their newspaper as a shade or hugging the safety barrier right in front of the stage, in order for the music to come to them, which it often does.  Yes, there’s many ways to enjoy the Cambridge Folk Festival, from those mentioned above, to those who choose to spend the entire weekend in the bar.  Hey, I kid you not.  Once again this year Cambridge offered a wide and varied programme of events across the four stages, not to mention other performance areas such as the People’s Frontroom and the Flower Garden, each of which included either concerts, sessions, workshops or talks, with various side attractions such as dance displays, street theatre and children’s activities.  Running alongside the main events was the usual Hub project with many young musicians joining in with sessions and workshops, collaborating with their peers under the guidance of such notable singers and musicians as Rosie Hood, Maz O’Connor and Sam Carter, resulting in a stage spot on Sunday night.  Whilst the main stage was, as always, pretty much reserved for the big names such as Christy Moore, Glen Hansard, Mary Chapin Carpenter and KT Tunstall, each of whom took their place on this prestigious stage through their reputation alone, some artists have either worked their way up through each of the smaller stages such as the Teeside couple Megson, who finally got their taste of the main stage on Friday, whilst one or two bands have arrived there simply by accident, memorably in the case of the Old Crow Medicine Show, who were merely busking at the 2004 festival when they were asked to replace one of the acts who had missed their plane.  They went on to be the darlings of that year’s festival.  On Sunday the appropriately named Darlingside were likewise quickly promoted to the main stage when the billed artist Charles Bradley unfortunately took ill, the Massachusetts-based quartet went on to win over the audience with a wonderfully well-received set of great songs delivered in CSNY-styled harmonies, all centred around a single microphone.  Another one of those magic Cambridge moments.  Thursday night’s opening concerts featured a fine headline set by Jon Boden, freshly freed up from his Bellowhead responsibilities to follow his own chosen musical path, in this case significantly sandwiched between two giant horns on either side of the stage.  O’Hooley and Tidow showcased songs from their new record, whilst earlier sets by both Ímar and Seafret provided a suitable start to the festival as the crowds acclimatised themselves to their surroundings.  The Club Tent and The Den also got off to a good start with such artists as The Dovetail Trio, Will Varley, Flats and Sharps and Solarference.  Throughout the weekend the festival took pride in its workshops and special events, starting on Friday morning with Chris Wood, who almost reluctantly conducted his songwriting workshop.  ‘Has anyone ever been to a songwriting workshop before?’ asked the noted songwriter, ‘What do they do?’ Chris’s caustic wit was also present as one of the regular planes flew over during his session.  ‘Is there an airport nearby by any chance?’ he enquired.  ‘Hmm, I’ll have to remember that if ever I start a festival’ he mischievously quipped.  O’Hooley and Tidow delivered a ‘conversation and music’ session in the Flower Garden, whilst Eliza Carthy held a singing workshop on Saturday morning with Bruce McGregor and Rua Macmillan concluding the morning Club Tent workshops with fiddles a-blazin’ on Sunday morning.  One of this year’s key projects was the Songs of Separation concert which took place midway through Saturday afternoon, featuring ten distinctive voices on the contemporary folk music scene, amongst them Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, Mary McMaster, Hannah James and Hannah Read, whose beautifully performed “It Was a’for Our Rightful King” was one of the highlights of the day.  The Flower Garden also offered an ideal space for the Songs of Separation participants to talk about the project later in the afternoon.  By midway through the festival there is always the urge to reflect on what you’ve seen so far, such as the outstanding and passionate Friday night set by Glen Hansard, who created more dents in his well-worn guitar than Pete Townsend, as he delivered an unexpected but very well received “Astral Weeks”, as well as his own memorable “Falling Slowly”, from the film Once.  Then there was Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band who launched Nancy’s quite remarkable new record Instar over the weekend, recreating the album right there up on the main Stage One.  The New York-based Mike + Ruthy Band’s reputation as a hot live band preceded the band’s arrival on Saturday, which saw performances in all three of the main stage marquees.  Mike and Ruthy’s said reputation was confirmed not only by the full band’s sets, but also by the couple’s duo performance in the Club Tent on Saturday afternoon.  As already mentioned, this reviewer was forced to cut short Leyla McCalla’s Stage Two set in order to hot foot over to Stage One to catch the entire Songs of Separation concert.  Needless to say, with an appraisal of what’s gone down so far, comes the niggling thought of what you’ve also managed to miss.  Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton for instance, or Rachel Sermanni over in The Den or dare I say, the entire Saturday afternoon Festival Session hosted as always by Brian McNeill, but I guess it can’t be helped if you only have one body at your disposal.  With WOMAD running simultaneously over in Wiltshire, Cambridge as always was keen to provide a flavour of what we like to refer to as World Music over the weekend, with some much anticipated appearances.  The Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal, fresh from his recent appearance on the Jools Holland Later show with Mumford and Sons of all people, brought a taste of West Africa to the main stage on Sunday night, whilst the Afro Celt Sound System returned for another high-octane performance.  Having made a huge impression around the UK and Europe, the multi-faceted Världens Band performed a couple of sets over the weekend, winning new friends with their highly infectious rhythms of the world, whilst New York gypsy punksters Gogol Bordello took Friday night by storm with a full-on assault on the eyes as well as the ears. One band that’s no stranger to Cambridge is Edward II, whose unique blend of English folk songs with a reggae beat continues to engage audiences both young and not so young alike.  If any of the returning artists to the Cambridge Folk Festival were to bring along a sense of fun, then it would be Barnsley’s very own Kate Rusby.  On Saturday, we saw the arrival of thousands of super hero masks in either pale blue or brown, being distributed amongst the crowds, their purpose to be revealed later in the afternoon towards the end of Kate’s set on the main stage.  After Kate’s set, made up of songs new and not so new, came the finale, for which the entire band as well as a good percentage of the audience put on the masks (and in the case of the band, capes as well) for Kate’s latest release “Big Brave Bill”, a song about the tea-drinking super hero of the coalfields. For most people, the appearance of Christy Moore was the most rewarding of the weekend, a singer who dominated Saturday night on the main stage.  It was one of those moments that you couldn’t resist sitting down for, not only to listen to Christy Moore’s voice, but also to engage with the audience, most of whom sang along to some of his best loved songs, both from his own pen and through interpretations of songs written by other notable songwriters.  I feel it would be amiss not to mention other outstanding performances over the four-day event, such as Della Mae, Le Vent du Nord, Applewood Road, Hattie Briggs, Blazin’ Fiddles, Lady Maisery, This is the Kit, Anna and Elizabeth, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys and the sublime Sam Lee and Friends to name but a few, all of whom could really fill another lengthy review in their own right.  There was also a fine conclusion to Sunday night as the New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band left the stage at the end of their set and marched under parasols in good old Mardi Gras fashion through the crowd and up to the Mojo tent.  It leaves me however, to conclude by mentioning three women from entirely different backgrounds, who between them dominated the main stage on Sunday, with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Imelda May and Eliza Carthy along with her Wayward Band, all of whom have appeared at the festival previously, and all who provided Sunday with something to talk about.  If Mary Chapin Carpenter has the power to hold an audience steady through her well-crafted songs and Imelda May can delight her audience with sassy charisma, it is with the fiddle-wielding singer from Robin Hood’s Bay and her Wayward Band that this festival might well be remembered.  Eliza Carthy once again made the stage her very own for an hour of energy-driven music that just flew by far too quickly.  A quick count up of festival programmes tells me that this is the twentieth Cambridge Folk Festival I’ve attended, the first one being back in 1989, when the festival celebrated its 25th year.  As the programmes pile up and the memories are stored in both the vaults of the mind and in the photographs I’ve been allowed to take, there really is no reason to even consider finding somewhere else to spend the last weekend of July.  It’s a tradition in itself and one that I hope will continue for quite some time to come. 

Front Country | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.08.16

The Greystones has hosted a wide and varied series of musical events over the last few years, a multitude of genres from Alt Country to Alt Rock, Folk to Flamenco, R&B to Reggae, but there’s always something exciting about a visit by a major Bluegrass band and tonight saw the appearance of one of the finest.  Based around the San Francisco Mission District, Front Country has developed into a major touring quintet with one album Sake Of The Sound under their belt together with the band’s latest release Mixtape, a brand new EP of covers which is now available at their concerts.  It was almost two years ago that I first hear Front Country when their debut album arrived for review and I was immediately struck by their musical cohesion, all of which was confirmed tonight at the popular Sheffield venue.  Once again hosted by True North Music, whose Maria Wallace introduced both Front Country and tonight’s opening act.  For some, Sunday nights are often marred with the prospect of impending work in the morning but tonight the Bank Holiday weekend brought with it an additional sense of joy as the audience arrived and settled in for what promised to be a great night.  The single microphone in the centre of an otherwise deserted stage; save for a couple of guitars and a reclining double bass, suggested we were definitely in for a good night.  Introduced as old friends, the Cheshire-based trio Rye Distraction were at the Greystones to play their debut performance anywhere; exciting for tonight’s audience for sure but also a scary prospect for Eleanor Wilkie on fiddle, Eleanor’s sister Emily Cross on double bass and lead vocalist James Dewdney on guitar.  As their initial nervousness settled into enjoyment, the trio huddled around the centre microphone and revealed a bunch of songs they had been working on, the trio’s strength lying particularly in the interplay between the fiddle and guitar, but also in the lush sibling harmonies.  Emily’s bass playing drove the sound along throughout the band’s opening set. For their first visit to Sheffield, Front Country were determined to make a meaningful first impression with their collective musical credentials and collaborative cohesion, all of which soon became very much apparent.  With Adam (Roscoe) Roszkiewicz’s mandolin pyrotechnics, Jake Groopman’s flat-pick guitar wizardry, Leif Karlstrom’s blazing fiddle and Jeremy Darrow’s rhythmic double bass keeping it all together.  It was Melody Walker’s superb soulful voice that kept our attention throughout both sets.  Testament to such a standard of musicianship, it soon became apparent that these fine musicians don’t sit around listening to Bluegrass all day and are fearless in their pursuit of interpreting their own eclectic influences, some of which are quite surprising.  King Crimson for instance.  During his introduction, Jake was eager to point out that the song was from ‘the eighties King Crimson of course’ lest anyone in the audience was preparing for a stroll through “21st Century Schizoid Man” for instance, or the full thirteen minutes of “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part One”, heaven forbid.  The complex rhythms and delicate syncopation of “Three of a Perfect Pair”, featuring Leif’s manic fiddle onslaught was one of the highlights of the night.  For anyone familiar with the band’s debut album, a handful of the songs were selected for the set list, the soul-filled “Gospel Train” for instance, and the equally impassioned “Rock Salt and Nails” together with the title song “Sake of the Sound”, each of which were handled with the care the songs deserved.  Speaking of the sake of the sound, the crew at the Greystones were once again very much on the ball, springing into action once a faulty microphone came to their attention and maintaining a high standard throughout.  It’s always good to see a band that takes the concept of a band seriously, by definition each and every member has an important part to play, each member being just as important as the musician standing next to them and Front Country demonstrates this with every single note.  The songs are superb as are the instrumentals, which are remarkably inventive and adventurous, each played with extraordinary dexterity, “The Humpback and the Sloth” for instance and also “Light’s Out”, for which Melody left the guys to it, leaving the stage in order to tune her banjo.  With one or two further surprises, The Band’s “Get Up Jake” first heard on the Rock of Ages live record back in the early 1970s and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”, which stirred more recent memories for some.  If the audience had any notion that this memorable Don Henley song couldn’t be followed, they were fantastically mistaken as the band launched into Melody Walker’s showstopper par excellence, the powerhouse that is “Gold Rush Goddess”, which featured some of the most exciting solos from each member of the band, notably Jake’s flat-pick guitar showpiece and Roscoe and Leif’s plucked fiddle and mandolin flurry towards the end.  Breathtaking really.  Concluding with the one encore, for which the audience were asked to join in, the band left the Greystones with “Family Band”, a good old sing-along to end what turned out to be quite an extraordinary night.

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.09.16

It doesn’t seem all that long ago since Cahalen Morrison and Eli West last played at the Greystones in Sheffield, that particular occasion being True North Music’s inaugural promotion.  Tonight, as I settled on a stool in front of the stage, pointing my camera up at the duo, whilst listening to the opening few bars of “Fiddlehead Fern”, it seemed all too familiar, as if the intervening months had been condensed into just a few minutes.  The Seattle-based duo have changed little in appearance as would be expected, standing in precisely the same spots on either side of the stage and performing much of the same material as before (together with one or two new additions).  Their stage manner was just as humbling with each of the musicians almost battling for the role of ‘the quiet one’ and neither assuming the role of ‘frontman’.  Most importantly though, their playing ability was just as startling as before and despite all of the familiar aspects, the performance seemed so fresh and exciting as if it was their very first time at the venue.  This has a lot to do with the fact that these two musicians play so naturally together, so naturally that at times you really do feel it couldn’t possibly get any better than this.  The four microphones on stage serve one purpose only and that is to ensure everyone in the room, from those at the front to those at the back, has the opportunity to hear the duo on equal terms, otherwise they could just as well have played totally acoustic.  The sound of Cahalen and Eli’s natural and perfectly blended voices, augmented by guitar, mandolin and banjo, was both strong and delicate in equal measure throughout the two sets.  The duo’s total lack of showy showmanship and over-stated self-confidence is one of the most attractive aspects of the duo and you really do feel like you are eavesdropping on a couple of musicians simply enjoying each other’s company around the campfire.   The more you warm to Cahalen and Eli, the more irritated you become at the news of the duo’s recent brush with crime.  ‘We had our car nicked last week with the majority of our merchandise in it’ revealed Eli, offering to send their music out via email if the few remaining CDs ran out.  Eli revealed that he has since had a recurring dream that the offender will look through the merch, see the tour dates and will eventually turn up at one of their UK gigs.  The recordings were not the only thing on offer tonight as Eli also took advantage of a short commercial break to announce that his vintage 1952 J50 Gibson was up for grabs, knowing that the room was populated by a number of respected Sheffield musicians, including Richard Hawley, Martin Simpson, James Fagan, Sam Carter and Tom Wright, all of whom were pretty much familiar with the six-stringed beast and all of whom gathered around for a closer look after the show.  With Cahalen alternating between banjo and mandolin and Eli pretty much sticking to the guitar throughout, it was a rare occurence to see Eli taking up the banjo to perform one of his own compositions, “Cutting In”, a tune first heard on the duo’s debut album The Holy Coming Of The Storm back in 2010. Selecting familiar songs and tunes from the duo’s ‘funny corner of music’, which Eli explained consisted mainly of three topics, ‘Jesus, murder ballads and songs about trains’, the duo performed such songs as “Stone to Sand”, “Church Street Blues”, “My Lover Adorned”, “Pocket Full of Dust” and “The Poor Cowboy”, which was treated to some fine audience participation during the highly singable chorus.  Closing with the delicate gospel song “Voices of Evening”, one of the highlights of the set, Cahalen and Eli returned to the stage to finally conclude with a well received reading of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”.  As the popular Backroom emptied once again, its glasses collected and its seats stacked up, there was a sense of success and achievement in the air.  True North Music in partnership with the Greystones had hosted yet another top notch night, which hopefully brought to new ears (as well as old), an evening of timeless music, beautifully played and warmly received; a night we shall be talking about until at least the next time.      

Jess Morgan and Stillhouse By Candlelight | Live Review | The Old Fire Station, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.09.16

Just as the hustle-bustle of a regular York Saturday night got underway, the interior space of the old disused Victorian Chapel on the corner of Clifford Street and Peckitt Street, which was converted into the city’s fire station in the 1930s, was once again illuminated by several dozen candles for the latest in a series of art related events under the banner By Candlelight.  The building which now stands empty, provided an enchanting space for both art and music, the art provided by Blank Canvas and the arts charity Skippco, a local organisation that makes use of vacant commercial properties as short term spaces for creative and educational projects in both York and Leeds, and the music provided by the Norwich-born singer-songwriter Jess Morgan, the new progressive acoustic trio Stillhouse and the in-house duo Gobbledigook, who were effectively tonight’s hosts.  Northern Sky first discovered Jess Morgan almost exactly eight years ago when she played a support spot for Rod Picott and Amanda Shires in the Basement Bar beneath York’s City Screen Cinema back in October 2008.  Tonight’s appearance by the singer in York was almost like a homecoming in that Jess spent a lot of time in the city during her University years. Since then, Jess has gone on to make a handful of quality albums, the latest being the soon to be released Edison Gloriette, which will be in shops by October.  Tonight, Jess performed some of the songs from the new record, flanked by Bradley Blackwell on double bass and Jay Chakravorty on keyboards and electric guitar.  As the audience relaxed whilst reclining on sofas in the candlelight, Jess performed for the second time with this particular line-up, with an hour of self-penned songs including from the new album The Longest Arm, “Don’t Meet Your Heroes”, “A Hundred Years Old” and “In Brooklyn” as well as one of two from Jess’s back catalogue including “Annie of Greyfriars” and “Modern World”.  As Phil Grainger pointed out in his introduction, Jess holds the distinction of being the only artist to have played twice in the By Candlelight series, a series that has been running since 2015 in several locations around the area.  

The newly formed progressive acoustic trio Stillhouse, which is made up of singer-songwriter Jonny Sellers, mandolin player Polly Bolton and double bassist Matt Mefford, created a full and tight sound tonight, all of which appeared to be hand made for these particular surroundings. As the candles flickered around their feet, reflecting the crepuscular activities of the twilight hour, the trio showcased the songs that will soon be causing a stir on the acoustic music scene once their name gets out and about.  Starting with “Heart in a Cage”, a surprising opener originally by The Strokes, the trio went on to reveal some of Jonny’s well-constructed self-penned songs, including “Razor’s Edge”, “Love is the Weight”, “Numb and Holly”.  The trio’s twin strong points were revealed almost immediately tonight as we discovered that not only is the band capable of writing and arranging top drawer songs, they have the additional instrumental chops to go with it.  Matt Flinner’s complex Raji’s Romp for example, appeared to be a walk in the park for Polly Bolton, whose credentials as a fine mandolin player have never been more apparent.  This was further demonstrated during the trio’s reading of Chris Thile’s “I’m Yours if You Want Me” together with the finisher, the nineteenth century fiddle tune “Elzick’s Farewell”, all of which pointed to the fact that this particular trio will soon be swapping the candlelight for the main stage spotlights by next year’s festival season.  Despite Jonny’s disappointment when he realised that the light of the moon outside the old fire station doors, which had accompanied the trio’s set, was in fact a dull York street light over the road, my guess is that the three musicians would have been pleased with tonight’s set.  I have a strong feeling that audience certainly was.  Opening the event tonight was our host duo Gobbledigook, fronted by Phil Grainger, whose naturally soulful voice required no PA at all, as he performed Black Sabbath’s surprisingly mellow “Changes” and the powerful Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind”, accompanied by musical partner Simon Bolley on electric guitar.  By the end of Jess Morgan’s set, Phil summed up the evening with a booming holler, the volume of which only his voice could reach, followed by a handful of inspirational words, ‘art, photographs, money, thanks, peace, love, unity, GOODNIGHT!’  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

The South Yorkshire Folk, Roots and World Music Festival | Live Review | The Leopard, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.09.16

Just a hop, skip and a jump from Doncaster Railway Station stands one of the town’s most popular pubs in terms of the diverse music it promotes.  The Leopard, on the corner of West Street and St Sepulchre Gate West, seems to have survived whilst other surrounding buildings have not, which is largely due to the pub’s impressive facade, its popularity amongst both young and not so young alike and its continuing endeavour to stage a wide variety of music events throughout the year.  This afternoon, the South Yorkshire Folk, Roots and World Music Festival was held at the venue, which ran for eight hours over two stages, featuring a selection of diverse acts from both the UK and further afield.  During the day no less than thirteen acts performed on two stages; one being a specially erected marquee to the rear of the pub and the other being the upstairs function room, which regularly hosts multi-genre concerts throughout the year.  The two opening performances kicked off at 2pm prompt, with the Canadian duo Madison Violet, who to my knowledge were making their first ever appearance in the town, taking to the stage in the bright and breezy outdoor marquee.  Singer-songwriters Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac, who formed Madison Violet back in 1999, delighted the audience with their mature songs and delicate harmonies, prompting discussions of whether the bar had maybe been raised a little too high for all the other acts to follow during the course of the day, songs such as “Small of My Heart”, “Ransom” and the gorgeous “Crying”.  With Lisa playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin, not forgetting the stomp box at her feet, Brenley alternated between two vintage guitars, whilst delivering her own songs in her distinctive gruff voice.  Meanwhile, upstairs on the contrasting darkened acoustic stage, singer-songwriter Edwina Hayes played an intimate performance with a set of familiar songs from her repertoire.  The musicians involved in today’s festival mingled freely with their audiences as if it were a private party of friends. Between sets, some casual banter ensued as CDs were being signed, whilst burgers and beer were being served in the marquee.  The Lincolnshire five-piece Band from County Hell kept the music going, with their own brand of rogue folk and battered bodhrans, which seemed to fit in with the spirit of the afternoon.  Upstairs a gentler approach was being pursued by both Lucy Marshall and Chris Cleverley, whose respective sets featured, amongst their own original material, one or two well known folk club songs such as “The Parting Glass”, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and a rather tasty arrangement of the old Nic Jones classic “Barrack Street”.  It has to be said that the festival could have been better attended, but with it being in its infancy, the performers and audience alike seemed to accept that the small turn out was one of the things a new venture has to bear.  The organisers may have been the most concerned but it didn’t show; the smiles remained on the faces of everyone taking part, all of whom did their utmost to see the day through.  Perhaps the upstairs acoustic stage was the worst hit by small numbers, but again, the performers who played up there gave it their all, including Strummin’ Steve Jackson, the three-piece band Merlin’s Keep and West Yorkshire songsmith Roger Davies,whose engaging set featured some of his most celebrated songs, “Huddersfield Town” and “Brighouse on a Saturday Night” included.  Throughout the day and into the evening the music continued with performances by the all-female folk trio Said the Maiden, the Ric Sanders Trio, who performed an entertaining set of good time numbers such as “San Francisco Bay Blues” as well as the familiar Allman Brothers instrumental “Little Martha”, and an appearance by Barnsley-based BBC Folk Award nominated duo Gilmore and Roberts, whose performance coincided with the unofficial launch of Katriona and Jamie’s brand new live album “In Our History”.  As dusk descended upon Doncaster, there were two more bands to play on each of the two stages, effectively bringing the festival to a close.  Whilst the five-piece Lincolnshire country blues and ragtime outfit Itchy Fingers provided a feel-good closing performance in the marquee, the Winchester-based Polly and the Billet Doux brought some of their own very distinctive country, blues, soul and gospel music to the acoustic stage.  The four-piece band, which consists of vocalist Polly Perry, guitarist Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen, bassist Dan Everett, whose double bass clearly indicated which band he plays in and finally drummer Ben Perry, were not only on their usual good form, but were probably also on their best behaviour as half of Polly’s Doncaster-based family were in attendance; a sort of family gathering all round.   As The Leopard quietened down for last orders and the last of the festival revellers dispersed, Polly Perry could be seen wandering along St Sepulchre Gate West under the streetlights, most likely coming down after her band’s energetic performance, chilling on a calm September evening.  I spent my entire youth just half a mile from this street, a road I have walked along thousands of times and here was the singer from a band I admire, decades on, treading the same old path, connecting past and present and reminding me once again of the value of music and the value of my home town.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.09.16

There seems to be a clear understanding once you enter the Backroom at the Greystones, in fact once you actually enter the pub itself, that the venue takes its music seriously.  If artists of the calibre of Nancy Kerr, Cera Impala, Otis Gibbs and Rob Heron don’t necessarily rub shoulders with one another on stage, then their posters on the walls certainly do.  Attending a gig at this very much established South Yorkshire venue not only allows you to hear some great music, but it also gives you an opportunity to fill up your diary with seemingly unmissable future dates.  A Saturday night at the Greystones can either be a pretty packed and noisy affair, a sparsely attended quiet night or something in between.  Tonight, it was very much the latter, with a medium-sized audience ready to greet Hannah and Ben as the duo continue their current UK tour.  No strangers to the Greystones, Hannah having previously opened for Ben’s band The Willows a few months ago, the two musicians seemed very much prepared for their first bona fide appearance at the venue as a duo.  A line of fairy lights illuminated the front of the stage as tonight’s support act picked up their instruments to play their opening set.  Manchester-based David Bentley and Draft made their first performance in front of a live audience, playing a handful of introspective self-penned songs with such titles as “Home”, “Death” and “A Night Like This”, together with the title song from their forthcoming debut album Time Takes Time.  It has to be said that David’s distinctive voice was the main focus of the performance, whose range fits somewhere comfortably between post-motorcycle crash Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley falsetto, with a pinch of Neil Young in the guitar stylings.  With no introduction and little fanfare, Hannah and Ben opened their first set with Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, a familiar song from Hannah’s previous live appearances, when Ben would act purely as Hannah’s accompanist.  These days it seems that Ben plays an equal role and instead of the duo sitting, the two musicians have taken to standing before a single vintage microphone, which serves to lift the volume slightly, otherwise it was a totally acoustic set.  There’s always been something uniquely intimate about their performances and the fact that they both now stand alters this little if at all.  The intimacy of the performance continued throughout the two sets, with each of the songs treated to gentle arrangements on guitar, dobro and mountain dulcimer, with each of Hannah and Ben’s voices shared almost equally.  The co-written songs such as “The Fall (Hang)” and “What’s It Tonight My Love”, stand shoulder to shoulder with the traditional fare, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and “Lady Margaret”, each song evocative of the past.  Even the arrangements of songs by other writers such as Gram Parsons’ “Song For You”, John Martyn’s “Hurt in Your Heart” and Bob Dylan’s timeless “Boots of Spanish Leather” sound fresh and new, the latter performed as a dialogue for two players.  So relaxed was tonight’s performance, that there was a tendency to believe you were in a much more intimate setting than a popular Sheffield pub; even the usual Saturday night bar din managed to keep from filtering through during the set.  Every single note and syllable was delivered on cue, which made for a most pleasant and enjoyable musical experience.  After the applause for the engaging reading of “Boots of Spanish Leather”, the duo returned to perform one last song, for which Hannah and Ben encouraged the audience to join in, despite the song having no actual chorus.  “Deep Blue Sea” was actually equipped with enough of an effectual refrain to encourage some communal warbling.  With that, the duo rounded off another highly enjoyable night at the Greystones.

Scarborough Jazz Festival 2016 | Live Review | Scarborough Spa, Scarborough | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 25.09.16

‘Come kiss me quickly, we might not have long before all this is washed away,’ so Liane Carroll sings on “Seaside”, perfectly encapsulating the temporary joy that is a trip to the coast.  It’s something with which most of us Brits are familiar, considering that the vast majority of us still lug buckets and spades to our nearest stretch of beach on a regular basis.  Perhaps it has something to do with our very British love for small pleasures, brief flirtations with simple amusements and the concentration of a variety of entertainments in one place and time.  Some of us are content with our penny arcades and crazy golf while others find delight in an ice cream cone and a well-located bench. Some build sandcastles and fly kites whilst others get their kicks from surfing and swimming in the cold, grey sea.  And then there are the pleasure domes, the theatres, spas, bandstands and ballrooms where comedy and tragedy are delivered to day trippers via plays, music hall routines, concerts and recitals a plenty.  We do like to be beside the seaside and, thanks to the organisers of the annual Scarborough Jazz Festival, even us jazzers – sticklers as we are for good music and quality performances – can revel in the variety that this salty wonderland has to offer.  From Friday to Sunday, the festival, now in its fourteenth year, doesn’t just boast a wealth of good jazz, but a wide and diverse programme of jazz to suit all tastes. Big bands, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, vocalists, saxophonists, pianists, harmonica players, bebop, fusion, world rhythms, experimental and traditional jazz; it’s all in there somewhere, delighting, sometimes bewildering but always entertaining the large and appreciative crowd that flocks to the festival each year.  

For the more adventurous jazzer, the festival couldn’t have kicked off with a better performance than the one given by Artephis, a Jazz North-sponsored quintet of twentysomethings eager to share its forward-looking brand of jazz with the excited Friday lunchtime crowd.  Aaron Wood’s thoughtfully experimental trumpet and flugelhorn solos revisited the exploratory improvisations of a Big Fun-era Miles Davis, each note enjoying the interplay of ambient acoustics and pedal-processed reverb, whilst the band’s lynchpin James Girling painted a wide and impressive background with his electric guitar.  And whilst the band’s Miles Davis and Thom Yorke-inspired tone poems created some rather pleasing vistas throughout the set, particularly during Girling’s self-penned “Chagrin”, there were several moments of exquisitely sparing beauty, thanks in part to Ali Roocroft’s warm and considerate piano.  Astutely imaginative jazz was well represented this weekend with Malija and Trish Clowes & Gareth Williams providing two unmissable performances.  The drummerless trio Malija consists of Polar Bear saxophonist Mark Lockheart, Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby and the ever-inspiring Liam Noble on keys.  Almost a year since the release of this super-group’s superlative album The Day I Had Everything, Malija effortlessly hypnotised the Saturday evening audience with a set of wonderfully angular, speculative vignettes such as “The Pianist”, with its strangely ominous chugging piano chords and bluesy sax flourishes, and Hoiby’s creeping, soft-footed “Wayne’s World”.  Whilst Noble’s solos saw the pianist visibly searching the length of his keyboard for ornate methods of arriving at Mozart-like cadences, Lockheart’s ribbony improvisations floated serenely a few feet above, with Hoiby’s equally explorative bass lines expertly gluing the outfit together.  Pianist Gareth Williams is a friendly face at the festival and this year he introduced the Scarborough crowd to saxophonist Trish Clowes who has been busy making a name for herself with a handful of stunning albums over the last few years.  Clowes and Williams brought that all-too-rare piano/sax sound to the Spa on Friday evening and, with it, a few genuinely arresting compositions.  Clowes’s “Pfeiffer and the Whales” conjured up a sonic illustration of a whale watching trip she recently enjoyed with her husband, with the young musician’s soprano saxophone perfectly replicating the bewitching sound of whale-song as Williams fed faultless, watery improvisations into his piano.  The duo were able to complement their mostly cerebral jazz with some nice banter between tunes, with Gareth’s engaging wit shining through as usual.  A mainstay of jazz in general, and certainly of this festival, the saxophone made regular appearances throughout the weekend, most notably during sets by Alan Barnes and Dave and Judith O’Higgins, familiar faces on the local jazz scene and musicians who consistently pump masses of quality into this festival each year.  Barnes/O’Higgins & The Sax Section, who played a rousing set on Saturday afternoon, delighted listeners with their sax-powered machine, helped along by the non-flashy mastery of drummer Sebastiaan de Krom and sinuous basslines of Adam King, not to mention another fine appearance from pianist Gareth Williams.  British born LA sax man Benn Clatworthy played an impressive set on Friday afternoon which was just as sharp and smart as the musician himself, who arrived on stage looking like a Mad Men cast member in his crisp grey suit and magenta tie.  Whilst Rod Young scoured each nook and cranny for some intriguing drum fills and pianist John Donaldson and bassist Simon Thorpe were given plenty of room to explore their own seemingly limitless prowess, Clatworthy seemed to empty his very soul into his sax to produce some surprisingly delicate melodies.  His version of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere” was unlike the usual jazz readings of the piece, with some interesting repositionings of melody and a dreamlike mood that was sustained throughout.  Clatworthy also performed a strikingly original version of “Limehouse Blues”, founded unconventionally on an attractive minor key.  Australian tenor saxophonist Brandon Allen called upon some golden age be-bop to close the festival with a straight-ahead powerhouse performance on Sunday evening.  His sextet, featuring Nigel Hancock on alto, Mark Nightingale on trombone, Ross Stanley on piano, Sam Burgess on bass and Ian Thomas on drums, performed a powerful version of Stanley Turrentine’s “Don’t Mess With Mr T” which featured a searing Hammond solo by Ross Stanley, as well as a sprightly reading of the Bricusse/Newley classic “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which Allen dedicated to the recently departed Gene Wilder.  The moment the sax took centre stage, however, was during Saturday night’s Charlie Parker on Dial; a stage documentary headed by pianist Alex Webb.  The show, which took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Parker’s 1946-47 stint with the American bebop label via music and screen projections, showcased the talents of alto man Nathaniel Facey whose somewhat nonchalant approach added further power to his staggeringly sweet sound.  Big band fans didn’t have time to find disappointment during the weekend’s line-up, with two of the very best bands on the scene performing rousing sets.  The Abstract Truth Big Band paid tribute to Oliver Nelson’s classic 60s album with an energetic performance of consistently daring arrangements of those solos by Hubbard, Dolphy and Nelson we’ve come to love.  Like the Charlie Parker on Dial set, however, this tribute to great jazz of the past was executed with a forward-looking approach that made each composition seem fresh and vibrant.  On Saturday afternoon, the SK2 Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Dave Tyas, brought the unique sound of the late Stan Kenton to Scarborough with arrangements of the great band leader’s finest selections.  The muscular eighteen-piece outfit almost blew the roof off the Victorian Spa, whilst solos from lithe trombonist Ellie Smith and razor-sharp trumpeter Neal Morley left some of the crowd standing in ovation.  Despite festival organiser Mike Gordon’s recent remarks on Radio York concerning his wishes to keep Scarborough from becoming a world music festival, there were robust arguments this weekend to maintain a world flavour at the festival, not least in performances by Vula Viel and Pan Jumby.  The latter act delivered a red hot set of steel pan-infused jazz to the Friday afternoon audience, with Dudley Nesbitt proving that a single steel pan can fill an ornate English seaside theatre to the brim with Trinidadian calypso.  Nesbitt’s tight band had everyone bobbing around in no time, perhaps providing a little practice for Vula Viel’s high-energy performance on Sunday afternoon.  Whilst the rest of the country were tucking into their Sunday dinners, Scarborough’s South Bay was being shaken to its core by a band who call upon the tribal rhythms of Upper West Ghana to create some of the most passionate fusion jazz you’re ever likely to hear.  While George Crowley braved a sprained ankle to impart some nifty sax licks and drummers Dave De Rose and Simon Roth sparred tirelessly at stage left and right, Bex Burch all but destroyed her self-built Gyil – an African wooden xylophone – with a performance that left every photographer with a roll full of blurred images.  Selections from the band’s wonderful 2015 album Good is Good, such as “Zine Dondone Zine Daa” and the infectious “Yes Yaa Yaa” were recreated perfectly and sewn together nicely with the ethereal synth of Dan Nicholls.  For the lovers of vocal jazz amongst us, this weekend’s bill had been lovingly peppered with some of this country’s finest singers.  New York-based pianist Alan Broadbent performed a sumptuous set of original compositions with British vocalist Georgia Mancio.  The duo have been engaged in a transatlantic writing relationship for the past few years and, during this weekend’s performance, several pages of their ‘songbook’ were shared with us including such beautiful songs such as “The Last Goodbye” and the tongue-twisting “Someone’s Sun”.  On Saturday, the festival welcomed the ever-jovial Nicola Farnon whose Sheffield-based trio performed a selection of buoyant standards.  Nicola’s warm, husky vocals breathed new life into such classics as “Frim Fram Sauce” and “Moonlight in Vermont”, whilst her performance of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” left the crowd awestruck.  Perhaps the most memorable and genuinely moving moment of the festival came during the set of one of this country’s most treasured vocalists.  Liane Carroll performed a laid-back set of crowd pleasers, showcasing her dazzling piano skills (a distinctly impressive talent she, remarkably, downplays) as well as her soaring vocals on Sunday evening.  Her solo performance was coloured by her reliably pleasing selection of songs including “Bring Me Sunshine” and the wonderful “Seaside” from her latest record, as well as “The Nearness of You” and an arresting version of Artie Butler’s “Here’s to Life”, the song Carroll played to her mother just one hour before she passed away.  A beautiful tribute to an admirable lady, and a fitting close to a truly outstanding and humorously engaging set.  The original Scarborough Spa was built around the source of the town’s famous spa waters; a spring that was said to have healing powers and which gave birth to the very idea of the seaside resort.  Nowadays, the local council suggest that visitors don’t try to drink the water that flows from Oliver’s Mount, down the cliff and into the grey North Sea.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t come to Scarborough, especially at the end of each September, to find rejuvenation in the trickling sound of piano, the flowing streams of sax solos and the deep froth of a good bass.  The Scarborough Jazz Festival provides a weekend of diverse jazz performances, tinged with a feeling of being on holiday and a general atmosphere of fun and relaxation.  It is a continuing credit to its organisers, its staff and its musicians.

Johnny Dickinson | Live Review | The Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.09.16

I first met singer/guitarist Johnny Dickinson back in 2003, when he walked into the Lonsdale pub on a cold February night with guitar in hand, to do a couple of songs in support of the main act.  I don’t remember who the main act was that night but I’ve always remembered Johnny’s performance.  His reputation as a fine singer and guitar player arrived sometime before he did, which was largely due to the enthusiasm and patronage of local music promoter Jonti Willis who had been badgering me to book the North East-based musician for some time.  The proof of Jonti’s pudding was in evidence that night from the moment he took to the stage.  Making himself comfortable in a straight back chair with a single spotlight on him, he placed his guitar upon his knee and opened with “Beach Road”, one of his own songs, which also opened his debut album Castles And Old Kings.  Johnny was a perfectly fit man in those days, touring regularly both in the UK and Europe, as well as spending a lot of time in the United States, where much of his musical inspiration derives.  His world came crashing down in 2011 when he underwent chemo treatment for a lymphoma, followed by a period of six months in hospital paralysed as a result of contracting Guillain Barre Syndrome, which took his illness to crisis point.  Since then, Johnny has played rarely, with barely a handful of dates marked on his calendar, just one at this venue in Doncaster and a couple of other charity gigs closer to home.  With this in mind, it came as little surprise to see a well attended Roots Music Club tonight, with a room full of regular supporters, together with a gathering of noted musicians from the South Yorkshire music scene. Bob Chiswick was there to open proceedings with a handful of observational songs and stories from this neck of the woods including Silver Street a song about one of Doncaster’s famous and at times infamous thoroughfares, together with an engaging song retelling the story of Claire Middleton, whose name has become synonymous with the Park Hill ‘Streets in the Sky’ housing estate in Sheffield.  ‘You can buy one of those flats now for £5000’ Bob quipped.  Support for tonight’s show also included the Crocker Brothers from York.  Johnny Dickinson, who endeavoured to transform the Ukrainian Centre stage into the Grand Ole Opry temporarily with some delightful country tunes such as “Eastbound Freight Train”, “Fugitive’s Lament” and the tender self-penned “Broken Boy”.  On a couple of occasions throughout the night the Crockers would join Johnny on stage performing together in a sort of ‘for old times sake fashion’, clearly enjoying every minute, on such as the old bluegrass classic “Don’t This Road Look Rough” and “Rocky”.  The night really belonged to Johnny Dickinson though, whose relaxed and laid-back performance showed little evidence of the plight the musician has endured over the last few years.  Cutting a rather slender figure these days, with closely cropped hair and a slightly greying beard, Johnny is an unassuming figure, so much so that at one point during the evening a search party went out looking for him to join the Crocker Brothers on stage, when he was standing at the bar all along. Seated throughout his two sets, Johnny played exclusively electric guitar, although there were one or two hints to the effect that he might bring out a cowboy painted acoustic from backstage and a blonde electric which stood on its stand at the back of the stage throughout.  He prepared photographers to watch out for these opportunities, which failed to materialise.  I guess he just forgot.  Either that or he was just enjoying the sound of his own guitar too much, as were we in the audience as he introduced a variety of styles such as Country, Country Blues, Celtic Folk, Rockabilly and a little Chas & Dave.  Despite having a set list beside him perched on a borrowed amp, Johnny played it loose and casual inviting the audience to shout out requests, which came almost immediately with a call for “Crossing the Cumberland”.  Some suggestions were duly accepted, despite Johnny being fantastically under-rehearsed on such songs as “Bad Moon Rising”, which was helped along by audience prompts.  No one cared, here was a musician who many consider a friend and everyone was clearly delighted to see their friend having fun up there on stage.  Johnny was at his best though whilst delivering some of the most memorable songs from his repertoire such as “Beach Road”, “Mercury Blues” and “Black Jack Davy”, whose intro inadvertently morphed into Abba’s “Mamma Mia” heaven forbid.  Blind Boy Fuller’s “Weeping Willow” and Doc Watson’s “Hestitation Blues” were greeted with enthusiastic applause and the instrumental slide version of the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair” was rewarded with silence around the room.   All good things come to an end as surely they must and indeed with such great performances tonight, it made the task even more difficult for compere Jonti Willis to bring it to an end.  Having pre-arranged lifts, one or two had reluctantly fled before the last couple of numbers, but despite this, no one could possibly say they left unfulfilled.  It was a great night of music led by a performer who has been and continues to be sadly missed from the music scene and I’m sure everyone present, me included, would want to wish Johnny all the very best for the future.  Jonti said it best from the stage..  ‘Johnny Dickinson.. I think you’ve been World Class’.

The Stray Birds | Live Review | The Live Room, Saltaire | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.10.16

The dimly-lit stage at one end of the darkened Live Room at the Caroline Street Social Club was dominated by a reposeful double bass lying diagonally across the stage as people took their seats for potentially another great night at the popular Saltaire venue, which lies almost hidden in the shadow of the bold Salts Mill chimney and cluster of surrounding former textile mill buildings just beyond the car park.  Salts Mill is the most immediate reminder of how these parts once functioned in earlier times and the name Titus Salt remains synonymous with the area to this day.  Tonight, from Pennsylvania, the Stray Birds returned to the club with a bunch of new songs, together with a new drummer helping to fill out the band’s already full sound.  The musicians, Oliver Craven on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, Maya de Vitry also on guitar and fiddle, Charlie Muench on double bass and Dominic Billett on drums, seemed to be in the process of shaking off jet-lag after only just landing on these shores, having played just the one gig so far in their 15 date UK tour.  For their second appointment, we found the band in great voice, with Oliver, Maya and Charlie huddled around a single condenser microphone, whilst Dominic seated himself off to the right hand side of the stage, only joining the others at the end of the night for their final bow.  Once the light flooded the stage, those three very distinctive voices approached the microphone opening the first set with the unaccompanied intro to “When I Die”, the song that closes their latest album release Magic Fire, the predominant focus of tonight’s show, both vinyl and CD versions being also available at the gig.  Oliver’s mum was only too pleased to be looking after the merch table at the back of the room next to the sound desk, Maya pointing out that Kim actually belongs in England as she likes ‘books and knitting’.  It’s certainly encouraging to know that our national pastimes have reached the folk of the Keystone State.  Throughout the two sets, there appeared to be a rather noticeable democratic distribution of songs, with Oliver, Maya and Charlie taking their turn as lead vocalist, each carefully negotiating the well-rehearsed choreography that comes with using such a set up.  Their voices work best when joined in harmony as exemplified on such songs as “Shining in the Distance”, “All the News” and Caleb Klauder’s “New Shoes”.  ‘It’s so good to be back here’ Maya said before launching into the new song “Radio”, which was given its debut performance at the venue tonight.  It has to be said that there may well be similarities between Maya’s vocal delivery to that of Gillian Welch, more so when complemented by Oliver’s David Rawlings-like resonator guitar licks, but this is not a bad thing in the least; great music rubs off from one generation to the next.  One of the outstanding songs in the Stray Birds current repertoire is “Mississippi Pearl”, which tonight showed Maya very much in soulful mode.  With one or two older songs such as Harlem from the band’s eponymous debut album and “The Bells” from the Best Medicine album, the latter part of the second set saw the band paying tribute to some their own particular heroes such as Emmylou Harris with “San Antone Rose”, Jimmy Rodgers with “Blue Yodel #7” and Townes Van Zandt with “Loretta”, for which Oliver broke out the mandolin for the first time.  After playing two astonishingly good sets, the band closed with another new song, “Sabina”, the band returning to the stage for the final encore of the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming”, a song that has been in the band’s repertoire from the beginning and the sort of song that couldn’t really be followed.

Kirk McElhinney | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Doncaster Brewery and Tap | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.10.16

Shifting venue, as the Roots Music Club occasionally does, the Doncaster Brewery and Tap on Young Street in the town centre hosted tonight’s appearance by Manchester-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Kirk McElhinney, playing his first ever Doncaster gig.  The Rochdale-born musician arrived at the venue with guitar in hand, the lone figure very much reminiscent of the arrival of the folk troubadours of yesteryear; the likes of Wizz Jones, Michael Chapman and most notably on this occasion Bert Jansch, one man, one guitar and a bunch of impressive songs.  The name Bert Jansch seemed to resonate with the audience tonight, this being just a few days after the fifth anniversary of Jansch’s death in 2011.  Tonight Jansch was not only remembered for his influence upon this particular musician, but also for the songs that Bert was most associated with, such as the traditional “Blackwaterside”, which Kirk performed towards the end of his first set.  The small stage in the upstairs function room was illuminated by a set of brand new lights, the boxes they came in stacked in the corner of the room.  These lights joined the familiar standard lamp, which is a permanent feature on stage at this venue, to provide illumination in an otherwise darkened room.  It doesn’t actually stretch the imagination to compare tonight’s stage set-up with the romantic vision of the Soho clubs of the 1960s, such as Les Cousins, or that well-known film footage of Big Bill Broonzy entertaining a late night audience in a 1950s Belgian cellar.  Tonight the room had that sort of Bohemian atmosphere; just a handful of discerning music fans huddled together on a chilly night, with the sole purpose of enjoying good, well performed music.  Performing songs from his debut album World Gone Blind, Kirk McElhinney sat centre stage, with just two speakers at his feet providing the amplification, a single microphone and guitar perched upon his knee.  With an assured finger-style guitar technique, together with a relaxed vocal delivery, Kirk performed a handful of self-penned songs such as “Circle”, “Tune for Luce” and “Shelter From the Rain”.  Midway through his first set, Kirk surprised the audience with his arrangement of Randy Newman’s Toy Story hit “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, complete with guitar solo played with his teeth; a bit of acoustic Hendrix thrown in then.  ‘It’s the only part of the show that this works’ he quipped.  With another nod to Bert Jansch, Kirk played Jansch’s arrangement of “The Old Triangle” before closing his set with the exhilarating “Price You Pay”, a song about Kirk’s brother, featuring some of the best guitar playing of the night, which is slightly obscured by other instrumentation on the album version.  It was worth coming out tonight to witness just that.  Sharing the evening with Kirk McElhinney was Ciarán Boyle, whose songs, both unaccompanied and accompanied by his highly skilled bodhran playing, brought a very distinct taste of his own Irish roots to the stage.  Songs such as “I Wish I Was in England”, “The Granemore Hare” and “Step it Out Mary”.  Ciaran’s traditional Irish songs, learned from his own family, brought a  very different and contrasting element to the evening, which was rewarding in itself.  The only drawback to an otherwise interruption-free night was the fact that the chap feasting on a packet of pork scratchings throughout Ciarán’s second set couldn’t keep in time with the bodhran!  Other than that, a top night in Donny.

Musicport 2016 | Live Review | Whitby Pavilion, Whitby | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.10.16

There are few reasons why we in the UK would be motivated to look forward to the month of October.  Isn’t this the time of year when Autumn leaves start to decay and muddy our footpaths, a time when clocks go back and plunge those same paths into darkness, a time when ‘brass monkeys’ becomes the popular term for just about everything?  This may or may not be so, but we at Northern Sky start looking forward to October in earnest as early as Spring for one reason and one reason only… Musicport!  Once again, the bright and breezy flags fluttered to the onset of dusk beside the cliff side Pavilion as the seaside town came alive to the sound of drums and brass and marching feet on the clifftops right there in the shadow of Captain James Cook and his neighbouring whale bones, whilst the festival prepared itself for another full-on weekend of music and song, dance, spoken word, cinema and an assortment of fine culinary delights.  As the early arrivals poured into the so-called Hub in order to reacquaint themselves with one another over a coffee or perhaps a first beer, there was a feeling of.. oh, where did that year go?  The decor this year was dominated by delicately constructed marine life with green and blue fish in the main hall and seagulls occupying the skylight space, bringing into the pavilion clearly what was already outside.  Whilst the powerful vocal sounds of Zimbabwe’s Black Umfolosi bounced off the walls of the main hall, effectively opening the main Friday night concert, Yorkshire’s very own father and daughter duo Pete and Polly Bolton served up a dish of America’s ‘alternative songbook’ down on the North Sea Stage, contributing towards the rich tapestry of contrasting sounds from the start.  If the organisers of Musicport describe their annual festival as ‘a journey through the world of music and more’ then Morris-Natyam provided a perfect illustration of this sentiment in action.  This unique collaboration between dancers and musicians of Indian and English origin created a colourfully engaging spectacle on the theatre stage, much to the delight of the captivated Friday evening crowd.  The performance smoothly fused the artistic traditions of two cultures which seem, on the surface, entirely separate.  Thanks, however, to the dexterity of English Morris dancer Lisa Heywood and Indian Bharatanatyam dancer Priya Sundar, Morris-Natyam proves explicitly that these traditions are not, in fact, worlds apart. Whilst the distinctly English sound of Mel Biggs’s concertina knitted itself to traditional Indian strings and percussion, Heywood and Sundar led the audience through a year of seasonal dances via the floral awakenings of spring, the sun-worship of summer, autumn’s battle with evil spirits and the dead of winter, demonstrating the occasional differences between the two traditions as well as their many remarkable similarities.  There were moments when it seemed impossible to note any difference whatsoever and, thanks to the careful choreography, our ancient cultures were gracefully sewn together before hundreds of bedazzled eyes.  It was a pleasing year at Musicport for anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz, especially when one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists gave a blazing performance in the theatre on Friday evening.  The name Martin Taylor is synonymous with dexterity and fervour when it comes to handling some of the most complex jazz compositions.  His reputation towers over the best of them, having performed with such legendary musicians as Stéphane Grappelli, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel and David Grisman and producing a series of successful solo records over the last four decades.  This year, Taylor celebrates forty years in the business as well as his sixtieth birthday, and his performance at Musicport proved that one of Britain’s best loved jazz musicians, despite considering himself ‘officially grumpy’, is sounding as vibrant as ever.  And whilst tunes such as “I’m Old Fashioned”, “I Got Rhythm” and “Just Once” harked back to Taylor’s success as Britain’s answer to Django Reinhardt, there were reflections of harder times, too, during this engaging solo performance.  Martin sadly lost his son in 2005 and, via the striking beauty of his self-penned composition “One Day”, it was equally moving and fascinating to see how Taylor had tackled adversity to keep his music alive.  The performance was peppered with several well-known numbers such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and The Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”, each showcasing Taylor’s almost otherworldly deftness.  But it was, perhaps, Taylor’s self-penned “Down To Cocomo’s”, with its contagious tropical rhythm, that rang in the ears of a satisfied audience for the rest of the evening.  Even without the late Ian Dury, the plethora of familiar songs in the Blockheads back catalogue kept the Musicport crowd happy as one hit followed another during the band’s headlining set on Friday night.  “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”, “What a Waste”, “Wake Up and Make Love With Me”, “Billericay Dickie”, “Sweet Gene Vincent” and the list goes on.  The handsome 48-page programme indicated from the start that The Blockheads are ‘one of our favourite bands ever!’, so it really went without saying that the band went down a storm during their headline spot on Friday night.  You would have thought that that was enough for Friday night but no, remember we are at Musicport here.  The sound of 1930s cabaret was delivered to the North Sea Stage in the early hours of Saturday morning thanks to the Moscow Drug Club; an ensemble which blends the red hot rhythms of gypsy jazz, Vaudeville and Russian folk for an equally energetic and hypnotic show.  Led by North American vocalist Katya Gorrie, the band succeeded in keeping the festival’s engine running long after the other stages had gone quiet.  Bathed in burning red light, the North Sea stage was transformed into an eastern European speakeasy as Denny Ilett’s chugging guitar was threaded with the improvised melodies of well-respected British trumpeter Jonny Bruce on numbers such as Marion Sunshine’s “When I Get Low I Get High” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”.  Andy Crowdy rattled the Pavilion’s underbelly with his double bass as Polish musician Mirek Salmon consolidated the ensemble with his enchanting accordion.  On Saturday morning, after we’d all had some sleep, things got off to an early start once again as Jess Wright and Delia Stevens returned to the festival once again to showcase some remarkably sensitive and beautifully performed duets for piano and marimba.  Their Project Jam Sandwich and Sura Susso collaboration of last year sprang immediately to mind as these two musicians once again presented some fine original music, which has taken the best part of the last twelve months to plan.  Michael Messer’s reputation as blues innovator and slide guitar maestro is no secret.  As well as performing with such respected artists as BJ Cole, Louisiana Red and Davy Spillane, Messer has also had a reputable solo career and has inspired praise from fans, critics and collaborators alike, including one Johnny Cash.  Messer performed at Musicport as part of his current tour with Mitra, a trio in which the slide master is joined by tabla player Gurdain Rayatt and Indian slide guitarist Manish Pingle for an often spellbinding fusion of blues and classical Indian music.  These kindred traditions, both infused with soul-dredging improvisations, rub together with a spark of pure magic.  Well-known blues classics such as Lonnie Johnson’s “I Have No Sweet Woman Now”, Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and JJ Cale’s “Any Way The Wind Blows” retain their raw American sensibilities but undergo a widening transformation as Pingle’s sinuous Mohan veena improvisations and Rayatt’s mesmeric rhythms magically relocate them.  Whilst Musicport’s mission to bring the world to Whitby weaves a golden thread throughout the weekend, the festival also succeeds in delivering Whitby to the world.  The Esk Valley Big Band drew an appreciative crowd in the theatre on Saturday afternoon for a performance of vintage, mainstream and contemporary big band numbers from this impressive home-grown outfit.  Consisting of mostly young players from the Whitby Music Centre, the band attempted to blow the roof off the older wing of the Pavilion with impassioned renderings of Weather Report’s “Birdland”, Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” and “Pick Up The Pieces” by the Average White Band.  And whilst the twenty-five piece band were at their very best when firing on all cylinders, there were notable solos from the saxophonists, trumpeters and the band’s ferociously adroit drummer.  Running alongside the main festival, as if that wasn’t enough, was the fringe festival located once again down the road at Rusty Shears ‘a most unusual teashop’, which saw several informal and cosy performances by some of the artists including the young Hull-born singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, who delighted a packed room with her beautifully crafted self-penned songs.  Katie would also appear as part of the Young Women’s Showcase on the North Sea stage on Sunday afternoon.  Middlesbrough is known for an assortment of things including its days as the North East’s ‘Ironpolis’, its imposing Transporter Bridge and highly cherished football team.  The industrial northern town is, perhaps, lesser known for its Flamenco but, thanks to guitarist and singer Mark Boden, Whitby was offered a taste of Teeside’s musical tapas with a sassy Saturday afternoon performance from Flamenco Con Fusion.  This four-piece combo, consisting of guitarists Boden and Phil Philo, bassist Jamie Donnelly and cajon player James McCann, proved that music doesn’t necessarily need to be in the blood to be passed through the heart.  Boden’s guitar solos and passionate vocals are just as fiery as some of the best Flamenco players out there and the band’s North Sea stage performance justly gathered an excitable crowd with its readings of music by such eminent Spanish artists as Paco de Lucia and Camarón de la Isla.  Poets have brought an extra dimension to this all-embracing, forward-thinking festival over the years and this year was no different.  Indeed, you could do far worse than invite one of the country’s best performance poets to twice entertain the Whitby crowd, and Lemn Sissay’s performances didn’t disappoint.  Familiar to BBC Radio 4 listeners for his appearances as presenter and guest on many a programme and to readers and theatre goers for his poetry collections and plays, Manchester poet Lemn Sissay is never more engaging than on stage.  His comfortably excitable performances at this year’s festival proved that, in the right hands, poetry can literally burst off the page and stage with all the joy and passion of the diverse musical acts on this year’s bill.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, for all his poetic prowess and skills as a literary wordsmith, Lemn Sissay is one of the funniest comedians you’ll ever see.  His poetry, at times devastatingly truthful and insightful, is perfectly balanced and, at times informed, by his refusal to take the world too seriously.  The term ‘life-affirming’ can be applied to a select few contemporary poets, but Lemn earns the description with even the shortest of pieces.  And whilst his infectious brand of comedy often lays the foundation for his poems, the hard lessons of his youth seem to set up some of his most engaging moments of irresistible wit.  He was joined on stage at this year’s festival by a cast of supporting characters, each of them voiced by Sissay himself, creating several moments of complex conversations in the noisy room of his split-personality.  Even Roger McGough, so exquisitely rendered, made an impromptu appearance.  But despite the sheer exhilaration of Sissay’s stage patter, it was his fine selection of poems that provided the highlights.  From his Immigration RSVP, which takes only three short verses to expose the imbecility of racism to his Invisible Kisses, a love poem that will surely last as long as those of Shakespeare and Donne, Lemn’s readings of his poems reminded his audiences that poetry is infinite in its abilities to inform, to entertain, to fight hatred and advocate love.  One of the most welcome performances at this year’s Musicport came courtesy of Northumbrian smallpiper Kathryn Tickell who, along with accordionist Amy Thatcher, harpist Ruth Wall and cellist Louisa Tuck – better known as The Side – delighted their Saturday evening audience with a selection of lively reels and sweet north eastern melodies.  The ensemble managed to inject a generous dosage of new life into Tickell’s well-loved brand of traditional folk, especially during such tunes as the Catherine Cookson-inspired “Ruthless Reel” and the beautifully serene “Stonehaugh”; the former inspiring impromptu jigs around the main hall and the latter infusing the festival with a touch of Celtic magic.  It was during this particular performance, amongst the echoes of the Indian strings, tablas and African rhythms of other artists on the bill, that the spellbound Musicport crowd was reminded of the rich folk traditions of our own little island.  One of the other aspects of the festival that attracts fair sized audiences is their commitment to cinema, not only the tiny solar-powered Sol Cinema just next to the entrance to the Hub, but also in the Theatre, where Don Letts’ documentary about The Clash Westway to the World received a screening on Saturday afternoon.  This not only provided the chance for those of us familiar with documentary to see it on a large screen, it also gave us the opportunity to hear the filmmaker talk about the film afterwards with Daniel Rachel, whose recently published book Walls Come Tumbling Down was on sale in the Hub.  There are moments during any Musicport Festival when you’re reminded of the great breadth of diversity within contemporary music, not to mention the exciting lengths to which the organisers go in their attempt to nourish us each year.  It’s not surprising, then, that a handful of artists on this year’s line-up could sit just as comfortably on the bill of a jazz festival.  Take, for example, Sarah Jane Morris & Bloody Rain Band.  Sarah Jane is one of this country’s most treasured jazz vocalists, having steadily built an impressive reputation since the early 1980s when she was spotted by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox who consequently invited her to sing on their first single.  Over thirty years on, Morris has earned a reputation as one of the most daring of our jazz singers and her African-inspired 2014 album Bloody Rain typifies her exploratory approach to making music.  Along with Trinidadian guitarist Tim Cransfield, London-based musician and composer Tony Remy and the rest of the Bloody Rain Band, Sarah Jane gave a warm performance at Musicport of some of the songs from the Bloody Rain album as well as a fascinating rendering of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.  Closing the theatre stage on Saturday night was the Leeds-based outfit Manjula.  Led by Leeds College of Music graduate Vanessa Rani and comprising percussionist Sam Bell, bassist Simon Read and guitarist Joe Harris, Manjula – meaning ‘melodious’ – fused musics of India, Africa and Latin America with contemporary western jazz to produce a genuinely seductive sound.  Harris’s guitar reached some dizzying heights throughout the band’s captivating performance, but never departed from this fine musician’s thoughtful precision and sensitive touch.  Bassist Simon Read is a young stalwart of the British jazz scene having confirmed his reputation as part of the Matt Holborn Quintet as well as his own Octet; his supple basslines both smeared and tip toed over the skins of Sam Bell’s mesmeric congos throughout whilst Rani’s arresting vocals blended her crystal clear affinity with Indian music with the lithe improvisations of a first-rate jazz singer.  From the opening melodies of Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” to the Pentangle-sounding “Come Away”, Manjula’s Musicport performance was an equally entertaining and educational experience, mixing the band’s sincere passion for world traditions with a perpetually engaging exchange of improvised solos and meditative explorations of rhythm and melody.  Even the spider that lowered itself on a fine thread in front of the band during the performance seemed beguiled by this exceptional combo, remaining there for most of the show.  Saturday night really belonged to Johannesburg’s Mahotella Queens freshly arrived from South Africa and ready to perform in their own inimitable style on the main stage.  It has to be said that of all the bands, groups and combos that have been performing for over fifty years, and there can’t be all that many, the Mahotella Queens can still dance with excitement, enthusiasm and determination, whilst still making a great sound with their harmonious voices.  Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and the younger Amanda Nkosi, who replaced original member Mildred Mangxola, who was forced to retire due to ill-health, appeared on stage in traditional dress over their own pale blue merch t shirts, and soon had the audience on their feet dancing to their infectious music.  On Sunday morning over breakfast, the perusal of the programme booklet proved to be a taxing affair with so much on the menu for the day ahead.  It was a case of missing the toast in order to get over to the main hall for Harpeth Rising’s 10am performance.  Mixing their classical training with rootsy sensibilities, the all-female band raised the bar pretty high for the remainder of the day, which also saw performances by Maz O’Connor and her trio, festival favourites Coope, Boyes and Simpson in the Theatre and Bluegrass band Ragged Union on the main stage.   One of the most beguiling voices in world music was in attendance at this year’s festival, pleasing those who had heard his albums and making swift fans of those who hadn’t.  Argentina’s Martin Alvarado possesses a uniquely attractive voice that perfectly complements his repertoire of Argentinian tangos and moving love songs.  Together with deadpan Finnish pianist and bandoneon player (not to mention striking Orson Welles lookalike) Mikko Helenius, Alvarado charmed the crowd with both music and wit. Indeed, there were moments when this Argentinian/Finnish duo channelled the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, surprising an audience that had expected only to hear the finest tango music from one of the genre’s best proponents.  During their closing number, Helenius interspersed his rhapsodic piano and Alvarado’s soaring melodies and guitar runs with brief tenor blasts of well-known English songs such as “Jerusalem” and “The Long and Winding Road” which had the audience in fits.  Back in 2014, the Musicport Festival was set to be graced by the unique talents of a singer songwriter who has been called ‘spellbinding’, ‘effortlessly captivating’ and, best of all, ‘a magician’.  Sadly, due to some scheduling difficulties, John Smith had to put his Whitby show on hold until this year’s festival.  Despite his name, Smith is as far away from unremarkable as you can possibly get.  His voice is pleasingly weathered, his guitar playing exquisitely nuanced and his charismatic Devonshire delivery holds everything together nicely as he performs self-penned songs that stretch far beyond this young artist’s years.  During Sunday evening’s theatre performance, this highly accomplished singer songwriter won over a vast crowd with his delicious Joanna, written whilst travelling in the Pacific Northwest of America, his vibrant, chugging “I Will Give It All” and the stunning title track of his 2013 LP Great Lakes.  John also managed to slide in a few choice covers, including a stunning reading of “Lord Franklin” which he learned from late friend and mentor John Renbourn.  Armed with two guitars, a few peddles and a little amp, Smith’s universally likeable character managed to fill the stage and, indeed, the entire theatre as the rusty-bearded troubadour picked his way through a heartfelt set that was well worth the wait.  The most anticipated event of the entire weekend came with the sound of Robert Wyatt’s songs as performed by Annie Whitehead’s collective Soupsongs Live: The Music of Robert Wyatt.  A true original, Wyatt gave his blessing to this project which captivated audiences across the land back in 2004, when a handful of the songs were used as part of the documentary film Free Will and Testament, which also provided a rare glimpse into the life and work of the former drummer with Soft Machine and Matching Mole.  As the collective stepped up onto the stage on Sunday afternoon, that anticipation transformed into bliss as some of Wyatt’s most beautiful melodies came to life once again, songs such as “Sea Song”, “Gharbzadegi” and “Free Will and Testament”, each performed with authority and passion by a band that also included Jennifer Maidman, Janette Mason and original member of Wyatt’s first semi-successful Canterbury Scene band The Wilde Flowers, Brian Hopper, who Wyatt once cited as the founder of that scene ‘because he had all the records’.  It was hard to believe that even at this stage of the festival, with so much music already performed, words spoken, dishes cooked and dances danced, that there was still a couple more treats left to deliver.  The much discussed Irish quartet Lynched thrilled the audience with their take on the old songs, delivered in a refreshingly new, yet at the same time well-trodden style, before the mass migration to the Theatre for the festival finale, with the Sweden-based multi-fascetted trans-global collective Världens Band, making their third consecutive appearance at the festival after winning the hearts of audiences in both 2014 and 2015.  Once again their enthusiasm for collaboration shone through their performance, which gave the audience reason to leave the festival with smiles on their faces, almost as broad as box player Dave Gray’s, whose sheer ebullience makes all the troublesome aspects of our lives seem momentarily irrelevant.  A better way to close the festival, I struggle to imagine. 

Martin Green’s Flit | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.10.16

Tonight, the stage area at the Howard Assembly Room was transformed into what at first looked like the interior of Gollum’s cave; two large circular zoetropes hanging from the walls, whilst a third was already in situ, centre stage, all ready to dazzle a curious audience.  Familiar instruments mingled with unfamiliar home-made contraptions; a crude cabinet with shelves made up of basic handsaws, a Heath Robinson hand-built harp/zither with an undetermined number of strings, a wooden box with a dial and steering wheel affixed – which Becky Unthank assured me afterwards triggered an assortment of sampled sounds – a variety of electronic boxes and pedals with wires feeding one another, a cluster of angle-poised mic stands like robotic arms and the list goes on.  Martin Green’s mad professor of sound reputation certainly went before him tonight, already having instigated widespread curiosity as a result of Flit’s glowing reports in the press, which created a tangible feeling of anticipation as people took their seats at the popular Leeds venue.  Of course, most of the audience were only too aware of each of the singers and musicians through their work with their respective mother ship bands; Martin Green from the experimental folk trio LAU, who was very much at the helm of tonight’s performance, credited as both composer and director.  Becky Unthank from the equally adventurous and award-winning folk quintet The Unthanks, Adam Holmes known for his work with Scots band RURA as well as being a successful solo artist, Adrian Utley of Portishead fame, who has been invaluable to this and other Martin Green projects and finally Mogwai’s bassist Dominic Aitchison, each collectively contributing their own particular strengths to the project.  The multi-media production was highly engaging from the start, not just in the musical arrangements and the songwriting contributions of such noted writers as Karine Polwart, Anaïs Mitchell, Aidan Moffat and Sandy Wright, but also in the breathtaking animations of Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson (whiterobot), who provided the highly imaginative visuals, which reflected the essence of the themes explored in the music.  Even before the musicians walked on stage, each uniformly attired in dystopian brown workmanlike costume, all of which was echoed in the surrounding scenery and smocks worn by the busy stagehands, there was a brooding sense of despair as Becky’s dad George Unthank provided the first sampled voice of the production.  If the powerful message of movement wasn’t immediately apparent in the songs’ lyrics or in the textural patterns of the musical arrangements, then things would certainly become clearer in the spoken passages, both recorded samples and in Green’s engaging narrative, which at no point came across as preachy, despite it’s sermon-like delivery.  When describing notions of his own sense of place, he almost apologised to those in the audience who might be brooding over paying so much ‘to wade through my identity crisis’.  The most inspired result of putting together this project, was the teaming up of Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes, whose unique and highly individual voices move the piece along.  Search the annals of recorded history and you won’t find a voice quite like this particular Unthank sibling.  The same could almost be said of Holmes, whose voice is becoming more and more familiar across the UK.  If Flit had been around in the early Seventies it would almost certainly have been considered for the Harvest or Charisma record label’s package tour.  Classic Prog Rock elements interweave post-modernist electronica, where Utley’s guitar occasionally references David Gilmour, whilst Aitchison might recall Mike Oldfield’s seminal work, intentionally or otherwise.  At one point the roof almost lifts with the sheer tension of sustained noise, immediately followed by an a cappella Becky Unthank, who is treated to absolute silence throughout.  Martin Green’s own set piece comes a little later when he addresses the audience with such anger as to leave the audience wondering, is he just acting angry or is he really, really fucking angry?  Flit runs for around ninety minutes, in which themes of movement, migration, sense of place and sense of home are explored with a real sense of wonder and imagination.  The only real challenge Flit proposes to the audience is where and when they should applaud.  Best save it until the very end, then do it long and loud and stand up while you do.  That’s how I did it at any rate.

The Jill Jackson Trio | Live Review | The Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.11.16

A good few members of the audience tonight travelled a good way to see the Glasgow-based Country singer and songwriter Jill Jackson and her trio.  Setting out from locations as far and wide as Liverpool, Milton Keynes, London and Scotland, the visitors would be the first to say that their respective travels had been far from a waste of time.  Making a welcome return to the club, this time accompanied by fellow Chaplins keyboard player Johnny McKinnon, together with Andy Sharkey on upright bass, the charismatic singer soon had an engaging rapport going with the visitors and the regulars alike.  These days the Ukrainian Centre, home of the Roots Music Club, is creating the same sort of atmosphere once enjoyed by the club’s predecessor over there in Wentworth.  Amply equipped with a collection of well-crafted self-penned songs, such as “I’ll Never Know”, “The Letter” and “The Rambler”, Jill’s delivery is reminiscent of Canadian country singer Michelle Wright, an artist most of us in the UK came to know through her appearances in the very first series of the Transatlantic Sessions back in the mid-1990s.   Jill’s songs are certainly strong enough to furnish two sets with little difficulty whatsoever, certainly “Saving All My Love” and the rockabilly treatment of “Crazy in Love” to name just a couple, but Jill’s take on the Goffin/King classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was a welcome addition to the set.  If Jill’s songs are of a high quality, then her between song banter is also to be enjoyed, simply for it’s off-the-cuff nature.  Who else would immediately admit to having a button missing from the shirt she’d just bought on Ebay?  Then there was the male audience member who casually suggested ‘37’ when asked to guess the singer’s age after the clue ‘less than 38 and older than 31’ was offered.  ‘But I was right’ said the brave man, ‘Yes, but don’t you know the rules?’ came the singer’s response.  The ‘on the road’ tales of travelling musicians, such as sleeping in sleazy hotels and waking up covered in ants, driving around Glasgow with a cat around her neck and her unfortunate debut appearance on Top of the Pops with her band The Chaplins, were also a hoot.  After two sets there was a sense that we had all been engaged in something quite intimate and cozy, an evening of getting to know one another, which in itself was rather rewarding.  After the jaunty finisher “Give Me the World”, the trio returned to the stage for the final encore, for which the audience provided some feelgood ‘woos’.  A good way to conclude.  Opening for the trio was the Doncaster-based quartet Americarnage, which consisted of singer/guitar player Stu Palmer, guitarist and band spokesman Mick Swinson, harmonica player John McKevitt and Mick Jackson on bass, who opened with a selection of songs from the great alternative American songbook, including “Lay Me Down a Pallet on the Floor”, “St James Infirmary Blues” and “Wayfaring Stranger”.

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.11.16

It was most encouraging to see a fully equipped stage tonight, a stage packed almost to capacity – with mostly percussion instruments it has to be said, but full nevertheless.  As a clipboard circulated the concert room at the Ukrainian Centre in Doncaster, inviting folks to leave their details for future events, it was clear from the start that something very special was about to happen.  It’s been a while since a Steeleye Span veteran has visited this town and word had obviously got around.  It’s actually not so surprising these days to see a well attended gig at the Roots Music Club as the calibre of acts has improved so much.  Not only does the club welcome established crowd-pullers and familiar names we’ve known for several decades, but also little-known artists that the club feels the town needs to see and hear; up and coming talent making their initial mark on the music scene.  Although tonight’s band falls into the former category, certainly a familiar face with a major pedigree, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner could also fall into the newcomer category, it being the trio’s first visit to the town.  The trio looked slightly different than usual tonight, with percussionist Vincent Salzfaas having to pull out of the tour at the last minute to tend to a domestic crisis, being replaced at short notice by Gary Hammond, formerly of The Beautiful South and currently enjoying success with Sam Pirt in The Hut People.  This wasn’t announced until the end of the band’s first set, so many in the audience were probably unaware that Gary wasn’t the trio’s regular percussionist, save for the odd tell-tale prompting from guitarist Roger Flack, eager for the new boy to do well on Congas and Djembi.  With no support, the trio opened their first set with an improvisational workout based around the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair”, which was greeted with an extraordinary response from the audience, the applause lasting a fair while longer than expected.  The first set consisted of just five pieces, each one almost a magnum opus in its own right and each showcasing the musical brilliance of each of the three musicians, from the African rhythms of “Seagull”, the animated Scottish ballad “The Bonny Birdy”, the sublime instrumental Dave Roberts’ “French Waltz”, incorporating a short nod towards “La Vie En Rose”, and concluding the set with the highly complex “Too Late for Shadows”.  The second set continued much in the same manner, great arrangements of great songs and tunes from two well-rehearsed musicians, complemented by one who was afforded, quite unbelievably, just the one rehearsal the day before.  A remarkable feat in itself.  Peter Knight’s reading of both “Hard Times in Old England” and “The Bows of London”, were highlights of the second set, both in musical dexterity, mature arrangement and in the quality of the compelling story telling.  Towards the end of the set, Peter and Roger engaged in the ancient musical rite of ‘fiddlesticks’, a duet played on the fiddle with both bow and drumsticks, which is always a visual treat.  Throughout the two sets, which clocked up almost two hours of highly accomplished music, the three musicians made it look surprisingly easy, with their relaxed parlour room approach.  No fuss, no sweat, no stage histrionics, just pure music played at its best by three highly empathetic musicians.  A class performance by a class act.

Great British Folk Festival 2016 | Live Review | Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.12.16

This hugely popular winter festival, held in the sleepy seaside town of Skegness on the east coast of Lincolnshire, seems to have gone from strength to strength over the last seven years.  During the summer months the site is usually populated by thousands of families, but each December the famous Butlins holiday resort opens its doors to a few thousand adults suitably attired in woolly hats, scarves and gloves, replacing the array of brightly coloured festival-wear reserved for much warmer climates.  It has to be said though, this year the climate was relatively mild compared to previous years and people could actually be seen taking a leisurely stroll along the beach in the sunshine, although the skinny dipping still had to be kept to a minimum.  Upon arrival, there’s the tendency to look for changes – however minute – that might have occurred since the previous year.  The most notable change was the fact that the festival took a risk in doing away with wristbands, the familiar festival accessory being replaced by a quick flash of a chalet key at the doors of each venue.  The other notable change was the re-named Sun and Moon pub which is now The Beachcomber, though still the first port of call for those arriving early on Friday afternoon for their first beer of the weekend, as well as it being a suitable venue for some seriously French dancing on both Saturday and Sunday morning.  Some things don’t change though and as always the programme was suitably diverse in terms of the range of artists who fall loosely under the category of ‘folk’.  Even after seven successful years, there’s still a tendency to find oneself defending the festival’s booking policy, which usually has something to do with the odd curveball thrown in by the organisers – this year the curveball being Bob Geldof. If there was any nervousness about booking Bob Geldof for a folk festival, it would have soon evaporated by Saturday night when the former Boomtown Rats frontman delivered an astonishing performance on the Reds Stage.  Attired in a shiny blue suit, familiar unkempt grey hair and wielding a battered Gibson, the singer held the audience captive for a set that ran well over its scheduled time.  “I Don’t Like Mondays”, “Rat Trap” and “Banana Republic” came out to play as if the songs had never been away.  Unlike the potty-mouthed prima-donna superstar that some of us were probably expecting, Bob Geldof was good-humoured, warm, generous and thoroughly entertaining during his set and even stuck around until Sunday afternoon when he could be seen heckling Chris Jagger during his afternoon set.  Witnessing the man behind Live Aid heckling Mick Jagger’s kid brother is just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect at an event under the ‘Great British’ franchise.   If Bob Geldof may have been reluctant to include the seasonal “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in his set, then his Band Aid band mate Paul Young was even more reluctant to labour under his own former pop glories, appearing as his cowboy alter ego in Los Pacaminos, the Tex Mex outfit who’s infectious Borderland Americana transformed the Reds Stage into a Southern States Tejano zone for their Tequila-fuelled set on Friday night.  At one point during the set, compere Sue Marchant strolled on stage with a tray of Tequila shots for each of the cowboys on stage, which is probably a feature of all their shows.  It was a well-timed set as Lindisfarne, in any of the band’s many incarnations, is certainly a hard act to follow.  This weekend’s line-up included original member Rod Clements, whose own song writing repertoire includes some of the band’s most memorable numbers such as “Meet Me on the Corner”, “Road to Kingdom Come” and “Train in G Major”.  Meanwhile Dave Hull-Dunhelm more than capably handled some of Alan Hull’s most familiar songs with uncanny resemblance to the originals, songs that included “Lady Eleanor”, “All Fall Down” and the beautiful “Winter Song”.  One or two acts made a welcome return to the festival this year including Donovan, who appeared at the inaugural festival back in 2010. On Sunday night the Scots-born singer-songwriter and King of All Hippiedom announced at the beginning of his set that he would not stray further than three minutes from a hit record, a promise he kept throughout his hour-long set.  Songs like “Catch the Wind”, “Sunshine Superman”, “Colours”, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Mellow Yellow” tripped off his tongue as he sat centre stage on the Centre Stage, perched upon a stool as if he were back there in 1966.  Others making return visits to the festival were Kate Rusby with her seasonal show on Saturday night and also Cara Dillon and Oysterband.  If some of the more mainstream acts not usually associated with the British folk scene such as Bob Geldof, Paul Young and Jona Lewie were to leave some people scratching their heads and questioning whether this is indeed a folk festival at all, then just a quick look back over the last seven years would confirm the festivals ‘folk’ credentials in spades; Eliza Carthy, June Tabor, Ralph McTell, Fairport Convention, Bellowhead, Fotheringay, Eddi Reader, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, The Unthanks, The Home Service, The Demon Barbers, Show of Hands, The Full English, Treacherous Orchestra, Capercaillie, The Young’uns, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, The Albion Band, Billy Bragg and Moulettes have all appeared at the festival so far.  Yes, curveballs have been thrown and to be fair, some have almost taken an eye out, acts like Ed Tudor Pole, Phil Cool, Steve Cradock, Judie Tzuke, Deborah Bonham, String Driven Thing and Justin Currie, but this really just adds to the festival’s diverse appeal. With Jim Moray and Sue Marchant introducing the afternoon concerts on both the Centre Stage and the Reds Stage respectively, we saw appearances by Billy Mitchell, Jez Lowe, Bob Fox and Benny Graham, otherwise known as the Pitmen Poets, who brought tales and songs from their particular neck of the woods, singer-songwriter and recent star of The Voice Sally Barker, the wonderfully eccentric mediaeval folk experimenters Gryphon, some fine blues from the Gary Fletcher Band, the songs of Ronnie Lane courtesy of Slim Chance, a wander down memory lane with Fake Thackray doing Jake’s songs and the infectious presence of Martin Stephenson.  Sandwiched between the afternoon and evening concerts, Stephen Stanley and Alan Ritson looked after the Introducing Stage, which offered the chance for some lesser known acts to demonstrate their musical chops under the Skyline Pavilion.  Once again the polling station opened for the specific purpose of allowing the audience to choose who they would like to see return to play one of the main stages next year.  Last year Polly and the Billets Doux, Said the Maiden and Itchy Fingers won their places and each of those bands performed as promised on the main stages throughout the weekend.  Sadly Polly and her band had to follow Levellers, for whom a massive space had been cleared, and with all the will in the world, that gap would not be filled at that time of night and the Bristol band were forced to play to a vastly depleted audience; a shame really because they are spectacularly good.  This year the acts ranged from soloists Kelly Oliver, who effectively opened the festival on Friday afternoon, blues singer Mark Harrison, singer-songwriters Louise Jordan, Richi Jones and Roger Davies; the duos included husband and wife team Winter Wilson and guitar/fiddle combo Woof and Wilde and the bands including Bramble Napskins, The Life and Times of Brothers Hogg, Linda Em, Crumbling Ghost and country outlaws Crazy Heart, all of whom delivered excellent performances.  As always though, it was the evening concerts that drew the biggest crowds as both the Reds Stage and the Centre Stage hosted the aforementioned headliners, Bob Geldof, Kate Rusby, Donovan, Oysterband, Lindisfarne and the much anticipated Levellers, together with some fine opening spots by the likes of Liam Blake, Kasim Sulton, David Knopfler and Harry Bogdanovs and on Sunday night, Jona Lewie, whose “Stop the Cavalry” was probably the most eagerly awaited song of the weekend, if only for the rousing scat chorus.. Dub a dub a dumb dumb, Dub a dub dubadum dubadum dub a dub dubadum..!  For those with enough energy and resilience left at the end of the day, it was well worth going that extra mile to see some of the acts occupying the witching hour with performances by such bands as Mad Dog Mcrae, Travelling Band, the aforementioned Polly and the Billets Doux and most notably, the stunning Newcastle-based band Holy Moly and the Crackers who delivered one of the best closing performances of this or for that matter, any of the six previous Great British Folk Festivals.  Great to watch, great to hear, Holy Moly and the Crackers’ self-styled gypsy folk rock certainly left a mark on the festival’s growing reputation as one of the most enjoyable music events of the year.  

Julia Biel | Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.12.16

As each of York’s twinkling streets and snickelways bustled with festive celebration this evening, one of this country’s most exciting young voices was concerned with entangling itself amongst the medieval rafters of St Margaret’s Church, better known as the National Centre for Early Music.  Julia Biel’s hypnotic vocals have earned her much praise over the last decade, with The Independent calling her ‘the best British vocalist to emerge in an age’, and her charming delivery of mainly self-penned songs provided, perhaps, one of this evening’s most warmly enchanting events that the tinsel-decked city had to offer.  The singer-songwriter’s second album Love Letters And Other Missiles was released to great acclaim in 2015, earning her a MOBO Award nomination, and her third release is set to appear in the new year.  Tonight, Julia delivered an impassioned performance of songs from her two albums, along with a selection of new compositions, with Ayo Solawu on drums and Biel’s partner Idris Rahman on bass.  Aside from her fine singing, which blends the raw earthiness of Billie Holiday with the sweet and soaring improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald, Biel is an impressive pianist and guitarist who lays her daringly acrobatic vocals on top of some rather exquisite jazz chord structures.  But whilst the temptation to label this young singer songwriter as a jazz artist is strong, it cannot be argued that Biel’s repertoire and, indeed, the trio’s delivery is very much entrenched in soul.  Songs such as “Who’s Gonna Comfort Me Now?” and Biel’s adventurous take on Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” provided two examples of this trio’s dexterity when it comes to foot-tapping soul whilst Emily, inspired by a rather creative six year old niece, explored the kind of sunny pop sound that has kept the likes of Ben Folds and Ed Harcourt in business for years.  Indeed, after hearing the infectious melodies of such devastatingly beautiful songs as “You Made Me Write a Love Song” and “Hymn for the Unknown”, one cannot help but wonder why Julia Biel isn’t the household name it should be.  During this evening’s second set, Julia had the good sense to cover the bewitching Coots/Gillespie song “You Go To My Head”, made famous by Billie Holiday back in 1938.  With a voice clearly inspired by Holiday, Biel’s sultry reworking of the classic jazz standard contained a number of curious melody quirks that succeeded in complimenting the already intoxicating nature of the song.  Biel’s willingness to pepper her self-penned set with established compositions that clearly suit her unique voice is something one hopes she’ll continue to do as her prowess and, indeed, reputation as a fine songwriter grows.

Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow | Live Review | Thorganby Village Hall, Near York | Review by Keith Belcher | 23.12.16

Winterfolk – Winter Songs and Carols, an alternative celebration of Christmas, supported by The Lennanshees.

Belinda and Heidi last played Thorganby in October 2015.  It’s a lovely and very welcoming venue so I was pleased to see a return this Christmas.  The crowd this year had obviously heard about last years appearance  as numbers had increased almost threefold despite the best attempts of Storm Barbara to keep people snug at home.  The Lennanshees opened, three ladies, Bella, Maria and Tracey performing, with the exception of the occasional ukulele, acapella.  They specialise in ‘spine tingling melodies to warm your heart’.  They certainly lived up to that description.  Although they are York based I had never seen these before, a mistake I intend to rectify in future.  Their name is derived from a malicious faerie in Celtic Folklore.  There was absolutely nothing malicious about the beautiful harmonies they sang to a rapt, spellbound audience who listened intently to every word.  Opening with “The Coventry Carol” moving swiftly through excellent covers of songs by Anne Briggs, KD Lang, Sinatra, one of my favourite songs of all time, John Martyn’s “May You Never” and one song of their own “More Time” which compared very favourably to the wide range of covers.  Their short but very sweet set ended with Kooks as a tribute to David Bowie, one of the many great artists who have passed over in 2016.  They left the stage to considerable applause and I am fairly certain the audience would have liked a lot more.  Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow have had, by anyone’s standards, a very successful year.  Cambridge and Glastonbury appearances, rave reviews for new album Shadows, nominations for Best Duo, the praises have been many and well deserved.  Live they are superb, shows which cover the full spectrum of emotions always performed with warmth and obvious enjoyment.  They have an ever growing dedicated, knowledgeable and very friendly following.  This tour was billed as ‘an alternative celebration of Christmas’.  Some songs were traditional, some jolly, some funny, some serious and some that brought tears in the eyes of the audience.  They managed to evoke aspects of Christmas that are neglected in many shows.  Christmas after all is not just about Santa, baby Jesus or the annual celebration of over indulgence.  It can be a time when memories, either painful or pleasant or both are brought to mind.  For many people it can be a lonely occasion.  Times past can be remembered or longed for.  A gentle piano introduction led into “The Last Polar Bear” from The Fragile, an endearing love story between the last Polar Bear and a patch of snow.  Winter scene set, they moved onto the more up tempo “Colne Valley Hearts” from Shadows, a song about their love of their home place and its people.  Even more up tempo was “Three Drunken Maidens” from Summat’s Brewin’  described as ‘The Works Christmas Do, 200 years ago’.  A complete change of mood followed with the traditional “Wexford Lullaby” sung acapella, performed off microphone at the front of stage.  Still off microphone but with accordion Belinda sang “Whitethorn”, a truly sombre and harrowing song I haven’t heard her perform since her days back with Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (now The Unthanks).  It tells of Belinda’s Great Grandmother in County Sligo.  Many children of her 17 times pregnant ancestor were buried under a White Thorn bush.  To be buried in Church grounds you needed to have been baptised.  To be baptised you need to be born or live long enough for baptism.  Seamlessly Heidi took this into a very slow and haunting “Stille Nacht” in German before singing the English version “Silent Night” also.  Unbidden the audience spontaneously joined in with Belinda and Heidi’s beautiful harmonies.  Continuing the Christmas theme and a (their words) brief respite from despair with Richard Thompson’s “We Sing Hallelujah”, another song also accompanied by the audience.  The usual kazoo duet made its appearance at the end of this song.  Back behind the keyboards and microphones they sang “Blanket”, a song about orphaned elephants in Kenya.  Belinda and Heidi have always produced great harmonies but they now seem to have taken the art to a new level altogether.  There are many intentional dissonances which with their intricate arrangements and phrasing produce very moving passages in their songs.  A very rousing audience involved version of “Summat’s Brewin’” finished the set.  A celebration of the spirit of the small, inspired by extensive research of the many micro breweries around Yorkshire.  Someone had to do the research, Belinda and Heidi, obviously reluctantly, agreed to undertake the task.  A  lively but serious celebration of diversity and social commentary song, “Made in England”, opened Set Two.  This song I find reminiscent and just as powerful as Billy Bragg’s “Half English”.  A return to the Christmas theme next with Steve Ashley’s “Fire and Wine”, interesting rising and falling scale harmonies, stretched notes and tempo changes make this a powerful song.  The very poignant and moving “Calling Me” from The Fragile evokes the passing of seasons and time.  Belinda’s keyboards empathising  yet contrasting beautifully with Heidi’s vocals.  Lifting the now almost sombre mood was a ‘Bolly’s Juke Box Section’ which was essentially Belinda taking her accordion to stage front and requesting and performing any requests that were made.  Following the previous song it was not surprising that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was first choice.  It lifted after that with a selection of well known Christmas songs, all of which had great if not always correct help from the audience.  It was like a sing song after hours at the pub, great stuff!  No let up in pace as they launched into “Beryl” their tribute to Beryl Burton, described by their heroine Maxine Peake as one of the ‘criminally ignored people from our history books’.  From Shadows, this song really pedals along as is fitting for a song about a champion cyclist.  I am always reminded (not that I am old enough to remember) of the type of piano used for silent movies.  Not easing back on the throttle came “Gentleman Jack” with its usual splitting of audience into Team O’Hooley and Team Tidow for synchronised singing with the song finishing  on a huge crescendo of sound.  The song is about Anne Lister, a Yorkshire woman of high birth who instead of following convention and  marrying away her wealth and independence chose an entirely different way of spending her time.  The lyrics tell you all about her secret life.  Slowing the pace down Belinda performed her solo piano piece Shadows, fully demonstrating just how good a pianist she is.  On the CD it was recorded on a Steinway grand piano at Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth.  It is an exceptional piece of music.  The last song proper of the set was the oft recorded “River” by Joni Mitchell.  Normally I despise Joni Mitchell covers but this was superb, it has more passion than the original.  The deft re-arrangement adds so much more to the song.  Some slight lyrical changes ‘She loved me so naughty’, somehow made all the more powerful by the Northern vowels.  Most effective, to me , however, are the harmonies that swirl around the line ‘I would teach my feet to fly’.  Somehow the lyric just takes off and soars away, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.  Of course there was an encore and for me this was the most powerful and emotional part of the evening.  The relatively rarely played “One More Xmas” from Silent June.  I confess this is a song that has escaped me in the past but for anyone who is remembering different times at Christmas it is just so meaningful.  ‘I just want to be little and spend Christmas with my mum, I don’t care what it means, I’m not concerned if it’s wrong, I just want one more Christmas with my Mum’.  To really finish the show they went straight into a slow piano introduction to one of the best arrangements of “Fairytale of New York” I have ever heard.  As with “River”, so much was added to the song.  Their harmonies have evolved to a wondrous level, getting ever more challenging.  A wonderful concert that left the audience, many who were O’Hooley and Tidow virgins, buzzing before setting off home.  Thankfully Storm Barbara had done the decent thing and subsided.  A really great night.  They have much lined up for 2017 including shows with Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie as The Coven as well as song writing workshops.  If you haven’t seen them yet then you owe it to yourself to do so soon.