Northern Sky Archive 2020

Steve Tilston and Reg Meuross | Live Review | CAST Theatre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.01.20

Three things spring to mind when sitting before such a pairing as Steve Tilston and Reg Meuross, two highly accomplished British singer songwriters; first admiration, followed by satisfaction and then chronic envy. I have great admiration for these two musicians, first and foremost for the memorable songs they’ve each brought to the table over the years, but also for their good table manners as well; they’re both pleasant chaps, enjoyable to listen to and good to chat to at the same time. I’m always satisfied whenever I hear their songs, both new and old, each gathered from their combined prolific repertoire and also satisfied with their constant pursuit of new ideas for songs. Envy? Well, it’s not so much that I envy their talent, but rather that I turn a slightly wearisome shade of green when I plainly see that they can still grow their hair long enough to be cool, despite both being a good bit older than I. But that’s something I will just have to live with.  For the second half of tonight’s concert the two musicians sat beside one another and democratically shared their songs, with a little additional banter in between. Hugh Bradley, Steve’s double bassist, hadn’t heard any of Reg’s songs until tonight, but after a couple of bars, he soon found his stride on each song, all of which benefited from the additional lift. In places Steve added some improvised (yet informed) guitar accompaniment on Reg’s songs and vice versa, though Reg was willing to concede defeat during some of Steve’s more complex arrangements. The first half however, was shared between the two musicians, the order simply decided upon by the toss of a coin, of who would be batting or bowling, to use MC Jonti Willis’s cricketing analogy. Reg was first up and within a matter of minutes had introduced us to a variety of characters both real or imagined and in some cases real and imagined. There was Elvis and Phil Ochs, William Morris and Tony Benn, Emily Davison and Lillian Bilocca, not to mention the Mayflower passenger William Brewster, together with four of his unlikely named sprogs, Patience, Love, Fear and Wrestling! Notable human beings popped into the conversation as frequently as figures in a Lowry painting.  Some of that green envy arose once again when Reg casually dropped into the conversation the fact that he had attended Joni Mitchell’s Festival Hall concert almost fifty years ago to the day, whereupon the young Canadian performed her entire Blue album, which would leave anyone envious really. Inspired by that concert and that songstress, Reg turned to his own mountain dulcimer to conclude his portion of the show with a song from his recent 12 Silk Handkercheifs project, “I am a Fish House Woman”, before handing the stage over to Mr Tilston.  Steve’s set was relatively devoid of specific characters in favour of a more universal set of songs, drawn from life and nature, “Oil and Water”, the song he performed on Jools Holland’s Later a few years ago for instance, then “Weeping Willow Replanted”, Steve’s homage to “Weeping Willow Blues”, a song from the repertoire of his old pal Wizz Jones, whose significant birthday party Steve had recently attended and performed at. Then there was “Rare Thing”, one of Steve’s most memorable songs, together with the thoroughly gorgeous “The Road When I Was Young”, an observation shared by many (if not everyone) in the room, before closing the first set with his own homage to Scotty Moore with “My Mystery Train”.  As a treat for their audience here at the CAST Theatre’s intimate ‘second space’, the two musicians agreed to share the stage for the final hour, both seated throughout the nine song set, each interspersed with stories and anecdotal reflections. Neither Steve nor Reg appeared completely relaxed throughout the set, but this made for some ‘edge of the seat’ moments, as the two musicians strove to ‘up’ their game. Included in the set was the first song from Steve’s debut record back in 1971 “I Really Wanted You”, recently revisited on Steve’s current album Distant Days, whilst also including a couple of brand new songs, notably “Satellite’s Decree”, a complex little number, after which Reg quipped “I didn’t know there were so many chords”. More characters emerged during this set courtesy of Reg, notably Dylan Thomas and Hank Williams in “Leaving Alabama”, Sophie Scholl, the German anti-Nazi political activist in “For Sophie (This Beautiful Day)” and an veritable litany of geographical characters in the streets and alleyways of London in the ever controversial “My Name is London Town”.  Concluding both the set and the show, Reg encouraged some audience participation as the three musicians returned to the stage for the biting, yet hopeful “England Green, England Grey”, bringing an end to a really enjoyable and memorable concert.

Della Mae | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.01.20

Despite having been around for over ten years now, many in the audience tonight were probably new to the Della Mae live experience and most were definitely new to the all-female quartet’s latest album release Headlight, which was given its official release just a week ago.  By the end of Della Mae’s set however, the audience and band were on first name terms. Fronting the band was Celia Woodsmith, a solid and dominant figure, with a voice to match, the Loretta Lynne of the Me Too movement perhaps?  Then there’s the two founder members, the sardonic fiddle player Kimber Ludiker, whose dry sense of humour grounds any potential chancer vying to get the better of her, to the quietly beguiling and enigmatic Jenni Lyn Gardner, whose lightning fingers understand a mandolin fretboard better than an Inuit understands snow.  Jenni Lyn has been traversing the neck of her instrument since the age of eight and therefore she’s had plenty of practice.  Finally, there’s the newbie, Kentucky’s very own Vickie Vaughan, whose double bass and harmony vocal lights up the band like a beacon.  This is Della Mae, a force to be reckoned with.  After an all too short opening set by Cheshire’s Jaywalkers, namely Jay Bradberry, Mike Giverin and Lucille Williams, which included a bunch of songs from the trio’s current album Time to Save the World, Della Mae opened their set with some fine country folk in the form of the lilting “Bluebird, Blackbird”, a good choice for a starter, in which each of the musicians took the opportunity to flex their respective chops and to find their feet.  As a prelude to revealing one or two songs from the band’s brand new album Headlight, Della Mae trawled their back catalogue and delivered one or two solid performances of such old favourites as “Polk County”, “Down to You” and “The Most” from their debut album I Built This Heart. More recent material from last year’s collaborative EP The Butcher Shoppe was included, songs such as “Bourbon Hand” and Lester Flatt’s memorable “Sleep with One Eye Open”, both of which features very excellent Molly Tuttle on the recorded versions, together with Avril Smith and Alison Brown respectively.  Such songs were delivered on cue by a band who was very much intent on making a Saturday night sound very much like a Saturday night.  There was an unexpected energy in The Backroom, which made the Nashville-based musicians feel at home, an energy augmented by an abundance of whoops and whistles from the audience throughout the set, which seemed to get louder and more determined as the night went on.  It was a mutual exchange, whereupon the band brought to Sheffield the essence of some of the better off-Broadway venues, while the audience responded by bringing some of that sort of atmosphere to this fine Sheffield venue.  Jenni Lyn’s mandolin flourishes garnered the most enthusiastic response, in fact the musician was approached at the end of the night by a new fan, eager to tell the musician how much she enjoyed the “diddly doodlin’ on her ‘thing’”.  If there was indeed one or two young people in attendance who have no clue as to what a mandolin is, then there were many who did know and those who actually owned one were probably eager to get home and take a hammer to it after witnessing some of Jenni Lyn’s staggeringly dexterous performances tonight.  After being introduced as “not only the most joyful member of the band, but probably the most joyful person in the world”, Vickie Vaughan took the spotlight for a rousing reading of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Up Around the Bend”, to an enthusiastic reception from the audience, with John Fogerty’s ear worm guitar riff ingeniously transferred to Jenny Lyn’s mandolin.  After over twenty songs and tunes, including a couple from the new album such as the honky tonk foot-tapper “First Song Dancer” and the heartfelt “I Can’t Pretend”, Della Mae showed no signs of slowing down, their energy levels and consistently solid performances as good at the end as they were at the beginning, with an audience in no hurry to see the show reach its inevitable climax.  After returning to the stage for a little Merle Travis and probably his best known song “Sixteen Tons” together with a fine instrumental workout “No See Un Stomp”, the band left Sheffield with a fine little rock ‘n’ roller for the road before leaving the stage with a promise to return some time soon.  For me, it won’t come soon enough.

Seth Lakeman | Live Review | CAST Theatre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.02.20

For the launch of his new album, A Pilgrim’s Tale, Seth Lakeman has chosen ten venues in locations very much associated with the Mayflower, starting in Doncaster, just twelve miles north of Scrooby, the birthplace of William Brewster, one of the Pilgrim Fathers who, with his family, sailed on the vessel four centuries ago.  With a keen interest in the subject, the Dartmoor singer and musician has approached the 400th anniversary of this event by absorbing some of the available texts from this notable part of our history, even visiting and meeting the Wampanoag people of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts whilst on tour with Robert Plant, which is really where the inspiration for this project derives.  Tonight at the CAST theatre, Seth Lakeman and three musical collaborators, Benji Kirkpatrick, Ben Nicholls and Alex Hart, performed the album in its entirety, complete with Nick Stimson’s recorded narration, read by actor Paul McGann, with no further spoken dialogue necessary.  Earlier in the sound check Seth pondered “Do you think the audience will applaud between each of the songs?”  I don’t think there was ever any doubt of that happening really, with the narrative continuing as soon as the applause faded after each song.  It worked considerably well, especially in view of the fact that this particular line-up had only been rehearsing together for two days prior to the event.  For much of the production we are treated to Seth’s familiar stomping exuberance and energetic presence, yet one of the most memorable performances of the set was the tender duet with Alex Hart on “Bury Nights”, a moment to consider the hardships of the pilgrims and an admirable reflection of the album version that features Seth’s sister-in-law Cara Dillon.  Both the narrative and the song performances kept the audience entranced throughout the performance , a combination of original songs, one or two traditional songs and some poetry set to music, along with the bold narration and period visual projections.  The choreography of the piece remained uncluttered, with each of the musicians swapping instruments between performances; Seth alternating between fiddle and tenor guitar, Benji between bouzouki, guitar, banjo and side drum, Ben between upright bass and Jews Harp and Alex between harmonium and electric guitar, with little fuss.  After a short break, Seth was eager to speak to the audience, heading immediately for the microphone with “Hello Doncaster, what a great theatre you have here”.  He seemed almost relieved that he and his small band had managed to get through the debut performance of A Pilgrim’s Tale unscathed and was now ready to give the audience something they already knew, delighting Doncaster with such songs as “Bold Knight”, “The White Hare” and “Lady of the Sea” with its infectious rhythm and irresistible refrain Hear Her Calling, to which the audience was only too willing to respond to in fine voice. There was the one brand new song, the closest thing Seth is likely to get to Hillbilly, being flanked by the two Bens on both banjo and Jew’s Harp, before vacating the stage for Seth to perform his signature song “Kitty Jay” solo.  With a stomping kick drum and fiddle of fire, Seth made those sixteen years since he first recorded the song seem like no more than five minutes.  With the rest of the band returning to the stage, Seth and co concluded with “1643” from the Freedom Fields period and finally “Last Rider”, a fitting miner’s song to end another well organised, comfortable and entertaining evening at this fine theatre.

Rachel Croft, The Kimberleys and Sam Scherdel | Live Review | CAST Theatre, Doncaster | Review and Photos by Allan Wilkinson | 19.02.20

Once again Doncaster has been treated to a rich and varied evening of music at the CAST Theatre with a triple bill made up of visiting artists from both the north of Doncaster and the south of Doncaster, together with a local singer songwriter from just up the road.  Easing us into what promised to be an entertaining evening of top quality musicianship, Mexborough’s own Sam Scherdel delivered a short set of self-penned songs, together with a tastefully rendered Billy Joel cover, “She’s Always a Woman”, proving once again that you needn’t throw a stone too far before it hits some homegrown talent.  Sam’s set was almost an add-on to the main bill, which therefore had to be relatively short, leaving little room for between song chit-chat.  It was pretty much down to business with five songs, each delivered in Sam’s trademark rasping indie-rock vocal.  Next up was the Nottingham-born, now York-based singer songwriter Rachel Croft, who took the middle set, with a varied selection of songs that traversed everything from the world of pop, jazz, soul, folk and even French chanson, each song delivered in a pitch perfect voice, which really couldn’t have been bettered.  This may have much to do with the excellent sound team at CAST, but probably more to do with Rachel’s own God given talents.  The second space at CAST theatre always provides for an intimate setting, where every syllable can be heard from the most piercing high note to the lowest fading breath.  Rachel provided both throughout her set and lots more in between.  Opening with “Rainier Day”, one of the songs from her debut album Hours Awake, Rachel delicately picked her guitar, which provided sparse accompaniment, which in turn enabled us to focus on her rich and occasionally sultry voice.  “Only Dreams” with its ‘free falling’ refrain, demanded our attention through which a pin could have been heard had one been dropped.  It doesn’t take long to warm to Rachel’s character, who speaks of old boyfriends, of best friends and of her relationship with her guitar, which she learned to play by poring over online tablature websites.  Channelling Edith Piaf, Rachel treated the audience to a rather uplifting “La Vie En Rose”, whilst also taking us to church with the Reverend Al Green and a superb reading of his gorgeous 1971 hit “Let’s Stay Together”.  During the break, Rachel was approached by a number of new fans who were eager to compare her voice to everyone from Joan Baez to Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones to Joss Stone.  To this reviewer though, Rachel Croft has the voice of Rachel Croft and long may it sing.  Appearing in Doncaster for the first time, the London-based duo The Kimberleys drew on the wealth of traditional material, arranged and delivered in their own idiosyncratic style, which defies logic but sounds superb at the same time.  Their syncopated instruments might be playing completely different things simultaneously, but together it all sounds just right.  Isobel and Jim approach their music with intelligence and inventiveness, with a focus on storytelling, notably their treatment of the sprawling “Tam Lin”, which never loses its impact through an ever changing arrangement, a combination of Sandy Denny, Crosby Stills and Nash and the Incredible String Band all rolled into one.  It was probably the most engaging seven minutes of the entire evening.  Other highlights included creative re-workings of “Elsie Marley”, “The Smart Schoolboy” and Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames”, together with a clever mash up of “The Doffin Mistress” and “Broom Bezzums”, before closing both the set and the concert with a rousing “Hard Times of Old England”.  Despite it being a slimmed down audience for tonight’s show, the quality of both the music and the entertainment was second to none, another fine music event that stands alongside such recent shows as Seth Lakeman’s A Pilgrim’s Tale launch, Show of Hands and double bills featuring Steve Tilston/Reg Meuross and Chris While and Julie Matthews/Boo Hewerdine. An there’s more to come.

John Blek | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.20

County Cork’s John Blek arrived tonight in Sheffield as part of his latest UK tour with plenty of material to draw upon, not least one or two songs from his latest album The Embers, which has just been released to favourable reports.  His fifth album to date, closely following last year’s Thistle and Thorn, The Embers continues to showcase the singer songwriter’s credentials as a leading voice in a huge sea of contemporary voices currently working on the acoustic music circuit.  With a couple of guitars and a forlorn shruti box sharing the spotlight, John casually strolled on stage before a small but attentive Backroom audience in Sheffield, opting to deliver just the one full set rather than bothering himself and the audience with a pointless break between two shorter sets.  This allowed John to settle into his stride with an impressive selection of songs from his now prolific repertoire.  Opening with the gentle “Hannah”, a song that could very well reference the lonely troubadour life, “there’s no Champagne or chandeliers” he sings, “just a cold bed in some old hotel, after all my songs are sung.”  Home sickness doesn’t obviously permeate John’s set, in fact at one point the singer confesses “I might look sad up here, but I’m only pretending”, continuing with a wry smile, “inside, I’m fucking dancing”.  Such is the between song banter, which reveals a certain warmth between strangers.  John talks of home, of being a lapsed Catholic, of being newly engaged, “to be married” he stresses, rather than being simply indisposed.  He tells us that this is the fourth live appearance since Christmas and appears to be completely relaxed before those who have taken the time to come out to see him perform.  At times it’s difficult to keep an audience engaged with one self-penned song after another, yet with such strong and engaging material, the room remained enthusiastic throughout, as John traversed his back catalogue with “The Night and the Liquor”, “Lightness and Weight” and “Little Sparrow” from 2016’s Cut the Light, “Lace”, “No Surrender” and “Salt in the Water” from 2017’s Catharsis, Vol 1, whilst “North Star Lady”, “The Blackwater” and the beautiful “The Body” represented some of the material from John’s most recent album from last year, Thistle and Thorn. Apologising for the absence of Joan Shelley, who originally duetted with the singer on “The Body”, John declared “you’ll have to put up with me doing both parts”.  It was pretty much about the new album though and tonight John revealed just three of the new songs, “Death and His Daughter”, allegedly about his future in-laws, although I’m not convinced, “Empty Pockets” the album opener and finally “Flame (Little Death No 3)”, “We lit a fire and we let it burn, stoking the embers and taking our turn..”, a lyric from which the title derives, each song performed with an assured confidence, a strong voice and a mature finger picked guitar style.  Towards the close of play, John inquired if there might be any requests from the audience, to which came the quite unexpected call for Tim Hardin’s timeless “If I Were a Carpenter”, which the singer was only too pleased to perform, coupling it with Leadbelly’s “When I Was a Cowboy”, giving the audience an opportunity to get their tonsils around a chorus of “Come a ki-ki-yicky, Cow, ki-yicky-yicky-yeah!”  There was definitely room for more bums on seats tonight, but those comfortably in place enjoyed a treat of top drawer song writing and performance.

Odette Michell | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.02.20

Once again, the Roots Music Club in Doncaster provided a fitting platform for yet another debut appearance by a relatively new voice to the area.  Singer songwriter Odette Michell arrived fully equipped with a couple of guitars, a guitar-shaped bouzouki, a laptop-shaped shruti box and a confident voice that will undoubtedly be remembered by those who came along tonight.  Last year saw the release of Odette’s debut album, The Wildest Rose and some of those songs came out to play, including the title song, a stomping folk rock anthem to encourage the crowd to sit back and take note.  Born in Yorkshire of Irish heritage, Odette appeared both confident and composed, whilst selecting the best of her own original songs, together with one or two from the tradition and the occasional iconic masterpiece, no doubt learned from the singing of Nic Jones, Sandy Denny and Paul Brady.  There’s no simple accompaniment to Odette’s arrangements on either guitar or bouzouki, with her spider-like fingers frequently traversing the dusty end of the fretboard, without missing a single beat.  Her voice itself could easily carry these songs with simpler accompaniment, but Odette strives to negotiate complex chord structures to showcase the fruits of her own labour.  The audience was treated to the brand new “Song for the Birds”, the slightly older “Banks of the Annlea” and the opening song “After the Hurricane”, from the By Way of Night EP, where for some, the name Odette Michell was first heard.  The audience was also very much reminded of the heady days when the likes of Planxty rolled into our town many years ago, delivering a lilting take on “The Jolly Beggar”, with Odette citing Andy Irvine as a major influence.  That same audience warmed to this returning Yorkshire-born native and was soon eating out of her hand.  The second set brought more goodies, not least the “Rolling Shores of England”, for which the singer employed the talents of Phil Beer on the recorded version, “The Great Old Northern Line”, a fine engaging song set around Camden Town and a humble nod towards Paul Metsers with a pretty fabulous “Farewell to the Gold”, going on to almost apologise for the inclusion of Sandy Denny’s much loved and consequently much covered “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”.  Odette momentarily claimed the song for herself, treating it with the respect people have come to expect. If Sandy Denny, Andy Irvine and Daoiri Farrell are placed high on Odette’s hero totem, then Paul Brady is also there, as the Roots Club’s special guest returned to the stage to complete the evening’s programme with a faithful reading of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”.  No longer a ‘kind stranger’, Odette Michell will no doubt be made welcome in Donny, any time she wishes to return.

Bronwynne Brent | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.03.20

For almost forty years now I’ve been listening to Stuart Palmer’s distinctive voice, while watching those ten fingers traverse the strings on his vintage Martin.  There’s always something instantly familiar with this combination, which provides a satisfying half-hour to get things off to a good start.  Tonight was such a night, with Stuart leaving his regular position behind the mixing desk to flirt with one of his prized guitars on stage and to settle the audience down before the main course.  The entrée tonight included two new additions to Stu’s repertoire, Tom Waits’ delicious “San Diego Serenade” and Robb Johnson’s powerful statement “More Than Enough”, slotted in between some of Stu’s more familiar songs.  With the audience now suitably chilled, Bronwynne Brent returned to the Ukrainian Centre’s stage like an old friend, with her immediately recognisable Mississippi drawl and chirpy disposition fully intact.  Bronwynne set out to take everyone’s mind off the media paranoia surrounding the current pandemic with the first of two long sets packed with songs new and not so new.  Flanked by two superb musicians, Brazil’s Mario Caribé on upright electric bass and assorted foot percussion and Toronto’s Kevin Barrett on electric guitar, Bronwynne’s raison d’être was to take the audience to another world, if only temporarily.  “Another World” was a fitting opener to the first set, the singer effectively sprinkling her own blend of sonic stardust upon her audience, notably the kids on the front row.  If the demographic was wide tonight, then it simply demonstrates the broad appeal this songstress brings.  Stylistically, Bronwynne almost casually dips her toes into an Olympic-size pool of musical genres, one minute bringing a sense of the Deep South, the next channeling Ella Fitzgerald with the jazz-tinged “Saving Myself For You”, then turning to the bossa nova feel of “My Little Boat”, for which Bronwynne requested the activation of the venue’s mirror ball, which usually hangs dormant on Roots nights.  She wasn’t kidding when she said she wanted us to forget the current crisis.  Bronwynne takes to Astrud Gilberto so naturally, as she leans on her guitar while her collaborators take over, especially on “How Sensitive”, which showcases Barrett’s flair as an informed jazz guitarist.  In a jazz club, the solo would have surely warranted an enthusiastic applause and in all fairness, it should have received one tonight.  The audience however, waited until the end of the song to show their appreciation.  The trio performed no less than nine songs from Bronwynne’s recently released third studio album Undercover, including the album opener “I Know It’s Late”, the sultry voodoo jazz of “Lost in the Moonlight” and the much covered Jacques Brel number “If You Go Away”, evoking the feel of that particular song’s worldly travels via the likes of Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey to Cyndi Lauper and Donny’s own Lesley Garrett.  “This should be a James Bond song” quipped my companion.  With empathetic accompaniment from both Mario and Kevin, who can alternate between the jazz flourishes of Joe Pass and Jim Hall and the swampy slide of a Duane Allman to the distinctive twang of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis like turning on a tap.  After a more than generous twenty songs, Bronwynne and her trio returned to the stage to conclude with something in the way of a Bobbie Gentry for our times, with a reading of the infectious “Niki Hoeky”, which was probably a perfect note to finish on, leaving what could only be described as a delighted audience that will no doubt congregate once again upon her eagerly awaited fourth visit.