Wednesday, 26 October 2016

KAELA ROWAN

CD Review

The Fruited Thorn


Not only does Kaela Rowan bring her own impressive pedigree to this, her second solo album, but she has also collected together an equally impressive band of musicians to create a disc which is other-worldly, moving and intriguingly hypnotic in many instances.

Kaela Rowan
Brought together to make her album are the likes of James MacKintosh, who co-produced it with her, Ewan McPherson - both of whom she has played alongside many times in Shooglenifty - Jarlath Henderson, John McCusker and Patsy Reid.
The haunting vocals of Dayam Khan Manganiyar are also worthy of mention.
Now Westlin Winds is the opener with its gentle guitar and subtle piano intro. Unsurprisingly, this a Burns' song, the poet also provided the album's title, Rowan learned from, the now sadly ailing, Dick Gaughan.
Like the winds she is singing about, Rowan's accent is both strong and gentle and she paints beautifully the picture of nature's landscape with her voice. In her breathy delivery there are shades of Sandy Denny.
This gives way to Eilean Fhianain which opens with the aforementioned Manganiyar bringing the mystical sound of the east with his gently wailing voice. This is juxtaposed with the Gaelic singing of Rowan and while you wouldn't ordinarily think the blend would work, the gentle pace of the tune means the differing styles weave in and out of each other seamlessly.
A good traditional ballad of treachery, Lord Gregory - which comes in several giuses,  gets the Rowan treatment next. Rowan lets her trembling voice execute the ballad in a wonderfully languid, almost lazy style of singing which is much slower and reserved than many versions.  Henderson adds some real atmosphere with his pipes to take the track out.
The haunting tale of a dead mother reincarnated to meddle in the lives of the living is sung in Gaelic on Nighean Nan Geug (O Girl of the Branches). With the continuous beat under Rowan's singing the song has the cadence of a hypnotic dance designed to bring a trance-like state to the participants and so often associated with pagan rituals.
Dayam Khan Manganiyar 
The gentle strumming of guitar strings brings in another arrangement, this time of the traditional tune As I Roved Out. This particular track comes to Rowan via Irish folk legend Andy Irvine when he was in Planxty. Henderson joins Rowan on vocals for what is a slow and thoughtful tale of sacrifice. 
It's always a treat when you get the lesser used instruments introduced into a song and MacPherson pretty much provides the percussion strand using the jaw harp for Mary and the Gallant Soldier. The buzzing, sizzling sound adds to the lightness of Rowan's slightly jaunty singing as she tells the tale of loyalty and love during a time of war.
Rowan's Scottish accent seems to strengthen for Blackbird(What A Voice) as she sings in a style close to a spiritual anthem. The peaks and troughs she introduces into her singing almost gives the feel of being on a boat crossing one of Scotland's many spectacular lochs. Her voice is gentle and full of emotion and hits the tone of the lament perfectly and MacKintosh's percussion adds a nice touch giving the impression of the subject's heartbeat.
Bratach Bana is a song from Barra an isle which for many fans of Dad's Army will always be associated with Private Frazier and his wide-eyed tales of the wild and lonely place. That aside, it is a lovely song of welcoming boats carrying exotic cargo and is mixed pretty seamlessly with cleverly used radio effects and shipping forecasts which somehow are always associated with lonely boats and mariners and create the atmosphere perfectly.
Another staple of traditional folk comes with If I Was A Blackbird, a tale of a spurned lover. Rowan takes on a more sensual tone for this arrangement and her arrangement keeps the bones of the song but knits a more contemporary flesh onto them to great affect. 
Last but one comes The Bonnie Woods O' Hatton which is another slow ballad of unrequited love which is given a strong percussive beat with the guitar. Even though this song has a gentle pace the beat still gets your feet tapping and the finale of the pipes seals the deal.
The second album
The final track Grioghal Cridhe brings Rowan's ethereal Gaelic singing back together with Manganiyar's wailing style again. They combine to recreate the ancient roots of this song and conjure up atmosphere which could transport you to strange exotic worlds on a carpet of music.
The Fruited Thorn is an album full of atmosphere where Rowan and MacKintosh have used their own impressive skills as musicians as well as getting the best out of the assembled cast.
From the striking artwork on the album sleeve to the expressive and versatile use of her voice this is an album that can move the furniture around in your mind. 




The Fruited Thorn is available now through the artist's website 

If you want to catch Rowan live then she will be playing The Seaboard Centre (Seaboard Memorial Hall), East Street, Balintore on November 11. Show starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £8.80 including booking fee. She then plays Newbold House, 111 St Leonard's Road, Forres, nr Inverness on November 12. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £10 or £8 with concessions. 











Saturday, 15 October 2016

KATE RUSBY

CD Review

Life In A Paper Boat


One of the most enjoyable benefits of the folk music scene is the incredible talent and quality of the superb female singers it seems to give birth to, and one of those who is in the top level of having the voice of an angel is Kate Rusby.

Kate Rusby
With close to a quarter of a century of making incredible music, singing gorgeous songs, performing with virtually every name in the folk world and at every folk festival worth shaking a stick at; creating her own label and setting up her own folk festival you kind of wonder what's left for the Barnsley songbird.
Well Life In A Paper Boat goes some way to answering that question. Rusby meets the technological age and brings the world of electronic gadgetry into her repertoire where, it has to be said the transition has been generally a good one. However, at the heart of all the tracks, on this her 14th studio album, is the unmistakable soft and slightly tremulous sound of her voice which is as instantly recognisable as a beacon burning on a Yorkshire hilltop.
The move seems to be carrying on from her husband Damien O'Kane's venture on his last album where he blended traditional sounds and music with modern electronic gadgetry and techniques with mixed success. It's O'Kane who has produced the album, as well as playing on it, as part of the cottage industry which is the Rusby music business.
The album kicks off with an arrangement from the couple in Benjamin Bowmaneer, a quirky tale of a tailor who is drawn into the Hundred Years War. As it should be, Rusby's voice is at the centre of the song with an impressive collection of sounds around her, some of which come across as slightly intrusive. Following on is a much gentler original Rusby track in a style which is almost her trademark. Hunter Moon is her fanciful look at the universe with a tale of unrequited love between the sun and the moon, which are destined never to meet. Her emotive singing style is spot on for this lovely piece of storytelling.
The Ardent Shepherdess is a traditional track on which Rusby puts her dabs. It is a beauty of a song where every piece of the track fits perfectly not least of which is the understated banjo backing of Ron Block. The title track is another Rusby original and, like Ange Hardy's By The Tides, is another song inspired by the awful plight of refugees fleeing to safety. The way she has arranged it is close to a hymn. Rusby's voice is again allowed to take centre stage but not in an overpowering way.
A Yorkshire hero
The backing musicians, with Nick Cooke adding a really thoughtful accordion insert, keep their distance adding to the whole without intruding and the electric guitar of Steve Iveson adds a Dire Straits-style dimension to it.
With Only Desire What You Have the tune seems to take precedence. Obviously Rusby's voice is still there but it doesn't sound as comfortable as the previous tracks and the jury is out on pairing her singing with the harmonies of Dan Tyminski. It's almost as if they are trying too hard to smooth over the join between their individual styles. Next Rusby adds the tune to the traditional Hundred Hearts, a soft and slow moving song which is thoughtfully executed and where her singing seems subdued and yet full of emotion, it is carried along gently by her band of musicians. There is a brooding quality to Rusby's voice as she sings the tale of The Mermaid. Here Tyminski's harmonies are far more cohesive and the fairly complex layers of sounds which make up the tune are wonderfully blended to create real atmosphere.
It wouldn't be a bona fide Rusby album unless there was some reference to the life and culture of her beloved Yorkshire. Traditional offering the Pace Egging Song gets the Rusby treatment where she tells the tale of the local dramas involving St George which are performed every Easter. O'Kane's handling of his wife's cover of the Archie Fisher song, The Witch of Westmorland, creates just the right and ethereal atmosphere for Rusby to tell the tale of the rescue of a knight. The intro to
I'll Be Wise feels a little tagged on and unnecessary to what sounds like Rusby's version of a torch song. Apart from that it's a sound tune with the strings from Donald Grant, Magnus Johnston, Triona Milne and Laura Anstee helping it to punch above its weight.
So distinctive is Rusby's voice that it's not often you are able to make comparisons but the style and atmosphere of Night Lament gives her a wonderfully rich sound similar to Enya.
Rusby has again done a great job in adapting this traditional song which is given even more depth and character by the previously mentioned strings section. The album goes out with a bit of fun in a bonus track of Big Brave Bill a Yorkshire superhero who Rusby invented for her children's bedtime stories. It's vintage Rusby and as Yorkshire as rolling dales, sheep dotted on the landscape, flat caps and the tea which is the lifeblood of both characters.
Rusby may have been delighting fans with her mesmerising tones for nearly 25 years but this album shows she is still willing to walk new paths and bring in new elements to her singing and songwriting. Fortunately she hasn't gone overboard and allowed the new sounds and gadgetry to become too obvious because at the heart of what makes Kate Rusby such a favourite is her incredible singing; a love and respect of traditional songs and music, along with her infectiously affable character.


Life In A Paper Boat is available now on Pure Records from the artist's website.
You can also catch her live on October 30 at Belfast Opera House. The show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £16.50 or £22.50. Then she will play at University Concert Hall, Limerick on October 31. The show starts 8pm and tickets are 15 Euro for a child, 23 Euro with concessions and 25 Euro otherwise. She then goes on to the National Concert Hall, Dublin on November 1. Show starts 8pm and tickets are 27.50 Euro or 24.75 Euro with concessions.
















Tuesday, 11 October 2016

ANGE HARDY & LUKAS DRINKWATER

CD Review

Findings

You should be able to get Ange Hardy on the NHS because there is something strangely therapeutic in listening to her singing on this album. Again teamed up with Lukas Drinkwater another element of class music has been added and they could be the cure for all modern ills.

Lukas Drinkwater and Ange Hardy
Considering she came to the scene quite late for a touring musician and doesn't carry the background and experience of many folk veterans, which is not always a bad thing, she has waterbombed the world of folk music making an impact that has spread far and wide.
After the success of Esteesee, which was essentially a concept album based around Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hardy is back with a collection of new and traditional works without any constraints.
She is with prolific musician Drinkwater who crops up almost everywhere but this time has had perhaps more involvement than any other project he has worked on to date. Hardy has one of the best voices on the folk circuit and that is saying something when you consider the quality of female voices which are around at the moment. Her clarity, versatility, lightness and strength all come through on this album. It also contains her mastery of electronic gadgetry which adds layers to the tunes and if you have ever seen her live her feet work as hard as her hands when producing her backing sounds.
As she has proved several times already, Hardy can come up with the goods when it comes to songwriting and albums. However, with Findings comes Drinkwater who adds a whole new dynamic to proceedings, not only with his undeniable skill as a musician but also bringing harmonies which marry with Hardy's voice seamlessly.
This is obvious from the first track which is a triplet The Call/Daughters of Watchet and Caturn's Night. As the title suggests Hardy opens the song with a call. The tune is almost a potted history of Watchet in Somerset and is such a lovely woven blend of Hardy and Drinkwater's voice it's mesmerising and there is a lovely musical surprise at the end of the line.
Another luscious blend of vocal harmonies comes with The Pleading Sister, built around the nursery rhyme Little Boy Blue. In true folk tradition it ends in tragedy because of the central character's idleness. Sung as a round the subtle blending of the harmonies are a real treat to listen to.
Without doubt one of the highlights of the album is The Trees They Do Grow. A joint effort from the two, Hardy's voice is sublime and once again complemented perfectly by Drinkwater. The much stronger beat of Far Away From Land is the grim and true tale of Manfred Fritz and the rhythm and cadence in their singing mirrors the undulating movement of the sea which claimed his life.
Hardy's voice is at its emotive best with By The Tides, it is a truly a beautiful ballad but was inspired by terrible tragedy as the scenes of drowned migrants, who were trying to escape war, became fodder for the media.
The bizarre case of Manfred Fritz
Hardy and Drinkwater simple use their voices in the first part of My Grandfathers/Bearded Ted of Raddington. You have to face it, when you have a voice such as Hardy's and a harmonising sound which melds so well from Drinkwater then often music is gilding the lily. The second part is an instrumental tribute to Hardy's own grandfather, whose beard provokes fond memories.
For True Are the Mothers Hardy gathers around her two of her inspirational peers, Kathryn Roberts and Nancy Kerr, both of whom in their own way, have voices as distinctive as Hardy's. The song lauding the role of trees in both folk music and folklore borders on the ethereal with Hardy's female counterparts adding to the mystical feel with their harmonies.  Archie Churchill-Moss, of Moore, Moss and Rutter, and Ciaran Algar are worthy of mention in helping to create the atmosphere of the floating tune. The Berkshire Tragedy is Hardy and Drinkwater's interpretation of a well-travelled murder ballad. Many will recognise it from the Three Sisters. The guitar picking is precise and excellent and the skipping pace they create gives the song a sort of urgency as though they are trying to tell the tale covertly before time runs out and they are discovered.
Hardy's vocals really stand out on The Widow, her gorgeous tones are just a pleasure to listen to and as mesmerising as a siren, Algar's fiddle playing and Evan Carson's understated percussion adds real colour to this atmospheric song.
Bonny Lighter-Boy is a song the pair dug up online and so had carte blanche, with the end result being a clever use of music and vocals to create atmospheres of varying intensity. The duo move towards another social comment with Invisible Child, a song about carers who are children. The children being anywhere between five and eight years old take on the role of adults to care for a family member.
The tune is very light, almost like it was written for a nursery rhyme yet the lyrics are spot on painting a picture of how this youngsters carry out their duties as carers unnoticed and invisible. Hardy is another mother who, like her heroine Roberts, has written a song inspired by trying to see the future for her beloved girl. In this song she is trying to do what every right thinking parent hopes to do and that's steer your family from the mistakes you made. The gentle ballad is a really touching song and if her daughter doesn't fully understand the significance of her mother expressing her fears in song at this time, it's hoped one day she will surely listen to this track and feel her heart swell. Hardy's The Parting Lullaby is a deconstructed version of The Parting Glass and is almost the sister tune to the previous offering.
The new album and game
She has cleverly turned the well-known folk song into a lullaby and you can still feel the bones of the original song. The last song neatly wraps things up and returns to Watchet with a tune which is as quiet as the town itself today after its industries have died out. The singing is understated and the voices weave  in and out of each other in a gentle dance of sound that is almost like a musical massage. Hardy is an incredible musician and songwriter and her voice deserves her place among the other wonderful song maidens the folk scene has produced.
With the added input of Drinkwater and a host of other incredibly talented musicians, what she has created is a collection of songs which tap into your emotions and play with them for as long as the track lasts.
There is almost a spiritual element to Hardy's singing and songwriting and you can only surmise that depth of connection comes from her experiences and deep understanding of human emotions. If you've had a bad day, feel stressed, wound up or simply had enough then take Findings four times a day until symptoms disappear.

Findings is available now from the artist's website, Amazon, Amazon MP3, iTunes and Spotify

You can catch Hardy and Drinkwater on the Findings album tour where they will be playing Homegrown Festival in Bury on Saturday October 15. They will be in the Castle Armoury Hall from 1.30pm and tickets are £16. Then it's on to the Subscription Rooms, Stroud the following night, show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £10 in advance and £12 on the night. On Monday October 17 they play Green Note, London. Show starts 7pm and tickets are £10 plus £1 booking fee. Then it's on to Downend Folk Club, Frenchay Village Hall, Bristol on October 21. Doors open 7.30pm, show starts 8pm and tickets are £12 in advance, £14 full price (£10 members). Next it's Barry West End Club, Barry. Tickets are £12.50 in advance or £15 on the night. On Sunday October 23 it's The Regal Theatre, Minehead. Show starts at 8pm and tickets are £12, friends £11.50, concessions are £10 but on the night, all tickets are £14.

For those of you who are into the Findings game this half is "A Scholar".











Thursday, 6 October 2016

VARIOUS ARTISTS

CD Review

Sweet Liberties


Pretty much from its birth in the mists of time folk music, or the music from the people, has always been associated with political and social commentary, rebellion and dissent. It's good to see that tradition being carried on by an impressive group of musicians who have been commissioned to produce songs for this album.

Sweet Liberties. From left Nick Cooke, Sam Carter, Nancy Kerr,
Martyn Joseph, Maz O'Connor and Patsy Reid
Picture courtesy of Mazoconnor.com
In a project similar to The Full English, this comes from a partnership of Folk By The Oak, the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) and the House of Commons. The artists in their individual ways are charting 800 years of society trying to create a fairer world for everyone.
The line up of  Nancy Kerr, Maz O'Connor, Sam Carter, Martyn Joseph, Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid should be enough to get any folk fan salivating.
Kerr's distinctive voice has the honour of kicking off the album with the gentle and very traditional sounding Kingdom. Using just her voice and guitar the uncluttered ballad draws you into the words which, like most of the songs on this album, start with a single intent. However,  just as society is interconnected so the story of the origins and purpose of the Magna Carta spreads out to look at how the land has been used and, in a lot of cases, abused and the consequences. Kerr sets out the stall straight away alluding to the tension between republicans and royalists, a situation which remains with us to this day.
The clever wording draws very clearly on images from the natural world the voice of which is often ignored in many wrangles over who owns which parcel of land and how it should be used.
Perhaps the most telling line in the song is "Like bees alive all in one hive, and that shall feed us all."
The softer tones of O'Connor take up the mantle of the unfair society which, as always, is divided by the pursuit or the retention of money.
O'Connor uses the juxtaposition of a homeless man looking at the well-heeled people on Rich Man's Hill. The language she adopts in this offering is cutting and worthy of listening to closely. There are phrases such as "I found myself there on a warm summer's day. Didn't take long to move me on." and "How could anyone find themselves unhappy, surrounded by so many shiny things." The undertone of the poor being sold the lie of being able to get on with hard work is also clearly threaded through the song.
Carter carries on the gentle tone of the songs which each of the artists keep from being oppressively sombre while at the same time keeping a respectful gravitas. With Am I Not A Man, Carter tackles the distasteful subject of slavery which is a shameful episode in the histories of many developed countries.
Inspired by the true story of former slave Olaudah Equiano there is a lamentable quality to his singing and once again the lyrics are clear and cannot fail to make the listener stop and think about how we are a global family.
Joseph brings to the table a song about workers rights which is as relevant now as it was in the time frame to which the lyrics refer.  Dic Penderyn is the eponymous character at the centre of this song and who, still,  is the focus of an on-going petition to get him pardoned. With the dust of Brexit not quite settled this song could well prove a timely warning as Britain's workers could lose the protection and final sanction of European employment laws.
There is a passion in Joseph's voice when he expresses phrases such as "You can only trample people down for so long my friend, and time will show you that you simply have not won."
Muriel Lila Matters
Kerr's second offering, Seven Notes, is inspired by the chequered history of race relations and how Britain, like most modern societies to a lesser or greater extent, is multi-cultural. She uses the metaphor of the cuckoo, a migratory bird also known for laying it's eggs in other bird's nests - an allusion to our colonising past. The repetitive bird call style cadence of the song takes on an almost mantra-like quality.
This Old House is a real gem from O'Connor who, in this comic song, tells the story through the metaphor of an old couple who can't live with each other and are either too complacent or afraid to live without each other.
There are some really playful lines in this song with "Well Mary she wants blue, but Johnny wants red, so fair's fair they're yellow instead." Which mirrors some of the bizarre compromises which are made for democracy to work.
The second song from Joseph is a wonderfully observant piece where he cleverly compares the lives of children a century apart. Twelve Years Old focuses on how the industrial age meant so many children were forced to leave their childhood behind too soon and yet his lyrics show that in the digital age there are many similarities to be drawn.
In the narrative of histories, sadly, many times the role of women is overlooked and so Kerr makes sure this is not the case on this collection. Lila has a feel of a music hall Morris hybrid and with the swinging lilt you can almost see the suffragettes, arms linked, swaying back and forth in solidarity. The jolly tune is inspired by Muriel Lila Matters and Mary Prince and Cooke's contribution on melodeon adds more colour to what is an obvious protest tune which may well have got Kerr into trouble a few generations ago.
O'Connor's next offering, Broad Waters,  is slightly schizophrenic in that the tune is quite light and gallops along at a friendly pace and yet within it she tackles an extremely sensitive, contentious and dark subject.
But that's what this album is about. The tunes appear deliberately simple so as not to take any focus from the lyrics which are wonderful examples of folk song writing.
Joseph's tribute to both Nye Bevan and the NHS he founded is also a thank you to the great man and the ordinary men and women who save lives day in and day out, but it's also a warning of the threat the organisation is under. Joseph's gentle guitar picking is complemented perfectly by the subtle and emotive strings in the background.
Carter brings a sinister feel to Dark Days which is an indictment of contemporary politics. The gypsy style tune does have a Faustian feel about it, with Carter's grittier style of singing carrying just that little hint of warning menace.
 Another serious subject is tackled by Kerr with her cryptically titled Written On My Skin. The song deals with the fight to get sexual assault on women taken seriously.  The title has a dual meaning referring to how acts of parliament are written on vellum for permanence but also because the assaults would have left their physical marks on the victims.
The album from the project
The album's penultimate tune, Broken Things, could almost be the sister song to Joseph's Twelve Years Old, as it deals with the demise of the trade unions and with it the capacity to protect workers' rights.  O'Connor's singing is wonderfully understated and she builds the song around David Jones who died in the awful clashes during the miners' strike in the mid-eighties.
It's refreshing she took up this subject because for such a dark period in recent political history there are surprisingly few folk songs written about the time.
Carter has the honour of taking the album out with One More River which is a personal song for him revolving around the story of some of his ancestors. Rather appropriately, because the subject involves slavery, the style is that of an 'ol time gospel song akin to Down To The River To Pray from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? He is joined on this by some of his fellow artists. The style sounds remarkably like Martin Simpson but Carter puts together a delightful tune and could easily be one of those tunes which will be picked up by other folk artists and will soon be doing the circuit. Kerr does some wonderful harmonies on what is a great way to take such a class album out.
This collection is a great example of how good the folk music can be in this country. Without wanting to do any disservice to the tunes on this, which are excellent, the musicians seem to have realised that it's the stories and the words which need to stand out and they do both in subtle and deeply incisive ways. They, like the War Stories album from Harp and a Monkey, chose to focus on the lives rather than statistics to bring the histories to life and show that at the centre of these events were and still are real people.
This album shows you how folk music can be both emotive, incisive and thought provoking in a world which seems awash with trite, banal and pointless music and lyrics. As a history of many of the political meanderings which have made this nation, a million albums from a billion musicians couldn't give the full picture, the Sweet Liberties does an illuminating snapshot which could well launch many other projects, songs and inspire another generation of folk singers.
It is a wonderful example of the level of songwriting talent folk music encompasses and more so because these weren't organically inspired offerings, the artists were constrained to particular areas and they have all executed their briefs most admirably

Sweet Liberties is released October 7 through Proper Records.