under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
May 1, 2016 by markdishman

Bellowhead say bye-bye: 13 things we’ll miss about Britain’s biggest folk band

Bellowhead – the 11-piece folk colossus conceived by Jon Boden and John Spiers in a traffic jam in 2004 – are playing their last gig tonight. The long sold-out show at the Oxford Town Hall, where they played their first concert, will doubtless see them sign off in style. At heart, they’re a party band, so it’s going to be a hell of a night.

bellowhead

Bellowhead – black tie big noise (photo: Tom Barnes)

To bid Bellowhead farewell, here’s what we’ll miss about the band. *Sobs*

1. Jon Boden’s fashion sense. While he’s a great team player, Boden made the step up to frontman with panache. His bold stage presence come partly from his love of waving his arms around, but also some genre-defying fashion. The whole band has regularly indulged a passion for fancy dress – witness the Hedonism and Broadside covers, as well as those decadent New Year’s Eve gigs. But Boden deserves special mention for glamming up on stage too. His silver and pink suits made the most impact, but we also liked the sparkly silver waistcoat sported on the farewell tour, as well as the classy white jacket in the video for 10,000 Miles Away. Suit you, sir.

2. The stagecraft. Whether it was Jon Boden crooning atop an amp at the back of the stage, a big reveal of Sam Sweeney playing the bagpipes, Brendan Kelly’s double-sax showoffery, or Andy Mellon pulling pints and handing them out to the crowd, you could always rely on Bellowhead to keep things visually, as well as aurally, entertaining. Plus Benji Kirkpatrick’s heroic disregard for his knees, as he jumped off something really high in full-on rock posture mode, was always a sight to behold.

3. The tunes. It’s arguably harder to sell tunes to a broad modern audience, many of whom expect singing in everything apart from film scores and Tubular Bells. But Bellowhead sold them hard. The roars of approval whenever they announced they were going to play the Sloe Gin set, Frog’s Legs & Dragon’s Teeth, or Hudson’s Hornpipe/Parson’s Farewell, are testament to this.

4. The songs. The world of traditional song is packed with gems, and Bellowhead unearthed many weird and wonderful examples. You can take your pick, but the stratospheric Jordan, the sweet Fakenham Fair and the super-gross Black Beetle Pies were among the treasures. And subject matter was as salty as any folkie could reasonably hope for: booze, murder, theft, disease, shipwrecks: at one time the band finished their shows with a prostitute-themed two-song encore – London Town and New York Girls. You don’t get that with Coldplay.

5. The noise! You could leave a Bellowhead show with your ears ringing. There are a few groups on the scene capable of this (False Lights, farewell tour-support Mawkin) and though it’s probably damaging to your long-term health (here speaks a tinnitus sufferer: wear earplugs, kids) there’s a valuable adrenaline thrill to having your innards reverberated by a helicon. (PS: we also always enjoyed the slightly perverse insistence on playing Little Sally Racket, apparently bemusing large sections of the audience. Very much in the punk spirit of the arrangement.)

6. The energy. It’s hard to get people up and dancing on the arts centre circuit. But Bellowhead’s necessarily big venues combined with their irresistible spirit got folk dancing up and down the land. And I mean really dancing: Bellowhead audiences actually broke festival dance floors three times with their passionate polkas.

7. That they knew when to be quiet. Volume is all very well, but Bellowhead knew the value of light and shade, too – with the sublime Captain Wedderburn being perhaps the best example of this. Shh.

8. The arrangements. Where to start? The versatility of Bellowhead’s players was the key to the band’s genius. They brought in a huge range of influences, not least an inventive jazz sensibility. Among many examples there’s Fine Sally, which at points sounds like a particularly funky 1970s cop show theme. The band’s take on Bruton Town has a bit of reggae about it, while there are classical influences on the likes of Won’t You go My Way and the John Williams-esque Trip to Bucharest/Flight of the Folk Mutants. Their version of The Wife of Usher’s Well is operatic, Little Sally Racket pure punk, while Pete Flood’s progressive arrangements, for example the weird and woozy Moon Kittens, were always album highlights. And folk! There was a bit of folk music in there as well.

9. The exposure. In the modern era, it’s hard to overstate Bellowhead’s contribution to English traditional music. They helped bring a flourishing scene to a huge audience, winning places on Radio 2 playlists and earning silver discs for both Hedonism and Broadside. And the demographic was different: it was always heartening to see actual teenagers getting down to the jigs at the band’s shows. Surely many of them will have gone on to explore folk music further, and perhaps even to play and sing themselves.

10. That they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The band were proper musicians whose records deserve serious respect. But the success never went to their, er, Bellowheads. The group indulged in the fun festive tradition of the Christmas single, but were never less po-faced than when they were arsing about on stage: whether it was morris dancing, choreographing the actions to London Town, pulling pints or passing round the sunglasses to look cool for a solo, the focus was always on the fun. It made for some great gigs.

11. A Bus Song A Day. Okay, this probably belongs in the ‘not taking themselves too seriously’ category. But we loved the bus songs: conceived as a silly version of Boden’s A Folk Song A Day project in 2011, ABSAD ended up proving what top musicians (and comedians) the group were. Composing, recording and filming a video every day for more than a fortnight is no mean feat, especially when you’re on a bus. They’re all good, but we loved the Ipswich intro, the toastie-based hallucinations on the road to Manchester, and the strangely moving Rachael-Benji duet in Lincoln. Butter my parsnips, indeed.

12. The band! It’s unfair to pick individuals out, but as the Umbrellowhead compilation album of 2009 showed, Bellowhead was jam-packed full of some of the finest musicians around (and that’s not to forget former members). That their solo projects, other groups and collaborations might now get some more attention now it’s all over for the band is one of the split’s few consolations.

13. The music. I know, duh. But what a back catalogue. Inventive, diverse, thrilling, joyous, sinister and complex, songs and tunes like Cold Blows the Wind, Betsy Baker, Gosport Nancy, Cross-Eyed & Chinless, Copshawholme Fair, Fire Marengo, Widow’s Curse, Rochdale Coconut Dance, Kafoozalum… you get the idea. Yes, it is hard to pick a favourite.

So what of the future? The band’s members have too much talent not to come up with some interesting and delightful stuff in the coming months and years. The band’s success has been good for the trad scene, and hopefully they will have helped pave the way for some other acts to enjoy some big mainstream airtime too. And – though it’ll be difficult to corral 11 musicians – surely the band’s members can’t live without the adoration they get from audiences for too long? We could be looking at a hell of a comeback tour in a few years…

On a personal note – Bellowhead’s rise roughly coincided with my discovery of – and wholehearted conversion to – the world of folk music. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them nine times, and I loved every show, from the sweaty set at Brighton’s Concorde 2 where the power failed and Boden entertained with an a capella version of The Maid of Australia, to the epic Broadside launch show, to their gig at Kew Gardens in 2013 when FW photographer Simon and I necked too much wine and danced with beautiful strangers. Their songs and tunes remind me of wonderful people and experiences, and I’ll miss them. I love you, Bellowhead.

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March 26, 2016 by markdishman

The Furrow Collective: The Greys, Brighton, March 23 2016

Folk songs are full of death, deception and devastation. Yet a good folk gig is often a heart-warming thing: ideally you’ll leave full of cheer (and perhaps beer), having enjoyed a good laugh and perhaps a singalong or two. The subject matter might be chilling, but your heart is warmed.

furrow collective

The Furrow Collective – Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts – exemplify this paradox perfectly. Much of their material is grim stuff indeed: there are tales of ghosts, deception, murder, dangerous pigs and hanging – plus the odd heartbroken lament. But the packed-to-the-gills Greys pub is full of people having a great time, on-stage and off.

The quartet, comprised of talented and singular songwriters, focus for the most part on traditional material. This perhaps makes it more difficult for them (any group that does traditional stuff, in fact) to form an identity – as opposed, to, say, a band who exclusively write their own songs, and whose members don’t routinely collaborate with others. ‘Trad bands’ must express themselves through the songs they choose, the way they arrange them, and finally the way they perform them.

And if gloom is a folk song staple anyway, what makes the Furrows special? One thing is the way they excavate and celebrate a certain weirdness in the canon’s murk.

King Henry, for example, is flat-out bizarre. It’s the story of an ogress who demands that the titular monarch feeds her a barnful of livestock and a horseful of wine, before coaxing him into bed. The tale is already leavened somewhat by Farrell’s suggestion that we picture Fiona from Shrek, but the song’s strangeness is accentuated by the group’s arrangement, which turns the disturbing call for “more meat!” into a chirpy refrain. They pull off the same trick later on Wild Hog in the Woods, in which the cry of “kill him if you can!” becomes a darkly cheerful exclamation.

There’s more to it than the sheepish ‘here’s another song about death, chuckle” intro you hear at a lot of gigs, too. Much of the set – such as the farcical Queen Eleanor’s Confession – is shot through with a perverse humour. It’s even evident on the flyer for the show, which depicts a landscape full of frightening cartoon creatures, one of which is being ‘collected’ by a brave field recordist with a microphone.

Not that the show ever lacks sincerity and gravitas. Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather, led by Newton, is a seemingly simple tale of a gentleman’s attempt to woo a country lass. Roberts’ highly-strung guitar and Portman’s whistling concertina fill it with tension – the music adding a sinister subtext that might otherwise be absent. Which is both deliciously clever and, well, exactly the point.

Elsewhere, the brilliant Willie’s Fatal Visit is icy cold, and The Unquiet Grave is given a woozy ghostliness by Farrell’s musical saw. The Blantyre Explosion tells soberly of nineteenth-century mining disaster in Lanarkshire. Roberts takes the lead, and his colleagues add heavenly harmonies.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest the entire set is made up of horror stories. On I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep, a shepherd’s uplifting celebration of the simple life, the whole pub follows Farrell in chorus. Later, she can barely get through Poor Old Horse, which is sung (wildly inappropriately) in celebration of a couple of audience members’ birthdays. Fits of giggles envelop band and audience alike as each incongruous line is sung.

The ‘collective’ element of the Furrows means the set is brilliantly balanced, and full of variety. Not only can you enjoy each member’s lead vocals – and they’re all different, all great – but in terms of pooled resources you also get a wide selection of English, Scottish and Irish songs, and various instrumental talents, as well as the aforementioned beautiful harmonies.

Roberts’ spidery guitar forms the backbone of many of the songs, with subtle augmentation coming from banjo, concertina, harp and fiddle – Farrell’s percussive playing really gives something extra to the already sprightly Hind Horn, for example.

It’s hard to imagine a fan of any of the foursome’s work elsewhere not liking The Furrow Collective. It’s a group that plays to the strengths of its members, allowing them to shine individually, but with a cohesive sound and dynamic: more than the sum of its parts, full of ideas, fun, melancholy, cleverness and weirdness. And all this in a pub that hands out free Easter eggs during the interval. Heart warmed, truly.

I wrote a (shorter) review of this gig for The Argus in Brighton – I’ll put up a link if they upload it, but it might turn out to be a print-only thing…

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February 28, 2016 by markdishman

Maz O’Connor interview part two: new album The Longing Kind, ‘the big bad world’ and Jim Moray

We recently spoke to Maz O’Connor about her new album, The Longing Kind – and, as she had lots of interesting things to say, we decided to make our editing job easier by splitting her interview into two parts. Click here (or scroll down) to read part one of our interview with Maz, in which she discussed songwriting, Sondheim and her search for identity. Part two of – which covers ‘first world problems’, what it’s like being young under the current government, and how she likes her whisky – is below…

Maz O'Connor

Folk Witness: The album touches on youth and your experience in “trying to figure out the difference between mistakes and regrets: to enjoy being young without being stupid”. What’s it like as a songwriter to address that – do you have to distance yourself from those experiences in order to write about them? Is the album’s final act a result of having had to ‘grow up’?

Maz O’Connor: Yes I think that’s exactly right. I know it’s a first world problem, but coming out of education and into the big bad world is tough for everyone. Add to that a couple of failed romances and traumatic housemate experiences, moving house three times in one year as I did, and re-negotiating familial relationships as a so-called adult, plus having real responsibility for the first time, and you’ve got a lot to figure out. And then there’s trying to make a living, of course, and in the worst economic climate for young people there’s been since I was born… and an unfathomable student debt. It’s tempting to regress to childish behaviour, stay out too late and drink too much. I knew my friends were going through the same thing so I wanted to give voice to that.

It wasn’t hard to address it because it’s all that was happening; it would have been hard not to address it. But it is hard to share it sometimes, particularly given the accusations of ‘navel-gazing’ that are levied by some people when you write anything vaguely personal. The way I see it, we are living with a government that is systematically destroying opportunities for young people, so it’s really important that we tell our stories as they truly are.

You worked with Jim Moray on This Willowed Light. Was it always the plan to get him to produce this album too? What’s he like to work with?

I think it’s really important for me to work with someone I know really well, because, especially this time around, the songs I write are very close to my heart, and I wouldn’t trust just anyone to bring them to life. I really liked what he did on the last album so he was the obvious choice when it came to this one. Jim and I know each other well enough now to be able to be honest with each other, trust each other’s wacky ideas and take risks. We recorded the basic tracks really quickly, maybe in two or three days. He brings lots of things that would take too long to list, but he also plays, like, everything, so that helps.

Musically, there some new things – I’m thinking of the pedal steel on Crook of his Arm, and the electric guitar ‘rocking out’ bits on Greenwood Side. Were you looking to change your sound and add these elements, or did you add this as you went along?

I knew I wanted to try out new things as I’ve grown in confidence as a musician since the last album, but there weren’t any more concrete plans than that as we started out. We took each song at a time and thought about what would suit it, and we were lucky enough to be able to achieve the sound we were after. The core group of musicians is the same as last time (me and Jim, Beth Porter on cello, Matt Downer on bass and Nick Malcolm on trumpet) but we’ve added some extra. It really felt like building on what we created with This Willowed Light, which is creatively very exciting.

Did your work on the Sweet Liberties project have any influence on the album?

I had written this album before getting the Sweet Liberties commission. I could have included some of those songs time-wise, as I wrote a couple of them quite early in 2015, but I felt that they wouldn’t fit on this album, which was always supposed to be more personal and intimate. They might expand into an album of their own one day!

FW tradition dictates that we’d ask what your favourite sandwich is, but seeing as you’ve clocked up two albums on the trot that reference whisky [Awake Awake on This Willowed Light, When The Whisky Runs Dry here], let’s find out about that instead. So… what’s your favourite whisky, and what’s the best way to serve it?

JD and Coke doesn’t count does it?!

The Longing Kind is out now on Restless Head. Maz O’Connor is on tour – check out her dates here. Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like us on Facebook

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February 21, 2016 by markdishman

Maz O’Connor interview part one: new album The Longing Kind, the writing process and folk heroines

Following the success of 2014’s This Willowed Light, Maz O’Connor is back with a new album, The Longing Kind. It’s a more personal affair, and her first LP comprised of entirely self-penned songs. “I’m not going to pretend not to be young,” says Maz. “For this album I didn’t want to hide behind historical disasters and mythological beasts at the expense of my own experience.”

maz o'connor 2

Youth is a key theme, and the album’s literary three-act structure – broadly: songs of uncertainty, songs inspired by works of art, often with a ‘tragic heroine’ theme, and songs of resolution and clarity – gives Maz a framework to explore her subject with a wisdom beyond her years, as well as the immediacy and insight that comes from actually being 25.

So, for example, we get the joyful Mother Make My Bed (“when you’re young and when you’re poor, the only thing you want is more”), a thoughtful examination of the story of Lady Jane Grey, and the self-assured, reassuring closer When the Whisky Runs Dry. And a whole lot more.

There’s a little of early period Bob Dylan about Maz’s guitar style, and her honest, smart and insightful lyrics. It’s easy to see her having a lengthy, Dylanesque career, with The Longing Kind providing what will come to be seen as an ‘early’ indication of a prodigious songwriting talent.

The Longing Kind is complicated, thought-provoking stuff – and Maz puts it better than we can… She had lots of interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to split our interview with her into two parts. Here’s the first, in which Maz gives us an insight into the album, tells us about the songwriting process, and discusses getting inspiration from the National Portrait Gallery.

Folk Witness: For this album you’ve moved away from traditional material. Was that a deliberate move, a way to make a record that was more personal to you?

Maz O’Connor: It wasn’t a deliberate move not to include traditional material, I’ve just written a lot of songs since my last album came out. In early drafts there was a Child ballad on the album, but it became clear listening to the finished thing that it didn’t make sense to have just one traditional track on there, and an album of fully original material felt more consistent. I’m certainly not done with traditional material, though, and it still heavily informs my writing in lots of ways. I just wanted to ride the writing wave while it was there, because you never know when it will disappear from underneath you…

At what point did you decide on the album’s three-act structure, and why?

That came quite early, before getting into the studio to record, although the exact order of the songs within the acts was decided after they were all mastered. It was, though, a realised concept at the start of the recording process.

I felt that the songs I had written over the past year or so all connected in themes of youth, longing and identity, and so it made sense to me to try and draw together some sense of narrative, or development, over the album. Given there are many references to seasons and times of year, it would have irked me to have the album jumping from winter to spring and back again, so I arranged it chronologically. They’re also pretty much arranged in the order in which I wrote them.

The middle act, which is composed of songs inspired by paintings of various people, sits there to break up the narrative, interrupt and therefore emphasise the passing of that time, and hopefully provide interesting counterpoints for the songs in the other two, more personal acts.
I heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim in which he said that he needs his characters to have learned or figured something out between the beginning and end of a song. That’s what I hope happens over the course of the album.

How did the process of writing songs on this album compare with something like Derby Day, which is (ostensibly) less personal? How long does it take you to write a song?

Derby Day was a commission. I enjoy commissions because they lead you to people and events that you weren’t necessarily aware of before, and the challenge given to you is to tell an old story in a new and idiosyncratic way. But when I’m writing for a brief it inevitably changes where the song goes, because you have a commissioner to please and certain details to honour. I think it’s fair to say that the pressure of presenting and performing the work sits in my head from the moment I start to write the song. Whereas with songs I write off my own bat, there’s no pressure, no necessity for it to be performed or even heard by anyone else. That means, I think, that there’s a freedom and intimacy in that writing. The personal investment is there either way, you’d hope, but with songs that just push themselves to the front of my head, there are no points I have to hit other than those the song itself demands. That makes it easier, in a way, but there’s also nothing to hide behind, of course.

How did you come across Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Millais’ Ophelia? What about them inspired you to compose songs?

Ah well the painting behind the song is in fact her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is. Though I have seen the Delaroche on one of my National Gallery wanderings. The portrait is fascinating because her name has been scratched out from beside her face; that’s what inspired the song – who removed the name and why? What if she did it before she was arrested, so that people would see her for herself, and not the hysterical rumours surrounding her?

Millais’ Ophelia was on temporary display at the NPG, too. In fact, it was my plan to develop a songwriting project inspired by portraits of women in the NPG, but I couldn’t get the funding together, so I included a couple I had written on this album. With Ophelia I liked the idea of linking the painting’s muse Lizzie Siddal and her own tragic story, with that of the character she was depicting. And linking that to the many anonymous folk song heroines undone ‘by the greenwood side’. And I felt that both of these young women (Jane Grey and Lizzie Siddall, as well as the muse in Emma) were searching for meaning and identity in ways I could relate to. How other people can shape your identity through love, control, rumour, cruelty, and it’s hard to tell when it’s true, or when it’s helpful, hard to tell what’s you and what’s them. I wanted to give a voice to those women as a way of counter-acting the identity fixed to them by the men that painted them.

The Longing Kind is out on February 26 on Restless Head. Maz O’Connor is on tour now – check out her dates here.

Click here for part two of the interview. Don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

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February 14, 2016 by markdishman

Jim Causley: Forgotten Kingdom

He’s always had it in him. Jim Causley’s first solo album, 2005’s Fruits of the Earth, featured a few of his own songs. And there was the outstanding Summer’s End, which Jackie Oates recorded for her Violet Hour album of 2007. But Causley has, for the most part, stuck to interpreting the songs and poems of other folk, whether solo or with his Devil’s Interval and Mawkin:Causley projects. Perhaps he was gathering inspiration. For Forgotten Kingdom, his new LP of entirely original material (with one or two traddy borrowings, of course), delivers a weighty 15 tracks over 70 minutes. Jim Causley FK

Remarkably for such a proud Devonian, it’s the first album Causley has recorded in his home county. He’s certainly been inspired by it. Scholarly liner notes detail the area’s history (and make an eloquent case for a more flexible local history curriculum in schools), but the songs reflect a literary lyricism that really brings it to life.

The characteristically jolly Gabbro Bowl/Peninsula Prayer kicks things off in the Neolithic era, bringing us through Saxon times with a touch of Blow the Windy Morning and a reminder that the kingdom of Dumnonia united the people of what we now call Devon and Cornwall. “The land does not recognise the lines that humans draw,” sings Causley – a line that has plenty of resonance today, of course.

But it’s not a history lesson. The catchy Home stylishly bemoans “period living shabby-chic stuck-up town folk replacing old characters who’ll never return”, while The Pastoria is a powerful ode to the countryside. Seasick, the album’s closer, is a curious ‘anti-shanty’ that references Disneyland and ends with Causley pleading to be buried under the red soil of home, far from the water.

As well as the Westcountry themes, Forgotten Kingdom shares something else with Causley’s Dumnonia album of 2011. Where Cyprus Hill – his album of Charles Causley’s poems set to music, released in 2013 – was a stripped-back, piano-led affair, this is a full-sounding, warmly orchestrated and richly textured record. There are guests aplenty, with Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin adding chaturangui guitar and fiddle to Causley’s cheerful accordion on Back in the Day. Kathryn Roberts lends her voice and piano-playing skills to Reigning Men, which has a fun title but is in fact an accomplished, melancholy duet about the abuse of power. Show of Hands’ Phil Beer and Steve Knightley both make contributions, while James Dumbelton’s melancholy acoustic guitar adds a sophisticated accompaniment to several songs, including the lonesome Banks of the Tale.

Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll – now part of Causley’s trio – make a particularly strong contribution. Their fiddle playing on Pride of the Moor, for example, is lively and imaginative. The song itself is one of the album’s strongest: an anthemic ode to the tin that brought prosperity to many towns across the Westcountry. Causley sings from the point of view of the metal at one point, to hail “the church bells of Dartmoor that sing with my voice”. It’s a canny, romantic observation, and the quintessentially Devonian Causley has a reasonable claim (and I say this as a Devonian myself) to be a modern-day voice of the county. (Check out his Behold! session performance of it, below.)

And what a voice it is. Rich and warm, it’s often described in terms of which delicious foodstuff it evokes – honey, nectar, chocolate, fruity ale… All seem appropriate, but what’s really impressive is his ability to turn it to something as mournful as Goodnight Ballad, or as upbeat and light-footed as the warm and witty Man You Know, which cheerfully celebrates the single life and rejects “marriage clink”.

A couple of songs will be familiar to Causley’s fans. The reflective Rewind – a song of sunshine and cider that featured on Fruits of the Earth – is given an elegiac reworking, with Dumbelton’s lilting guitar again providing a subtle backdrop to Causley’s accordion. Jackie Oates provides fiddle for Causley’s own take on Summer’s End, which also features Lukas Drinkwater on guitar. It’s gorgeous: a superbly sung, bittersweet look back at a doomed relationship with a crisp kiss-off at its conclusion.

So, those 15 tracks cover a lot of ground. Forgotten Kingdom features powerful odes to “old Domnonée”, mournful laments, cheery whimsy, smart storytelling, explorations of relationships… It’s serious, intelligent stuff; personal, political, historical – but listening never feels like hard work. Causley has the charm and ability to – as he does on Road to Combebow – make a fun singalong chorus from what is essentially a list of Saints. With so many guest stars, lesser performers might get lost, but Causley’s personality and songwriting talent sees him shine through. Keep writing, Jim.

Forgotten Kingdom is out on February 19 on Hands On Music

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January 3, 2016 by markdishman

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River & False Lights: Salvor – Folk Witness albums of the year 2015

It’s a bit late – and a bit different – this year. Folk Witness wasn’t as active in 2015 as it has been in previous years (something we hope to remedy in 2016), but there was still plenty to listen to. When it came to album of the year time, however, two stood out. And, this year, it proved impossible to choose one over the other. Olivia Chaney - The Longest RIverAnd why should we?

Olivia Chaney‘s The Longest River was a long time in the making. Launched in May – with one of the finest live shows FW has ever attended – it followed an EP that was released in 2012, and years of interviews that often began with the question: ‘so… when’s the album coming out?’.

Evidently, Chaney was focusing on getting it right. Versions of the already wonderful Imperfections and The King’s Horses from the EP are here, tweaked gently but for the better. Meanwhile, those who had seen her live were at last able to get their hands on recorded versions of Waxwing and Too Social.

There’s just one traditional song on the album – Chaney baulks at the suggestion she is a folk singer – but the opener, a take on the False Bride, shows her to be an elegant interpreter. Its mournfulness and tasteful arrangement sets the tone for an album of wistfulness and sorrow, piano and cello.

Chaney expertly turns her hand to songs by Alasdair Roberts, Violeta Parra and Henry Purcell, but her songwriting, too, is first class. Her classical sophistication lends weight to her crisp, witty insights into everyday life: holidays, relationships, and busy house-shares. It might seem extravagantly absurd to base a song on the ‘in denial/in the Nile’ dad joke, but Swimming in the Longest River is nonetheless soberingly, devastatingly beautiful. She could probably turn the Birdie Song into something moving.

The Longest River combines exquisite sadness with a knowing exoticism. But never is it unapproachable – indeed, it’s an intimate, warm record too. Albums as beautiful as this are worth waiting for.

Both Sam Carter and Jim Moray had shown hunts of a predilection for loud electric guitar in their solo work, but the formation of False Lights (who we saw live back in February) allowed them to really cut loose. The resulting album, Salvor, helped the band add something genuinely new to the folk scene – turning the ‘folk-rock’ genre on its head. If the way to keep traditional songs alive is to make them relevant, then a truly contemporary rock approach was sorely lacking. salvor

A great idea, then – but actually pulling it off was another matter. Salvor does it with the kind of musical eloquence we’ve come to expect from Carter and Moray – not forgetting the contribution of Sam Nadel, Tom Moore, Nick Cooke and Jon Thorne, of course.

So, we have Polly from the Shore sounding a little like OK Computer-era Radiohead, while there are hints of Johnny Marr about The Banks of Newfoundland. The blistering Skewball, meanwhile, has a whip-crack sensibility that is all False Lights’ own. And that’s important – this isn’t ‘folk songs in the style of…’, it’s modern, forward-thinking stuff, best exemplified by the album’s opening and closing tracks – the clever, loop-heavy Wife of Usher’s Well and the euphoric pop of Crossing the Bar.

The ‘rock’ sound doesn’t steamroller the music’s essential folkyness, mind. Moore’s fiddle and Cooke’s melodeon stay prominent in the mix. Witness the dextrous Charlesworth Hornpipe, or the mournful, beautiful Indian’s Petition. Or, for that matter, the essential cheekiness of Tyne of Harrow and the bawdy-yet-classy Maid of Australia. It’s quite an album. Salvor is new, old, traditional, modern… and vital.

So, there you have it – our first joint winners. And while Olivia Chaney and False Lights may not have a great amount in common, it’s genuinely thrilling to note that both The Longest River and Salvor are debut albums. Bring on those follow-ups…

Album of the year 2014 – Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Moral of the Elephant

Album of the year 2013 – The Full English

Album of the year 2012 – Fay Hield: Orfeo

Album of the year 2011 – Mary Hampton: Folly

Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like it on Facebook. Happy New Year!

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October 24, 2015 by markdishman

Stuart Giddens of Blackbeard’s Tea Party talks prostheses, cheesecake and new album Reprobates

Blackbeard’s Tea Party, the riotous York sextet, have been steadily gaining a reputation as one of the scene’s finest, funnest bands since 2009. Their third full album, Reprobates, blends extraordinary musicianship with a delirious sense of fun, and will surely soundtrack plenty more parties. Blackbeards-Tea-Party-Reprobates-Cover

The songs positively overflow with blood and guts, seawater and booze. And they’re executed with the group’s trademark fizzing energy and confident swagger. Jack Ketch is a queasy ode to Charles II’s hamfisted executioner with an irresistible chorus, while The Ballad of William Kidd is a typically rambunctious tale of piracy. There’s a dancing-crazy take on Peter Bellamy’s Roll Down, too. And that’s not to mention a glut of tunes, which blend headbanging rock guitar, Latin rhythms, Chili Peppers-esque funk and Laura Boston-Barber’s superb folky fiddling, often at dazzling speed.

And though the album is shot through with a sense of fun, Reprobates also showcases a new side to BTP. Closing track Close the Coalhouse Door – Alex Glasgow’s sensitive and poignant elegy to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 – is pulled off with foreboding, drama and powerful sincerity.

Folk Witness spoke to melodeon player and “sumptuous vocalist” Stuart Giddens about bloody violence, the band’s influences and their fans’ dressing-up and cheesecake habits.

Folk Witness: Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s nifty logo promises “Folk, rock and everything in-between…” Was it always the plan to mix up genres, add electric guitar to trad folk songs and so on?

Stuart Giddens: I don’t think we ever had a plan! We formed as a busking band and our first EP – Heavens to Betsy – reflects this. There’s almost no electric guitar on there, and it’s a much more trad folk-sounding record. But the six members that make up the band have always had musical interests outside of folk. Once we moved to bigger stages and full amplification there was more opportunity to add these to the mix. Our rhythm section in particular brings metal and classic rock influences to the fore.

Our basis is in English folk, but there are elements of funk, dance music, gypsy jazz, bluegrass and old time – plus our drummers bring a lot of African and Cuban rhythms to the mix, so this makes the basis of a lot of our grooves.

What music do you guys listen to? It sounds like your tastes vary quite a bit…

Yes – it’s pretty wide and there isn’t a lot of music that the six of us agree on. On long car journeys we have a few bands in rotation. We love the musicianship on funk and soul records like Stevie Wonder, James Brown and The Meters. We’ve been listening to dub-steppy dance music too like Knife Party and Major Lazer. Plus, since we saw them at Glastonbury and Cropredy respectively, Dolly Parton and Chas & Dave haven’t been far from the car stereo for long.

Do you like The Smiths?

Absolutely! I don’t listen to them much these days, but I spent the summer of 2005 drinking cheap cider, experimenting with magic mushrooms and listening to The Smiths with my best friend in my parents’ back garden (I was 18). I particularly like their first two LPs before, I think, it all went to Morrissey’s head. There’s a naivety and playfulness to lyrics that I think is lost in their later records.

Let’s talk about the new album. Why is it called Reprobates?

The first tracks we arranged for this CD were Jack Ketch and Hangman’s Noose. Jack Ketch was King Charles II’s executioner, and the first tune of Hangman’s Noose (‘The Hangman’s Reel’) was supposedly played on fiddle by convicts on the gallows in the hope of a reprieve. It seemed we were subconsciously following a theme of wrongdoing.

We liked the idea of sticking with the theme and writing/researching songs about immoral or nefarious characters. I was reading a book at the time called ‘Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil Wars’ and that word kept jumping out of me. It not only encapsulates the theme of the album, but reflects the band‘s reputation as the bad boys (and girl) of English folk.

How is it different from your previous stuff?

It’s heavier than our previous output. There’s more certainly more riffs and darker storytelling. I think we show off more of our funk and dance music influences this time, and there are more self-penned songs and tunes than ever.

You wrote the gruesome opening track – what inspired it?

The Steam Arm Man is based on a music hall song that channels fears of new technology during the industrial revolution. It tells the story of a soldier who has his arm blown off at the Battle of Waterloo. He builds himself a prosthetic limb that is powered by steam but, unfortunately, the steam arm is somehow cursed with an evil spirit, and it takes him on a gory killing spree.

It was folk-singer Gavin Davenport who suggested the song to us. I liked the story, the black humour and the steampunk vibe, but the lyrics themselves were a bit crass and pretty misogynistic. So I rewrote the whole thing and gave it a big chorus.

I see it as quite a fun (if gruesome) romp, and the narrative is similar to other popular songs about trouble makers like The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or Leon Rosselson’s Little Tim Maguire. The central character is pulling in two directions – essentially a good man driven to bad by his instinct to survive – and I found that a compelling story to tell.

There’s another particularly gory one – Jack Ketch – which… I see you wrote as well. So, er, what’s with all the bloody violence?

My songwriting is heavily influenced by Nick Cave, particularly his Murder Ballads and Henry’s Dream albums. I like Cave’s chaotic worlds of excess and violence.

I’m keen to rail against certain modern notions of folk as rather twee – strummed acoustic guitars, flat caps and braces. A lot of folk songs – particularly early ballads like Lambkin – are dark and gutsy melodramas. Even sea-shanties and work songs pulse with dark undercurrents of violence, danger or bawdy humour. All that blood-and-guts stuff fits well with our sound.

blackbeard's

Stuart Giddens (right) and the Blackbeard’s Tea Party crew

There’s more to the album than murder and gore though. The subjects of slavery, transports and even the Aberfan disaster are covered. Is it important to you to cover more sober subjects, too?

We’re quite rightly seen as a ‘fun’ party band. That’s certainly how we excel as a live experience, and we’ve worked hard to garner that reputation. But it can sometimes feel limiting too. We were keen on this album to flex our muscles a little in terms of the emotional depth. We want to prove there’s more than one string to our bow.

How did you approach Close the Coalhouse Door? It’s quite a tragic, sensitive song – I wasn’t expecting a group I thought primarily of as a ‘fun’ band to go there…

I wasn’t sure it was right for the band at first. I’m especially conscious that the Aberfan disaster is in living memory. You feel a weightier responsibility to approach the song sensitively and with respect. Once we started arranging the song though, it was obvious that we were hitting the nail on the head. We had an idea to try and create a lot of space in the arrangement while keeping a heart-beat pulse running through the whole song. It’s something very different for us, and I hope it surprises people.

And of course there’s a great helping of tunes, too. Where do you find them, and what’s the arranging process like?

We choose either traditional tunes that we pick up in sessions, or self-penned tunes contributed by Laura or Tim [Yates, bass]. We’ll usually start with the raw material and build a groove around it, then decide which tunes we can pair together, which will fit with songs and which can stand alone. We spend a lot of time figuring out interesting ways to transition between different songs and tunes. In the sessions for Reprobates, we were really interested in replicating the builds and drops in electronic dance music to evoke the energy of our live shows.

You’re about to go on tour – what’s the BTP live experience like?

The live experience can vary because we play a wide range of different venues: grungy rock clubs, arts centres, folk clubs, noodle bars – you name it. Our audience is always a huge mix of ages and types – young children, teenage punks, ageing rockers and folkies all thrown together. We love mixing with the audiences before and after the show and meeting all our fabulously eccentric fans. Our aim is always to create a fun, party atmosphere, to get the crowd moving, singing and sweating along with us.

Like Folk Witness, you seem obsessed with food, in particular cheesecake. Has anyone ever brought one to one of your gigs, as requested on your website?

We’re given cheesecake all the time. It’s a wonder none of us have had a heart attack yet. The cheesecake thing has really resonated with fans, and we’re always being brought weird and wonderful shop-bought or home-made cheesecakes before gigs. Other great gifts we’ve received from fans – a stuffed chicken on a wooden raft; a knitted Blackbeard complete with tea set; and one of our particularly mad fans is planning on coming to our Southport gig with a home-made steam arm.

Finally… what’s your favourite sandwich?

Four fish fingers, mushy peas, a bit of rocket and some ketchup on fluffy brown bread.

Reprobates is out now. Check out Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s live dates here

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June 24, 2015 by markdishman

Phil Tyler on mini-album The Song Crowned King, minimalism and self-borrowing

It’s six tracks long – more than an EP, not quite a full album – but The Song Crowned King, by Cath & Phil Tyler is a gem. Words like ‘raw’, ‘uncompromising’ and ‘gritty’ often pop up in the pair’s reviews, and it’s easy to see why, with songs stripped to the core and rebuilt around sparse banjo, fiddle and voice (mainly Cath’s, but the pair are distinctive harmony singers, too).phil cath 1

And so it is with their new ‘mini album’. Opener Bonny George Campbell is a story told beautifully: Cath’s unadorned declaration of George’s failure to return with his horse (only a blood-stained saddle comes back) is gently, plainly tragic. On the other hand, Old Lady is kicked off with a holler, its raucous nature accentuated by Phil’s sparse banjo and spikes of menacing feedback. The austere (and magnificently titled) Broad is the Road That Leads to Death would work well on the soundtrack to a Western. As would Puncheon Camps – an addictive banjo workout.

It may be short, but it’s a beautifully presented, well-worked treat, which you can check out (and buy) via Cath & Phil’s Bandcamp page, here. Folk Witness talked to Phil about The Song Crowned King, how he met Cath, and the (very exciting-sounding) Dark Northumberland collaborative project…

Folk Witness: When did you and Cath meet and start playing music together?

Phil Tyler: We met some time in the late ‘90s when I was acting as booking agent/tour manager for the band Cordelia’s Dad, which Cath was a member of. Cath moved over here soon after we got married in 2003. We’d play music together around the house but didn’t set out to be an ‘act’ as such, it kind of just developed over time.

What’s the musical division of labour between you like? How do you work?

In general Cath is the voice and I am the instrument player, but there are various and increasing overlaps. When we come across a song that we’re interested in singing we just keep on at it until it’s in a form that we’re happy with.

Tell us a bit about The Song Crowned King…

The title is from an 1870 shape-note hymnal, we just like the name and borrowed it for the record. It’s different from previous releases mainly in length, being a ‘mini album’. This is because originally it was going to be a 10″ vinyl release, on Lancashire and Somerset records (run by David Hand, who did the cover art). We recorded it with that length in mind but delays with the label meant it hasn’t yet come out on vinyl, though it is still supposed to one day I believe. I got fed up of waiting though and put the CD version out myself. Song choice is generally down to what new things we haven’t recorded yet.

The cover art depicts simple tools and implements in a minimalist fashion. Is it fair to say this reflects something of your approach?

I guess so, David Hand (see above answer) had free rein to design the cover as he liked; we like his work with other band’s covers and trusted him to come up with something good, and he’s familiar with our music. I guess we have a minimalist approach so it kind of fits, but it wasn’t particularly thought out that way.

Where did you come across the non-traditional songs – Garry Harrison’s Boys the Buzzards are Flying and Isaac Watts’ Broad is the Road That Leads to Death – on the album?

I learned Buzzards from fiddler Rani Arbo a few years ago, it just seemed like a good tune for the record. The Isaac Watts text we know from the Sacred Harp, the tune is one of mine that we had actually used on a previous album, but it fitted these words so well that we thought why not borrow our own tune!

You’re part of a great line-up in the Dark Northumbrian project. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Dark Northumbrian is a collective brought together by Northumbrian musician Steve Malley, and featuring Alasdair Roberts, Mary Hampton, Lucy Farrell, Barn Stradling, Seth Bennett, Aby Vulliamy and me and Cath. It’s quite a diverse range of instruments and backgrounds, some folk, some not so folk, all brought together to breathe new life into traditional songs of Northumbria. It’s collective in approach – the pieces are worked at by everyone before they assume their final arrangement. Recording and touring are planned, but one problem of having such a large and geographically diverse group is that it can be pretty hard organising, so don’t hold your breath! There are some live recordings on Soundcloud that can be heard.

Finally… what is your favourite sandwich?

Bombay mix and lettuce.

The Song Crowned King is available now through Bandcamp, on CD or download

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May 23, 2015 by markdishman

Olivia Chaney: Kings Place, London, May 19 2015

I vaguely remember messaging Olivia Chaney on MySpace when I first heard her music, so it must have been a long time ago. Six, seven years? That it’s taken such a long time for so obvious a talent to record a debut album demonstrates a rare patience and self-assurance. The time has been spent honing, crafting, re-working: The Longest River – finally released by Nonesuch last month – is minimal and spare, but strongly felt and rigorously considered.

Olivia Chaney at Kings Place. Photo: Mike Watts

Olivia Chaney at Kings Place. Photo: Mike Watts

Tonight, Chaney expresses bemusement at being labelled a folk singer – fair enough, given what else she has turned her hand to. She’s been to the Royal Academy of Music, worked with electronica duo Zero 7, sings in a variety of languages and plays classical music as well as her own songs. But though she’s not exactly Steve Knightley, a folk singer she is, opening her album launch gig at Kings Place with her piano-led version of Oxford Girl. There’s much more to her than that, of course…

She is spellbinding. Violinist (fiddler doesn’t feel appropriate, somehow) Jordan Hunt holds the quietest, gentlest note at the end of the song as she moves from the piano to pick up her guitar. It feels disrespectful to move, let alone sully the moment with anything as vulgar as applause. Music is happening! Shh!

The set showcases Chaney’s diverse talents and tastes. As well as songs from the tradition, she interprets pieces by Alasdair Roberts, Henry Purcell, François Villon, Joni Mitchell, Violeta Parra, and what Folk Witness inexpertly thinks might be Johann Sebastian Bach (it might not be). Each piece is treated sensitively, with a proper string quartet used sparingly (it feels like they only play all together about twice, but when they do you know about it) while a bloke with a laptop provides the subtlest of background noises. Chaney occasionally announces that two or three pieces will be played in a row, and at one stage the audience is left holding its breath as two are linked – with magnificent incongruity – by the almost imperceptible sound of children in a playground.

I haven’t mentioned Chaney’s own songs yet. They’re wonderful: performed with intensity and conviction but surprisingly they’re frequently wryly funny, confessional pieces too. Swimming in the Longest River investigates relationships and Freud via a ‘denial’ pun, Too Social details the tribulations of inhabiting an overcrowded house, while Imperfections seems to be an honest, unusual self-appraisal, full of unexpected couplets: “he takes us out for hard boiled eggs/salt beef bagel, oh he’s got good legs”. Holiday, meanwhile, is flat-out heartbreaking – measured anguish and eloquent hurt.

It’s all performed with tender sensitivity. Hunt’s backing vocal on Swimming… is barely-there perfect. Chaney is expressive at the piano, guitar and harmonium, her voice cut-glass and pure with an alluring hint of soul. Towards the end she reveals a frighteningly good operatic quality, too – again, a weapon used selectively, for maximum effect. So when the applause does arrive it comes, deservedly, in raptures.

The Longest River is out now on Nonesuch Records. Thanks to Mike Watts for the photograph – check out more of his excellent gig pics at his Flickr page, here

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April 25, 2015 by markdishman

Jackie Oates: The Spyglass & The Herringbone

Jackie Oates is an established member of the folk firmament by now – remarkably, The Spyglass & The Herringbone is her sixth album. It’s a welcome return, with her vocals and fiddle playing somehow familiar and comforting whilst feeling fresh and exciting at the same time. Its springtime release seems particularly apt. JackieOates_spyglass-herringbone

Following her almost-side-project Lullabies album (which we talked to her about here), Spyglass is the first record Oates has recorded while working closely with new band member Chris Sarjeant – a talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right. Nowhere is his influence felt more keenly than on the superb title track – a dreamy, relaxed piece that belies the melancholy nature of its subject matter (classic Jackie Oates, in other words). The song relates to the tokens attached to children abandoned to The London Foundling Hospital – the first home in Britain set up for their care, in 1739. Between them, Sarjeant and Oates ensure the matter is dealt with surely and sensitively.

Oates again proves canny with her choice of collaborators. As well as Sarjeant (whose guitar work on final track Banks of the Bann is simply exquisite), the album is peppered with distinctive banjo from Jack Rutter and Ben Walker (of ‘Josienne Clarke and’ fame) – “domestic ballad” John Blunt ­makes a sharp opener – plus stirring contributions from Nick Hart on boxes and hammer dulcimer, flute from Calum Stewart, and guitar and piano from Oates’ brother Jim Moray.

Having rearranged The Sugarcubes’ Birthday on her Hyperboreans album of 2009, Oates repeats the modern-ish pop song trick here, this time reconstructing The Sundays’ Can’t Be Sure. It sounds like it was always a folk song, with an appealing homespun honesty to its lyrics: “England my country / the home of the free / such miserable weather”. There’s an orchestral outro courtesy of composer Joe Duddell, surprisingly dense (but not unwelcomely so) on an album that’s otherwise comprised of light touches.

Oates remains a seemingly effortless interpreter of traditional song, and her choice of trad tracks here will delight folkies: There’s a sprightly, confident Doffing Mistress and Cornish song Robbers’ Retreat – one of many from Oates’ beloved Westcountry – comes with a lively handclap backing and an irresistible chorus. It’s surely a future live singalong favourite, and one that makes a life of crime seem strangely appealing. The Halsway Carol runs it close for catchiness, with an almost chant-like quality to its delivery. A raucously joyful version of Hail! Hail! The First of May, by Dave Webber, perhaps makes this, pound-for-pound, Oates’ most cheerful album yet.

And yet… if Oates is at home with traditional material, she’s positively tucked up in bed with melancholia. Spyglass features a beautifully sad, absorbing version of Take This Letter to My Mother, while The Yellow Bittern, based on an Irish poem in which a man is struck with the significance of the death of one of the titular birds, is simply heartbreaking, despite its ostensibly positive message.

Cheerful, melancholy, complex, personal… The Spyglass & The Herringbone is all these things: a multi-layered, thoughtful and beautifully made album. Here’s to the next six!

The Spyglass & The Herringbone is out on April 27 on ECC Records

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