Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Islanders

Bristol Old Vic

The Islanders, launched without very much fanfare in the studio area of Bristol's Old Vic and transferring to Edinburgh for the summer, is a charming piece of performance art that does exactly what it says on the tin.

The tin, in this case, containing blue paint the exact colour of the sky on the Isle of Wight.

Amy Mason performs a spoken narrative, ostensibly about a holiday she and her boyfriend took in 1999, but spreading out into a general evocation of teenage life at the turn of millennium.  It's clearly real life that's being transmuted into art here: the post cards and snapshots which flash from the powerpoint are obviously the real McCoy. There is an impressive specificity to it: real and funny without seeming to try too hard;  two teenagers in a bedsit, living mostly off Hubba-Bubba ("please don't hate us") and eating only orange things, deciding to try to have a grown-up holiday.

The boyfriend in question, Eddie Argos ("he's in a band, they've done quite well") provides the other half of the show. He interleaves her narrative with his songs, telling his side of the story, accompanied on guitar by "our friend Jim". Amy mentions that she is relieved when they split up because it meant that she would no longer have to listen to Billy Bragg every day. Eddie's performance is perhaps what you might expect a Billy Bragg fanatic to mutate into after thirteen years of knowing better: very expressive, strongly rhymed, unselfconscious speaking songs. (He issued a killer cover of Between the Wars to celebrate the recent happy event, but wound up this evening with a record of the bard of Barking himself singing "I was twenty one years when I wrote this song...") Eddie's memories of the holiday are mostly upbeat; Amy remembers it as a disaster. She remembers being scared to death on a theme-park ride; he thinks she was weeping with excitement. I particularly enjoyed his description of staying in a hotel for the first time, not quite knowing what the rules are ("B &; B / Anxiety") which rang slightly truer that Amy's fears that the room was haunted.

I overheard some punters on the way out complaining that they couldn't see where the piece was going or what the point of it was, which seemed rather harsh. I suppose if you were expecting it to build to a  big revelation or plot twist, you'd be disappointed. I thought it was as nice a memory piece as I've come across: a poignant evocation of a particular time and place and sub-culture and yes, it does seem strange to us incredibly boring old people to hear grown-ups looking back on 1999 as the olden days. Like all autobiographical fiction, it's less about the memories themselves than about the process of remembering them.

I liked what that fellow was doing with his guitar, said a man I had been chatting to in the bar before hand.

He is a very famous folk singer, I explained.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher


Chumbawamba crept up on me. Mick and Lester kept opening Folkwaves with "Add Me", back in the days when we were still allowed to have folk music on the wireless. They were never really folkies, but in their final phase, their stripped down, acoustic, often acapella music fitted better in folk clubs than anywhere else. It's not that big a jump from using electronically sampled speech and sounds in your punk records to incorporating fragments of "They Sent Him To The War To Be Slain" and "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" into your acoustic set. Not that they were ever exactly punks, either. They did some straight folk-songs: I adore the song of the Idris Strikers on English Rebel Songs: so raw and artless, part way between a football song and a Morning Star editorial, sung so sweetly and with such respect. But they remained entirely sceptical about the whole concept of folk music. Their first folkish album was called "Readymades", which give the clue to what was going on. 

When I first saw them at the Bristol South Bank I honestly didn't know their history; when the support singer claimed that they had saved his life -- the police had knocked him down at a demo, and if that song had not been playing on the radio, he might not have found the strength to get up again -- I was only vaguely aware that Tubthumping was widely regarded as the worst record every made. (Actually, like everything else they ever did, it's a brilliant, witty piece of work, but not something you want taken out of context and used as a sing a long football album.) I truly hadn't heard of the Prescott Incident. I only knew that their response to the London bombings was one of the most touching political songs I'd ever heard.

I assume it was the chart success of Tubthumping that gave them them the freedom to do whatever they wanted, politically engaged folk albums and politically albums; and that irony is part of the point of what they were doing. They told stories between the songs at gigs of how they'd allowed records to be used in adverts for companies they didn't like and then donated the money to radical causes. What they did, better than anyone, is create what would in the 60s have been called Happenings; using their minor celebrity to make points. The Bono teeshirts at Glastonbury; chanting "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" in the middle of a chorus on the Letterman show.

I'm not sure when this final record was made. Since it contains a little fragment in Spanish called "Pinochet mourns from beyond the grave" I assume it must be later than 2006: after Readymades but before The Boy Bands Have Won, in other words. It's the last of their Happenings. They'd been saying at concerts for years that they had recorded some songs to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher, and, if you gave them a fiver and wrote your address on a piece of paper, they'd send it to you on the morning after "the glorious day". Sure enough, on Tuesday morning, a neat little envelope with the Chumba logo appeared on my door mat.

It's basically a ten minute EP, with something in common with the the Smash Clause 29 sound collages and something in common with their later acoustic sound. It's basically two new-old songs a couple of fragments and a lot of noises off. "So Long..." is a twinkly swingy musical comedy skit ("Goodbye, goodbye; it's so familiar to see you lie"); "The Day the Lady Died" is pretty much only there for the title, which will make anyone who knows Chumbawamba's back catalogue smile. "Waiting For Margaret To Go" is an impression of the early home life of our own dear prime minister, not entirely unlike the Larkin song on Boy Bands Have Won (which it sounds a bit like as well). Its a clever and oddly poignant song with lots of pointed lyrics ("grocers and methodists lay her down low") which could merit a posthumous release as a single. But its the sampled sound scape which really makes the record, partly because of its cleverness but mostly because it reminds us of the older Chumbawamba sound. The hint of Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead wafting over perfectly chosen quotes. (I shall go orn and orn and orn ; and the still cringe making attempt to perform the Dead Parrot sketch). 

It deserves to be more widely heard than by those of us who handed over our fivers at long-ago concerts. Like everything they did, it holds different things perfectly in balance: the sweet harmony of the tunes; the wit of the lyrics; the conceptual art cleverness behind the whole idea; and the genuine, uncompromising satirist's rage holding everything together. The whole thing only runs to ten minutes, and one wishes that Mark Radcliff or someone could it in its entirety on the wireless. I bet they would do something really funny with the royalty cheque.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sam Lee

Bristol Folk House

Memo to Folk House management: when you have sold this many tickets, take on more bar staff and bake some more chocolate brownies. Folkies like cakes and ale. I must remember to keep it in my head that the Folk House cafe is open when there isn't music: a good place to get a coffee and a bun which isn't the Boston Tea Party. Maybe I can persuade Brian to come and listen to some country music with me.

The crowd was caused by Sam Lee, new to me, but has appeared on Radio 3. Winner of the Froots "best album" prize.

First there was a man with a big African thing.

Then Sam came on. Sam is young, with something of the 1950s in his hair, and, get this, one of those knitted white sweaters, as if someone in 1972 had been briefed to do an impersonation of a folk singer. There is a brief moment of panic. Is this going to be one of those middle class music students having a sort of go at that folk stuff because its cool? Evidently not. The first thing he does is introduce Thomas McCarthy, who he describes as a national treasure. Thomas isn't the support act: he is sitting with the band, interspersing his numbers with theirs. I have heard him a couple of times before, at the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club and way back at the Folk Against Fascism benefit. He's one of the last people to genuinely grew up in the oral tradition, performing songs, or versions of songs, that he learned from his grandparents. He was raised as an Irish traveller, which, as a lady who has slightly missed the point explains to me in the interval, means he isn't really a gypsy. He gets a small round of applause when he mentions that the makers of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding were successfully prosecuted for racism. "The whole country has gone mad; they think that travelling people are some lost tribe; we've always been here." He sings in a style that you probably thought only existed on wax cylinders. Everything has roughly the same tune; hovering part way between song and poem and recitation. His mouth quivers at the end of lines, giving a strange, vibrato sound. He does the one about the man who wakes up in bed with a pig and the man who marries a lady who turns out to be ninety, not nineteen as she had claimed and the woman who married a man with no balls at all. They aren't all bawdy: there is also a quite chilling one about a lady having a conversation with her dead husband. I sometimes say of a support act that I could have listened to him all night. In this case I probably couldn't have. But I bought the CD.

Thomas's presence is important to the way that Sam Lee is setting outs his stall. Sam has a very specific relationship to folk music. Lots of folk singers tells us where they learned their songs: but they are usually talking about current folk performers, or archive recordings. Sam seems to have collected his songs first-hand; he talks of songs he heard from working shepherds and songs he collected on traveller sites. But (despite the sweater) there is no sense that he's doing a pastiche of the source singers. They're his songs now. His voice is sweet, rather alien. His movements can be a little fey; part conducting, part dancing. He ends the first set by encouraging the audience to sing along to a traveller song called Phoenix Island and for once the audience is sweetly adding to the performance, which I'm sure is due to Sam's gentle, swaying movements. 

Sometimes there is a sense that we are listening to a relatively traditional folk singer, performing in a relatively style while a band gently improvise around him. It's not quite like anything I've heard before; not like Jim Moray recasting ancient songs in a modern idiom, or Ian King trying to reinvent folk music for the twenty first century, More like dressing the old songs in a fresh suit of clothes. Possibly the climax of the evening is his  chilling performance of the Jews Garden. When he played it on the radio, he says that there were complaints ("written on paper") because it is a version of Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln -- the blood libel, the tale of the supposed killing of a Christian child by an evil Jewess. It's a stark, disturbing, uncompromising rendering, with jews harps twanging all round it. The story goes back to the sixteenth century, but is still known by Romany and Scots travellers today. Sam says that if the story is not told and the song not sung, we might forget about the murders and pogroms it provoked. He's from a Jewish background himself.

This is not what I usually think of as traditional music. Sam is not the sort of person who is going to produce a clever new take on Clyde Water or Two Sisters. These are songs you haven't heard before (or at any rate, songs that I haven't heard before); even the time honoured tale of the girl visited in the night by her dead lover is an unfamiliar one. This a a man who has taken the oral tradition, grabbed it with his hands, and done something with it; there is a sense of him immersing himself  in orality and then bringing his own musical sensibility to it -- as if he's a link in a chain, not a revivalist. That's why the presence of Thomas McCarthy is so important. (Sam listens, intently, eyes closed, whenever Tom is singing.)

I shall be honest: I need to listen to this again before I decide how much I like it. But I have no doubt that we were in the presence of something new, exciting, important.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Richard Dawson

The Cube

The Cube is a bit niche. The last time I went I saw a documentary about morris dancing. The time before that I saw a man with a paper bag over his head singing lyrics that went "Grr! Grr!" The foyer is like 1980s Sussex University, all dark and crowded with the latest bottled beer and young people with hats. The performance space is like a a time capsule of the 1970s Barnet Odeon. I am always nervous at gigs where a large number of young people are present. Have I walked in on something popular by mistake? Am I the only one who isn't a friend of the band? 

I have never heard of Richard Dawson. New Cyberfolkbuddy tells me that he is Britain's greatest undiscovered talent and the best folk lyricist who isn't Nigel Blackwell. I tactfully don't mention that I don't have the faintest idea who Nigel Blackwell is. 

First up was Two White Cranes. There is only one of her: the cranes are industrial machinery, not birds. She walks past a building site on her way to work. Her music is what I think of, possibly erroneously, as Antifolk, because some years ago I heard Kimya Dawson on a boat. She picks out fairly simple melodies on a guitar and sings simple, performance poetry lyrics in a slightly chanty baby-voice. Cyberfolkbuddy thought she recalled Billy Bragg, not necessarily in a good way; he has also sometimes been saddled with the Antifolk label. 

You say I love you 
every day 
but then almost every day 
something changes 
all of my old thoughts 
replaced with new ones 
I want to stay still 
but I move on 

I thought it worked. It was simple; it was honest; it was well observed; ("You fell asleep / In the middle of ET") it was witty; it was human and what you saw was what you got. When she spoke between songs she seemed nervous and awkward but still the same person as when she was singing, as if her music was freeing up her voice. I would pay to hear her again.

Next up was someone calling himself Tom O.C Wilson, very likely because that was his name. He was a young male with an electric guitar and the only person in the evening who had what would normally be described as self-confidence. He played rocky fifties-ish electric music which sometimes veered into show-tune territory with audible lyrics which seemed to mean something. Someone is driving around America in the 1960s ("this is the land of bubblegum and the Klan"). Someone else is adopted by a stray cat. 

The cat came crawled in one day
vulnerable and probably a stray
but dangling from her neck 
a silver bell proclaimed her has a pet 

Singer songwriters often get adopted by cats. What OC had in common with Ms Cranes was pointedly unlyrical lyrics yoked to relatively simple tunes. I would pay to hear him again as well.

It's quite alarming that the two local supporty people were quite so worth listening to. Every cafe and bar on Stokes Croft has acoustic nights with people I have never heard of playing at them. How many quite worth listening to people am I missing? How many of this years quite worth listening to people are going to turn out to be next years quite famous people? So much live music, so little time.

Richard Dawson isn't local. He is from Newcastle and on tour. You haven't heard of him, I haven't heard of him, I doubt if Mark Radcliffe has heard of him. He has made records, but they appear to have mostly been on vinyl.

He shambles onto the stage and starts chatting. He's performed before in a cinema in Newcastle that was inspired by the Cube, so now he's in the Cube, his brain feels a little bit wrong. We probably think that the guitar is a prop and that we've accidentally come to a really lame stand up gig. "I'm worried that I might go ballistic and get my cock out or something". (The man behind me thinks that this is the funniest remark he has ever heard. "Ballistic cock!" he exclaims.) 

And then more or less without warning, he starts to sing, and my jaw drops several inches. It's the purely traditional "I am a brisk lad". (You know the one: sheep stealer chappie, whose fortune is quite bad and is intending to build him a house on the moor, my brave boys, build him a house on the moor.) He doesn't so much sing it as bellow it; going from something so deep that it's almost a growl to something high and sweet without anything in between. He has a disconcerting habit of bending over double by the end of a song, at which point his hat falls off. Momentarily I wonder if this is intended to be a very subtle parody of a folk singer, but no, it's an eccentric performance, certainly, but it's meant seriously and he seems to own and respect the song and bring his own  strange, eerie power to it.

There is some more chat. He introduces the band (there isn't a band) which largely consists of dead pets, and does a long eccentric guitar piece and then a rambling self-written song about a wooden bag and the various sentimental objects that he keeps in it.

It closes with a click
and fastens with a clasp
In the shape of a bumblebee.

He's doing a project based on objects and papers in the Discovery Museum in New Castle. He bellows out one of the songs from that project, which has some relationship to Poor Old Horse but which appears to be derived from a report he discovered in the museum of a nineteenth century animal cruelty scandal.

His palms around the hilt of the axe
delivered such a horrible blow
the horse emerged a terrible cry
it struck him just below the eye
poor old horse
see what they did to the poor old horse

And then a creditably sweet William of Wimsbury. And another long free form piece about the eye complaint he suffers from. ("Its not a sad thing, it just a thing, other people have bigger things to deal with."). 

The silence of the dead 
the slow coagulation of the sky
drowning out the light 
thrown across the void by a spinning ball of fire

Lyrically, he put me in mind of Alasdair Roberts. Musically he reminds me of no-one on earth. It all seemed genuine and unaffected. At one point he gave a long introductory spiel for one of the museum pieces, and then said "Do you know, I don't feel like singing this song, because we're in a cheerful mood...". I don't think it was part of the act; I think he genuinely changed his mind about the set list. ("Ballistic cock!"" shouted the man behind me.) 

Greatest living folk lyricist? I wouldn't go that far. Undiscovered talent, part traditional nasal growler, part psychedelic wierdness, part self deprecating comedian, utterly original – more like Robin Williamson than anyone else I've heard, if Robin Williamson were a slightly bewildered Geordie who isn't quite sure how he ended up on the stage but is damn well going to give it is best shot while he's there.

The person, in short, for whom the word "quirky" was invented. I would travel to Newcastle to hear him again.

The Cube cinema. A bit niche. Isn't Stokes Croft great?

Half man half Biscuit. Don't write in. I looked it up.

Obviously, the exact moment I say that no-one will have heard of him, it turns out he's playing a big festival. I'll shut up and go away now. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Richard Thompson

Colston Hall Bristol

Richard Thompson is a folkgod. He wrote Beeswing, which may actually be the best "authored" folksong ever. I remember when there were some folkies having a session in the Hillgrove and one of them started to sing Beeswing and pub went quiet, or our table, anyway. And also the one about the motorbike. And the one that Norma Waterson sings about meeting the old opera singer in the pub. And the other one that Norma Waterson sings called "God Loves a Drunk". And From Galway to Graceland that I remember Ron Kavana singing in the tiny little room above the pub in Clifton. And Meet on the Ledge.

The drummer tonight was awesome. I don't know anything about drummers, but I could tell he was awesome. I think that all the songs were off the new album; I didn't know any of them, and I couldn't hear the words because the drummer was being awesome.Thompson was being awesome on his guitar, I think, and so was the other guy on the other guitar. I do not go as far as the person who said that guitar solos are basically masturbating on the stage. 

The first time I heard the band currently trading as Fairport Convention, I didn't think a great deal of them, but then I heard them as Fairport Acoustic Convention and quite liked them, and some of the old discography has grown on me a lot, although I wish it didn't remind me so much of the Wombles, which only proves that influence runs backwards. I have heard Ashley Hutchings once and Dave Swarbrick lots of times. 

Very possibly at some point a light will go off above my head and I will see what other people see in  Richard Thompson's current incarnation. The audience were standing-ovation-ecstatic and a couple of people I respect have written things on line about how gobsmacked they were by the physical quality of his guitar playing. Someone pointed out that he is astonishingly prolific and a good way of writing several of the best songs ever written is to write a lot of not such good ones as well. 

There was a man who came on before who sang songs about liking other places but being happy when he was on his way home to Texas and Bible belt churches not being great places to gow up. He was very good and I could hear all the words. 

I did not shout judas. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Robb Johnson

Bristol Folk House

Though greed and stupidity fuck up the show
Are we downhearted? No?

Robb finishes his main set with a bit of downbeat optimism, but comes straight back on to do an English translation of This Land is Your Land, (with a touch of the Manchester Rambler folded into it):

As I went rambling
I saw a sign there
On Kinder Scout said
No trespassing
But we followed our footsteps
Now there's no sign there
This land was made for you and me. 

The words almost entirely fail to fit the tune; I almost got the impression that they were being made up on the spot. About as faithful to the spirit of Woody Guthrie as they could have been, in other words. But also pure Robb Johnson: 

In the squares of the city
In the shadow of the steeple
In the jobless centres 
I saw my people
Some of them were grumbling
Some of them were wondering
Is this land still made for you and me?

He describes one of his songs -- about a scary man with a fierce dog on a railway station as having "a Key Stage 1 chorus". He may ask the audience to join him in a hearty "Fuck You!" to authority, but there is something in his voice and manner which reminds you that his day job is a teacher. "Well, it is."

The audience still want more. He gives us a vaudevillian summary of socialist ideology ("We haven't any money, cos they got lots and lots....").but we still won't let him go home until he's done his utopian signature tune "Be reasonable and demand the impossible now." 

I gather that he was slightly taken aback my my review of his last Folkhouse gig. ("Oh dear, was it really like that? I thought I behaved myself."). The first half of this evening is much more focussed on lyrical, reflective, story songs. A young man says goodbye to his sweetheart on the eve of World War I; a stranger's grave near Shrewsbury reminds him of his father. Yes, he can rant, but he can also take your breath away with the unexpectedly personal: 

I don't believe in heaven any more
I don't believe in hell any more 
I had a friend die in my arms once 
You know what? He wasn't there any more.

He says he was once asked to teach a songwriting workshop, but couldn't do it: song writing is a "mystical alchemical process."  So maybe I mis-sold him as a punky, Braggish agitpop protest singer. He does talk a little about the Tottenham riots, but instead of going into When Tottenham Burned he sings a song about cookery:

We decided what we're doing
We decide who does what
Some of us are chopping onions
And some of us are not

Which is what he understands by anarchism: "nobody telling you what to do". Sex Pistols punk anarchism just means being social nuisance.

Something seems to happen in the interval. He comes back crosser, seeming to stumble over his words in the inter-song raps. After a pointed piece about importing flowers from African -- where children are dying of starvation ("let them eat blood-red African roses") he stops talking and shoots out four or five increasingly angry songs without a break. The sing-a-long "we all said stop the war";  the bitter "we're here because we're here on the North West Frontier"; a hysterical diatribe against yummie mummies taking over pubs ("ignored and bored their little dears run riot everywhere / Granny Thatcher's bastard kids and the spawn of Tony Blair"); and a rant against Rupert Murdoch and the Tabloid press ("we're sorry, we're sorry -- we're sorry we got caught"). 

His politics is certainly uncompromising. The personal is the political: it's not only about all getting together to make curry, it's about noticing that the scary man doesn't have any friends and that the soldiers Tony Blair killed were human beings with names. I could have managed without quite so many caricatures of people with posh accents: that could make you suspect that we are dealing with the wrong kind of class war. It's quite jarring to realise that this nice, smiley man is quite such an unreconstructed communist. He's heard that East Germany was a brilliant place to live. When he visits the former DDR he is sad to find that the once pristine Karl Marx Square is full of people who enjoy the same freedoms we enjoy -- joblessness, homelessness, drinking larger in the middle of the day, teenage mums... "Hurrah for democracy, eh?" This  kind of thing may makes our Guaridan-reading hackles rise, bit it leads straight into a daft song about  Karl Marx coming down from his pedestal and learning to ride a skateboard ("He wrote lots of dialectic but not that many jokes"). He does concede that on the anti-war memo, along with the Christians, Muslims, socialists and communists "we've even got a liberal or two". 

This is the kind of evening which reminds you what political songs are for. (In fact, it reminds you politics and songs are for.) You may want to quibble about some of the specific, but it leaves you in in no doubt that there is some kind of hope for England's green and pleasant etc etc etc. 

Are we down hearted? No. 

Is this land still made for you and me? Well it is!  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It would be hypocritical to suddenly decide I was a huge fan of Fisherman’s Friends. They are probably better than, for example, the Brtistol Shantymen – but not a million pounds better. “Basically a quite good male voice choir” I said, which was actually a bit mean – they are always on my playlist of “folk music to play to people who think they wouldn't like folk music”. A whole evening of them involved rather more sea shanties than more people want or need, and could lead to an outbreak of double entendre fatigue. But I have very, very fond memories of their Sunday morning set on the main stage at Glastonbury ("the old man's novelty slot")  in front of a lot of enthusiastic early risers draped in St Piran’s Crosses. And I'll never, ever forget Fisherman's Friends joining Show of Hands on the last night of the first Bristol festival to sing the Cornish Anthem "Cousin Jack" (my fifth favourite song). I still think that was the single most magical moment I've experienced since I started going to live folk gigs.

Steve Knightley talks about songs being “refreshed” by events; something happens in the news and a song takes on a new, slightly different meaning. And man oh man, is it going to be hard to listen to that song about the whale ever again.

Trevor Grills Obituary - Guardian

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bob Dylan: An Apology

A Wood
Earlier in the year, I wrote a long essay about the Almighty Bob's epic ballad about the sinking of the Titanic. I remarked that it quoted extensively from "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down", alludes to "God Moved on the Water", and "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder"; but that it was most closely modelled on Woody Guthrie's "Dust Storm Disaster".

A Tree
What I entirely failed to notice is that the song is much more closely based on a Carter Family song. I can perhaps be forgiven for not spotting this because the Carters carefully conceal the subject matter of their song by giving it the cryptic title "Titanic."

The old song starts:

The pale moon rose in its glory
She's drifting from golden west 
She told a sad, sad story, 
Six hundred had gone to rest

Where the new one starts

The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the western town
She told a sad sad story
Of the great ship that went down...

An Arse
While Dylan's song doesn't amount to a "cover" of the the Carters, there's a far closer match between them than, say, between "Lord Franklin" and "Bob Dylan's Dream" or "Hard Rain" and "Lord Randolph", or any of Dylan's other swipes. Not that there is anything wrong with "swiping", of course. That's what makes it folk music.

I said in my first essay that I was surprised that hardly anyone else had mentioned the connection between Dylan's song and Woody Guthrie's; I am astonished and embarrassed that most of us failed to spot the Carter family connection, as well.

An Elbow

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

So...who is going to win the real folk awards?

Nic Jones
Sam Lee
Jim Moray
Karine Polwart

This has to go to Nic Jones, doesn't it? On the grounds of being a legend. I doubt if the others would actually want to win against him.

ACTUAL WINNER: Nic Jones...of course.

Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts
Hannah James & Sam Sweeney
O'Hooley & Tidow
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

I vote for O'Hooley and Tidow. I suspect it will actually go to the more conventionally folkie Hannah and Sam, and I won't complain at all. (Just listening to them on the radio box now, and they are awesome.

ACTUAL WINNERS: Kathryn and Sean. Fairy nuff. Enjoyed them both times I've heard them, and the "Ballad of Andy Jacobs" is a lovely song.

Treacherous Orchestra
The Unthanks

The BBC constitution states that this award has to go to Bellowhead. Lau are very good as well, of course, although my stamina gives out during very extended diddly diddly dee riffs.

ACTUAL WINNERS: Lau. Okay. Good. Like Lau. They go diddly diddly dee faster and faster on lots of instruments at once. Honestly, I like them. But altogether not enough murder, incest, and ladies sewing silken seams.

BEST ALBUM [Public vote with five nominees]
Broadside – Bellowhead
Ground Of Its Own - Sam Lee
Race The Loser – Lau
Skulk - Jim Moray

I would give this to Jim (who was one of my nominations for album of the year); but since its a public folk its bound to go to Bellowhead, isn't it?

ACTUAL WINNERS: Bellowhead. Yeah. Obviously. I didn't think Broadside was as good as their previous albums, but it was a foregone conclusion and Ten Thousand Miles Away is a great song. Glad Spiers and Boden are returning to their roots a bit in the new year, though.

Blair Dunlop
Luke Jackson
Maz O'Connor

Well, obviously, I'm routing for Monty Award Winner Luke Jackson. My prediction, however, is that Luke will win the Young Folkie and Blair Dunlop will win this one. He's in the Albion Band who made my favourite album of the year.

ACTUAL WINNER: Yeah, Blair wins it. Only heard him solo once, don't remember being all that excited, but he's fantastic as a component of the Albions.

Ross Ainslie
Duncan Chisholm
Sam Sweeney
Kathryn Tickell

Surely this had to go to Kathryn Tickell...?

ACTUAL WINNER: ...and it did.

Luke Jackson
Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton
Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar

Luke Jackson, again: although in the interest of balance, I haven't heard any of the other nominees...

ACTUAL WINNER: Bah, humbug. Actually, I think that the judges prefer something from the more diddly-diddly-dee traditional end of folk, and the two lads who won (Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton) deserved the prize for the acceptance speech alone. (Did he really thank his prefect?)

Lord Douglas by Jim Moray
Tha Sneachd‘ air Druim Uachdair by Kathleen MacInnes
Unknown Air by Duncan Chisholm
Wild Wood Amber by Sam Lee

Jim Moray, absolutely no contest. Although I suppose you could argue that its not traditional, since he wrote it himself...

ACTUAL WINNER: Yup, Jim gets it. Fabulous, fabulous song.

Hatchlings by Emily Portman
King of Birds by Karine Polwart
Tailor by Anaïs Mitchell
The Ballad of Andy Jacobs by Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

This is a hard one... I think I would vote for the Ballad of Andy Jacobs, but that's because I'm a sucker for slightly overwrought story songs. Folkbuddy would vote for Hatchlings, I think.

ACTUAL WINNER: Hatchlings it is. Actually, after the performance on the show, I almost changed my vote to Karine Polwart -- King of Birds is a lovely piece too.

So...I have my whisky and my red button set up.. I would like to apologize in advance to all the acts whose chances of winning the competition I have jinxed.

Overall Favourite Act of 2012


Paul Sartin

Okay, maybe this column has an over preference for the single male voice singing the long narrative ballad; but two of my absolute musical highlights this year were Paul + Faustus singing the depressing song about the deserter who is flogged, shot and freed at the last minute by Prince Albert; and the rude one about the farmer who wants to show his girlfriend his threshing machine (by Steeleye Span and the Wurzels, respectively). His equally rude song about the other farmer showing off a male hen was the highpoint of the Bellowhead aftershow and with Paul Hutchinson as Belshazzrs Feast, he demonstrated that people can laugh at music without laughing at the music. He quotes, proudly, that someone said "no-one does misery like Paul Sartin". But no-one does a slightly bemused narrative humour like him, either.

Steve Knightley

Steve Knightley never fails. Whether he's riding a dodgy P.A system in a wet tent; winding up the last night of a new festival; bantering with an over-devoted hen-party; or just singing complicated, poetic songs that only give up their details on the second and third listening, he never fails to catch and channel and transmute the mood of the audience. Your Carthys and your Tabors may be "folk royalty"; but Knightley is folk's prime minister, its ambassador, almost the embodiment of where it is now.

And the winner is....

Friday, January 25, 2013

Special Award

This special award is given to the live performance I went to in 2012 which was most Special.


Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and the Gift Band
St Georges, Bristol, 5th Dec 

Martin has to help Norma on and off the stage, but otherwise she seems unchanged from when I last saw her two year ago, before the illness. Not a conventionally beautiful singing voice, but songs carried through personality and conviction; from God Loves a Drunk to Buddy Can You Spare A Dime (astonishing!) via Ukulele Lady; to say nothing of one of those long grim rambling narratives that we probably associate more with her husband. ("What would you give to your brother's wife? / A widow's weeds and a peaceful life.") They finish on Grace Darling, with all the daft actions ("and she ROWED away o're the foaming sea, over the ocean blue; HELP HELP she could hear the cries of the shipwrecked crew...") There is a standing ovation, of course and foot stamping. Eliza comes back on to the stage "Mum says thank you, but she's too tired to do any more, after all that rowing."

Nic Jones
Sep 22nd, Cecil Sharp House

Since noticing that I liked this stuff several years ago, I have got to hear live performances by most of the artists I admire including several bona fide legends — Robin Williamson; Martin Carthy; Ashley Hutchings, David Swarbrick and Richard Thompson (though not all at once); and even, at some distance, Bob Dylan. But I never thought that there was any chance that I would get to join in with Nic Jones singing Little Pot Stove.

And now I have.

Leon Rosselson
June 16, Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, London

It may be true that Anon is the greatest writers of all time, but it's well to remember that songs like “In 1649…” and “Palaces of Gold” and “Stand Up For Judas” "Song of the Olive Tree" didn’t just fall out of the sky — they were thought up by a person , a rather unassuming, awkward even, little man who sings complex, clever, funny patter songs with honesty and conviction. And I have been in the same room as him and said thank-you-i-enjoyed-the-gig. I am never going to get to say that to Bob Dylan, am I?

The Copper Family
Nov 1st, Cecil Sharp House

There is a sense in which the Copper Family is English Folk Music. There is another sense in which they are a group of non professional musicians singing acapella songs in pretty much the same style they have been doing for generations. People talk about Coppersongs in the same way they talk about Child Ballads. Hearing them live is something of folk pilgrimage. 

And the winner is

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best Live Gig


Robb Johnson,
Bristol Folk House, March 9

Robb isn’t the best song-writer I heard in 2012. He isn't even the best protest singer I heard in 2012. But he doesn't need to be. Sometimes "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" is all you need to hear. Songs that bind everyone in the bar of the Bristol Folk House together. Songs that say what everyone is feeling. Songs written about yesterday's headlines and doubtless discarded when they’ve done their job. An audience not merely singing along but dancing, clenching its fists, embracing one another. This is what it’s all about.

Don McLean
Colston Hall, October 19 

Yes, DON MCLEAN. Want to make something of it?

Blackbeard’s Tea Party 
Fulford Arms, York,  December 15th

Yeah, I picked them last year and I'll probably pick them next year as well. My Folkbuddies rave about them, my less folkie buddies say "I don't like all that old fashioned stuff,  but you can put that pirate sounding band on again." This was their free Christmas gig, in a squashed sweaty pub on the outskirts of York; the band in Elf costumes; Stu distributing Christmas presents. ("Yes — it’s a Tesco Value chicken and a child’s flotation device…Wait! That reminds me of a song…”) And having done a tour of the first two albums; and a preview of their new album (not only Jake Thackray, but Rudyard Kipling and an extreme Dick Turpin ballad I didn't know) the audience fairly whooped for joy when the encore began “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank, an old man said to me…” and a wonderful folkyear came to as a perfect a folkend as we could have hoped for.

And the winner is...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Biggest Downer of the Year

No, I didn't get a CD from Mrs Thatcher on the morning they broke up; and no, jokes about whether they are going to get up again will not be considered in good taste. I didn't get to their final gig because, rather ironically, I was listening to Wagner at the opera. I did see them at Leeds Varieties earlier in the year. A silly vaudeville skit cocking the snook at David Cameron is hardly the worst thing they could have gone out on.

Oh, it's the same the 'ole world over;
it's the poor wot gets the blame;
it's the rich what gets the pleasure;
ain't it all a bloomin shame

I didn't always agree with everything they said. They probably wouldn't have ever agreed with anything I said.  But who is going to speak truth to power now they've gone?

But of course, Chumbawamba hasn't really ended. It's just that Boff, Lou, Jude and Neil aren't performing together any more.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Best New Song by an Artist Named Bob


Tin Angel
On the album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

Roll on John
On the Album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

On the Album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

And the winner is...

Special Award: The "Samantha" Prize For Rudest Lyric Heard in 2012


Paul Sartin

at the Bellowhead after-show session in the Colston Yard

It's nothing to do with you
It's a very small cock you all know what
It's my cock-a-doodle-doo"

(Also in the running for "I puts down me hand for to cut off the steam / But the chaff had been blown from me thrashing machine" with Faustus at Bristol Folk House.)

Stuart Giddens
at the Folk Weekend in the Black Swan in York

"We're having a bit tonight
We're having a bit tonight
Me Mother says I must be quick
To get a bit of Spotted Dick"

Lucy Ward
at Bristol Folk Festival

"Now he had phalurum, fa-liddle-i-orum
He had phalurum, fa-liddle-i-ay
He had phalrum, and a ding-dorum
Maids when your young never wed an old man..."

And the winner is ...

Special Award: Wettest Weekend of 2012


17th - 19th February, Frome

Non-stop drizzle; had to walk briskly between venues, stepped in several puddles and got trousers wet.

Highlights: Jim Moray, Chris Wood, Luke Jackson, Steve Knightley.

8th - 10th June, Black Swan Pub, York.

Non-stop heavy rain. Gaps in marquee periodically poured water onto unsuspecting members of audience. Pub staff had problem lighting barbecue. Drains overflowed and council engineers sent for, mid-gig.

Highlights: Blackbeard's Tea Party, Sail Pattern, Two Black Sheep and a Stallion, Monkeys Paw.

6th - 8th July, Priddy

Non-stop torrential rain. Village green turns into swamp. Musician describes event as "Venice of the west..."

Highlights: Colum Sands, Spiers and Boden, Balshazzars Feast

And the winner is 

Special Award: The "Takes Out an Onion" Prize For Making The Judge Cry


Woody Guthrie
For "This Land is Your Land" at Priddy Folk Festival

Chris Rickets
For "The Leaving of Liverpool" at Bristol Folk House

Luke Jackson 
For "The Big Hill", "Bakers Woods", "How Does It Feel", "Wayfarin' Stranger" and, well, everything, basically.

And the winner is...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Favourite New Song of 2012


The Big Hill

by Luke Jackson 
on More Than Boys.

Hearing Luke singing this song at Frome was one of the hight points of my folk year; I vividly recall the moment when the meandering verse went into the big clear reflective refrain -- the exact moment at which the entire audience went from thinking "Oh, this act Steve Knightley has picked to support him is really pretty good" to "We are in the presence of the Next. Big. Thing."

It's not really a rite of passage song -- rite of passage songs are about young men whose mothers would rather they didn't take their guns to town, surely? Not even exactly a "growing up" song, either. More a "remembering the exact moment when you realized that something had slipped from the present to the past" song.  Sort of like Proust would have been if he'd had a guitar and been English and been writing about contemporary suburban adolescence.

Lord Douglas

by Jim Moray

on Skulk

Why, yes, I did also nominate this song in 2011, but as that was a for a "work in progress" at a live show and this is for the finished version on Skulk and on the (curiously disappointing, somehow) Cecil Sharp Project . It's open to question whether this is a "new song" or an "old song", anyway. The Radio 2 judges have put it in the "best traditional song" category, but it was sewn together out of multiple traditional versions -- and the tune, of course, is pure Moray.  (You might just as well ask if Prince Heathen is by Trad or by Martin Carthy, and as matter of fact, we have.)

It's a song you need to pay attention to; you seem to come upon a story that's already started and sort of overhear what's going on.  A relatively simple elopement story takes around nine minutes to unravel.  (The last time I heard Jim, perform it live, he took time in his opening spiel to explain the "curse" sub-plot, which made the whole thing a good deal easier to follow.) There is something almost of the pop ballad about the tune but the overall effect is one of massive antiquity, of staring down a long tunnel of time, and seeing mighty figures acting out their doomed love story in the far distance. Hearing this song is like reading La Morte D'Arthur for the first time.

Little Boy Blue 

by O'Hooley and Tidow

on The Fragile

"And you may now cross 'dead children' off your  O’Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folkbuddy from the Bristol Folk Festival. There is certainly a morbidity to some of Belinda and Heidi’s music; they are not averse to covering Hill of Little Shoes, quite possibly the grimmest song ever written. On the other hand, if I'd written these awards yesterday or tomorrow I might have said that my favourite new song was their Day Trip -- a lovely life affirming piece about a day by the seaside.

Little Boy Blue is a piece of sentimental Victoriana about the toys which a kiddie leaves behind when he dies. It's been given a contemporary makeover; there's no sense of parody or superiority but it also manages not to cloy. The music is expressing grief in a slightly twenty first century idiom while the words remain those of the nineteenth; but the cumulative effect doesn't so much clash as enmesh, like a fugue, if that's the word I'm looking for.

The crowd-pleasers on the album are the slightly insubstantial Last Polar Bear and the rather too pleased with itself Gentleman Jack -- but Little Boy Blue is the kind of song which crawls along beside you. Two days later you’ll be vaguely humming "what has become of our little boy blue?" and not quite remembering why you feel so terribly, terribly sad.

And the winner is

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Favourite New Version of Old Song


by Bellowhead 

Colston Hall, 17 Nov 2012

Perhaps next year I will inaugurate a new category, "Best Band Called Bellowhead". I believe the Radio 2 Folk Awards already have such a category. "Ten Thousand Miles Away" would certainly get my prize for "Bellowhead Song Most Resembling A Song By Bellowhead". However, the Broadside CD missed out being nominated for Favourite Folk Album because a: I prefer to go for the slightly less obvious choices and b: I didn't like it as much as I did their last three albums. 

Thousands or More is the kind of thing that Bellowhead does best: a thoughtful, slightly iconophobic deconstruction of a folk standard, totally sympathetic to the original while gently taking the piss out of it. And the actual tune and the actual words show no sign of disappearing under the jiggery pokery.

by Ewan McLennan 

Bristol Folk Festival, 1 May 2012

Had never heard of Ewan McLennan when I wandered into the small room at Brizzle Folk Festival. Had never heard this song, either, although the Guardian’s obituary of Ian Campbell tells me that it was a standard change of pace protest song in the ‘60s peace movement. To be honest, I could have picked anything from Ewan's set (A Man’s a Man For A That; or The Banks Are Made of Marble) as one of my favourite live songs of the year. It’s maybe a perfect example of folk just being folk with the melody and the unaffected Scots dialect seeming to encode a particular human voice and a particular human story so it will be preserved for all time.

The Lodger

by Blackbeard's Tea Party

at Black Swan Folk Weekend, York - June 9 2013

Both regular readers know about my enthusiasm for Blackbeard's Tea Party: a combination of crazy fun theatre; extremely sophisticated musicianship; an admirable preference for intimate venues; and above all an infallible eye for picking terrific songs to cover. Front man Stuart Giddens has a distinct liking for sophisticated filth, so maybe it wasn't that surprising that they would turn their attention to this extended male fantasy cum shaggy dog story, although its a fairly large jump sideways from Cyril Tawney to Jake Thackray. It works perfectly, with the band rocking out around the fast bit and doing more sexy stripperesque stuff round the slow bits. One of the best things about their Christmas show was the guy in front of me who didn't know any of the songs and was hearing each smutty punchline for the first time. 

And the Winner Is...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Favourite Album of 2012


Vice of the People
Albion Band

"It's had a new handle, and perhaps a new head, but it's still the old original axe." I don't know if anyone really thought that the name, access to the back catalogue and the presence Blair Dunlop ("I grew up in quite a folkie atmosphere") made these six young people the continuation of the legendary Albion band by other means. I heard them with a tiny audience in a tiny Bristol pub, and very good they were too, but possibly not being treated as Folk Royalty by the good people of Bristol. However, when they have produced material of this originality and quality — with an authentic folk-rock sound that's both slightly old fashioned and very contemporary -- their relationship to the original band is really neither here nor there. There are at least three stand out original tracks. Thieves Songs is a bitter political nursery rhyme; driven by lyrics and a beat. Wake a Little Wiser is explicitly a modern spin on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a structure that wandered in from the Black Joke?), which has the sense not to outstay its welcome. The remarkable How Many Miles To Babylon is another riff on a nursery rhyme, which turns out to be a ghost story -- why has no-one else tried to do a "night visiting" about a modern war? Blair Dunlop's voice is fresh and modern; Gavin Davenport is richer and older and folkier. On stage, the highlights are the rocked up morris instrumentals; on the CD, maybe the best thing is the fine traditional Adieu to Old England Adieu. But the album stands very successfully on its own two feet as a not-at-all-laboured conceptual argument about fame and wealth and what's going on in the land of Albion right now.

Jim Moray

Is "enigmatic" the right word for this album? I didn't write about it when it first came out because, although I liked it I didn't think I'd understood it. As I've listened to it more I've enjoyed it more and more. And possibly understood it less and less.

Lazy critics always use expressions like "bad boy of folk" to describe Jim Moray, which might have been true if he hadn't done anything since 2004, but he has and it isn't. (The Independent talks about his "bleeps and beats" approach to folk, which is plain patronizing.) I do have a sense that since Low Culture (2009) he's done the pyrotechnics and mash-ups just about as well as that kind of thing can be done, and is now moving into a middle-period where he wants to be taken more seriously as a folk singer.

Skulk's actually not that traditional an album. "Hind Ettin" is one of those Tam Lin type stories about a lady who wanders off into a fairy wood and find that time has gone all wibbly; it starts off in full-on traddy mode -- voice, guitar, bit of fiddle, lady named Margaret who spends her time sewing silken seams -- but before long there are drums, reverbs, instrumental breaks, a total folk rock re-envisaging of the song. Very fine it is too. I sometimes say of performers like Martin Carthy and Jon Boden that they are primarily story tellers; Jim is primarily a music-maker. I found some of the ballads quite demanding: on a first listen I kept losing track of what the lady was doing in the woods or who and given which golden glove to whom. On the other hand there is magical sparkle to his singing -- there is a moment where he tells us that the lady's fairy son starts to play a magic flute and I can somehow hear centuries of fairy yarn spinners behind his voice. It segues directly into a piece of traditional banjo Americana which turns out to be a reworking of an electric piece by someone called Fleetwood Mac, and I would so have known that without being told. Hawkstone Grange is so traditional that it's almost parody; the Hog Eye Man, which is I think a sea shanty, is dressed up as rock and role. Some of the material wrong foots me:  a pro-Napoleon lament called "The Eighteenth of June" is almost a piece of conceptual art, all echoes and ambient noise. "Why is he singing this so incredibly slowly?" I asked, but a quick search revealed another version (by the frequently aforementioned Mr Carthy) is taken at roughly the same pace. It's the sort of tune you only notice three days after you listened to it. Haunting.
The best things on the albums are the ones most simply in his own voice; "Seven Long Years" puts his own tune to "Bay of Biscay" (another one of those night visiting songs about a sailor visiting his lover and then revealing that he's dead).

I think his previous albums sometimes felt schizophrenic, as if there was a famous old song over here  and a drum machine, and apple mac and an a hip-hop artist over here but that Skulk is trying to put the the two sides together. He clearly isn't one of those people who says "Oh, it's all just music": folk seems to be a sufficiently privileged, magical concept for it to be worth dusting down and reworking dusty old ballads into a new thing, but I'm not quite sure what that new thing is.

Dear Andrew

You are making things very complicated. Please delete above and replace with:

"This is a nice album, with good stories, pretty tunes, and clever arrangements. I liked it very much indeed."


More Than Boys
Luke Jackson

A soldier travels home to break the news to the family of a friend that he's been killed; a man plays footie in the park with his son; a teenager remembers climbing trees when he was little; a young man remembers hanging out with his mates when he was a teenager, moans that his siblings are all having a better time than him; and sees himself for the first time from his parents point of view. A group of youths go fishing without a care in the world. Eleven perfect songs from an artist who is still a teenager himself. I don't know what the young people make of them but from my elderly perspective they seem to have distilled the very essence of a teenager's life.

And the winner is...

Monty Awards 2012

And now, it's the moment you've all been waiting for...the second annual Montpelier Station Music Awards (affectionately know as The Montys) in which a panel of judge chosen from a short list of blogger who live at my house selects his favourite musical moments from 2012.

Favourite Album of 2012

Favourite New Version of Old Song

Favourite New Song

Wettest Weekend of 2012
Biggest Downer Of The Year
Geldof Award For Best New Song By An Artist Named Bob
"Onion" Award for Making the Judge Cry
"Samantha" Award For Rudest Lyrics
Best Traditional Song Played on a Kitchen Utensil
Best Cover Version of 90s Song By Lady With Turquoise Hair
Best Extended Solo On Funny Five Stringed Drum Thing

Favourite Live Gig

Special Award For The Live Performance Which Was, in the 
Opinion Of the Judges, Most Special

Overall Favourite Act of 2012