Sunday 24 February 2013


Live Review

Newhampton Folk Club

For such a young performer Derby-born Sunjay Brayne shows real confidence, maturity and ease on stage that it seems like he has been doing nothing else all of his life.

Sunjay Brayne at the
Newhampton Folk Club, Wolverhampton
Looking like a very young Jake Thackray he opened with Love You like a Man, which is the first track on his Seems So Real album. 
The teenage singer, who was brought up in the West Midlands, has recently been signed up by Jacey Bedford.
In the upper room at the Wolverhampton pub he sat with his stomp board and showed his guitar picking skills right from the off with the 12-bar blues song, although the jury is out on whether his voice is gritty or urban enough to carry off such heavy blues numbers. 
Sunjay then pulled out a Derek Brimstone track, Goodbye Liza Jane which had a much lighter tone and was perfect for his clear voice and clearly displayed his impressive guitar picking.
There was more than a touch of the Ralph McTell about Three Way Love Affair, a blues song which was executed in very much a busker style. Sunjay's skill with a guitar is extremely impressive and is sure to only improve with age. A perfect example of how comfortable he is with his instrument was shown with Street Riot which somehow had the feel of a Chris De Burgh song to start with. His playing matched almost onomatopoetically with his singing and following the fast-paced song he tailed it off with a gentle John Williams-style instrumental. The Radio2 Young Folk Singer of the Year nominee went back in time to put a new spin on legendary US songwriter Stephen Foster's Old Kentucky Home to which he gave an upbeat makeover and then came with a nice touch of an A Capella finish with his stomp board keeping time. 
Sunjay, in between easily dealing with numerous friendly heckles, pulled out the first of two Mark Knopfler songs, Golden Heart was a gentle ballad which was followed by The Devil May Ride, a much beefier sounding blues rift and showed he was really getting into his stride. 
The eponymous album track Seems So Real is a travelling blues tune, with a heavier beat and somehow he managed to make it sound almost like a Native American Indian offering mixed with old style blues that had a feel more like steel guitar than acoustic. 
Going back in time again to the 1920s, came Sitting On Top of the World, an emotive, soft ballad which although it had a melancholic air to it somehow didn't feel like a sad song. He moved into a heavier, grittier blues sound with Turn Your Lamp Down Low but his voice was too soft and lacked the edginess and smoking quality for such a deep track. 
Showing more versatility with A Fairy-tale Lullaby, he moved towards sounding like Thackray and for some reason while listening to it the refrain of Puff the Magic Dragon seemed to keep creeping into the imagination. 
Paying homage to one of his influences, Buddy Holly, his acoustic version of It Doesn't Matter Anymore was a real crowd-pleaser and again showed his versatility in being able to adapt tunes to his own style. This moved easily into Don't It Always Make You Cry, a new song co-written by him which has a Streets of London feel about it and his soft melodious voice made it a pleasure to listen to. 
This changed to slow hand blues for a torch song It Hurts Me Too which was followed by the second Knopfler song Sailing To Philadelphia. This again had the feeling of Thackray but the song was somewhat disturbed by the unnecessary use of the stomp board which intruded on the ballad. 
Perhaps the slickest number of the night was Can't Do It Alone which perfectly showed off Sunjay's guitar skills and included some really impressive chord changes. 
For an encore Sunjay offered the "token happy song" which was Bob Seeger's rock 'n' roll blues number Fire Down Below. Even allowing for the fact Sunjay's voice was battling infection there are some tunes he just can't carry off and this was one of them because he doesn't really have the raucous sound for this type of song. 
This said all in all it was a consummately professional and confident show and if he didn't win the Young Folk Singer award then it can only be assumed those who beat him must have been supremely talented.

Pete Shirley

The support act at the Newhampton, Staffordshire singer/songwriter Pete Shirley, was a pretty relaxed performer with an friendly manner that puts his audience at ease. He opened his set with On St Swithin's Day which was a traditional soft, acoustic  folk ballad. This was followed by Waiting for the Tide to Turn adding a gravelly sound to his voice for this song which told the tale of the changing fortunes of life and was very easy on the ear with simple chord play.
Peter Shirley supporting at the
Newhampton Folk Club
The First World War was the subject of his next offering, All Down The Line. It had a much stronger and faster running beat and he managed to sound almost like a male version of Joan Baez and it seemed as if he was holding back, leading you to suspect there was a lot more power there waiting to be unleashed.
For Beaver Down Road he switched to the bouzouki for another upbeat song which again was a traditional folk offering that had more than a hint of Guthrie about it especially as the song was about hard times. 
For his final offering Greasy Greens this was very much in a playful vein and again could easily have been a Guthrie song blown in from the US dustbowls of the 20s and 30s. 

All pictures copyright of Danny Farragher


Live Review

Glee Club, Birmingham

Not sure if the catchphrase poacher turned gamekeeper is fully appropriate but music producer Ethan Johns has come up with his first solo album and the hirsute musician who has been involved with some of the biggest names in the music industry was in Brum to promote it recently.

He kicked off his session with Hello Sunshine which is also the opening track from his album If Not Now Then When? which had more than a touch of the Dylan/Guthrie about it mixed in with his mellow voice.
Johns has a self-effacing style and almost seems anachronistic in his stage act using the old school protest songs reminiscent of the 60s.
He sounded even more like Dylan with the gentle lyrics for his ballad Corina Corina. The obviously eccentric performer shared the stage with a collection of hi and lo-tech gadgetry one of which was a Heath Robinson-style upright piano which had a gramophone horn and a computer screen and the purpose of which was never fully realised.
He brought his drummer on his iphone and with the touch of a keypad and a change to electric guitar he moved into a serious blues song Don't Say My Name which had a real gritty, Seasick Steve sound to it and if you didn't know it before you knew from this one tune how accomplished Johns is when it comes to guitar.
He then moved to his "contraption" which, slightly disappointingly, sounded just like an ordinary piano keyboard, for another soft ballad Eden which had a feel of Pink Floyd about it.
Johns then pulled out a new song Among The Sugar Pines where he slipped into Dylanesque mode again. In between the tracks he regaled the sold out club with stories of his life and experiences but unfortunately being a raconteur is not his strong point and this needs some serious work. His deadpan stage demeanour doesn't really go with what are essentially boring anecdotes.
There also seemed to be a divide with an air of sycophancy from part of the crowd and silence from the others as his more ardent fans got the "in jokes" and references while the rest, including myself, sat wondering what was so funny.
Fortunately he spent more time doing what he does best and that was making music and after a lengthy explanation about how Laura Marling was involved with the next track he moved into Whip Poor Will which is a fantastic song. For those who don't know Whip Poor Will is an American bird which is the subject of many legends and myths.
He moved from this softer song to Rally which was simply an old fashioned protest song and a somewhat half-hearted clarion call about the UK becoming more and more like the US.
Towards the end the real Ethan Johns seem to come out on another acoustic ballad Lightning Cracks, there was just his pure voice which seemed to carry no influences and was pretty impressive.
This was followed by another electric blues number Blackheart which had more than a touch of Ry Cooder about it, it was a simple ballad which slipped in deeper, heavier blues on the refrain.
As the night came to a close, he pulled out what sounded like an archetypal protest song with screaming harmonica for The Sun Hardly Rises.

Monday 11 February 2013


Live Review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

It may have been the last show of the present tour but sessions frontmen Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas brought together a band of musicians that went out with a bang and left the crowd filling the sold out Symphony Hall wanting more even after the obligatory encore.

Jerry Douglas at Birmingham Symphony Hall
Shetland fiddler and MBE Bain, who comes fresh from gaining a rightly deserved lifetime achievement accolade at the Radio2 Folk Awards, and Ohio Grammy award winner Douglas were joined by 15 other musicians for what was like a Who's Who? of music.
Among those from the other side of the pond were singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who also made a big impression as a presenter and performer at the folk awards; Eric Bibb an American-born bluesman who has a foot in both camps since making his home in Helsinki; Cajun maestro from Kentucky Dirk Powell and Bruce Molsky fiddle, banjo player and all round expert on virtually anything with strings.
Danny Thompson
Carrying the cause for the UK was another Scot, the Dumfries and Galloway songstress Emily Smith who was obviously pregnant and will soon be singing songs to a new set of ears; one of two Englishmen was Danny Thompson who stands almost as tall as the double bass he plays with such skill and Teddy Thompson who is both a folk and rock musician.
Teddy Thompson
It was he who stepped forward after the full band opened with a bluegrass number which was much appreciated by the Birmingham audience.
His first song Delilah was a full on country song with Chapin Carpenter providing backing vocals followed by one he wrote with his mom, Dear Mary, which jokingly was an artistic process he didn't recommend. The ballad had more of a Celtic feel to it and was accented beautifully by Michael McGoldrick’s ethereal flute playing and the sound of John McCusker’s beautiful fiddle playing which was almost spiritual.
Taking over the mic from Thompson was Emily Smith who provided a Robbie Burns composition Silver Tassie before switching to a sea shanty-style for A Day Like Today which features on her Ten Years anniversary album, and which suited perfectly her crisp clean tones.
Later on in the session she formed a trio with Chapin Carpenter and O’Donovan to provide a seamless blending of voices which produced wonderful harmonies that were one of the highlights of the night.
Aoife O'Donovan
Another high point saw Bain lead the full band in a trio of tunes from Shetland and the US. First with a catchy-titled lament, The Sailor Who Fell From The Masthead followed by Scaraway Lasses and finishing with Icy Mountain. Bain began gently with the lament on the fiddle but by the end of the trilogy the whole band had built a fantastic and intricate wall of sound.
The night moved on with Dirk Powell who was inspired to be a musician while sitting at his grand daddy's feet. He let loose with the Two Step Bon Cafe which was a Cajun swamp stomp sung in French.
Next up was Eric Bibb who looked like a young Howlin' Wolf although his voice was a lot silkier and he moved like Coati Mundi from the days of Kid Creole. Using an acoustic guitar he came up with a blues rift from John Cephas, Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad.
Douglas then took over with Gone To Fortingall a surprising mix of Celtic and blues music which allowed him to let rip with slide guitar and was built up with a heavy backbeat and coloured by the flute and fiddles.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The talent kept coming in waves with Chapin Carpenter, O'Donovan and Smith forming a trio where their voices harmonised beautifully, most notably O'Donovan whose voice was almost childlike.
Mary Chapin Carpenter then move forward for a solo, a soft country ballad Chasing What's Already Gone with her clear voice, which had a smokey edge to it, filling the hall.
Douglas then upped the ante with a Leadbelly song, On A Monday, a 12 bar blues with heavy backbeat and his native drawl being backed by Chapin, Smith and O'Donovan as he laid it down with his slide. Molsky brought it back to a bluegrass sound with Pretty Sarah with his rasping fiddle filling in with his deep voice. Thompson was soon back at the mic sounding not unlike Springsteen with Don't Know What I Was Thinking, this was followed by another from Chapin Carpenter more than ably assisted by the skills of McGoldrick as she sang Learning The World. Not to be outdone Smith belted our a drinking song Oh Momma were she gave her voice free reign in what sounded almost like a soul song that was undergirded by a fantastic electric blues rift. Bibbs then brought his infectious style back to the front of the stage with a funky and fun rhythm of  Champagne Habits On A Beer Drinker's Pay. Barenberg, who is a real stalwart of the sessions, brought out Through The Gates which had the feel of a road song where his superb guitar picking was blended with Douglas' slide.
Russ Barenberg
Powell, remembering his grand daddy, picked up his banjo and let loose with a bluegrass sound Water Bound before Smith came to the fore with Final Trawl her crystal voice singing passionately about life on the fishing trawlers.
Emily Smith
Then it was accordion maestro Phil Cunningham's turn to suddenly come to life letting all those around him feel the sharpness of his wit. He has been with the sessions for 26 years and played solo for a while on the tune with No Name or what he calls Walter Scott, he admitted to not being too sure. His gentle accordion sound was accompanied perfectly by the fiddle players in the band and McGoldrick on uilleann pipes. It all hurtled towards the big finale with Chapin Carpenter belting out Down At The Twist And Shout. Badgered back by an audience hungry for an encore they let loose with Shove Another Pig's Foot A Little Further Into The Fire and Billy's Reel to go out on a hoe down-style high.

This session may have been the last of the tour but to give all folkies something to look forward to, the gatherings, which have been going on for more than 25 years, will be started again next month in “secret locations” to be shown on TV later in the year.

The full line up was Aly Bain, Jerry DouglasMary Chapin CarpenterEric BibbDirk PowellAoife O’DonovanBruce MolskyTeddy ThompsonEmily SmithPhil CunninghamDanny ThompsonRuss BarenbergMichael McGoldrickJohn DoyleJohn McCusker James Mackintosh and Donald Shaw

All pictures courtesy of Ian Harvey

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Tuesday 5 February 2013


Live Review

How About I Be Me (you be you) ?

I know Ms O'Connor is not strictly folk music but I am a great fan and regardless of what you think about her or how she has lived her life, in my humble opinion, she still has one of the best voices ever.

Her new album How About I Be Me... is not for the faint-hearted. It's hard to tell whether she is trying to again be controversial or whether this album is a genuinely cathartic offering, as so often with life the truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.
This album though, is vintage O'Connor and in some ways it sounds like she has never been away even though it's been five years since Theology. All the tracks are written by her in collaboration with various artists except for John Grant's Queen Of Denmark.
The opening 4th And Vine, which will be released as a single later this month, catches you off guard with its bhangra sound and continued rhythm. Through mountainous beats she tries to convince the listener her latest marriage was a wonderful experience. However, from the opening bars you know it's O'Connor singing like there has been no gap in her career at all. There are strange linguistic twists in the lyrics which seem to be appealing to the US market with lines such as "not that he's no wuss, because you know his love is serious". For all that, it's a great opening track because it almost defies you to not to tap your fingers or feet and the lyrics are so simple and catchy you could learn them from one listening.
Reason With Me, leaves the jollity of the opening track behind moving into darker themes of addiction and lost love, it could easily be called Nothing Compares 2 U (part two). Her breathy voice sounds like a cry from the wilderness, a desperate plea for help girded by the haunting undertones of the piano and coloured by the church-like gospel organ harmony used perfectly by Julian Wilson.
The theme of searching for love, of shunning loneliness and of wanting to share your life and experiences continues in Old Lady and although it has an upbeat tempo it is still bleakly singing of uncertainty.
Sinead O'Connor who is back on tour
 - picture courtesy of
As you would expect, religion would be part of any album O'Connor produces and this is no exception with the first offering being Take Off Your Shoes where she seems to be taking on the persona of god, although in whose incarnation it's not clear, to point out the weaknesses of humanity. The strength of her voice comes through on this track and the anger is obvious, shored up by a throbbing backbeat which keeps you on the edge waiting for something more to happen as it slopes into The Exorcist-style theme.
Back Where You Belong sounds very much like an anti-war song with it's military drumming opening which is carried in the background.
As O'Connor's lyrics come in over the top we are back again to the theme of those you love leaving you. In this track she conveys real emotion and longing in her voice as it trails off on each line of the chorus.
The idea of never being sure where you are or where you are going, of not having someone to keep you grounded seems to come through on The Wolf Is Getting Married where O'Connor is defining herself by those around her. This is probably the most positive song on the album and has a much rockier feel to it with the prominence of Kevin Armstrong and Tim Vanderkuil on guitars coming through loud and clear.
John Grant - picture courtesy of
John Grant's Queen Of Denmark is a brutally honest track which should not be listened to when there are children about.
O'Connor's voice is perfectly suited to convey the bleakness and dangers of love which this track offers.
Returning the favour O'Connor has supplied backing vocals on Grant's Pale Green Ghosts album due out in March.
The theme of being emotionally lost comes through again on Very Far From Home. The voice which made O'Connor such a phenomenon is back in full flight for this track. With very little accompaniment that deep creaminess of her voice, which oozes the emotional range most of us can only guess at, comes over as perfect as the first time she captured everyone's hearts with her raw feelings back in 1990.
In I Had A Baby O'Connor is seemingly extolling her one proud achievement, that of having a child. It's clear from lyrics such as "He's been the makings of me" that her children changed her life forever and the Pink Floyd-style interjections, not the best of groups to mention I realise, as she at one stage intended to kick the shit out of Roger Waters, give it a slightly eerie feeling although that seems the last thing intended.
We are back to religion again with the last track and the big question of What Is A Real VIP? which is a finger-pointing, conscience-pricking song about both our attitudes towards our neighbours locally and globally. The almost a Capella track also asks the big question about what are we going to do when judgement day comes.
Something tells me this album is going to polarise people, it could be seen as self indulgent, cathartic, pseudo-controversial but whatever it makes you feel, O'Connor is a fantastic talent with an incredible voice. It's a real shame her tumultuous life and personal torment has got in the way of her singing career, but let's hope this album is a sign she is back on track.
How About I Be Me... is out on the One Little Indian label