Friday 28 February 2014


Live Review

Newhampton Arts Centre

The atmosphere was filled with nostalgia and the weeks of waiting were over for both the fans and the band. Midlands group The Desperate Men had not played together for 10 years although you wouldn't have thought so as they launched into their first number.

John Richards
Dave Jones, originally from Wolverhampton and now a native of Cork, Eire had returned for the reunion, and banged out the first sound with the thumping intro of The Wall of Death on his drums.
Frontman John Richards, from Bridgnorth, Shropshire launched into each of the opening numbers with a real enthusiasm almost like the latent rock musician in him had been dormant too long and finally relished the idea of being let off the leash.
Right from the off, Richards looked more comfortable with the faster-paced rock and blues sound than in his folk persona as the voice and lead of The John Richards Band.
Dave Jones
Richards has been on the Midlands music scene longer than he cares to remember and is a respected musician with his songs being picked by some of the biggest names on the folk circuit including Fairport Convention.
Before a packed theatre at the Dunkley Street centre he and the assembled band showed their versatility moving from rock to Cajun and then to much heavier reggae dub sound such as All She Took Away.
The Desperate Men, which this time included Richards' eldest daughter Emma - who has sung with her father for many years, were made up from the ashes of Maurice and the Minors and was originally Three Desperate Men with the "Three" being dropped not soon after.
Steve Watton
After several albums and many years together drummer Jones was the catalyst for The Desperate Men disbanding. His wish to live in Eire took him away and the rest of the band decided it was time to call it a day and went their separate ways with Richards heading back to the folk circuit. Jones still plays with bands in Eire one of which is roots and Americana outfit Two Time Polka.
If the band wanted to prove they still had what it takes to play rock 'n' roll and blues then anyone who was at the gig wouldn't argue that the old magic was still there and what's more they seemed to be enjoying playing as much as their fans from the past enjoyed listening to them.
Ian Rowley
Switching across genres from rock to blues to ballads mixing up their own writings with those of others including Bob Seger, The Waterboys, The Pogues and REM they showed what a seasoned and relaxed band they were.
Paul Dowswell
Accordion player Steve Watton got his chance to shine with his own rock number I believe I'm In Love With You with Richards gave a rare glimpse of his gobiron skills during the song. For some reason it took a while, some gentle goading and possibly the right amount of alcohol before the dance floor disappeared under bodies but it was obvious from the turnout and reception that, even a decade on, The Desperate Men are remembered with fond affection.
Richards treated the audience to several of his own songs one of which was Never Trouble Trouble 'til Trouble Troubles You, catchy title it ain't, a torch style, slow blues anthem which was given a thumping underbeat by Ian Rowley on his slick looking electric double bass with the tune filled out by Paul Dowswell on electric guitar, who is also a successful author.
Emma Richards
Although the musicians individually have all been active in some form or other when they came together as The Desperate Men they showed no sign of "ring rust" and it was obvious from the individual performances and the show they put on as a band they had come not so much to relive the past but enjoy the present however, this time using the experience and expertise they had acquired from years of treading the boards added to the atmosphere.
As the John Richards Band is on something of a sabbatical for the foreseeable future where The Desperate Men go from here is anyone's guess but they are certainly worth a night out to see them.

Wednesday 26 February 2014


CD Review

Never Forget

It's just a simple fact that with a band such as Young'uns no recording is ever going to do real justice to the full gamut of sounds they can make with their voices. If anything this recording tends to sanitise their strong, versatile and organic harmonising.

David Eagle, Michael Hughes and Sean Cooney
This is no reflection on Andy Bell who has worked with and produced some of the top names in the folk world not least of which is Bellowhead, but The Young'uns are a live band. This said if you can't get to see them live in the near future then this is the next best thing and will certainly give you a flavour of their wonderfully masculine harmonies, the raucousness of some of their singing and the great storytelling and fun they incorporate into their performances.
Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have been blowing the cobwebs from audiences, fascinating them with their storytelling and entertaining them with their banter for a decade this year. Hailing from Stockton-on-Tees in the north East their accents are native, their connection to their home turf very strong and their gusto for singing apparently inexhaustible.
The album kicks off with a soft three part harmony reminiscent of barbershop quartets, except there are only three of them. The Biscuits of Bull Lane is a slightly music hall/theatre musical offering with a serious message of racism and community strength. It's based around the events following the murder of Lee Rigby when the English Defence League decided to march upon a mosque in York but where the local community had other ideas and made it clear it was having none of it. Eagle has written a sister song to this, which is also on the album, and although light-hearted in feel it carries a serious message.
The good folks of York, instead of using confrontation and intimidation, decided they would meet the right wing marchers with, of all things, cups of tea and the biscuits of the title. It's a song which jumps across styles from the great hymns of the cathedrals to something akin to a West End musical and, although it was a tragic incident and shocked the nation, the song shows how ridiculous racism and intolerance are when exposed to the light of human kindness and understanding.
David Eagle's raucous voice lets rip when they are singing Jack Ironside live and it usually involves a great deal of stomping which gives you a feel of the harshness of the work of which it sings. This song is a wonderful social narrative and is something which is lacking in a great deal of folk music today. The trio's voices do it justice singing it with passion and emotion which can only come from being steeped in the local traditions and customs which inspire the stories that are turned into their songs.
The jingle was from The Molloys
The Long Way Home bears more than a passing resemblance to the song Meet You There by The Molloys which you may not know by its own merits but could well recognise it as the sound of Richmond Sausages. Long Way Home is a soft ballad of a love song which is more of a solo written by Cooney and is a gently ditty which is easy and pleasant on the ear.
Blood Red Roses and Shallow Brown gives you more of a sense of what the trio sound like on stage. It has more of their energy and vocal incidentals thrown in and is a great throwback to this island's fame for producing sea shanties, while Shallow Brown is a much softer ballad and shows just mellow theirs voices can be and, occasionally, when their harmonies hit a "sweet spot" it sounds more like the drones of a great organ than human voices.
The gentlest ballad on the album is Rosario which is a traditional song with a new arrangement by Eagle and Hughes. It has a European feel to it even though it refers to a port in Argentina but it still keeps that taste of a sea shanty, there is less harmonising on this and Eagles makes more of his talent for the accordion.
Hands and Feet, written by northern musician and raconteur Jez Lowe, is the voices of the trio pretty much unadorned and coloured only by the backing of schoolchildren from Manchester. It does have that feel of the kind of sing around you may remember from your school days.
The Young'uns
Cooney's haunting song, Altar, is just another example of the long if sometimes uncomfortable relationship folk music has had with Christianity and the established church. Cooney's voice is picked up only by the single notes of a piano which are most effective and give it both a somber, serene and ethereal quality. Following this is another one from Cooney, Three Sailors, and in the great tradition of folk songs was inspired by a single snapshot of history, a military grave in West View cemetery in their native Hartlepool. Their voices are decidedly understated on this track and it seems this is both in respect of the theme and the poignant words which give it more of a feeling that this is essentially a poem to which gentle backing vocals have been added.
The Running Fox is one of two tributes, the other being Jack Ironside,  to Graeme Miles who sadly died in April last year but made his mark writing and singing about the beauty he saw in Teeside.
Eagle's gutsy voice and elaborate accordion playing carries this tale of a fox hunt wonderfully to where you can almost hear the horns and the dogs baying. You will have to listen to the whole track to find out if the fox survives.
The three show their versatility with a love song, The Sandwell Gate which is a tune as rooted in Teeside as deeply as the stone foundations of the medieval archway itself. Their voices still keep that gravelly edge to them but the softened harmonies manage to project some of the emotion they associate with it.
John Ball, which has its roots in the Peasants' Revolt and  is one of those great tunes that you sort of know but don't know why, but makes it so easy to pick up, that before you get to the end of the track you will be singing along at least to the chorus. It's a plain and simple traditional song executed perfectly by their precise voices.
Never Forget
The penultimate track is again eluding to folk's association with Christianity as Cooney sings of one of his ancestors, incorporating the tune Lord of All Hopefulness. Cooney's voice stands on it's own and it's again one of those storytelling songs which is as much a history of the characters as it is a song, but again one of the drawbacks of the recorded version is that the emotion from Cooney is not easily transmitted as when watching him perform it live.
Going out with a fun song, Lovely Cup of Tea is a cheeky, piss take both of the EDL and of course the absurdity of racism.
Eagles' rendition is very much in the music hall tradition and takes the stand that one of the best ways to take the sting out of something as destructive and pernicious as racism is to show it for the nonsense it is and Eagles' rapid-fire lyrics do just that to take the album out on a high note. Never Forget is a great introduction to the Young'uns for anyone who has never heard them, but they need to be seen live to really appreciate the subtleties, nuances and irreverence of their wonderfully entertaining act.

Never Forget is official released on March 10

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Tuesday 25 February 2014


Live Review

MAC Birmingham

There was an Englishman an Irishman and a Scot who walked into an arts centre in Birmingham and filled the theatre with the fantastic sound of Celtic/folk music, and that's no joke.

John McCusker back in Birmingham
Individually John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle are experts at their craft, collectively, almost as a break away group from the Transatlantic Sessions, they blend their skills, sounds, music and voices into something wonderful to hear.
Back in the Second City for the second time in a month the trio, minus the other 14 musicians and singers from the Symphony Hall gathering - whom McCusker jokingly confesses were holding them back, filled the slightly more intimate setting of the MAC with the sounds of fiddle, bouzouki, harmonium, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, flute and guitars.
Just because there are only three of them they certainly don't believe in giving short measures either, because the opener was nearly 10 minutes long and included music from McGoldrick's Wired album eventually closing with Rory Campbell's Favourite.
Dubliner Doyle moved to the fore to introduce Hop With The Blood a good old folk solid about a brother murdering his sibling. For this one McCusker switched from fiddle to bouzouki as Doyle belted out the traditional sound of the story of the two brothers,  at times he sounded very much like Andy Irvine although Doyle's voice does have a slightly sharper edge, and Mancunian McGoldrick's pipe playing added a rich strand to the proceedings.
Glaswegian McCusker then got a chance to show his songwriting skills one of which was a tune he claims to have written as an auction prize for a Scottish radio show called Mr Anderson's Fine Tunes and the winner of the prize got a chance name the melody which ended up being called Margaret Ann's Silver Wedding Anniversary. The second was even more bizarre called Pur the Orang Utan and finishing off with Billy's Reel.
His luscious fiddle playing opened the series of tunes with the slow air which then gently became intertwined with McG's pipes. Doyle then picked up the beat with his guitar McG switching over to the whistle for the lighter of the tunes before they really put their foot down and let loose with the reel which McC peppered with incidentals as it took on a hoe down momentum.
Mike McGoldrick 
McC then slowed things right down as he moved on to the harmonium to play what many churchgoers would recognise as the tune to Lord of All Hopefulness where Doyle, picking on his electric guitar, turned it into a ballad with traditional lyrics and McG adding haunting harmonies with his flute.
Centre stage was then given over to McG for his pipe playing with tunes he learned in the Hebrides - Leaving South Uist and the Lochaber Badger.
The opening was a gorgeous, soaring sound which with a little imagination could send you flying over the Scottish highlands and even had a touch of the Andean pan pipes about it. McG filled the pretty much packed theatre with soft, swirling and captivating sound of his flute joined by McC on the whistle and with Doyle adding a gentle and un-intrusive rhythm underneath. McG then picked up the tempo and gave it a Celtic-jazz feel as they built a vortex of crystal clear notes.
No Celtic folk concert is complete without an immigration song and Doyle's was Grosse Isle where thousands of Irish immigrants died and are commemorated with the Irish Memorial National Historic Site on the island and it was the story of those migrants which inspired Doyle's ballad which when he started singing sounded very much like Kris Drever it wasn't until much later in the song that McG and McC added just a hint of flavour to the tune.
John Doyle
McG came in with an air from Cork, Eire called Táimse im’ Chodladh which roughly means 'I am asleep and don't wake me' where McC moved back on to the harmonium and McG opened with the mournful and haunting wail of the uilleanns and brought a beautiful lamenting sound throughout the piece and only towards the end did he pick up the pace to give it a real toe tapper of a finish.
They closed the first part of the set on a high with the sea shanty Fall Down Billy O'Shea and Doyle even managed to get the audience singing on the chorus just like a real folk club. It was one of those standards where you can add as many verses and twist the lyrics as much as you like and it invariably ends up sounding just as good.
Doyle, came out on his own for the first song of the second half and told the tale of his great grandfather from Roscommon who walked to Queenstown, near Cobh in Cork to board the SS Arabic which was subsequently torpedoed by a German U-Boat.
Fortunately his ancestor lived to walk home and tell the extraordinary tale which inspired the tune. But it's worth hearing the full tale from Doyle. The song is a great traditional narrative played perfectly by Doyle on his guitar inserting some fantastic picking in the Spanish style.
McC and McG then rejoined Doyle to play out a medley starting with a little Americana with a tune from West Virginia called Elk River Blues, followed by Rip the Calico, a tune written by McC called Coming of Age and finishing with A Tribute to Larry Reynolds.
McG opened on the flute with a soft melodic intro with his fellow musicians gentle blending in from the background. They moved through the tunes picking up the pace at will and moving in and out of each other's melodies with expertise
The next one, Apprentice Boy, came from the live album they put together from their last tour and it was another ballad with a story of lovers who are separated and worry about each other's fidelity. Doyle did most of the work on this one with McG adding the occasional light insert on the flute and McC accompanying on the bouzouki.
SS Arabic
They pulled out another medley with Wee Michael's March and a new tune reluctantly called Cockermouth starting off with real upbeat tune with a bluegrass feel to it. They also threw in Jigs, Strathspey and Reel from McCusker's Under One Sky album
Towards the end of the set Doyle brought out another dark tale of intrigue and murder called the False Lady which unlike it's morbid content it was quite an upbeat song hammered out by him on his guitar and given extra eeriness by McC and McG on fiddle and flute respectively. It was very much in the vein of Lord Musgrave. Leaving Friday Harbor was a tune which harkens back to McC's early days as a young musician and being fortunate enough to tour in the US and Canada. The tune is a lovely air played elegantly by McC on his fiddle.
The trio went out as they had come in with a medley of tunes which gave all three a chance to show why they are so respected by their peers, before being persuaded to come back for the obligatory encore.

Thursday 20 February 2014


Award Winners

Winners of the best duo at this year's  Radio2 Folk Awards, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin are heading to the Midlands in March.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin receiving their award
The West Country pair have made a fantastic leap in the folk world considering that not long ago they were unearthed, by Steve Knightley of Show of Hands, busking on Sidmouth seafront and in pubs as part of the town's folk festival.
So it was no coincidence they received their award from Knightley and fellow Show of Handser Phil Beer.
They will be coming  fresh from their award-winning appearance at the Royal Albert Hall to play at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in Birmingham on March 30 with doors opening at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10. Henry and Martin, who are based in Exeter, beat off some stiff competition, to bag the award, in the form of fellow nominees Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Jenderson and Catrin Finch and Seckjou Keita.

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The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn
Close Your Eyes

Sticking with the Folk Awards one of the other nominees Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker will be playing The Kitchen Garden venue this Sunday March 2. Tickets are £8 in advance either from the cafe or Show starts at 8pm and doors open 7.30pm.

The Carrivick Sisters
The following night, Monday March 3, the cafe plays host to The Carrivick Sisters. Identical twins Charlotte and Laura from South Devon will be playing their own bluegrass sounds as well as few selected covers. Tickets are £8 in advance and £10 on the night. Doors open 7.30pm and the show starts 8pm. Tickets available from the cafe or

On Tuesday March 11 versatile and thoroughly entertaining trio Lady Maisery take to the stage at the Birmingham venue. Hannah James, Hazel Askew and Rowan Rheingans will be bringing their own particular harmonies and dance moves from 8pm. Tickets are £10 and available from the cafe or Doors open 7.30pm.

Anais Mitchell
Moving to the centre of Birmingham on Wednesday March 5 the Glee Club will be playing host to another Folk Awards winner of best traditional track. Anais Mitchell from the US. Anais performed the winning song Willie of Winsbury at the Radio2 awards ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall . Tickets are £13 which includes a £1 booking fee and doors open at 7pm with the show starting at 7.45pm. Ned Roberts will be in support.

At the same venue on Wednesday 26 will be The Webb Sisters. The Kentish girls Charley and Hattie will be supported by Sam Semple. Tickets are £13 including a £1 booking fee and doors open at 7pm with the show starting at 7.45pm. The Glee Club box office number is 0871 472 0400.

The Red Lion folk club in Kings Heath, Birmingham welcomes singer/songwriter and Radio2 Folk Awards nominee for Best Original Song Chris Woods on Wednesday March 5. Advance tickets for members are £13 and for non members £14, if booked online there is a £1.40 booking fee.
On the following Wednesday, March 12, the club welcomes guitarist Sam Carter with special guest fiddle player Sam Sweeney who was a nominee for Musician of the Year at the Folk Awards. Tickets in advance for members are £12 for non-members £13 and if booked online £14.30 including 10% booking fee.

Another duo will be playing at the venue on Wednesday March 19. Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow from Yorkshire who will be supported by Chris Quinn. Advance tickets for members are £12, £13 for non members and if booked online £14.30 which includes a 10% booking fee..
Doors open at 7.15pm and the shows starts 7.45pm. For tickets either log on to the club's site or

Folk rock legends Fairport Convention will be playing Town Hall, Birmingham on Tuesday March 4. The show starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £24 plus a £2.50 transaction fee which will be charged on all sales except where bought from the venue or Symphony Hall in person. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.

They have been going in one form or another for more than 50 years and there is no sign of them stopping any time soon. Sean Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and Gerry O’Connor carry on The Dubliners legacy as The Dublin Legends on Friday March 7. The Town Hall show starts at 8pm and tickets are £25 plus £2.50 transaction fee. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.

The search for Sugarman is over and he is appearing at the Symphony Hall on Tuesday March 11. The rediscovered Rodriguez is coming to Birmingham for the first time as part of his Searching for Sugarman tour. The cult singer/songwriter will be supported by classical guitarist Chloe Charles. The show starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £29.50 plus the £2.20 transaction fee. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.

On Saturday March 15 the wonderfully ornate Town Hall welcomes self taught virtuoso Andy McKee. Andy will be performing two sets without support. Tickets are £19.50 plus the £2.50 transaction fee and the show starts at 8pm. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.

Appropriately enough on St Patrick's Day, Monday March 17, Birmingham Symphony Hall brings together two legends of Irish folk music. Lifetime achievement winners at the BBC2 Folk Awards Clannad will be sharing a stage with Mary Black perhaps the most famous and successful of the family musical dynasty. Tickets are £28.50 or £32.50 plus the £2.50 transaction fee. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.
The Second City is offering an alternative at the Town Hall on the same night in the form of  fellow legends Tom Paxton and Janis Ian and will be sharing the stage with acclaimed musician Robin Bullock. The show starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £26.50 plus the £2.50 transaction fee. Call the box office on 0121 780 4949.

Jim Causley
In Wolverhampton the Newhampton Folk Club, which meets in the upper room of the Newhampton pub, Riches Street, Whitmore Reans, welcomes Devon accordionist Jim Causley who is no stranger to the Folk Awards either. He is well known on the folk circuit playing alongside some of the biggest names on the scene. The show starts at 8.30pm. For tickets, which are £8 in advance or £10 on the door, call 01902 820958 or 340603 or email: for details.

Wolverhampton welcomes founder members of Bellowhead on what is their last tour as a duo. John Spiers and Jon Boden will be taking to the stage at the city's Wulfrun Hall on Tuesday March 18. The duo will be supported by Black Country blues/acoustic singer Sunjay Brayne who is fresh from his supporting run with Steeleye Span. Doors open at 7pm and tickets are £16.50 which includes a 10% booking fee that applies however you buy your tickets including in person.



Martin Purdy of Harp and a Monkey

You may not be aware of it but everything goes better with a monkey, well that's according to Mancunian Andy Smith who is one third of Harp and a Monkey and if you go by their growing success it's a philosophy which is hard to argue against.

Guess who?
The name stems from what could easily be seen as an urban myth about a group of friends who had already spent many years playing together and then six years ago deciding they would change direction; go and buy instruments they had never played before and learn how to play them.

"That's true," says Purdy another of the thirds while on his way to pick up the gear for a gig in Liverpool where they were due to do a ridiculously early sound check. "We did just all go out and buy something we had never played before. We did actually do that!"
"I am a classically trained pianist and have been playing the piano since I was about five or six years old. Simon Jones (the final third who is from St Helen's) was a very avant-garde electric guitar player - a Robert Fripp type and he went out and bought a harp and a viola and he'd never touched one of either before in his life; Andy, who now plays banjo and various other bits and pieces, he was a bass player.
"So we did make a conscious decision that we wanted to challenge ourselves as musicians and simplify what we did. This may sound ridiculous but I do think you can get too comfy with what you are doing and with that comes predictability and we wanted to do something that wasn't predictable, more for ourselves than anything else.
"The sound of what is H&M evolved from that, because we have been doing H&M for about six years now and have become more proficient with the instruments we picked up. But that was the spirit of it, we wanted to deliberately do that.
"We didn't originally see ourselves as a folk band but that's where we were embraced."

And the name?

"First obviously we had a harp," Purdy explains enthusiastically and in his distinctly, strong Lancashire accent, "and Andy has this saying, 'Everything goes better with a monkey' and as we are in this digital age you have to be very careful about a name, if you go for anything that someone else has gone for.
"This has happened in the past and it was a nightmare. We have had a couple of recording contracts and then there was another band with the same name and people were going on Google and putting in the name and getting the wrong band.
"You have to be aware of people who are sourcing their music via the internet. You have to make sure if someone goes on the web that the name isn't going to be confused with anything else so it's got to be different and that was part of the logic behind that.
The new album All Life Is Here see the link for a full review
"So we were playing a harp but we couldn't just be called Harp, so harp and a something? and Andy just came up with monkey because everything in life is better with a monkey.
"A few people have said to us since that it kind of works and, you know there might just be someone looking for the monkey playing the harp in some kind of dodgy pub in the Pennines."

This may sound like a rather haphazard way of deciding a musical path but while there is something different about the music and methods of H&M, Purdy and his fellow musicians have clear ideas of what, why and how they want to do things.

"Our view on it (folk music) is if we go to a local folk club I don't want to hear people in singing Celtic reels and jigs, not that I don't like that kind of music but there's a place for it.
"I love it when you go somewhere and you hear something which is representative of the area. You think that was great, and I would never hear that anywhere else other than here; I would never had heard that song if I hadn't been in Wolverhampton or Birmingham because it's a midlands folk song. I think that's really important, that's what folk should be about.
"We all have a responsibility to try and keep those traditions, but of course we want to move things forward. I hate the thought of that kind of music that has been preserved in aspic. Folk music not a museum piece, it should evolve but at the same time there is a very proud tradition behind that we all want to preserve.
"The way I see it is, if I am from Lancashire, then if I am not singing things which are representative of my area then who the hell is?
"We were once described as northern separatists, we don't mean to be that. I know what we do is quite northern and rooted in Lancashire but it's about themes, it's just generic. I don't think there is anything we do which isn't common to most people."

What comes across from listening to Purdy is a passion for folk music, the traditions of which it speaks, the histories it records and more than anything the stories it tells but without necessarily obeying the restrictions any genre can impose on what you play.
It's not entirely surprising when you consider he is an academic historian with two books to his name already, one of which is also the title of a track on the new album, and his doctorate is in the research stages where he is focusing on a village in Lancashire which was specially built to treat casualties of the First World War, a subject in which he specialises.

One of the books Purdy has written
"What we wanted from the folk tradition were the narratives, the storytelling because that's what's at the heart of the folk tradition. Long before instruments were invented people were getting up and singing unaccompanied and telling stories, it was like an early form of bloody newspapers.
"The instruments came along and you started adding music to it. You can imagine that when people first picked up a harmonium or an accordion there was some old git in the corner going 'this is sacrilege!' They didn't have music to it when I was a kid.
"What we saw as the key element to the folk tradition was the storytelling and narratives more than instruments.
"So we thought we would use instruments which you would traditionally associate with folk music, but we won't play them in that way which people might expect. So in that respect, we do kind of mess around about with songs much to the horror of some and the delight of others."
This willingness to 'mess' around with songs is what has marked them out as different among those who have become fans and as 'to be viewed with suspicion' by others. We are yes, but that all depends where you see folk. You see to us when we thought what are we? We weren't going to be a traditional folk band in the sense that most modern folk think of traditional folk music.
"I don't think we ever actually decided we were gonna be a folk group. We knew we wanted to change what we were doing and we knew we wanted to do something that had a bit more tradition about it, and we wanted the narratives, but I think the sound just evolved."
"If you try to deliberately set out to break new ground it doesn't always work, but if it's what you do and people say it's original then that's what every musician wants. People do seem to be saying it's different and that's brilliant but it's not without its problems.
"We live in a world where marketing and branding is very important, music stations and music magazines have increasingly compartmentalised themselves and if you don't obviously fit into those compartments you can find yourself slipping through the middle and in a sense I think that's what happened with our first album.
"The 'folksy' magazines were very wary of it because there was electronica in there and they would say we are not sure whether this is folks or roots enough for us, and then all the mags that were doing rock and indie were like 'this is too folk for us'.
"We found ourselves stuck in the middle."

So from what sort of musical traditions did these two Mancs and a Scouser bring with them?

"We are of the generation where we grew up with that kind of northern working men's folk music people such as Bernard Wrigley and Mike Harding which had to be a mixture of entertainment where they had to do joke songs because of the audiences they were playing to, we were all steeped in that.
"There is a bit of an element of end of the pier about it but, we wanted to get rid of that element and we were listening to all kinds of stuff; the Penguin Cafe, XTC, Scott Walker alongside Bert Jansch, Bjork, Aphex Twin and Nick Drake etc. We have just always been into music that's not pop music or which has a folksy element to it but went more towards indie/folk.
Mike Harding
"The music always comes first. Let's put it like this we are the sum of our parts. If one of us left it would change the band immeasurably because everyone has a very unique element which they bring to it
and it does always start musically and it can come from any one of us and it can start with something like a riff and that will grow into a mood and a narrative .
The one tradition the band is continuing, whether unwittingly or not, is that of the folk singer doing their thing regardless of any success; being motivated simply by wanting to sing and play.
"We do what we do and because we had been playing a lot and we got feedback from audiences, and the feedback we got was brilliant, that gives you the confidence to say we are sticking with this. I don't want to sound conceited here, but we are a good live band and perhaps it comes across. We got the message across to a degree with the first album and we got it across more with the second, that this is a band which is a little bit further down the line and is quite settled about what it's doing.
"We have always had great responses from audiences and as a musician you get a sense that this is working and people are responding to this.
"We were involved with the Folk Police label and that label was committed to the idea of left field folk music so they just licensed what we were doing and took it as it came, but sadly the label is on indefinite hold at the moment.
"So we are doing it ourselves at the moment. It's very much a cottage industry and we are answerable to no one which means we can do what we want and having the freedom is great to be able to do anything. We are realistic about how far we can go with it and where we want to go with it.
Andy Smith
"We have reached that point in life and are of that age, where of course we would like to be successful, but we wouldn't stop what we are doing now regardless. We have been going that long now to such little audiences and for such little acclaim that we would carry on regardless, it’s so much a part of our lives.
"So to get the response we have been getting over the last few years is great. Some blokes play football or go down the pub with their mates; we get in a room and make H&M music.
"We are great friends who make music together it's just what we do and we will still be doing this in 10 years time regardless of whether people wanted to listen to it or not.
"There are times when you do get disheartened, where you turn up somewhere and it's just a crap gig, but that's all just part and parcel of it. At the end of the day, we just loved playing and so even if it was just the three of us in the room we still enjoyed it.
"We always take the view that if we go somewhere and there are two people there well then it's like rehearsing in front of two people. We are having fun with what we do and there are two people there who like it and they might tell a couple of mates and the next time there might be four. We really did see it that way.
"What is really interesting about H&M is there has been a clear progression with it. We are six years in now so it's taken a while to get to this point, which is a good point. It is what it is, good or bad because of those six years. I don't think we could have made that record without having had the experience that it's grown out of."

So what is Harp and a Monkey?

"Whatever H&M is, and it's hard even for us to nail it down, it's not a formula. Whatever it has developed into that's been put down over the last six years and people seemed to have really embraced int on our album, because perhaps on the first record, although we loved it, we were finding our sound, whatever that was and whatever that sound is we are clearer on it now. And perhaps that has made this record a little more cohesive."

You soon get a sense that Harp and a Monkey is Martin, Andy and Simon and vice versa it's hard to see it continuing without anyone of the three or by adding to it.

Simon Jones with The Harp
"We've known each other for a long time and we are good friends. We are all strong personalities and we all have strong views and there are times when, as you would expect, we get on each other’s nerves. But because we're a bit older we know what we are doing.
"We've all got egos, everyone has, but I think we know when to let that ego take a step back and we're all quite good at listening to each other, none of us are precious.
"We do work very well together as three different people. I don't know why this works and I don't know where it came from but I know it just does. It would be a completely different band if any one of us were to leave.
"You can replace a singer or a guitar player, I don't know if in this case you would find someone who can play in the way we play because we all play in a way that's complementary to each other.
"People will come and see us, and some will be musicians, and they will be surprised at the way we approach our music and I don't know where that comes from but because we have grown the sound together, it's very much tied to experiences unique to us and it would be difficult for someone to fit in with that.
"If we acted like a collective in the vein of Bellowhead then it wouldn't be H&M because it would sound very different, you might recognise elements that one person would bring to it but without the other two it just wouldn't be H&M."

This almost philosophical approach to what they do and how they are received clearly comes from their experience, all three are at least in their late thirties, and they have "put their time in".

Martin Purdy 
"When we were starting out there can't be anywhere in the north west of England where you could squeeze us into where we didn't play. We played everywhere, we played for free, we would literally turn up and ask people if we could play for them.
"We would play wherever we could, just to get ourselves out there and perfect what we were doing and it's perhaps only in the last two years where we are getting people paying to come and see us.
"Everything has to grow, I think a lot of young bands if they think it's not growing quickly enough perhaps get worried about where it's all going.
"Because we are a bit older and we had some level of security and we were settled in that respect so we have been able to grow it organically rather than under pressure.
"I couldn't have written this kind of record as a lyricist and song writer and I couldn't have told these stories when I was in my twenties. We're a product of our situation and we don't have that pressure to make an immediate living out of it that gives us the freedom to let it go the way that it does.
"It might have been called a midlife crisis except for the fact we have all been in bands since our teens. I think it's one of those things that's in your blood, I know that sounds a bit naff but it is.
"For some it's like a phase they go through when you are young and they think they are going to attract some girls and the like but in truth they were always destined to be some sort of successful accountant or whatever or the band is like a hobby,.
"Music has always been absolutely central to what we do regardless of how successful or unsuccessful the band was.
"It's a lovely thing when it starts to take off like H&M has, but I don't really know what our expectations were when we first started out, we didn't have a clue and I don't think that was important to us.
"It was just that we were doing music and this was right for us. The fact other people have responded to it in such a positive way as it's naturally grown is wonderful. but it's not something we could have planned for or foreseen.
"If we had thought we were going to be really rich or really famous we wouldn't be doing folk music out of left field. we would be trying to do something else.
"I do like that about folk music in respect of playing you know, when with musicians there is a completely different feel around folk music, there is more of a sense of supportiveness, camaraderie and interest from other musicians."
While fellow musicians can be supportive experience has shown the band that audiences can be a little harder to cope with.
The band's first album
"The folk audiences tend to be a little bit older and passionate about music in the same way that we are. It's where you reach that point where you are doing it because it's in your soul, it's in your core and you just do it and I think you find in a more folk and roots type audience they've stuck with music, music has remained as important to them as it did when they were younger.
"Like musicians, audiences go through phases, yes they are into the music when they are younger, they were into the fashions and trends that went with it but now they are older they probably haven't bought a contemporary record, or new record or been to see a gig for years or if they have it's been more of a nostalgia trip, more of a reunion than it is to see something new.
"So I think folk and roots audiences are great audiences in that they tend to be a little bit older but they are really serious about music, like us, to who music has remained as important as it was when they were younger. They've never grown out of it.
"Music is a funny thing with the different ways people have of appreciating it I suppose. Some people think what we are doing is sacrilege because we dare to mess around with a lyric or lose a verse or add a chorus. There are certain people who definitely see that as absolutely appalling.
"It's not necessarily vocal but you can tell. There was once where we played one of the well known folk festivals where you could have almost split the audience in two.
"You could see it in the faces where one side were thinking God this is fabulous and the other half were thinking this is bloody outrageous. But that's the way it goes, we do what we do, we are not going to change what we do because certain people don't like it, we do what we do and we hope enough people like it for it to sustain itself."

So does the band think they have overcome the "curse" which is often seen as afflicting a second album?

Work it out for yourselves
"We have done some traditional songs, albeit, we have changed and messed with them they are traditional which perhaps we should have done on the first album just to kind of give people more of a marker as to where our music came from, perhaps we have shown a little bit more of where it came from on this record and that's why it seems to be getting more broadly embraced.
"Perhaps those markers are there because we have done some more traditional songs, I don't know.
"I do know the response to this record from the feedback we seem to be getting from the folks and roots community is perhaps more accepting than it was for the first.
"We are very happy with it. I love the first record it was a great record but this record is different. We're a couple of years down the line and we are really pleased with it. But there are certain things where you always think that could have been a bit different or that could have been a bit better but that's life isn't it?
"Ultimately we were really happy with it, we think it's a really good CD and we like that if flows really well as a whole album.
"We are from the album generation so we are not just trying to write a couple of hit singles and then a load of filler around them. I suppose folk music and hit singles would be a ridiculous concept anyway but we're trying to get a collection of songs which are strong enough to stand up in their own right but then stick together to make a whole experience and we are really happy that we have done that. We had plenty of other songs we could have put on that record, but we felt we had to leave off because it might have spoiled the flow of it."

It may not be a philosophy which changes the course of history but is has worked for three musicians who enjoy and are passionate about what they do and have done it the traditional and often the hard way, so to all would-be musicians who feel they are not progressing quickly enough perhaps the secret is get a monkey, because as we all now know things go better with one, don't they?

All Life is Here is released on March 24

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Sunday 16 February 2014


Live Review

Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton

Unfortunately it wasn't the best turn out at the Newhampton Arts Centre to see two fine performances, one of which was a local lad who is really starting to make ripples on the local folk/acoustic scene.

Tom McConville
It's sad really because the centre in Dunkley Street, Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton is a real resource that is not only under threat but is underused and should be a jewel in the city's crown.
What the impressive venue does is bring wonderful acts such as the incredible fiddle player Tom McConville accompanied by Perthshire's Andy Watt right to your doorstep.
McConville, who looks a little like Victor Meldrew with a fiddle, produces some really gorgeous sounds with his instrument with such ease and  fluidity it almost as if the strings and wood are part of his DNA.
He opened with a song from fellow Northerner and former Lindisfarne man,  Billy Mitchell. With Home Where Me Heart Lives, he got the audience involved straight away with the refrain.
Right from the start you can see McConville's expertise on the fiddle, his movements up and down the positions as he plays are hypnotic and his finger play mirrors the flow and smoothness of the execution of Tai Chi. All this goes to produce a gorgeous and rich sound as he sang the soft folk ballad which had gentle Celtic undertones.
After a little self deprecating banter and some gentle goading of the audience he moved into an Irish country sound. Starting slowly and then adding layers such as a jazzy feel before, with relaxed precision, speeding up to give it a full-bodied reel sound.
For his next song One Last Smile by Alan Taylor McConville showed more of his voice which isn't the strongest or most tuneful but it is honest and organic and suits the style of folk and music he plays perfectly. This was another soft ballad which was made all the more enjoyable by being nicely supported by Watt's guitar and McConville's sparing use of his fiddle where is was a case of less is more.
His rendition of Mrs Elspeth Hardie from Ian Hardie had a gorgeous opening and he produced a beautiful slow air on the fiddle.
This was followed by Listen To The Wind which was a jauntier song with comic undertones, a toetapper with a strand of bluegrass and jazz woven into it by McConville's expert fingers.
With the Knife Grinder he moved more firmly into the jazz camp with his playing and it was held up wonderfully by some great inserts from Watt. As a contrast he moved smoothly into some Scottish jigs first with the sound of Orkney and again he added his improvised jazz inserts and incidentals, his hand gliding up and down the neck of his fiddle from third to first position with the smoothest of manoeuvres which then seamlessly moved into the second piece which gave him a chance to pull out some fantastic mini-duets with Watt.
Tom with Andy Watt
He went back to the traditional with Where The Blarney Roses Grow. In terms of the singing there are much better versions around but what made it was his improvising with other musical genres throwing in a hoe-down-style and more jazz sounds to add some colour to both his and Watt's guitar playing.
McConville came through then with a couple of storytelling songs with strong narratives, one about love during war which was a country blues song that had a definite bluegrass feel to it and even evoked a passing nod to the late great Lonnie Donegan.
There was a chance for Watt to shine with another narrative driven song in Slip, Jigs and Reels where his precise guitar picking came to the fore and which was followed by McConville's version of When The Boat Comes In. It was given a bluegrass sound and he had tampered with the traditional chorus which caught a few of the audience on the hop.
McConville wound down the set with Aragon Mill and another Orkney song When I'm Gone which was a beautiful slow air.
The Newcastle Fiddler is among the most respected and influential players of his and other generations and when you watch him make the most complex of musical practises look as simple as clicking your fingers you understand why, and realise he is fully deserving of the accolades poured on him.
Importantly it's local and friendly venues like the arts centre which are providing arenas for wonderful musicians such as McConville as well as up and coming artists such as the support Daniel Kirk and if we lose them then that would be a great tragedy for folk music and for the musical traditions of this nation as a whole.

Daniel Kirk

In contrast to McConville who has decades of experience under his belt Daniel Kirk is at the opening of his musical career and with his talent it IS going to be a career.
Daniel Kirk
His distinctive voice is easy on the ear and able to convey emotion wonderfully while still keeping an undertone of vulnerability. Kirk already has an impressive album under his belt, Navigation, which doesn't have a weak track on it. His voice has elements of Labi Siffre with just the occasional smidgen of Bruce Springsteen when he lets it off the leash.
He incorporates Americana into his playlists very smoothly with songs such as Alabama Pine. Kirk was back for at the arts centre for the second time in a month after making a big impression at the Folk Lounge which was put together by fellow local musician and friend Faye Brookes.
Kirk's "real" voice shone through with All I Want, a track from his album, which was a soft ballad that had a strong underbeat created by his guitar.
He produced another soft ballad from the album 3am which was accented by his precise string picking which he followed with his version of the incredible Richard Thompson song Beeswing. Kirk's version is slightly more upbeat than the original but it works well and he sang it at the Lounge show too, although this time he seemed less relaxed for some reason but it again was another chance to showcase his impressive guitar playing.
His  version of Bob Dylan's The House Carpenter opens with a blues-style holler and Kirk should consider at some stage singing this a cappella because his voice is good and strong enough to carry it.
Kirk looks and sounds every bit the professional and he's definitely going to find his own place on the folk/acoustic scene and moreso his days as a support act are numbered, thankfully.

Sunday 9 February 2014


Live Review

Newhampton Folk Club

David Eagle, Michael Hughes and Sean Cooney
The Young'uns

You could say when it comes to voices you get your money's worth with Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes, collectively known as The Young'Uns, as they spend almost as much time engaging in banter as they do singing.

The group from the North East, more specifically Stockton on Tees rarely draw breath with their fantastic three-part harmony singing, ripping the piss out of each other and any unfortunate audience member who chooses too walk into the firing line. When they finally finished introducing themselves they launched into Jack Ironside, unplugged. Using purely their impressive voices in the packed out upper room of the Newhampton Inn, their harmonious sounds filled every corner of the room. The song had real steel in its delivery and was made all the more enjoyable by their strong accents.
After another round of banter, much of it instigated by Eagle, they moved into the gentler ballad The Three Sailors which at times almost tipped over into Gregorian chant and their individual voices built a depth of sound that provided a strong undertone beneath the softer lyrics.
After this they picked up their instruments for the first time with Eagle on the accordion and Hughes on the guitar for Love In A Northern Town and for all of their irreverence you can tell they take both their execution and the tradition of their music and singing very seriously.
They sometimes sail close to the wind with their banter and making light of child sex and religious abuse could test the sensibilities of even the most seasoned of folk club patrons.
The instruments added an extra dimension to their strong harmonies, bringing a nice binding to the trio's jaunty number and gentler tones.
Three shanties followed and they recreated the wonderfully traditional and bawdy style you would expect from sailors. They have got harmonising down to a fine art while keeping their individual styles very distinct with Eagle's raucous voice adding a real edge which is softened by Cooney's tenor voice and both are upheld and woven together with Hughes' soft, deep tones. The shanties included the rope pulling rhythm of Blood Red Roses and the mellower Shallow Brown.
The Young'uns
Picking up their instruments again they launched into a love song, Waiting For The Ferry, a slow air which was a great example of how gentle and thoughtful their tones can be.
Right out of left field they pulled a shanty sung in French, Pique La Baleine, which they belted out with real gusto and because it was sung in French it added, if possible, an even bawdier feel to the machine gun delivery.
One of the great things about their songs is that they are organic, they all carry that tradition of narrative and drawing inspiration from the events not only around them but which have shaped the singers and their generations - passing on the stories and events to the next generation in the ancient oral tradition. This may not sound like it would make a difference but it's obvious from how the trio perform they know why they sing the songs they do and feel connected not just to the stories the songs tell but to the people the stories talk about and that's where their real emotion and love of the song shows through.
A perfect example was John Hill a really evocative song about one of Cooney's ancestors who died in The Geat War. 
Even though it was also a homage to the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One there was a slight 1960s undertone to it and it was made all the more poignant by the harmony of the hymn Lord of All Hopefullness/Be Thou My Vision woven into it. 
Another offering was Tenting Tonight which originally came from the American Civil War and they did it justice with just the right tone and blend of harmonies which gave it the sound of a WWI song in the vein of Pack Up Your Troubles while still keeping the feel of the church congregations of the US singing in the hope of their loved ones return.
They changed the pace and the mood with a real belter, Bully in the Alley which was brought into the public consciousness more recently by Fisherman's Friends and although there were only three of them they easily matched the larger group with their delivery using only their voices.
Oswald Mosley
Eagle and Hughes strapped back on their instruments for Battle of Stockton which was something of a contradiction because it was a gentle ballad which was describing a violent rally against Oswald Mosely's Blackshirts in the 1930s, as the fascist group tried to recruit the working classes of the town who were having none of it.
They kept the softer tone for Beneath The Sandwell Gate where again through their intricate blend of voices produced a clear narrative about changing times and how people live beside and cope with the sea
The lads picked up their instruments once again for Biscuits of Bull Lane which carries the wonderful story of how people took the sting out of a race-motivated march by the English Defence League on a mosque in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder. Instead of meeting them head on in anger or violence the residents of Bull Lane, York took the sting out of the situation by offering tea and biscuits, not so much the Boston but the Bull Lane tea party.
Eagle carried the story one stage further seeing events from the perspective of an EDL supporter. It's everything a folk song should be, based around a true event, politically barbed and full of irreverent comment while making it's point loud and clear. The song has a musical hall feel to it and shows racism for the stupid, divisive and destructive force it can be.
To take out the night they put their voices to John Ball which celebrates the 600th anniversary of the Peasants' Revolt. It was a traditional and defiant song which, like all the songs on the night, was executed with the precision of a marksman.
Sometimes, The Young'uns use their talents and voices like weapons exposing some of what's wrong with society; sometimes they are used to paint pictures and bring characters to life; sometimes to keep traditions, which should be upheld, alive and sometimes to have fun and entertain but always with precision, enthusiasm, emotion and determination to give a bloody good show.
Though the question remains, when will they change to being the Old'uns?

The Young'uns new album Never Forget is due for release on March 17.

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