Monday 23 May 2016


CD Review

Good Times Will Come Again

It's reassuring that Megson is among those who are writing the future history of folk. As many of the current musicians are lamenting the loss of the mining and shipping industries, and rightly so, then the husband and wife team of Stu and Debbie Hanna are tapping into the problems and concerns of now, which will be a reference point for successive generations of folk singers.

Debbie and Stu Hanna who are Megson
It's been a long time coming, but this is an album of original songs and there isn't a bad track on it. Like a cottage industry, the duo wrote, performed and produced the album themselves with grateful input from special guests John Parker and Patrick Duffin.
This is an album of social insight, witty and stinging comment, and acute observation which keeps a strand of guarded optimism for good measure.
Opening with Generation Rent, the upbeat song, which is reminiscent of when Squeeze burst onto the pop scene, sings about getting on the shaky rungs of the property ladder. Stu's singing takes precedence with Debbie providing the strong harmonies.
The song is a self-fulfilling prophecy and hints at the circle of life where the subjects want to move out of their parents home for a place of their own which they eventually do but then of course it no longer becomes their own as they have children and the cycle begins again. There are some super lyrics in there, which is not really surprising from the duo, such as: "We got married with a kiss and a cough, dressed up like a toff, I'm still paying it off. We spent our honeymoon, watching Boon, in her parents' room." It's also an indictment of how we have become a more "nomadic" society and the idea of extended families living in the same house has been consigned to the bin of social history.
The beautiful ballad, A Prayer for Hope is simple, short but very poignant and comes across as really heartfelt.
Stu and Debbie's voices have this wonderful quality of never quite fully blending together but like the Yin & Yang produce a real harmony while being distinctly separate. The track is a perfect example of how you can make a really telling song out of not much.
Burn Away is one of two songs, the other being Patterns, which focuses on the steel industry which at the moment is a highly sensitive topic as thousands of steel workers stand on the edge of the employment scrapheap.
There is definite fire in their lyrics as they lament yet another industrial disaster in the offing. In Burn Away there is a feel of the industry in the timbre of the tune and in complete contrast, in Patterns, Debbie adds a more doleful sound as local steel workers are hit with redundancy notices and once again ordinary lives are thrown into turmoil.
There is genuine emotion in The Bonny Lad, a song of deep-felt loss; of the wars which have taken sons from their mothers but of course it will resonate with any mother who has lost a child. The gentle tone of Debbie conveys the lament and uncluttered construction of the ballad gives it a real poignancy.
A scene from I, Daniel Blake
Pushing On could be the soundtrack to the latest Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake and concerns itself with people spending so much time trying to make ends meet that they actually have little time for anything else.
There is a genuine empathy and a plaintive tone to the Hannas' refrains with the fiddle and strings emulating that constant motion of just trying to get by.
There is a straightforward love story in The Bookkeeper set in the universally accepted as boring world of accountancy, which just goes to show you romance can blossom anywhere. Stu's lyrics are so honest they could easily come from experience and you get the message from a couple who work with figures and costs and yet realise there is something more valuable than profits in a column and again there are great lyrics to back up the meaning, "But the love a true heart holds, never can be sold."
Among the most thoughtful tracks on this impressive album is Raper Te Bank, a phrase lent from north East colloquialisms from the language forged in the region's industrial past. You get a sense with Stu's gentle offering and Debbie's refrain that even amidst the graft, dust, dirt and sweat of coal mining the flower of romance can blossom.
Zero is almost a musical joke where you have the duo producing a light Morris-style tune produced by Stu on the banjo overlaid onto the subject of people being trapped in zero hour contracts. The ludicrous juxtaposition matches the farce of the situation of workers being exploited and kept at the employers' mercy. It's a clever match up and a great folk strategy of making a subject which would rankle with many people palatable and often more memorable.
The new album
The duo take out the album with a song of dreams and optimism with the title track and is reminiscent of Big Rock Candy Mountain made famous by legend Woody Guthrie.
There is that vision that things will be OK when the bust again turns to boom but there is always that tone of misguided optimism ,of someone clinging to a dream because they have no other option but to believe in it and, whether intended or not it, comes over as a wonderfully ironic song.
Good Times Will Come Again is a musical snapshot of now. The Hannas have captured a chunk of British social history in way that is entertaining, thought provoking, great to listen to and extremely well constructed with nuances which are incredibly subtle. These songs will be a reference point for folk singers and musicians of the future as well a wonderful example of what more folk music could and should be doing.

Good Times Will Come Again is released on May 27 on EDJ Records and is available through the band's website.

You can catch the duo live at The Stables, Milton Keynes on May 25. Show starts 8.45pm and tickets are £13.50. Then there is their official London album launch on May 27 at King's Place, Hall 2. The show starts 8pm and tickets are £12.50. Also The Junction Cambridge on June 3. Show starts 8pm and tickets are £15 in advance. They then move on to the Artrix, Bromsgrove June 4. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £20. On June 25 they play Aulsis Hall, Chapelthorpe, Wakefield. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £13.20 including booking fee.

Tuesday 17 May 2016


CD Review

The Butcher

There have been some epic folk albums over the last couple of years with the commemoration of the First World War, Show of Hands, Oysterband, The Full English and there was also Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull fame, who gave us his rock opera, so not to be outdone, Paul Mosley & The Red Meat Orchestra have come up with their folk opera, The Butcher.

Paul Mosley
The project has been on the boil for two years for Hartlepool's Mosley who has produced the 20 songs and called on the talents of a host of musicians to create this epic ghost story.
This complex tale, which links back to Harry Nilsson's The Point, Kate Bush's The Ninth Wave and Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, is on it's simplest level, the story of a good man gone bad.
Mosley intends to perform the whole shebang in June. You have to hand it to him, it's a massive project which has a wide range of sounds, tunes and songs and it's a production which has unbelievable ambition, but the more you listen to it the more you realise the project is entirely feasible because Mosley produces the goods. From the opener The Lighthouse, where you also first hear from Josienne Clarke, you understand this is a class act which has been given a great deal of thought and very little has been left to chance.
There are occasions when the remit moves away from the folk strand, Soul To Save is a good example, but then you kind of expect that from someone who has spent timing working on the alt-folk circuit and, let's face it, there is unlikely to be a music genre which could contain Mosley's talent.
The World is Flat is one of the offerings where Mosley takes a back seat and leaves it to Jamie Lawson and Esther Dee of the Mediaevel Baebes and who likes to get her voice into a dark tale.
You get to hear from The Red Meat Orchestra for the first time on Introducing.... This acoustic, Spanish style guitar is just a teaser for what opens out to be avalanche of sound and introduces The Butcher.
The one thing which the music allows you to do is grasp Mosley's concept and a feel for the musical narrative but of course the full picture will not be revealed until it's put together with the visuals which are planned for the big launch.
There are so many styles included in this work that you kind of wonder if Mosley is going for overload. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of folk along with people's perceptions of the genre, and while he steps outside the mark on occasion, he does give that reassurance that the roots are still there. You listen to tracks such as Shadows on the Wall and there is a familiar folk sound to it with Dee's voice, but by the same token you have a musical show strand to it so Mosley manages to fuse the niche with the big production.
Josienne Clarke
Individually the songs are sound but you kind of hanker for the strength of connection that applying the visuals will hopefully give.
If you want to hear a clear example of Mosley's talent then You Don't Need Love should divvy up the goods. It's short but sweet and shows you that while he has the bigger picture in his mind of the overall project he still has time to provide the detail in a single track. There are some great and experimental songs on this collection, one example being Satellites, that it's going to cover a lot of ground for a lot of people. The more you listen to the tracks the more you hope this lies somewhere between the Rocky Horror Show and The Wall to become a cult offering. You can almost hear the lyrics of songs such as Lighthouse Pt 2 - "Heave ho, ships below, guiding light gonna save my soul" being sung back to them by the audience.
Mosley will be premiering in June with the full cast and it's probably only then you will get the complete feeling of this epic work, even though the music side of the production is impressive enough and certainly whets the appetite for the full monty.
Dee lets her silky voice slide over My Armour followed by Mosley teaming up with Catherine Earnshaw for the soft ballad No Hound Dog On Your Trail. With tracks such as Nothing In The Desert, where Mosley teams up with Lawson, there is a real retro Sixties feel with a smattering of the Polyphonic Spree about it. There is certainly a great deal of thought and experiment gone into this piece of work and the logistics of putting it all together and organising all the musicians must have brought more than a few headaches. Calling it a folk opera could also limit its appeal and marketability which is another chance Mosley is taking but like the Budweiser slogan says, if your dream doesn't scare you then it's not big enough.
The epic album
However, the quality of the tunes, composition and musicians he has surrounded himself with is unquestionable. There are shades of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds not just in the scale of the work but in the creation of the drama through music and that's even before you get a chance to enjoy them married to the planned visuals.
There are certain tracks where you just want to see the images Mosley intends to marry it with such as The Rage which he performs with Sophie Bradley to produce a thumping song which is full of life and energy.
Mosley has laid out his vast array of talents along with those who have contributed to build this incredible work and he will be touring with it in various combinations of musicians and scale. The album is released on May 27 through Folkwit Records but the all bells and whistles launch is at The Courtyard Theatre, Shoreditch, London on Thursday June 2, tickets are £12 plus a booking fee, show starts 8.30pm.
Going purely on the incredible collections of tunes and songs which he has laid down it should be a night where you are going to see and hear something special.

Thursday 12 May 2016


CD Review

All Seven Stars

If you are going to have an opening track on a debut album then usually you go for something catchy; a tune which pulls the ear of the listener in or something that is going to get their feet tapping straight away. 

From left, Tanya Jackson, Caroline Regan, Marion Gray
and Polly Hunt who are Long Lankin.
  Pic copyright Laura Radford
Or you can just ignore this and go with a tune from Shetland which has been gleaned from a fragment of old Norse.
Fair play to Long Lankin, they set their stall out with a big sign saying here's something a little out of the ordinary. With their arrangement of the Unst Boat Song, Tanya Jackson, Marion Gray, Caroline Regan and Polly Hunt put their harmonising and stripped down musical arrangement on show, and straight away you realise you are listening to something with a history and with depth.
In this track, they have a similar style to The Unthanks where their interpretation is more important than any musical convention.
Jackson's Poacher is her new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale and unlike the previous track is does have the flowing undulation of a ballad. She sings alongside her fellow musicians on top of the harmonies and simple percussion notated by the gentle stroke of Gray on the fiddle.
There is no two ways about it, Long Lankin know their instruments and often have a more-is-less approach to using them, but they are all about the voices, and why wouldn't they play to their strengths. Bonnie Ship the Diamond is a whaling song and, but for the occasional interjection of Regan on the whistle to add colour, the song is pretty much A Capella which is a great way for them to show off the strength of harmonies they can carry. They go on to branch out into the traditional sound of Sweden with two tunes. The combination of concertina, fiddle, guitar and guest Stephen Street on double bass give the first part an almost Cajun feel, the second part sets a quicker pace with the accordion coming to the fore. It's hardly surprising the quartet spread their musical net far and wide as Scotland, Ireland and England along with Bulgaria are represented in their respective backgrounds.
Royl Field Hill from Gray has the feel of a poem set to music. The simple backbeat of second guest Ray Moody catches the cadence of the slow and precise narrative which is inspired by her childhood. It does have the experimental feel to it similar to some of the early works of Fairport Convention. They go for the full A Capella with their arrangement of the traditional north East ballad, Here's the Tender Coming. The four part harmonies get the balance right between blending the voices as a whole without losing each separate identity or encroaching on the sound of their fellow singers. It works really well with the differences in pitch set spot on. They leave the singing behind for the next track taking on two Irish reels, Devanny's Goat and Maud Miller. Regan's concertina gives it an understated opening and paves the way for Gray's fiddle before the other band members fill out the spaces for what are two real toe tappers.
Their arrangement of Robert Burns' Now Westlin Winds has a gentle opening with Jackson on Guitar. Gray's singing has a doleful quality which adds to her storytelling style on this track that is then lifted by the harmonies of her fellow band members.
Regan gets to let her voice off the leash for County Down, a strong but mellow ballad from Tommy Sands, which gives another chance to hear how well the four women harmonise and get that balance between voices and instruments just right, there is even the gentle growl of Street's strings in the background.
The accordion and fiddle seamlessly bring in another instrumental in Arthur's Tunes from Jackson, which are two light and extremely pleasant compositions written for her son. Without doubt the most intriguing and theatrical track on the album is Sailboat Malarkey which is their version of a sea shanty, however the opening pizzicato, along with the muted voices and instruments, add a real ethereal and eerie feel to a tale of a mystery ship.
They take the album out with a traditional bang in the shape of Bonnie Lass O' Fyvie O which is an old story of a love affair which doesn't have a happy ending. The song has the strength and speed of something from The Pogues or Bellowhead but not quite the energy, even so it's as good a way to end an album as any.
If Long Lankin set out to put their musical and vocal CV down on an album then they have succeeded admirably. This debut is a fascinating and eclectic collection of songs and tunes which show the listener how diverse the bands' talents and how wide ranging their interests in music are.
All Seven Stars is available now through the band's website and via iTunes or Amazon.

You can catch the band live July 7 at Orpington Folk Club, which is held at the Change of Horses, Farnborough High Street, Nr Orpington,  Kent

Sunday 8 May 2016


CD Review

Burning Sun & the Atomic Powers Within

The Mining Co sounds like a band but it is simply Mike Gallagher who is based in London. He has a style which seems to remind of several other singers and yet which stands out and creates a clear and distinct way of bringing atmosphere into a song. 

Mike Gallagher who is The Mining Co
His take on Americana/country/folk is something which is pretty different.
The opening track, Country Heart, is almost like alcohol for the ears. You start listening to the laid-back and almost lazy tones and you suddenly start to feel chilled, woozy even light-headed. His soft voice along with the simple percussion and pedal steel produces a really chilled effect.
Gallagher has this style of singing which has the feel of someone almost about to fall asleep or just woken up, and that is in no way a criticism. His way of performing comes across as so chilled if you put your tongue on him it would be stuck there.
Cover of Night has that soul/gospel sound from the organ and Gallagher keeps his chilled persona for the track which is far too short. There is something so likable about listening to Gallagher. On the title track he keeps the same pace but adds a definite drum beat which, while giving it a clear tempo, never really detracts from the easy pace with which he executes his songs.
Copper Ghosts is close to a travelling song but that mellow tone of his is still there, almost like a comfort blanket.
His singing has elements from so many other performers and yet retains uniqueness. He seems almost destined to become something of a cult figure, the sort of singer who polarises people. However, whichever camp you choose to join, Gallagher is just a damn good listen.
There are elements of Bruce Springsteen on Ballad of the Mining Company, it has that sort of social comment strength to it. The Brooding percussion intro is ominous and in comes Gallagher's unassuming yet distinctive voice which feels like a blend of Springsteen, Mark Knopfler and Roger Waters.
The haunting backing from the pedal steel adds to what is a fantastically atmospheric track and arguably the best on the album.
Homeward Bound is a simple ballad which punches above its weight and you get more of a feel of the gravelly element to the singers vocals. You also get to feel more emotion from his performance as his singing undulates in an almost lazy manner.
The new album
You can almost see the sunset over Monument Valley in Shoot The Stars, you can feel the gentle warm winds stirring the sands, it has that feel about it. Gallagher produces this troubled element to this singing which puts across real emotion and the combination of guitars and pedal steel produces the perfect accompaniment.
The opening banjo chords of Lonesome Bird is close to a restrained version of a First Aid Kit song.
Once again Gallagher's laid back, almost reluctant tinge to his singing gives it real musical depth. The banjo undercurrent all the way through is a really nice touch, as is the native style drumming adding another layer to the track.
The album goes out on a stronger country style which is reminiscent of Johnny Cash but while Gallagher can hit those gravelly low notes his tone has a much softer, lighter element.
Though Gallagher, Burning Sun & Atomic Power Within has a definite style which lifts it above the usually country music fare. But the singer's combination of a deliberate and slower style and the elements of Americana/folk music gives this album a real standout quality and is perfect for when you are on the open road on a sunny evening.

Burning Sun & the Atomic Power Within is available now from the artist's website and through download.

Wednesday 4 May 2016


CD Review

Between River and Railway

One of the greatest pleasures of folk music is the quality of female voices it both attracts and lends itself to and to that list, if such a thing exists, you can add Scot, Claire Hastings

Claire Hastings
Her debut album has been hotly anticipated since winning the BBC young traditional musician of the year award for 2015.
Right from the off, the collection has a feelgood factor and with her opening track The House At Rosehill, she lays out not only that she is a great storyteller but has the ability to so easily paint pictures with her voice, as well as lay out an almost entire family history in one song.
The house of the title is where she and four generations of her family grew up and enjoyed their childhoods. Like many Scots singers, Hastings also sings while keeping her strong Dumfries accent refusing, like so many singers nowadays, to adopt that American/English accent when it comes to singing.
Hastings has a light, dancing voice which skips along like a child without a care on a sunny day as she recalls her fond memories of growing up in the house.
She puts a new coat on the traditional The Bothy Lads, a great staple of the folk world about a young woman who has been wronged by a farm hand. Hasting's voice and singing style keeps it anchored firmly in the trad style while the musicians she has surrounded herself with keep it moving along with an upbeat modern style. You can clearly hear the contribution from Jenn Butterworth on guitar, Andrew Waite on accordion, Laura Wilkie on fiddle and Martin O'Neill on percussion.
Son of No One is a more thoughtful song inspired from a true story of an Irish boy who was separated from his mother at a home for unmarried mums.
Robert Burns
Hastings gives a more sombre tone to her singing in keeping with the subject matter. Wilkie provides a haunting background on the fiddle to add to the atmosphere which is further enhanced by Keir Long's keyboard skills. In contrast the much lighter I Missed The Boat, came from a challenge where Hastings was restricted to the use of 30 words and a damn fine job she makes of it too. The track is accompanied simply by Hasting's ukulele and coloured in by Butterworth.
You really get a feel for the quality of Hasting's singing with her take on the Robert Burns composition The Posie to which she bravely decided to add her own melody. When you listen to the obvious respect for the material Hastings has; the gentle but definite singing - then there is little for Burns to disapprove of. If you listen carefully there is an almost eerie breathing underneath her voice which along with the church-like sounds fill the tune with really strong atmospherics.
If you wanted any confirmation Hastings is from Scotland then Let Ramensky Go, also known as The Ballad of Johnny Ramensky, should be enough. She holds on to great colloquial phrases such as "There was a lad in Glasgee toon" and "Coodnay hurt wee Johnny". It's a wonderful tale from Roddy McMillan about a safe cracker who is employed by the War Office during World War II to steal German documents. Hastings keeps the pace going strong throughout for what is a great folk song about a outlaw who became famous.
When  A Knight Won His Spurs opens with a church organ style melody from Waite's accordion, which is not really surprising when you consider it was originally a hymn dating back to the 1930s. Wilkie again adds colour to the depth of Hasting's crystal clear singing which is always a delight to listen to, even when dealing with sombre subjects her light and feminine voice never becomes mawkish.
The debut album
Hastings includes her granny's favourite song in the collection which is Annie Laurie and is a simple vehicle for her lilting tones with the accordion and ukulele providing the vehicle to carry the song along. The song is from a poem written for a young woman of the local nobility. You get a feeling from the refrains that Hastings reaches the top of her range and it's a gentle ballad made all the more enjoyable for her light and clear style.
Perhaps the most modern sounding track on the album is Gretna Girls even though once again the song is inspired by a pretty serious subject. The women who worked in the munitions factory of World War One in what were dangerous and often unpleasant conditions. Hastings again uses her talent for getting the point of the story across very clearly without getting mired down in sentiment or becoming overly solemn.
The final track, Come Spend a While Wi Me, is another gentle ballad which Hastings makes her own both with the quality of her voice and by retaining her strong Scottish vocabulary which somehow gives it another emotional level. What makes the song too is the "more is less" stance from the accompanying musicians who have added real colour to the stories without interfering with Hastings' skill as a storyteller.
For a debut album, Between River and Railway, listen to the first track to get the reasoning behind the title, is superb. Hastings comes fully loaded with professionalism, confidence, talent and a real penchant for creating stories you can almost walk into.

Between River and Railway is out now on Luckenbooth Records.

You can catch Hastings live on May 6 (with Jenn Butterworth only) at the Red Roof CafĂ©, Skye. Show stars 8pm and you need to contact the venue to reserve tickets which are £12. Then on May 8 she moves on to her album launch at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow. Doors open 7.30pm for an 8pm start and tickets are £10 or £9 with concessions including booking fee. It's on to The Ceilidh Place, West Argyle Street, Ullapool on May 12. Tickets are £8. The following night, May13, she plays Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow with Robyn Stapleton & Talisk. Show begins 7.30pm and tickets are £6.50 or £5. On May 14 she plays Johnstonebridge Community Centre, Johnstonebridge. Show starts 8pm. Then on May 19 she performs at Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club, which meets at the Polish Ex-servicemen's Club, Bennochy House, Forth Park Drive, as part of Top Floor Taivers. It's on to play at Shepley Folk Festival on May 20 where she will perform at St Paul's Church sometime between 7.30 and 9.30pm and will share a stage with Shepley Singers and friends, Shelley Music Centre Adult Swing Band and and Jack Patchett. Tickets are £5. Another gathering calls on May 21, this time it's Perth Festival where she will be sharing the stage with Manran and Sinderins. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £19.50, £17.50 with concessions and £11.50 for pupils including booking fee.  Finally on May 27 it's off to Woodend Barn, Banchory. Show starts 8pm and tickets range from £5.50 to £11.

The Mike Harding Folk Show