Tuesday 12 December 2017


CD Review

Avenging & Bright

Damien O'Kane
Either Damien O’Kane has so much talent it cannot be confined by one particular genre or he chooses not to recognise the boundaries, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

His third solo album continues the journey from his previous, highly acclaimed collection however, there are times on this disc where, if you didn’t know the history of the lyrics, you would find it difficult to see its folk credentials at all.

There are tracks where the electronics and electric guitar completely overshadow any traditional strand. Fortunately there are also tunes where the modern arrangement has been more sympathetic in the fusion. It does though create an album which has a kind of musical schizophrenia.

The opening of Boston City feels like it’s been lifted from a 10CC track but is followed by that melancholic Celtic drawl which seems to define certain singers such as Kris Drever, Ewan McLennan, Dick Gaughan and of course O’Kane.

If you listen carefully there is a definite cut off point almost as if O’Kane says that’s enough, now for the roots and the banjo picks in, very subtly at first but grows as the song progresses. It’s one of those cases where whether you like his singing style or fusion of sounds you cannot argue against his talent on the banjo.

Strangely enough the opening of Poor Stranger is very close to the border of Muzak. The lyrics are from a traditional Irish song but it’s been surrounded by electronics and electric guitar which makes the song a little insipid.

Kate Rusby
This is one of those tracks where there is little to commend it as traditional or folk.

It’s O’Kane’s voice which saves Bright Flowers, the lyrics and his style do pay homage to the traditional but again the backing music is far too middle of the road.

Unfortunately it doesn’t get any better with the title track unless you are into Lalo Schifrin-style funk. The backing music is good at what it does but sounds more like the soundtrack to an episode of Starsky & Hutch.

O’Kane does get nearer the target with Castle Kelly's, the electric intro bringing in a recognisably traditional beat backed up by what he does best, producing some amazing banjo picking.

Underneath this is a definite reggae-style cadence which blends well but O’Kane’s picking is the star of show.

With Lately, right from the off you can hear his wife Kate Rusby’s fingerprints all over this track. The gentle ballad, where she also adds backing vocals, is among the better tracks on the album with O’Kane’s voice taking on a softer tone in sympathy with Rusby’s.

All Among the Barley gives O’Kane a chance to show just how rich and strong his voice is and is a great track with poetic lyrics which evoke vivid images. Perhaps the only downside is the irritating electronic tinkle which is underneath the whole track but adds nothing to it.

The balance between the modern and the traditional comes very close to being harmonised with January Man. Here the music does go a long way to complement O’Kane’s singing and does genuinely seem to be giving body to the lyrics.

Homes of Donegal will be so familiar to many listeners and O’Kane’s emotive singing more than does it justice. The subtle music works really well, with the guitar playing going a long way to carry the atmosphere O’Kane creates with his voice.

O'Kane's third solo album
The percussion on Many’s the Night certainly makes its presence felt and there are times when O’Kane seems to be competing against it rather than the two complementing each other.

The same is true of his banjo playing, there are points in the track where it gets drowned out but overall it is a strong track which is easy to listen to.

O’Kane’s album goes out with Dancing in Puddles which has a gentle intro almost like the last tune of the night to send people home from the dance. It is a very thoughtful and languid tune and really enjoyable when you sit and let it wash over your imagination.

Adopted Yorkshireman O’Kane is not afraid to push the boundaries or be fiercely adventurous musically and for that he is to be commended. This is an album which works in parts and not in others but it’s O’Kane’s fans and listeners who will have the final say and rightly so.

Avenging & Bright is released by Pure Records and available from the artist's website and usual download sites.

This month you can see O'Kane perform while on tour with his wife on December 16 they play Town Hall, Victoria Square, Birmingham.B3 3DQ. Doors open 7.30pm and tickets are £28 (Under 16s - £18). Free (limited) ticket for disabled visitor’s carers and wheelchair user’s helpers, as per access scheme.

The following night, Dec 17 you can see the couple at G Live, London Road, Guildford. GU1 2AA. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £28 with discounts for parties of eight or more. Under-16s are £19 and there is a £2.50 discount for friends of the venue.

Then on Dec 18 you can catch them at Barbican Centre, Silk St, London. EC2Y 8DS. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £30 plus booking fee. Concessions and discounts are available.
On Dec 19 they play the Theatre Royal, Concert Hall, Theatre Square, Nottingham. NG1 5ND. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £26 plus booking fee.

To finish off the month on Dec 20 they will be playing The Sage, St Mary's Square, Gateshead Quays, Gateshead, NE8 2JR. Show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £29.40 or £21.80 for under-16s.

Damien and his band will also be touring in February 2018 and with fellow banjoist Ron Block later in the year.

Wednesday 6 December 2017


CD Review


Ross Ainslie

At the risk of making a massive understatement, Ross Ainslie’s new album is eclectic in the genres and sounds he brings together on his third album. This said the one constant thread is tartan; the flavour of the musician’s home of Scotland is there in every track.

Prolific and multi-talented, Ainslie takes the listener on a journey with his music. There is also an element of the cathartic as it seems to mark a watershed in his life in terms of his relationship with alcohol.

The opener is a calm, ethnic sounding track with the varied line up of instruments creating a chilled atmosphere, before Ainslie comes in on the bansuri, one of several instruments he plays on the track.

It undoubtedly has the sound of India, as Ainslie intended, but with subtle little touches such as, if you listen carefully, you will hear the banjo underneath the other instruments.

Talking of banjo it gets more of a show on the light Happy Place, this time though from the expert fingers of guest Damien O’Kane whose own new album Avenging & Bright is due out any day now. The tune does exactly what it says on the tin and provides a light and happy space in which to enjoy Ainslie’s whistle playing.

Sense of Family is brought in with the doleful tones of Greg Lawson on fiddle and is then delicately picked through with guitar and cittern before being wrapped up in Ainslie’s ultra-smooth whistle.

The previous track segues into Protect Yourself where Steven Byrnes provides the guitar rhythm as Ainslie flexes his whistle fingers for this fast-paced tune which, in turn, leads to the much mellower pace of Surroundings the lightness of Ainslie’s whistle lightly dancing across what is a funk style under beat.

Once again the long and lingering last note leads into Beautiful Mysteries which brings back the Asian influence. This time the feel is more Turkish or Syrian. It has a hypnotic cadence and you almost feel yourself swaying back and forth like a cobra in a basket.

Zakir Hussain
Home in Another Dimension continues that theme with Zakir Hussain providing the distinctive sound of the tabla to help create the atmosphere of what could easily be the background to swirling dancers enthralling everyone with their movements. 

Added to this you have Lawson creating a vortex of sound with some incredible fiddle playing to give the whole track a touch of the manic.

This album is designed to sound like one continuous track with only the odd strategically placed snap break to distinguish between some of the tunes.

Ainslie moves more towards the jazz camp for Cloud Surfing with his whistle very much taking the lead and keep the pace racing along for what is a very easy listening piece.

The cittern keeps the pace up for Obstacles of the Mind which brings in a mixture of the Middle East and gypsy music. It is intertwined with the mysterious sounding fiddle and the solid percussion of Cormac Byrne.

Again there is no breathing space between this track and the next, Road to Recovery. Ainslie’s small pipes take on a muted role with his whistle playing. Hussain adds to proceedings with his subtle tabla beat.

Its abrupt end seems almost accidental as Let the Wild Ones Roam comes in immediately. Again Ainslie brings his skilful pipe playing to the fore, almost as if to reassert that this is traditional and even more so Scottish roots traditional.

The pipes come at you like machine gun fire and are wonderfully tempered by O’Kane’s banjo skills to form what is probably the most traditional, and the longest, track on the album.

The new album
The final track, Escaping Gravity, is yet another twist in the form of a spoken poem with co-writer Jock Urquhart providing the narration over the top of a repetitive tune.

The cryptic lines will speak in different ways to listeners but there is a message of hope rising from what comes across, at first, as cynicism and disillusionment but ultimately there is change and the music as Ainslie admits is his own inner sanctuary.

You can hear the influences of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in the structure and form of Ainslie’s album but that’s really where the similarities end.

This album comes across as a very personal journey for Ainslie who in his own words says: “I would retreat to my room a lot…I’ve found it to be a very productive and creative space, if I’m having a bad day music is always the thing that will pick me up…that’s why this album is called Sanctuary.”

Sanctuary now is available on Great White Records from the artist’s website and across all online platforms.

Friday 1 December 2017


CD Review

Bring Back Home

Ange Hardy

Ange Hardy should come with a health warning as well as kept well away from shipping lanes. Sirens who lured sailors to their doom with beautiful singing are supposed to be fantasy figures, however, after listening to Hardy's latest album that notion is thrown into doubt.

Her song writing and ability to infuse her compositions and arrangements with a magical essence is mesmerising. The talent she exudes with such ease puts her right up there with the best female folk singers in the UK.

Even Michael Cook’s cover artwork has both an ethereal and sinister feel and could easily be mistaken for one of the illustrations JRR Tolkien created for his famous books.

Should you want to open an album with a track which grabs your spirit, attention, your mind and imagination then Sisters Three is the way to do it. Hardy’s galloping and silky singing on this murder ballad is mixed with Peter Knight’s exquisite fiddle playing.

It creates a magical realm that explodes around you, giving you a sense of Hardy dancing around making you dizzy, breaking down your resistance until you are totally captivated by the world she creates.

You recover in the woods looking up at the blue sky and never ending trees with birdsong restoring your senses on Once I Was a Rose. Hardy’s other worldly humming creates a magical atmosphere for this conscience pricking song. There is a tone of regret in her singing as she reminds listeners not to forget their loved ones.

It really wouldn’t be a folk album without a song about the sea and the title track delivers. Hardy’s poignant lyrics are carried along by Evan Carson using cymbals to create the sound of the restless waves and Alex Cumming adding the sound of salt-washed shores with his bellows.

Together, with Hardy’s subtle guitar picking, they create what is a beautifully thoughtful song which washes over you and taps deep into your psyche.

St Decuman is a wonderfully preposterous story which, as we all know, make fantastic folk tunes. Shirley Williams recently stated you cannot write folk music, meaning folk musicians write music which then evolves into folk music by passing through the hearts and minds of folk to be adapted and passed on for generations.
St Decuman's Church, Watchet

Future folk songs have to start somewhere and this track sounds like the birth of one.

Hunters, hares, shape changers, willow trees and spells - how can you not like a ballad which crams in all these elements of myth, magic and legend?

With The Hunter, The Prey Hardy’s breathy tones create images of a group enthralled as she tells her tale. Once again that tableau is given colour and atmosphere by Knight on fiddle and Jon Dyer on whistle.

If you didn’t know how enamoured Hardy is with all things in nature then the uplifting Summer’s Day/Little Wilscombe makes it obvious. It has the feel of music of The Shire composed by Howard Shore. The sound could easily be the lost tunes of Hobbiton.

Claudy Banks (Roud 266) is Hardy’s take on a traditional song which she first picked up four years ago. This ballad, of a troubled romance and eventual redemption, is perfect for her soft, clear tones.

This is followed by the musical fable Little Benny Sing Well. The counting song-style of the tune speaks of the virtues of tenacity. There is a nice juxtaposition of Hardy’s velvety tones and Knight’s more gravelly, wizard-like singing. Once again Knight’s fiddle and Hardy’s harp inserts create a marvellous arena in which to listen to the tale.

Waters of Tyne Road (Roud 1364) is a love song which Hardy takes on herself using voice and harp. The ethereal instrument is perfectly suited to Hardy’s voice making her interpretation hymn-like.

Her storytelling comes up with the staple of many a folk song in Husband John - a tale of treachery and murder. Here Hardy sounds remarkably like another great songstress and storyteller, Daria Kulesh. The simplicity of the accompaniment which entwines the fiddle, whistle and guitar sets the perfect tone.

There is always a danger when a writer produces something as personal as A Girl Like Her, which is about Hardy's daughter and her struggle to be understood, that the listener can feel like an intruder.

However, Hardy is a very open person, you only have to read her online biography to know that, and so knows how to lay out the facts without being distant or emotionally saccharin.

Also inspired by real life is What May You Do for the JAM? triggered by Theresa May’s use of the term ‘Just About Managing’ and the subsequent response to the TV show she was on. Like many political songs it’s the words which are most important and Hardy doesn’t clutter the lyrics with anything other than the rhythm of her guitar.

Hardy's new album
Given Hardy’s past battles to be where she is now it would be easy to assume Chase the Devil Down had a cathartic strand. However, like most of her songs she has an incredible knack of keeping things light without diluting any of the message.

The emotion and feeling Hardy can muster is astonishing and the final track What It Is, showcases this skill perfectly. It’s almost the obverse of the opening track and, while just as enjoyable, it’s the other end of the spectrum with its slow and thoughtful cadence floating along like a marsh mist.

For a genre and a nation which produces some of the best female singers and musicians in the world, Hardy stands out. Her talent is obvious; her voice angelic; her song writing skills are among the best around and her ability to tell a story and create characters along with the world they inhabit is unrivalled.

Bring Back Home is available now from the artist's website and on download sites, iTunes, Amazon and Bandcamp.

Hardy will be touring this month, starting on December 8 at Folk in the Round, Monks Yard, 2 Herne View, Horton Cross, Ilminster.TA19 9PT. Show starts 7pm and tickets are available by calling 01460 200020.
The following night, December 9, you can see her show at Folk in Fernham, St John's Church, Fernham, Faringdon, Oxfordshire. SN7 7NX. Doors open 7pm for an 8pm start and tickets are £12 in advance.
Then on December 10 she will be performing an afternoon gig at The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers, Swanage, Dorset. BH19 3LF. Show starts 2pm. No information on ticket prices was available at time of publishing.
She then moves on to on Nailsea Folk Club, Nailsea Tithe Barn, Church Lane, Nailsea, Bristol. BS48 4NG. Show starts 8pm and tickets are £10 plus booking fee of 7.5%.
From there, on December 17, she will play a Christmas concert at Folk at the Froize, The Street, Chillesford, Woodbridge, Suffolk. IP12 3PU. Doors open 7pm for a 7.30pm start and tickets are £15 + booking fee which includes food.