Tuesday 10 April 2018


CD Review

Utopia and Wasteland

There is a definite gravitas in Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar’s fourth studio album, but it’s not a dour or oppressive solemnity. There’s a sincerity which exudes conviction and passion.

Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar
In six years the duo have cut a swathe in the musical ocean so deep it has wrought accolades and respect you would normally associate with more seasoned artists.

Opener Line Two is one of the nine original tracks, this one about the controversial HS2 rail link with telling lines such as: “A toss-up between your house and their precious line, But don’t worry that track is going to carry your pot of gold!”

This echoes what many suspect that the “need” is being driven by those who will profit from it most regardless of the devastation it may wreak on surrounding communities.

As you listen to Russell you can feel the range of emotions he invests in the lyrics. There is passion, anger, outrage and more than a hint of sadness.

His singing comes powerfully over the intricate backing of the fiddle, drum and guitar.

Almost as light relief, Algar produces an instrumental triplet. Warwick Road/The Barrowburn Reel/Bank of Ireland and gives the Manchester-living musician a chance to let his talent off the leash.

The listener could easily feel like an intruder as the pathos in Russell’s voice creates an atmosphere of him being lost in his own world, as he gently goes through Stan Rogers’ Lock Keeper. The simple but effective guitar chords seem to meld to almost become part of the singer’s voice, while Algar’s fiddle almost massages the notes underneath.

Strangely enough with Seven Hills, Russell sounds like a male version of Tracy Chapman with a hint of Labi Siffre. The thoughtful sound of his singing explores how the notion of home means myriad things to so many people.

The understated rhythmic accompaniment gives it something of an ethnic feel.

Walter Tull
Picture courtesy of Waltertull.org
If you want to get a handle on how good a fiddle player Algar is then you can hear his class on The Moving Cloud which follows one his well-worn tunes, In Memory of Coleman.

There are times when the traditional playing slides slightly over into the jazz spotlight and the popping sound of the drum keeps things on the move.

In complete contrast, the thoughtful sound of the guitar brings in Algar’s observation on the Grenfell Tower disaster. The lyrics are quite chilling and, while focusing on the cost in human life, it also shines a light on the social division within the communities involved.

At times Algar’s emotion makes it sound like he’s struggling to finish the lines and the thoughtful accompaniment is set just right to make this a really evocative piece.

1908 is the year this broadside ballad was printed and Russell explores the comparisons with the present day. What is remarkable is Russell adopts a dour style of singing which sounds remarkably like the slow, deliberate, delivery of that other balladeer Chris Wood.

Walter is inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, who was among the first mixed race sportsmen to play in the top flight of football, turning out for Spurs.

He went on to be a commissioned officer in World War One and, sadly, was killed in battle aged 26. Russell’s song is part biography and part clarion call to a campaign for a statue and a posthumous Military Medal.

The duo keep this song simple so, as with all the best tales, the story tells itself.

Following on from this is Russell’s All Fall Down, originally from the Arizona Smoke Revue. The song is about the cost of war. Russell’s singing has a retro feel to it and is complemented by Algar’s bluegrass-feel fiddle playing.

The penultimate song All the While, from Russell, is a gentle and pensive ballad. The restful lyrics and laid back accompaniment from Algar have close to soporific affect as the tune washes over you.

The collection goes out with De Gule Huls - Danish for Yellow House and Algar’s silk-like fiddle almost lulls the listener into a sense of winding down until it segues into Timmy Collins where his bowing is underpinned by the subtle tones of the banjo bringing a sense of playfulness.

There is a great deal to enjoy about this album not least the talent of two incredible musicians, but there is a diversity of sound and narratives which carry on the tradition of folk singing being politically relevant.

Utopia and Wasteland is released on April 13 on Rootbeat Records and distributed through Proper Music and will be available through usual download sites.

You can see the duo live this month starting on:
April 13 Wadsworth Community Centre, Billy Lane, Old Town, Near Hebden Bridge. HX7 8RY. Doors open 6.45pm and tickets are £12.10. Tel 07731661053

April 14 St Lawrence’s Church, Congleton Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST8 7RG. Show starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £11. Tel: 01782 523277

April 15 The Sun Hotel, Sun Street, Hitchin, Herts. SG5 1AF. Doors open 7.30pm and show starts 8.15pm. Tickets are £12 for members and £14 for non-members. Tel: 01462 812391. Support Saskia Griffiths Moore.

April 17 The Raven Folk Club hosting at The Garrett Theatre, Storyhouse, Chester. Doors open 7pm and entry is £10. Support from The Old Firm, Keith Price.Tel: 01244 677212. Please note there are two flights of stairs to negotiate at the venue. Unfortunately, this means the venue does not provide disabled access to the room or to any of its events.

April 18 The Lamb Folk Club, High Street, Eastbourne. BN21 1HH. Doors open 7.30pm and show starts 8pm. Tickets are £7 Tel: 01323 728268

April 20 The Ram Club, Thames Ditton. Tickets are £10 for members and £12 for non-members. Doors open 8.15pm and show starts 8.30pm. Tel: 0208 686 9421

April 21 Under the Edge Arts, Chipping Hall, The Chipping, Wotton-under-Edge. GL12 7AD. Show starts 8pm and tickets are £10.50 or £9.50 for children and concessions. There is also an option to add a £1 donation to help fund the venue. Tel: 07791 323 869

April 22 Walthamstow Folk Club, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre Pub, 53 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, London. E17 4SA. Doors open around 7.30pm and show starts approximately 8.15. Tickets are £8 or £6 concessions. Tel: 07740 612 607

April 25 Ropetackle Arts Centre, Little High Street, Shoreham-by-Sea, BN43 5EG. Show starts at 8pm and tickets are £14 plus £1 booking fee. Tel: 01273 464440

April 27 Live at Sam's, Sheffield. Doors open 7.30pm and show starts 8pm. Please note this is a house concert and places are limited, tickets and venue information are issued on application through the website.

Thursday 1 February 2018


CD Review

The Morning Tempest

February 1 is St Bridget’s Day and considered the first day of the Celtic spring so it’s pretty appropriate that Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente’s debut album is released on this day.

Award winners Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente
Just like spring with its snowdrops and crocuses this album brings a touch brightness, lightness and colour to the short days of winter.

You have the mysterious and ethereal Celtic sounds of Scot Duncan and the warmth and verve of Spaniard Lafuente.

Last year’s Radio2 Young Folk award winners have brought their particular and considerable talents together in this album of mostly arrangements of traditional tunes. Opener The Night Visiting Song has been reproduced many times by some of the best in the folk realm and it’s generally a dark tale of illicit love, tragedy and ghostly goings-on.

Yet with Duncan and Lafuente’s version is a light, bouncing lilt which juxtaposes against the darker subject of the narrative. Lafuente’s lively strumming undergirds Duncan’s sweet and almost childlike voice.

This gives way to the more sober Thug Mi’n Oidhche, a traditional spinning song from her native soil. In the song the women from the Isle of Uist are lamenting their brothers fighting in a war far away. Duncan takes on a gentle and more melancholy tone accented beautifully by Lafuente with simple guitar chords and Conal McDonagh with his whistles.

The Great Escape is Duncan’s own composition and features fellow Lewis islander Colin McLeod who provides the mirrored vocals. Lafuente’s understated guitar is a perfect example of the less is more method. Duncan’s voice is mesmerising and draws you into the song like the sirens of legend.

Josie Duncan
Another traditional song favoured by many Celtic musicians, King Orfeo, is an epic narrative based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Duncan and Lafuente set the tune at a fair old lick and there is some real life in them as the Celtic songstress punches out the lyrics.

For Uamh an Oir Duncan’s voice takes on a much more mature tone. There is a new depth to her singing as Lafuente highlights it with uncomplicated picking. Duncan brings a real magical and thoughtful sound to this traditional Gaelic song, which translates as Cave of Gold.

As in many folk songs, illicit sex rears its head in He Called for a Candle. This is a tale of a sailor doing what, according to legend, mariners do. The result is a pregnant woman clinging to the hope that the father of her illegitimate child will return and make a respectable woman of her.

Graham Rorie’s mandolin brings in the tune and, quite deceptively, leads you to think this is going to be a fairly light telling of scandalous love. However, the tone of Duncan’s voice says different, and the heavy sound of Charlie Stewart on double bass adds to the gravitas.

Duncan does real justice to He Fades Away, the poignant and telling song from Alistair Hulett about the decline of the mining industry.

The narration is told through the imagery of a slowly dying miner tended by his wife. Her mellow tones add a real sadness to the lament and Hedley Benson on the flugelhorn gives a poignant touch, almost mimicking the brass bands historically associated with mining.

The girlish tone returns as Duncan unfolds The Glow of the Kerosene Light which is dripping in nostalgia. Once again Lafuente is very much evident by his lack of intrusion. This is an open song where the listener can bolt on their own stories and memories of their grandparents.

The debut album
At more than nine minutes long Potato Puirt is the longest track on the album and definitely the most unusual because it’s a collection of songs about the potato. The style puirt a beul which is mouth music associated with the Celts has travelled as far as Canada.

In this final track Duncan proves her skill with her singing gymnastics which are fascinating and infectious.

The words may often be unintelligible but the artistry and toe tapping rhythm gets into your metabolism. What it also has is a slightly perturbing silence of more than two minutes.

Duncan’s gentle voice returns with a haunting sound surrounded by ethereal effects and although she keeps the intricate word play of the previous section she also brings a style which is completely different. For a first album this showcases Duncan’s singing range beautifully and in among the enjoyment of her voice it could be easy to forget it’s a duo.

But Lafuente is there at his understated best where the thread of his guitar skill adds a colourful strand to what is a thoroughly enjoyable album.

The Morning Tempest is available now through Oakridge Records and available online through birnamcdshop.com, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Bandcamp.