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.