Thursday, 19 April 2012

Much better late than never...

Mark Waistell
FolkCast listener Mark Waistell has got in touch to tell us about his remarkable debut album which proves that dreams can come true.

Southampton-born Mark says that while he played guitar when he was at university, he put aside the wood and the wire when real life took over and didn't pick it up again for another 30 years! But when he did, he did so with a vengeance - getting a custom-made instrument from Brook Guitars: "a wonderful six-strung cedar and rosewood guitar. I am Devon-based and it was great to work with local talented craftsmen."

Mark is a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, a Bachelor of 
Science in Biochemistry and holds the Postgraduate Certificate of Education and the Royal Society of Arts Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign language to Adults. He's the senior partner in an international training and consultancy organisation, but took time off from all that to write songs, and was surprised at how easily they came. Soon he had 20 self-penned numbers in his repertoire. Then he was introduced to Mark Tucker, who took a listen and said he'd like to produce an album!

"So, aged 57, I entered the recording studio for the first time last November and put down vocal and guitar tracks," Mr Waistell said.

So far, so good … but then producer Tucker started playing those songs to some friends and they all said they would play for the album. What friends? Only Phil Beer of Show Of Hands, Gerry Conway of Fairport Convention, Spencer Cozens of the Joan Armatrading band and Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle, plus cellist Barney Morse-Brown (Chris Wood and Duotone) and violinist Jane Griffiths!

Mark adds: "I was told I should do a launch concert and called in first at Cygnet New Theatre in Exeter and dropped off an early mix of the CD. Again, a great surprise when the manager said they would like me to do the concert thee and offered me 70% of the door! I said I would like to do it for charity and the theatre kindly said that they would also donate their portion to charity."

The CD - appropriately title "Latecomer" - goes on sale and for download on May 7th, and the launch concert is on June 9th.

And after that? 
"After that, more gigs I hope, and another CD recording in the autumn."


Opening song "Go To Sleep My Child" is clearly the work of an older parent looking back over decades of little ones growing and growing up, of learnings and leavings, of fond memories and sad reminiscence. It's soft, gentle, caring, the cello and violin provide an inviting bed, the gentle percussion is a caress. Mark describes it as a lullaby for his four grown-up children, and no matter what age we are we could all do with a lullaby from time to time.

"Western Skies" tells of a city-dweller's escape to the West Country and the start of a new life in "a cottage hidden in the hills". Phil Beer's sparkling fiddle soars like a skylark over the rolling melody. Beautiful!

Mr Beer returns on the next song - the Sunday morning love song "And In Her Eyes" - but in more restrained, mellow mood. The lyrics speak eloquently of that glowing intimacy found between lovers when the world outside the bedroom window seems semi-detached, distant, and utterly unimportant. This is a sensual, quietly moving song.

"My England Of Long Ago" is another love song, although more bucolic than erotic, and sees Mark contemplating his country and its place in the world. At first he seems confused, asking: "Oh my England of long ago, where are you now?", and also accusing the country of being mired in history: "pride in actions done leads to resting on your past/always looking back means your future's fading fast". So which is it that he wants, England of long ago, or a dynamic, forward-looking nation? Of course, he wants both, and as he metaphorically flies over the land that's "tucked away, an island falling off from Europe's shore" he finds his beloved in the "tarns of Lakeland", the rivers "where willows fringe the middle reach", small acts of courtesy and "the eyes of brown, black , white happy children as they play." That multicultural line is perhaps added deliberately to fend off any attempt to misappropriate the song by dodgy political parties. "I hope it's balanced enough to make the BNP hate it!" he says in his sleeve notes. And isn't it sad that he should even have to worry about such things?

"Last Waltz" is a glimpse of another facet of modern life, one that rarely finds its way into song: the rest home where the elderly residents are "living out their days in confusion and style", and where Kitty has a secret life in the ballroom of memory and at the tea dance of today. It's amusing, quirky and sweet, but with a sad twist to the tale.

"In Paris" jumps into classic singer-songwriter territory - memories of a youthful romance, of student days, rose-tinted recollections of the Left Bank of a Seine which has seen a lot of water flow by since the days when a young Englishman encountered a "brown-haired, cycle gleaming, graceful woman of France". Mark's guitar sails solo on this wistful affair, punctuated with fluid fingerpicking. This is a home movie of a song - intensely personal but utterly universal and enthralling.

There's another 'story song' to follow - the tale of "Mr Brown", and Mrs Grey and other characters all living small lives but nurturing big dreams. Can the dreams ever come true? There's a hint that they can. The rhyme scheme of this rather jolly number, and the accompanying brass "pomp-pomp" accompaniment over a more wistful arrangement of strings, are reminiscent of The Beatles at their documentary best: Eleanor Rigby, She's Leaving Home. And there's humour here, too, not least in the closing verse about an unbelieving bishop whose dreams include retirement, Margate… and a sex change.

The feeling of nostalgia comes to the boil on "Racing For The Trees" as Mark plunges headlong into memories of a perfect childhood where "The sun was always shining and I was never ill". This song has been penned many times by many hands, but most versions contain a bitterness that childhood freedom is gone for ever. Not so for the Latecomer, who acknowledges that, through his music, he's suddenly free again. It's perhaps a naive assertion, but one that's easily appreciated, and this is another charming song of innocence regained.

Any song that begins "He met her in the springtime when the lanes were covered green…" demands to heard, and "Snow Upon The Sea" is another of Mark's magnificent tales of love … and loss. It's also achingly beautiful, as bowed strings swoop over gently picked guitar and those vocals that are as light yet as cutting as a scalpel, sending his thrillingly poetic lyrics straight to the heart. This is the emotional centre of this album.

Spencer Cozen's piano adds a pensive softness to "Waters Meet", a song that evokes the kind of summer's day that comes rarely but burns itself into the memory. If you are lucky enough to experience such days you hold a piece of them within you, ready for depths of winter. And just like that kind of day, this is a song that does you a world of good - take it out and play it when the world looks dark, and let the "gentle words, meeting no resistance, bring you near, showing that you care". The imagery and lyrics are crystal, the understated playing is beguiling and those vocals as clement and serene as a dappled golden water-meadow.

If "Waters Meet" is the perfect summer's day captured in song, then the final track on Latecomer - "Upturned Eyes Of Innocence" - is the thunderstorm that shatters the mood. I'm no fan of the "Another Day In Paradise" style of song that seeks to prick the balloon of the audience's comfortable lifestyle that, obviously, includes the decadent luxury of being able to spare the time and money to sit and listen to music. In this song, a hot summer's day is a bad thing, as it speaks of a world of drought, and where waters do meet they result in flash floods and mudslides. It's a handwringing reminder that the "wonderful world" explored in the other songs "isn't wonderful for all". Call it cutting social comment, call it cloying middle class angst, but it's a bitterly deflating way to end such a moving, uplifting and cinematic album. I dislike this song as much as I love all the others, and I love them intensely.

For a debut CD, Latecomer oozes confidence and quality. Mark's voice is soft, clear, smooth and distinctive; his lyrics are evocative of a life's experiences and burnished with a golden nostalgic glow; his fingerpicking guitar is sophisticated; and while the music is hardly radical it suits the tone and spirit of the songs and is blessed with the presence of luminaries from the folk world. It may have taken Mark 30 years to find his way back to music but this is a joy of an album and just proves the old adage right - it's far better late than never!

Review by Phil Widdows

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