Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sea battles, intrigue, scandal and murder

Alan Reid and Rob van Sante
‘The Adventures of John Paul Jones’ is a new folk album from Alan Reid and Rob van Sante that catalogues the life of this fascinating Scottish born sailor who achieved fame and notoriety during the American War of Independence.

Alan immersed himself in Jones’ story and has composed a whole album of songs and tunes written in folk styles of the different countries associated with the seafarer - and accompanied by Rob’s first class musical, recording and engineering skills.

The duo are complemented on the album by a bunch of talented musicians; Wendy Weatherby and John Martin from Scotland,
Ian Fairbairn and Mark Chillington from England, John Herrmann from North Carolina and brothers Eric and Nico Hueber from Mulhouse in France.

The album will be premiered at two special events for the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival (3rd & 4th June). The performances will feature guest musicians Colin Train on accordion and keyboard and Laurie Crump on whistle, fiddle and recorder.

John Paul Jones

Actress Janis Marshall (of Unscene Productions) will read and act (in the form of radio theatre), adopting a range of female characters, including an old crone (à la MacBeth witch) who speaks in rhyme and comments on the action.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

FolkCast Live!

Just posted a new podcast - FolkCast Live!

It's a special show featuring live performances from some of our fave artists - Songs and tunes from: The Albion Band - Peter Knight's Gigspanner - Phillip Henry - Feast Of Fiddles - Seth Lakeman - The Saw Doctors - Christy Moore - Fairport Convention - Ashley Hutchings' Morris On Band - Richard Thompson - Kristina Olsen - The Urban Folk Quartet - Show Of Hands - Steve Knightley - John Tams and Barry Coope.

Find out more, and listen to or download the show for fre
e by clicking here.

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

Monday, 16 April 2012

Show Of Hands in the House Of Commons

Phil Beer, Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes: Show Of Hands

Leading on from their fourth sell-out gig at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Saturday, Show of Hands are due back in London tomorrow (Tuesday, April 17) for a special celebration to welcome the new Live Music Act.

The event at the House of Commons is being organised by UK Music and the Musicians’ Union and, amongst other musicians and special guests, Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes have been invited as sole representatives of the folk roots genre.
The Live Music Act, which will cut red tape for the performance of live music in small venues, is expected to come into force in October and is seen as a major milestone which will reinvigorate the British music scene.

Overturning the 2003 Licensing Act, it was introduced as a private members’ bill by Tim Clement-Jones in the House of Lords and has been sponsored by Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster in the House of Commons. It is rare for private members’ bills to become acts of parliament.

Effectively, the new legislation means that small venues in England and Wales - under a 200-person capacity - will no longer need local authority permission to host performances of live amplified music between 8am-11pm.

Michael Grade, Joan Bakewell and Feargal Sharkey were among those who strongly supported the action.

The band MP4, described as “the world’s only parliamentary rock group” are due to play live at the event.

Show of Hands famously berated former culture minister Kim Howells in Knightley’s song Roots for a comment he made in a 2001 Commons debate about the number of musicians permitted to play on licensed premises, then restricted to two.

Howells said: “For a simple urban boy like me the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell!”

Knightley recalled that in his lyric:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
Pubs where no-one ever sings at all

The song, an impassioned defence of England’s musical heritage and identity,  reached No 4 in the HMV download chart.

Howells, invited to the band’s 2007 “Big Gig” at the Royal Albert Hall, wrote with his apologies but said he was “tickled pink” that his unkind words had provoked such a good song.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

European Podcast Award - the result (at last)

In July 2011, FolkCast found out we had been nominated for a European Podcast Award. 

Now we've just found out that we didn't win. But we did OK. Out of 20 nominees in our category we came 8th. The awards were announced in March, but the European Podcast Awards people aren't the best at letting anyone know what they are up to, so it's purely by chance that we only now stumbled over the results.

Despite the explanation of the voting system (above) I have no idea how it works. Also, I have no idea who the jury panellists are - and you all know what I think about that aspect of any award! 

So, if you as a listener voted for us, thanks. And congratulations to the winners, Dark Compass - they are a great 'new music' podcast that have been around even longer than we have, and they are well worth checking out.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Pink Moon: A Story About Nick Drake

Nick Drake - 1948-1974

Can there ever have been a musician so unsuccessful, so unknown, so ignored in his own time who has gone on to be so important, so influential, so idolised as Nick Drake?

Drake died in 1974, aged just 26, as a shrivelled, malfunctioning shell of a man. He was mired deep in clinical depression, unable to deal with the world on any level except through his idiosyncratic music, a unique mix of folk, blues, jazz and classical which had signally failed to find an audience of any size throughout his six year, three album recording career. Now, four decades on, his music has become among the most treasured of the English singer-songwriter scene.

Part of Drake's rebirth and subsequent appeal is surely the tragic mystery of the man at the centre of the sounds: the unknowable Nick who hid his true self even from his closest friends, and who refused to share anything with the few audiences he could find, except through the strange, clouded prism of his music. That music, those coded lyrics, opened a window to his soul, but the view remained largely concealed by the kaleidoscope imagery of his words and the jumbled, tumbled mix of his musical influences and styles. Repeated listening reveals layers of hints and suggestions and clues about the songs... and about the singer.

A typical Drake song - if there is such a thing - is a mostly melancholy, occasionally merry, frequently mad mix of questions, observations, allegories and yearnings wrapped in a blend of superb solo musicianship, precisely mannered vocals, world-class backing performers and polished with glorious, glowing arrangements and hand-crafted production.

That much we know. And since Drake's commercial and critical resurrection thanks, bizarrely, to his tunes being used as the soundtracks to advertisements and by every television and radio trailer and clip-compilation - where would they be without Cello Song? - his reputation and his mystique has never been stronger. People whose parents were unborn when Nick Drake left this world are finding his music, and finding it beguiling, bewitching and so downright cool it burns.

He's been the subject of serious and respectful magazine profiles, of numerous radio documentaries, of tribute collections and concerts, of reissued special albums and box sets. He's become the default name uttered by musicians when asked for their influences. He even got a couple of posthumous single chart placings in 2004. 

Pink Moon by Gorm Henrik Rasmussen
According to Wikipedia, the first published biography of Nick Drake came out in 1997. Not for the first time, Wikipedia is wrong. It was actually 1981 when a book called Pink Moon was written - in Danish - and 1986 when its author, the poet Gorm Henrik Rasmussen published his book in his native Denmark. In 1986, this strange story about an unknown foreign musician received a few reviews in Danish magazines and newspapers but made no impact beyond those shores. Now, three decades on, Rasmussen has updated his book and it has been translated into English. And what a deeply affecting gem it is!

Rasmussen's personal fascination with his subject is clear, but this is no mere fan's perspective. He has done the hard work, he's made the contacts with many of the key people in Drake's world and he's interviewed many of those who knew Nick the best … even, as becomes obvious, "best" was a purely relative term. 

No-one knew Nick Drake well: not his loving parents, not his school friends or his university contemporaries, and certainly not those in the music world who tried to take this strange, elusive talent by the hand but found him constantly slipping though their fingers.

But by piecing together facets of Drake's character revealed through interviews conducted both in the early 1980s and far more recently, Rasmussen conjures the spirit that can be heard on those three records - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon - albums which in retrospect are an increasingly dark soundtrack to a life so full of promise that turned so sour, so bitter and ended so pathetically early.

Pink Moon (the book is named after Drake's bleakest, final album) is as much the story of Rasmussen's own quest to find Nick Drake, and is evocative of a time and an attitude to music that seems as remote and removed from today as the Victorian music hall must have felt to those pioneers of English folk-rock and singer-songwriting in the late 1960s with whom Drake found himself briefly associated - Fairport Convention, John Martyn, Ralph McTell, and producers Joe Boyd and John Wood. 

After hearing one of Drake's albums by chance at a friend's house in 1978, Rasmussen became fascinated by the voice and the guitar that arose from the vinyl, elusive as wood smoke, and he decided to travel across Europe to find out more about the artist. Arriving alone and lonely in London, Rasmussen managed to get a telephone number for Drake's parents, persuaded them to see him, visited them in the family home in Warwickshire where Nick was born and died, and found in Rodney and Molly Drake two people who were generous with time and artefacts, and would become his friends.
Gorm Henrik Rasmussen

From them he extended his search for a key to Nick Drake's secrets by interviewing other people who knew Drake at various points in his far-too-short life. And so the mosaic builds up slowly, but still with many tiles missing. 

For a translated volume - translation by Bent Sorensen, associate prof of English at Aalborg University - this is a highly readable and, for the most part, entertaining story. Only in its late stages, as Nick slides ever deeper into depression and desperation, does the book too become necessarily dark and heavy.

Rasmussen doesn't shy away from some of the questions that are frequently asked about Drake. Was his depression caused or exacerbated by heavy marijuana use? Was he a closet homosexual, whose unexpressed sexuality added to his feelings of isolation and frustration? However, his conclusions provide no easy explanations. 

There is one glaring omission from an otherwise handsome, quality volume. A biography should include at least one photograph of its subject and Pink Moon does not, unless one counts the small, black-and-white reproductions of Drake's album covers which come at the back of the book like an afterthought. With all of Rasmussen's contact with the Drake family, friends and with Island Records, surely someone could have supplied him with a few images of the man himself?

At one point, the author begins to delve into the lyrics, music and imagery of Drake's songs, but it's a haphazard, incomplete attempt. It would have taken little for a super-fan such as Rasmussen to have written something about all of Drake's recordings - there are only 31 tracks on his own albums and a further five released after his death.  

Other than that, this biography is a genuine pleasure and transports the reader back to that other age when "listening to music" was perhaps a more intense, certainly rarer experience; to a time of drugs and discoveries, experimentation and adventure; and to a time when one young man from England fluttered around the flame of fame and fortune, but was too quickly burned to see the impact that his flight would have on the world.

Any Nick Drake fan will feel that they know their hero a little better after reading Pink Moon, even if the biggest impression the book leaves one with is that Nick Drake was and still is unknowable - as remote and rare as the rosey satellite of its title.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Lunasa set for tour of England & Wales

Top Irish music ensemble Lunasa hits the road in May for its most extensive tour of England and Wales to date. 

The 16-date itinerary will see the band travelling to all four points of the compass as the five band members take in large and small venues from Cockermouth to Great Torrington and Cardigan to Cambridge.

Formed in 1996, Lunasa is widely-known for original compositions, powered by double bass-driven rhythms. The band features Kevin Crawford, Sean Smyth and Cillian Vallely on traditional Irish instrumentation of low whistle, uilleann pipes, tin whistles and fiddle, augmented by Trevor Hutchinson on double bass and Ed Boyd on guitar.

Sold out tours of the UK, USA, Europe and Japan have helped Lunasa gain major international acknowledgement. The Coeur Miroir award at the Quebec City Summer festival in 2003 confirmed the band's reputation as masters of modern Irish music, and in 2010 they won further major international acknowledgement in the LIVIES awards when they were named Performers Of The Decade. 

In addition to the band's own tours Lunasa has toured and performed with some well-known and respected artists including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Rosanne Cash, and Billy Bragg.

Drawing on a repertoire from seven albums, Lunasa will create memorable musical evenings that will leave the audience in no doubt that, in the words of the Sydney Herald: "Lunasa is the most exciting band to emerge from Ireland in a long, long time".

  • 2 May The Haymarket, Basingstoke
  • 3 May The Little Theatre, Chipping Norton
  • 4 May The Courtyard, Hereford
  • 5 May The Welfare, Swansea
  • 6 May Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan;
  • 7 May The Duchess, York
  • 8 May The Junction, Cambridge
  • 9 May Lichfield Arts, Lichfield
  • 10 May The Dukes, Lancaster
  • 11 May The Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth
  • 12 May Barnsley Civic Hall, Barnsley
  • 13 May The Pavillion, Hailsham
  • 15 May Irish Cultural Centre, London
  • 16 May The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury
  • 17 May Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton
  • 18 May The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington

Monday, 9 April 2012

REVIEW: Feast Of Fiddles, live in Blackpool

Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Lancashire - April 8th 2012

In these days of cut backs and "rationalisation" it's good to see an institution that, if anything, is positively over-manned. Feast Of Fiddles is an 11-piece folk-rock outfit and job creation scheme for touring musicians.

Not only is there a mighty fine electric backline of guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards and saxophones, but there's also singing, melodeon-toting frontman Hugh Crabtree. And, of course, there's the fiddles - currently no fewer than FIVE bow scrapers and, I hear, another to be added later in the tour.

Feast Of Fiddles at the Blackpool Grand Theatre

For Forrest Gump, life was like a box of chocolates and for any Feast Of Fiddles audience the band is much the same, and for just the same reason: you never know what you're going to get. Not only is the set list fluid, but so is the line-up of personnel. Previous FOF alumni include Phil Beer of Show Of Hands, Joe Broughton of The UFQ, and Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention, but none of them joined us in the magnificent surroundings of Blackpool's Victorian Grand Theatre.

Instead, along with regulars Brian McNeill (ex-Battlefield Band), Ian Cutler (Bully Wee Band, Hot Rats) and Peter Knight (Steeleye Span, Gigspanner) there was Tom Leary (Little Johnny England, Tanna and new band Zeus) and Garry Blakeley (The Tabs, Band Of Two). Each of these bring songs and tunes to the band, either for solo spots or ensemble pieces. Some of these work better than others.

Not only do you not know who you're going to get – rumour has it that Chris Leslie will be rejoining FOF later in their current UK tour – but you also don't know what to expect. There are many ways to start a show so full of virtuosi, but surely no-one expected the theme from Thunderbirds? It put a smile on the face and alerted one and all that anything could happen in the next couple of hours.

Thunderbirds were gone and quickly followed by a series of other well known tunes, including a snippet of Cyril Tawney's classic Sally Free And Easy. These were followed by a medley of what appeared to be  ceilidh tunes - the sort of things that look great fun to play, are great fun to  dance to but rather repetitive to sit and listen to.

Leary and Blakeley stepped up for the first "solo" spot of the night, performing the latter's own composition, Sons Of The Soil, a terrific folk number about the traditions of Plough Monday that made me want to track down more from this Hastings-based singer-songwriter.

They were followed by a fabulous set of mostly traditional fiddle tunes from McNeill, with later Cutler and Knight doing their thing: a country-rocking set from the former, including a blast through the climax of The Devil Went Down To Georgia; and a wistful blues from the latter, Sitting On Top Of The World, first plucked and then bowed, with strong support from lead guitarist Martin Vincent (ex-Albion Dance Band) and expressive electric bassist Dave Harding. 

Each of these solo spots gave a great depth of flavour to the broth that was the Feast as a whole – an all-you-can-eat banquet which can feel rather over-facing at times as yet another set of tunes is sawn through. At times I craved a little more focus. A poor sound mix, with the keyboards far too loud and some other instruments way too quiet, didn't help season the feast at Blackpool. Sorry, John Underwood on rhythm guitar, I couldn't hear a note from you all night, and even Crabtree's melodeon was faint at times. 

Crabtree - sometime singer, oft-time ringmaster of this folkie circus - reminded me of waltz-meister Andre Rieu, a strong presence who leads the band with a smile, a cheeky wink … and some pretty terrible jokes between numbers. 

For me, the solo spots were better than the ensemble pieces at least mostly. But one ensemble piece was the absolute crown jewel of the night, as the playful and jolly Morris tune Princess Royal progressed into the stately, magisterial Battle Of The Somme, giving ace drummer Dave Mattacks (ex-Fairport Convention, ex-Steeleye Span) a showcase of power and range and he rattled the plaster cherubs dancing high around the venue's delicious painted ceiling.

The ending of the show was as surprising and quirky as the beginning, with a couple of  movie themes rolled out. I'd rather have heard more self-penned stuff from the band's fiddlers than this bizarre, showbizzy sign off, but it left the audience buzzing, as new boy Alan Whetton got a moment in the spotlight to step away from those unnecessary keyboards and unleash the saxophone for a memorable, bombastic finale with Mark Knopfler's anthemic theme from Local Hero.

Overall, Feast Of Fiddles lives up to its name - although Feast Of Fiddlers is even more accurate. They work better as individuals, front and centre, than as a somewhat untidy string section – and this giant band is definitely worth catching as a framework for solo set pieces of great quality, and for one or two truly magnificent group performances.

Review by Phil Widdows

Feast Of Fiddles continues its 2012 UK tour:

Publicity shot of Feast Of Fiddles, featuring (l-r) Brian McNeill, Ian Cutler, Peter Knight, Hugh Crabtree, Chris Leslie, Tom Leary, Phil Beer. 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Below The Salt – 40 Years On

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest folk rock records ever: Steeleye Span’s album “Below The Salt”, in 1972. Their career in total spans six decades and although the line up has changed from time to time the spirit of the band and their music has not.
In June of this year, they will be making a rare festival appearance at the Beverley Folk Festival in Beverley, Yorkshire which takes place on 15-17 June 2012 - with their latest line up, including stalwarts Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, relative newcomers Liam Genockey and Pete Zorn, and debutant Julian Littman. Tickets for the festival are on sale now.
Below The Salt
When “Below The Salt” was recorded only Maddy Prior and Tim Hart were present from the original line up. Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy who were two of the founding members had moved on to other projects, after producing two really notable albums with them “Please To See The King” and “Ten Man Mop (Or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again)” and so the sound was slightly different from their origins.
This album is probably most noted for its mediaeval themes – not only in the music but in the beautiful album cover which (if you were lucky enough to have the original vinyl and see it in all it’s glory on the gatefold) showed the band taking part in a mediaeval feast and dressed period costume – the title “Below The Salt” refers to the historic practice of having a pot of salt in the centre of the table in great houses which would separate the lords and ladies from the serfs and servants. In a way it’s sort of like a concept album – only with more variety.
There are a few songs with a distinctly mediaeval flavour to them – most notably the epic “King Henry” which is in fact taken from one of the original “Child Ballads” of the time that were collected by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century and have their roots in English and Scottish folklore dating back to the 12th Century.
Also the album contains the song “Royal Forester” which is believed to day back to around 1293 in its original form (whether mediaevalists would have used electric guitars and thumping basslines we’re not informed...).
The other notably historic song on the album is “John Barleycorn” which is one of those songs that many folk bands have covered. The origins of “John Barleycorn” can be traced back to possibly Anglo-Saxon times – and is about how Barley – here personified as the character John Barleycorn (which was an incredibly important cereal crop for making alcoholic drinks) suffers terrible abuse and a frightening death so that people can have things to drink “they have laid him in three furrows deep, laid clods upon his head – then these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead…” (Or, as FolkCast's own historian Babba revealed (.mp3) in FolkCast 027, it may have even older and far darker roots than that - as we told the BBC's Stuart Maconie.) 
A Hit Single!
'Below The Salt' produced that great folk rarity – a hit single in the pop charts. Not only that, but a hit with an historic flavour too: “Gaudete”. On the album, the sound is created to give a feeling of space, with it appearing that the band members are choristers – approaching and then fading away. The single version – that actually reached number 14 in the charts did not have the long fade in and out.
Jigs and Instrumentals
Of course, Steeleye are also noted for their brilliant interpretations of traditional jigs and reels – respectively from other albums “The Mooncoin Jig” and “Bryan O’Lynn/The Hag With The Money” are always a delight to hear. However, on “Below The Salt” you have “The Brides Favourite” coupled with “Tansey’s Fancy” which are beautiful in their simplicity and it’s nice to hear the mandolin get some real whelly – and of course Maddy Prior on the spoons!
The album ends with the stunning “Saucy Sailor” which really still sounds so fresh and delightful today – the beautiful long guitar intro and outro could be overdone in the hands of another band, it could sound overblown or overproduced - not here -and it’s gently calming and lulling sound is in contrast to lyrics of the song “I am frolicsome, I am easy, good tempered and free – and I don’t give a single pin me boys, what the world thinks of me…”
With the fortieth anniversary of the album being this year, it’s a great time to revisit this modern classic. Steeleye are always a force to be reckoned with and whatever their line up, they always deliver the folky goods.


Monday, 2 April 2012

Congratulations to Josienne and Ben

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker have been featured on FolkCast several times in the last 12 months, and are firm favourites here for their all-round fabulousness - great and versatile musically, intense and moving vocally and they are writing excellent songs as well as getting to grips with traditional material. They both have lovely hair, too.
Ben Walker and Josienne Clarke

Now we're delighted to see that Josienne and Ben have won the Isambarde Award, part of the Bristol Folk Festival!

The London-based duo who have a distinct musical empathy, fusing Josienne’s captivating vocal and songwriting skills and Ben’s stand-out guitar playing, beat stiff competition from four other emerging acts on Friday to scoop the Isambard Folk Award at Bristol’s Colston Hall. 

They won with a performance of the original title song from Josienne’s debut album One Light is Gone. See them performing it here at London’s Union Chapel:

Working her way up through the ranks of the London folk scene, Josienne, who grew up in Worthing, West Sussex, is fast becoming one of the leading lights in the folk movement. On releasing her 2010 debut album, One Light Is Gone, reviewers praised her vocal and songwriting talents, some comparing her to June Tabor and Sandy Denny. She has performed alongside many great folk musicians including Martin Simpson, Ric Sanders of Fairport Convention, Kami Thompson and Emily Portman. 

Josienne's songwriting and performing cohort, Ben Walker, hails from Evesham, Worcestershire. One of the most accomplished young guitarists on the London folk scene he plays both steel and nylon string acoustic guitar, and mandolin. Influenced by the likes of Martin Simpson, Bert Jansch, Pierre Bensusan and Richard Thompson, Ben's playing and arrangements add a rich additional dimension to Josienne's skillfully sculpted sound.

The duo said they were surprised and delighted to win the coveted prize which gives them the chance of a high profile platform on the main stage at the 2nd Bristol Folk Festival over the May bank holiday, as well as Easter Saturday’s Somerfest in Somerset - a one-day folk music and arts festival to be held at the stunning Halsway Manor on the edge of Somerset’s Quantock Hills. 

Josienne & Ben at the Colston Hall
Says Josienne: “We’re so pleased to win after being up against such strong competition from the four other finalists. It’s a huge compliment to be given this recognition and wonderful to have the chance to play the main stage at the Colston Hall during Bristol Folk Festival – something that would otherwise probably have taken us years to achieve.”

The Isambard Nu-Folk Award (a nod to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous Victorian engineer who designed the city’s Clifton Suspension Bridge among many other engineering marvels) was open to any UK-based folk/roots performers and attracted a diverse range of almost 100 entries. Entrants had to submit footage of themselves performing one song or tune.

The judging panel saw 15 minute sets performed by the short-listed acts. The other finalists were Cardiff’s Evening Chorus, London’s Mishaped Pearls, Brighton’s Common Tongues and Bristol/Exeter duo Solarference (Sarah Owen and Nick Janaway).

Let's name the judges, to show this is a serious and worthwhile award: Bristol Festival co-organiser Jan Ayers; former WOMAD Artistic Director Thomas Brooman; FolkCast contributor Jon Earl of Songs From The Shed; and Alex Gallacher from online music site Folk Radio UK

Jan says: “All the finalists’ sets were of a very high standard and all would have been worthy winners but the judges were unanimous in their decision to give the award to Josienne and Ben." 

Following on from 2010's debut One Light Is Gone, the duo have self-released a follow-up of traditional folk songs, The Seas Are Deep which includes such folk classics as Silver Dagger and Reynardine and an outstanding guitar solo from Ben on the title track. To hear more from Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, check the FolkCast Archive (use your browser's "find" function to search for heir name).
Click here for details of this May's Bristol Folk Festival