Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Devastated by loss of our Friends

The terrible, tragic events of the weekend, resulting in the deaths of two members of the Fisherman's Friends tour party at a venue in Guildford, have shocked and saddened the folk music community. By way of a tribute to singer Trevor Grills and tour manager Paul McMullen, and to the band itself, here are my memories of my first encounter with Fisherman's Friends and what they mean to me. 

By Phil Widdows.

My wife, Jo, and I first met Fisherman's Friends on Friday September 1st 2006, in their natural habitat of Port Isaac in Cornwall. 

Port Isaac, Cornwall
We didn't go there to see them, they were a complete surprise. Indeed, we'd never even heard of them - this was a few years before their record deal and they were virtually unknown outside their home area.

We had spent the afternoon in the beautiful fishing village and lingered to eat a meal in the Golden Lion pub, on its little balcony overlooking the harbour. A classic sunny seaside summer's day was mellowing into a gorgeously warm evening, and waves lapped the sand while boats rode at the end of long ropes fastened to the shore. It was picture postcard perfect. Amazingly, it was to get much better!

Our pub balcony view
As Jo and I enjoyed our food and glasses of beer, away down below us on the sandy strand beyond the slipway a handcart arrived carrying what appeared to be an amplifier and speakers. A line of microphones was set up on the beach. It seemed totally out of place amid such a traditional scene. Very odd! What was going on?

"Oh, it's the shanty men. They do shows on Fridays through the summer," a local informed us in the bar. This we had to see! We finished our pints, left the pub and walked down to the Platt to get a closer view.

After a short while a crowd of fewer than 50 people had gathered among the lobster pots, little boats and fishing nets, and then a group of men, some clutching pints, wandered nervously to the front, shuffled in front of the microphones and, as fishing boats bobbed on the tide behind them and the sun dipped towards the horizon, they started to sing. It was magical, truly magical!
Microphones on the Platt
But this was no choir. Their singing had a rough, untutored edge but it also had a power, a passion, an authenticity that perfectly complemented the scene. They roared through salty tales of life at sea and joked with the tourist families who seemed at first bemused by what they were seeing, but who were soon enthralled.

I made a video of one of their songs - What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor - and later put it on YouTube. It captured a feeling of the fun and the frisson of that perfect evening, as a gaggle of children spontaneously jumped up and down to each cry of "Hurray! And up she rises!". That video has now been viewed more than 175,000 times and, I'm delighted to say, has been linked to from FF's own website.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor by Fisherman's Friends, filmed by me in 2006.

Since then we've seen Fishermen's Friends "discovered" by the music biz (I wonder if the exec who signed them up to that famous £1m record contract had first watched a certain video on YouTube...?). They've had a Top 10, gold album. They've become famous beyond the folk world, beyond music in general, even; appearing at festivals like Glastonbury and on TV in documentaries and adverts and even, occasionally, singing! 

For all that they don't seem to have changed; their good humour and honest, rustic attitude is infectious and highly entertaining, and the music they make is stirring, passionate and true. Fisherman's Friends have brought us and thousands upon thousands of other new friends a lot of pleasure.

Then came the dire news of the past weekend. The accident in Guildford is shocking, sickening and baffling. How on earth could it happen? It's just so bloody stupid and wrong! 

The contrast between the joy we associate with FF and this horrible event makes it all the more gut-wrenchingly awful. As a friend remarked, when you consider the dangerous jobs many of the Fisherman's Friends do, and consider that many have been volunteer crew for the RNLI and the Coastguard, the black irony of death finding them backstage at a modern concert venue in Surrey is just utterly ridiculous, and all the more shocking for that.

Fisherman's Friends will, I'm sure, pull together like the strong shanty crew they are, and overcome this tragedy. They need to do so, and we - their fans and friends - need them to do it, too. 

Today our thoughts are with the Friends, their families and the community of Port Isaac, and with the wider community of friends the group has made through their music.

Such terrible events on a chill winter morning are a long way from that warm Cornish holiday memory from seven years ago, but we've got to believe - as hard as it may seem right now - that the sun will again shine warmly down on Port Isaac harbour and Fisherman's Friends will fill the village with song and laughter once more.

The spirits of Paul and Trevor will live on through their music, and a great many more than 50 people will be waiting the next time Fisherman's Friends sing on the Port Isaac Platt. 

My video of the Friends at Trowbridge Village Pump Festival 2010. 

With love and great sympathy,
Phil & Jo Widdows
and all at FolkCast
That blissful summer eve of memory: 2006

Saturday, 2 February 2013

CD Review: Richard Thompson


Review by Phil Widdows of folkcast.co.uk

When a new album appears from an artist with a very impressive back catalogue, an army of dedicated fans and an almost god-like reputation in the music world, it's easy to be swept up in the inevitable hype and instantly declare it a success.

Rather more sensibly, you can carry out a test to see which, if any, of the new songs would dislodge a classic from a future 'Best of' album. The new numbers have to be extra special to barge aside an old favourite and, on initial listening, "extra special" seems to be missing from Richard Thompson's new album.

That's not to say that 'Electric' is a shocker - far from it - just that it didn't zap this listener with the tingle of instant gratification. I found myself insulated by the heavy production style of the album.

However, there are sparky gems aplenty, but they are buried below that intrusive production - even heavier in places than on Thompson's  controversial Mirror Blue album of nearly 20 years ago and of which Electric is evocative - and lots of repeated listening is needed to unearth them and let them shimmer and shine. 

Of course, this is Richard Thompson we're talking about and it's all his own fault. He has set the bar very high over the last 45 years by writing songs that are truly great; genuine classics that have been covered time and again and crossed over into genres a step or two removed from his folk-rock background. 

So, does Electric contains anything to rival past masterpieces such as Vincent Black Lightning 1952, Beeswing, Shoot Out The Lights, Wall Of Death, Hard On Me, The Way That It Shows, Walking On A Wire, Hand Of Kindness or Tear-Stained Letter? Only time will tell, but it's possible.

As the album title suggests, this is a showcase for Thomo's electric guitar playing, supported - very loudly - by drums and bass and occasional touches of other instrumentation (accordion and mandolin played by RT, a fiddle here and a mandocello there).

Ironically, the most accessible songs do away with much of that and aren't "electric" at all, but rather are acoustic. They also come at the end of the 11-track main album.

In the "deluxe" version of the album there's also a 'bonus' CD of more music, of which more later - and there's also a 180 gram vinyl version for audio dinosaurs - but first let's start at the end of the album and ease ourselves in. 

The Snow Goose - track 10 - is one of these unplugged pieces and features Richard, sans band, on acoustic guitar and plaintive hurdy-gurdy, allowing his trademark barbed vocals to ooze oleaginously, gorgeously, snake-like, over words like "slab", "stab" and "molasses" as he tells of love for a  "Northern girl" which goes very bad indeed. Alison Kraus provides a quiet harmony vocal to give added depth and range.

The closing track is titled Saving The Good Stuff For You. It's a song of repentance, again starring the acoustic guitar, but this time seasoned with the fiddle of celebrated American bluegrass star Stuart Duncan, adding a country vibe to Thompson's tale of a rueful old fool coming to terms with his past bad behaviour towards wives and lovers. RT famously denies that he writes autobiographical "confession" songs, but he keeps the internet conspiracy theorists on their toes!

But The Snow Goose and Saving The Good Stuff For You are atypical - and while they are good neither would make my personal "Best of Richard Thompson" track listing. Let's go back to the start of the album where the true agenda is set in the album's opening song: Stony Ground

Drummer Michael Jerome pounds out a goosestepping military rhythm supplemented by crashing, unrestrained cymbals and percussive hand-claps, while bassist Taras Prodaniuk lays down a rich, syncopated foundation. Over the top of all that RT snarls lyrics about Old Man Morris - another ageing fool (a recurring theme) - chasing a lovely widow, Buxom Betty with her tempting "honey pot" (!). But Betty has a violently protective brother and silly old Morris gets a kicking to rival that inflicted on Mr Jerome's bass drum.

The electric guitar is just as harsh and unrestrained here; jagged and clanging but with that sliding fluidity that's instantly identifiable as Richard Thompson, full of flips and tricks and just the right side of discordant. It's complex and savage with a lot of hidden depths and eddys. But catchy it is not, and by the end you'll feel you've shared Morris's mashing. BEST OF POTENTIAL? No.

There's a four minute diversion to a gentler song - Salford Sunday - where a washed up, washed out would-be lover waits in the rain for a train out of the "ugly town" back to London, accompanied by a bright slide guitar and a jangling mando, and those too-loud drums. Thompson alternately says "Sall-ford" and "Sol-ferd", as though unsure how to pronounce the name of Manchester's sister city. Note to RT: the latter is correct. BEST OF? No.

Then it's back to the full-on musical assault with Sally B. Distorted vocals compete with the over-amped percussion and fuzzy guitar as Thompson jarringly rhymes "antebellum" with "you tell 'um" in a noisy blend of guitar solos between verses singing the praises of a sassy lassy from "way down south" - and this time he doesn't mean she's from Cheam. It's an uncompromising racket and rather hard work. BEST OF? No.

Stuck On The Treadmill is another less-than-subtle pummelling, this time about an imagined sheet metal worker suffering the shredding of the economy. It sounds like a score of other RT songs from the last 30 years, with that staccato, strangled guitar sound evoking the author's Scottish heritage. He really should just add bagpipes and be done with it. BEST OF? No.

Things calm down significantly on the bitterly observant My Enemy, a contemplation on the addictive power of hatred. This could be a companion piece to RT's Hope You Like The New Me, from 1999's Mock Tudor album. 

"You thought you'd finished me off, but you just made me strong", he tells his titular Enemy before concluding that both men gather strength from their hatred of each other. Deep, dark and powerful stuff, and - suitably - the music is much more sagacious than on preceding tracks with a ringing guitar tone and cleverly percussive strings and snare drum sizzle giving it the feel of a pibroch: that Thompson Caledonian heritage features again. BEST OF? Maybe.

By contrast, Good Things Happen To Bad People is almost singalong and light-hearted with a much more "radio friendly" (i.e., conventional) sound. The drums and bass are toned down. There's a lyrical hook of "Good things happen to bad people/But only - but only - for a while". And there's a killer (but too short) guitar solo that will have you reaching for the volume control you'd previously edged down, and tweaking it up again!

If there was to be a single taken from the album this would be it. It's reminiscent of I Can't Wake Up To Save My Life, from the afore-mentioned Mirror Blue album. BEST OF? Maybe.
The upbeat/downbeat mood continues with Where's Home?. Stuart Duncan's fiddle is introduced to add a country tint to the electric rock sound, where deceptively jolly and bright music contrasts with the quiet desperation of the lyrics. "I've got no place to be/I'm like a refugee/Where's home?" sings the English-born, US-based musician who spends half his life on the road. But RT doesn't write autobiographical confession songs, remember... BEST OF? No.

Talking of hidden gems, Another Small Thing In Her Favour is just such a song. The closest to a folk/singer-songwriter style that RT gets on this predominantly rock album, it's a lyrical masterclass supplemented with gorgeous electric guitar and more of those sliding vocals. The way Thompson's voice stretches and swoops on a word like "enslave" is simply spine-tingling! BEST OF? Maybe.

It's back to full-on clanging and smashing, almost punk drumming for Straight And Narrow. It's a brutal, twisted song, singing the praises of another sex temptress who parades on a stage of frantic, anguished playing produced with an energy and passion that does the 63-year-old guitar maestro great credit even if it is hard on the ears.

And that brings us back to the soft embrace of The Snow Goose, which feels like a comfort blanket after Straight And Narrow's savagery. Thompson himself describes the album as "folk-funk", but I just can't agree - it's simply neither of those things and I find his description a tad bizarre.

However, if the 11-tracks of Electric are not enough for you there's also the "bonus disc" with another seven. One is the live version of So Ben Mi Ch'a Bon Tempo, as featured on RT's 1000 Years Of Popular Music album. Another two are Auldie Riggs and Auldie Riggs Dance, taken from the album Richard Thompson's Cabaret Of Souls. So, these are actually adverts for other albums. Canny!

The remaining four "bonuses" could all have been included comfortably on the main album, so their relegation to a separate disc is puzzling, especially as  all are more accessible than most of the album proper. 

The rocking, very groovy Will You Dance, Charlie Boy (the closest we get to that 'folk-funk' mix) reminds me of RT's Two Left Feet - a fun, bop-along piece with more flying fiddle from Stuart Duncan. This could well become a live show favourite, although it will encourage a great deal of dad (and mum!) dancing in the audience. Maybe that's no bad thing...

I Found A Stray is an intense but relatively simple song with story-telling lyrics and shimmering acoustic guitar; and The Rival has a bluegrass feel (a finger-and-thumb, 4/4 bass rhythm driving it all along) but the interplay of Thompson's guitar and Duncan's fiddle evokes RT and Dave Swarbrick in their Fairport Convention heyday. The ballad lyric, about a hard-fighting, hard-loving man, quick with his fists and free with his heart, is pure Richard Thompson storytelling.

The Tic-Tac Man is an example of RT's picturesque, nostalgic songwriting style, with a tale ostensibly about a racecourse bookie, but of course not really - and features a mandolin solo and the presence of double bass that evokes RT's past work with Danny Thompson (no relation). It's an oddity but too good to be hidden away as a 'bonus'.

Overall, I initially found Electric hard to get to grips with, but it does reward repeated plays. The most difficult tracks come early in the album, it isn't helped by pitching the drums too high in the mix, and at times it evokes the shattering harshness of an ancient Egyptian royal parade, all crashing cymbals and staccato stabs of high pitch notes. The Queen of Sheba might have used trumpeters, the king of guitar employs his Stratocaster .

But get past all that, turn down the voltage, and resistance starts to diminish. It's too early to say whether Electric will turn out to be a Richard Thompson classic, and it's too diverse in mood and flavour to be truly cohesive as an album, but several songs here are certainly contenders for that future best of... and absolute shoo-ins for the next box set!

Electric is released on February 11th.