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Archives for July 2010

Cambridge, Morrissey and 5,000 morris dancers...

Mike Harding | 17:08 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

Some of you may already know the work of David Owen, the 'Official Artist' of the Cambridge Folk Festival. The image here - 'Morrissey Dancing' - is one of his most typical images, and expresses more than anything else his dry sense of whimsy. More still may be seen at his website. I love David's work and, when I met him here at Cambridge I was delighted to find that the chap himself is as witty and passionate as the images he makes.

David's going to be putting up images across the festival site as the weekend progresses, all playing with our ideas of folk music and the arguments it has inspired over the years.

David's got a big project coming up called 5,000 Morris Dancers, inspired by Seb Coe's jokey comment that the 2012 Olympics' opening event might feature 5,000 such dancers. The project will be an installation at London's Southbank Centre in September. At its heart will be an enormous installation of 'morris-inspired folk-pop art' which will be enhanced by music, dance, film and folk mayhem. David wants to challenge the modern stereotype of Morris as mockable and cheesy and remind us how powerful and alternative it can be. So for all you people in the south of the country, that is one not to miss; the rest of us will be able to follow it on the Southbank website or via David's Ink Corporation site.

Hello Cambridge!

Mike Harding | 15:12 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

We usually get down to Cambridge around mid afternoon on the Thursday. That's so we can get all our stuff into the portacabins that will be our home for the next four days. Once we have ranked up all the chocolate and biscuits I wander round trying to convince myself that it was a whole year ago that I last walked through the tent with all the banjos and hippy stuff for sale and not just last week. Once back at Cherry Hinton it seems that I've never been away. 'Where did the year go?' I ask myself as I see the same faces, the same backstage lads, the same food vendors and the same security guys. Perhaps I ought to arrange to have my ashes scattered here so that I can haunt the place permanently.

I was, I have to say, mightily struck by the range of hats on the hippy stalls this year and definitely feel a Cambridge hat experience coming on. As Mark Radcliffe pointed out, Cambridge is not Cambridge without me buying a wizard/gangsta/tea-planter's/hobbit hat which I wear for the four days and then leave somewhere after too many glasses of fermented grapes. We shall see.

High spots of the first day for me were Adam Brown and Alan Macleod in the club tent - brilliant playing and fine singing. They were followed by the equally good Muckle Loons (I think the name is Greek for vacuum cleaner) who had the crowd up and jumping throughout their set.

Stage 1 is where all the big names appear, yet it is often on the smaller stages of Stage 2 and the Club Tent where the really great stuff happens. And on Stage 2 last night, myself and several thousand other people had our cultural lives vastly enriched by the antics of nine Cornishmen and a Yorkshire man who go collectively under the name of Fisherman's Friends. All of them have a strong connection with the sea - either as fishermen or as lifeboat crew - and from just meeting up to have a bit of a sing in their home town of Port Isaac every Friday night they have become something of a showbiz sensation over the last six months with their album going straight into the Top Ten and appearances at the Albert Hall and Glastonbury.


All of which strikes me (and them, I dare say) as slightly ironic because they are simply a group of ten friends who sing old sea songs with great gusto and total sincerity. They had us all entranced, both with their singing and the patter between the songs.

Like all great entertainers they love their music but also know how to tickle an audience's funny bone. I felt, as I watched them, that I was looking at something timeless and great. There is said to be a film in the pipeline somewhat along the lines of Brassed Off with actors playing the fishermen and some kind of a love element. The wry twist at the corner of Jon Cleave's mouth as he told the audience this also told us that no matter what, the nine Cornishmen and the Yorkshire man will be doing what they do for years to come, either on the big stages of the world or on the harbour of Port Isaac. That, after all, is what folk music is all about.

Mystery Sandy Denny song found - can you help?

Jon Lewis | 14:52 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Right, thinking caps on, we've got a little teaser for you...

Andrew Batt is a mine of information when it comes to the tragically short career of the great Sandy Denny, but he's been stumped recently by a recording of Sandy singing an unknown song.

Andrew found the track while searching through archives, and despite having sought the advice of various other experts, the title and origin of the track remain a mystery.

You may have heard Stuart Maconie playing the full version of this last week, but we thought we'd put a clip on here, too, in case anyone can help identify the song.

The mythological-sounding lyrics in this clip involve someone finding "a dark star hanging low in the sky", gathering it "up in her arms", riding to a shrine and placing the star "to her heart".

Any ideas will be gratefully received!



Pete 'Bellowhead' Flood on their new stuff

Jon Lewis | 13:09 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On tonight's show, Mike has the exclusive first play of Cold Blows The Wind, from the forthcoming Bellowhead album Hedonism. Percussionist Pete Flood has written to explain how they arranged it:

I think it's a nerdy drummer thing, but I love jazz waltzes. For me they're evidence that our appetite for musical complexity is much more sophisticated then we think. One way of looking at the jazz waltz is that it is dance music in 9, a meter so odd that it probably lives in a tumbledown house on the edge of music town, and gets pelted with rotten fruit by the rude little marches and polkas. I'd been thinking for a while that I'd love to arrange a brash, jazzy, waltz version of a traditional song, using some influences from my favourites: Van Morrison's The Way Young Lovers Do, Charles Mingus's Better Git It in Your Soul and Calexico's Over Your Shoulder (strictly speaking neither jazz nor a waltz, but a relative of sorts). The problem was, which traditional song to choose?

For some people, Cold Blows the Wind - aka The Unquiet Grave - is one of the bleakest moments in a tradition which almost takes pride in bleak moments. But coincidentally, I was reading Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps, a great book in which there is an account of ritual mourning as an ecstatic experience - a wild ecstasy which is neither happy nor sad, but contains elements of both emotions. In my mind's eye, the protagonist of Cold Blows... was instantly changed from a boring, drippy waif, to the kind of girl Captain Beefheart talks about (in Long Necked Bottles). I introduced a new melody, by cannibalising the Canadian version of The Dewy Dells of Yarrow and a new instrumental tag came to me while I was washing up.

By the time we got to Abbey Road to record Hedonism with the mighty producer John Leckie at the controls, we'd been playing Cold Blows... for over a year in our live sets. We'd been working harder than we ever had previously in the rehearsal process - picking the tune apart, asking questions, then reassembling it. I think we all thought that if Matachin was the album where we let it all hang out, we wanted Hedonism to be more focused and streamlined. And it was all working so well until someone let Jon Boden bring his musical saw into the studio...

New music I'm enjoying

Mike Harding | 13:31 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Two CDs dropped on the mat this morning that lifted my spirits more than somewhat: An Evening With A.L. Lloyd and Pete Coe's new album Backbone.

A.L. Lloyd ­ - Bert as he was most usually known - ­ was one of the movers and shakers of the postwar folk revival. As mentioned earlier in these blogs, Bert worked as a whaler, as a shearer on Australian sheep stations, as a journalist (with the great photographer Bert Hardy) and as a producer for BBC Radio for Schools. He was an interesting man in every way, an autodidact, a communist, and a musicologist who played a major part in the early years of Topic Records and a great carrier of songs. He helped the Watersons greatly in their early years and produced two seminal works on English folk song: The Singing Englishman and Folk Song in England. He sang in folk clubs and at festivals here and abroad and probably brought more songs into the revival than any other single person. Bert sent me many songs, the words written in his clear slanting style, the music noted on hand-drawn staves.

The new album, An Evening With... was recorded at the Top Lock Folk Club in Runcorn in 1972, probably a few days after I saw him at Bury Folk Club. It is Bert at his best, wry and whimsical, arch and passionate. The songs range from big ballads like Lord Bateman to sexy romps like Nine Times a Night. There are seventeen tracks, most of them introduced by Bert in his own wonderful way. The quality of the live recording is very good and the re-mastering by Fellside has brought out the best in a terrific album.

Those of us more used to heavily accompanied singing might find the sparseness of the CD a little difficult, but words and music alone - uncluttered by accompaniment - can sometimes get right to the heart of things. For me Bert always did this. He was one of the best. More power to Paul and Linda Adams at Fellside for producing such a classic.

Pete Coe is a great singer, banjo player and melodeon player who has been on the scene for decades and has ploughed his own furrow through countless live appearances and a whole clutch of albums. Like Bert he is an unflinching devotee of the tradition and a passionate and unbending performer. He is never preachy or self-righteous though, and to my way of thinking has always produced great versions of songs and tunes whether modern or from the tradition.

Pete's new album, Backbone, is absolutely superb; great songs and tunes performed with the kind of hard-earned familiarity that only years of singing and playing can bring. He is in better voice than ever and every track on this CD rang out like a bell as I listened to it for the first time. Favourites? Byker Hill, Poor Old Horse and The Blind Man He Can See spring first to mind but really there isn't a duff track on the CD. It hangs together as a whole and is - ­ dans mon humble opinion - one of the best albums of the year so far. Self-produced on the Backshift label, it is well worth checking out.

Has anyone else heard these albums? What else are you enjoying these days?

The Beautiful South's David Rotheray on birds and folkies

Mike Harding | 13:25 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010

Former Beautiful South guitarist David Rotheray writes about The Life of Birds, his new album which features a flock of top folk talents:

Woke up this morning with a (self-inflicted) sore head. Last night turned into something of an impromptu celebration. I was sitting with Jim Causley and Bella Hardy - new pals and musical collaborators - in the St. John's Hotel, Hull, carefully nursing an ageing pint, when Jim's phone beeped. "Hey, I just heard your 'Sparrow' song on the radio", read the incoming text. Ha ha. This felt like the last leg of a journey that had begun three years before, when I called Jim up and said "Hi, you don't know me, but my name's Dave, I'm writing an album about birds, will you come and sing a song?" He said yes, and Jim became my first recruit. And that's how we ended up sitting in The John's on Snuff Night (every Wednesday, bring your own snuff, sample and swap snuff and snuff-related objects). Later, we will head off to The Adelphi, the living heartbeat of the Hull music scene, and officially The Best Place In The World.

The lyrics for what became The Life of Birds were written in the summer of 2006, when I was suffering from Ménière's disease. This is a condition that affects the inner ear and thus the sense of balance; it's like being drunk all the time, but with none of the good bits. So I had two weeks confined to a chair, looking out over the garden. One of the ways I passed the time - apart from writing song lyrics - was by spotting garden birds, using a wall-chart that came free with the morning paper. That's how so many bird names worked their way into the songs - it wasn't really a deliberate plan. Even the songs that don't mention birds seem to have a pastoral feel: gardens, flowers, animals etc.

When the two weeks passed, and the antibiotics had done their stuff, I set about making a list of potential singers. With a recent visit to the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in my mind, Jim Causley and Bella Hardy were the first  names on my list. A brief flick through the CDs in the car yielded the names of Kathryn Williams, Alasdair Roberts and Eliza Carthy. I ended up with a list of twenty names - some I never managed to get hold of, some were busy, some even said no (yarg!). But over the next two years, I got the ten people I needed for an album. Some of them even did two songs, so I ended up with fourteen tracks.

The majority of these people are drawn from the folk scene - this wasn't a matter of policy, it just so happens that this was the music I had been listening to over the previous year or two. I felt that the style of interpretation employed by these singers - a very transparent, non-egotistical style - would be right for these songs, with their strong story-telling thread. I was very concerned that the rather dramatic nature of some of the lyrics - especially the two songs about senile dementia - meant that they needed to be under-played and not over-acted.

The next step was fitting the singers to the songs. Some were easy enough: The Road To The South, a song about being homesick for Yorkshire, was a perfect fit for Eliza Carthy. Draughty Old Fortress, a slightly Gothic lyric about an eccentric recluse, seemed just right for Alasdair Roberts. In most cases though, I sent each person three or four lyric ideas and asked them to choose one. They would then write a tune for it or wait until the recording session and improvise a tune on the spot.

rotheray_causley_hammond_hardy.jpgTen separate recording sessions with ten different singers is a challenging way to make an album. To avoid a jumble of styles and create a consistency of mood, I tried to use the same musicians on all the tracks - including Murray Briggs of Aberfeldy on drums and Rod Clements of Lindisfarne on slide guitar - and Alan Jones and I produced and mixed everything.

I've enjoyed showing my new folkie pals around Hull. Today we saw the Smallest Window In England and The Plotting Parlour (where the Civil War began). Yesterday we did Snuff Night. Tomorrow I plan to drive them over the Humber Bridge. It's very refreshing to work with people from a different musical perspective, and a different age-group - from oneself. I hope it's been a two-way benefit. Although I'm still amazed that anybody could be in the music business, play three instruments, know hundreds of songs off by heart, and yet NEVER HAVE HEARD OF Dark Side of The Moon...

McGoldrick and McCusker join Mark Knopfler

Jon Lewis | 16:46 UK time, Thursday, 8 July 2010

Mike McGoldrick, one of Manchester's, or Britain's, heck, the world's finest folk musicians has signed up to continue his stint playing in Mark Knopfler's band on the Get Lucky tour.

Mike joined Knopfler for the US leg of the tour after being introduced to the Dire Straits legend by John McCusker - another multi-instrumentalist folk genius - who has been performing with Knopfler for a few years and couldn't do the US dates. Bluegrass whizz Tim O'Brien also joined the band while in the States.

As the tour continues into Europe, Knopfler has invited both McGoldrick and McCusker to stay with him and perform to vast non-folky audiences in Italy, France, Monaco, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal.

Unfortunately for us in the UK, that means Mike's own band will have to pull out of some festivals, notably Cambridge (where he'll be replaced by The Wonder Stuff) and Folk By The Oak (where he'll be replaced by the Martin Simpson Quartet).

Obviously it's a fantastic opportunity for the musicians, and arguably an even better one for the UK folk scene as a whole. The Knopfler set now features some extended spotlights on Mike and John, duelling with citterns in front of audiences who couldn't previously tell you what a cittern was. Now they can, and perhaps they'll seek out folk gigs and albums on the strength of these two great ambassadors for the genre.

Have any of you seen these Mark Knopfler concerts? What did you think of Mike and John's contributions?

Down in the Folk Vault

Jon Lewis | 12:49 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

If you haven't already, don't forget to pop along to the Folk Vault page and listen to the latest clips!

We've got the John Tams Band doing 'From Where I Lie' in Nottingham in 2000, Eliza Carthy with Saul Rose and Martin Green doing 'Lemady' at the BBC Radio Theatre in 1999, the mighty Lindisfarne doing 'Knacker's Yard Blues' at Newcastle Arts Centre in 1998, Kate Rusby singing the 'Cowsong' at the BBC Radio Theatre in 1999, and good old Ralph McTell's 'After Rain' from Sidmouth in 2000.

Listen to the clips and let us know which you'd like to hear in full on Mike's programme... and why! You can email mike.harding@bbc.co.uk or leave us a comment below.

Our next trip into the Folk Vault will be a Cambridge Folk Festival special. We've got tons of great live recordings from the event, mostly from the last ten years or so.

Whose Cambridge performance would you like us to dust off and include in the Folk Vault?

Did your curry go cold while Richard Thompson entranced you in 2006? Did you fall out of your deck chair laughing at the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in 2007? Did the Hot Club of Cowtown have you swinging all over the shop in 2000?

Let us know!

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