The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions 2014 presents 20 of the best performances form this year’s Folk Show guests. It showcases the depth and breadth of talent on the current scene, whilst also offering an excellent two hour playlist. Of course the real cachet here that these songs and tunes are all recorded live on the show and with Mark as a most affable host, the results speak for themselves. As compilations go, for any folk fans, this is essential listening.
The radio session occupies a special place in the musical landscape. The idea of a specially recorded set of songs or tunes carries with it a sense of endorsement. The idea that the show’s host has specially chosen an artist to record for them can be a useful step up the ladder of success. Arguably this idea of the session reached its zenith with the John Peel show, to the point that the Peel Sessions were eventually compiled and released as a series of EPs and albums that took on a life of their own. While some bands simply grabbed the opportunity to promote both themselves and their latest work, while others perhaps enjoying a sense of liberation from their record company were a bit more experimental. By contrast, the BBC engineers were famously straight laced, but very proficient and did a fine job of capturing a huge variety of artists with an admirable equanimity.
For the BBC’s Folk Show, and also for the other specialist music hours that occupy the weekday early evening slots, there is something else at stake. The pact between the show’s host and the artists that record for them is much more mutually supportive. Certainly in Mark Radcliffe’s case they are much more hands on, forming an important segment of the show, but with the added frisson of being live on air as the show is broadcast. More than just an endorsement, they also have to be representative of the genre. By their nature, these specialist shows are playing to an often highly informed audience defined by the genre. In Mark’s case, it’s probably fair to say the programme takes a wide definition of folk music and while you can’t please all of the people all of the time, does an excellent job of covering the current scene, whilst also dipping intelligently into the archives and history of the music.
It’s always an entertaining hour’s worth and having recently sat in with Bellowhead live in the studio, I can honestly say that Mark is an excellent host. He’s confident and therefore relaxed in his domain, quick witted and above all knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The guests are an integral part of the programme, to the point where the weekly live performance is one of the main reasons for tuning in. While there Bellowhead played the show’s intro music live and that version continues being used, but it’s the digital release of the The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions 2014, available for download now, which is the proof of how good a job the Folk Show does. The only compilation that comes close to it in documenting the current breadth and depth of talent on the folk scene is the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards release, but you’ll have to wait until April 2015 for the next instalment.
Things start strongly with Hebridean Julie Fowlis, undoubtedly one of the most revered and successful Gaelic singers of the current scene. The news has recently broken that Julie will be honoured at this year’s Tartan Clef Awards. It’s lofty territory more commonly associated with pop music heavyweights and Julie will have the honour of being the first Gaelic singer to be honoured, as the Scottish music industry event set up to help raise money for Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy. Listening to Do Chalum, the lament for a man taken by illness, it’s easy to see why she is due her recognition. It’s beautiful and simple, the backing of harmonium, strings and just a hint of either whistle or flute provides a brooding backdrop to Julie’s elegant and haunting vocal. Whether a Gaelic speaker or not, you cannot help but be moved by it.
By contrast Nancy Kerr delivers a folk-rocker Never Ever Lay Them Down from her Sweet Visitor album. She’s joined in the studio by a band consisting of Rowan Rheingans on Fiddle, Banjo and Triangle, Tom Wright on Drums, Tim Yates on Double Bass and James Fagan on the Electric Bouzouki. Nancy’s own fiddle and swooping voice are to the fore on this bright and breezy number, which very much follows on from the excellent work Nancy has done as part of The Full English.
Kris Drever and Éamonn Coyne both have their big bands in action at the moment. While Lau Land hits Ednburgh later this week keeping Kris busier than most, Treacherous Orchestra, who feature Éamonn are also gearing for their second album release. Somehow the duo managed to gather a few friends and record the Mareel EP earlier this year and also fit in a tour in September. Here they play their version of wonderful song The Call And The Answer taken from Kris’ The Hard Earth album.
It was back in February that Oysterband released the excellent Diamonds In The Water and here they perform the title track live on Mark’s programme. With over 20 albums released over a rich history that has often found them adrift from the musical mainstream, they have very much proved that they still have what it takes. Although unlikely to repeat the all conquering Folk Award success of Ragged Kingdom, the album they recorded with June Tabor, this is an album that shouldn’t be ignored in the round up of the year’s best.
Recent reports from the live circuit have suggested that Seth Lakeman is thoroughly reenergised, although his loyal fan base would argue that it’s business as usual. None the less his involvement with The Full English and his own ambitious and enjoyable Word Of Mouth, which share Portrait Of My Wife, are surely signs back to his best after the distractions of being groomed for pop stardom. Simply delivered with the trademark fiddle style, Seth really is in good voice.
Although here reduced to a trio with Rachel Newton absent, The Furrow Collective deliver an a cappella treat. Emily Portman takes the lead and Alasdair Roberts and Lucy Farrell provide the harmony for this day-dreamy ode to the simple pleasures of life. Again it’s the simplicity of this that makes it standout.
Far more complex is the music of Spiro, with its fusion of folks styles and instrumentation and classical minimalism and systems music. The Sky Is a Blue Bowl is actually taken from their first album released as Spiro Pole Star – although one precedes it when they were known as The Famous Five – which has been reissued this year. Their superb musicianship and meshing of melody and repetition has seen them much in demand since emerging from the Bristol Session scene. Oddly enough given that, their traditional influence is mostly drawn from the English North West.
Another South West North West link is established by Lancastrian Phillip Henry and Devonian Hannah Martin, whose Silbury Hill is in spired by the view of the man made mound from the West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury. The song features Hannah on banjo and Phillip playing slide guitar, a distinctive and unusual combination that is, however, very effective. The album from which this is taken is called Mynd, which is an old English word for memory. The duo have also recently released a live CD.
The vocal arrangement of 9Bach’s Plentyn is immediately arresting. The staccato ‘Ah-ah-ah,’ adds a tension to this Welsh language song inspired by visits to Australia and learning aspects of the often cruel history of the indigenous Aboriginal people. Lisa Jȇn is the captivating lead voice and the song seems to simmer as it builds towards a dramatic, harmony drenched climax. It’s easy to see why Real World were so excited to pick this band up.
Signed to the freshly revived Island Pink Label, The Rails are of course Kami Thompson and husband James Walbourne. Their debut album was recorded this year and produced by Edwyn Collins. Send her to Holloway is another song with echoes of those classic folk rock sounds, with just a little hint of Atlantic drift, that somehow seems to fit in with the Fairport and Fotheringay sound that came towards the end of the record label’s iconic pink labelled vinyl pressings that now command a collectors premium in their original form.
Sam Sweeney is a highly talented multi-instrumentalist and a mainstay of Bellowhead, the Remnant Kings and more. The Ballad Of Richard Howard is inspired by a fiddle that Sam bought in Oxford. It was dated 1915 and inscribed by Richard, but only completed more recently because it’s maker went off to fight in the great war and never returned. In uncovering his story, Sam was inspired to write Made In The Great War an emotional stage show telling the story of Richard’s journey. Here Sam is joined by Rob Harbron, Paul Sartin and Hugh Lupton.
The piano isn’t particularly common in folk music, but it gives a distinctive edge to O’Hooley & Tidow, topped off with their distinguished close harmony singing. Two Mothers is a moving song that looks at another unsavoury aspect of Australian history, but this time the forced migration from these shores of young children, whose parents couldn’t cope or were deemed unfit for one reason and another. The song, originally composed for Jakie Oates’ Lullabies album, featured on The Hum another of the highlights from the early part of the year.
Working regularly with Julie Fowlis and having been a part of Wolfstone, Duncan Chisholm is one of Scotland’s most respected fiddlers. Here, he’s joined by Mattheu Watson and Jarlath Henderson for this haunting air The Gentle Light That Wakes Me. It’s taken from his 2010 solo album Canaich, the second of his Strathglass Trilogy, a collection that soundtracks his interest in the different Scottish Glens that have been home to the Chisholm clan for some 700 years.
Back at the start of the year, the Mischa Macpherson Trio, which includes guitarist Innes White and Conal McDonagh on pipes and whistles won two awards, firstly at Celtic Connections and then the highly prestigious Young Folk Award. Cha D’fhuair Mi’n Cadal (I Got No Sleep), show’s the beguiling strength of Mischa’s voice and their sublime sense of arrangement. Look out for a debut album soon.
By contrast Dervish are veterans with 25 years of driving crowds to excited frenzy by putting their unique stamp on the Irish folk tradition. Their current line-up consists of Cathy Jordan (Vocals, Bodhran and Bones), Michael Holmes (Bouzouki), Brian McDonagh (Mandolin), Liam Kelly (Flutes and Whistles), Tom Morrow (Fiddle, Viola) and Shane Mitchell (Accordion). Here they play the whistful The Lover’s Token, as a mournful tale of a sailor’s demise proves to be deception and we thankfully get a happy ending.
Johnny Coppin is another veteran, well known to listeners to BBC Radio Gloucester. He’s been in the chair of the one hour folk show since 1996, but has also recorded many albums in his own right after launching his professional career with Decameron in the 70s. Whilst his native county has informed much of his work, Borders expands it to cover the Welsh and Scottish frontiers. Joined by fiddler Paul Burgess for the tale of the athletic Joseph Baker, who was only outrun by death in the end.
Heading back north of the border, Ewan McLennan’s The Shearing is taken from his superb Stories Still Untold. He’s one of four previous winners of the Horizon category of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards included here, the category which recognises exceptional talent. Like the other three he’s made good on his promise and established himself at the forefront of the current folk scene. The album features an exquisitely crafted blend of the original and also the traditional, such as this song about the difficulties of cutting corn when swollen with child.
The Rose Of St Magnus is Kris Drever’s second appearance on this selection, but here with his Peedie Gatherin’ consisting of fellow Orcadians Douglas Montgomery, Billy Peace, Kristan Harvey, Sarah Jane Gibbon and Erik Laughton. This tune was learnt from Kris’ dad Ivan and was something performed live in the island setting of Orkney at the annual festival in the extraordinary setting of a 5000-year-old chambered tomb near Stromness, which Mark attended.
The velvety tones of Edinburgh based Adam Holmes, here recording with his band The Embers, deliver I Can’t Be Right, a song that he wrote at the tender age of 15, that sounds literate, potent and surprisingly mature. With his album produced by the legendary Jon Wood, who has his own indelible connection to Island Records classic years, this surely signals the arrival of another important, distinctive new voice on the Scottish scene.
Rounding off the selection is the North East’s The Young’uns with Jenny Waits For Me. Their name of course is a tongue in cheek reference to their musical origins as underage drinkers at the local folk club, where they were eventually coaxed into performing. They are of course now thoroughly established and proud of their Hartlepool roots, which comes through in songs like this. They’re not afraid to put politics to the fore, although mixed with the healthy sense of humour.
That each of these performances was captured live on air is surely testament to the musicianship on display and also what makes this compilation unique. It’s varied two hours offers a diverse, but seamless blend of talent and a mix of styles, sources and sounds from around the UK, with a balance of Celtic and English flavours. Whatever your own preferences and even accepting that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, this is a still a cause for major celebration as it unquestionably demonstrates that folk music is as strong as it has ever been and worthy of immediate purchase.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Delphonic Records