Hailing from south Yorkshire, growing up in Sheffield and Barnsley, Richard Kitson has quietly emerged as one of the best guitar pickers of his generation. His technique is a most holy alliance of the blues and folk worlds as Richard has explored both to the fullest, taking his lessons from the very best. Amongst all of the fret dotting flash Harrys there’s a classicism in his playing that serves the songs on Hermit Hill very well indeed. It all hangs together beautifully and putting melody and harmony to the fore it’s also to his credit, that this is a highly engaging set of tuneful tales, is filled with the acute observations and whimsical interludes of a skilled raconteur.
If Richard Kitson’s obvious calling card is his guitar playing then it’s no surprise to learn that he started early. Learning from records and books, Richard is self-taught and further developed his musical skills through playing the harmonica in school talent shows and singing in a local, south Yorkshire choir, also dabbling with the drums. It’s the guitar, however, that has become his passion and he set about learning finger style technique with a dedication that has clearly paid dividends. Somewhere in the mix of influences there was a significant encounter with Bob Dylan as well, which fuelled a desire to write songs.
Richard’s early influences were the country and Delta blue styles and the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt gave him a taste for the authentic blues finger style, while Irish guitar legend Rory Gallagher, whose own mastery of the blues was the bedrock of his astonishing talent, further fuelled Richard’s devotion. Gallagher was famed for playing his guitar for at least four hours every day throughout his career and although Richard hasn’t made his practice stats public, there are obvious signs that he puts the hours in.
Like Gallagher then, the blues form the bedrock of Richard’s style, although around 2006 he made another discovery that proved life changing. It was hearing Bert Jansch that caused the seismic shift, opening up the folk world and from there, it was a short step to Davy Graham and John Martyn. But while the influence of all of these players can probably be discerned in Richard’s style he manages to turn their lessons and pre-eminence into something of his own. There a natural rhythmic snap and flow and a tunefulness that makes his playing as much about melody and harmony as it is fret-board wizardry. It’s led to a consistent calendar of solid supporting slots and one headliner, Otis Gibbs was prompted to comment on Richard’s opening set saying, “When I grow up I want to play guitar like Richard Kitson.”
By his own admission, the last album, Home And Dry, which Richard counts as his second debut record was the culmination of several years of song writing. This follow up, however, is more condensed and also coincides with a two year period of struggles, with Richard being out of work and anxious about his future. Those concerns bubble up through his songs, not in a literal, autobiographical sense, but more in a quiet dislocation and outsider looking in sort of way.
As lovely as the guitar work is, and it really is very lovely indeed, it’s Richard’s strange little stories that are arguably the real strength of this record. It’s generally all very simply arranged, with minimal overdubs and just April Lodge on viola, occasionally adding to the core sound of Richards guitar and voice.
She’s there on the first and title track, Hermit Hill, the steady draw of the bow adding a dense and mournful tone to the song. By contrast Richard’s picking almost kicks its heels in a little dance around the tune and the contrasting textures hit the mixed moods of being lonely but unburdened. There’s a lovely little detail in the lines, “I live here upon the hill, exactly where, well I prefer not to say.” The use of the word feral is key as well, suggesting someone returned to a natural state.
There’s that sense of remoteness too in It’s A Long Way Back. Although the story is not specific as to the reasons, we find someone else leaving their home, with their head in their hands and unsure how they can ever return. The chords structure and finger style guitar are just sublime, with a mix of minors and sevenths (I think) giving the tune a hint of St. James Infirmary. Richard sings, “One hand reveals what I have to offer, the other displays what I lack, but it doesn’t matter what shortcuts I take it’s a long way back.”
To some extent Bicycle Man turns the sentiments of being lost into a need for escape, with another nicely observed flight of fancy, as Richard sings about a stranger who regularly pedals past his window, dressed in an ill fitting tangerine jumper. Richard imagines him relishing the wind in his hair and the freedom to go where he chooses, even perhaps beyond the bounds of the wicked world. The guitar gives a clever sense of momentum and the tune breezes along, with Richard’s voice doubled up in harmony on the chorus to add an extra highlight.
Strines offers a lovely instrumental interlude before The Elm Street Cats adds another keenly observed flight of fantasy. The titular moggies are given a disdainful character that borders on the sinister, shadowy and predatory. Again, there are some lovely details like, “I can remember their eye’s, like pools of coloured glass, lit by an overcast sky,” and the way the felines follow the sun’s warmth. If there’s a suggestion of diffident scheming then the inherent anthropomorphism comes on stronger in Scarecrow, whose battles with the birds and neglect have no possibility of redemption as Richard sings, “No one said life would be a fairy tale, for me there will be no yellow brick road.” Again the viola adds a strong emotional eddy, while the little flurries of guitar are both highly impressive and harmonically intuitive.
Murder Mile is the closest to a straight blues on the album and seems piqued by a noirish, unspecified, urban angst. It’s another stunning bit of playing too and shows just how seriously Richard has studied the genre, whilst it also has a little of the ‘beyond’ of Davy Graham’s folk-blues. There are echoes of that too, with a nice percussive snap to Riley’s Ghost, although this time around at least, the fears prove unfounded and the legend of a haunting proves to be nothing more than people afraid of their own shadows.
April’s viola is back for Weeping Willow, a gossamer light and hauntingly beautiful song that ripples with more outstanding guitar and some breathtaking runs. It has a dreamy quality as Richard sings, “It’s plain for me to see, that nothing is quite as it seems,” it’s a lovely contradiction that lingers after the dawn, “In a silence so deep.”
Can’t Help Myself returns us, crashing back to worldly matter as Richard is adrift on a sea of wrong calls and indecision, unable to escape his circumstances. The picking is purposeful, but Richard admits, “I can’t help myself, so why should you help me?” Thankfully, despite all of the self-admonishment it seems that help is at hand. Finally Feathers suggests both confinement and the possibility of escape, although there are doubts as Richard sings, “If the door was to open would I dare to step outside.”
It’s a real class act alright and gourmet’s delight for guitar buffs, but this CD is also one that’s very easy to fall in love with and an overriding humanism that is wonderfully endearing shining through these songs. Hermit Hill wraps up finely etched details with daydreams, nightmares, hopes and fears and if it catalogues some uncertain times for Richard, there are also little glimmers of honesty and hope that suggest redemption is at hand. All of us need our time to escape and 40 minutes on Hermit Hill is as good a place to go to as any that I know of.
Review by: Simon Holland
Hermit Hill is Out Now
Available on CD / Digital via Bandcamp here.
Fri 10th Apr: CB2 Café, Cambridge. 8pm
Sun 19 Apr: Blues Bar Harrogate, Scott Doonican and Richard Kitson are Last of the Independents (Acoustic Tribute to Rory Gallagher and other blues/folk greats). 6pm, free entry
Sun 17 May: Barnsley Rock and Blues (Polish Club), plus support from Fargo Railroad Co, £3 entry, doors 4:30pm
Fri 19 June: Willowman Festival (acoustic stage) 8:30pm
Sat 20 June: Otley Folk Festival, 12:50pm
Sat 20 June: Barnsley Live (Barnsley Folk Club Stage) Time TBC
Sat 05 Sept: Doncaster Brewery and Tap, supporting O’Hooley and Tidow, 7:30pm