I’ve been closely following the progress of these Teesside lads over the decade since I experienced their tentative early outing on a singers’ night at Stockton Folk Club. They may not have quite bowled me over on that occasion, but I sensed a tremendous potential even then. Great individual singers for a start, but with an unusual empathy and prescience when singing together, including an inordinately keen grasp of harmony; then as a bonus a vigorous and upfront performing style and a truly canny choice of material ranging over the whole folk spectrum. Since then, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have progressed in leaps and bounds, and inevitably matured apace (tho’ I guess that, having thus far stuck with their nominated group moniker, they’ll always tend to be regarded as new kids on the block!) – to the extent that a couple of years back they took the brave and risky decision to give up their day-jobs and take to the musical road professionally.
Now, having chalked up appearances at over 40 festivals (including the prestigious Cambridge and Glastonbury), they’ve fast built an impressive live reputation as a “must-see” act with a dynamic, involving, often irreverent but always intensely entertaining stage presence. At the same time, they’ve released five CDs – with Another Man’s Ground now being the sixth – which, while unavoidably playing second-fiddle to the lads’ irrepressible live act, have nevertheless showcased their abundant talents, and their distinctive personal brand of musical versatility, in an at times altogether more close-knit, often surprisingly intimate setting.
The full-on, often rough-and-ready and entirely good-humoured nature of their 2007 debut CD To Hell With Pirate John! truthfully presented exactly where the lads were then at: a hefty collection of shanties, chorus songs and folk club staples, confidently, lustily and unpretentiously delivered, and taking audible (albeit mildly rudimentary) direct inspiration from Teesside’s own mighty Wilson Family and key folk-revival role-models such as Peter Bellamy. Tucked deep inside this set, however, were a couple of key pointers to the future in the form of self-penned numbers which marked the emergence of Sean Cooney as an original folk songwriter to watch, following in the wake (and tradition) of important contemporary songwriters of the north-east whose work the Young’uns have consistently championed (notably Graeme Miles, Ron Angel and Richard Grainger).
Sean’s acute and deep-rooted feel for the specific local history and heritage of his own native region (Hartlepool in particular), allied to a real gift for perceptive social commentary, has since provided a rich strand that has been fruitfully developed within the group’s repertoire, to increasing acclaim. Over half of album number two (Plastic Cod’eads) consisted of extremely strong original songs with definitive local interest, out of which two serious standouts (One December Morn and Jenny Waits For Me) were re-recorded three years ago for album four (When Our Grandfathers Said No). By which time, The Young’uns were establishing the viability of their incredibly vibrant and upfront (and quite literally unique) mix of rip-roaring and fun roof-raisers, traditional and traditionally-inflected folk standards and inspired, often gut-wrenchingly poignant originals. A remarkable combination of sheer power, unbridled vocal energy and uncommon sensitivity has always been a hallmark of the Young’uns’ act, and they now have it down to a deceptively fine art. Album five, so very aptly titled Never Forget, appeared only last year, and found the lads making arguably even more convincing use of a modicum of instrumentation to supplement their brilliant, blazingly accomplished a cappella work. Even so, there’ve been occasions when I felt the impact of just a few of their own songs was being undermined by a slight over-use of instrumental textures, and their latest albums have shown an even more sensible and appropriate use of, and lower level of dependence on, instrumental accompaniment.
Another Man’s Ground plays to the lads’ strengths; in many ways it’s almost the album I’d expected the Young’uns to make a while back, not least in terms both of peerless choice of songs and careful mix and balance of material. Eight out of the dozen tracks are done in unashamed a cappella mode, and these range from stirring, well-managed covers – embracing two by Graeme Miles, Graham Moore’s spirited Tom Paine’s Bones, Walter Kittredge’s American Civil War song Tenting Tonight, Ewan MacColl’s School Days Over, and (possibly best of all) Billy Bragg’s iconic Between The Wars – to a pithy little Teesside pawn shop song and a commandingly stentorian rendition of traditional The Brisk Lad. Fans of Sean’s own writing may feel mildly shortchanged in that there’s only four of his own songs included this time round – but you can rest assured, they’re well up to the standard previously set. Pick of these is Private Hughes, which movingly chronicles the consequences of a simple action in the final days of a Stockton-born soldier in September 1914; this song is given an evocative parlour-piano backing. Another Great-War-themed number is Brewster & Wagner (on which, incidentally, Bob Fox provides a brief vocal cameo); this song, however, loses something in impact by virtue of the fact that its melody is perhaps too close to that of Byker Hill for comfort. The Streets Of Lahore is an affecting tribute to Farzana Parveen (the Pakistani woman murdered only last year by members of her own family for marrying without their consent). And the gleefully catchy You Won’t Find Me On Benefits Street (co-written with David Eagle) explores, with genial, inclusive humour, a local resident’s reasoning behind his ejection of the crew filming for a certain controversial Channel 4 documentary series. Interestingly, the latter song might be said to take on something of the air of Coope, Boyes & Simpson (rather than the Wilsons): a feature which highlights the increasingly sophisticated nature, and degree of accomplishment of, the Young’uns’ harmonies nowadays (not that they were ever less than ingeniously accomplished in the group’s early days, of course).
But let’s “never forget” that the demonstrably inventive, proudly unorthodox – and yes, often very original – approach to arrangement, expression and execution of even the most hoary of singaround staples and shanties is another notable Young ’Uns trademark. And on this their latest CD, Andy Bell’s expert production so faithfully conveys the lads’ now more measured “wall of sound”, and Katy Coope’s attractive artwork gives the flavour of their world. Again we’re left wanting more of their music – which we’re sure to get now that the lads have just won the Best Group accolade at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. MASSIVE CONGRATULATIONS, LADS!
Review by: David Kidman
The Young’uns Album launch takes place at The Sage Gateshead on 25 April followed by a full Tour. Details here.
Also a big congratulations to The Young’uns who won the BBC Folk Award for Best Group this week.