Having spent most of the past three years touring with his band, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sam Kelly at last puts the wealth of experience gained on the road to good use on his debut album The Lost Boys. The result is a fine showcase of Sam’s unique sound, informed by folk traditions but unafraid to take chances and introduce a harder, rockier edge when the music requires it.
The first track, ‘Jolly Waggoners’, sets the stage with a solid and very danceable reworking of the classic Roud 1088, first collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and most notably covered by The Watersons in 1966 on their second album. Instrumentally, Sam and the band have put together a strong arrangement with Ciaran Algar’s fiddle weaving in and out of the fingerstyle banjo of Jamie Francis, but it’s Sam’s voice which ties it all together, from the a capella opening lines through the band’s tightly-meshed harmonies to the unaccompanied ensemble closing refrain. I’m tempted to say this would be a great audience participation number on stage, but the album’s sequencing is tight enough that we jump straight into ‘Banish Misfortune’ with barely a pause for breath. With compositional credits going to Jamie, this tune isn’t to be confused with the traditional Irish jig, an instrumental and a perennial favourite at jams and folk clubs, although it certainly fits the mood. Short but sweet and taken at enough of a pace that, if you weren’t already up and dancing from the opening bars of ‘Jolly Waggoners’, you’d most definitely be leaping around to this. Again, Jamie lays down some exemplary banjo but it’s the combination of Josh Franklin’s electric bass and Evan Carson’s bodhran that drive it along.
The 19th century ‘Six Miners’ (Roud 877), or ‘Six Jolly Miners’ as it’s also known, has a longstanding popularity in mining areas the length and breadth of the land from Scotland to Cornwall although, despite the original lyric’s reference to Derby Town, it seems to have found its home in the hearts of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire miners. That said, the song also travelled as far afield as Canada and the USA and it’s one of these versions which informs Sam’s reworking. Jamie’s bluegrass-tinged banjo brings an almost Appalachian feel to things but the minor key modulations in the song structure and the vocal harmonies bring home the hardships of the song’s protagonists on their journeys through the wintry Utah countryside, while Evan’s percussion finds the perfect balance of space and sounds.
I’m familiar enough with Ian Sinclair’s ‘The King’s Shilling’ to realise that Sam’s version derives from elsewhere, lyrically at least, although quite where, I’m not entirely sure. The CD sleeve credits it as being trad.arr. but I’ve been unable to find out anything more than that. Nevertheless, this is a highlight of the record, a prime slice of drivetime folk-rock which foregrounds Kitty Macfarlane’s gorgeous vocals, as clear as a mountain stream, over a hypnotic, foot-tapping riff which sparkles with the ebb and flow of Jamie’s banjo and (I think) Sam’s cittern.
I always say you can’t beat a good murder ballad and ‘Little Sadie’ fits that description to a T. Originating somewhere in the southern US states early last century, it’s a popular enough song to have been reworked many times, often with different names: ‘Bad Lee Brown’, ‘East St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Cocaine Blues’ come to mind and I know there are others. The arrangement is a real stomper which tips its hat to the steamy swamp-rock of some of the best of New Orleans R&B. Evan’s kick drum and snare have the lean and hungry look of a Louisiana alligator and you’d certainly think twice about asking directions from the tight-riffing gang of guitar, bass and banjo. Despite the somewhat grim lyric, this is a decidedly good time rocker which takes the song to a place of ill-repute of which Clarence Ashley would surely have approved.
Keeping loosely to the theme of betrayal and untimely departures from this mortal coil (albeit by a cabin boy this time), ‘The Golden Vanity’ (Roud 122, Child 286) makes a good source for Sam’s reworking. The song is a staple of many folk musicians – including Martin Simpson, Alasdair Roberts, Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span and Ewan MacColl – who have recorded it either with this title or one of its other aliases, such as ‘Golden Willow Tree’, ‘The Sweet Trinity’, ‘The Sweet Kumadie’ or ‘The Lowlands Low’. Sam’s version is a jaunty take on the shanty which rises and falls from a simple, off beat strummed banjo behind his confident, lilting voice to the gradual introduction of the full band throughout the song’s length. Ciaran’s fiddle adds some raucous fills while Lukas Drinkwater’s impeccable double bass sits well in the mix; upfront enough to be savoured yet never overpowering.
Co-written by Sam and Jamie, ‘Eyes Of Men’ is an introspective love song which draws on more contemporary Celtic/folk influences. It’s one of the album’s highlights and a welcome reminder of the importance of light and shade in music. Graham Coe’s cello is just gorgeous and Sam’s lovelorn vocals show that he’s as capable of a softer, emotive style as he is of belting out rockers like ‘Little Sadie’.
‘Spokes’ is Sam’s own composition, a lyrically philosophical musing on being so preoccupied with getting through the days that we often overlook the good things – and good people – around us. Musically it’s easy to understand why, as the lead track on his most recent EP, this uplifting and breezy tune received such widespread acclaim – including national airplay on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Show – and it would be a natural choice for the lead single from this album, should Sam choose to promote it that way.
Derived, according to some sources, from an 18th century hymn or spiritual, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (Roud 3339) has been covered by many musicians and exists in a number of forms, both lyrically and instrumentally. Sam’s version uses the same lyrics as Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy did for their ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ (from 2010’s Gift) but the arrangement is radically different, revisiting the swampy Americana sound of ‘Little Sadie’ for a stomping, uptempo folk-rocker with some nicely atmospheric touches from Ciaran’s fiddle over the mean and moody rhythm section of Evan and Josh, while Kitty adds some soulful harmonies on the refrains.
‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ is one of my favourite traditional folk songs, although there are so many versions in so many styles that it would be hard to pick an absolute favourite; a task made harder by the song’s historically close relationship to ‘The Moorlough Shore’ (Roud 2742). Sam’s reworking retains the original 19th century lyric, written by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, but the introduction of Kelly’s harmony vocals after the first verse is an inspired touch. Musically, too, Sam shows a deft and empathetic touch with a delicate and pretty acoustic arrangement of little more than two acoustic guitars and fiddle. I have to admit that I was much taken with this version – it’s certainly a highlight, possibly the highlight, of The Lost Boys and it’s a musical direction that I think could be further explored in the future.
That moment of quiet reflection brings us to the album’s closer, ‘Dullahan’, co-written by Sam and Jamie, with lyrics inspired by the headless rider and unseelie fairy of Irish mythology. When you dig back into the legends (there are echoes in folk tales from around the world) Dullahan is associated with the Wild Hunt of the Otherworld and is usually portrayed as a malevolent and dangerous figure, but there’s no doubt that it makes a great theme for imaginative songwriters. The song builds from a quiet and spooky acoustic beginning keeping the ominous atmosphere as it builds to a whirling and rocky thrash, over which Ciaran lets fly with some searing fiddle before the song ends on a climactic full stop.
The Lost Boys is an assured and polished debut album which showcases a wide range of Sam Kelly’s undoubted talents as a singer/songwriter gifted with a musical maturity beyond his years. It more than justifies his growing reputation as a performer and deserves to bring him and his band to the attention of a much bigger audience.
Review by: Helen Gregory
05 January – The Hoy at Anchor Folk Club, WESTCLIFF-ON-SEA
10 January – Folk on the Moor, PLYMOUTH
13 January – Llantrisant Folk Club, PONTYCLUN, WALES