This year has seen the British folk music scene go from strength to strength, with numerous musicians reaching significantly wider audiences, by means of recorded music as well as lengthy tours to packed houses in large venues. While this is definitely something to celebrate, we shouldn’t forget the multitude of musicians at grassroots level, playing to much smaller audiences in pubs, at local folk clubs and open mic nights, at private house gigs and, yes, busking on your High Street (assuming they’ve been able to successfully navigate the increasingly draconian terms imposed on buskers by local authorities across the land). These musicians are the backbone of the of the grassroots scene in which many of the now ‘big names’ first began to hone their performance skills and build the repertoire which helped them cross over into the mainstream. They are hugely important to the folk scene as a whole and we should be grateful that they’re out there, plugging away, hoping they can raise enough money from tonight’s gig to raise the petrol money to get to the next one – and maybe even manage to eat from time to time, too!
One such stalwart of the grassroots scene is Steve Folk (previously known as Steve Thompson or Blabbermouth), a full-time touring singer/songwriter with many years’ experience and many more miles spent on the road in Europe as well as here in Britain. Despite a seemingly endless touring schedule, Steve is just about to self-release his new CD, called Black Sheep Bones, written whilst touring Europe, recorded earlier this year and covering such themes as travel, touring and missing home.
The opening ‘My Green Rollercoaster’ is one of the album’s highlights (and Song of the Day on FRUK today); its arrangement builds gradually from Steve’s delicate fingerstyle acoustic guitar introduction, adding some wistful woodwind and lush strings along the way. Lyrically, it’s a good showcase for Steve’s skills as a lyricist, managing to be both personal and universal at the same time as it reminds the listener that the good things in life aren’t necessarily to be found in material possessions.
‘Rabbits in Frankfurt’ is a combination of travelogue and a sound postcard to Geneviéve, Steve’s wife, written on the last couple of days of one of his German tours. The arrangement makes good use of orchestral flourishes which enhance, never overwhelm, while his lyrics speak volumes without once straying into sentimentality.
“Recorded in a cabin, on a ferry, using an iphone”, the YouTube video accompanying ‘Black Sheep Bones’, the record’s title track, is a fine example of what can be achieved with a relatively minimal amount of technology. Lyrically, Steve muses on the way his life has unfolded and, although commercial success may have eluded him so far, his pride in how much he has nevertheless achieved is clear – and rightly so. Musically it’s an uptempo composition built on Steve’s fast-strummed acoustic guitar with some well-placed piano fills and a bouncy electric bass, but it’s the multitracked harmony vocals on the refrains that catch this listener’s ear.
Some interesting major/minor key modulations permeate the structure of the uptempo love song ‘Baltimore’ and it’s matched by an inventive arrangement with a steady heartbeat of percussion, muted horns and some particularly effective multitracked, unison vocal harmonies – and how could anyone not like a song which dispenses with a guitar solo in favour of Steve’s tuneful whistling? An unexpected highlight for delivering a heartfelt message while keeping a glint in its eye.
‘Spare Part’ finds Steve exploring a more overtly Country sound, playing what the PR notes refer to as a toffee tin banjo: for all the implications of a wonky, home-made instrument, it sounds surprisingly good – I’m struggling to avoid using descriptors like ‘rich’, ‘creamy’ and ‘the last Rolo’ – with some unexpectedly full timbres which match the song’s offbeat mood perfectly. A distant, almost monochrome string arrangement adds further texture, while Geneviéve adds some understated backing vocals.
Steve’s accomplished fingerstyle guitar playing underpins ‘My Wife, The River’, a love song to Geneviéve which uses the unusual metaphor of comparing her to the Thames. Strings drift in and out like the morning mist to complete the arrangement on this charming yet intimate song.
The curiously titled ‘Alan in Wonderland’ with its somewhat cryptic first-person lyric is an uptempo number which gives Steve a chance to stretch out and demonstrate his impressive playing skills, moving between a fast strum and some intricate fingerstyle playing interspersed with ringing, bell-like harmonics; while Paul Love’s percussion keeps it all on an even keel.
The subject of songwriting itself isn’t something often covered in any genre, least of all contemporary folk, and in ‘Lifetime’ Steve’s take on the process of writing for posterity is as illuminating as it is sardonically poetic. The arrangement is full yet varied with strings, electric bass and multitracked harmonies all featuring, along with some insistent, hypnotic percussion.
Penultimate track ‘The Gardener’ has an intelligent and well-written lyric, introspective but not implacable, which is enhanced by its simple arrangement of just Steve and his guitar, thereby giving us a hint of how he might sound in a live setting without the potential temptations of a studio full of technology. From this perspective, it’s an impressive reminder of Steve’s musicianship and writing, learned as a journeyman through the grassroots scene.
The record closes with the appropriately, if ominously, titled ‘The End of The World’, a powerful denunciation of the excesses of human activity which have contributed to the current, accelerating rates of climate change that we see around us. Its sweet harmonies, once again featuring Geneviéve’s gorgeous vocals, accentuate the urgency of its message about the need for collective action. It’s a subject about which I personally feel quite strongly and I’m actually quite awestruck by Steve’s writing skills which allow him to make his point without lecturing or berating his audience.
Black Sheep Bones is an impressive album in many ways, not least because of its backstory of Steve Folk’s daily struggle to make a living as a professional musician without access to the resources that can be found with the backing of a record or distribution company and a host of others in PR, marketing and so on. That he’s managed to do all this and still come out of it with a great-sounding CD full of engaging songs, inventive arrangements and thoughtful lyrics is a testimony to that fundamental driving force which inspires the unsigned independent musician, namely, doing what he loves best: making music.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Song of the Day: My Green Rollercoaster
Black Sheep Bones is released 30 November 2015
Pre-Order via Bandcamp