Greg Russell: Inclined to be Red
Fellside Recordings – 21 July 2017
Greg Russell is only twenty-four, but musically, he has been around for a while now. He has released three albums as part of a duo with long-term collaborator Ciaran Algar – The Queen’s Lover, The Call and The Silent Majority – as well as playing in Nancy Kerr’s band and having a staring role in the recent production of Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera, The Transports. He also created Shake The Chains, a touring commission exploring folk music in relation to political change. Russell is a politics graduate, and the Shake The Chains project was partly inspired by his dissertation on the historic role of protest song.
So it is no surprise to find that much of the material on Inclined To Be Red, Russell’s first album as a solo artist, is imbued with a strong political sensibility and a thorough understanding of social issues from the past and the present. The album is split, pretty much equally, between traditional songs, updates of pieces by respected folk artists, and Russell’s own material, and it is a testament to the unity of his vision and the skill of his playing and arranging that he can slip and skip easily between forms without a jolt.
The album opens with one of Russell’s own compositions, E.G.A. It pays homage to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a bastion of the suffrage movement who became the first woman in both Britain and France to qualify as a doctor of medicine. E.G.A. came out of Russell’s involvement with Shake The Chains, and contains much of the spirit of protest that characterised that project. It is a blustery biographical tale borne along on acoustic guitar and Archie Churchill-Moss’s accordion. Although a valuable history lesson, it is elevated beyond that by a rousing chorus and Russell’s assured voice, which has an unaffected warmth and clarity similar to that of Nic Jones.
Farewell is a traditional song, but Russell’s original arrangement gives it a modern twist. The combination of the old and the new emphasises that the song’s moral and social concern – the heartbreaking personal impact of war on soldiers and the people they leave behind – is as valid now as it has ever been. Similarly, Russell’s version of Mick Ryan and Graham Moore’s Road To Dorchester, a song about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the way in which their plight raised serious concerns about the divisive British class system, could also be listened to as a contemporary lesson about lasting inequality. Folk song has always had the power to remind us that change is possible in society; it also serves to remind us of the dangers of ignoring the mistakes of the past. Russell clearly realises this. His singing on Road To Dorchester contains a veiled anger, directed at the people who are still making those mistakes.
On Joe Bowers – which he learned from a version by the wonderful Hedy West, but which has also been performed by Pete Seeger among others – Russell lays aside the overt political commentary for a while. The song is a neat balance of the sad and the comic, and Russell times the sly, humorous lines with expert precision, and the punchline even plays up to his own red-headedness. Travelling Onwards, one of his own songs, is a wonderfully positive evocation of the joys of being a working musician, delivered with a wisdom that belies its writer’s comparative youth. Race To Burn, another Russell original, is wise in a different way. Lyrically, it is a brief distillation of Lovelockian ecological futurology, a stark warning about the effects of human action on the planet. Protest songs of the Anthropocene are few and far between at the moment, but they are sure to grow in number as political and cultural focus shifts and arguments about the state of the Earth’s health grow more pressing.
Crooked Jack is an old song by Dominic Behan (but perhaps most famously performed by Dick Gaughan) about the exploitation of Irish and Scottish labourers. Once more, Russell’s anger at social injustice is acute, and his talent as an arranger comes to the fore as he adapts a tune originally based on The Star Of The County Down into something which again bridges the gap between the historical and the contemporary. Bold Knight does a similar job of updating a very old folk song without changing the words. Here, Russell’s adroit guitar playing is given room to shine. It is elegant without being showy: an impressive marriage of form and function.
The album’s most striking moment is Willy-Ole Lad, a song originally by Keith Marsden. Essentially it is an update of the traditional song Willy O’ Winsbury, in which a king warns his daughter about an unsuitable love match, but in this case the subject has been transferred to working class Yorkshire. The power balances are subtler, and there is no hint of Willy O’ Winsbury’s happy ending. Russell sings unaccompanied; the effect is extraordinarily powerful.
Elsewhere, Tomorrow You’re Gone offers a darker and more sardonic take on the themes explored in Travelling On. What You Do With What You’ve Got – a Si Khan composition that has been performed by Dick Gaughan and Eddi Reader – is propelled along on Russell’s deft banjo and guitar, with the accordion providing an extra emotional hit. Closing track Storylines is perhaps the strongest example of Russell’s songwriting. A thoughtful, passionate riposte to misplaced nationalism that grew from an encounter in a folk club, it shows Russell as a writer wise beyond his years, and yet still full of the idealism of youth.
To the people who think politics has no place in music, like the man Russell met in that folk club, Inclined To Be Red is a timely reminder that the opposite is true. It is an album in which resignation and caution are explored, given space, and ultimately transcended by care and warmth, and it proves that music still can – and indeed must – engage with the world in a positive way. A gentle affirmation of the power of song.
Greg Rusell Dates
20th July 2017 – Newport Folk Club
21st July 2017 – BRISTOL Downend Folk Club
22nd July 2017 – DARTMOUTH Flavel Arts Centre
28th July 2017 – FRODSHAM Castle Arts Centre
5th August 2017 – NOTTINGHAM Riverside Festival
11th & 12th August 2017 – LAKE DISTRICT Folk Weekend
25th August 2017 – Shrewsbury Folk Festival
27th August 2017 – Shrewsbury Folk Festival Solo & W/The Transports
27th August 2017 – DENMARK – TONDER Festival
31st August 2017 – CHESTER Alexanders Live
1st September 2017 – GUILDFORD House Concert *SOLD OUT*
2nd September 2017 – PORTSMOUTH Run Festival
3rd September 2017 – NOTTINGHAM Ravenshead Village Hall
4th September 2017 – LONDON GreenNote
5th September 2017 – DENMARK – BALLERUP
7th September 2017 – DENMARK – TURBINEN Folk Music i Randers
8th September 2017 – DENMARK – FANO Godt Folk
9th September 2017 – DENMARK – VARDE
10th September 2017 – DENMARK – WINTERCOAT Brewery
11th September 2017 – DENMARK – BROBY House Concert
12th September 2017 – DENMARK – MIDDLEFERT
13th September 2017 – DENMARK – SILKEBORG
14th September 2017 – DENMARK – GIMLE Roskilde
15th September 2017 – DENMARK – HASLEV Library
17th September 2017 – SUFFOLK Folk at the Froize SOLO TOUR
18th September 2017 – COLCHESTER Arts Centre SOLO TOUR
21st September 2017 – SOUTHPORT The Atkinson SOLO TOUR
23rd September 2017 – BEDFORSHIRE Dunton Folk SOLO TOUR
24th September 2017 – CHESTER Raven Folk Club SOLO TOUR
25th September 2017 – SHEFFIELD The Greystones SOLO TOUR
More here: http://www.gregrussellfolk.co.uk/