CORVUS Gloves of the skin of a fish
Corvus are in a dimension of their own; their debut album Gloves of the skin of a fish has a wondrous magical feel to it. Eery in lyrics yet comforting in tone, the musicianship is a fantastical mix of Henry VIII melodies performed by Mike Billington and a multicultural modernist take on ancient folk expression written mainly by Bill Pook The opening track Dave’s Fish is what I imagine the vultures in Disney’s The Jungle Book would sound like if they wrote a song: relaying their message of a discussion with fish in a thoughtful 1960’s psychedelic way, but with calm, steady vocals portraying a King Arthur-like character telling an ancient tale from times gone by. Heavy Heads is a much discussed track in circles. It is a controversial telling of an execution in the fifteen hundreds with a chilling reality in a surreal storytelling setting; Bill’s performance could easily be a Jester reciting a sonnet by William Shakespeare to the King and Queen. This tale has split owners of the album leaving some uncomfortable and others excited and amused…either way, it came as no surprise to me that the duo were booked to perform at Festival at the Edge earlier this year and were well received Overall, the album is a much darker medieval take on those Horrible History books children read in the ’90s. Granted, Corvus’ more graphic tales can be disconcerting to some, but there is method to their madness as the album is actually a brilliant and educational listen to the musical and poetic ear. If you’re not convinced and need some reassurance, Genevieve Tudor from BBC Radio Shropshire’s Sunday Folk descrobed the album as just fabulous on the Corvus webpage www.corvus.org.uk. Just give it a go.
Joni Stephens Folk North West. Winter Edition 2010/11
REBEC Ayres That Meades and Pastures Fill
Robert Cross has always had his talented feet, or more accurately fingers, planted firmly in the Early Music camp, whether playing 3/2 Cheshire rounds on bagpipes when few besides John Kirkpatrick braved such tricky stuff, or in partnership with fellow multi-instrumentalist Michael Billington as the Renaissance music music inspired duo of the 1970s, Rebec. Bob and Michael have finally got together again to complete an album of songs that would not be out of place in the court of Queen Elizabeth I or on stage at The Globe, though in fact all the material was was composed and arranged by Bob. Using the wonders of modern technology, Bob recorded in New Zealand, his current home, and Michael in England.They play nearly two dozen period instruments between them, but also call upon some excellent musicians to add cellos, violins, clarinet and viola da gamba for lush, lilting accompaniments to sweetly-crooning languorous vocals. Avoidance of the usual churchy reverberation ascociated with Early Music recordings gives a more intimate, warmer feel to the music. If you are moved by lyric poems of Lovelace, or by the consort music of Dowland and Byrd, you may be delighted by these courtly songs, though some may find little variety or contrast in terms of moodor melody, with all but all but a couple of the pieces set in 3/4 time and a major key. Highlights are reached in the later tracks during excellent arrangements of Life’s Game and a lovely tune Kindness My Foe led by Bob on Northumbrian smallpipes. All in all, this is a gently intricate and unusual disc.
Neil Brookes. writing in The English Dance and Song Magazine Winter Edition 2014.
Fish, Slugs and Executions
“That’s brave”, you think to yourself, at the opening of Corvus’ debut album, ‘a novelty song as the first track.’ Except it isn’t. A novelty that is. Gloves of the skin of a fish is a collection of off beat items, that are described as ‘esoteric’ by Mike Billington, one half of the duo. If you’ve ever wondered what water feels like to a fish, then you’re not alone. Corvus do too. As does Dave Eggars, whose short story provides the inspiration for that initial number, titled, not surprisingly, Dave’s Fish. Going down the evolutionary chain a few links there’s a short tribute to a well known garden visitor in Thoughts on a Slug, whose ‘gummy mucoid unctuousness’ is much admired, by Bill Pook, Billington’s partner in, er…slime. By the middle we’re on to primates, in Heavy Heads, as the lads wonder how to weigh that part of the anatomy. The first option is discounted as it’s somewhat grisly, and indeed, lethal, but there’s another, more practical idea mooted a little way down the line. More conventional material is included amongst the curios. Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire, gets a straightforward treatment, there’s a jolly thrash through Newlyn Town and a version of Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, which inevitably suffers by comparison with the original. At the extremes, this album could be viewed as deliciously inventive or a bit daft. I’m somewhat in the middle. Being different is good. There are identikit acts in folk, as there are in other genres, with artists who offer little of themselves. But what’s on show here doesn’t quite hit the mark with me. There’s no explanation for that, it’s just a matter of personal taste. Don’t let that deter you from making further investigations though. Corvus have a well designed website that contains samples, lyrics and an account on what inspired the contents of the album as well as more information on the musical activities of Messrs Billington and Pook. Pay it a visit. You might find something a little off the beaten track that takes your fancy.
Les Pilling. North West Folk. June 2011
TOM YATES Love Comes Well Armed
Tom Yates surprised me immediately with his voice, it sounded like a mix of stereotypical country and Beatles. I wasn’t very sure what to expect from this but quickly found myself bopping along to the opening track, Rooster Grady.
What is interesting about Love Comes Well Armed, is that none of this is new. Sadly Tom Yates himself died of Leukaemia in 1993. All of the tunes are re-mastered from his stretch during the 1980s and are out for release again.
His vocals sound very distinctive, but also have a warmth of familiarity that could probably be put under the same umbrella as other artists. Parts of Before I Die really does sound like one of the Beatles if they had chosen to take up country rather than pop. Some may object to me using this description but I think it works so well, especially when you know they are not that far apart time wise.
His musical talents are also to be greatly commended as he plays soft and delicate tunes under his vocals, making his songs warming like a sip of whisky or sitting near a fire place. The title track Love Comes Well Armed in particular is gripping.
Of course there are mixtures of songs with Loves Philosophy being much more relaxed and slow compared to tunes like The Man I Really Am which is bouncy and jolly.
A wonderful collection to honour a great artist.
Paul Rawcliffe North West Folk
Album: Love Comes Well Armed
Rochdale-born Tom was just one of the large crop of singer-songwriters who came into prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He got to know Paul Simon on moving to London in the late 1960s, and his first LP (Second City Spiritual) was recorded for CBS in 1967. It was in 1973, around a year after moving to Disley, a village near Stockport (Cheshire), that Tom released his second LP, Love Comes Well Armed.
While necessarily placing the spotlight on Tom’s own distinctive and admittedly slightly idiosyncratic vocal style, the LP also featured a modicum of instrumental support, from (among others) B.J. Cole, Tom’s wife Cindy, and Duncan Browne (with whom Tom had collaborated a few years previously as well as co-writing two of the LP’s songs). There’s some very skilful acoustic guitar interplay, and BJ’s pedal steel provides a telling signature on a handful of the tracks. Even so, the general sound of the album was quite spartan, which made the more complicated arranged sections stand out all the more. It transpires that the original studio master tape has been sourced for this first-time-on-CD transfer, and the clarity of the aural image is often quite startling in the richness of its detail; and although there’s the occasional click or crackle of surface-noise this proves no significant distraction in the overall scheme of things.
As far as Tom’s songwriting is concerned, it chiefly encompasses a philosophical stance, one which encourages co-operation and kinship; even so, it can sometimes be more than mildly elusive in its refusal to preach. Less mystical, more mystique-inducing perhaps, and almost indefinably pithy on occasion, yet with a delicacy of expression that’s mirrored in his vocalising. There’s contrast too; the wry playfulness of early Robin Williamson is recalled on Bye Bye Bohemia, whereas Dear Life more resembles a tentative torch ballad. Finally, I mentioned Tom’s vocal style above – and yet, idiosyncratic though it may be, you might hear hints of fellow-singers from the early 70s and later too (Roy Harper, Bernie Parry, and others that I can’t quite place right at this moment), while derivative his style sure ain’t.
For all kinds of reasons, then, Tom’s work may not make a definite impression first time round, but it reaps rewards on closer acquaintance, and certainly doesn’t justify the neglect which it has suffered over the past decades (I’d not even come across Tom in the persona of “cult figure”!). Sadly, Tom passed away in 1993, in Antwerp (he’d moved to Belgium in 1980), but this timely reissue, along with further plans including the remastering of albums one and three along with Tom’s obscure 1980s cassette releases, should ensure his talent now gains some deserved, if belated attention.
David Kidman FATEA Magazine.
Album: Song Of The Shimmering Way
Tom’s third album, originally released by Satril Records in 1977, sounds at once a throwback to early-70s adventurousness and a glance-forward to 80s alt-folk. Its writing continues to explore Tom’s preoccupations and life concerns while instancing (notably in the disc’s final pair of tracks) the interest in Celtic culture, stories, traditions and mythology that he had begun to embrace in the years since Love Comes Well Armed; Tom’s interest in character-painting resurfaces on Johnny Mars The Knocker, a song of old-fashioned folky charm.
The LP’s instrumental arrangements are more consciously lavish and “formulated” than the simpler endorsements of the previous record, but they’re carried out with commendable sensitivity for their era, and only on the rather forced show-time ambience of To Be In A Movie With You does there feel to be a degree of overkill and cringe-factor. The mood of genial insouciance is better caught on the lightly-orchestrated Sunset On Fair Isle, perhaps. However, the dreamlike minstrelsy of A Twelve Month Carol gets the balance just right, and this would be a standout track to grace any contemporaneous album release; Life Ahead is another real success, one whose percipience and philosophy strongly recalls the writing of Paul Metsers (and contains some lovely, deft lute and guitar interplay as a bonus).
The title track, a seven-minute epic narrative, comes complete with rippling Celtic harp and has much of the feel of The Merry Band; confidently delivered, and with a musical kinship to the traditional Lay The Bent To The Bonny Broom, this is full of promise for a direction Tom might usefully have pursued further. It needs to be remembered that the record came out at an awkward time for singer-songwriters, where there was little room for any “softer”, more considered talent that doggedly inhabited the cracks between mainstream and proto-punk. Thus, Song Of The Shimmering Way may not, even with hindsight, be able to be considered a true classic, but its sometimes elusive beauties are still well worth revisiting. For, uneven though its invention may be, it’s a rather likeable set nonetheless.
David Kidman FATEA Magazine.
SOL INVICTUS Mike Billington
This is the first solo offering from Mike Billington, although he is a seasoned performer, who also plays in the duo Corvus and also was the founder member of two well known ceilidh bands, Madcap and the more recently formed Maggoty in 2011.
Mike also produced and presented the folk show on BBC Radio Manchester for five years during the 1980s.
There are many tracks that are instantly recognisable and are dealt with lovingly and with great quality.
You have to go back to the mid 1600s for the opening track “Nonsuch/Ductia”. This is the backdrop for Mike’s narration of “The Miller’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. The Ductia is from the 13th century and played on the Spanish bagpipes.
Learned from the singing of the late and much missed Ray Fisher, “Bonny at Morn”, tells the story of a mother trying to motivate her offspring into work and education. This is a fine rendition.
Always claimed as a Lancashire somg, “Little Piecer” is about a young lad getting up at dawn to go to the mill to crawl under the looms to piece together the broken threads. Wages were such that it really was slave labour and exploitation.
“The Trees They Do Grow High” deals with arranged marriages over 200 years ago between children not yet teenagers.
“Newlyn Town” in Cornwall became notorious through a broadside ballad. It tells of a highwayman who met his end on the gibbet in London.
“Long Lankin” became famous as a folk rock anthem performed by Steeleye Span. This much softer traditional rendition explains how a mother and child were murdered by the aforementioned Long Lankin, an evil and menacing chap. Theories abound abound who he really was.
A song with a light hearted feel follows. “Button Up Your Overcoat”, a song also recorded by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
“The Shearing” you might know as “Kelvingrove”, the story of a soldier who has his fun and goes off to war leaving behind a girl literally holding the baby.
Dating back to the early 1800s “The Snows That Melt The Soonest” is a beautiful song I first heard sung by the late John Wright.
It is always good to hear a song sung acapella. “Up Like The Swallow” is performed admirably by Mike.
We turn to the sea for “New York Girls”; the sailors are off around Cape Horn in search of money, adventure and, of course, women. Again, Steeleye Span performed this on their “Commoners’ Crown” album with Peter Sellers adding narration.
A lament, “The Flowers of the Forest” was written following the death of James IV and 10000 men at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513.
The late Tom Yates wrote “Bide a While”, a great song well performed. Mary Asquith made just one record released in 1978; here Mike pays his own tribute singing the title track “Closing Time” and, like Tom Yates, she is sadly no longer with us.
As a bonus, Mike performs four early tunes on authentic period instruments to bring the CD to a climax.
Mike can be justifiably proud of this, his first solo offering. It has a good choice of material performed with a real understanding of the subjects. Now he has a taste for recording solo, I am sure more will follow.
David Jones. Folk North West. Winter 2013
Album: Sol Invictus
You may remember Mike from the 70s renaissance-styled band Rebec; these days, he plays with the band Radnor, but I’ve come across him as one half of the duo Corvus, who released a quirky, if wilfully esoteric album (Gloves Of The Skin Of A Fish) a couple of years ago. It inhabited a strange, dark dimension involving modern takes on ancient folk myths melded with a medieval-to-renaissance instrumentation, and provided a compelling and sometimes disconcerting listening experience that also proved curiously comforting.
Mike’s solo album, Sol Invictus, was recorded around 18 months after the Corvus album, and represents a comparatively relaxed, if in the end rather wayward, selection of material that brings some contemporary songwriting into the mix to complement his usual preoccupations. However, especially in its early stages, Mike focuses our attention more directly on basic traditional sources. Nine of its tracks are what might be termed fairly straight renditions of traditional songs, ranging in depth and effectiveness from fine accounts of Long Lankin and The Snows That Melt The Soonest and a better-than-plausible interpretation of Bonny At Morn through to a less-than-persuasive, brisk runthrough of The Trees They Do Grow High. The latter, along with Flowers Of The Forest, tends unfortunately to emphasise that Mike’s singing is sometimes not his strongest suit, for these two songs in particular suffer from a distinct flatness of intonation.
There’s also a revisit of Newlyn Town (from the Corvus set-list). Mike accompanies himself on an impressive variety of instruments (guitar, bass guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, ukulele, recorder, crumhorn, rauschpfeife, tin whistle, melodeon, Spanish and Highland bagpipes, glockenspiel and assorted percussion), with help from sundry sessioners comprising Corvus colleague Bill Pook, Phil Davenport and Mickey Van Gelder (guitars), Nicola Smalley (violin), Ruth Spargo (cello), Rebecca Millington (clarinet), also backing vocalists Fiona Simpson and Shelley Rainey and Karen Dyson (aka two of The Bailey Sisters). Interestingly too, Maartin Allcock brings some “string bass and concertina samples” to Mike’s cover of Tom Yates’ lovely, inclusive anthem Bide a While (for which, by happy coincidence, Mike brings in as backing singer Bram Taylor, who had originally recorded the song on his own album of the same name almost exactly 40 years ago).
The nature (and status) of Sol Invictus as curio-cum-curate’s egg, hinted at above, is further accentuated by the unashamed, if somewhat fish-out-of-water interpolation of New York Girls and late-20s novelty-vaudeville number Button Up Your Overcoat (which I guess we all learnt from the nascent Bonzos!). And then, arguably even more so by the disc’s being bookended by music of a deliberately early-music persuasion, for it opens with a flourish with a recitation of Chaucer and a strident combination of Playford and a medieval Ductia, and ends with a sequence of four very brief medieval tunes. Even those listeners of more adventurous persuasion and eclectic taste may find the juxtapositions a touch uncomfortable, or else opine that the disc as a whole doesn’t quite hang together – a verdict with which I’d not entirely disagree, notwithstanding its many idiosyncratic charms.
David Kidman FATEA Magazine.
LOVE IS LOSING GROUND Tom Yates
Tom Yates may not be a name recognisable to you. He was born in Rochdale in 1944 and passed away in 1993, but he has left behind a legacy of songs that have stood the test of time and are now being released under license once more.
The original tapes have been lovingly transferred onto CD and the songs on these tapes were ones he recorded in Antwerp.
Opening with the title track “Love Is Losing Ground”, are we getting away from all we believe and love and how can we return?
“Jaques Brel” is revered in music circles the world over. Tom, by way of his huge respect for Brel, sings this short track in the master’s own language.
When someone leaves we often spiral into a different word, a type of regression. “Godspeed” explains how we then must encourage our offspring to soar and attain a higher ideal.
One of the world’s greatest dances is the Tango. “Tango Valentino” tells how we should try to put adversity behind us. The music gets faster as our lives pick up pace.
No matter whether we are rich beyond our wildest dreams, can we ever find peace and satisfaction? “Brutal and Cruel” looks at different situations we must all face if we are to move forward.
Turning to look homeward is something we all do when we are missing our homeland while many miles away. In this case, a walk along the riverbank “Amid the Alien Corn” only heightens the anxiety of what is missing.
In the darkest moments how do we cope? Do we listen to music or what is going on inside out head? “Wild Track” tries to explain.
“Mishka Midou” is a person either real or imagined who has got under the skin of a distant admirer. Imagination runs wild. Great keyboards mark this track out.
As we gaze into the vast universe, constellations of stars, planets, the phases of the moon, all are ours if we reach out for “Stars and Sails”.
Dusk falls, the river is running by, you spread “A Table in the Wilderness” with crackling and bread to share. Could it be reality or just a dream to reach out for? How do we see things and those closest to us? “A Song of Sable Night” tries to square the circle.
“It’s Been a While”, when we lose touch and then reconnect, has anything changed? If the answer is yes, can we get back those things we most loved?
Tom Yates is a unique talent with a voice of haunting quality. He tosses life up into the air and catches its constituent parts as they tumble back down. The more you listen to the tracks, the more you get from them each time. I commend this CD to you; you won’t be disappoinded.
David Jones. Folk North West. Winter 2013
THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN Keith Hancock.
We need to revisit 1986 for the birth of Keith Hancock’s first album; his self-penned songs proved a dramatic milestone in his burgeoning career at that time.
Produced by the legendary Clive Gregson and surrounded by friends who were session musicians from his local Manchester folk clubs. His music was much acclained then, and now a new generation are discovering just how good the singer and his timeless songs are.
Keith has toured the world many times over and currently lives in Saigon, Vietnam where he has a succesful website business.
Keith’s first love has always been music and the release of this CD gives him the chance to return to this country to tour once again.
I loved the songs then and hearing them again brought back so many memories. Keith’s songs always go straight to the heart of the matter and the opening track “South Africa” looks at the apartheid situation; remember, these songs were written almost thirty years ago, but some would say little has changed in that direction during that time.
By far the most poignant song on the CD is”Absent Friends”; someone who is so close to you that when they go, a piece of you goes with them.
The true story of Josep Pujoi is told in “Le Petomane”; in the late 1800s, he starred at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for he was able to break wind at will. He turned this into a Music Hall act and captivated the public. He died at the ripe old age of 88.
For those who suffer from disabilities, the world can be a very cruel place, especially for the young. Indeed their greatest handicap is blind indifference and prejudice. The emotion of it all is there in “The Eyes of a Child”.
“This World We Live In” is made up of thousands, indeed millions of different parts, but we have to do our very best to live through each day as we try to sift the wheat from the chaff.
The drug problems we hear about almost daily were much in evidence when this song was written in the 80s. “Chase The Dragon” pulls no punces. Keith harks back to the days when people left the doors open, shared whatever they had and were happy with their lot. Just like today!!! “Ee When I Were a Lad” brings those days back into sharp focus.
The spectre of war and the Government’s response is always questionable. “War Games” should have the Whitehall mandarins cringing.
“Fruit of the Loom/The Shuttle” explains how those workimng in the weaving trade suffered with various complaints brought on by the alarming conditions they were forced to work in.
Keith Hancock and his trusty melodeon have been much missed on the folk circuit. His perceptive writing and solid performing I hope will again be seen and heard in the not too distant future.
David Jones. Folk North West. Winter 2013
Album: This World We Live In
Now here’s a treasurable (and by many folkies, long-awaited) CD reissue. Hot off the grooves of a wonky cassette dating from the mid-80s… that oft-maligned in-between era when CDs hadn’t quite “arrived” and vinyl was staggering on with obscure independent releases that sported restricted, localised and/or indifferent distribution, and, of course, when folk was distinctly unfashionable in many quarters. But then again, it was when some really vital music was being made – if you knew where to look. In certain regional folk clubs and centres of activity, for instance the north-west, where formidable melodeon supremo Keith Hancock held court.
Keith’s debut LP, made with the help of a gang of trusty local musicians and some higher-profile musical mates like Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (then fresh from their appearances with the Richard Thompson Band), was a proud and defiant stall-setting affair, a record notable for its confident (and almost bullish), determinedly eclectic sense of enterprise, where Keith’s own larger-than-life, ebullient musical personality is stamped throughout like a stick of Manchester Rock. Here we encounter a veritable gamut of classic songs chock-full of the courage of the good Mister ‘ancock’s personal convictions. Tell-it-like-it-is social conscience was getting to be the new rock’n’roll once again, and South Africa, War Games, Chase The Dragon and the disc’s title song are all prime examples of biting, powerful, passionate and incisively savvy commentary. Keith’s compassion is also much in evidence on the pair of standout tracks – The Eyes Of A Child and Absent Friends – while his cheeky, gutsy sense of humour comes to the fore on the jaunty, well-oiled catch-you-out singalong Ee When I Were A Lad and the slightly saucy true-life portrait of Le Pétomane.
This album launched Keith on a successful career during which he toured extensively, both with his own band (which included Messrs. Carthy and Swarbrick) and in a duo with Lee Collinson. He made three more albums before retiring from full-time touring in the mid-90s and relocating to Saigon (Vietnam), where he currently resides and writes. In the opinion of many, though, his vibrant debut This World We Live In – albeit a mere snapshot in and of a time – represents what might well be regarded as something like Hancock’s Finest Half-Hour-And-Half-As-Much-Again.
David Kidman FATEA Magazine.
This World We Live In. Epona Records. EPO007.
Tardis back….Manchester mid 1980s, the roots circuit is hopping, Gregson and Collister are adopted, unplugged folkies, Gone To Earth meanwhile frantically punk up old Irish material, To Hell With Burgundy entertain packed venues with their modern take on Greenwich Village, Claire Mooney barks an unashamed feminist stance, Rattle’n’Reel mosh jig the city, Gordon Jones starts up Harbourtown records in Rusholme, first release a certain Pete Morton and in the folk clubs a bloke called Hancock wrings his squeezebox like he was fronting a rock band.
Keith Hancock’s debut is an eclectic beast, first surfacing in 86, backed by chums like the afore mentioned Clive and Christine, ex members of Any Trouble and local worthies Hobson and Lees, recorded in Stoke, Gavin Sutherland – he wrote Sailing y’know – was also hanging about. From the social comments of the time” South Africa”, to the almost music hall “Ee When I Were A Lad”, via the morris facsimile “Dancing Jack”, all the way to “Chasing The Dragon” – drugs definitely no good, “This World We Live In” is a weather eye on both time and situation. Best Of all though; “The Eyes Of A Child”, where naivety and innocence makes bigotry, prejudice seem all the more intolerable, KH always was a man who sang it like he found it. Now resident in Saigon – I kid you not – Keith Hancock is much missed in the north west; his was the voice of honesty and conviction. We need his like now more than ever. Fine archaelology from Epona. www.eponarecords.com
Simon Jones. (Folk Roots.)
REBEC Ayres That Meades and Pastures Fill
Hey the nonny nonny no! Some 24 years sinced they packed it in, Rebec, named after the antique version of the violin and once on the verge of inking a record deal with Plant Life , are an unexpected, though welcome presence in my CD review stack. Untangling the puzzle, it appears main players Bob Cross and Mike Billington, though living half a world apart, the former in New Zealand, the latter in Manchester and a similar period of inactivity, it was about time Rebec issued an album, a memorabilia-packed web presence having kept the name and memory.
Concept-wise Rebec were, or should I say are, a cross-pollination of proper early music, Amazing Blondel fandom and more than a touch of pop mentality. I recall once debating with Bob Cross the merits of Squeeze and Nic Lowe while he strummed for the local morris side – these guys knew their contemporary as well as their historical sources. Indeed still do, the tracks here may be a bit more stately and the voices a bit more ragged at the edges, but there’s an undeniable charm to songs which concern living high on the hog, endless passion, sailing the high seas, dreams and fancies galore.
Played on a selection of redundant instruments the whole thing sounds like it could have stepped out of the Renaissance, even with the odd sly lyric and nod to 2014. Life’s Game is full blooded modernity in sentiment yet has words that sound more like Shakespeare. Tagging along are six string players who add commendable atmospherics and it’s good to see the booklet credit all those who strode on stage back in the day.
Renaissance atmospherics possibly isn’t the most accessible genre but this is harmless fun and a happy trip to a time when you could wear peasant clothing, look suitably moody and still be taken seriously. Find them at www.eponarecords.com good sir.
Simon Jones Folk Roots March 2015.
REBEC Ayres That Meades and Pastures Fill
Rebec have finally produced their long awaited album. It’s been 25 years since they frequented the English folk music circuit playing their own brand of music to a variety of audiences and making headlines at folk festivals in the UK and mainland Europe.
Rebec is Robert Cross and Michael Billington who have chosen their combined name from a bowed string instrument of the renaissance era. Rebec, sometimes rebecha, rebeckha and other spellings in its most common form, has a narrow boat-shaped body carved from a single block of wood and tapered in such a way that there is no visible distinction between the body and the neck. The fingerboard is a raised part of the soundboard or it is fixed to it from above, but this does not change the frontal outline of the instruments. Early rebecs had no soundpost and the peg holder was flat. As with most early instruments, rebecs came in many sizes and pitches and although the number of strings on ealry rebecs varied from three to five, the three stringed rebec seems to be the most popular. It is played with a bow.
The duo play nearly two dozen period instruments between them, but also call upon some excellent musicians to add ‘cellos, violins, clarinet and viola da gamba for accompaniments to their vocals. The album includes eleven tracks of the band’s best known material with one instrumental from their club, concert and festival days back in the 1970s/80s. The final mixes have been mastered for the album that was released in the UK by Epona Records in August 2014.
The music, as you would expect from the introduction above, is influence by the renaissance style (1400 – 1600) that has been a focus of their work for more than 40 years. All 12 songs on the CD are composed and arranged by Robert Cross. The songs transport you very much into that era when such music would enterain the courts of England and indeed the rest of Europe. Songs which reflected the heartbreak and pain of love were extremely popular in the 15th and 16th centuries and Rebec have captured the mood, particularly when the song writing also adheres to the style of expression and with the range of instruments used in their music.
The music on this CD in my view, is well suited to being played in the stately houses of the land; National Trust properties and the like to to create musical ambience. The music is certainly atmospheric and if you want to transport yourself back in time it will cetainly do that. The songs are melancholy and predominantly about love.
The range of instruments played by Robert Cross (now living in New Zealand) and Michael Billington (in the UK) is truly amazing and they should be commended for their dedication to their passion for this style of music and their musicianship.
John MacKenzie. Folk North West. Spring 2015 issue.
REBEC Ayres That Meades and Pastures Fill
Rebec was a duo comprising (songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist) Robert Cross and (player of mostly reed instruments and occasional vocalist) Michael Billington. They frequented the English-music circuit some 25 years ago purveying their own rather quirky blend of folk- and early-music-influenced English Pastoral that owed not a little to the Amazing Blondel of the start-of-the-70s but with more than a soupçon of Dr Strangely Strange or Tir Na Nog in the mix there too maybe. They would’ve been a bit of an anachronism in either time-frame, methinks, but an appealing one nonetheless. The salient point is that for some reason or other Rebec never actually got around to recording their music at the time, and therefore this release is somewhat of a curio in that it has only been now, through the interim advancement of technology, that Rebec’s two members have been able to come together “on record”, laying down their respective parts (Michael in England, Robert in New Zealand) remotely over a two-year period, with further creative augmentation from Roger Child (viola da gamba) and other guest musicians playing violin, cello and clarinet (though interestingly enough, the rebec itself does not actually appear in the otherwise exhaustive register of musical instruments used on the recording!).
What of Rebec’s music? Well, for a start it’s not at all the Blondel clone that the above comparison might imply, although there are distinct shades of the “courtly-medieval-troubadour” mode on pieces like Lament For A Season and the renaissance tripping recorders-and-lute gallantry of Youth Have Pride. Robert’s song structures aren’t necessarily contiguous with early-music models either – again, not a bad thing by any means – but often rather closer to wyrd-folk like COB (Life’s Game, which incidentally features the decidedly non-period tones of the bowed psaltery and kalimba). For much of the time, convenient opportunity has been taken to flesh out the duo sound with a significant quotient of additional instrumental lines, but care has been taken to ensure that textures aren’t swamped and the evident joy of the music-making (even at a remove) is certainly there in the recording.
What could easily have sounded out of place, out of time and even over-pretentious instead emerges as endearing, and quite often more than mildly intriguing. One or two of the songs may have a slight air of the unfinished opus, and one or two passages of singing sound a touch mannered or contrived, even off-kilter, but these are forgivable lapses indeed given the trials and tribulations of getting this recording together. Rebec’s music may not be of “great lost discovery” status, but it’s nevertheless an experience I’m very glad to have undergone, and I shall be returning to the album without a doubt.
David Kidman. (FATEA magazine)
Joe Beard and FriendsThe Edge
Chris Joe Beard was half of the songwriting partnership with Geoff Bowyer that provided the driving force for 60s band The Purple Gang; their chief claim to fame, of course, being the iconic Granny Takes A Trip single. After the demise of the band, Joe returned to his home town of Poynton, Cheshire, and was able to more overtly indulge his fascination with the myths and legends of the rocky outcrop of Alderley Edge.
Back in 1965, he’d already written one song based on an episode in a local Arthurian legend, The Wizard, which had been recorded on The Purple Gang’s 1968 LP Strikes, but this was incorporated into an album-length collection of songs, entitled The Edge, retelling the principal legend and adding other tales from the locality. Joe realised, however, that visuals and strong narration were needed to support the songs, so wrote a script and hired costumes for friends to pose on location for projected slides to accompany the lyrics and storylines.
Beginning with an acclaimed debut concert at 1981’s Poynton Easter Folk Festival, a series of performances of The Edge was staged; these featured a small band supported by a screen, slide images and a narrator. The live show was then made into a radio show by Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, which added other performers (including the folk legend Harry Boardman in the role of The Wizard) and some extra musicians; this was broadcast on Hallowe’en 1982, and formed the basis for a subsequent (1983) studio recording, which here appears on CD for the first time. Taken from cassette copy, since the master tapes have long since been lost, there’s inevitably some degree of flutter, but there’s plenty of presence and compensation techniques have made the best of the transfers.
The whole artefact actually has something of the sound of an airwave broadcast, and is not without a certain 70s-Zeitgeist charm, while the music itself won’t let you down if you know the kind of thing to expect – i.e. competent, inspired writing with a feel for the subject-matter, rather more 70s than 80s in mode and delivery with a genial acoustic-based folk-rock styling that’s mostly more akin to Magna Carta than Steeleye, say.
Instrumentation is for much of the time fairly spartan, with Gerry Robinson’s mandolin a primary tone colour counterpointing Joe’s own guitar and voice, but such is the nature of the songs and lyrics that you don’t really miss a fuller sound-picture. The lineup on the recording also variously includes Jamie Knowles (electric violin), Pat Knowles (keyboards, synth) and Tony Moss (bass guitar); vocals on specific songs are taken by either Di Robinson or Pat Knowles, with Harry Ogden providing the narration. The Edge is a minor-league period piece, sure, but still attractive and worth a hearing on its own terms.
King’s Ransom Legends of The Edge
Joe Beard’s 1983 album-length collection of songs retelling the local legend of the wizard of Alderley Edge was recorded five years later, in 1988, by Cheshire-based six-piece folk-rock band King’s Ransom, within the ranks of which Joe himself played guitar and sang. (Continuity into the present-day is provided by Joe’s current band Radnor, who include in their ranks original King’s Ransom member Rosa Sheard and their 1988 album’s producer Mike Billington.)
This 1988 version is a spirited, if slightly odd affair, somewhat of a curate’s egg it must be said although it contains some pretty decent songs that suit their context and content right enough. Musically though, it’s somewhat of a throwback, with often a definite mid-to-late-70s-Steeleye feel but whose ringing, chiming guitar sounds and timbres are perhaps more in tune with 80s new-wave. Rosa’s soaring vocal work (on around half of the songs) proves a powerful signature, much in the approved styling that melds Annie Haslam and Maddy Prior.
The master tapes for the album having long been lost, a miracle has been performed by restoration software and digital remastering in order that this reissue brings the album an optimum sound quality; even so, there’s a certain thinness of tone (and what I might term a “lack of bottom-end boost”) that even the intensity of the performances can’t entirely redeem. It’s still rather appealing in its own way though, once you get used to the overall sound.
The attendant passages of narration and studio-generated sound-effects (mostly thunderclaps and the like) are somewhat quaintly managed, one might say in a rather 70s-BBC fashion, but thankfully these don’t intrude on the impact of the songs or the storytelling. Sure, this is likely to be considered a reissue for the curio collector rather than the more general music enthusiast, but it, like its predecessor, is worth hearing, and forms a useful complement to the more generally-known Alan Garner stories based on the Alderley Edge local legends.
The Keith Hancock Band
In February 1991, shortly after the release of his second album Madhouse, Keith undertook what was then the biggest tour in which he’d ever been involved, both an unforgettable experience and one of the highest points of his career. The catalyst for this tour was the Keith Hancock Band project, which itself grew out of a phone call from Keith to Martin Carthy. The story goes that Keith, having heard that Martin liked his songs, asked him to consider playing in a one-off touring band with him; Martin suggested roping in Dave Swarbrick, and Keith completed the band by bringing in bassist Ruari McFarlane (then working with Richard Thompson’s band). The Keith Hancock Band toured in 1991 and 1992, latterly with Lee Collinson as support act (Lee was later to tour in a duo with Keith); Keith had the foresight to record the shows, and he’d always intended to release a live album from them, but somehow it never happened, and so the plan lay dormant until Keith received a chance enquiry from Epona’s Mike Billington as to whether the tapes still existed. Happily the answer was yes, and further investigation – and a playthrough when Keith returned for a British tour this spring – convinced them both of the merit of releasing some of the recordings.
Hence this marvellous live album, positively sparking with energy, simpatico and brio. 75 glorious minutes’ worth, taken from performances recorded at Southport and Kendal in late February 1991. The internal chemistry and fun seem to leap out of the speakers, the dynamic Carthy-Swarb partnership trading off Keith’s trusty box; every single track contains prime examples of the sheer energy that clearly characterised the shows. As for the material played, just under half of this is drawn from the Madhouse album, with its plethora of politically-charged commentaries; three further tracks are advance-tasters for the then-forthcoming Compassion album (including an intense, spectacularly passionate Panacea). These are topped up with a small handful of items that didn’t feature on Keith’s three solo records, including the elsewhere-unrecorded songs Portland Down and Boomtown and a very fine cover of Richard Thompson’s Waltzing’s For Dreamers. The entirely fitting but inevitable final encore is Absent Friends, here attaining all of its customary emotional resonance (which is followed by three minutes of post-gig venue ambience!). Hancock aficionados will note that a live recording of Porton Down (from the Bolton date slightly later on the same tour) appeared on the mid-90s Born Blue compilation, as does the very same performance of the instrumental romp Second Wednesday/Coventry Caper (albeit with the medley’s tune titles now transposed into correct order!). But this happenstance minor duplication is no bad thing, and anyone with a long enough memory of the KHB tours will be placing an automatic order for this well-mastered and -edited (and honestly presented) release.
Singer, songwriter and melodeon supremo Keith was a formidable, larger-than-life presence on the wider folk/folk-rock scene in the late-80s and early-90s, during which time he and his compadres made a series of classic albums, the first of which, This World We Live In, was reissued by Epona last year. Compassion was the third in that series, and came out in 1993 on German label Hypertension.
It had more of a contemporary folk-rock air than its predecessors, and a definite alignment and kinship with Clive Gregson’s work of the time – i,e, seriously quality songwriting with a keen message. Compassion’s tracklist includes several really top-notch self-penned songs that still regularly appear in Keith’s current live set: Panacea, I Believe In Magic, The Purple Pas-De-Deux and Funerals Today, Skips Tomorrow to name but four undisputed highlights. And there’s even a singalong-stomper counterpart to This World’s Ee When I Were A Lad in These Weary Days. There’s not a remotely below-par number on the entire album, in fact, although stylistically it’s a typically eclectic collection that achieves an even greater consistency through its willingness to embrace its musical influences without parading them on its sleeve.
Similarly, the instrumental arrangements are sympathetic and gently rich, attractive in tone but allowing the lyrics to take centre stage at all times; The Man Who Pulls The Trigger, which features Lee Collinson’s magnificent slide guitar playing, is a case in point, while Keith’s charismatic melodeon makes the most of its full-toned nature while always observing the niceties of dynamic shading. Terry Mann and Dave Swan together provide an object lesson in supportive rhythm-section behaviour.
This reissue faithfully reproduces all original artwork and contents including full lyrics – but sadly there aren’t any bonus tracks (if nowt else, I might’ve expected to find the session outtake of Lad’s Night, which had cropped up on the late-90s Born Blue compilation). But in any case, this reissue shouldn’t be missed out on this time round. Especially as nowadays Keith’s not averse to a limited amount of touring once again (even though he’s based on the other side of the world, in Saigon, Vietnam, running a successful business). Yeah, you can ignore the literal mantra of Keith’s rock’n’roll that says “Compassion’s not in fashion any more”, for his work has a timeless sensibility and an enduring quality that will always be in fashion.
Tom Shepley’s Band
Album: How Do You Do?
Label: Epona (EPO 014)
Tom Shepley’s Band was a four-piece outfit who played the folk clubs of the north-west and Cheshire back in the 1970s and ’80s. Their speciality was the songs and tunes of the north of England (especially the Lancashire and Cheshire areas) – a repertoire which set them apart from the majority of bands on the scene who played exclusively tunes of Celtic (Irish and Scottish) origin. It may have been an unfashionable stance to adopt, but it certainly paid off in the proud individuality of their performances. That stance, and the copious amount of research that went into its adoption, can be credited to the enterprise of the band’s fiddle player Jamie Knowles, whose single-minded persistence unearthed many interesting and pleasing gems.
The band’s one and only LP How Do You Do? was masterminded by Brian McNeill (he of subsequent Battlefield Band fame); it appeared on the Macclesfield-based Traditional Sound Recordings label in 1978, and this admirable Epona reissue marks its first appearance on CD. The quartet takes its name not from one of its members but instead from a street in Hyde; the group’s personnel comprises Jamie Knowles (fiddle, mandola, cittern), Pat Knowles (electric piano, harmonium and lead vocals), Nan Trench (flute & concertina) and Martin Colledge (guitar, tenor banjo, cittern, whistle and bodhrán); it’s not exactly an orthodox lineup, and their performance style might be considered a touch eccentric at times, but there’s no doubting their sheer exuberance and commitment, or indeed the quality of their musicianship. The LP, and the performances enshrined within, prove very much of their time, maybe a bit of a curio methinks, but its 46 minutes make for very entertaining listening. I really like the ensemble’s intelligent approach to scoring, which is at once attractively intimate and homespun and informed by a certain degree of classical discipline. Only on some of the tracks that prominently feature the slightly artificial quasi-synthy timbre of the “electric piano” does the LP betray its age, while the remaining zeitgeist is both plausible and extremely appealing. The repertoire displayed on the LP showcases the band’s versatility and flexibility, for it unashamedly includes some transplanted Irish jigs and reels, a Cotswold morris tune and a Scottish jig in amongst the indigenous Cheshire and Lancashire material. The songs are well characterised by Pat, and include her spirited renditions of The Collier Lass and The Dundee Lassie.
This timely Epona reissue also contains a useful bonus track, Factory Doll, which is taken from the BBC Radio Manchester Children In Need album produced in 1987 (with Jamie being joined by Gill McKay and Sam McGrady for the occasion). One final point: those who possess the original LP need not panic on seeing the credit for track 4, which has now been more accurately titled (The Stockport Hornpipe) following recent discovery during research in the years since its initial appearance.
In all, it’s a pity that Tom Shepley’s Band didn’t get around to recording a second LP
Album: Standard Settings
Label: Epona (EPO 015)
This Epona reissue complements that of Tom Shepley’s Band’s 1978 LP How Do You Do?, in that its protagonist Pat Knowles was a key member of that outfit, along with husband Jamie. Prior to that phase of her life, Pat had taken classical piano lessons for over a decade, and shortly after meeting Jamie and being introduced to traditional music she met Brian McNeill (Battlefield Band founder member) who was to provide much help and encouragement to her musical endeavours (indeed, Pat was to do session work on several LPs including Brian’s solo album Excalibur). Pat’s own solo album, Standard Settings, subtitled “British Music On Keyboards”, was produced by Brian, and released on the Fellside label in 1980; it provides a perfect demonstration of her credo “music is music and I like it whichever side up it arrives”.
She plays a veritable plethora of keyboard instruments (electric and acoustic pianos, pedal organ, crumar performer, Godwin organ and Jen synthone), several of which are now all but forgotten and decidedly obscure, very probably the province of the esoteric museum specialist. But what an intriguing sound they make! Pat’s keyboard skills are augmented by the musicianship of her Tom Shepley’s Band colleagues – husband Jamie (fiddle, mandolin), Nan Trench (concertina, flute) and Martin Colledge (banjo, electric guitar) – together with Brian McNeill (mandolin, bouzouki), Gary Walsh (flute, whistle, very occasional vocal) and Ian Stewart (snare drum, bodhrán). Those personnel credits may make it sound like a group album by any other name, but in fact it is very much a solo album focussed firmly on Pat and her intensely proficient (albeit unassuming) musical talent.
The repertoire Pat has chosen for performance on this LP forms a broad cross-section of English music, with regional dance tunes rubbing shoulders with items by Playford and Purcell; she also finds room for some O’Carolan pieces along the way, together with a stately slow air of her own composition (Mary) and a tune by Brian himself. It’s a lovely selection, affectionately rendered, and Epona’s attractive reissue reproduces the original, enlightening and enlightened sleeve notes in full (including some details of the instruments used). It’s a very likeable album, albeit a little of a period-piece (I mean that in the nicest possible sense), and this fine reissue stands as a tribute to Pat’s musicianship, good taste and warm personality.
Tom Shepley’s Band
Album: How Do You Do?
Label: Epona (EPO 014)
First time on CD reissue of 1978 Traditional Sound Recordings LP on which the worthy quartet turnes the spotlight on tunes and songs from Lancashire and Cheshire that had been newly researched by fiddle player Jamie Knowles. Spirited, if sometimes a touch quaint.
Folk Roots. October 2015.
Album: Standard Settings
Label: Epona (EPO 015)
Resurrection of near-forgotten 1980 Fellside curio wherein classically trained pianist Pat Knowles indulges her “music is music” dictum in “switched-on” (albeit sometimes eccentric) performances of British music (jigs, airs and other delights) on sundry keyboards, ably assisted by Brian McNeill et al.
Folk Roots. October 2015.
KEITH HANCOCK BAND
Live Epona Records EP016
Fortune they say favours the brave and when Keith Hancock put a call in to Martin Carthy asking if he fancied playing as part of a oneoff tour band he couldn’t have expected not only to bag the legendary guitarist but Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle to boot. Ruari McFarlane, fresh from a certain Mr Thompson’s touring outfit, provided the bass and with Lee Collinson providing support, and a Rusby mixing the live sound, off they went. Playing throughout 1991 and 1992, recorded evidence of the line-up remained scant, a track on a charity album here, a compilation filler there; now at last there is hard evidence that Hancock had assembled something rather special. Put together from tapes of gigs in Southport and the Lakes by Epona staff and Keith himself; what emerges from the remixed and digital transfer is a document to satisfy any Hancock/Carthy/Swarbrick follower. Obviously the lion’s share of the songs are from Keith’s then current Madhouse – it remains his best document – full of vim, vitriol and social comment. As a writer he spied what was wrong with the world and on stage his band did him proud, sparring guitar, fiddle and box whilst a fat sounding bass anchors everything in clear sound. A sparky cover of RT’s Waltzing For Dreamers and a fine set of light-on-the-feet instrumentals, perhaps something Mr Hancock wasn’t always given credit for. Chase The Dragon still packs a hell of a punch and The Bloodletting Game sets a sombre but telling agenda. You got a good night out with this crew but you also got lots to think about. Inevitably, perhaps, Absent Friends is the encore and it left the audience of 24 years ago wanting more. Reckon you’ll be the same, this is engaging archaeology. www.eponarecords.com
Simon Jones (Folk Roots.) December Issue 2015.