#3362 – Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007
(3CD, 2007) (Discogs tracklisting)
As its cover explains – and as I can’t be arsed to paraphrase – this triple CD comprises “22 tracks featuring all of the nominated artists for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards plus a 6 track bonus CD featuring all the finalists for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards 2007“. This is the first of three such packages in my collection; I’ve also got the 2008 and 2010 editions, but skipped 2009. (I wish I hadn’t skipped 2009. I don’t like gaps.)
During the middle of the last decade, I rekindled an interest in contemporary British folk, which had lain dormant since the days of Steeleye Span and the odd track taped from John Peel. A new generation was coming through, with a keener sense of musicianship than their somewhat clod-hopping folk-rock forefathers, breathing new life into what had felt like a stale genre. John Spiers and Jon Boden’s 2003 album Bellow kickstarted me into paying attention, and by 2007 I was familiar enough with the scene to recognise a decent proportion of that year’s finalists.
I’m going to take this one track by track, pausing and blogging my way through. This may take some time.
1. Show Of Hands – Roots
Inspired by a remark from Labour minister Kim Howells, who had described his idea of hell as listening to “three Somerset folk singers in the local pub”, “Roots” was conceived as a polemic on the perceived eradication of English tradition within popular culture, and the need to maintain continuing links with that tradition. There’s certainly no doubting its ear-grabbing forcefulness – it’s all but impossible to listen to the track without giving the lyrics your full attention – but when it came to divining the band’s full intention, things became rather less straightforward.
“And everyone stares at a great big screen: overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens. Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps. And we learn to be ashamed before we walk, of the way we look, and the way we talk. Without our stories or our songs, how will we know where we come from? I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack – it’s my flag too and I WANT IT BACK.”
It felt to me, listening to “Roots” for the first time, that the song was sailing on the edge of dangerous waters – and so it didn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the BNP proceeded to make unauthorised use of the track in a campaign video. Appalled by this turn of events, Show Of Hands had the music removed – and to underline their position, they went on to join the Folk Against Fascism movement, which had sprung up as a response to further far-right attempts to co-opt British folk culture.
When I saw Show Of Hands perform in 2008, I was struck by their incorporation of Indian raga elements in some numbers, and relieved by the cultural open-mindedness which this suggested. “Roots” closed the show. I scanned the bellowing crowd, and saw nothing to cause further concern.
So, OK then. It’s a rousing tune, I’ll give them that. But I still can’t quell a certain queasiness.
2. Karine Polwart – Daisy
“…don’t give them all you can. Why don’t you keep a few more cards in your hand? I know you’ll only say a thing you believe to be true, but there are people in this world who don’t think like you do.”
You have to wonder if there was any significance in the sequencing here. A gentle reproach? You could read it that way.
3. Spiers and Boden – The Old Lancashire Hornpipe / The 3rd. Beekeeper
I always liked their jigs and reels the most. Sprightly and fresh.
4. Kris Drever – Green Grows The Laurel
Sporting a tune that The Guardian’s Robin Denselow would almost inevitably describe as “sturdy” – it’s been his adjective of choice for many a decade – this is a soft lament for a lover turned untrue.
5. Shona Kipling & Damien O’Kane Flighty Girls / 7/8 Tune / Ferret-Panting
Kipling’s burbling accordion is paired with the strumming of Kate Rusby’s husband, to pleasingly frisky effect.
6. Julie Fowlis – Biodh an Deoch Seo ‘n Làimh Mo Rùin
Performed in Scottish Gaelic by a singer from the Outer Hebrides, whose star rose considerably further as the decade progressed. This is taken from the album which preceded Cuilidh, her widely acclaimed breakthrough. It’s sweet enough, but I prefer Fowlis when she’s full-on fallumping. (That’s not an actual word, but it’s how K and I always describe her. Onomatopoeia, I think you’ll find.)
7. Martin Simpson – Love Henry
A merry Appalachian murder tale, much covered, and here consciously re-Anglicised by Simpson – which doesn’t altogether explain the bouzouki, but there you go.
8. Swarb’s Lazarus – The Brilliancy Medley and The Cherokee Shuffle
Having first performed it on Fairport Covention’s Nine (1973), champion fiddler Dave Swarbrick revisits the medley, in the company of another Fairport exile. It’s a live recording, which captures Swarbrick’s dervish brilliance in full flow.
9. Nancy Kerr & James Fagan – Locks And Bolts
Nancy Kerr guested with Martin Simpson, two tracks earlier. Now Simpson returns the favour, for a traditional tale of distressed damsel rescue. Inevitably, blood flows.
10. Salsa Celtica – Grey Gallito (The Grey Cockerel)
Guest vocalist Eliza Carthy does a fine job on this surprisingly effective Cuban-style arrangement of a trad tune, in which a premature cock sends Willy fleeing his lover’s chamber too soon. Arf, cock. Arf, Willy.
11. John Tams & Barry Coope – Vulcan / Steelos
Recorded live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the medley opens with a thickly accented dialogue between Lucifer and Vulcan, as the former warns the latter of a new threat to the Sheffield coal industry: “I’ve signed up another demon and it’s ‘im you’ll come to fear.” The demon’s name? “Maggie sez his name’s MacGregor. It wont be t’last you’ll hear of ‘im.” This segues into a work song in commemoration of Sheffield’s equally ill-starred steel industry, unaccompanied save for handclaps.
12. Bellowhead – London Town
We’ve now reached the second disc. Here, Spiers and Boden return as members of Bellowhead, for a superbly arranged tale of guilt-free robbery from an equally thieving “lady of the night”. I was grinning along until I got to the pay-off: “Come all young men and listen to me, if you meet a pretty girl then use her free.” That’s not very nice, is it?
13. Tim Van Eyken – Barleycorn
Although “John Barleycorn” is a folk standard, I’ve never knowingly heard it before, which I guess is what happens when you ignore a genre for three decades. Apparently this version uses a different melody and chord structure, drawing praise for the way the music recontextualises the story (a resurrection parable, using the metaphor of harvesting barley for ale). A most effective piece of work. I’m not sure that I need another version now.
14. Waterson:Carthy – Jack Frost
We’ve just finished watching the recent TV adaptation of War And Peace, so this song serves as an instant reminder of how Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow was defeated: not by an army, but by the Russian winter. That said, the specific reference to Napoleon has been removed from this update of Mike Waterson’s 1970 composition, here voiced by Eliza Carthy (her second appearance on this collection) and accompanied by Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and, once again, Tim Van Eyken. The mood is appropriately bleak, Eliza’s fiddle swirling in the wintry mist.
15. John McCusker – Stella’s Welcome To Kamloops / The Kings Of Innishboffin / Sean Maguire’s
I first heard this Scottish fiddle virtuoso at the home of a blogging compatriot from the good old days. Maybe this was one of the pieces I heard. Stirring stuff, right up my street.
16. Nic Jones – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me
A Seventies live solo recording, unreleased until 2006, by an artist who was obliged to stop performing in 1982 following a serious road accident. I was given a copy of Penguin Eggs, his fifth and final album, for my fiftieth birthday. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and so is this: sung with a light chuckle, and immaculately picked. We’ll return to this song later.
17. Seth Lakeman – The Colliers
Lakeman’s surprise nomination for the 2005 Mercury Prize did much to popularise folk’s new breed, and Freedom Fields, the album from which this track is taken, sold well enough to graze the Top 40. It hasn’t worn well; there’s a pop sheen to the production which flattens the arrangement, and the “hold your fire” refrain grates from the outset. Its inclusion spoils what had been a great run.
18. Chris Thile – Wayside (Back In Time)
It comes as a bit of a jolt to hear bluegrass, and the thin, buried vocals and muddy production don’t serve Gillian Welch’s song well. A couple of rambunctious instrumental breaks hint at skills that are probably expressed best elsewhere.
19. Vin Garbutt – Punjabi Girl
“Her eyes were bright and black as night, like jet on Whitby shore. Her cheek possessed a patina no tulip ever bore. Her loveliness and Eastern dress placed others in the shade, but never yet did I regret the choice of this dark maid.”
Everything about this makes me cringe. Let’s move swiftly on.
20. Martha Tilston – Artificial
A trapped office worker’s lament, let down by some trite rhymes. Not for me.
21. The Devil’s Interval – Silver Dagger
An unaccompanied three-part rendition of an old folk ballad, best known in its Joan Baez version. Stately and foreboding.
22. Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor
And so the maestros conclude the second disc, which is only right and proper. A splendidly gory ballad, climaxing with a triple tragedy at a wedding, performed straight and unadorned by Carthy and Swarbrick. Everything is in service of the song – and when the song’s this strong, that’s often all you need.
23. Ewen & Megan Henderson – Banks Of The Allan Water / The Furze Bush / Donegal Barn Dance
24. David Delarre – Roundabout
25. Ryan Young – Catharsis / Humours Of Tulla / Mitten’s Breakdown
26. Last Orders – O’Keefe’s / Unknown / Campdown Races
27. Ruth Notman & Bryony Bainbridge – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me
28. Wilber – Vestapol
Finally, a quick whizz through the bonus disc, featuring the six Young Folk Awards finalists, all performing live at what must have been the same event. The duetting Henderson fiddlers do a proficient job, although a little more lack of caution might have served them better. Delarre’s solo guitar technique is impressive, and I’m surprised we haven’t heard more of him. Ryan Young, a solo fiddler, must have been very young when this dazzling display was recorded; really, this is quite superb. Last Orders, an instrumental four-piece from the north east of England, were the eventual winners; their playing is spirited and uplifting. Notman – the only finalist whose name I recognise – and Bainbridge cover the Nic Jones song from the second disc, Notman singing and strumming while Bainbridge’s fiddle offers a delightfully inventive counterpoint throughout. 15 year-old Wilber, another solo guitarist, covers Stefan Grossman adeptly, but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the four earlier performers.
I wasn’t expecting much from this disc, but its highlights far outstrip some of the material from some of the more established acts.
And we’re done. This was a slog at times, but ultimately it was rewarding to give each track full attention; too often, I let folk music waft by on a weekend morning, and it deserves more than scented candle status. (All those deaths!)
That said, I’m hoping for a 7-inch single tomorrow. Stuff to do, people!