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Been to a fantastic folk event in Wales and the borders,
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St George's, Bristol ~ 25 April 2013

by Trefor Patten

"There's nothing like a church for amplifying applause", said a grateful June Tabor to an ecstatic audience as this unique trio took a bow after their opening trilogy of English-tradition-meets-modern-European-Jazz tunes.

How very true. It is also very true that there is nothing like the word 'jazz' for dividing audiences, especially if those audiences are lovers of traditional song, but after the familiar story of the Rufford Park Poachers, Brigg Fair and a few instrumental snatches of Polly on the Shore, it became apparent that this collection of two fine musicians and a remarkable vocalist was taking no prisoners from either the jazz or the traddy camp. Huw Warren (who of course is a long time cohort of June’s, on her albums as well as on tour) promised readers of the ECM record label newsletter that Tabor fans would not be disappointed - despite Quercus being signed to the label which is rightly regarded as being at the very forefront of modern European music, Quercus was to be no jazz-folk fusion.

The very idea of such a style, would, I imagine, make the average folk fan's tankard boil over, but Quercus' music is up there with the very finest of any genre you care to name. It soon became apparent that whether the audience were at this famous Bristol venue just to hear Tabor sing, or to listen to some fine free-form saxophone (Iain Ballamy) and piano (Huw Warren), or - which is most likely - to listen to some astonishing new arrangements of, mostly, traditional folk songs, performed with panache by three great exponents of individual style, no-one was going home disappointed.

Tabor's idiosyncratically beautiful voicing of traditional song, effectively became the third instrument in a great jazz trio on many of the numbers, most especially on the great standard This is Always, while when she gave her heart-wrenching rendition of As I Roved Out (On a Fine May Morning) - as popularised by Andy Irvine. I reckon the Quercus version will soon outdo his in the popularity stakes - or lent new weight to the Robert Burns’ lyrics of Lassie Lie Near Me, Ballamy and Warren made it sound as though grand piano and sax had always been part of the British folk tradition.

The performance reminded me of the old quote about all music being folk music " 'Cos I ain't never heard a horse that could sing", but then as a long-term lover of traditional song and a relatively recent convert to jazz, I also felt that Warren and Ballamy had both brought a new life to well-loved old songs in exactly the same way that O'Carolan showed that Irish traditional harp tunes could take up a place in the concert hall. Ultimately, I guess great music is great music however you categorise it and this was truly great music.

A standing ovation brought an encore showing off the talents of all three to great advantage: from an unexpected source. For the second time in the evening we heard Tabor singing the lyrics of Les Barker, a man best known for humorous parodies, 'wearing his serious hat' (as she put it). The song All I Ask of You was appropriately hymnal for the surroundings and arranged to a tune by Ballamy. Was this jazz, was this folk, was it a hymn. Did anyone care? It would seem not, as for a long time after the house lights went up and the musicians left the stage, you could hear a gentle humming of the melody as the audience made their way to the doors. Give it 100 years and it could be part of the tradition. Quercus appear again at Brecon Jazz Festival in August.

Visit Quercus' Official Website

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Oysterband with June Tabor
St George’s, Bristol ~ 1 November 2011

by Trefor Patten

The air was thick with anticipation in this famous former chapel as fans of one or other or both the brightest stars in the folk music firmament prepared to perform together again for the first time in more than two decades.

June Tabor, the diva of sad songs and love-gone-wrong, first joined forces with Oysterband back in 1990 for Freedom and Rain – an album that brought rave reviews and comparisons with 10,000 Maniacs. Now they are back together for Ragged Kingdom, itself getting critics and fans excited.

So, after a slight delay fRoots’s Ian Anderson came on to introduce the performers by way of the anagramattic ‘Janet Rocket and The Tuba Boys’ and they were off firing on all four (actually make that eight) cylinders into a folk-rock tour de force of the traditional Bonny Bunch of Roses. The capacity audience sat bolt upright for the onslaught, this was going to be a great night’s entertainment it seemed.

June was in fine voice, as ever, powering through the Napoleonic anthem as the band chugged on behind. John Jones joined for the second number amid some good-hearted banter as they went ahead with another traditional song before launching into their much-lauded cover version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. That was a surprise. Given all the attention paid to this song on the internet, I had expected it to be saved for an encore. Clearly June and the Oysters had a few tricks up their sleeves.

The drama and excitement did not let up as June took a back seat to allow John to perform a marvelously theatrical Molly Bond, then she was back for an accappella rendition of the Jeannie Robertson paean to unmarried motherhood When I was No’but Sixteen. Leading up to a half-time break we got June in contemporary mode again with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, which John claimed was an improvement on the original as, unlike Nico, June can sing! Naughty…

After the break more of the same (which in this instance is something to be applauded) with a mixture of the traditional such as Judas was a Red-Headed Man and Dark-Eyed Sailor with the contemporary from Dylan, Shel Silverstein and even P J Harvey, all of which they made very much their own. So much was expected that this concert could have mildly disappointed and still been a winner, but disappointment was not on the agenda this night. No, despite the height of the expectation, every new song was a delight: impressive, intelligent and elegant in execution.

They left the stage to a standing ovation, eventually to come back for a brace of encores and including the most unexpected surprise of the whole night. After a brief anecdote concerning the North American tour of 21 years ago, there came the harp-like sounds of Chopper’s kantele. A wave of recognition swept through the audience as June announced “one for your inner leather jacket” and began the opening verse of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. I would have thought that more of a purple kaftan number myself, but no matter what a way to top off an evening.

Except, there was room for just one more. In near-lullaby style we had Put out The Lights, just before the house lights, somewhat ironically, came on.

What a night, older (certainly) wiser (possibly) and most important of all, more polished than 1990 this was an impressive return to excellent form for June and Oysterband, individually and collectively.

The audience drifted off into the Bristol night humming and whistling their favourites satisfied by a stupendous evening’s entertainment.

Visit the Oyster Bands Official Website

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Bristol Folk Festival
Colston Hall, Bristol ~ 29 April - 1 May 2011

by Trefor Patten

More than three decades after the last one, Bristol holds a folk festival which kicks off on the day of the first Royal Wedding in almost as long.

So some of the less-than-ecstatic faces on the folkies wandering around the recently-refurbished Colston Hall, right in the middle of the city, had probably overdone it at the street party and were now wondering why they were at a ‘festival’ which was entirely indoors, especially given the unusually good weather.

But that was soon to change as one by one all the punters I met saying things like “well it’s a nice line-up, but it kind of lacks atmosphere”, got seduced by what eventually proved itself a world-class event. By Sunday there were smiling faces all round and the talk was not of the Duchess of Cambridge’s frock, but the fantastic array of music provided by the new, reinvented Bristol Folk Festival.

My arrival, halfway through the first night (due to the aforementioned regal frolics) meant I had missed an apparently inventive set from Bristol’s own nu-folk wizard Jim Moray and sadly Cardiff’s hotly-tipped Under The Driftwood Tree.

I made it along to 3 Daft Monkeys who more than lived up to their name with some mischievous music. Clearly a bunch who do not take themselves too seriously, but take their showmanship very seriously indeed – riotous fun. I wished they had been at my street party! Then again if they had, perhaps I would never have made it to Colston Hall.

A quick trip to the bar was now called for, followed by a wander between the two main stages and the Terrace Bar, taking in the last of Elephant Talk’s set and a little of Ruarri Joseph, before settling on festival patron Seth Lakeman’s performance on the main stage to end off the evening.

Lakeman never disappoints and while this night may not have been the best I have ever seen him and the band perform, they certainly gave a good account of themselves dedicating King and Country to Prince William who he described as “The Man Of The Moment”. The band performed in a relaxed and confident manner, powering through crowd-pleasers like Riflemen of War, and Take No Rogues.

Saturday and the sun was shining as trainee cloggers got dancing tips outside the frontage of Colston Hall, before Morris Men rowdily advertised their presence and gave displays that would have graced any traditional village green. Isambard Brunel was seen among the throng in his stovepipe hat, or was that a member of Rag Morris still in costume?

Inside, Brooks Williams accompanied by Radio Bristol presenter Keith Warmington on harmonicas treated the main stage gathering to a warm slice of Americana including some of Brooks stylish rendition of some classic blues along with his own material.

There was more blues later in the afternoon from Bristol resident Keith Christmas, a man whose career goes back to the early 1970s and has not been heard too much of late on the Terrace Bar. He was on fine form with some excellent between-song banter and new material sounding better than he has in years.

Before that, however, I took in Jamie Smith’s Mabon who were delivering a rabble-rouser of a – mostly instrumental – set on the main stage. Real driving stuff this was, with plenty of excellent musicianship keeping the excitement just the right side of noisy.

Saturday night’s main stage line-up meant a lot of good acts on other stages got ignored by all but a few. Still who could blame anyone for staying put when Port Isaac Fisherman’s Friends, followed by Irish jigs-and-reelers Dervish were topped by Show of Hands.

Personally, I have seen Show of Hands so many times, that I have started to take Phil Beer and Steve Knightley a little for granted. Saturday night’s set at Colston Hall, shook me from my slumbers. The guys normally fire on all four cylinders anyway, but on this occasion, aided and abetted by regular ‘guest’ Miranda Sykes acquired a V8 with a turbocharger.

Timing, theatre, banter and sheer professionalism oozed out of every pore as they reinvigorated their well-known anthemic material with plenty of added extras. Take, Miranda singing the ‘woman’s role’ on the traditional Blue Cockade – fantastic, bringing on the Fisherman’s Friends as a backline chorus on Cousin Jack – inspiring, and best of all Dervish adding some extra Irish authenticity to Galway Farmer – breathtaking.

After that thriller of a Saturday night Sunday had a lot to live up to and, largely, it did feel like the event had peaked, leaving a lot of happy people just wandering around and taking in the sights. A lot of the talk was of those who had left at least part of Show of Hands’ blockbuster for the two Jims, Causley and Moray and their silent disco. Each of the folk figures became DJs for the night and crowd could switch between them on headphones. Folk of the future, or a passing fad? Time will tell.

Sunday eventually got into gear with a Spiers and Boden ceilidh which got everyone’s pulses racing. I took a wander over to the Fred Wedlock stage to take in the lovely voice of Fay Hield (Jon Boden’s better half) whose singing reminds me of Maggie Boyle at her very best. Certainly someone we are going to be hearing a lot more of.

She was followed by the belly-laugh and bluster that is Belshazzar’s Feast and those who had the energy in the evening could shed some calories going ape to the unique juggernaut that is Bellowhead.

Just before Jon Boden and the gang strutted their stuff, Bristol’s own Sheelanagig gave a similarly good account of themselves.

All in all a fine start to the renewed history of a city festival which will hopefully become a regular fixture on the folk scene. The weather was great, but that is unusual for the end of April and the Colston Hall setting could be a real bonus in wet weather. Can’t wait for next year!

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Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts
The Minstrel Room, Halcyon Daze, Cowbridge ~ 10 April 2011

by Iain Campbell

It is just over a year since the first of Karen and Dave’s gigs above their shop in Cowbridge. Since then they have continued with a programme that combines well-known artists with less well-known but seriously good musicians. Slotted in between Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Brian McNeill have been Jenna, Sam Carter, Megson, Philip Henry and Hannah Martin and, for their latest offering, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts.

The evening is generally got underway by a supporting act: local singers Rachael Taylor-Beales and Catrin O’Neill have been featured. This time Dave himself and his friend Paul played some of their self-penned songs.

They were followed by two sets from the main act, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, fresh from a tour supporting Fairport Convention. Katriona’s right handed intense driving fiddle and left handed mandolin playing are complemented by Jamie’s expressive guitar. Accomplished when finger picking a melody or providing a rhythmic accompaniment on a conventionally tuned guitar, he is at his most dramatic when he picks up an open tuned instrument, sets it on his lap and proceeds to strum, thump, tap, slap and pick the strings and sound box with his right hand while fretting chords, ‘hammering on’ and picking the strings with his left. They both sing and provide each other with supporting vocals.

We were treated to tune sets, played with verve, including The Badger Set featuring the tune Upper Badger’s Bottom (you’ll need to attend a gig to get the story behind this name), traditional songs like Shepherd, which tells a surprisingly cheery story but is done in the dark, complex and expressive manner beloved of the tradition, and their own songs. Katriona’s Fleetwood Fair has a traditional feel but the tale - of a ghostly encounter, ethereal fair, wine quaffing, sleep and an awakening to find no trace of festivities - is rooted in an older time. Jamie’s The Bookseller’s Story is taken from an eighteenth century obituary which managed to tell the life story of a man in very few words. There are more words in the song than on the stone but it tells, in a modern way, the universal story of a common man’s life. Musically they are rooted in the English tradition but cast their net much wider. In particular they integrate elements from the American tradition. They played a tune set, Tennessee Green, on which the American influence was not as pronounced as the version on their recently released CD in which they feature a pedal steel, and a song based around the nineteenth century American classic, O Susannah.

Overall another really good evening; great playing, interesting songs and tunes, fun chat and company that was fully engaged with the performers and obviously enjoying themselves. Lately artists have been phoning to see if they can get a spot, which means that the venue’s name is getting about among musicians, so we can look forward to more delights in the future. Next up is the legendary Brian McNeill on Wednesday 27th April and followed in May by Lucy Ward and Peter Knight’s Gigspanner.

The roar that went up from the delighted audience, at the very end of the Calan Mai celebrations, brought huge, sparkling smiles from Team Wales - the massed musicians of Y Glerorfa, Robin Huw Bowen, Steven Rees, Calan, Delyth Jenkins, Gwenan Gibbard and Sian James as well. As we left the vast theatre in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay and trooped off into the night, I was grinning from ear to ear - Welsh music had pulled it

Websites for artists mentioned above:-
Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts     Brian McNeill     Catrin O’Neill
Jenna    Lucy Ward     Megson     Philip Henry and Hannah Martin
Rachael Taylor-Beales    Sam Carter     Steve Knightley, Phil Beer

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Lo Còr De La Plana
Pontardawe Arts Centre ~ 11 Feb 2011

by Mick Tems

Lo Còr De La Plana are six polyphonic singers from southern France, delving deep into the Mediterranean culture of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia and singing crazy, complicated harmonies in their own Occitan language, spurred on by urgent, insistant percussion. At the half-time interval, I rushed to buy my copy of their new CD, Tant Deman. It’s been constantly playing from that night to this day – These guys are just jawdropping.

Occitan is a group of romance languages, including Catala (the Catalan language which spreads from Perpignan in the South of France to Barcelona in Spain, and which is the official language in the state of Andorra), Nizzardo (from the area around Nice), Monagasque (around Monaco), Provencal (from Provence) and Limousin, from the area around Limoges. Lo Còr De La Plana come from the city of Marseilles, from the La Plaine quarter; Marseilles is an international port, and its cosmopolitan influences are spiced with African, Arab and Turkish sounds. The singers use bendir (Arab drum), tamborello, the amplified sound of their feet and handclaps for accompaniment, and they come at you with a startling effect which is electric, hypnotic, exciting and breathtaking.

Manu Théron is the leader, a stunning ornamental singer who is influenced by Occitan musical art, and a great mover to boot; traditional Occitan verses are brought beautifully to life by his composer’s pen. Manu writes about modern life in the hectic, dirty city of Marseilles, but he blends in age-old Provencal culture with digital echoes and state-of-the-art electronic aural trickery, just like a venerable and proud Occitan folklore and a hectic urban lifestyle making sweet love together, an irresistible melting pot of the android phone age and timeless Provencal folk music and dance.

Lo Còr’s “uniform” is ripped jeans, black t-shirts and casual black shirts worn loosely. The singer on the left of the stage (was it Rodin Kaufmann?) resembles an amiable skinhead, with heavy tattoos covering both his arms, an old t-shirt, jeans and daps – but the reason that they look so good and smart is just impeccable gallic sartorial taste, I nod approvingly and with a whole shedful of envy. Why can’t our choir have the imagination to dress like that?

Manu loves to test the singers’ voices to the utter brink. They tumble over each other like gushing droplets at a sparking waterfall. The vocals are jarringly discordant, then resolve themselves to make a thrilling, spot-on, perfect harmony. The bass voice acts as a haunting bagpipe drone, reminiscent of Southern Italian or Corsican choirs. Tant Deman (Maybe Tomorrow), in a perfect world, would be a smash hit. Condés, a disturbing story of nine cops who shoot each other dead, is an equivalent of Ten Green Bottles. Mi Parletz Pas De Trabalar (Don’t Tell Me About Working) rails against the Marseilles rat-race and argues fiercely about a lifetime’s hard labour while the rich fat cats smirk: “I can see that without slaving away, life is much prettier… to get up early, to work all day long, to sweat blood until retirement, to have children to see them only on weekends, to eat only salad so as to pay off your debts – there are other ways to fill your purse.”

Lo Còr’s music has the audience on the edge of their seats, not quite believing what they are seeing and hearing. The climax comes when Manu invites them to do an old Provencal chain dance and the crowd rushes in, the beat and the rhythm set by those fabulous voices ebbing and flowing. Jigjaw, eat your hearts out!

The concert is over and the audience erupts, whooping loudly, stamping their feet and demanding an encore. Lo Còr oblige with some more glittering sounds, and we file contentedly into the night. I’m still clutching that CD – I intend to relive that precious gig for many a long day.

Lo Còr De La Plana Myspace page

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Calan Mai
Melennium Centre, Cardiff ~ 1 May 2010
by Mick Tems

The roar that went up from the delighted audience, at the very end of the Calan Mai celebrations, brought huge, sparkling smiles from Team Wales - the massed musicians of Y Glerorfa, Robin Huw Bowen, Steven Rees, Calan, Delyth Jenkins, Gwenan Gibbard and Sian James as well. As we left the vast theatre in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay and trooped off into the night, I was grinning from ear to ear - Welsh music had pulled it off with a vengeance, and how!

The First Of May - in Welsh, Calan Mai - sees everybody waiting for dawn to break to celebrate the beginning of summer. That day, we musicians rose early and drove into the night to the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, where several Morris men and ladies were waiting to dance the sun up. The whole ritual is repeated again, from the druids of Stonehenge to the mysterious and magical "horses" of Minehead and Padstow. It doesn't matter which nation is marking Calan Mai; it's a pretty long day and a pretty important event in any language.

The big Calan Mai celebration collaborated with the magnificent phenomenon that is the Lorient Interceltique, now in its 40th year. In Brittany in this harbour town, August kicks off with 12 days of Celtic marching, parading, drinking, eating, sessioning, partying, singing, playing and concerting of the very best imaginable. An unbelievably vast number of 200,000 ticket-holders celebrate Celtic culture to the limit. In the old days, the Bretons invited Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Mann and Cornwall, but the Interceltique has expanded greatly, with other nations - including Canada, Asturies and Galicia - vying for a place. Lorient Interceltique is very big bucks indeed.

Scintillating harper Bethan Nia was first to take the Glanfa Stage in the crowded WMC foyer, and she set a high standard for all musicians to beat. Heather Jones, well-known and well-loved in the whole of Wales, was next, and her thrilling voice sang folk standards such as Meic Stevens' lament Tryweryn (about the drowning of a village by an uncaring Liverpool Corporation) and Harri Webb's Colli Iaith. Brigyn (brothers Ynyr and Eurig Roberts, with Calan fiddler Angharad Jenkins accompanying) made the set fly by with some well-crafted acoustic contemporary songs, both Welsh and English.

But the welcome surprise was David Llewellyn, born in the Cynon Valley town of Mountain Ash and emigrated to America 19 years ago. He lives in Nashville and his penetrating songwriting and agile guitar work make him a force to be reckoned with. His anthemic song Take Us Down (about a Welsh miner who prepares his son for his first day at the pits) won hands down in a US competition, and BBC-Wales Celtic Heartbeat's Frank Hennessy is an adoring fan of his. David won over the audience with a shedful of inspiring songs, including Silent Aberfan - a matter-of-fact account which tells how he, as a small child, was made aware of the awful tragedy which wiped out a junior school, crushed by a million tons of black slurry right next door in his neighbouring valley. The slag took a whole generation of the village's children, children who play no more - hence the silence of Aberfan.

The rock band Sbrydion played their hearts out, and then it was the turn of 9Bach - the idea of Martin Hoyland and his wife Lisa Jen, old Welsh songs brought sharply to life by harmonium, doomy drums, searing guitar and stunning harmonies. 9Bach's harper, Esyllt, was due to have her baby the day of the band's gig, so Bethan Nia depped for harp, leaving Esyllt to voice a couple of songs.

The closing concert in the Donald Gordon Theatre was just stupendous and worth every penny of £20. There were fears, up to a day before Calan Mai, that the paucity of ticket sales was going to be a huge flop, but the crowds paid their money, filled the stalls and loved every minute of it.

The Breton guests - Kevrenn Alré, the most amazing bagad of all - delighted one and all with their dazzling musicianship, their sheer power and originality and their gleeful showmanship. The crowd thrilled to a bevy of Scottish warpipes and drummers, and massed bombardes, oboes and clarinets. The rise of the bagadou goes back to the 1940s, when Breton nationalism rebelled against the German occupation, and bands playing Breton music were formed.

Wales' Creative Awards winner, Lleuwen Steffan, who currently lives in Douarnenez in Brittany, and Breton singer Nollwen Korbell, who has recorded in Breton, Welsh, French and English, wove their magic touch, and accompanied the silver-haired Meic Stevens - one of the highlights of the night. The audience really loved Y Glerorfa, a 60-strong army of fiddlers, harpers, flautists and one solitary piper, full of youthful charm and sizzling fire, whose sexy dancers radiated a sheer love of proud Welsh culture and unbroken tradition. I bet that Robin Huw Bowen and Steven Rees - as musical directors - were just over the moon.

The five-strong Calan bounced back and roared into their set. It's so good to see Patric, Chris, Angharad, Llinos and Bethan in full flight and thoroughly enjoying their razor-sharp, feel-good repertoire; as Andrew Cronshaw once said, traditional music "should shout a bit at you." Calan just took my breath away.

Then it was the turn of the star - Siân James, harper and silver-voiced diva extraordinaire, whose music has touched and affected so many countries around the world. Siân was magnificent; accompanied by breathy and swirling synth, whistle and acoustic guitar, she sang of bittersweet love and angst, and the crowd was transfixed. My favourite is Cariad Cyntaf; timeless, everlasting and absolutely dripping with Welsh cadences and tradition.

As I said, the roar went up. Team Wales can be thoroughly proud of themselves - and it makes you think of the army of fine musicians who couldn't be here or didn't get to play. Da iawn, pawb!

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Feast of Fiddles
Muni, Pontypridd ~ 1 April 2010

by Iain Campbell

What is or who are Feast of Fiddles: a folk band fronted by six or seven of the UKs best fiddlers; a rock band with a string section; a bunch of mates who have, for the past sixteen years, got together to have a lot of fun on a spring tour or a force of nature presided over by a melodeon player called Hugh Crabtree? This band is all these things but that's only a partial description. I hope this review of their first ever visit to Wales will give you more of an idea.

The front line instrumentation of fiddles, melodeon, mandolin and acoustic guitar lets us know that it is a folk band but surprises come from the outset when the band takes off, over atmospheric electronica, into a frenetic version of the Tornadoes Telstar. The depth of the sound is immense.

They prove that they are a folk band with lots of folk tunes and songs, both contemporary and traditional, but the surprises continue. There's Robbie Robertson's Acadian Driftwood, a James Bond suite, a three tune tribute to French cafe society, the theme tune to the Magnificent Seven prefacing a couple of Celtic tunes, bits of Aerosmith and Deep Purple as a prologue to a couple of slip jigs before the finale, a rousing version of Michael Martin Murphey's Geronimo's Cadillac.

It wasn't just the ‘off the wall' decisions on repertoire that surprised. In addition to the ensemble pieces each of the fiddlers brings a piece to the feast. For Phil Beer it's different song for every performance; for Ian Cutler it's Simon Jeffes' Music For A Found Harmonium. Tom Leary brought us a couple of his great tunes while new full time member Garry Blakeley contributed two excellent, very contemporary tunes, which, according to Mr Crabtree, added a new genre to the band's collection: 'prog folk'. Brian McNeill sung to us about how his parents met in Styria following the war but perhaps the most astonishing piece was by Peter Knight: a stunning blues plucked totally on his fiddle.

Together the music and repartee between the musicians and with the audience develop great rapport and such a feel good atmosphere. I had seen them at a festival previously and thought they were great but in the more intimate surroundings of the Muni they were better.

Feast of Fiddles website

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Steve Knightley and Jenna
Halcyon Daze, Cowbridge ~ 25 February 2010

by Iain Campbell

Karen and Dave run two shops specialising in clothes, jewellery and handicrafts from around the world. Above their shop in Cowbridge is an old hall generally used for yoga and dance classes. They both have a love of all sorts of music and have recently started up a series of occasional musical events.

For the second Steve Knightley, from Show of Hands and recent winner of two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, brought his solo tour. From the outset he had the audience absorbed as he took us through many of the old favourite Show of Hands repertoire; Country Life and The Dive.

Part way through the first set he was joined by Jenna Witts. Her confident vocals and electric piano added instrumental depth to the Knightley songs. Jenna, an up and coming singer/songwriter, has toured with Steve previously and has also put together a CD, Western Approaches, with Steve and Seth Lakeman. Steve left her to entertain us with songs from her new album Brother until the interval.

Karen and Dave don't have a licence for alcohol but during the break tea and coffee were freely available for a contribution to the Haitian emergency fund and the establishment across the road happily provided a venue for other refreshments.

Following the interval we had more old favourites such as, Are We All Right and Cousin Jack, before he asked us to join in with a song in progress: Stop Copying Me, was inspired by an argument between his children in the back seat of the car. It is a slightly chilling song about the darker side of the internet but with words disguised by a child's naive simplicity.

In the early days Show of Hands played lots of pub gigs. The Galway Farmer, Steve's song about the Cheltenham races, was designed to head off requests for standards like Wild Rover or Black Velvet Band. It is ironic that it is now listed as Irish traditional on a number of web sites.

Steve, together with Phil Beer, his partner in Show Of Hands, won the award for best duo at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. He also took the prize for best original song with Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed. Before singing it he entertained us with tales about the making of the video which has shots of the band projected on London banks. Check it out on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-n8ITk6UWM The quality of the evening's entertainment makes this is a venue worth keeping an eye on.

Jenna Witts on Myspace       Steve Knightley website

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Norwegian Church, Cardiff ~ 11 February 2010

by Keith Hudson

The last time Celtish played the Norwegian Church, it was to a capacity audience. Tonight barely half the number turned out and, if it hadn't been for family and friends, it would have been even more sparse. Admittedly, it was a bitterly cold night but the real culprit was a paucity of marketing. There was no doubt, though, that those who did come were treated to a thoroughly satisfying evening.

It was a significant night for the band - the first with fiddler Bernard Kilbride, who has replaced Sian Phillips. On his own admission, he hadn't fully got to grips with the Celtish repertoire but, despite that, he held his own and he really showed his flair, when he took the lead on a set of Shetland tunes learned from his father. The other melody instrumentalists also had lead spots. The hugely accomplished flautist Imogen O'Rourke had the lion's share, with a set that started with a traditional Breton dance tune followed by two of her own compositions inspired by it and another set that opened with a Galician pipe tune. In between harpist John Harris opened his with a piece from O'Carolan followed by a couple of others with Irish origins.

Apart from her tasteful contributions on flute, O'Rourke also showed a talent few of us knew she had, by singing harmonies to powerhouse lead vocalist Gwyneth Keen. She shone like a full moon all night, her gorgeous voice constantly reverberating around the room. Most of the songs were her own compositions but, for good measure, she threw in others as diverse as one of Richard Thompson's well known songs and a Welsh song reflecting her north Walian heritage.

Reviewing the last Celtish album in Taplas, Bob Harragan predicted a bright future ahead of them. They deserve every bit of success they can get.

Celtish website

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Abertridwr Library ~ 9 February 2010

by Keith Hudson

They say you should try new things occasionally, so I did. I went to an afternoon gig in a public library, enticed by Ember's warm glow. I didn't expect to see familiar faces, but did wonder who else would be there. A gathering of pensioners, maybe? I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, there were a few from the older generation, but there was also a contingent of secondary school pupils, all of whom were studying music, and a smaller number of smaller children from a local primary school. All of them soaked it up as Ember turned the pages of their repertoire.

Early attempts at getting the audience to join in on choruses fell a bit flat but, when invited to make gestures and train noises, the level of participation soared. The barriers were broken down. Ember - Emily Williams on vocals and fiddle and Rebecca Sullivan on vocals, guitar, clarinet and harmonica - delivered an hour's worth of songs to a now enthusiastic audience. Most were of their own making and included old favourites and those that were unfamiliar, as well as a passionate song about the state of the economy and its causes that they had never performed in public before and a well-known traditional Welsh folk song.

Caerphilly council deserves congratulations for its progressive arts development programme, of which this was an example. It's a shame other neighbouring councils are not so forward-looking

Ember website

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Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl ~ 7 November 2009

by Keith Hudson

Reviewing two appearances by the same artists within a month is unusual but, if I hadn't recognised the faces, this could have been a different band. Tonight was their homecoming gig after playing together almost every night for a month on their first British tour.

Mabon were a band transformed. Every member was totally relaxed and, as a unit, they oozed confidence as well as inspirational musicianship. Fiddler Ruth Angell was by now totally embedded and really showed what she was made of. Likewise, flautist and piper Calum Stewart - who in Cardiff had seemed like a hanger on in the sidelines - had become fully integrated into a band that played an absolute blinder.

The nigh on capacity audience lapped them up and Mabon got some of them up dancing from the word go and, periodically, through to the word stop, culminating in a lengthy Breton an dro snaking among those still seated. Strangely, though, none took up the invitation when the band played a sparkling mazurka written by their accordionist Jamie Smith.

Breton influences are among those that crop up regularly in Smith's compositions, among them A Hungarian in Brittany and another dedicated to the band's favourite Breton restaurant. But tonight Irish, Welsh and Basque tunes - another from the great trikitixa player Kepa Junkera - were also on the menu, as well as a Galician pipe tune, adapted by Smith for his accordion. Although the band mainly played full strength, from time to time, some would go off stage for "a cup of tea" leaving either various duos or trios each adding their own flavours to the mix.

This triumphant return home for Mabon bodes well for another, shorter tour in February and for their next Porthcawl date for Cwlwm Celtaidd in March.

Mabon website

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The Globe, Cardiff ~ 7th October 2009

by Paul Seligman

My partner and I have seen Mabon periodically throughout their career (which is well documented in the current Taplas). We've always enjoyed their performances. When they announced they were launching their UK tour with a gig at the Globe, we wanted to support them.

However, for us this opening performance never really took off and we left before the encore, feeling rather flat.

Two factors contributed to this feeling.

Firstly, from our perspective it felt as though most of the band members were focused more on the music they were playing, rather than perhaps the audience or each other, for most of the time. Even front-man Jamie Smith seemed reluctant to give us that winning smile of his. Iolo Whelan on drums was an honourable exception, smiling, waving his sticks and trying to get the audience clapping.

At times the performance seemed a little like a rehearsal, but perhaps that feeling wasn't too far from the truth, as it was the opening night and fiddler Ruth Angell - while clearly very competent - had only had a short time for the band and did not seem particularly at ease with the material.

The second point is that the band now only plays Jamie's own compositions. We felt that too many of those chosen on this occasion were slow paced and reflective, and perhaps a little too repetitive. These may have been suitable for a recital evening with a seated audience, but perhaps not right for the Globe's atmosphere.

The Globe is a standing venue where you want to have a good time and preferably jig around a bit - which should have been perfect for the Mabon we used to see. However, few of the audience were dancing till the last couple of numbers. In fact, many of the tunes didn't even get my foot tapping.

The new Mabon website says: "More than anything it is the emotional content of the traditional music that Jamie seeks to embed in his own work; the sorrow, the joy and most of all the sheer energy at the heart of this uplifting genre of music. Expect to find all of these qualities in Mabon's music; it is designed to move you, both physically and emotionally, to draw you in with a moment of pure drama then cut you loose with some irresistible fun."

I can do without the purple marketing prose (there's a lot more of it on the site) but I would have settled for the "irresistible fun", which was what we have enjoyed at their previous gigs, such as at Cwlwm Celtaidd, 6 months earlier. We'll have to wait and see if this was a one-off from the usual style of entertainment the band provides or a new style - which may require a new audience.

Mabon website

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The Globe, Cardiff ~ 7th October 2009

by Keith Hudson

Mabon were among the first bands to play this venue shortly after it opened about a year ago. Let's hope they won't be among the last, as The Globe battles for its licence. That said, this is not the best suited venue for a band like Mabon or folk music in general, but in a city that offers nothing else with a suitable capacity, beggars can't be choosers.

Tonight was the first date on the band's first British tour and they certainly drew a much bigger audience than they did last year. First night nerves, though, were apparent and they had the disadvantage of not having their regular fiddler Oliver Wilson-Dickson with them and few can match him for either virtuosity or charisma. Ruth Angell, taking his place, had a substantial repertoire to learn beforehand and, despite being an able musician, she really hadn't got to grips with things. Doubtless, as the tour progresses, she will become more comfortable with accordionist Jamie Smith's compositions that aren't exactly easy learning or easy listening.

Almost the whole evening was devoted to his new music, a far cry from Mabon's origins in much more familiar and, arguably, more lightweight traditional dance tunes. Smith's compositions are often dense and complex as he mixes influences from across the pan-Celtic traditions and sometimes beyond. If a bit of Brittany here and a bit of Ireland there sounds a bit random, it does work, though it presents intellectual challenges that need to be understood before the emotional reactions break through.

From time to time, Mabon did divert to lesser complexities and to non-Celtic pieces. Nikolai - the sad story of a dancing bear - had distinctive Russian roots and it was one tune where Angell's talents became more apparent. Another transported us to the Balkans and then there was the trikitixa tune - seemingly inspired by Basque accordion maestro Kepa Junkera - that allowed outstanding drummer Iolo Whelan to come to the fore on the obligatory tambourine.

By the end of the night Mabon loosened up considerably and the dance tunes they closed with had the desired effect of getting members of the audience on the floor. Judging by the applause and the shouts for an encore, not to mention significant CD sales, the majority of the audience recognised the band's difficulties and went home satisfied.

The band conclude the tour back on home ground early next month and I'm confident that tonight's teething troubles will have been overcome.

Mabon website

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Steve Tilston
The Folk House, Bristol ~ 27th June 2009

by Trefor Patten

On a night when huge crowds were waving banners at Bruce Springsteen in a muddy field near Glastonbury a select group of aficionados made their way to the rather municipal, but cosy surroundings of Bristol Folk House as if visiting an old friend.

Although never technically a Bristolian, Liverpool-born Steve has strong links with the city and made it his home for many years. Thanks to his regular appearances at the Albert Hole folk club there he has a real ‘home team’ in the city who had turned out for this musical return visit.

So it was with an appreciative twinkle in his eye that the singer-songwriter enquired: “Just what have you lot got against Glastonbury anyway?” before launching into the winsome chorus of The Road When I Was Young, then following it with The Fisher Lad of Whitby and Living With The Blues.

This was classic Steve, I have seen him play marvellously and in fine voice on many a night but this took off with the sound of a man confident in his art and ability, then soared to even greater heights as they evening went on.

He sounded like someone who was having great fun playing and were it not for the consummate accuracy of his phrasing and precision of his guitar work you would almost think he was just mucking about.

Steve has always been one of Britain's greatest contemporary songwriters and he has an ability with the guitar that many can only dream of matching, but often he could appear a little, shall we say, ‘too serious’? on stage.

There was none of that in evidence, perhaps it was that he was really (as he had said earlier) glad to be back in ‘Brizzle’ perhaps it was the appreciative crowd, or maybe age has mellowed him. Whatever it was, it was infectious. Concert & This was more like a party.

Just before a mid-evening breather his old mate and BBC Radio Bristol presenter joined him for Jacaranda, giving it an extra joyous layer of harmonica.

After the break he was back with King of The Coiners, The Devil May Care and what has become a must in his current repertoire, the attack on the money men that is Pretty Penny.

“I wouldn’t want you to think I was jumping on any kind of bandwagon,” Steve told the audience, “This was written a long time before all this current shenanigans...” I have a feeling nearly everyone in the audience knew his material well enough to know just how true that was.

A great performer, a great writer, even something of a social commentator made for a great evening out - and no need to go camping!

Come back soon Steve.

Steve Tilson website

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Karen Matheson
Coliseum Aberdare ~ Friday 3rd October 2008

by Iain Campbell

In the first of the Autumn Valleys Roots Scottish Women Season we were treated to songs in three languges from Karen Matheson, best known as the singer in Capercaillie. Prior to this we were entertained by a set from Delyth Jenkins as a supporting Welsh Woman.

It is always a delight to hear a set from Delyth and here she played contemporary and traditional harp tunes the highlight of which was her own composition of incidental music for a production of Under Milk Wood.

Karen was supported by Donald Shaw on piano, accordian and Ivor Cutler's old harmonium, and James Grant on a variety of guitars. Ewan Vernal had been scheduled to play bass but had been called away to support his wife during childbirth.

We were treated to a well constructed set evoking the spirit of Scotland ancient and modern: Gaelic songs highlighting the diversity of the musical tradition of the highlands and western islands; songs by Burns prompting memories of the very different traditions and landscape of the borders and the contemporary songs with their melodies, often drawing from the non-Scottish traditions indicating the confidence of the current generation of musicians.

Karen started wih songs in Gaelic before changing to Scots and a song by Burns. Later a number of contemporary songs, this time in English, that had been composed by James Grant were interleaved. There was more from Burns, more Gaelic, including Puirt &agravç Beul and a song about Calgary Bay on Mull. This is a magical place, as was the song, but hearing it was tempered by the knowledge that at the height of the Highland Clearances a ship was anchored there to load up most of the population from western Mull thus cutting the base away from the culture that fostered the song. Much of the material was from her recent solo album but there were old Capercaillie favourites too enabling me to sing along, under my breath, in a languge that I don't know.

The second conccert by Julie Fowlis was on Friday 17 October at 8.00pm. Julie sings only in Gaelic and her music was described by Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 2; "For those of us who don't speak the language, Julie's records are like beautiful messages from another world". She was supported by another Welsh woman Bethan Nia.

The final concert on Friday 31 October 8.00pm, is Eddi Reader, the former Fairground Attraction front woman.

Karen Matheson website

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Allan Yn Y Fan
Borough Theatre, Abergavenny ~ 19 July 2008

by Alison Stokes

It's a sunny summer's evening in the Black Mountains and I feel like I should be sitting in a field. Not that there's anything wrong with the Borough Theatre, Abergavenny. In fact there can't be many theatres with sweeping views across the Blorenge. It's just, for me, Allan Yn Y Fan's brand of traditional Celtic music is best appreciated in a social setting, whether it's a festival field or wedding party. Soon my preconceptions are sent reeling as Allan Yn Y Fan prove that they are actually an accomplished concert band as well as one of Wales' most in-demand twmpath bands.

Since they recorded their second album Belonging, the band - Geoff Cripps on guitars and bouzouki, Chris Jones on accordion and flute, Linda Simmonds on mandolin and bodhran and Kate Strudwick on flute and whistle - have brought in vocalist Meriel Field. Taking centre stage with her fiddle, Meriel's clear and delicate vocals add a new dimension to tonight's set on traditional Welsh songs Lisa Lan and Ar Hyd Y Nos. The band launches the show with a mix of traditional and self-composed tunes, setting the pace for a lively evening. Fifteen minutes in and the audience has well and truly warmed up from polite foot-tapping to full-blown hand-clapping. If the seats weren't bolted to the ground I'm sure they'd have kicked them aside and started dancing.

The band has toured widely and those travels have shaped their compositions. As Chris explains during the introduction to one of his tunes, the tastily-titled "the breakfast set" is inspired by the early morning pastry selection at their visit to the Lorient Festival in France three years ago. The band is going back next month, so maybe there'll be a cafetiere chorus on their next album. That's the beauty of Allan Yn Y Fan, they have the ability to make the mundane seem magical. Even their name, simply translated as "out in a van" sounds like it's deep rooted in Celtic history. And their years of friendship as a band shows on stage with Linda's humour and Kate's attitude shining through. The set slips seamlessly from traditional slip jigs like Gyrru'r Byd Ymlaen to Kate's rousing modern foot-tapper Rural Assets. But for me the highlight of tonight's show is their live rendition of Kate's haunting ballad Girl On A Rock, which they also reprise in hymn-form with guest vocalist Cheryl Beer during the encore. Ending the 90-minute set with the delightfully vibrant Cwmcarn Capers, I realise that you don't need to be at a festival to enjoy Allan Yn Y Fan. They can create a party atmosphere anywhere.

Allan Yn Y Fan website

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An Evening With Pentangle
St David's Hall, Cardiff ~ 1 July 2008

by Mick Tems

There was a pleasing number of musicians in the crowded Level Three bar that Tuesday evening, which just about says it all. Groups may come and boy-bands may go, but the musos - and many faces not seen at all since they crawled into the folk woodwork - were waiting expectantly to spend An Evening With Pentangle.

Pentangle were a swinging sixties band with an emphasis on folk music, spiced with a soupçon of jazz, before they broke up in 1973. There has been a mushrooming of such groups, all hitching a lift on the nostalgia trip, with mums and dads, grandpas and grandmas all trying to capture a last breath of youth while ageing stars trot out their ancient hits - but Pentangle were, and still are, something special.

Silver-voiced singer Jacqui McShee, stunning guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Ransch, drummer Terry Cox and double-bassist Danny Thompson still perform the public's favourites, but they're still so innovatory and visionary that the Pentangle material sounds fresh and invigorating, recorded as if it was yesterday rather than 35 years ago. The reunion tour listed 12 cities and towns; the first concert, London's Royal Festival Hall, was completely sold out, and the second stopover, St David's Hall, was packed with fans who were determined to have a good time from the minute Pentangle walked out onto the stage.

The five musicians treated the audience as if they were friends, and they shrank the vastness of the auditorium to a welcoming kitchen session. Pentangle creaked though the opening piece, The Time Has Come, but they suddenly started soaring in Light Flight (famous theme song for the BBC series Take Three Girls) and never looked back. They breezed though all the well-loved favourites, including Once I Had A Sweetheart, Hunting Song, House Carpenter, Wedding Dress, Market Song and, of course, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, taken at a slow blues time.

But it was in the instrumentals that John, Bert, Danny and Terry really played some heart-stopping blues and slinky, slow jazz. Danny and Terry were schooled in jazz (among many bandleaders was the late Alexis Korner.) Danny made the double-bass sit up and beg while Terry enhanced the traditional patterns perfectly on drums, and John and Bert played a fabulous, dreamlike accompaniment on guitars, banjo and sitar. These five musicians are always searching, always questing to make the band's repertoire sound even greater than it did.

I was listening out for Lyke Wake Dirge, but it didn't come. Never mind - Pentangle must have had many well-loved songs to fill their time. And pedantic though it is, Jacqui's and Bert's voices were mixed too well down in the PA, making it difficult to follow the development of the story. The fact is that Pentangle are back with a vengeance, and that makes me very, very happy.

Pentangle info website

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Stephen Fearing
The Folk House, Clifton, Bristol ~ 15 June 2008

by Trefor Patten

Canadian singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing is like one of those proverbial buses - you wait ages for one of his gigs to come along and then two come at once.

Well, OK maybe not at once, but Bristol certainly has been well-served by this cruelly underrated (at least on this side of the ocean) writer, singer, guitar hero and philosopher.

It had been far too many years since he last graced our shores with his world-class guitar wizardry, mellow (as in developed and refined, not as in Matt Monro) singing voice and mind-bogglingly literate songwriting, then just a few months ago he was at the riverside restaurant roots venue which is Bordeaux Quay, and now again at the Bristol Folk House.

In the intimate (not to say 'worthy') setting of the folk house myself and fellow Fearing fans settled down to an evening not only of great contemporary folk music but of world-class showmanship.

Reading back those last few lines, I realise that this is in danger of sounding gushy, but I can only say that you will have to accept performances of this quality provoke that kind of eulogising. The man was on fire!

My current favourite Fearing song, Black Silk Gown, about driving home through the night with the rain-soaked highway like a... (you see what I mean about the lyricism?) came early in the evening to be followed by many other top choices, so that when the audience was invited to call for requests a rumble of mutterings suggested that many first choices had already been catered for.

Add to that the stories behind the songs which flowed as easily as conversation between old friends; like the way his father would stop a Mountie and ask him to arrest his mother because: "This woman has stolen my heart&034;, small gigs in an arts centre do not get any better than this.

Then the guitar wizardry: traditional English tunes Early One Morning and Plains of Waterloo were segued one into the other and back out again in a bravura performance which knocked at the door of free-form acoustic jazz without ever losing it sense of rootsiness - breathtaking, astonishing, unique.

Comeback soon Stephen, too many people here think Canadian music begins and ends with Gordon Lightfoot.

Stephen Fearing website

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Jennifer Crook
The Rondo Theatre, Larkhall, Bath ~ 1 May 2008

by Trefor Patten

On a pleasantly balmy night just outside Bath I joined the collection of various media contacts, friends and invited guests at the quaint little theatre to celebrate the launch of Jennifer Crook's awaited new album A Few Small Things.

The theatre proved a delightfully intimate setting for this concert with deep red drapes on the stage echoing the colour of Jen's rather becoming dress on the cover of her album.

Support act Jon Fletcher opened the evening with a great set of his own music marred only by what appeared to be an attack of 'nervous throat'. Oh and a bit of impromptu criticism from his very young offspring, who clearly already have their favourites - what was that about never working with children?

His performance overall was sufficiently impressive for several to comment that maybe Jennifer was going to have a lot to live up to - after all, it was supposed to be her night.

We need not have worried. Jennifer and her musicians (more of them later) came on stage in the melodramatic dark, to have the lights gradually rise as they began to play.

Many of the audience will know Jenny as a harpist and one half of Cythara with Maclaine Colston on hammered dulcimer. Specially dressed up for the event, Maclaine had an air of Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen about him in his Regency frock coat, or perhaps he had been performing for American tourists in Bath.

Jennifer's new album sees her going her own way, drawing on the influence of English traditional music but with elements of French musette, chamber music and, of course, contemporary singer-songwriters like Beth Orton, Tracy Chapman and even a touch of Tanita Tikaram.

She is aiming, therefore, for a rather crowded marketplace where her winsome vocals and undoubted songwriting skill will face some stiff competition.

However songs like A Bicycle In Need of Repair and Penny have the wit and cleverness which makes you want to listen to them again and again until you know the lyrics off by heart.

After the 'final' number the audience was treated to an excellent piece of theatre where first the aforementioned Maclaine came on to be followed by the excellent Bethany Porter on cello, the fascinating Josh Clark on Percussion, Robert Harbron on squeezeboxes and Robin Davies on bass - an all round excellent band - for a rousing finale.

A great evening in a great setting. I wish you luck Jen, you have not chosen an easy area of music to make a living in, but your songs really deserve to be heard.

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Harriet Earis Trio
The Gate, Cardiff ~ 2 April 2008

by Keith Hudson

The harpists - and other musicians - were out in force tonight. It was just as well, as without them, the audience for this late announced concert would have been a bit thin on the ground.

Earlier in the year the trio had appeared at Glasgow's Celtic Connections and, more recently, Harriet had been at the Edinburgh Harp Festival. The trio - also featuring drummer Sam Christie and Andy "Wal" Coughlan on double bass/bass guitar - already had a god selection of Scottish tunes in their repertoire. Among those aired in the first half of tonight's concert were a delightfully delicate composition from fellow harpist Catriona McKay and a reel from the pen of the remarkable accordionist Ian Lowthian.

With her impish smile and sparkling playing, Harriet soon had the audience eating out of her hand. But, although this was her show, the contributions from Coughlan and Christie was not to be underestimated. Both added a lot to the overall sound, but they also showed a subtle sensitivity, never threatening to overwhelm Earis' lead.

Irish tunes, learned during Harriet's previous partnership with Cormac Connolly, were also played with aplomb and the Welsh tradition got a look in, too - albeit in rather unusual company. Sandwiched into the traditional Cader Idris was a snatch of The Beatles' hit Norwegian Wood. Odd, maybe, but it worked a treat.

The opening set concluded with the trio's interpretations of the Dave Brubeck classics Take Five and Unsquare Dance. For the latter, they were joined by a dozen or so children, who had taken part in a pre-concert harp workshop.

After a break, the trio continued with more mouth-watering tunes from the pan-Celtic repertoire, as well as a version of a 1980s Gary Numan hit. Coughlan, we learned, had been the bass player in Numan's band all those years ago. To finish, the trio reverted to tradition with a couple of hornpipes from the flamboyant J. Scott Skinner. For the second, The Acrobat, one of the youngsters joined in again - with 12 year old Steffan giving us an accomplished display of step dancing.

Hopefully, the harpists went home satiated. The rest of us certainly did.

Harriet website

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Brooks Williams
Bordeaux Quay, Bristol ~ 23 March 2008

by Trefor Patten

On a windy and uncomfortably rainy night in Bristol, I found myself constantly thinking of An American In Paris... It was not just that I was on my way to a place called Bordeaux Quay (bringing France to mind) or that I was singing in the rain (nuff said), but I was on my way to see a singing American who seems to have a particular love for Europe.

Not only does Brooks Williams consider Bristol his "home from home" - at least that is what he told the audience in Britains first carbon-neutral restaurant and why should we not believe him when he enthused about the place on such an inclement night - but he chose the seafaring city as the place to launch his 16th album: The Time I Spend With You.

His love of England is reflected in his musical style. Brooks, along with his countrymen Ry Cooder, Bob Brozman, Ben Harper and others can be really difficult to categorise musically. Often he is classed as a blues musician and indeed the evening's repertoire included Blind Boy Fuller Mississippi Fred McDowell and Snooks Eaglin numbers, but his was an evening of inspiring and classy modern transatlantic folk music.

With backing from the wonderful accordionist Karen Tweed, Jethro Tull's Dave Goodier on a very interesting six-string acoustic bass guitar and Bristol's own harmonica-playing BBC local radio presenter, Keith Warmington, Williams showcased many songs from the new album as well the very best from his well-loved back catalogue. One lucky lady got a Happy Birthday request played in the form of Buddy Miller's My Love Will Follow You. (Bet she went home smiling).

Brooks can play guitar as if he is giving a masterclass on technique while still looking as chilled out as he would playing on his back porch in Statesboro.

Despite having his roots in Georgia, Brooks' voice has a distinctly Anglicised air, perhaps the result of making regular visits to Europe, which always brings to mind early James Taylor records.

The high point of the evening for this listener was a song from the new album, Everywhere, written in and around Bristol's harbourside, but then perhaps I am just being a little partisan... Coming a close second was a new arrangement of How the Night Time Sings which the evenings unique line-up made their own.

A great night in a great setting. To paraphrase the title track of Brook's new album; the time you spend with us is over much too soon.

Brooks Williams website

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Assembly Rooms, Presteigne ~ 9 March 2008

by Chris Bailey

On a damp winter evening I ventured to the Powys border town of Presteigne. I first saw Shooglenifty at Nantwich Folk Festival in 1996 where my Welsh folk dance group Dawnswyr Delyn were booked. At that time I had only known the name, but their hectic rhythyms quickly won me over as we made it onto the dance floor. I have seen Shooglenifty in Chester and Porthcawl since then and their attraction has not waned.

The Assembly Rooms is a small venue with a capacity of 100 people, mainly sitting in rows, and is not licensed - but with two pubs and an off licence almost adjacent the organisers allow drinks to be bought and consumed in the Rooms (and provide glasses for that purpose).

Shooglenifty are a collection of six members fronted by fiddler Angus Grant, and only once during the evening were any words sung. The band were once described as "acid croft" and it is easy to see why these Scots could attract this description.

Their raw excitement and quality of musicianship shines through, and despite the seated format it was very difficult for many of us to remain seated throughout the performance - with some dancers on their feet throughout.

Popular tracks such as Whisky Kiss, The Tammienorrie and Fistful of Euro were all very well received, and the wide range of ages and appearances of the audience demonstrated the popularity of the band.

Shooglenifty last played The Assembly Rooms over a decade ago, and only came this time as they were able to slot in Presteigne between bookings in Porthcawl and Cambridge. There were one hundred people from Powys and Herefordshire who were grateful. Certainly, the band appeared pleased to be in Presteigne and commented how people of Wales and Scotland understood them better than some when they play in England. I hope that it is not so long before I see Shooglenifty next.

Shooglenifty's website

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Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff ~ 24 February 2008

by Paul Seligman

It's not a good omen when my friend and I find we are the only paying customers at the advertised start time of the gig. Indeed, audience numbers never exceeded the number of performers, technicians and staff.

However, the missing audience were definitely the losers as Meltdown provided a really enjoyable evening of instrumentality, with four quality acts.

There are many compéres who trot off the standard clichéd sentences. They should take a lesson from David Ambrose's enthusiastic and professional introductions.

Adrian Hughes opened by playing Calon Lan on a steel guitar. Interesting, but didn't quite work for us. The rest of his instrumental set was much more fun, ranging from Marvin Gaye's I Heard it on the Grapevine, through a stunning version of Duelling Banjos (both parts played on the one guitar) to Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. Adrian also injected some nice humorous touches.

I warmed to DJ Timfinity's tasetful choice of between-the-acts tracks, particularly when he played the Incredible String Band. I still love those early ISB songs.

Steve Garret and Hiroko Sue, collectively known as Kotogo, played some beautiful and evocative music on Koto (Japanese harp) and guitar. Their pieces were inspired by places and experiences in various parts of Wales. The drawback was the lengthy tuning that the koto required between each piece, which did tend to break the mood.

Guto Dafis provided the only vocal entertainment of the evening, accompanying traditional Welsh songs on his accordion and capably supported by Danny Kilbride on guitar. Guto always takes the trouble to tell the audience about the songs, so you don't feel you miss out by not understanding the Welsh lyrics. And somehow Guto conveys the mood of each line through varied expression and vocal intonation.

The pre-publicity had described One String Loose as 'absolutely unmissable', and they lived up to the billing. I was astonished at how much they had developed since we saw them in 2006. Then they were very gifted youngsters playing tunes from the Irish tradition. Now they are a fully-fledged folk-rock band. While the first numbers sounded like they'd been playing their Fairport Convention albums, they brought in elements which were all their own, while always keeping a Celtic sensibility.

A drum kit was the latest addition to the band's sound and by and large worked well. With a bigger audience, I'm sure we would have all been on our feet by the end of their set. Certainly everyone's feet and hands were tapping away and there were smiles all round at the conclusion. It will be interesting to see where they go next.

A mention should be made of the technicians, who produced a crisp, clear and well balanced sound throughout - and that is not true of many gigs.

It would be a great shame if the organisers concluded that there is no audience in Cardiff for a night like this. Brains beer two pounds a pint, almost three hours of great entertainment for £5/£4, what more could you ask for? Well, real ale would be a bonus, but I can't believe that was why people stayed away. There are more folk events in Cardiff now than I can remember, and many are selling out in advance. Maybe it was the wrong night, or people don't expect this type of evening from Meltdown, or it was just one of those things. But if Meltdown are brave enough to put on a similar evening in future, I would urge you to give it a try.

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Pontardawe Arts Centre ~ 31 January 2008

by Mick Tems

The year was 2004. Stuck in traffic on the UK's biggest car park, the M25, John Spiers and Jon Boden hit upon the bright idea of what to do with their restrictive two-man free-reed and fiddle sound - although I can safely affirm that the power and the energy of this particular traditional music-making does all right by me, thank you.

The answer was: form a band. A BIG band. And judging by from the packed, cheering, whooping, audience, standing room only in the dance floor and loads of people in the gods craning their necks to see just what was exploding on the stage at the Pontardawe Arts Centre on their triumphant tour mini-tour of Wales, they were right all the way. Welcome, Bellowhead.

Bellowhead is an 11-strong joyous bunch of foot-stomping, rocking musicians with an unswerving devotion to English traditional music - but it's the stunning myriad arrangements from these mind-boggling array of instruments that will floor you. Jon Boden leads the band with a voice that pins you against the wall, with John Spiers on melodeon and concertina and fretboard wizard Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and attacking bazouki, Paul Sartin on fiddle and fantastic oboe, the lovely Rachel McShane on cello and fiddle and Giles Lewin playing fiddle and bagpipes. There's an amazing four-piece brass section consisting of Gideon Juckes (sousaphone, helicon and tuba), Andy Mellon (trumpet and flugelhorn), Brendan Kelly (saxes and bass clarinet) and Justin Thugur (trombone) while Pete Flood raises hell on percussion.

A Bellowhead gig is a breathless switchback ride while the band throw everything they've got at you, hot trad-soul material like Fire Marengo ("our shanty session"), a sparkling upbeat Up To The Rigs Of London Town and the swaggering, beautiful Jordan, with Rachel and Benji filling in on choruses - I bet the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould was turning in his grave... with delight!

Bellowhead has the startling effect of combining the heady essence of Buena Vista Social Club with the finest Rio carnival musicians, a jazz marching band and a lot more besides. What's more, it's exciting, arse-kicking music and it's from these islands. A hall-full of dancing, elated South Walians can't be wrong...

Bellowhead's website

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Jo Freya's Lal Waterson Project
Cheltenham Folk Festival

by Adrian Mealing

Yorkshire Vista Social Club, come in and settle for a cocktail of Lal's lullabies, laments, lampoons and fruity tunes. As fettled and loved by amiable Jo Freya, the velvet fist in a velvet glove with a steely determination to get these great songs under the noses of a new generation. And back to those who knew & loved & have missed Lal's work since her death ten years ago.

Here be midnight partying, spring sprung, loosing the ties that bind, escape from the work-house, escape from Mrs Thatcher, a nifty Rimbaud translation with the word 'arses' in it, a tale of Michael Portillo, jiving nights and souls bared.

Brazilian trumpet and samba sax, Clarsach harp, a cappella power stations, tabla distances and vocal harvesting did it in spadefuls for this great sell-out Cheltenham Folk Festival audience.

Jo's multi-instrumental band encompasses big-vocal-bottomed Jim Boyes, deft Neil Ferguson & Jude Abbott of Chumbawamba, free-wheeling Fi Fraser, Harry Hamer of the Sex Patels and Mary Macmaster of The Poozies. So much music, you need to go back.

And buy the album 'Lal' (NMCD27).

Lal's burning light shines out. Awakened. Sharp as a Yorkshire razor.

Jo Freya's Taplas Archive 2000
Jo Freya's website

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Taffy Thomas
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

by Mick Tems

Taffy Thomas, brought up David Thomas to a South Wales father and mother, was only 36 when he had a massive stroke. He was in The Fabulous Salami Brothers at the time, and among the tricks he used to perform were eating fire, dancing barefoot on broken glass, having a hammer break paving slabs across his chest, naked escapology... you could say that Taffy was balancing on the tightrope of life.

In the years of his slow recovery, Taffy reinvented himself as a storyteller, or rather as the greatest self-styled liar in the whole world. His mentor was the marvellous and famous Duncan Williamson, ballad singer, storyteller and Scottish traveller, and Taffy had just been given some bad news. Duncan had had a stroke and had been taken to the Victoria hospital, Kirkcaldy, where he died two days later.

Taffy was down to launch a book which he had co-written with consultant clinical psychologist Dr Steve Killick, called Storytelling and Emotional Literacy. At the Tesco stage, he held the crowded audience spellbound for an hour, and his greatest tribute was telling one of Duncan's audacious tall tales (about the incredible hole with the cap, the man, the horse and the cart) so that the story would not die. As Taffy attributed to Duncan's philosophy: "If you like it, tell it!"

But the piece de resistance was Taffy's magnificent "tale coat", and adults and children stared open-mouthed as they chose a splendid hand-stitched illustration which turned out to be one of Taffy's many tales. The whole production was organised by the magical and delightful Beyond the Border festival at St Donat's Castle, one of their offshoots in tale-telling that the festival, and director David Ambrose, does so splendidly well.

Taffy Thomas's website

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The Muni Arts Centre, Pontypridd

by Mick Tems

Here is a fact that explodes the mistaken belief that it was a certain Cardiff Bay Arts Centre who secured Malinky for what they called the Edinburgh band's debut Welsh concert. No way, José. Malinky had already done a debut show at Llantrisant Folk Club in 2001, but as booker I wasn't around to see it. Three days before, I had the stroke - and, as Malinky played their hearts out, I lay spread-eagled in a Colchester hospital.

For one circumstance after other, I kept on missing Malinky as the years went by. But after a stunning, beautiful and magical set, I vow I'll never pass up Malinky again.

The loss of Karine Polwart - now pursuing a stellar career - and button-box player Leo McCann would surely have spelled the end, but Malinky bounced back with a vengeance. Fiona Hunter, on cello and jaw-dropping vocals, has replaced Karine, and Liverpool-born Ewan MacPherson, who plays guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, octave mandolin and jew's harp is there on backing voice. Amazing fiddler Jon Bews makes the audience gasp with his brilliance, and the two original members, Steve Byrne and Mark Dunlop, still fire the group's engine room with their invaluable input.

Above all, it is Malinky's love of ballads and story-songs, combined with their sheer originality and musicianship, that is the band's strength. Anyone who tells you that they don't like ballads just hasn't seen this quintet.

It was left to Mark to carry off the band's coup de grace - a spectacular, lengthy bodhran solo, sparking off the seminal Jim Sutherland of the Easy Club's influence but feeding in Mark's ideas to make a dazzling, satisfying and remarkable ear-bender. A Malinky concert is brimming over with the feel-good factor, and oodles and oodles of good, solid quality. I'll drink to that...

Malinky Taplas Archive 2002
Malinky's website

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