Saturday, 15 May 2021

City of My Culture

 

I was born In Keresley, a mining community on the outskirts of Coventry. My family at that time lived within sight of the blitzed cathedral and the ruined city centre, but the maternity hospital had been relocated to Keresley due to bomb damage. I was born within sight of the end of the 1940’s: less than a month later a new decade dawned. The 1950’s, with all their hope, expectation and promise for the future began.

The Village” (as Kereseley is still occasionally known) did not finally transfer administratively from Warwickshire to the City until the 1960’s. Keresley Pit, later known as Coventry Colliery, is now long gone: capped and sealed below the city. For all but the first few days of my life my childhood and adolescence was spent within the city boundary. My Primary school was surrounded by the commerce and industry which made the city prosperous. Our first family home was in central Coventry. It echoed day and night to noise from nearby factories and there was a railway yard at the top of the street. I could walk from my front door to the city centre and view the Phoenix City rising again from the ashes any time I liked.

My story was that of many Coventrians. For centuries, regardless of World Wars, Recessions or Pandemics, people have moved there and met there. Seeking a new future. And largely (but not always) the city has welcomed each new generation of Incomers. My father and grandfather were both born in Nuneaton, a town 10 miles away. Coventry and its many manufacturing industries drew them in like a magnet, along with thousands of others. My mum had run away from a Yorkshire Mill village, seeking reunion with her father, Edgar Oldfield. He had been lured away from the West Riding before the end of World War One, head-hunted for a job as an engineer. Although it was not their "home town," my Mum and Dad first met and fell in love there. Courtship blossomed through the Blitz, which they both experienced. They married there and started a family there. 

Given this background, on the day of the re-scheduled launch of the City of Culture Year, on Saturday May 15th 2021, I was intrigued (but not surprised) to hear BBC Radio Four News referring to the city as “George Eliot’s Home Town.” This was not strictly true. In later bulletins it was rightly amended to explain that she was (in part) educated there. She (in part) also lived there and (in part) wrote there. But Nuneaton and Warwickshire (and later London) also played a bigger part in her development.

Her story in that sense is similar to mine and it is similar to many others. Where she and I differ is that I grew up in Coventry and I was educated there. After attending a College in London I returned to live there. I worked for Coventry City Council for 38 years unbroken, right up to retirement. In my spare time I too wrote stories and poems as well as songs and features for a local newspaper. And, in 2021,Coventry’s City of Culture Year, my first full length novel will finally be published. It will take me a while to catch up with Mary Anne, but my name will finally have an ISBN number.

I remain immensely proud of my Coventry (and Warwickshire) roots. I live now back in the same Warwickshire village that my Great Grandfather moved the entire family away from. In 1892 he uprooted them and moved them to the nearby Industrial town of Nuneaton. Over time that same cycle continues. The larger towns and cities of Warwickshire offer succour and support to those drawn there by better opportunities. It is a continual process. The cycle  repeats as village children (like mine) relocate once more, drawn by improved employment prospects and cheaper housing elsewhere.

I hope that the Coventry City of Culture Year reflects this diversity and shines with an Inclusivity which takes on board the heart of Coventry itself but also the migration to and from the city from satellite towns. Celebrating not just those still living within the city but also those who like George Eliot  have been touched by their connections with it over time. After all, this was the basis of Two Tone and the music which helped put the old place back on the World map again. 

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Coming Home For Good?

 

Shadows Across The Moon     

              Dando Shaft    

                           Talking Elephant Records

          Some of us have been nagging some of them about this for years. And now, only several centuries (it seems) on, along comes a NEW Dando Shaft album. New to everyone outside Italy and their immediate circle of fans that is, anyway. To say that “Shadows Across The Moon” has had a chequered history and a long gestation is an understatement. The story of its evolution is a film screenplay in itself. 

        Dando Shaft evolved from a truly vibrant Coventry Folk Scene in the 1960’s. Kevin Dempsey and Dave Cooper were in at the beginning and quickly drafted in a gifted multi instrumentalist in Martin Jenkins. Roger Bullen and Ted Kay were added and Polly Bolton completed the original line up. Dando swiftly acquired cult status and a loyal following. Then as often happens, they began to drift apart and into other projects. But they were never forgotten.

         “Shadows Across The Moon”  was the brainchild of one Gigi Bresciani. He had persuaded the Dandos to reconvene long after they had finally disbanded. He dangled the appetising carrot of a recorded “live” concert in Bergamo, Italy. They agreed and with Whippersnapper's Chris Leslie guesting on violin, the live set was recorded at Sala Piatti, Citta Alta in 1989. It was a one off limited release in 1992 and never travelled much outside Italy,(where English bands like Dando Shaft and Whippersnapper have always been admired). 

         And there the story might have ended. Thankfully, it didn’t. Fast forward to 2020 and Kevin Dempsey with the aid of Talking Elephant records have finally produced and remastered a version of Shadows Across The Moon . You can still buy the original on Discogs if you’re lucky, but this new version is available to all and is accompanied by comprehensive sleeve notes. A few of the tracks are “live” versions of Dando songs featured on other albums and Cold Wind was originally a 7” single. 

         It is difficult to define this sound musically. Difficult to pin down any one genre. The instrumentation is at times as layered and as complex as anything that the Incredible String Band recorded. There are also elements  redolent of Pentangle. There are echoes of jazz, freeform and Prog. As indefinable as a shadow across the moon.  

        This is best encapsulated in the last and longest track, "Coming Back to Stay."  after a vocal start exchanging catchy harmonies the musicians plunge off into what certainly sounds like improvised solos. swapping and  exchanging the central theme expertly. And eliciting deserved applause as they do so. There's a little bit of Suite for Judy Blue Eyes about this track as it spanks along. Until the final section, when it fair rips and becomes 100% unique Dando.    

                   If you ever wondered what all the fuss was about-now you can hear in full remastered stereo. When talking to someone during the interval of  Kev’s Guest slot at Nuneaton Folk Club in February 2020 I mentioned to them that he used to be in Dando Shaft . That someone said “Who?”  Well this is who, mate! Turn it up, sit back and listen to really talented musicians at the top of their game, entertaining and improvising. It's a tough act to follow. In truth, it always was. 

          The album is available in CD format only. Copies can be ordered by contacting via Kevin Dempsey's via his web site or messaging him via his Facebook Page.

Friday, 19 February 2021

      It's been ages since I've posted anything on here. Various lockdowns and the complete close down of entertainment has taken its toll on all of us. In my case I just lost the creative urge to write anything about music any more. So I am indebted to Greengrass for inspiring me to write an album review again. Here is my first album review since July 2020. Thank you, guys!

From The Forge                                                              Greengrass

       Those of us who live in the Coventry and Warwickshire area already knew about the fine work of this band, from their “live” performances. Three talented musicians with a strong sense of the traditional and an intuitive ear for a sensitively worked cover version. In addition they are blessed with being  fortunate enough to  be able to write and create decent original material. 

            Greengrass are Keith Nickless, Lauren South and Kate McAlister, all based in Rugby. They began playing in their present line-up in January 2019 after having played together previously in a 5-piece band. On the basis of this album one can only hope they stay together for a long time.   From The Forge is a very brave attempt to capture their “live” performances. As a first venture together they boldly set about recording a “one take” session. This was  lovingly co-ordinated by Tom Gittins of Monochrome Productions at the Forge Studio in Southam. 

         There were all kinds of obstacles which could have held them back in attempting this ambitious enterprise, but the net result is a very listenable album available as a download or as a CD.  Personally I’d recommend the latter option, because the unique packaging and artwork is well worth the additional effort. Greengrass are very sensitive to environmental and ecological issues. This was reflected in my copy which arrived delightfully packaged in an ingeniously decorated brown card wallet. You had to literally undo it like a parcel (string included!). Quite a few people have already admired it as a standalone art piece! 

         Comprehensive sleeve notes were included as a separate booklet, with the same artisanal illustration and lettering. Simple, effective, and meaning that the only plastic contained was the disc it self. The booklet contains concise details and background of each of the 14 tracks. ( Going with the CD means you’d have to download Three Birds a Keith Donnelly song, via Bandcamp).   Copies in either format can be ordered via the contact details at the bottom of this review. It was released in March 2020 but obviously with Covid 19 taking almost immediate hold, promotional opportunities became restricted to virtual online performances only.

         Given the circumstances, Greengrass have recorded a fabulous debut collection of songs, beautifully played and arranged. I absolutely love covers of traditional songs anyway: it’s a personal weakness of mine. So they had me halfway hooked with the set list even before I began listening. There’s not a dud among them. Each one is different and all bring something new to the table, with adaptations of Black is The ColourThe Blacksmith, Spencer The Rover and Lord Franklin. They also handle a Karine Polwart song “Follow The Heron,” with great panache. 

          Yet Greengrass are no one-trick ponies. Besides playing old favourites evocatively, there is new material here. “Judiths Song”  is Lauren’s solo work and she and Keith combined to write “History” together.  Kate McAlister adds  guitar and harmonies and  weighs in with two of her own compositions, “The Waltz,” and “Tame Yourself.”

         Lauren plays violin/fiddle and is developing an interest in other instruments. Some of her fiddle fills are evocatively haunting. She also has a distinctive vocal style. There are a plethora of young women singers with memorable voices. I can identify quite a lot of them just by hearing them. I’m pretty sure I could pick  Lauren out now. Which adds her to a distinguished company including Kitty McFarlane, Ruth Notman, Josienne Clarke, Hannah Sanders, Kelly Oliver Cara Dillon and Laura Ward.     

        I’d seen and heard Keith playing previously in other formats.  I’m sure he won’t me saying that visually, he is both unique and unforgettable. I knew he was a good musician but I hadn’t realised that he had such a sensitive voice and a good song-writing style. Best exemplified in a song he wrote himself “Soft Words.”   Top earworm material this. Avoid it if you don't want to find yourself murmuring it later, as you varnish that canoe or stir the goulash on the iron stove.

             At the end of the day, combining all this talent, they can also knock out a good rollicking instrumental, as in “Star of The County Down/King of The Faeries."  No words to this one, but it's a Folk Club and Festival favourite guaranteed to get the  feet tapping  In summary From The Forge is an eclectic mix of old and new songs: just the right kind of cross section you want from a decent Folk album. I can’t wait to hear their first studio album. With additional instrumentation, some imaginative mixing and production, it's going to be a cracker. 

The CD is available by emailing greengrassfolk@gmail.com

The digital download is available via Bandcamp at:

http://greengrassfolk.bandcamp.com/album/from-the-forge-live

The band also have a Facebook Page





Monday, 16 November 2020

Anti Bullying is a Lifelong stance.

This week is the start of Anti Bullying Week: a commendable national event organised by the Anti Bullying Alliance, a registered Children's charity.  Today starts with Odd Socks Day, when youngsters are encouraged to  do exactly that, thereby demonstrating that individualism and difference is something to be celebrated, not something to be vilified over. There is a campaign of events and even an anthem-a reworked version of the original Sham 69 hit "If The Kids Are United."

However, if anyone imagines that bullying stops when school leaving age is reached  they are wrong. Bullying in the Workplace is rife. It is rarely physical and is often clandestine. It is secretive because the perpetrators are (rightly!) deep down ashamed of their actions. But in a mirroring of the school situation, Work Bullies hear the cries of encouragement from others and so they ignore the pain of the bullied. Their suffering only spurs them on to greater, wider atrocities. 

       Alas, when school days are over In our country, Public and Private sector employers are encouraged by the State to embrace a climate of blame and to support a culture of hate. A toxic environment  is created where "Management" means the  expectation of getting better results out of a workforce by intimidation, discrimination and establishing division. A false hope and a redundant philosophy which only undermines productivity and effectiveness. 

It is a known fact that all that these divisive methods will actually  "improve" is stress levels, absenteeism and depression. Employees subject to this treatment will not succeed. They cannot.  Their self esteem will be destroyed and their self confidence will be eroded by months-years-of negative criticism. And that, really, is the objective. Much of this antisocial and condoned behaviour is excused by "appraisal"- in itself not a bad tool, but too often one fuelled not by a desire to improve results but simply to save money. 

The most common form of this is in a profession where salary scales are capped. Rank and file employees rise chronologically to the top of a scale via "progression" -and stay there. The temptation by many managers  then is not to assist the talented and the able who are trapped at the head of this logpile, but to pick on them and criticise them. This  continues so that they stagnate. Younger more gullible (and most essentially, cheaper) replacements can be drafted in from an external source, when the victims finally crumble. 

The failure of executives remains temporarily concealed as department budgets are shored up.  Temporary because when  Workplace bullies are finally exposed their illegal and cruel barbarism becomes all too evident. They have clung on to power only by bullying. They often have no other talent. Bullies are often inadequate professionals themselves. Rather than achieving "improvement via praise, support and motivation, they coerce others into assisting in their dirty work.

I have lived with bullying all my life. I was bullied at school until I stood up to the perpetrators and exposed them. At work I was deliberately held back professionally until I acted against injustice and exclusion and helped in publicly outing those responsible.  I have had to represent colleagues in tribunals and during grievance procedures, often facing trumped up charges where their isolation and decaying self belief has been exploited by the ruthless. All those close to me have been bullied at work. Practically all my family have been subjected to it, and in many  instances, family members have had to move placements to get away from it. 

The enemy of bullying is Truth. Bullies become frightened of it and will use any means possible to try to stifle it.  The only resistance to them is speaking out. A popular anti bullying strapline became "Don't Suffer in Silence." It is still the best one I know. Resisting and speaking out is scary and collateral damage is often suffered along the way. But outing them and drawing together collectively to oppose their foul practices remains the best way of defeating the bully.    

 Bullies are by definition, stupid. They cannot see that their actions are harmful not only to their victims, but ultimately to themselves. Eventually, it will be they, the  perpetrators and not the victim who in a dreadful irony becomes the object of ridicule and derision. Unfortunately by then, too many others will have had their lives and careers ruined by deluded,  meglomania. It is tempting perhaps to pity the bully once exposed for the pathetic creatures that they are. But wrong. There is an old Viking saying "May The Sword Spare No-one." Well....quite. 


Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Flights of Fancy

          Only A Wingbeat Away is a 2020 album recently released by Steve and Julie Wigley. They are a familiar sight on the Midlands Circuit so I  already knew that they were confident performers and assured and competent musicians. Having sat near the two of them at various Folk Clubs,seeing them perform, or watching them myself from up on a stage,I also already knew that they had fine voices. Here they combine in nice harmonies, well delivered.
           The album  also reiterates the fact that  between them, Julie and Steve produce fine original material. Julie has worked hard on penning these songs. The end result is an earnest and thoughtfully written collection of gently observed sound pictures. Best epitomised by "Knights of The Road," celebrating the lives of two elderly gentlemen cyclists. They are the antithesis of those sweating Lycra clad pelotons of sweating, designer clothed pedal bullies who emerge like moths from a chrysalis each spring to clog up country byways. 
       "The Form" is also pretty well unique in that it is a song dedicated to a bench. It would make any anthology of rustic seating! It has plenty of contemporary references which show that Julie can tackle modern themes too. Banksy and the Tate Modern get a mention and there are some witty rhyme schemes with a Victoria Wood/Sally Ironmonger flavour to them such as "rogueish knaves armed with buckets and spades," or "room to spare for at least three derrieres." 
          "Like a Cinnabar," is clever. On one level it is entertainment  for lepidopterists such as Bob Brooker and myself.. On another it is an ironic comment on dressy folk parading on an elevated stage.  It works both ways. A few weeks after my mum died, I was singing on a Folk stage,midwinter,when a beautiful Red Admiral butterfly emerged from the darkness out of nowhere and settled softly on my cheek. Those in the audience who knew my mum,and her avowal to be reincarnated after her funeral as a butterfly,just held their breath.  
        Julie is a modern writer and the duo are an ambitious team prepared to give anything a go. So included on this set list are a sea shanty,a "traditional" folk song,a gentle protest song and a tribute to the R.N.L.I.. And if that wasn't enough ground covered,"Prince of Suburbia" is about  pigeons. Not the first song about them-artistes as diverse as  Duncan McFarlane and Cyndi Lauper have both previously done homage too. 
      The overall effect is that Only a Wingbeat Away is homely without being schmaltzy, reflective without being sanctimonious,and affectionate without being patronising. It is perhaps most essentially, relevant. In that it deals with themes and subjects anyone can relate to. 
       The watch case is nicely produced with some attractive art work,(pictures by Steve-talented guy!) Sleeve notes on songs are included in a booklet insertwith track listings and timings included,and a list of musicians credited. (All this may seem obvious but not all artistes think to include this).  Julie plays guitar and accordion,Steve plays guitar and additional accompaniment is added by Sarah Matthews (strings) and Richard Collins (bass and percussion). Currently it can be obtained by contacting Julie via Facebook,or just contact me and I'll pass your query on. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

And Yet....The Wilderness

          The Wilderness Yet is an eponymous work from  a Sheffield-based outfit of the same name comprising Rosie Hodgson ,Rowan Piggott  and Philippe Bourne. It  is a new departure for all three musicians and although they have broad experience elsewhere, this is a debut album. Potentially they are one of many duos or trios with a similar sound, in a competitive market place. Even more so since Lockdown. With "live" public performance currently limited to the point of non existence,TWY  will be judged on social media and/or recorded output. The good news is they are distinctive enough to stick in the memory and the album merits a second (and a third) listening. 
           It's a nice sound with plenty of style and originality. Some bands take several attempts to achieve this enviable level of performance. TWY  manage it on a first release. Going deeper into their background,this comes as no surprise. Although a new venture despite all three being comparatively young they are  well versed in this sort of material having had plenty of experience solo and in other outfits. Already old hands at gigs and festivals,their pedigree shines through. 
          Musically,all three can handle lead vocals and their harmonies are well arranged. Rosie is yet more talent from Sussex (Bird In The Belly:Mike Reinstein:Hickory Signals and Green Ribbons). She writes some of the material and her sibilant voice is  in great evidence. It is one of those crystal clear quintessentially English voices,clearly enunciated and emotionally phrased. Rowanalso writes lyrics and  adds fiddle,viola double bass whilst Bourne contributes whistle,guitar and flute. The recording is further bulked out by Evan Carson (Bodhran),and vocals from Charlie Piggott (button accordion) and Johnny McDonagh (bodhran),both of  De Dannan. 
        The Wilderness Yet take their name from a Graham Manley Hopkins poem. The twelve tracks are mostly original material but are written in a traditional context. The atmosphere  and content are both ethereal and metaphysical. They have a real aptitude for songwriting,evidently putting a lot of effort into it .They show a critical understanding of what constitutes traditional folk. There are tune sets as well as songs making it a rounded listening experience.  The overall tone is of loving Nature,wild life and growing things. 
        They acknowledge the influences of Terry Pratchett, Eric Bogle Pete Lyons and Ben Paley and there are Nordic and Celtic strands woven into the composite sound. 
         The CD comes in a triple gatefold watch case with a picture disc. There is wonderfully sylvan/rustic artwork from Adam Oehlers throughout. Comprehensive sleeve notes detail the background of each song.  Lyrics are available via their website-which is where you can order this. The official release date is July 24th 2020. 
      
        

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

From There To Here

From There To here    Jacqui McShee and Kevin Dempsey      MCDEM RECORDS
          Kevin Dempsey is a bit of a hero of mine. He's a regular guest at Nuneaton Folk Club and a welcome guest at all the other local venues too. His work as a solo artiste or as a member of Dando Shaft and Whippersnapper is legendary. As an icon he has earned the right to be a bit aloof and a bit distant if he wanted to, but he never is. He is always the same lovely,grounded fellow that I've known for years. I like his guitar playing,his singing voice and I like Kevin Dempsey. I'm also honoured to say that occasionally he has agreed to jam in with my band,and we've been like starstruck teenagers on stage when he has. All the photos show us grinning and him focussing on the guitar! The man is just Boss. It says everything that he dropped the copy of this album round at my house. In person.
Kevin Dempsey with Nunc.
       Now we've got that out of the way,let's move on to Jacqui McShee. I've never met her,but I adored Pentangle too, especially the stuff she did with them. Basket of Light is in my top ten Folk albums of all time . Her vocal contributions on The Cuckoo, House Carpenter and Once I Had A Sweetheart were (and remain) sublime. As a Folk Jock I've played their stuff and Kev's many times. When I heard they were doing an album together...just...wow!
       This new album contains some of my favourite Folk Songs. I've always loved Brigg Fair and Lord Franklin for example. I have many versions of Lord Franklin,and have always admired John Renbourne's version most. Turns out it's Jacqui's favourite,as well! I have always had a soft spot for Nature Boy too. A brave project but as Jacqui says, "this is a song we have both wanted to sing for a long time."   And of the trad arrsJack Monroe just has that indefinable Dempsey kick and swing to it. Both in the picking and the singing.
        The coincidences just keep on coming. Many centuries ago ( I exaggerate slightly) I studied English Literature at a London College and qualified to teach it to "A" Level. One of my areas of study was the work Of William Butler Yeats-who of course all scholars will know was Irish and not English! . My own life took a different course and so I never did get round to sharing his poetry with a group of Sixth Formers, Innisfree though was always one of my favourite poems by the great man -and blow me down here it is on this album put to music! 
       They are not afraid to stray away from covers and to tackle their own writing projects. Beautiful Island is credited as being a McShee/Dempsey composition but I suspect the lyrics are Jacqui's alone as it refers to a personal experience. Frankie too is very personal. It is about Jacqui's dad although by coincidence Kev's dad is also a Frankie.  
          Telephone Lies reverses the credits so I'm assuming it's one of Kev's. " it keeps the yearning at bay," he suggests in the notes,referring to the occasional bit of judicious editing when reporting home whilst on the road. Leaving is their final effort together-a lighthearted reflection of Brexit which again I have to say I have a great deal of sympathy with. 
        The sleeve notes are meticulous- a wonderful asset for a Radio Show presenter! I always like to study credits,check on a written version of a lyric and absorb any background if provided. The artwork and photography is subtle and Joe Broughton has done a fine job on the mastering. 
         There's no getting away from it, voices change and evolve over time. ( I speak from personal experience!)  Listening to myself singing on vinyl in 1978 is not quite the same as hiding behind a settee when I'm on You Tube nowadays. Luckily for Kev and Jacqui,that special timbre and intonation is still there. Like a fine Madeira, it may have matured with age,but whether solo or in a duet together here are two immaculate,perfectly phrased voices. A Collectors Item and a musical treat.  It is available in all digital forms and can be ordered from Kevin's or Jacqui's websites.