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Saturday 22 June 2024

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Diamonds In The Rough. 2023: An Alternative Take .

Dec 31, 2023

It’s that time when you’re supposed to make resolutions and look forward whilst looking over your shoulder at what’s just been. Ruminating on the last twelve months, Simon Jones picks out things that may sparkle or be worth recalling.

It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the Spiral Earth computer and mull over 2023. It’s been a perplexing year for folk and roots music which when 2023 began and as it slides to closure is still struggling to clear the mists and remaining general fuzziness imposed by the pandemic. Covid changed much and the after shocks will linger.

One of the most distrubing is the seemingly rapid closure of printed sources, Folk NorthWest ceased publication during 2023 transferring to the web and Tykes Stirrings, that fine Yorkshire magazine, announced plans to make 2024 its curtain call. Since fRoots ceased operation in 2019 there is no meaningful national alternative to the web when looking for folksy information. The process sadly seems like it will continue, yet there is a gap which could be filled by some enterprising soul or visionary collective. Venues likewise had a precarious time of it, I lost track of the threatened label which seemed like it was being stuck to club rooms, pubs and halls with dizzying frequency. At all levels too, street corner to city centre. Rising costs or closure for sale being the most common reason. The alternative is chilling as it just doesn’t concern the music we cover here but other minority musics or specialist genres which are just as vulnerable. The answer is to go out and support live music. Use it or lose it.

However that’s enough grumbling, 2023 did provide some highlights when it came to gigs, no doubt you’ve got your own but a tip of the hat – as ever – to the perenially entertaining Cropredy which proved a vintage year, a balance of acts which suited everybody and even the most ardent pedantic would have had real trouble criticising. From the long over due booking of Merry Hell, to the Highland punk of Peat & Diesel via the Strawbs poignant farewell, it was a weekend to savour. As was Shrewsbury Folk Festival whose sheer diversity was proudly displayed for all to admire, to get Joachim Cooder over here was a masterstroke, his resetting of old timey music proved spellbinding, Elles Bailey sang her heart out with a set which wrung every drop of emotion from blues rock, The Oysters once more united with Chopper and Billy Bragg’s set wherein he wore his heart on his sleeve. Mention too for The Bearded Theory Festival which I managed to miss but heard nothing but positive feedback about from those who attended. Mark it in your 2024 diary now if you’ve sense.

Go north young fan. That’s where the action is.

Speaking of sense, BBC Alba – the Gaelic channel – is continuing to shame the parent organisation with its devotion to coverage of folk. Everytime I check in on I Player they’ve a new band or programme to discover, such it was when I clicked on Hoolie 2023 displaying a smiling picture of Julie Fowlis and some bloke in a tartan tie, what wonders awaited. The back story so it seems runs something like this… noting Glasgow Hydro could hold 10,000 people, the managers of Gaelic rockers Manran thought they’d try a night of Highland music and see what happened. In early December all the worry and nay saying was enthusiastically thrown out of the window when a packed hall with elbow room only proved yet once again that the Celts/Gaels hold their heritage dear and are using it in a far more creative way than we south of the border. The faithful 10,000 jived, danced, cheered and whooped, Trail West, Wolfstone, Manran and a whole chunk of the show dedicated to Runrig – with a third of Rig reunited for the occasion – into the wee small hours. The whole thing televised and on screen a few short weeks later. It makes glorious viewing and it’s waiting on I Player. I urge you to watch and I urge the Beeb in general to note what’s going on under their own noses. An hour show on Radio 2 is woefully inadequate for any musical genre when the television service has four national channels. Where is the alternative music coverage? And while I’m on it the Sound service could do with far more specialist content. Sorry, I’m grumbling again aren’t I?

So let’s move on. Recommendations from the piles of releases which have been let loose for our perusal/enjoyment these past twelve months. Some sites/publications would haughtily call it a ‘Best Of 2023.’ No such pretencious behaviour here, this is just a short selection of what you might enjoy should you chance across them anytime soon. I also happen to believe each will put a smile on your face. In no particular order then…..

Beflean. Jim Moray.

Subtitled ‘An Alternate History 2002 – 2023,’ on which Sir James of Moray presses the reset button on many of his best efforts with the aid of heavyweight chums. Those hoping for a return to early electronics may be somewhat disappointed but be assured the craft and execution of each track is first class which lifts this far above the competition. The sweep of the tracklisting from ‘Lemady’ to ‘Lord Ellenwater’ defines the flow of his career and cameos from the likes of  BJ Cole, Angleine Morrison, Jon Boden, Archie Churchill Moss help redirect the arrnagements into pastures different. ‘Lord Bateman,’ gets a groovy eastern makeover. Stirring stuff. Jim does it again!

Together All The Way. Levellers Collective. 

Produced by some bloke called Sean Lakeman – recent overseer of many with a social conscience – core Levellers carry on their acousticing of previous numbers, this time in the company of The Moulettes adding strings and Dan Donnelly on guitar’n’mandolin. You could almost say the intention is to be more folky than rockist and I’d think the band would nod sagely. When I interviewed Mark Chadwick pre the final gig on their tour at Buxton back in March he confessed an all round satisfaction in the album and the response it generated. Buxton was a sellout and this album rightfully took up occupation on the folk charts for the rest of the year.

Stretching Skywards. Gnoss. 

With a title that represents the band’s aims both musically and in career terms, this is where what could easily be dismissed as a Manran offshoot puts on their own skates and begins to subtley make moves towards wider acknowledgement. It’s a brave album which incorporates electronic elements perfectly into the traditional. Don’t expect Niteworks type floor fillers but you’ll come across a brisker pace and wider palette of melodic tricks. Bassist James Lindsay adds the thunder whilst the lads of Gnoss storm all around him. Terrific for foot tappers and jiggers alike.

I See A World. Peatbog Faeries. 

Highland, dance/trance/techno. Ain’t no limit as someone once sang. Nor should there be, enthusiasm and experimentation are the watchwords by which the Peatbogs operate. On this first release in over half a decade they’ve thrown caution to the wind and not only bed in three new members but hang out with a load of guest artists too. Pipes, flutes, fiddles and whistles line up alongside the rock contingent and a real dose of brass and vocals – not previously part of their make up – courtesy of The Bevvy Sisters. Scots music at its most fiery, brave and innovatory. Buy with confidence.

The Apprentice. Remastered & Expanded. John Martyn.

Cherry Red did everyone a favour by coralling the original album, outakes, single mixes and a whole associated gig from the Shaw Theatre in 1990 into one repolished form. ‘The Apprentice’ is an overlooked release in Mr. Martyn’s catalogue coming at a low point in his relationship with long time label Island who summarily dismissed it’s original form out of hand and sent John away in short order.  Typically he promptly went into the studio at his own cost and re-recorded the whole thing, eventually releasing a record which showed his mastery of the singer/writer’s art as well as a whole new drive and depth. Worth the price alone to hear ‘Patterns In The Rain,’ just Martyn’s guitar and Foster Patterson’s delicate keyboard figure. Genius.

 Let The Music Speak For Itself. Merry Hell. 

The compilation that’d been so long promised finally arrived in the summer, just in time for a run of festival appearances, the highlight of which was Cropredy. As it was Merry Hell had the audience in the palm of their hand almost from the off and triumphed, this collection sold like hot cakes afterwards. Undeniably brilliant it contains their most melodic, thoughtful and rousing creations, so numerous that one CD couldn’t contain them all so it spreads over two. I can’t pick a favourite really but I’ve long held ‘Pendle Hill’ ‘Lean On Me Love,’ ‘Over The Border’ close to my musical heart and first class examples of a band who have their intentions, influences and heritage in perfect balance. Here is the sound of the north. But why they left off ‘Emerald Green’ is a mystery.

The Green Man Collection. Steeleye Span. 

Another compilation? The Steeleye gossip pages were a gog and not a little astonished. More than a stop gap ‘Green Man’ is loaded with new material and archive selections from the recent and long past. At the core is a rediscovered song which they cut in the mid 80s from the pen of the recently departed Bob Johnson, in original and recut form, it’s an environmental lament, the 80s version ghostly and ethereal. Backed up by chunky live shouts of ‘Sir James The Rose’ ‘Edward’ and the bleak cover of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ a new attitude and application is easily detected. ” The band are in a good place right now,” said manager John Dagnell to me in early December. New album in 2024 then and much promsie. Watch this space.

Radio Times. (Live At The BBC 1971-90.) Lindisfarne. 

Eight discs of unmistakable Geordie good time rock, all laid down for Auntie over nineteen years. Some of it has seen dayight before but the majority not. Whatever it’s good to have it all together in one box. There are early sessions for ‘Folk On One’ – that’s Radio 1 pop folk pickers – ‘ The Mike Raven Show’ and live from The Lincoln Festival 1972. Later discs take in Lindisfarne 2 and a 1986 showing from The Cambridge Folk Festival. Best of all though is a closing 1987 set from the band which birthed Lindisfarne, Downtown Faction. All told a fascinating dip into the work of an under appreciated band. People’s music and archeology of a fine order.

So much to mention and I’m running out of room, must record the warmth and fond tribute to Sandy Denny provided by ‘Songbird’ from Carla Fuchs and the impression The Sandy Denny Project made too across summer gigging.

There were of course some very sad episodes during 2023 which robbed us of characters and much loved musicians, amongst them are, Bruce Guthro vocalist with Runrig in their later career, Johnny Fean the magic guitarist who played Irish trad in rowdy, exemplary fashion as part of Horslips, he had Celtic fingers, Bob Johnson Steeleye’s lead guitar player and creator of those big ballads chock full of murder, intrigue, mystery and magic and finally Shane MacGowan the addict whose demons fed the creativity behind the Pogues. Think I’ll play ‘May Morning,’ ‘Derag Doom,’ ‘King Henry,’ and ‘Rainy Night In Soho,’ in tribute when I finish.

Farewell 2023…. Onward into 2024 with whatever it holds. Inspiration into enthusiasm.








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