Friday, 28 October 2016

Autumn Hymns, New Living Rooms and Leaky Boats – a round-up of some of the best acoustic music you may not yet have discovered

Of what we spoke by Threaded ... The James Brothers by The James Brothers ... Autumn's Hymn by Son of John

Threaded are a classically-trained folk trio from the English Midlands and Of what we spoke is their first release. If you think the clarinet deserves more prominence in folk music, you'll probably take a shine to Threaded, who blend Jamie Rutherford's guitar with Rosie Bott's clarinet and the violin of Ning-Ning Li (whose illustrations also grace the beautifully-designed album cover.) The quirky opening track, 'The New Living Room' , sounds like it could have been a slightly manic piece of incidental music from 'Pogles' Wood' or 'Ivor the Engine'.

The collection intersperses Rutherfords' songs with an agreeable variety of instrumentals. Some of the songs are more effective than others. 'Left Off', a tender ballad of lost friendship, has shades of Nickel Creek and stays with the listener. While I admired the idea of setting Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper of Hamelin' as a song, the result - 'A Secret Charm' - is not entirely successful. On the whole, the instrumentals work best, from the delicate 'The Courtyard' (where Bott's clarinet somehow evokes the sound of a fairground organ) to 'Captain Markham' (imagine Rodrigo y Gabriela swapping guitars for violin and clarinet.)

Next up, the eponymous debut album of The James Brothers (alias Australian James Fagan and New Zealander Jamie McClennan), which was recorded in Scotland and mastered in Nashville. These songs, tunes and shanties are well-travelled, steeped in the tradition of the British Isles but distinctly antipodean. 'Hey Rain' complains about the fact that 'there's rain in me beer and there's rain in me grub' ... not to mention 'a Johnstone River crocodile livin' in me fridge'.

McClennan plays fiddle and guitar while his vocals are strangely reminiscent of Al Stewart (on songs like 'Shearing's Coming Round' and 'Leatherman'.) Fagan shares vocals and guitar duties but the real synergy comes in the mellifluous blend of McClennan's guitar and Fagan's bouzouki on tracks like 'Family Tree' and 'The Voyage of the Buffalo' (a tale of an ill-fated ship that transports convicts to Australia and returns to England with a cargo of New Zealand timber.) The duo further demonstrate their Australasian credentials with 'The Ballad of Ned Kelly' and a cover of 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' (a Tim Finn composition from his Split Enz period which, when given The James Brothers' treatment, is revealed as a Crowded House song in disguise.)

Finally, the perfect accompaniment to these mellow, fruitful days and dark autumn evenings is surely Autumn's Hymn by Worcestershire-based Son of John. Son of John is, in fact, singer/songwriter and acoustic guitar virtuoso Jacob Johnson. The whole album has an earthy, traditional feel – though eight of the ten tracks are Jacob's original compositions. Both his guitar and vocal style (not to mention his banjo-playing) betray a devotion to the music of Martin Simpson while the choice of the traditional 'Spencer the Rover' suggests John Martyn is no small influence on this talented young artist.

The opening track 'Baseborn' has a lilting guitar figure and a compelling lyric: '... And the tale is far from done/and the song still sung/as it echoes round the halls/it breaks down the doors ... ' 'The Maid and the King' reminded me somehow of an early Suzanne Vega song, 'The Queen and the Soldier', while the dark arrangements of the title track and 'Let Me Rest', with their haunting female backing vocals, violin, jaw harp and handclaps on the offbeat, transport us into Ennio Morricone territory. If you like your contemporary English folk infused with a touch of Americana and blues, you need to listen to Son of John.

Further information:
The James
Son of John:

Monday, 10 October 2016

I'm Not Just Being Nice About Dean Friedman

Dean Friedman at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 25 September

Not everyone can remember who Dean Friedman is.  My sister, Jan, for instance. So we tried singing her a few snatches of his hits from 1977-78 ...  Lydia and Ariel and Lucky Stars ... but she still couldn't quite get it. By contrast, my brother Phil had fond memories of the album Well, Well, Said the Rocking Chair which I'd bought in 1978 – around the same time that I added Kate Bush's The Kick Inside to my record collection. 1978 was a great year for quirky, piano-playing singer-songwriters with unique vocal styles. Phil told me he'd been listening to Dean's back catalogue on Spotify and I happened to know that Dean was touring again – so we caught up with him in the intimate surroundings of Bromsgrove's Artrix.

Dean was supported by Michael Armstrong - a performer whose version of Allentown sounds more like Billy Joel than Billy Joel. After some original songs and covers from Michael it was time for the main man. 

Dean regaled us all with beautiful versions of many of his more lyrical songs - including Company, Shopping Bag Ladies and Saturday Fathers – but was also unexpectedly funny and self-deprecating. He mused that, when we had told our friends or colleagues we were going to see Dean Friedman, we were probably met with the reaction 'Dean who?' He also talked about the band Half Man, Half Biscuit, who had recorded a song called The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman.  Dean had written his own riposte to this in the form of A Baker's Tale, in which he speculates upon the real origins of Half Man Half Biscuit's Nigel Blackwell. In a similar darkly comic vein Death to the Neighbours is viciously hilarious.  

With rosy cheeks, white beard and a mane of white hair, Dean wouldn't look out of place starring in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street. As a performer he is as engaging and impressive as ever - his voice still soaring and powerful on Ariel, leading us onward to a touching version of Lucky Stars in which the audience has to sing the part originally sung by Denise Marsa. The result is Dean dueting with his audience ... women of a certain age – and some very deep-voiced men  – unashamedly singing the call and response:
Do you still love me?
Yes, I still love you.
You mean, you're not just being nice?
No, I'm not just being nice.
Do you feel sleepy?
Aw, you're so sincere. Yes, I feel sleepy.
Well, slide over here ...

About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).