Tuesday 20 September 2016

Mark Harrison: Turpentine

Mark Harrison

Mark Harrison has returned with a new album, taking his flair for songwriting and musicianship to a whole new level.

It's been a while since we reviewed albums here at Marsh Towers so we are now reversing the trend and hoping to add our thoughts about new music on a more regular basis.

The works of Mark Harrison have appeared here twice before, namely with Crooked Smile (2012) and The World Outside (2014).

Checking my earlier thoughts, I found:

''If Crooked Smile was Mark's view of the world from his own personal standpoint, then Outside World sees him step through the door to encounter the rest of the world in all its glory, from the eccentric to the scary, from hectic modern life to the hard times of a bygone era.''

I was intrigued to see how Mark's third album would sound and in which direction he would take the listener. The song titles revealed Mark has not lost his penchant for the quirky and unusual.

Track List

Black Dog Moan
So Many Bad People (Out There)
Hell of a Story
Hardware Store
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek
In the Dark
Dog Rib
Dirty Business
Fade Away
Next of Kin
Josephina Johnson
Mister Trouble
Shake the House

The songs hit the ground running with Black Dog Moan, setting the scene for the rest of the treats in store. In typical style, Mark sets dark lyrics to a jaunty tune. This has the dual effect of making the foot tap while making the brain think; real happy/sad blues. The lyrics depict a man who is almost making excuses to be happy in a world conspiring to bring him down. If there's no liquor, he'll drink turpentine...which gives us the name for the album. This is already very clever writing. Anyone who has ever used turpentine will find the title conjuring up the unique smell and feel of the oil, evoking many memories from times past. Ultimately, despite the charade and facade, there is no outrunning the black dog.

The characters in the songs stand out as eloquent outsiders, observing and commenting on the world around, full of So Many Bad People.

Paranoia raises its head on Hardware Store, which encapsulates the fish-out-of-water feeling we all experience when forced out of our comfort zone. This is undoubtedly one of the album's highlights. The lyrics are very amusing - some will make the listener laugh out loud - but the social message lurking barely below the surface is quick to emerge following a single scratch. It is, in short, a song to which we can all relate.

Let's face it: we live in a world where 'breaking news' is all about who may or may not still be part of a channel-changing cookery program; a world in which headlines regarding top-dollar divorce proceedings scream from the highest rooftops. Is it any wonder these songs of isolation, alienation and despair really hit home?

Hell of a Story is another standout track. The subject appears to have turned his life around in the most unlikely fashion, but the twist of the song casts doubt upon the veracity of the account.

Throughout the tales of people at odds with modern life, we are musically satiated by an almost endless supply of catchy riffs. At the end of the journey we are encouraged to 'never mind that now' but to Shake the House; a positive note on which to finish.

This is roots music at its best, offering up the ideal combination of folk (narrative songs), blues (happy/sad down-and-outs) and country (songs evoking the Dust Bowl). The entire album is thought-provoking. The songs, riffs, lyrics and messages will stay with the listener long after the immediate listening experience has come to an end, leaving an indelible impression - just like the smell and feel of the turpentine itself.

Breaking news: there is a new live album, which includes songs from Turpentine. Let the good/bad, happy/sad times roll!

Find out more about Mark, his music and his tour dates over at his official website.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Patty Griffin at Cadogan Hall

Patty Griffin
Cadogan Hall, London

Patty Griffin brought the Under The Apple Tree roots festival to a fitting conclusion with her final UK date of the year.

It was a whistle-stop trip for Patty, who flew in just for the show before returning almost directly to Texas.

It was a year to the day since I last saw Patty in London (at Kings Place, where, coincidentally, I was for Songs of Separation the previous evening) and having seen her at The Sage (Gateshead) earlier this year I thought that would have been it for 2016, but this unexpected extra chance arose. As there is nowhere I'd rather be than at a Patty Griffin concert, it took me no time at all to snap up a ticket for the festival.

Incidentally, Ward Thomas, who played an excellent penultimate festival set, credited Patty Griffin as one of the major influences on their own music. It was nice to hear, as Patty still somehow seems to be severely underrated in some circles. It may be due to the fact her songs are so deep, so powerful that they are not easily appreciated by people listening to them just once. They require time to unfold, but once experienced sufficiently to reveal their inner power they simply cannot be forgotten. 

Patty's hour-long solo set included some surprises, such as a rare outing for Moon Song (which she gave to Emmylou Harris), the comedic anti-love song Our Love is a Dud ('about an old boyfriend; nobody you'd know' she said, to take way any suspicion it could have been about Robert Plant) and a fabulous encore of Where or When (the Rodgers and Hart classic). Another surprise - for Patty - was a broken guitar strap during Making Pies, which required improvisation involving a raised knee to keep the song going.

Elsewhere, the more obvious choices from last year's Servant of Love album (the title track, Rider of Days and Shine a Different Way) were rested in favour of Gunpowder, Good and Gone and Made of the Sun and Patty took time to praise the return of the Dixie Chicks in her introduction to Truth No.2 (Patty's song, recorded by the Chicks also).

Set List

Making Pies
Love Throw a Line
Good and Gone
Made of the Sun
Our Love is a Dud
Long Ride Home
Moon Song
Truth No.2


Where or When

We conclude with a gallery from the evening.

Thank you, Whispering Bob and the Under the Apple Tree festival crew!

Monday 12 September 2016

Under The Apple Tree

Under The Apple Tree
Roots Festival
Cadogan Hall, London

Under The Apple Tree - the brand new festival created by Whispering Bob Harris - made its debut in great style at Cadogan Hall, with two stages offering a permanent supply of eclectic music. Roots music draws deeply from the genres of Americana, country, folk and blues and each one of those styles was represented by big-hitters from their respective fields.

The beautiful main hall hosted a virtually non-stop eight-hour musical feast and the acoustic stage in the downstairs bar picked up and filled any snippet of available free time.

The day started with Catherine McGrath on the acoustic stage. A great choice of opener, as Catherine set the bar very high from the start. The acoustic stage would go on to feature Small Town Jones, Blair Dunlop, Balsamo Deighton and Dexeter.

Meanwhile up in the main hall, we were treated to Dan Bettridge, Lewis and Leigh, The Lake Poets, Andrew Combs, Judith Owen, Chris Difford (with Boo Hewerdine), Scott Matthews, Ward Thomas and the pièce de résistance, Patty Griffin.

Ward Thomas - fronted by twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy - are very much in the spotlight at the moment. Their Cartwheels album entered the charts at no.1 on the week of the festival and their celebratory appearance was eagerly anticipated. They certainly didn't disappoint.

The festival represented excellent value for money and was enhanced by a genuine feelgood factor. However, I was surprised to find the event wasn't sold out. Balcony tickets were reallocated as stalls seats and the balcony was closed. This festival, featuring such big names, should have been packed to the rafters.

The only problem I encountered on the day was the noise in the bar area of the acoustic stage, which obscured the stage announcements towards the end of the day and made it very hard for the acts to make themselves heard. Dexeter, the concluding acoustic act, managed to rise above it by bringing the audience (more or less) on their side from the start. It would be an improvement for future events to keep the bar flotsam and jetsam in the main downstairs bar area rather than have the music interfered with in this way.

Nevertheless, the Under The Apple Tree festival managed to put down some very strong roots and Whispering Bob has promised to build on the event's success with another festival next year.

Here are a few images from a busy day with which to conclude this report.

Whispering Bob Harris opens the event
Catherine McGrath, opening on the acoustic stage
Whispering Bob on the main stage
Dan Bettridge
Lewis and Leigh
Boo Hewerdine, before he was joined by Chris Difford

Chris Difford

Judith Owen
Marty Longstaff of The Lake Poets
Andrew Combs
Scott Matthews
Bob in his 'No.1 jacket'.
Ward Thomas, ready to rock


Coming next: a review of Patty Griffin's appearance, which brought the festival to a fine conclusion.

Songs of Separation

Songs of Separation
Kings Place, London

Songs of Separation, a collaborative effort featuring 10 of folk's brightest stars, sold out Hall One at Kings Place and mesmerised the audience over the course of 80 spellbinding minutes.

The concert showcased the 12 songs from the album of the same name, which came out earlier this year and was the fruit of an intense week-long series of session on the The Isle of Eigg. The artistes in question are Eliza Carthy, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Jenny Hill, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans.

Available from the ever-impressive Proper Music
In their own words: ''Songs of Separation brought together ten female folk musicians from Scotland and England, to create a recording which reflects on the issue of ‘separation’ in its many forms, through traditional song. Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage, and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives.''

Kings Place, just a few short minutes walk away from King's Cross Station, is a multi-purpose venue offering a large range of events based on the arts. I was there once before - to see Patty Griffin, almost exactly one year ago - and found the venue to be very impressive.

The unusually late starting time for Songs of Separation - 9.45 p.m. - worked in my favour, as I was able to head off directly from work to make the journey from Teesside. The schedule was still very tight but everything worked out fine.

The stage was already full - of instruments! - before the artistes emerged.

To assemble ten artistes from any genre cannot be an easy task. To do it with 10 of folk's busiest big-hitters is nothing short of miraculous. It's amazing they can ever be in the same place at the same time long enough to put on a show, which is one reason why one should always leap at the opportunity to see them on one of their all-too rare appearances. Indeed, this was only the fifth (and final) tour date of the year.

To hear the album is one thing; to see and hear it played live takes the experience to a whole new level. The CD comes with a nicely annotated booklet but it is only when hearing the stories behind the songs first hand that they really start to take hold. Each song has a fascinating history, the telling of which keeps the respective stories alive and carries them forward. The very essence of folk music.

Separation takes many forms and the 12 songs leave few avenues unexplored. To demonstrate the diversity, we experience the ''disconnect between human beings and the living world'' on Echo Mocks the Corncrake, which is about the diminishing numbers of the migrant bird; life in exile following the first Jacobite rising (from a Robert Burns poem) on It Was A' For Our Rightful' King; becoming an outcast of perceived shame on London Lights; the boundaries between the supernatural and physical worlds on Sea King and a plethora of other degrees of separation along the way. 

Cleaning the Stones is, on first impression, a simple and light song about a fish puzzling over the inexplicable absence of its partner, but a small scratch to the veneer is sufficient to reveal something much darker about the denial technique some people adopt in order to move on from the most painful of losses. In a little under six minutes it manages to convey so much about the human condition and how we forever balance on the double-sided precipice between strength and frailty.

All of the thought-provoking songs have the power to draw in the listener and demand further visits from which one can make more discoveries regarding the nature of separation, from inauguration to aftermath.

It may appear churlish to single out any of the 10 for a special mention, but nevertheless one has to highlight the role of Jenny Hill who spent two years bringing the project from a idea to reality, overcoming what must, at times, have been a logistical and financial nightmare. Jenny took centre stage, anchoring the songs with her double bass and, incidentally, playing in several different styles to accentuate the peaks and troughs of the musical tales (I'm sure I caught sight of some rockabilly-style playing on the uptempo swings).

This was a hugely inspirational and memorable evening. Hopefully Songs of Separation can reconvene and tour again in 2017.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Farewell Bridie Jackson and The Arbour

Bridie Jackson and The Arbour gave an emotional farewell performance at The Cluny (Newcastle) last night, as they brought down the curtain on their extraordinary musical journey.

It was back in June 2010 when I first saw Bridie, when she was in the role of support act for Cara Dillon at Durham's Gala Theatre.

We recorded an interview later the same year, which can be found  in three parts here at Marsh Towers (one, two, three).

Bridie and The Arbour went on to perform in many varied places and along the way there was more than a little banoffee pie, sell out shows, innovative venues (including the Endeavour), single launchesalbum launches, videos, a famous appearance at Glastonbury, an opera and a plethora of unique music. We even worked together for a show at the Cleveland Bay in 2012.

Yes, it has been quite a journey but sadly it has now reached its natural end. They went out on a high over the course of a busy weekend which saw them perform at Lindisfarne on Saturday before returning home for Sunday's finale.

The performance was everything we have come to expect from Bridie Jackson and The Arbour. Their complete professionalism enabled them to come through what was clearly an immensely emotional occasion with flying colours.

They have achieved things nobody else could ever do or ever will do. They created a brand new genre. Their music is unique. In time, there may well be imitators, but anyone with the great fortune to have seen Bridie Jackson and The Arbour in concert will know the truth.

Thank you Bridie, Carol, Jenny and Rachel for the music and friendship. You will not be forgotten and I sincerely hope we will meet again, perhaps on a different musical journey.

Here are the last few images of Bridie Jackson and The Arbour on the stage for the final time.


One final note. When I saw Bridie for the first time, the band was called The Puddleducks (the name changed for every performance before The Arbour became the official title). At last night's show, the hand-stamp to authenticate concert entry took the form of...a duck! This remarkable piece of synchronicity brought my own personal Arbour experience full circle.