Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Michael Chapman: 50

February 17, 2017

50 is a new release that marks half a century of touring and recording by England’s Yorkshire born singer, composer, and master guitarist Michael Chapman. It’s also the first time in his long career that he has recorded an entire album in America. For this he is joined by a small band of musicians including Steve Gunn (who also produced) and Nathan Bowles who plays drums, percussion, piano, organ and some excellent banjo.


The gruff-voiced 76 year old Chapman revisits some of his earlier songs but also includes one or two new ones. The American influence has always been a strong presence in his work so there are no big surprises except for the simple and soon obvious fact that he sounds even better than before. The care and precision with which the other musicians play ensures a thrilling ride and one which is already being hailed as his late career masterwork.

Six years ago he released a double album of guitar instrumentals but this time the focus is entirely on the songs, all written by Chapman. His reworking of ‘The Mallard’ is delicately handled while at the other extreme the ‘The Prospector’ is an epic that almost enters Neil Young territory via Bob Dylan – except that it’s still very much Michael Chapman. There’s no-one quite like him and for this we can be grateful.

Michael Chapman 50 Recordign Session at Black Dirt. Photo By Constance Mensh

Michael Chapman 50 Recording Session at Black Dirt. Photo By Constance Mensh

‘Memphis in Winter’ is typically bleak while ‘Falling from Grace’ is another highlight. But the outstanding song is the album’s final track ‘That Time of Night’ which encompasses far more depth and emotion than its understated words would at first suggest. Going back to record past glories again isn’t always a good idea but in this case it seems somehow justified as the results bring out extra nuances and generally surpass the originals.

It’s as if Chapman has been heading here all his life and his time on the road and all his world weariness culminate among themes of travel, memory, mortality and redemption. 50 is a fine testament to his long-term achievement. The ten track album was recorded in New York and is released as a vinyl LP but is also available as a CD/download with two bonus tracks. He dedicates the album “to all those who didn’t make it this far”.

50 is released by Paradise of Bachelors.

50 album trailer:

Anna & Elizabeth: Hop High/Here in the Vineyard

February 13, 2017

Appalachian influenced musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are great favourites of this blog and both of their albums were reviewed here previously. Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is their new release and it comes as a 7-inch vinyl single also available as a download. For these two traditional songs they are helped by producers Benjamin Laza Davis and Alec Spiegelman who are members of New York experimental pop band Cuddle Magic.


On these songs the two young women stay true to their traditional roots but they also add something new by surrounding the songs with different musical elements. These involve the use of pump organ, woodwind, strings and electronics and there are banjo tunings inspired by Indonesian gamelan so that what begins as old-time music ends up moving towards the avant-garde. The unexpected results are very good indeed and it left this listener wanting more. It’s definitely a case of onwards and upwards for Anna & Elizabeth.

Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is released by Free Dirt Records.

Fade to Blue

January 30, 2017

Fade to Blue is the name of a duo based in Taiwan and is also the title of their album. The project puts together two performers of musical traditions from different parts of the world and the album they have released is a live recording containing 14 tracks recorded on tour during 2015.

The members are pipa player Chung Yufeng who is from Taipei, and guitarist, singer and songwriter David Chen who was born in Ohio but has lived in Taiwan for many years since moving there to explore his familial roots. Their music mixes American folk and blues with traditional Chinese music but that’s only part of the story as they also touch on influences from other places as well as playing original songs and compositions.


Those attending the Music Showcase at the Trans Asia Music Meeting in Okinawa earlier this month were able to see a live show by Fade to Blue who were one of two overseas acts invited to take part. They were very well received by the audience and the pair impressed everyone. These recordings are divided fairly equally between songs and instrumentals played on Chung’s pipa (a Chinese four-stringed instrument that gave rise to the related Japanese biwa) and Chen’s resonator and 12-string acoustic guitars.


Among the songs are versions of Son House’s ‘Preachin’ Blues’ and Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman’ while of special interest to listeners here will be Chen’s original ‘Okinawa Mama’. The instrumental pieces range from the traditional bluegrass and old-time ‘Blackberry Blossom’ to the Middle Eastern inspired ‘Siwa’ by Chung. The album ends with their title track ‘theme song’ inspired by Hawaiian slack key music.

This is a very enjoyable musical journey and the album is also very neatly packaged with explanatory notes on each track by David Chen and lyrics are included of all the songs in both English and Chinese. The result is not at all an academic exercise but instead exudes fun, adventure and great musicianship.

Fade to Blue is released by Trees Music & Art.

Laybricks: Take a Rest

January 26, 2017

Take a Rest is the debut EP from South Korean band Laybricks who are based in Seoul. In fact, the ‘band’ comprises just two members, singer/guitarist Kwangmin Seo and drummer Hyejin Yu. Their music draws more on contemporary British sounds than on their Korean roots and they claim to be inspired by alternative rock.

Since their formation in 2015 they have already played numerous live shows both in their home country and abroad. They were invited to the V-Rox Festival in Vladivostock last year and have also toured widely in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the UK playing several dates in front of massive festival crowds as well as small audiences at intimate venues.


Most recently they came to Okinawa where they were invited by the ‘Music from Okinawa’ organisers to perform at the music showcase at the Trans Asia Music Meeting last week. The day before their show singer Kwangmin Seo gave a presentation at the meeting in which he spoke of their positive do-it-yourself attitude in going out and playing live and in arranging everything themselves for their tour of the UK.


On the five tracks here, recorded in Seoul, Laybricks show off their versatility with a fine selection of original songs full of colourful, bright shiny melodies and catchy choruses. Even better was the live experience in Okinawa where they scored a big hit with the audience. In an adrenaline-fuelled set Kwangmin Seo’s vocals and guitar were matched all the way by the powerful drumming of Hyejin Yu who excelled with her immense energy and skill.

Rayna Gellert: Workin’s Too Hard

January 24, 2017

Workin’s Too Hard is the follow-up to American singer and fiddler Rayna Gellert’s album Old Light: Songs from my Childhood and Other Gone Worlds, an extraordinary album of traditional and original songs that set the benchmark very high indeed. It was reviewed here on its release in 2013 as was her subsequent EP which was more grounded in her background as fiddler with old-time string band Uncle Earl and her roots in Appalachian mountain music.

The songs on this new album (two traditional and five originals) stand up very well beside the high quality of that debut solo album. It was obviously worth the wait as soon as we hear the warm and melancholy sound of Gellert’s voice. This is never better than on the magnificent ‘River Town’ a sad story of resignation that harks back to mainstream country music but is written and delivered with real poignancy rather than sentimentality.


‘Grey Bird’ is another standout song and so is the lovely simple and subtle ‘Perry’ which unusually for Gellert includes piano backing. The two traditional songs are ‘Oh Lovin’ Babe’, also recorded fairly recently by Anna & Elizabeth on their second album, and an almost rockabilly version of ‘I’m Bound for the Promised Land’ which closes the album.

Although the North Carolina-based Gellert is renowned as an expert fiddler and also as a teacher of the instrument, the fiddle appears only a couple of times on these songs which are more based around guitars and a small sympathetic band of musicians helping to create just the right sound textures to show off the songs in their best light.

Rayna Gellert

Rayna Gellert

The one obvious note of slight dismay is that the running time is under half an hour, making it, in fact, shorter than the previous EP. But in these times, when releases come in all shapes, sizes and formats, it would be a bit churlish to complain too much, especially when what we do have is so superbly sung, written and played. Workin’s Too Hard is pure joy from start to finish even if it doesn’t match the length of that wonderful Old Light album. Let’s hope there is more on the way soon.

Workin’s Too Hard is released by StorySound Records. Rayna Gellert is currently on a tour of the UK and details of the dates are on her website.

Battlefield Band: The Producer’s Choice

December 22, 2016

In 2016 Battlefield Band were inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, after almost half a century as internationally acclaimed ambassadors for Scottish folk music with numerous albums and thousands of concerts worldwide. Over this time many great musicians have passed through their ranks, some staying for decades and others just for a couple of years but all have been important in maintaining the distinctive freshness and creativity of the band.

An important part of this continuity can be traced to the band’s long-term producer and manager, Robin Morton of Temple Records. Morton has produced 26 of their albums and this is his chance to celebrate their new award and indulge himself a bit by choosing his own personal highlights and favourite tracks from many of the albums he has produced. And so The Producer’s Choice contains 19 tracks and also features 19 of the musicians who have played with the band over the years.


It goes without saying that the album is full of wonderful tunes and songs and excellent musicianship. There are bagpipe and fiddle-led instrumentals as well as traditional and original songs. None of this is presented in chronological order and it’s impossible to detect at first listen which tracks were recorded recently and which are decades old, such is the common thread and cohesion of the band despite the many personnel changes.

So to indulge myself and mention a few personal highlights of my own, the instrumental that stands out is John McCusker’s beautiful ‘Leaving Friday Harbor’. The tune takes its name from the small port on San Juan Island in the straits between the State of Washington coast and Vancouver Island. Alan Reid’s song ‘The Road of Tears’ entwines history with contemporary issues of great relevance. Equally poignant is ‘The Last Trip Home’ featuring Davy Steele, while Karine Polwart shines on the traditional ‘Shepherd Lad’.

The Producer’s Choice is released by Temple Records and clips can be listened to on their website where the album is available to buy as a download or CD with free shipping worldwide.

Shirley Collins: Lodestar

November 12, 2016

English folk singer Shirley Collins is back with a new recording Lodestar her first album for more than 30 years. The much loved and respected singer from Sussex was at the heart of the UK folk revival of the 1960s but was subsequently unable to record for many years because of an illness that affected her voice and made it impossible for her to sing.

During these years of silence her reputation only grew and she is nowadays constantly cited as a great influence by a younger generation of traditional singers who have rediscovered her early records. She also became a writer and lecturer and a winner of honours and awards but always with the stern idea that it’s the song and not the singer that is all important.


Now 81, she was persuaded out of her enforced retirement to make this new album of traditional songs accompanied by Oysterband member Ian Kearey. The youthfulness of her voice has understandably gone but not the ability to perform songs that she loves with a new and deeper gravitas. Kearey’s contribution is important too as he manages to arrange and embellish the songs superbly with acoustic guitar and the occasional addition of other instrumentation.

This is English folk song so the subject matter is death, murder and all manner of crimes and sad occurrences. It has been noted elsewhere that the body count grows rapidly as the album progresses – enough to make a gangster rapper seem tame by comparison. ‘Cruel Lincoln’ unfolds gently with the sound of birdsong in the background but it’s not long before “there was blood in the kitchen there was blood in the hall, there was blood in the parlour where the lady did fall”. It all ends with a burning and a hanging.

‘Washed Ashore’ and ‘Death and the Lady’ are outstanding but it isn’t all gloom as we are also given the lively ‘Old Johnny Buckle’ which helps to lift the spirits after all the darkness. Above all this is a listenable and accessible album which also repays close attention and is a wonderful return for Shirley Collins who demonstrates the enduring power of these old songs.

Lodestar is released by Domino.