Category Archives: Folk music

A river flows through it

I’ve been looking for this for years – and now, perhaps somewhat naughtily but nonetheless delightfully, a fellow fan has taken the trouble of putting it up on YouTube.

This is ‘Listening to the River’ – a 30-minute ‘oral history’ of the River Medway in Kent, recorded and composed by one of my favourite folkies, Chris Wood. It was commissioned for Radio 3’s Late Junction a few years ago. I missed it at the time, but later caught Chris performing an excerpt at King’s Place in London.

The clip alone blew me away. As described here, the aim of the piece is to show how England’s indigenous music is intertwined with the rhythms and melodies of its people’s speech – dialects and all. And in a brilliant musical fusion of form and meaning, that’s exactly what it does.

I remember reading somewhere that Chris is working on a longer/revised version, for possible CD release in the future. If that’s still the case, then I look forward to the results with great anticipation.


A happy Bandcamper

Looking back over my previous posts, I can’t help noticing how many have a nostalgic bent – a fondness for things lost or past, and a faint ring of disappointment that the world has to change.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. I’ve always been prone to the odd sentimental flashback. But what confuses me is that I’m definitely more excited than worried about where we are now – at least in terms of technology, and its unravelling possibilities.

I guess the truth is that progress doesn’t really lend itself to binary emotions; it’s rarely so simple as x being sacrificed for y. It’s more dialectical than that. What may appear to have been lost often resurfaces later on, in an improved form, having been ousted by something less satisfactory in the meantime.

Take, for example, the emotional experience of hearing about and acquiring new music.

When I was growing up, hearing about a new release by a favourite artist meant a strange mix of surprise, information overload, and gratification that was neither instant nor massively delayed. With less information at my fingertips, I rarely had any advance warning, so by the time news reached me, not only did the details arrive wholesale, the thing was actually available to buy.Yes, I had to wait until I had enough money, and a way of getting to the shops, but that only filled me with the best kind of anticipation: a few days, maybe a fortnight at most, before the treasure could be obtained.

In the 2000s, some of these emotions fell by the wayside; others were distorted out of all proportion. Powered by the exploding internet, new releases were announced months in advance. Anticipation, not immediacy, became the marketers’ watchword, with promoters devising ever more atomised campaigns in which information – album name, tracklisting, artwork – was revealed with self-defeating sluggishness. As the internet evolved, the moment of musical discovery itself became frustratingly piecemeal. Teaser tracks were leaked – intentionally or otherwise – long in advance, and lead singles were sent to radio months before they were available for purchase. It became increasingly hard to ‘discover’ an album with anything like the same surprise and satisfaction I’d known as a kid.

Even now, in the 2010s, the music industry seems dazed by the internet. The flip-flopping over ‘on-air on-sale’ sits awkwardly beside bands throwing out their releases with almost excessively little fanfare. Having been dazzled by over-experimentation, many still seem unsure what emotions they want to stir in their audiences.

There are, however, notable exceptions, and my favourite is Bandcamp: a versatile online platform for artists to air and sell their music directly to fans, with an elegant emphasis on the power of an immediate digital download to bankroll a later physical release. I’ve bought several albums on this model, and each time the emotional experience has been the perfect blend of ancient and modern – a heady mix of immediacy and anticipation.

I mention it now because one of my favourite artists – the brilliant folk singer Chris Wood – has just signed up, announcing on Twitter last Thursday not only the release but the immediate availability of his new album.

The surprise was sprung. and it was the perfect Easter gift. Granted, I’d known the album was coming – unlike, say, Jim Moray’s Skulk, which I knew nothing about until the moment it was available – but I’d assumed None the Wiser was still several months away, to be announced weeks in advance. But no. The actual release came pretty much out of the blue.

What really makes Bandcamp work, however, is that these immediate emotions – surprise at the news, delight at getting to hear the whole album right away – are followed by anticipation of what’s still to come: a physical release, complete with artwork, liner notes, the whole shebang… On top of which, there’s the investment of dealing directly with the artist, and contributing to the CD that will follow.

It’s a great system, and I’m a big fan. Though not a model that will work for all artists, for whom massive marketing budgets can still be justified, I reckon Bandcamp and its ilk are here to stay. And the reason is simple: because they restore excitement to a process which, by rights, really should be exciting.

Chris Wood, and the cult of classification

‘Oh, so you’re a folkie!’

As pigeonholes go, it’s one of the least satisfactory. On the one hand highly prescriptive – evoking a narrow-minded gallery of bearded, finger-in-the-ear, ale-drinking stereotypes – the term is also ludicrously unspecific. I could be all or any of the following: a trad song-and-tune obsessive, a ceilidh maniac, a nu-folk fan, a highly-politicised lover of protest songs, a dubious Summerislander (above), or simply an admirer of any music that is somehow acoustic and/or authentic. And those are just the top-level categories; there are plenty more crevices in between. (For the record, I’m a trad man.)

The point is, ‘folk’ simultaneously means everything, nothing, and something. And that, in its way, is brilliant. Few things fly more stupidly in the face of music’s quicksilver, abstract appeal than the urge to classify people’s tastes to within an inch of their lives. As someone whose musical upbringing was entirely indiscriminate, I should really be delighted to see such a trotted-out term as ‘folk’ teetering on the edge of meaninglessness. And yet, for some reason, I still find myself occasionally caught up in – and confused by – the schizophrenia of being a ‘folkie’.

Why is this? A comparison with pop points the way. Like folk, pop is both somewhat unfashionable and ridiculously all-embracing. A critical difference, however, is that pop fans tend just to get on with enjoying the music, and any attempts at taking ‘pride’ in their passion are invariably tongue-in-cheek. Partly this is because fashions change, leaving no grand ‘tradition’ to cling on to; partly it’s because pop never benefits from being taken too seriously. Most of all, though, it’s because pop-lovers simply take too much pleasure from poking fun at the pomposity of other genres.

And therein lies the rub. Because folk can sometimes feel like one of those self-important styles. Even though most of the trad stuff I love is irreverent, hilarious and as plain as pop in its emotional power, the ‘folk’ label is too often worn as a badge of honour. And although I don’t mind if people mistakenly think I love Mumford and Sons, or that I know my ‘do-si-dos’ from my ‘willow-stripping’, I become just a little bit self-important myself when people think I’m making some kind of statement with my tastes.

It’s for this reason that I occasionally strop off Twitter when folk artists criticise their pop counterparts for miming, or make blanket statements about the supremacy of ‘live’ music, as if there’s no merit in musicians using computers to realise their sonic imaginings. And it’s also for this reason that I flinch – or, more typically, go to the beer tent – when I’m at a folk festival, and a singer-songwriter with a political bent takes to the stage.

It’s nothing to do with political convictions. Most of the time I’m too busy dithering anyway – too able, like the novelist I am, to see both sides of an argument. But even when I applaud the singer’s sentiment, I feel the same irritation. It’s not the politics I dislike so much as the mob mentality: the presumption that I share a certain conviction, and the pride which that arouses in me; the pride that wants to protect my individualism and, more pretentiously, the complexity and diversity of other people’s opinions.

All of which, naturally, has the potential to backfire in a big way.

A case in point is Chris Wood. When I first encountered the Kentish troubadour a few years back – at festivals in Hertfordshire and Cambridge – I was listening with prejudice. Given the superficially political slant of a lot of his songs, and the reception they received, my pride told me to resist. Rather than hearing the songs as they were, I heard what I expected to hear from another tub-thumping run-of-the-mill folkie. In particular, I interpreted his masterpiece ‘Hollow Point’ as a splenetic, thoughtless tirade against the police who shot Jean Charles de Menezes, and Tony Blair’s warmongering government – possibly justified, but lacking the subtlety needed to raise it above ‘playing to the gallery’.

It was only later, after being disarmed by the world’s best fish-n-chip-shop-love-song, that I reconsidered his more overtly political numbers – whereupon I didn’t just fall in love, but recognised his greatest strengths to be exactly what I thought were absent: nuance, depth, and a determination to acknowledge different sides of complex arguments. Heard through fresh ears, ‘Hollow Point’ became exactly as ambiguous as I’d wanted it to be; a trait that will doubtless be evident in his upcoming album None the Wiser – the title alone confirming  just how off the mark I was.

For me, it’s a cautionary tale, and a further reminder of why the slippery game of genre classification is for mugs – prone to raise false, prejudicial expectations on all sides, and so imperil the discovery of artists you might really love.

Why ‘A List’ is more than just ‘a list’

Amazing news this week that the mighty Bellowhead (epithet increasingly mandatory) have been catapulted to the dizzy heights of the Radio 2 ‘A List’. It’s the latest in a long line of achievements for the scintillating eleven-piece folk-rock/folk-pop/folk-funk/folk-punk/folk-disco/folk-folk juggernaut. Previous watersheds have included an oddly seminal gig at the Royal Opera House, several Jools Holland ‘Later’ bookings, a show-stealing turn at the BBC Proms, a South Bank Centre artistic residency, and their forthcoming appearance in Richard Curtis’s new film About Time.

Bellowhead, pictured in Haynes Lane, Crystal Palace, as part of the publicity for Broadside. (Photo by Paul Heartfield – click for website)

The ‘A list’ accolade has been bestowed upon the band’s new single ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’, taken from their current long-player Broadside. Released in October last year, the latter gave the band its biggest success to date when it entered the albums chart higher than any other indie folk album in the history of everything, everywhere.

For my money, this latest breakthrough is even bigger. We live, after all, in an age where the meaning of the charts is increasingly hard to pin down. The albums countdown in particular – like LPs themselves – has come to feel endangered and dysfunctional. For many albums, pre-orders have a disproportionate impact on first-week chart placings – and since many quickly fade from view, initial entry points aren’t always the best gauge of popularity.

The singles chart feels similarly anaemic. Even though individual songs are still coveted as the ultimate unit of pop – perhaps more so than at any time since the 1950s – and though the magnificent power of standout singles to penetrate the collective consciousness remains immense, the inclusion of digital downloads and back-catalogue tracks has made the Top 40 irritatingly whimsical. The magic has been further diluted by the ubiquity of subsidiary charts – iTunes, Amazon MP3 – not to mention the publicising of the once top-secret midweeks.

Bruno BrookesThe upshot of all this is that I, for one, find it harder to make the kind of fanatical, emotional investment in the chart that I did as a kid – that highly-charged, partisan passion that had me screaming at the radio when Kylie lost out to Yazz & the Plastic Population, one unforgettably hot and sunny dark Sunday in 1988 (I know, I know – but I was young and infatuated, ok?).

Of course, my loveless relationship with the 21st-century charts isn’t just the result of seismic shifts in how music is consumed. It may be as much – if not more, if not all – to do with being increasingly dull and middle-aged. But I don’t think the loss of mystique is entirely down to perception. Instead, I suspect it’s part of a broader, internet-led, democratising trend for transparency in all things. Whether it’s prompted by DVD special features, exposés of parliamentary scandals, or the uncovering of dark media arts, people nowadays are simply savvier about how the world operates.

Thanks to Simon Cowell and his ilk, this is especially true of the music business. Everyday pop discourse is shot through with knowledge of promotional tactics, commercial pressures and financial considerations. Artists talk about their careers like proud project managers, discussing their identity and place in the market with cloying self-consciousness, while fans are encouraged to think in similarly prosaic terms. You may hear the odd bit of music in X Factor guest-act intros, but the effect is overwhelmed by crashing statistical captions bragging about units sold, awards won, and hits had – a vernacular mimicked on the forums of the ‘latter-day Smash HitsPopjustice, where the tone is often an emotion-laden derivation of industry-speak.

And that’s really the key shift here. As a kid, the charts were just there. Yes, I understood what they represented, but the thrill of taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening was at least partly conjured by suspense, surprise and the mysterious, unknowable ‘otherness’ that distinguished my favourite popstars and the realms in which they existed.

But that world is gone. In its place is a more pragmatic and, yes, adult understanding of how things work, which in turn has brought a changing sense of what represents success for my favourite acts. And that’s why, ever since I fell in love with them at Scala in 2005, I’ve always seen the Radio 2 ‘A List’ as Bellowhead’s ultimate destiny. Yes, they may yet go on to grander and greater things (and I’d bloody love them to have a number one) but for me, as a fan, this is the moment: a justice-done symbol of acceptance – of a trad folk act welcomed into the mainstream – which has left me feeling every bit as proud and triumphant as when a favourite single hit the top spot in the charts of my childhood.

Phew! The thrill of album launches

Two evenings, two of my favourite folk bands, two album launches – two very different venues.

On Wednesday, it was Bellowhead at the Monto Water Rats, unwrapping new album ‘Broadside’ – arguably their most accomplished yet. I first saw the band at Scala in 2005 at two relatively sparsely-attended gigs when they were still carving out their niche. (The first time, perish the thought, many were still reading music off stands.) Times have changed since then, and the eleven-piece juggernaut is now more accustomed to playing big festivals and selling-out much larger venues. They even look set for a Top 40 – or better – debut in the album chart on Sunday, and have been playlisted by Radio 2: no mean feat for an act specialising in traditional (as opposed to ‘nu’) folk.

It was a privilege, then, to see them blaze through the new material in such an intimate venue. No matter that half the band were lost to the wings; the deafening volume and edge-of-the-seat playing – some of these songs sound really tricky to perform – made for a memorable night. Here’s some obligatorily scrappy video to undermine illustrate everything I’ve just said about the magnificence of the occasion.

Last night, at the more refined King’s Place, it was Lau’s turn – a mind-bending trio from Scotland (x 2) and Cambridge (x 1). Like Bellowhead, I was lucky enough to see Lau not long after forming – at the Towersey Festival in 2006 – and feel an entirely unreciprocated (they don’t know me from Adem) pride in how they’ve grown and matured. The new album ‘Race the Loser’ is a corker, but also – like ‘Broadside’ – seemed challenging for even these most capable of musicians.

And that, I’ve come to realise over the last two nights, is the great charm of attending these album launches. You might not get ‘all the hits’, but what you do get is the thrill of seeing brilliant musicians challenged anew. As each band attempted complex, studio-devised numbers for the first time ‘live’, it was like rolling back the years to those early gigs when our paths first crossed: the players tentative, concentrated, and ecstatically relieved when ‘nailing’ the new numbers for the first time.

In the words of Bellowhead’s Jon Boden, on completing the full rendition of ‘Broadside’: ‘Phew.’

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