Sing-song


We know by the moon that we are not too soon

And we know by the sky that we are not too high

We know by the stars that we are not too far

And we know by ground that we are within sound

– Phil Tanner singing “Gower Wassail”

For a week or two – and for another few to come – I’ve been listening off-and-on to the brilliant and gorgeous Midwinter box set as released a few years back by the Free Reed label. How’s this for the Xmas spirit of “too much ain’t enough”: Four CD’s, around 100 songs – ranging from the stark beauty of Phil Tanner’s unaccompanied “Gower Wassail” to Boris Karloff reading from “The Grinch,” to Doc Watson, Robert Frost, Bob and Ron Copper, and even Loudon Wainwritght – and a 136-page booklet explaining every damn moment on the thing. There are recordings both new and very old, but besides the occasional contemporary artist to keep things saleable, the songs tend to remain largely rooted in pre- or barely-Xtian folk concepts: Wassailing, the Wren, Mummer’s plays, etc. It’s a geek’s dream come true – as though designed to give someone like me something to buy in December. (more…)

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A few months ago, I had the pleasure of an extended phone interview with Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba for a piece I was writing about musicians’ contributions to the miner’s strike of 1984-85. Unfortunately, most of that interview was never used – the scope of the story, and the space I was afforded in the magazine, meant some nasty cuts. (“Fight the Cuts!”)

Ever since, I’ve planned on someday arranging the whole interview into an “as-told-by” style piece, and posting it here online. Reminded by the affably dangerous old red, Norman Strike, that this strike anniversary year is ticking away, and by an e-list update from the Chumbies that they’re partaking in a lovely-looking theater performance this December, it seemed like it sure-as-hell was time to get moving. (more…)

Chicken tikka masala for dinner last night (at the illustrious Peoples Restaurant) makes me think of the dish’s illustrious British history: Invented, it seems almost certain, by a Pakistani chef in Glasgow, Scotland, it has – over the past decade – ascended to that holiest of English cuisine holies and become the most commonly eaten takeaway meal in the country. Surpassing those fish ‘n’ chips.

Hence the more in-the-know Brit restaurants around the world, like Piper’s Pub here in Pittsburgh serving curries – and, perhaps more importantly, curried chips – on their “across the pond” menu; and hence The Saxon in lovely little Steyning, W. Sussex, an aptly named Indian and Nepalese restaurant.

Maybe even more interestingly, where on the face of this earth would there, today, be an “Indian” restaurant that did not serve chicken tikka masala? Could it be that this South-Asian-Scottish meal has become Britain’s most ubiquitous contribution to world cuisine? England’s favorite fast food an “Indian” dish created by a Pakistani in Glasgow? Enough to make the BNP curl up and die – at least hopefully. Reminds me of a song… Cheers, and Namaste!

It only takes a few moments of Norma Waterson‘s imposing voice and personality to realize the incestuous relationship that exists between England’s two most important

Norma Waterson

Norma Waterson

 native musical forms: The folk ballad and the Cockney music-hall standard. (more…)

Later this month, The OWA’s personal muses – Rachel Unthank & the Winterset – make their first U.S. appearances since the release of The Bairns, the group’s stunning 2007 album which, in my opinion, will prove a turning point in English folk music. If you ain’t heard ‘em, the Winterset – sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, fiddler Niopha Keegan, and new-ish pianist Stef Connor – play largely traditional material from their Northeastern home near the Scottish borderlands.

But rather than, say, the dramatic but sometimes specialized sound of the Northumbrian smallpipes – let’s face it; there’s little the kids these days disdain so much as a well-played set of bagpipes – the Winterset takes a darkened evening’s pub-session approach to things. Oft-rollicking music-hall piano is accompanied by fiddle tunes ranging from slow-drag drones to pesky jigs, the Unthank’s peerless rough singing, and even the ghostly rhythm of the sisters’ clogging, as I’d imagine they once did for their parents’ friends at parties.

Noticeably influenced by the new-weird-folk movement, the Unthanks bring to the table two things that hardly ever meet in contemporary music: A lifelong understanding of traditional music – its musical sounds and features, but also its themes and mores – along with a true appreciation for possibilities of the contemporary studio and the modern-day “folk” sounds that emanate from it. The Bairns succeeds on all of these levels and more, and was probably the best album of 2007. (See my review for Paste.)

The Geordie lasses recently failed to win (yay!) the BBC’s Mercury Prize – an award given each year to a new performer whom no one wants to ever hear from again. Take a butcher’s at their live performance of “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” from said BBC televised awards ceremony, particularly if you haven’t had your daily sob yet.

Rachel Unthank & the Winterset at Mercury Prize ceremony

U.S. Tour Dates are up now, although according to their manager, it’s this list that’s most reliably updated.