Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Monty Awards

Welcome to this years Montpelier Station Music Awards (affectionately know as The Montys) in which a panel of judge, chosen from a short list of blogger living in big pink houses right near Montpelier Station selects its favourite musical moments of 2011.

And now without further ado: please pass me the plain brown envelope.

That appears to be letter from the gas company, threatening to take the tenant who left in 2005 without leaving a forwarding address to court.

Please pass me the other plain brown envelope...

Best New CD With Some Connection to the Sea


Hold Fast
by the Sail Pattern

The Sail Pattern are on the rockier end of folk rock compared with what I usually like, but when your first album is as good as this, you are welcome to be at which ever end of anything you choose.They have attitude They can play. They have their own voice. If they decide to sing Farewell And Adieu To Your Spanish Ladies then by god, you know you're listening to a Sail Pattern version of Farewell And Adie To You Spanish Ladies. There's a convincing machismo to the vocals offset by the merest hint of immaturity. (They look all of about 17.) They show every sign of caring about the folk tradition, and every sign of having grabbed it by the throat and thrown it overboard. Hard to know where their lyrics start and Anon's lyrics end. ("A puppet's on the throne of Spain and Bonaparte's in Cairo / With Nelson's ship we sailed away and fought him on the Nile-oh.") Their signature track, Hold Fast, wot they wrote themselves, oozes naval atmosphere; it isn't a shanty, it isn't a ballad, but it's fundamentally itself.

Port of Escape by Chris Ricketts

Chris Ricketts claims to sing sea shanties with a twist. I am not quite sure what the twist is. I think it may be "good singing". He ooozes authenticity and sincerity. He sings Hanging Johnny (a relatively meaningless work song) with a mixture of melancholy and menace. ("I'd hang the holy family...'cos hanging is so bloody funny.") He sings Bound For South Australia with straightforward honesty and a didgereedoo, which mysteriously causes you to forget that such a band as Fisherman's Friends ever existed. He sings the full dress version of Spanish Ladies with guitars and seagulls and no lyrical concessions to landlubbers ("till we strike the soundings in the channels of old England"). He sings North West Passage, which might actually be a step too far. I heard him open for Martin Simpson, which is something no guitarist should ever have to do. There's something modest and warm and real in his voice; as if a hundred year old sea dog has somehow got stuck in the body of a hobbit.

Tomorrow We'll Be Sober by Blackbeard's Tea Party

Last years EP, Heavens to Betsy blew me away. This year's follow up is even better. The choice of songs is impeccable: you can't not love an album which includes Barret's Privateers, Chicken on a Raft and Landlord Fill the Flowing Glass. The latter may be a rollicking bollocking drinking song with dirty words (which may owe more to the reenactment circuit than to Cecil Sharp) but it bears repeated listenings because of the wit of the arrangements (the musicians finding increasingly silly things to accompany each verse with). The finest, and least subtle moment on this, or perhaps any, album comes at the end of the colliers song I Can Hew. (Sweetly and mournfully): "And when I die, I know full well, I'm not bound for heaven I am bound for..." (rock-out explosion) "HELL!"


It was a dem close run thing, but the judge awarded the prize to Sail Pattern so he could claim to have liked them before they went mainstream.

Best New Recording of An Old Song

The Nominations for the Finger in the Ear Award (CD) are as follows:

The Bonny Bunch of Roses
on Ragged Kingdom by June Tabor and the Oysterband 

I think of June Tabor as "that lady who sings the rather distant, mournful, depressing songs about Scotland and the sea, often without accompaniment", which range from "my favourite songs ever(*)" to "oh, get on with it, for goodness sake!" In case you were wondering, her new album, Ashore failed to get nominated for the Nautical award because while it was undoubtedly brilliant it was also a teensy weensy bit how can I possibly put this boring. But of course, she can also more than hold her own providing the lyrics while the Oysterband are rocking out like it's 1990. There is a productive incongruity between the traditional text and the electric arrangement. Hardly any band can mess this song up: how can you fail with lines like "I'll raise a numerous army/ And through tremendous dangers go /And in spite of all the universe /I'll conquer the bonny Bunch of Roses, O". June Tabor sings it like she's going to personally cross the channel and give Young Napoleon a jolly good talking-to. This song would have been nominated for the BEST TRACK FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T THINK THEY WOULD LIKE FOLK MUSIC award, should such an award exist.

A Pilgrim's Way
on Wayside Courtesies by Pilgrims' Way

Pilgrims' Way are the probably the most exciting new band of 2011. ("New" is here defined as "band I first heard perform in" by which definition, admittedly, Steeleye Span would count as "new" but let's not get bogged down at this stage). They're essentially traditionalists, with the touch of electricity on some songs not nearly as distinct as the jews harp (a.k.a "that thing which goes twang?") on others. Lucy Wright's vocals are forceful but sweet sounding ever-so folkie without ever drifting into nasal cliches.

A Pilgrim's Way is also a pome by Mr Rudyard Kipling which was set to music by Mr Peter Bellamy. If you aren't careful it can go on for ever. (Jon Boden, and indeed Mr Bellamy himself, were not careful.) Pilgrims' Way (the band) give it a light, musical feel, free of trickery or fireworks; and Lucy navigates "Amorites and Erermites and general Avergees" as if she had some idea what it meant.

It has been mentioned before that many of us in the blogsphere could be improved by a judicious application of the precepts of verse 3. (**)

Bold Sir Rylas
on The Works by Spiers and Boden

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by The Works -- much as I love Spiers and Boden, I wished they could have given us an CD of new material, rather than new takes, however high quality, on material we already know pretty well. That said, any one track on the album is great, and this one is just about my favourite. The story of how Bold Sir Rylas cut an old lady in half is a great Pythonesque yarn with a sing-a-long chorus the singing along on the album is no lessor a person than Maddy Prior. (Martin Carthy contributes to Prickley Bush, but you’d hardly know.) All together now: He split her head down to the chin! You should of heard seen her kick and grin!

Pilgrims Way by a country mile. (BUT NOTE: It’s really “The People, Lord, thy People” not “The people, oh, the people.")

(*) King of Rome, Place Called England, Unicorns, A Proper Sort of Gardener, Hughie Graham, Best Patrick Spens Ever, etc

(**) And if they bore me overmuch, I shall not shake my ears
Recalling many thousands such whom I have bored to tears

And if they labour to impress I shall not laugh or scoff
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off.

Best Live Performance of an old song

The Nominations for the Finger in the Ear Award (live) are as follows:

The Two Sisters

The Emily Portman Trio (at the Louisiana, Bristol, Nov 8th)

Oh, there are lot of things to say about this song. That it's a truly beautiful, rounded fairy tale. That the sound the trio created in an upstairs room in a pub was astonishingly close to what is on the CD. That the song runs to something like 20 verses, and the group use that space to create a small epic; full of different musical textures; more a symphony than a ballad. That Emily has made a tiny surgical change to the traditional lyrics (changing "yonder sits my father the king" to "yonder sits my lover the king") which gives the tale a tragic logic and inevitability that it never had before. I found I had eight different versions of this song (Child Ballad 10, I looked it up) on my I-Pod. This is by far my favourite. A person on Youtube says it makes them imagine themselves "in the middle of an elvin forest, morning dew kissing greenery". Well, quite.

Little Sally Racket
Bellowhead (at the Scarborough folk festival, 8 Aug)

Understand this: if you have only heard Bellowhead on CDs, then you haven't heard Bellowhead. They aren't only about music; they're about musical theater. You have to be there. One of my Folkbuddies, who hadn't heard them before, said Jon Boden was like a musical John Cleese. I see him more as a swaggering musical Captain Jack Sparrow. The CDs don't really convey how tall he is. Little Sally Racket is an infinitely long sea-shanty about local prostitutes, with the obligatory "haul away" refrain. Boden turns in a passable impersonation of the Johnny Rotten (or some fella of that kind) producing a sort of folk-punk hybrid with a hymn embedded in the middle. There are better Bellowhead songs. There are better Bellowhead songs about prostitutes. But this is always one of the highlights of their live act. The performance could scarcely be more over the top (and Bellowhead know about over the top) and coming in between two more restrained, or at any rate sane, pieces, it never fails to bring the house down, even when, as in this case, the stage was three quarters of a mile away from the audience.

Lord Douglas
Jim Moray (at Chapel Arts Bath, June 10th)

Jim diffidently presented this astonishing piece as work in progress. (There are more polished versions on the Cecil Sharp Project CD and on his new album, Skunk, to which we are likely to be returning at some point.) It's one of those traditional ballads (Child 7, I looked it up) which exists in dozens of different versions. Man elopes with girl; someone betrays them; they are chased by the girls family; man is killed; girl dies of sorrow; foliage grows out of their respective graves, as is more or less obligatory for lovers in folk songs. I can't imagine how Jim went about combining, and rewriting, the different versions, and apparently incorporating a sub plot from a similar Icelandic saga. It's a complicated story that I've had to listen to several times to get the hang of; one of those sagas which you always seem to be lost in the middle of with feuds and love affairs and curses taken for granted before the story starts. And the tune seems to have drifted in from another world.


The Two Sisters, by the merest wisp of thistledown.

Best New Song of 2011

The Nominations for the Chains of the Sea award are as follows:

The Reckoning
by Steve Tilston

There are a limited number of performers who would use the word "misbegotten" in a song. But then there are a limited number of performers who combine a gift for melody, poetry and actual thinking in the way that Steve does. (He is in the category of "you may not have heard of him but you have probably heard some of his songs".) The Reckoning is a deeply reflective piece about the kind of world that we are leaving to the next generation. Refreshingly free from obvious target hunting or jerking knees, it has a melody which manages to be memorable without actually being catchy.

"I offer you this toast should these troubles come to roost / for we ate the golden goose and left the reckoning to you."

Never Buy the Sun
by Billy Bragg

Thank God for Billy Bragg. Literally, thank God for Billy Bragg. I may or may not have mentioned before that Tony Blair became the the godfather of Rupert Murdoch's baby, in a ceremony which took place on the banks of the River Jordan. The nauseating -- literally nauseating -- hypocrisy of both teams -- the "socialist" politician in bed with an empire that is committed to destroying everything he stands for, the empire cultivating the personal friendships of politicians they pretend to "hold to account" -- more of less guarantees that nothing honest or indeed coherent can ever be said in any parliamentary debate, op ed columns or media talk show. So it is left to people like Billy Bragg to use music and plain speach to tell it how it is. Or how they think it is. It hardly matters if you agree with him: it's enough that he uses words to to convey meaning, instead of to obscure it. He eschews triumphalism at the wounding of the Murdoch empire, and instead offers a lament. How did we let it come to this?

"No-one comes out looking good when all is said and done / And the Scousers never buy the Sun."

What If, No Matter
by Tom Paxton

Joe Hill is supposed to have said that a leaflet, however well written, will be read once and thrown away, but a song will sung, and passed on, and repeated, and remembered. Tom Paxton's instant response to the Arizona shootings are a case in point. There were acres of newsprint and hand wringing and speculation, but Tom said all that really needed to be said in five verses.


Billy Bragg and Steve Tilston are cleverer and more complicated, but the judge has no hesitation in giving the prize to Tom Paxton. Songs like this are the reason I started to listen to this stuff in the first place. (There is still absolutely no excuse for the Marvellous Toy.)


Special Takes Out an Onion Award for making the judge cry

*Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts
for Joe Peel at Bristol Folk Festival

*Steve Knightley, Fisherman's Friends and the entire company, but this time chiefly yourselves,
for Cousin Jack, also at Bristol Folk Festival

*Chris Wood
for Hard, Jersualem, and Hollow Point (duh!) at Colston Hall, 21 Oct 2011

That miserable bastard Chris Wood.

Special Well, He Ought To Be More Careful With His Boats Award for Best Famous Dead Canadian Singer-Songwriter Who Everyone Else Had Heard Of But The Judge Only Started Listening To This Year.

*Chris Ricketts
for Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage (on Port of Escape)

*Blackbeards Tea Party
for Stan Rogers' Barret's Privateers (on Tomorrow We'll Be Sober)

*Jon Boden
for Stan Rogers' Loch Keeper (on a Folksong A Day)

Stan Rogers for Stan Rogers' Mary Ellen Carter,
which, in a rare show of unanimity, the readers of this blog voted "single best song ever written by anyone about anything ever".

Special Award for the Judge's Coolest Music Related Moment Of 2011

* Lustily and tuneless singing along with Fishemen's Friends singing Cousin Jack in the mud at the Pyramd Stage at Glastonbury, and noticing that Steve Knightley was standing next to him

* Standing on York station, desperately hoping that the old gentleman with the guitar case to whom he has just said "We really enjoyed your set, sir, such a shame you were so far from the audience" really had been Martin Carthy. (Or if, indeed, he had dreamt the whole incident.)

* Hearing the astonishing Emily Portman singing wonderful mysterious whispy ethereal fairy tale ballads in the upstairs room of the Louisiana Bristol, and realising that the audience consisted of eleven people, including the judge, the judge's Folkbuddy, Peter Lord and Jim Moray.

* The aforemetnioned Martin Carthy singing Bob Dylan's Dream on the Radio 2 tribute programme. (Bob Dylan having originally based the song on Martin Carthy's version of Lord Franklin's Lament.)

* Hearing The Pentangle doing a set consisting entirely of traddy classics at Glastonbury, unaware that this was the last but one performance Bert Jansch would give.


No award. You can't give an award for something sad.

Special Judas Award For Best Live Performance of a Bob Dylan Song

*Phil Beer
for Seven Curses at Bristol Folk Festival

*June Tabor and the Oyster Band
for Seven Curses at St Georges Hall Bristol, Nov 1

*Martin Simpson
for North Country Blues at Chapel Arts, Bath, Oct 22

*Ralph McTell
for Girl from the Noth Country at St Georges, Bristol, 29 SepBob Dylan
for Man in the Long Black Coat at Cardiff Arena, Oct 13


Martin Simpson.
It's shame Dylan didn't sing Seven Curses, so I could have had an award for "the best live performance of Dylan's Seven Curses."

Special  Geldof Award For the Best Live Performance By An Artist Named Bob

The judge unanimously gave the award to Bob Dylan's show in Cardiff Arena.

The first night of an opera is generally judged a failure unless a sizable proportion of the audience boo; similarly, the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll wouldn't have done a show unless some people claimed to have walked out of it. It is widely believed that Bob's promoters fill the back rows with an anti-claque who are only there so they can leave after the opening number.

It must be admitted that, in order to understand Dylan's current approach to his muse (a.k.a "whatever the hell it is he thinks he's doing nowadays") you need to

a: have heard at least three albums since MTV Unplugged

b: Be reasonably familiar with his lessor known material (NOTE: Knowing some of the words to Like a Rolling Stone doesn't count)
c: Be sitting or standing in the front five rows.

If you fulfil all those criteria, than you will be treated to a Robert Zimmerman becoming in his autumn years the artist I am convinced he has always wanted to be – the bluesy, rock-a-billy song and dance man, grinning and mincing and riffing and colluding with the audience.

In short: this was the gig I am most likely to tell my non-existent grandchildren about.

"But Andrew, would you have praised this very strange show so highly if you had never heard of Bob Dylan?"
"If I had never heard of Bob Dylan then I would never have heard any of Bob Dylan's songs. Under those circumstances, if this grizzled old man in a sweaty cowboy hat had snarled into a small venue and started growling, I would have said 'What marvellous songs...get me a pen and paper, these may be the greatest lyrics that have ever been written...what fantastic tunes...what a weird-arse way of singing them."

Which is precisely what everyone has been saying about Dylan since approximately 1959

Special Muddy Wellington Boot Award For The Most Idiosyncratic Venue

*The Canteen, Stokes Croft

The Canteen, a sort of perfectly legal squat in a disused open plan office, is allegedly the creative hub of the coolest, most creative street in England, or, if you believe the Bristol Evening Post, the place where crusty hippy commies hang out who ought to get a job and be forced to eat Tescos sandwiches and Banksy ought to be flogged like they did to that kid who painted graffiti on Singapore. I digress. One of the Canteens U.S.Ps, apart from real ale and very decent food at very reasonable prices (you get a free bowl of soup with a meal, which is a really civilised touch) is live music -- I've heard both the aforementioned Pilgrims' Way and the not yet mentioned Hoddamadoddery there.

Well, "heard" is a slight overstatement: it's a bar. People are right up near the stage trying to finish designing their websites on the Macbooks, or with their course work on Brecht spread out in front of them; or else they are drinking and trying to have a conversation with their mates, wondering when the distracting noise at the front is going to stop. This probably works very well with that loud electrical rhythm stuff that the young people allegedly like but which no-one actually wants to listen to in the first place, but it's really not the environment in which to hear Pilgrims' Way telling you about the hand weaver who fell in love with the factory maid. Not sure what the solution is. Shame.

*Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Plastic, football stadium style seating. Numbered seats, although this didn't make much difference, because the arena was about ¼ full. A river, possibly the river Derwent, running through the complex, separating the audience from the stage. The impact of Bellowhead is slightly numbed when they are several miles away from you, and with the best will in the world, its hard to get the nuances of the aforementioned Jim Moray doing the aforementioned Lord Douglas in that environment. During the Demon Barber's set, a man with a guitar ambled through the audience who were, by this time, standing on the tarmac near the rail. He turned out to be Martin Carthy.

*Green Note Cafe, Camden Town

About 100 yards from Cecil Sharp House itself. Fits 50, of whom about 20 can sit down. Admission only granted to people who know a special hand shake (I made that up). If you want to sit, you need to buy a ticket AND book a table and eat. If you want a table near the stage, you have to form a queue at 6, and take you seat at 7, in plenty of time for the music at 9. In return, you get to hear Martin Carthy, Alasdair Roberts, Robin Williamson in surroundings that redefine the word "intimate". I love this place to bits.


Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. .

Best Live Gig

The nominations for the Eternal Circle Award Are As Follows

Chris Wood at Colston Hall, Bristol, Oct 21

Chris Wood is always amazing, but this is the best I've ever heard him, which is to say, about as good as the "one man with a guitar singing ballads" genre ever gets. He praised the acoustics of the room and the sound engineer, and was more than usually under-stated, nuanced, a conversation between guitar and audience. Assume I'd made all the usual remarks about the English not valuing their national treasures.

Show of Hands at Bristol Folk Festival, April 30

I don't like everything Steve Knightley does. Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that the thing which Steve Knightley does doesn't come off every time I see him do it. This time it did. It was Day 2 of Bristol folk festival and local resentment against the seventeenth or eighteenth branch of Tesco being plonked on Stokes Croft had just boiled over into a full scale riot, about half a mile from the stage, and not one single artist had even mentioned it, or seemed to be aware that Bristol was in the news. So Steve Knightley stepped onto the stage and launched straight into "to the cutthroats, crooks and conmen running this gaol: is there anything left in England that's not for sale?" and "I hope some day we'll all be freed from your arrogance, your ignorance, and greed" and "Agri-barons, C.A.P in hand strip this green and pleasant land...." He is, in a way, a demagogue, a revivalist preacher without any single cause, and on this occasion he judged the mood of the hall, he took it into himself, he channelled it back at us.... And then went to the Silent Disco and danced along with Remember Your A Womble. A bona fide folk-god.

Blackbeards Tea Party at the Croft Bristol, Nov 26

Stuart Giddens (now positively identified as one of the two morrismen who performed what we all now know are traditional Morris double jigs with the Demon Barber Roadshow at Scarborough) has replaced Paul Young as singer in the band, and added a camp wildness, an awful lot of jumping, but probably not that much subtlety to the act, cranking the live show a notch or two above either of the records. It appeared that a lot of people who had really come for the rocky punky music that the Croft is more famous for drifted into the back room for the Tea Party and stayed until the end. There was singing along; there was dancing; there was jumping in the air...and there was a sense that Blackbeard's Tea Party had just gone from being a really very good busking and celidah outfit to being a major musical force.


Back in May, the judge said that the Show of Hands show was the best live gig he'd ever seen, and he isn't going to go back on that now. But he's never seen anything quite like Blackbeard Tea Party either. Obviously, one can't blame the apple for not being as orangey as the orange or or the orange for not being as apply as the apple. So for the first time in their history the 2011 Monty will be awarded jointly to Show of Hands and Blackbeards Tea Party. Fortunately, since it is an imaginary award, there is no problem imagining it being in two places at once, like that puzzle involving an imaginary duck in an imaginary bottle.

Favourite Act of 2011

The Nominations for the 2011 "Why Are You Bothering With Nominations, We All Know You Are Going to Say Carthy" Award:


Boff changed the words of Voices, That's All from "from the Albion Taproom to California" to "from the Bristol Folk House to California". A small thing, but a lovely thing. He's a showman, you see. He knows how to make a connection with his audience. What Chumbawamba are, and I suspect what they've always been, are a political cabaret act. Anarchists they may be, but each gig is beautifully planned. Coming onto the stage and opening the second half with musically and lyrically grim Homophobia, and winding up the encore with the poignant farewell song Bella Ciao; perfection. There is no sense that you are being preached at or harangued but every song has some point. Everything they do has some point. They walked onto the stage at Glastonbury wearing "Bono, Pay Your Tax" tee shirts. I have mentioned that before. That was quite a big thing, actually.

Martin Carthy

Sir Patrick Spens. Sovay, with David Swarbrick, twice. Famous Flower of Serving Men, all of it. Three Jovial Welshman (“why does that always get a laugh”), with Chris Wood. That version of My Son John re-located to Iraq. The Treadmill Song. The Trees They Do Grow. No different on stage in a classical venue (St Georges); three miles from the audience (Scarborough); or three feet from the audience (Camden). I may have mocked Green Note cafe, but honestly, sitting this close to the stage, knowing that only 50 people will ever hear this particular performance of this particular song? Does Martin Carthy know he’s a legend? Or does he just think of himself as a man who sings songs?

Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair has been described as "jaw dropping", "gob-smacking" and "Scottish" (by me) and as "like some coat hangers who've clubbed together and bought a guitar" (by Bristols Top Citizen Folk Journalist). He says that his songs have a cosmological bent, and thinks nothing of rhyming "heroes" with "thanatos and eros". I was so blown away by his Bath gig that I went to Camden specially to hear him again (have I mentioned the Green Note cafe?) and had to travel back on a 5AM train to go to work. Some cosmic force arranged for him to do another one at the Cube, supported by that film about wierd English folk customs. It's hard to choose between his weird rambling philosophical odes and his witheringly authentic takes on traditional songs. He makes Barbary Allen seem like a new and heartbreaking piece of news you haven't heard before, and, I swear, literally reduced the audience to stunned silence when Bonnie Suzie Cleland was burned in Dundee. His weird unaccompanied version of the Cruel Mother, with a refrain that wandered in from somewhere else but somehow seems to fit, is like nothing else on earth.

You remember how Francis Spufford said that he only read other books because he couldn't always be re-reading the Narnia series? (You do, because I've quoted him here repeatedly. Neil Gaiman said the same thing, irrelevantly.). Well, some days that's just how the judge feels about Martin Carthy and other musical acts.