Whistle Down the Wind

girl + jesus

Hayley Mills and Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind

This week it was announced that Joan Baez is releasing a new album on 2nd March. Whistle Down the Wind will be her first new recording for a decade and its promotion marks the end of more than 50 years of touring for Baez.

The phrase, “whistle down the wind”, evokes a forlorn sense of helplessness as if the sound of your nervous whistling is being carried away on the breeze, betraying your presence to the spirits of the forest, both good and evil. But whistle you must because otherwise your feeble courage will melt away and your fate will be cast to the cold capricious wind.

Whistle Down the Wind was the title of a novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was published in 1959 and made into a film in 1961. The film starred the author’s daughter, Hayley Mills, and the British actor Alan Bates. In the story some children discover a bearded man hiding in their family’s barn. When the man exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”, the youngsters think he is telling them his name and that they are witnessing the Second Coming. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs and the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

Tom Waits later used Whistle Down the Wind as the title for one of the tracks on his 1992 album Bone Machine. It is that song that Joan Baez has chosen as the title track of her forthcoming album. It is a simple folk song in a waltz time featuring folk guitars and a backing track with accordion, bass and drums. On this song Joan’s voice is sweet and satisfying but it has lost some of the characteristic lustre of her earlier work. As if to make up for that missing sparkle the Baez version of Whistle Down the Wind adds short strains of theremin notes, taking us into a mysterious world where gods and goblins determine our future, unswayed by any wishes of our own.

joan baez

The other important event in Crotchety Man’s week was the Third Age Orchestra’s Christmas/New Year ‘fuddle’, a social gathering in which we played a few songs before delving into a buffet to which we all contributed. In the rehearsal room everyone drifted around like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, balancing paper plates and chatting amongst ourselves, until our leader called for our attention. “Pull a cracker”, she said, “and keep what you find inside”.

Bang, crack, snap went the party crackers. And soon we were all holding plastic whistles marked with a number between 1 and 8. Lining us up in whistle number order our maestro then called out numbers: 3, 2, 1, pause, 3, 2 … As each number was called the musician(s) with that number on their whistle blew hard and the air was filled with a laughable rendition of Three Blind Mice or Good King Wenceslas. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than you think to puff into a plastic tube in time with the conductor when you don’t know which tune has been chosen. Especially when you’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts! And, as most of us found out, it’s harder still to conduct such a performance. You may as well try and catch the whistling wind.

Starless

starless night

For those who are unfamiliar with the British folk music scene The Unthanks are a five-piece folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. The band was formed in 2004 as an all female group called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. After lineup changes that brought Adrian McNally into the band as pianist, arranger, producer and manager the name was shortened to The Unthanks.

They perform mainly traditional English folk songs. The credits for their second album, The Bairns, list Rachel’s contributions as voice, cello, ukulele and feet, the latter being a reference to the sound of clog dancing which formed part of their live act. So, you see, we are deep in folk music country here, but The Unthanks frequently flirt with other musical genres, too, and that is what qualifies them for inclusion in the Crotchety Man pages.

rachel & becky

Rachel and Becky Unthank

For my Track of the Week I have chosen Starless from The Unthank‘s 2011 album Last.

A gentle violin and piano introduction leads into a haunting trumpet melody. Reflected in the trumpet’s shining brass we see a dark brooding landscape lit only by the faint glow of moonbeams filtering through a charcoal sky. Any stars have been suffocated under a thick blanket of low cloud. The night cloaks the scene in a bible black shroud. On the Earthly plane we are alone; in spirit we share this god-forsaken place with the ghost of a brass band soloist.

As if wakened by the trumpeter’s song the black treacle voices of the Unthank sisters take up the story. Somewhere beyond the horizon a brilliant sun is setting but it is hidden by a curtain of doubt and despair.

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

Spectral figures drift across our vision and the soulful sounds of a chamber orchestra emphasise the bleakness of our inward gaze. Listen. That is the sound of Churchill’s black dog stalking the night.

The Unthanks have taken a modern folk song and given it a wonderfully atmospheric orchestral arrangement. Or so it would seem. But Starless was not conceived as a folk song. It was originally intended as the title track of King Crimson‘s Starless and Bible Black album released in March 1974.

The lyrics and melody were written by John Wetton, King Crimson‘s then bassist, but Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford didn’t like it and the title was used for an unrelated instrumental on that album. When the original song was subsequently revised and revived for King Crimson‘s next album, Red, it was given the shorter title of Starless. By this time David Cross had left the band and the melody that he would have played on his electric violin was switched to Robert Fripp’s guitar. Even in 1974, several decades before The Unthanks rearranged it again, the melody line had jumped like a dancing will-o’-the-wisp from one instrument to another.

Starless is still performed by King Crimson. In their hands it is a sweeping progressive rock track with passages in 13/4 and 13/8 time. Here’s a live version from 2015 that is included on their latest album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. It still has that haunting melody but this rendition builds to a frantic climax propelled irresistibly forward by KC’s three drummers. Watch and marvel!

Whichever way you slice it, orchestral folk or progressive rock, Starless is a truly great track that will haunt you long after Hallowe’en. There is no trick. It is a treat to be savoured. Especially when the black dog comes stalking and dark thoughts rise from the mists of the subconscious monkey mind.

Finale

A new album by Pentangle was released last year. Given that the band had split up shortly after I saw them in Oxford back in 1973¹ and, more pertinently, that two of them have died, it couldn’t be a new recording. But it’s not just another compilation, either. The original line-up reformed in 2008 and did a 12-date UK tour that year. Finale: An Evening with Pentangle, released on 7th October 2016, is a two-CD album² of recordings from the 2008 tour. Why it took so long to get it onto the shelves of the brick-and-mortar shops and into the catalogues of the online retailers is a mystery that my Google Fu has been unable to solve.

The latest album has several things going for it. For a start it’s a relatively recent recording that captures the sound of a live performance extremely well. Just listening to the deep, round, plummy tones of Danny Thompson’s double bass (he calls it ‘Victoria’) is enough to bring a joyful tear to the eye. The guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn ring out as if all the paraphernalia of the recording process has dissolved. There are no pickups, microphones, mixers, equalisers, recorders or speakers between the instruments and our ears, nothing to distort or subtract from the musicians’ art. OK, so Terry Cox’s drums sound a little muffled and Jacqui McShee’s voice is a little indistinct at times but as live recordings go this is a good one, a really good one.

Then there’s the performance, fresh and vibrant as the day the band was born. If you’ve never heard Pentangle live, take this album for a spin. It has songs that will caress and delight you. It has folk tales that will enchant you, too, transporting you to another place, another time; and it will welcome you and your friends to the telling.

Finale has nearly all the fans’ favourite Pentangle songs on it: Light Flight, Hunting Song, House Carpenter, Cruel Sister, Bruton Town and more. In the past I recommended Light Flight – The Anthology as the one essential Pentangle album but with Finale it has a rival. The Anthology compilation has my own all-time favourite song, The Trees They Do Grow High, but Finale has the better sound and the immediacy of a live show. Sadly, neither include the heart-warming story of Willy of Winsbury (from Solomon’s Seal) but no album is perfect.

There are no bad Pentangle albums (as far as I know) but Anthology and Finale provide a magnificent summary of the band’s work. So, ignore my previous advice. Both albums are, I think, essential for any Pentangle fan. Get them both and when you fancy a little folk with a light frosting of jazz pick one or the other according to your mood.

Notes

  1. I had nothing to do with the band’s demise, I assure you!
  2. Finale was also released as a 3-disc vinyl LP in 2017.

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Pain Killer (Summer Rain)

umbrella

It’s been a typical British summer this year. Anchored in the Atlantic Ocean just off the western edge of mainland Europe these islands get weather that is politely called ‘changeable’. In Ireland they have a saying: if you can see the hills, rain is coming; if not … it’s raining already.

A little farther east, in England, we tend to be plagued with showers. No matter how bright and sunny it is when you wake up in the morning by the time you’ve got dressed, had breakfast and stepped outside your front door the clouds are gathering. And if you are fool enough to pack a picnic and drive out into the countryside you can be sure the heavens will open just as you take the first bite of Mama’s delicious home-baked pork pie. Nothing dampens the spirits quite like eating soggy pastry and limp lettuce in the back seat of the car while peering through rain-spattered, steamed up windows, believe me.

Of course, to experience the full horror of the British weather you need to go camping. Just booking for a three-day music festival puts cloudy skies in the calendar and packing the tent guarantees a downpour on day one. The Glastonbury festival is renowned for muddy fields, but the show does (usually) go on¹. The recent Y Not festival, however, was curtailed for safety reasons because of what the organisers termed “exceptionally bad weather” – as if heavy rain is unusual in that part of the country².

While Crotchety Man waits for the increasingly rare warm, dry summer day he is reminded that Turin Brakes found the answer to inclement weather back in 2003.

Take the pain killer, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind.

Quite how they thought getting on a bike would let you outrun the storm clouds I’m not sure but at least a large dose of analgesic pills would counteract the ache in the legs as you struggle up those endless English hills.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain) was a single from Turin Brakes‘ 2003 album Ether Song. The single reached number 5 on the UK chart and the album was certified gold four days after its release.

band

Turin Brakes – Olly, Gale, Rob, Eddie

Turin Brakes was founded in 1999 by two guitarists whose names have quintessential English connotations. Oliver (Olly) Knights’ name takes us into the world of Arthur King of Camelot, Merlin the wizard, and a band of noble swordsmen pledged to fight for the king³. His partner in song has Iranian/Armenian ancestry, which accounts for the very un-English surname of Paridjanian, but his first name is perfect for a music festival in the green and pleasant lands of England: it is (hang on to your hats) Gale.

These days Turin Brakes has four members: in addition to Olly and Gale there’s Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). They play a kind of folk/rock/indie blend that falls easy on the ear. It’s not the most exciting of sounds but it’s pleasant enough to engage casual listeners right across the popular music spectrum. Try it. Take the pain killer they offer and enjoy the summer. And, remember, you can go dri-cycling even in the rain.

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Notes

  1. As far as I know Glastonbury has never been cancelled because of rain. It does have fallow years, though, when no festival is organised.
  2. It isn’t.
  3. What’s the collective noun for a group of knights? A round? A table? A Keira?

Love Rat

lovable rat

I first heard Sally Barker some time around 1990 when she was touring in support of her second album, This Rhythm Is Mine. Guest musicians on that album included Mary MacMaster¹ and Patsy Seddon, harpists from Scotland, who subsequently joined Sally and accordionist Karen Tweed to form the all-woman folk band The Poozies. If my memory serves me correctly the concert I attended at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester, UK was billed as Sally Barker but all four of The Poozies were on stage.

I particularly remember that evening for a story told by Karen Tweed. The band had arranged to rehearse at Sally’s house out in the Leicestershire countryside, a place that Karen had never visited before. When she arrived Karen found a rambling house at the end of a long drive and surrounded by a large garden with lots of trees and bushes. She knew from the directions she had been given that this was the right place but, at first, it seemed deserted. Karen had to ring three times before anyone came to the door.

When the door opened a stranger stood there with an expression on her face that seemed to say “whoever you are, don’t bother me now”. Karen hesitantly explained who she was and why she was there and the woman at the door ushered her inside saying curtly, “Go and wait in the kitchen, we’re a bit busy right now”. Karen followed the pointing finger down the corridor and as she did so she noticed a flustered figure scurrying through the house. Some furtive words were exchanged in the next room but all Karen could make out was “we may have to call the police”.

Karen found the kitchen and waited. From time to time far off voices could be heard from the garden. They were calling out to each other and sounded worried. They were looking for something, something important or precious. No-one came to the kitchen. Karen could sense that some emergency had happened and might take some time to resolve. In the meantime she thought it best to stay out of the way and decided to make herself a cup of tea.

As Karen started to search for mugs and tea she thought she heard a scratching noise from one of the floor-level cupboards. The building was probably an old farmhouse and she imagined the kitchen might be home to mice or even rats. Nervously, Karen opened the cupboard and a little girl’s face peered up at her. “Hello”, said Karen, “what are you doing in there?”. But the girl said nothing. Karen explained that she plays the accordion and she had come for a rehearsal. “Shhsh”, whispered the girl, “they’ll hear us”.

Puzzled, Karen asked the little girl why she was whispering and if she knew what was going on – what were they looking for out in the garden? “Shhsh”, said the little girl again, “They’re looking for me!”.

Sally

It was an enjoyable concert. Sally Barker writes unusually original songs and she has a warm, distinctive, soulful voice. The other musicians were faultless – I was particularly impressed with Karen Tweed’s accordion playing. So, yes, readers, I bought the CD. Although I didn’t know it at the time guests on This Rhythm Is Mine include some of the most respected musicians on the folk circuit: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Danny Thompson to name but three. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

From 1995 to 2006 Sally Barker put the music business on hold while she had two children and then cared for her husband who became ill with cancer and died in 2003. In 2007 Sally rejoined The Poozies and in 2013 she relaunched her solo career. The following year she became a contestant on the BBC talent show, The Voice, in which she finished in joint second place. As a result, according to her website, “Sally’s album ‘Another Train’ featured in the official indie charts and ‘ebayers’ were asking in excess of £100 for 2nd hand Barker LPs and CDs!”. That’s quite a comeback.

Sally Barker’s latest album, Ghost Girl, was released earlier this year but it’s not on Spotify² so I’ve chosen her Love Rat EP from 2015 as my Album of the Month. Here’s a live version of the title track. Listen to the words.

Did a chill run up your spine at the one minute mark? No? Then perhaps you’d prefer the studio version with drums, bass, organ and slide guitar supporting Sally’s vocals. (The link above is to the full band recording on Spotify.)

In addition to the title track the EP contains three original songs (Jealous Bones, Kissing a Stranger, Heart & the Shell) and two covers (Walk On By, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood). The covers are done in typical Sally Barker style; either you like them or you don’t. For me, nobody beats the original Dionne Warwick version of Walk On By, but Sally Barker’s take is pretty good, too. I do like Heart & the Shell, though. It’s one of those songs that has all the wrong characteristics for my taste: a folksy waltz, country-tinged slide guitar, not much of a tune. And yet, Sally Barker’s voice burrows under the skin and the poetry of the words sinks deep.

On the whole Sally Barker is an acquired taste. She’s no rocker and her mix of folk with a little bit of country and a soupçon of jazz will never appeal to everyone. She has a really good voice, though, and I’ll leave you with another live video that I think illustrates her talent. Anyone who can do justice to a song made famous by Sandy Denny must have something to blog about.

Notes

  1. Mary MacMaster was also mentioned in my earlier blog about the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra, a very different sort of music.
  2. There is a video of the title track on YouTube performed live as a solo piece but I don’t know if that’s representative of the album.

Zamzama

cannon

Kim’s Gun – outside Lahore Museum

The third track on my Release Radar playlist this week was called Zamzama, which is obviously a made-up word and gives no clue to its musical style. It’s by Avi Avital, Omer Avital, Yonathan Avishai and Itamar Doari, names which suggest foreign influences but which throw no further light on what might be in store for the curious listener. The album title doesn’t help either: Avital Meets Avital seems deliberately designed to mystify rather than inform.

What does it sound like? Surprisingly, I can give a very accurate description. It sounds very much like an instrumental cover of Pink Floyd‘s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun performed by a Jewish popular folk band. There are just four instruments: mandolin, piano, double bass and hand drums. The piano carries the tune and adds some faintly jazzy chords. The bass tumbles along echoing the gentle jazzy feel. The drums inject the rhythm of a joyous dance. And a light smattering of mandolin notes flash like the white hem of a wedding dress as the bride dances with her new husband.

Here’s a live version with some wonderful improvised solos:

Curiosity prompted the Crotchety fingers to search for further information. First stop, the album, which offers various blends of klezmer, jazz and classical styles, including slow ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. One track, Ana Maghrebi, sounded too much like a piece for a bar mitzvah ritual to tingle the Crotchety senses much but everything else has plenty to offer, not least some very impressive musicianship from all the players. Listening to the album convinced me that Zamzama was worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

But there was an obvious problem. This blog puts an appropriate image at the top of every post, a picture that illustrates the subject and helps this old man (and, hopefully, my readers) remember the music and my response to it. How could I choose a picture for a nonsense word? The task seemed impossible, so I decided to pick another track from the Avital Meets Avital album instead. Perhaps I should choose one of the ballads – Lonely Girl or The Source and the Sea would be worthy of a mention – and pictures for those shouldn’t be hard to find. Or should I choose something more representative of the album as a whole? Avi’s Song, Maroc and Hijazain would fit the bill but an appropriate image for those would be just as hard to find.

Avi & Omer

Avi Avital (mandolin) and Omer Avital (double bass)

And then the Crotchety brain cells sparked into life and commanded my flesh and bone digits to consult with the virtually infinite store of electronic digits that is Google. To my complete surprise the cyberspace oracle informed me that Zamzama is not a nonsense word at all. It is, in fact, the name of a very large cannon. Also known as Kim’s Gun, it was cast in 1762 in Lahore and is now on show outside the Lahore Museum. That, of course, made the choice of headline image a no-brainer.

Apparently, Zamzama is also the name of a shopping mall in Karachi and seems to have some connection with a film star famous in at least some parts of the Indian subcontinent (judging by the images Google serves up). More pertinently, though, zamzama is a Persian word meaning “murmur, whisper or pealing thunder”.

So here we have a British blogger listening through a Swedish streaming service to Israeli musicians playing a track with a Persian title used to name a gun made and fired in what was then India but is now Pakistan. Come, let’s murmur its name among our friends, whisper it to strangers and send it like pealing thunder across the rest of the globe. Let’s make it earn the tag of ‘world’ music.

Additional Note

  • There’s a rather lovely video here of Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey playing a Bach piece arranged for mandolin and harp.