On discovering new music: hell yeah, The Decemberists

I’ve written before about the magic that new music can bring to your life.

(c) heathre on Flickr. Totally not my photo. Click to check it out

(c) heathre on Flickr. Totally not my photo. Click to check it out and a bunch of other great ones

My most recent “new” music – i.e. that I’ve just discovered, rather than actually new ‒ is the album The King is Dead, by American group The Decemberists. Currently formed of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen, it hails from Oregon, and this is the band’s sixth and most recent album, according to this peerless record.

But although I enjoy their vaguely revolutionary, historical-sounding name, and appreciate their background, I actually just bloody love this music. I could happily travel for miles in discomfort if I had this on repeat – it’s the aural equivalent of a comfy pillow, warm blanket and whisky-laced, milky coffee.

Aaand apparently they’re bringing out a new album this month! *CLAPS HANDS LIKE A JOYFUL SEAL*

Released in 2011, The King is Dead is a beautiful and uplifting melding of influences, including American and British folk ‒ using instruments such as accordions and fiddles alongside the usual pianos and guitars ‒ and seems more reminiscent of country standards and lackadaisical acoustic tunes than modern US pop-rock.

This is especially evident in the single Rox in the Box (above), which features a harmony of the often-covered tune the Raggle Taggle Gypsies, making it sound unmistakeably folk. I am an unashamed country-music lover (proud!) and similarly cannot get enough of acoustic-style folk songs.

Whether English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, American, Breton, any tunes of that ilk make me feel heart-burstingly better about the state of the world – see Bellowhead, Kate Rusby, Fleetfoxes, Cara Dillon, Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, Mumford & Sons, Blake Shelton…even (especially?) Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert make it on my go-to happy-place list…

I particularly love how the genres’ “of the people”, vernacular nature means they cover vast subject matter, from mournful and incredibly emotional laments, to tales and legends from history; from hilarious and tongue-in-cheek observations on society, to fantastically toe-tapping jigs, and politically-important protest songs.

The King is Dead is more at the emotional, tongue-in-cheek, knees-up end of things, but also throws in a dash of history and lamentation too.

Its rhythms and melodies are shot through with a golden streak of major-key positivity, with lead singer’s Meloy’s voice reminding me strongly of the more upbeat Michael Stipe (of R.E.M) numbers (such as Shiny Happy People) – an influence that seems less strange when you learn that Peter Buck of R.E.M. contributed to three tracks, including Calamity Song and Down By the Water, which was nominated for a Best Rock Song Grammy Award in 2011 (and sounds straight out of an R.E.M album if you ask me!).

I bloody love it. I might move on to a few of their other albums too, but for the moment, I’ve got The King is Dead on repeat. It’s damn difficult to pick a favourite song from ten great tracks, but here are the rest of my top five at the moment (in addition the one above)…

June Hymn

Calamity Song

January Hymn

Dear Avery

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I’m loving: Folk music

Maniere des Bohemiens, a Hungarian gypsy-jazz folk band at Wilderness

Maniere des Bohemiens, a gypsy-jazz folk band at Wilderness….foot-stompingly fabulous!

OK, so I realise that this is a pretty bloody wide topic to say ‘I’m loving’, and frankly, I’m hardly qualified to make any kind of comment at all on it, given that my own eclectic music tastes hop around like an overexcited magpie on speed, ranging wildly from Maroon 5 to Emeli Sande to Glee (yes, I know) to Imelda May to Ella Fitzgerald to Peggy Lee to Stevie Wonder to Alanis Morrisette to Rihanna to Phil Collins to Elton John to Tinie Tempah (again, I know) to Lady Gaga and back again via a whole load more (OK, you get it), as well as folk.

Recently though, I’ve had the chance to see several open-air performances of some truly talented folk musicians, and in doing so have discovered quite a few new artists, while appreciating artists I already knew about even more.

And I’ve found myself absolutely loving it on a deeper level than something to just have a dance or a sing to…and what’s more, I’ve gone from not especially liking live music (never as well-mixed or easy to listen to as the recorded version) to thinking that it’s really quite fab (chilled, more atmospheric, and SO MUCH FUN).

For some reason, as I said to a friend recently, it feels like ‘I’m coming home’. Whatever that means, I’m not entirely sure, as ‘home’ for me is a sketchy concept at best, and certainly wouldn’t include a folk music history in any case, but, no matter – in no particular order, here’s the Top 10 of the songs I’ve had on repeat for the past few weeks.

The first few are the folky/acoustic ones I’ve been loving but after that it kind of descends into slightly less-focused madness…(but for that I make no apology…this is my blog and I get to decide its soundtrack 🙂 )

1. Fuel Up by Stornoway (discovered and fell in love with at Wilderness Festival this year…)

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2. Zorbing by Stornoway (am loving Stornoway so much that twice this week I’ve been listening to it on the Tube and missed my stop; one time it took 2 more stops before I even noticed. Now that’s special. Honestly, would be a serious pain in the arse if I wasn’t enjoying it so much)

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3. The Lass of Glenshee by Cara Dillon

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4. The Parting Glass by Cara Dillon

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5. Country Life by Show of Hands (were headline act at Folk by the Oak this year – put on an amazing show )

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6. Roots by Show of Hands

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7. Sovereign Light Cafe by Keane

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8. Underneath the Stars by Kate Rusby (old favourite but had it on the iPod again recently)

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9. Read All About It Part III by Emeli Sande

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10. Wherever You Will Go by Charlene Soraia (brilliantly touching cover of old, moody classic 🙂 )

Review: Kate Rusby in Regent’s Park

Despite a lacklustre start and dismal weather, folk singer Kate Rusby’s haunting melodies provided the perfect end to a slow and wintry Sunday

Rainy audience at Kate Rusby

Summer shower multi-tasking: toe-tapping and holding an umbrella simultaneously (Photo: Alice Moran)

Wandering into the surroundings of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park feels a little like being ushered in to a children’s forest-closeted den, hidden away behind trees and velvet greenery into a new, bohemian world where fairies (or at least, fairy-lights) linger and pixies abound. Despite such an exciting setting, which felt at first to be a pleasing contrast to the manicured lawns of the surrounding Regent’s Park, the atmosphere of extremely popular (and rightly so) folk singer Kate Rusby’s show initially struggled to get going. Although the first support act (no idea who they were, but their arrestingly manic, folky set provided a rousing if somewhat perplexing introduction to the evening) gave it their best efforts, the fairly middle-class, seemingly largely middle-aged audience huddled on damp seats as a kind of muted hush descended, a spattering of umbrellas (not strictly allowed) and a peppering of plastic ponchos bracing themselves against the wind and rain as the not-so-witty repartee of the second supporting act (formed, it transpired, of three members of Kate Rusby’s band), failed to elicit much response.

Kate Rusby support act, including Damian O'Kane

The support act: fantastic music, not so great stage presence...! (Photo: Alice Moran)

Rusby’s husband and father of their child Daisy, Damien O’Kane, the lead singer in the second band, is either a dryly comic genius, or a miserable old git. My indecision over which epithet to award to the stilted attempts at stage banter rather clouded what could have been a truly enjoyable start to the performance, although the music was energetic and playful, and the banjos, guitars and a bodhran, the typical Irish drum, saw me tapping my toes like a loon as the desperate desire to get up and dance a jig washed over me like the warm satisfaction that comes from a nice long Guinness. So far, so good.

Doris the dog

But really, and such is, lamentably, the lot of support acts, I sensed the evening wasn’t really going to get started until Kate Rusby herself graced the stage, and after what seemed like a good long while, there she was, walking unassumingly towards the front, drink and cardigan in hand, and looking all the world as if she was just doing a gig for some old, but great, friends in her local bar. She was warm, outgoing, professional and actually very funny, the syrupy Yorkshire vowels I recognised from her songs bemoaning the weather and thanking everyone for braving it with her. Halfway through she shrugged on a very snuggly-looking cardigan, spoke about her young daughter’s antics with some felt tip pens and the household dog Doris, apologised for having a bit of a cough, and, also, wonderfully, wrapped her incredible voice around the utterly absorbing, moving melodies for which she is famous, caressing the wind-and-rain-buffeted audience into a captivated reverie.

Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby, a wonderful performer (Photo: Alice Moran)

Athough I was a bit miffed that I didn’t recognise most of what she sang (as I haven’t much listened to her new album yet), I toe-tapped, swayed, smiled and sung along as if in a dream, emerging completely relaxed and never wanting it to end. Kate Rusby’s beautifully lilting repertoire is usually the last thing I hear before I go to sleep; an array of nearly all of her studio albums playing softly in the background until my computer turns itself off, so I felt a little sheepish if not very sleepy when Kate announced that this was her final song, followed with a weepy encore of the gorgeous ‘Fare Thee Well’. What about ‘You Belong To Me?’, I thought, ‘The Streams of Nancy’, ‘John Barbury’, ‘Andrew Lammie’, ‘High on a Hill’; the harmonies that nearly move me to tears with their beauty before carrying me off to sleep?

Top-notch guitar

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the nature of folk music;  the ease with which artists cover other artists’ work; lend their particular style to the old traditional tunes, and the sheer size of her repertoire, means that Kate would never have had time to cover all my old favourites.  I did happily perk up to sing along to Awkward Annie (the title track from my most-loved album) and recognised a couple of others, but the other songs passed by in a haze of exquisite melodies, lively lyrics and top-notch guitar playing. The very handsome double bass provided the anchor for the light over-melodies, while the plucks from the banjo reminded everyone that this was home-grown, hearty folk music, sprung from and infused with the history and soul of the land, whether Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh.

Despite the cold, despite the weather, despite her still-miserable looking but very sweet husband reminding the audience that she was fighting a cold, Kate’s vocals were flawless, and sounded almost exactly the same as the pure, resounding arrangements on her released recordings. There was no rousing standing ovation, no huge waves of cheering, no ear-splitting whoops, but a quick scan around the audience during a song picked up hundreds of knees and toes tapping in unison, and the polite but increasingly lengthy applause gathered in fervour as the show went on. After all, this was a folk concert in a woody enclave of central London in the dying hours of a rainy afternoon, not a rock show in a heavily amplified arena on a Saturday night. Admittedly, I would have liked more whooping, and more than once wished I was nearer the front (despite having a great view from where I was), so that I could make my appreciation heard in an attempt to rouse the sometimes-lacklustre audience response and let the band know that we did actually appreciate their being there.

Kate Rusby

This photo is a bit blurred but I actually love how it captures the light and the movement of the band (Photo: Alice Moran)

Bless them, they were trying so hard and Kate was clearly having a ball, but the wintery weather and outside aspect meant much of the crowd’s appreciation seemed to get lost in the wind – and I could understand O’Kane’s characteristic deadpan response when he informed us that the audience of their recent gig in Belfast were much more vocal. This was, however, one of several pleasingly tongue-in-cheek digs at Kate – O’Kane is from Coleraine in Northern Ireland, while Rusby demonstrably hails from Barnsley, so this apparently mocking comment snuck in under the radar as Kate responded with heartfelt humour and carried on, a huge smile on her face as she closed her eyes to the beauty of the next song.

All in all, I’ve been more excited, I’ve been more loud, I’ve been more enthused, but I nevertheless enjoyed myself immensely. The show’s atmosphere lightly improved as the sun went down, and any heavy rain thankfully held off to be replaced by a smattering of manageable drizzle. Walking out the of the show, past all the twinkling fairy-lights still twisted into the bushes next to a lawn of picnic tables, I couldn’t help but think I would have loved the show more if it had taken place in a bar or, fittingly, on a lawn, rather than in the faux-formal, slightly ‘make-believe’ and not-altogether folk-appropriate setting of a theatre, even an outside one, but I nevertheless hummed all the way home suffused with a sense of peace and wonder. Despite the weather, the slightly disappointing enthusiasm levels from the audience and the slow start, in the end my only complaint was that Kate Rusby, one of my favourite artists, with a voice of molten gold, couldn’t have sung for longer.

‘Fare Thee Well’ – Kate sung this as an encore (and she was also wearing a red flower in her hair similar to this one!)

Another one of my favourites, which really showcases her voice – ‘You Belong To Me’ (loads more on YouTube!)

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has events on all summer until September

Kate Rusby is on tour around the UK until December – full details of all her upcoming shows on her website