FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: AN ICON AND A RISING STAR
Last night found me at the Barbican Centre in London to see a true icon and a rising star in contemporary folk music. It is scarcely believable that Judy Collins, whose career in music spans over 60 years, can still deliver her interpretations of the works of classic songwriters alongside her self-penned songs with such a vigorous, nuanced and powerful voice. She may struggle to remember names and forget a few song lines but, together with her frequent quips and meandering anecdotes, it all added up to an immensely entertaining evening.
Photos of Judy Collins and Blánid by Kevin England
Opening tonight for Judy Collins was an undoubted rising star in the shape of Blánid, an artiste much featured in these columns for her remarkable voice and beautifully crafted songs. From her spectacular vocal opening to her closing confessional, “Bad Decisions”, she held an audience, unfamiliar with her work, enthralled. It was equally rewarding to see a star of Judy Collins’ magnitude offering a stage to a new generation of talent. There will be a little more about this show next week when I’ve had time to take it all in and reflect some more.
From a singing icon and a rising star next to an artiste who has scaled musical heights of her own over the past decade. A little piece of stardust dropped into my Inbox this week in the shape of a new song from Hampshire songstress, Lucy Kitchen. Lucy’s haunting entry song to the 2015 Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition, “Blue Eyes” stole my heart. I was delighted when she got through to the live finals and went on to open the erstwhile John Peel Stage at the festival on Sunday, drawing in an early morning crowd siren-like. Her subsequent 2017 album, Sun to My Moon, was a contemporary folk masterpiece.
Lucy is emerging from a truly difficult time. Her husband, Stephen, died last October after living with terminal cancer for four years. Naturally she has been hardly active on the music front yet has found the will to return with the poignant “Olivia”, a letter in song to a friend whose relationship was falling apart though one they did not want to abandon. Its warm and tender sentiments are enhanced by the vintage feel of a live recording with Lucy’s voice as beautifully toned as always and just backing vocals overdubbed. The song will be released next Friday as part of Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours Vol 2, a compilation album curated by the admirable Paul Hillery. Lucy is planning to put out more new music in the coming months as she continues her pathway.
It is not long now until the debut Debris Discs album Post War Plans is out yet the Derbyshire-based artiste James Eary who uses that moniker for his solo work still found time to release an EP this month entitled The Empress Way, featuring the upcoming album’s title track and two imaginative and quite different remixes of his last single “Losing the Matriarch” by Rodney Cromwell and Magic Arm respectively. The three tracks are connected by family memories going back to James’ grandpa’s youth. You can check out The Empress Way on Bandcamp here.
“Post War Plans” was inspired by a letter written by James’ Grandpa during World War 2 in response to a question from his brother about his, yes, post war plans. James writes that his response listed things “typical of the bone-dry humour and wistfulness found throughout his wartime letters”: to be alive, have a good holiday (not camping out either), the best thing available, to look around for something better and finally, a wife! The song dresses the sentiments of a coping mechanism in bright, melodic synths and muted bass over which the singer’s relaxed vocal style perfectly sits. Inspiring stuff.
Just when you thought this year’s output from indie pop’s mysterious Midlands maestros [That’s enough alliteration – Ed] , The Happy Somethings, could hardly get more prolific, out pops a new EP. Conveniently called Unhinged, the 4-track EP title might seem to mirror the construction of that previous sentence. However, there’s method in any hint of madness and each track bubbles with its own personality. It opens with the off-kilter guitar driven “Hey Tricky!”, borrowing a snatch of “Hey Mickey”, made famous by a cheerleading Toni Basil in the early 80s. I was equally taken by the next song with another intriguing title.
“Everyone Seems To Like Me (except you)” is text book THS, lyrically combining wry observations with poetic passages and sudden insights (“Love is a two-way ticket to happy and sad”) all set to a jauntily paced tune and charmingly voiced by Joy. The song is nicely stretched out with a spacious instrumental break midway and an unexpected pause towards the end. The EP is completed by the cleverly titled, amusingly reflective “Men Pause” and the short, sharp blast of “Bubble”. Maybe there is an early onset of midlife crisis underpinning the four songs here. Unhinged is available as a free download on Bandcamp, or you can do the nice thing and pay a few quid which will go towards future THS recordings. You’d have to be deranged not to.
Photo of Sig Sali by Charles Dean
Next to a new name to Fifty3 Fridays. Bristol alt-pop duo, SIG SALI came together in 2022, combining the talents of multi-instrumentalist Danny Pugh and vocalist Imogen Chapman. SIG SALI trades in elevating choruses and memorable hooks, driven by euphoric dance beats. After two singles, "Stay Tonight" and "Reasons" received favourable reception, the duo is now a trio for its latest release by pairing up across the world with Danny’s sister, Sydney based Natassa Zoe, from Dande and The Lions. The family connection also explains SIG SALI’s band name; a corruption of SIGSALY, a long-distance communication system used in the second world war. This was a tag Natassa came up with years ago as a future band name; very apt for a long-distance music project.
The collaboration between SIG SALI and Natassa Zoe is realised in the release of “Pillow Thoughts”, with Natassa contributing the lyrics and helping put together the main hook, inspired by Danny’s bassy drum beats coming out of the apartment he was staying at while visiting his sister in Sydney. Propelled by those energetic beats, the song quickly came together and was recorded at Natassa’s home that same day. After a steady build, there is a liberating feel to Imogen’s lead vocal allied to insistent synths and interwoven guitar in what becomes both an extended coda and climax. Nice work.
Photo of Venus Grrrls by Misha Warren
It has been a while since we featured Leeds alt-rock five-piece Venus Grrrls, in part because the all-female band had an enforced break while lead singer Grace Kelly (GK) recovered from leukaemia. The road back was signalled by the single “Lidocaine” released in August, the unusual song title referencing a local anaesthetic used as a numbing agent during bone marrow biopsies while also acting as a metaphor as a mental and spiritual crutch. Now the band is quickly back with a follow up single which reaffirms its empowerment stance in the face of adverse experiences.
From a relatively sparse, considered build, “Liar Liar” has a cracking, infectious chorus which hits back at the manipulation which is at the core of the song’s narrative. The titular abuser is exposed from the opening lines and confronted both to empower the victim and let the perpetrator know they have been tumbled. With tight ensemble playing, searing guitar and a confident lead vocal, Venus Grrrls tackle a complex subject head on in a way that anyone in a similar situation or aware of someone in that position should quickly relate to. Impressive and they rock!
Last month I discovered the fine blues rock of Kansas City, Missouri native Samantha Fish’s partnership with Jesse Dayton which resulted in last year’s EP Stardust Sessions and subsequent 2023 album, Death Wish Blues. I confessed to being a sucker for such well-matched collaborations and was pleased to air a track from each of the records. To close this week, here is the latest single from the album ahead of the duo’s full band tour of the UK next month. “Lover On The Side” sees the pair playfully trading lines vocally about a doomed illicit relationship with Jesse taking the lead guitar spotlight and Samantha providing the chugging rhythm. Sam & Jesse will be touring the UK in October from Sunderland to Bexhill on Sea. The live video gives you a great appetiser.