Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh – the Sea Maiden

This is the way to do traditional Irish music. The 28-minute EP Thar Toinn/ Seaborne shows a wonderful sense of restraint, and its simplicity means that there are no distractions from its key features: Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, the strongly Celtic setting and the tremendous focus on melody throughout.

I’d put some wellies on love, you’ll catch your death like that.

An understated strength and smooth tenderness combine in the singer’s voice (she fronted Danú for thirteen years), making listening to her a real pleasure.

As well as the first three tracks being sung in Gaelic, the tunes accentuate the Celtic spirit, particularly the third track (I hope it’s not rude avoid its title, because it is about 60 letters long and incomprehensible to anyone outside Ireland or Irish America). The Gaelic helps actually, lending the songs an air of mystery and mood that may be lost a little if the words were more easily understood.

Nic Amhlaoibh has an ear for melody and each song has a clear and natural tune. While few of us can understand Gaelic, these tunes win out and are easy enough to sing along to (well, hum, anyway). The thoroughly enjoyable “Faoiseamh Faoistine” – as beautiful a song as you could want to hear – is the only song that is not traditional. That’s surprising, as its fluid lines sound like they’ve been honed and preserved across the years. Gerry O’Beirne, who plays guitar on two tracks here, has set to music a poem by the late poet and boatman Danny Sheehy about connecting land and sea.

Nic Amhlaoibh’s name means ‘sea maiden’ and the sea is the main theme connecting these six songs. “Air Failirinn Iù” is a lament told from the perspective of a woman whose love has drowned and she sings as if she is watching it happen. Here Julie Fowlis adds vocals and the subtle drone of violin and cello aid the tone. “Sweet Kingswilliamtown” was written by a passenger on the Titanic, who survived that trip, but became the last American soldier to be killed in the first World war.

In a nifty link, that song includes the words “Blackwater’s side”, which may be why the following track is the classic “Blackwaterside,” covered by so many and always gorgeous. Here Nic Amhlaoibh lets more emotion into her singing.

The accompaniment is highly understated: tenderly picked guitar on the first track, along with Ebow, fiddle, and keys; a glacially paced piano on the fourth, and guitars and keys on “Blackwaterside.” Each half ends with a distinct change of pace. On the wishing-well Kerry song “Tá Na Báid Go Doimhin Sa Bhfarraige / Sios Cois Na Trá Agus Amach Chun Na Farraige” (I told you it was long…) which seems to speed up as it goes along, Nic Amhlaoibh picks up her whistle, joining accordion and guitar for a reel at the end; while the final track sees her slow right down, accompanied only by a yaybahar. This Turkish-based instrument makes a haunting drone-like sound and is a so rare that it isn’t built commercially. Here her husband plays a home-made version that adds mystery to a song about a woman captured by fairies.

This superbly-curated set of six songs should appeal to anyone who enjoys traditional Irish music, as it encapsulates its strengths so well.

Self-released –

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A Trip Down ‘Memory Lain’ with Caravan

Releasing a 37-disc box set is a brave affair: the fans will already have a lot of the best albums, while those who do not know the band are unlikely to splash out several hundred pounds to buy it. But Caravan’s Who Do You Think We Are? has some very tasty contents that should tempt any prog-lover.

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Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe

So much is epic about this release, from the less-than-modest title and the ambitious approach to production to the power of the music and – of course – the musicianship behind it all.

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John Smith, Hillsong and the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Part 1: The Roots.

It’s a very ordinary name for an extraordinary man. Rev Dr John Smith, Founder-in-Chief of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club, was a one-off. Likened to John Wesley on a bike, he was a minister to the marginalised – but he still got a message from Bono at this funeral service in 2019, which was attended by well over a thousand, including some rival biker gangs.

Smith is sadly no longer with us, but his words about the prosperity gospel – born of his first-hand experience of the early days of the Hillsong phenomenon – are (also sadly) still very much needed.

This piece is a re-working of my interview with Smith from 2004.


Hillsong is a global mega-church for celebrities (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt and Vanessa Hudgens are among those have attended) and their vibrant image is a huge attraction. But Aussie Smith knew the leadership and the tactics they have employed to court the wealthy. So when he likened the brand to cancer, it was a serious and informed accusation.

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A Song for Change

Can a song change lives or communities? Three songwriters hope that We Seek Your Kingdom will do just that. So does the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), who have commissioned it, along with the Thy Kingdom Come movement.

Revd. Graham Hunter (who co-wrote the song with Noel Robinson and Andy Flannagan) believes that the songs we sing in church shape the content of our faith. He explains, “We need songs that help us see that following Christ is an everyday-life thing. Maybe we’re a builder, a nurse, a teacher, but we need to know that our faith is active and meaningful, and that God is on our front line, wherever that might be.”

That is where this song is different. Sung to the tune of Abide with Me, the lyrics of We Seek Your Kingdom open with the plea, “We seek your kingdom throughout every sphere / We long for heaven’s demonstration here” and go on to mention specific areas like culture, media, trade and the economy.

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Waterboys – Good Luck Seeker

Fisherman’s Blues this certainly isn’t – but it’s exhilarating, just the same.

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Revisiting This Planet

This is what happens when one of the biggest-selling artists in Christian music reworks the genre’s first landmark album. Kevin Max treats us to a re-imagined version of Only Visiting This Planet.

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Hackett, Steve – Under a Mediterranean Sky

We may not be able to travel the Mediterranean at the moment, but Hackett gives us an impressionistic tour with this acoustic-and-strings project as he continues to broaden his scope.

I often find it fascinating to hear an artist’s work and catch the bits that are intrinsically ‘them’ and this release has Hackett’s DNA running through it.

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Molly Tuttle – …but i’d rather be with you

This is very decent for a lockdown stopgap.

Label: Compass Records
Time: 10 tracks / 39 mins

Last year I was completely bowled over by Tuttle’s début album When You’re Ready. I noted that, “There are no fireworks here, just beautifully, beautifully judged songs that you want to put on repeat.”

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Iona – 30 Years of Groundbreaking Music, oh, and Saving the Odd Life

Nominating the best UK Christian band of the last 40 years is clearly a subjective matter. U2 almost qualify, but are mainly Irish, so don’t quite count. Delirious? also had chart success, but largely on the back of keen churchgoing fans. So did After the Fire – just. I would nominate Iona for that honour.

Iona had so much going for them: musically, they could perform remarkably complex pieces that are beyond the ability of many others; their music could reach spiritually stirring heights; they combined genres in a tremendously creative manner; and they took brazenly Christian music into secular venues, like musical missionaries.

Although the band has now finished, this summer the co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dave Bainbridge masterminded a celebratory box set of all their studio material to mark their 30th anniversary.

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It’s Another Big Story from Neal Morse – This Time It’s St. Paul

Looking at Morse’s history, it’s a surprise it took him so long to make an album telling Paul’s story. And boy, was it worth it!

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Covering some Classics: Morse, Portnoy and George excel.

There seem to be a few covers albums out recently – a few included on this blog. Is this release the best of the lot?

Image via InsideOut Music
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Steve Hackett – Selling England by the Pound and Spectral Mornings Live at Hammersmith

Achievement can dull ambition, and most successful musicians slow down after a while. Not Hackett. He is as keen to make great music now as ever, as his 2019 album At the Edge of Light shows. But he also knows that his fanbase still want the classics that soundtrack their lives – which makes this release special.

While this tour promoted his latest work, it also celebrated 40 years of the Spectral Mornings solo album, playing all but two of those tracks. But its hugest appeal lay in a complete performance of the zenith of Genesis’ catalogue. Selling England by the Pound is an album that still thrills after more than 45 years.

Photo Lee Millward (via The Publicity Connection)
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Kate Rusby: Handed Down Songs

There are two big questions here: how old does a song have to be to be classed as a folk song? And how should you approach a cover – be faithful to the original or make it your own?

Hand Me Down
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A Genesis in my Bed

There might be less Genesis than I expected in guitarist Steve Hackett’s pacy autobiography, but the ‘other stuff’ is just as interesting. Any prog fan will enjoy this – and it is so easy to keep re-reading.

Steve Hackett with Mike Rutherford. Image: ©Armando Gallo/ARGA Images Inc. (via The Publicity Connection)

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A Proper Double Album – Dreamland

Is Dan Whitehouse the David Bowie of folk? His voice often has the same timbre. He also has a similar sensitivity to moods, strong songwriting talent and flippant approach to genre, letting songs find their own sound, rather than force them into a style for the sake of it.

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Gigspanner – a Cert for Best-of-2020 Folk Album Lists.

There are times when ‘big’ is highly relative, and that applies to Gigspanner, the trio formed by ex-Steeleye Span veteran Peter Knight. Its Big Band version still only has six members.

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Dion – “I Should be Dead.” But he’s Fully Alive Here.

“If I got what’s coming, man, I should be dead,” sings Dion on the star-studded Blues with Friends. He’s right, after 15 years of heroin addiction and a last-minute decision to save $36 – and inadvertently his life – by not taking the plane flight that killed Buddy Holly, he has cheated death at least once. He’s made the most of his life since, though. Forget his age – this is an absolutely top-class feast of blues.

Noble PR

Who else can you think of, who was in the vanguard of rock and roll in the ‘50s and is still making relevant music today and winning plaudits?

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Avishai Cohen – Big Vicious

This is a remarkable instrumental album. Sometimes jazz releases can be clever-but-unpleasant; this one, though, is an absolute delight, because the band has put melody centre stage, expanded the style to include electronica, and re-invented a classic Massive attack track brilliantly. More music should be like this.

Avishai Cohen (Image by kind permision of Ziv Ravitz)
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Tangerine Dream – Recurring Dreams

Electronica pioneers reinvent some of their classic work.

Tangerine Dream were true innovators, pioneering the use of synthesizers as a sole instrument and creating a mainstream genre in the process.

It took a while. Their initial work was what a school friend called ‘brick music’ – as if you would put a brick on a keyboard and come back five minutes later to move it along the keys a bit. He wasn’t far wrong.

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