Westside Artists to gain Momentum in summer show at Blossom Street Gallery

 Autonomous, mixed-media collage on box canvas, by Sharon McDonagh, long-listed for the 2021 Aesthetica Art Prize and now to be shown in the Momentum Summer Show at Blossom Street Gallery, York

YORK art group Westside Artists open their Momentum Summer Show at Blossom Street Gallery, by Micklegate Bar, York, on Friday (25/6/2021).

This coterie of artists from the Holgate and West area of York will be showing a varied range of disciplines, from painting and photomontage to textiles, ceramics and mixed-media art.

Among the participating artists, and a key organiser too, is Sharon McDonagh, from Holgate, who had her mixed-media work long-listed for this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize, whose accompanying exhibition is running at York Art Gallery. One of Sharon’s submitted pieces, Autonomous, is now featuring in the Momentum show.

Missy T, oil on canvas, by Lucie Wake

Joining her at Blossom Street Gallery are: Adele Karmazyn, digital photomontages; Carolyn Coles, seascapes; Donna Maria Taylor, mixed media; Ealish Wilson, textiles; Fran Brammer, textiles; Jane Dignum, prints; Jill Tattersall, mixed media; Kate Akrill, Skullduggery ceramics, and Lucy McElroy, portraits.

So too are: Lucie Wake, from Facet Painting, paintings and portraits; Marc Godfrey-Murphy, alias MarcoLooks, illustrations; Mark Druery, pen and watercolour sketches; Michelle Hughes, prints; Rich Rhodes, ceramics; Robin Grover-Jaques, painting and metalwork, and Simon Palmour, photographs.

The Momentum Summer Show will be gaining momentum until September 26. Gallery opening hours are: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 10am to 4pm; Covid-compliant measures are in place.

Untitled, ‘Dark and Light’ acrylic on canvas, by Robin Grosvenor-Jaques

Scrum down for Luke Adamson’s fun and games with Twelfth Night at Selby RUFC

A variation on Malvolio’s cross-gartered stocking theme: Yellow and black rugby socks for Luke Adamson’s version of Twelfth Night on the Selby RUFC pitch

“I’M just getting in touch to announce that we’re doing some Shakespeare on a rugby pitch in Selby in August. Crazy? Perhaps. But it’s going to be fun!”, promises the email from Luke Adamson.

The Selby actor, London pub theatre boss and son of former England squad fly half Ray Adamson will be returning to the scene of his “greatest triumphs” – two times winner of Selby Rugby Club’s Stars in Their Eyes competition, no less – to present Twelfth Night on August 20 and 21.

Adapted and directed by Adamson, his raucous, musical version of “Shakespeare’s funniest play” will be staged on Selby RUFC turf by JLA Productions with Adamson as the foppish comic foil Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a cast rich with Yorkshire acting talent.

Twelfth Night is the Shakespeare one where identical twins Sebastian and Viola are separated at sea after their ship sinks. When Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria, she must disguise herself as a man in order to gain employment with the local Duke, Orsino.

“Filled with slapstick comedy, famous songs and more than a few modern references, our Twelfth Night promises to be a fast, funny, family-friendly show for all ages,” says Luke Adamson, Selby actor-director and former Selby RUFC fifth team scrum half

In a nutshell, “Orsino is in love with Olivia; Olivia is in love with Viola (who she thinks is a man called Cesario); Malvolio thinks Olivia is in love with him; Viola is in love with Orsino (who also thinks she is a man called Cesario),” runs the plot.

“Antonia is in love with Sebastian; Sir Andrew is trying to woo Olivia; Feste is stirring the pot and Sir Toby Belch and Maria are getting drunk and making mischief.”

Ah, yes, that one! “Out go pantaloons, cross garters and big fluffy collars,” says Luke. “In come rugby socks, cricket jumpers and questionable facial hair. Filled with slapstick comedy, famous songs and more than a few modern references, it promises to be a fast, funny, family-friendly show for all ages.”

Luke, artistic director of JLA Productions and The Bridge House Theatre, in London SE20, is no stranger to the Selby RUFC pitches. He once played scrum half alongside his fly-half father Ray, who toured Australia and Fiji as part of England’s squad in 1988.

Perfect pitch! Luke Adamson and fellow Slung Low cast members Sally Ann Staunton, Nadia Imam and Tyron Maynard for Rugby Songs, performed at Selby RUFC in July 2017

“It was for Selby  fifth team” recalls Luke, who later returned to the ground on a Sunday afternoon in July 2017 as part of the squad for Leeds company Slung Low’s free Selby Arts Festival performance of Lisa Holdsworth’s Rugby Songs: the show with headsets for the crowd, first staged at assorted Yorkshire grounds during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Luke knew Slung Low director Alan Lane from doing Blood + Chocolate with him in York in 2013 and festival director David Edmunds from when his Dep Arts organisation helped him to  tour One Last Waltz, a play about Alzheimer’s.

“The prospect of doing a show with rugby songs at rugby club grounds was something I wanted to get involved with, so I contacted Alan,” he says.

“I’d played Rugby Union since junior days, as a scrum half, starting at seven years old, and my dad went on tour with England in 1988, when he was playing for fly half and full back for Wakefield, and he was also in the squad for the Five Nations, so it was interesting when the script came through, with stories such as when England fans first sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, at Twickenham that year.”

Ray Adamson, Wakefield and Selby fly half, 1988 England squad member and actor Luke’s father, in his playing days

Chris Oti, England’s black winger, had scored a second-half hattrick of tries that March afternoon in a 35-3 victory, prompting the Twickenham throng to burst into their tribute song. “‘I was there’, my dad said. ‘What, you were in the crowd?’ I asked him. ‘No, I was on the England bench’!”

Ray reached the rugby heights, first as a player then as a referee, and Luke showed promise too. “I played in the North Yorkshire squad for one season in my age group, but by then I was starting to go to youth theatre in York and I knew that was the route I wanted to go down, but I did play a season with the Selby fifths with my dad in 2006-2007,” he recalls.

The July 2017 sold-out performance took place on Selby RUFC’s first-team pitch with the crowd on the touchlines, hearing every note and story behind each national song, from New Zealand’s Haka to South Africa’s Shosholoza, through hi-tech headphone technology, the trademark of Slung Low’s outdoor productions.

Luke, who appeared in the 2015 production too, performed with Nadia Imam, Tyron Maynard and Sally Ann Staunton, each kitted in myriad national rugby shirts.

The post for JLA Productions’ Twelfth Night at Selby RUFC

“Doing it in the middle of summer, it was so hot as we each had to have six jerseys on at one point – and we had to make sure we’d all got them on in the right order,” he says Luke.

The Kiwis’ Haka is traditionally the most fearsome sight and sound in world rugby, but Luke fondly remembers that not being the case on that Sunday afternoon. “I’m not sure it’s quite as intimidating when you have just four actors,” he concedes. “But the message was very profound and philosophical about life and death.”

Now he will return to Selby RUFC, for all the fun and games of Twelfth Night, later this summer.

JLA Productions in Twelfth Night, Selby Rugby Union Football Club, August 20, 7.30pm; August 21, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Tickets are on sale at jlaproductions.co.uk with discounts available for family bookings.

‘When a joke makes a good point, I think people enjoy it,” says York-bound Ed Byrne

Ed Byrne: Topping the bill at York Theatre Royal next Thursday

JULY I will be Ed Byrne’s night in York when the observational Southern Irish comedian headlines an all-star bill for the Live At The Theatre Royal Comedy Night.

Byrne, 49, from Swords, County Dublin, has presented the television shows Just For Laughs and Uncut! Best Unseen Ads and co-hosted BBC2’s The World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Dara And Ed’s Big Adventure and Dara And Ed’s Road To Mandalay with fellow Irish humorist Dara O Briain.

He is a regular guest on numerous television panel games, most notably Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You and has appeared on TV cooking shows, such as Comic Relief Bake Off 2015. As a semi-professional hill-walker and fully paid-up humanist, he brought a refreshing warmth and honesty to BBC2’s The Pilgrimage.

Byrne last played York in March 2018, presenting his Spoiler Alert tour show at the Grand Opera House, where he explored the thin line between righteous complaining and brattish whining as he asked: “Are we right to be fed up or are we spoiled?”

Joining the self-deprecating Bryne will be Mock The Week’s whip-smart wordsmith Rhys James and Have I Got News For You panellist-in-lockdown Maisie Adam, who performed from her living room on the second Your Place Comedy bill with prankster Simon Brodkin last May, as part of the virtual home entertainment series organised by Selby Town Council arts officer Chris Jones.

July 1’s 7.30pm show will be hosted by legendary compere-beyond-compare Arthur Smith, the veteran gloomy weather-faced comedian and presenter from Bermondsey, London.

Tickets cost £20 at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568.

The importance of being honest: Ed Byrne will play Harrogate Theatre on his autumn tour

ED Byrne’s Live At The Theatre Royal Comedy Night in York next Thursday is a one-off, detached from his If I’m Honest tour.

To see that show in North Yorkshire, you will have to wait until October 12 at Harrogate Theatre, when he will delve into a father’s sense of responsibility, what it means to be a man in 2021, and whether he possesses any qualities worth passing on to his two sons.

Noted for his whimsy, Byrne is more serious in tone in If I’m Honest. Take gender politics, for example. “I’ll admit that there are things where men get a raw deal,” he says. ‘We have higher suicide rates, and we tend not to do well in divorces, but representation in action movies is not something we have an issue with.

“It was Mad Max: Fury Road that kicked it all off, even though nobody complained about Ripley in Alien or Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Of course, social media means this stuff gets broadcast far and wide in an instant, which emboldens people.”

Byrne continues: “The problem with men’s rights activists is that it’s not about speaking up for men’s rights, it’s about hating women. If you’re a men’s rights activist, you’re not going to care about the fact that there’s an all-female Ghostbusters remake.

“That’s nothing to do with men’s rights or female entitlement. That’s everything to do with being, well, a whiny baby.”

Byrne judges how to be provocative without being too polemical. “I did stuff about Trump and the Pizzagate right wing conspiracy, and a couple of the reviewers said, “Oh, I would have liked to have watched a whole show of this’. And I think, ‘well, you might have, but the average person who comes to see me would not like to see that’. I like to make a point or get something off my chest, or perhaps I’m talking about something that’s been on my mind, but the majority of stuff is just to get laughs,” he says.

“People who come to see me are not political activists necessarily, they’re regular folk. If you can make a point to them, in between talking about your struggles with ageing, or discussing your hernia operation or whatever it is, you can toss in something that does give people pause as regards to how men should share the household chores.”

“There’s something very satisfying about your audience growing old with you,” says Ed Byrne, who will hit 50 in 2022

Byrne goes on: “It’s not that I feel a responsibility. I think it just feels more satisfying when you’re doing it, and it feels more satisfying when people hear it. When a joke makes a good point, I think people enjoy it. It’s the difference between having a steak and eating a chocolate bar.”

As the show title would suggest, If I’m Honest pumps up the tendency towards self-deprecation. “I do genuinely annoy myself,” he admits. “But the thing of your children being a reflection of you gives you an opportunity to build something out of the best of yourself, only for you to then see flashes of the worst of yourself in them. It’s a wake-up call about your own behaviour.”

Byrne observes that “self-aggrandising humour is a lot harder to pull off than self-deprecating humour”. “A lot of people get really annoyed when Ricky Gervais is self-congratulatory,” he says. “I always find it very funny when he accepts awards and does so in the most big-headed way possible. I think it’s a trickier type of humour to pull off, talking yourself up in that way.

“I don’t think I’m being massively hard on myself. The fact is when you’re the bloke who is standing on the stage with the microphone, commanding an audience’s attention, you’re in a very elevated position anyway.”

If I’m Honest expresses the frustration that comes with middle age. “I’m bored looking for things, I’m bored of trying to find stuff, because I can never find it, and it is entirely my fault,” says Byrne.

“Nobody’s hiding my stuff from me. Although my wife did actually move my passport on one occasion.”

Amid the mordant and occasionally morbid humour, If I’m Honest accommodates quietly triumphant moments too. “I thought I was being quite upbeat talking about the small victories,” says Byrne. “You know, finding positivity in being able to spot when a cramp was about to happen in your leg and dealing with it before it does. I was very happy with myself about that.”

Next April, Byrne will turn 50. “You see comics who are my age and older but are still retaining a level of ‘cool’ and drawing a young crowd. I can’t deny that I’m quite envious of that,” he says. “But there’s also something very satisfying about your audience growing old with you.”

Ed Byrne, If I’m Honest, Harrogate Theatre, October 12, 8pm. Box office: 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Jessa and Mick Liversidge to perform Fields & Lanes songs and poems at At The Mill

Mick and Jessa Liversidge on one of their lockdown strolls to perform poems and songs in the North Yorkshire fresh air

EASINGWOLD singer Jessa Liversidge and actor husband Mick are taking their lockdown show Fields & Lanes to At The Mill’s new outdoor theatre at Stillington, near York, on Saturday.

Devised by Jessa and Mick in 2020, the evening of music and verse was inspired by their outdoor performing adventures when leaving the house for exercise under Covid regulations.

Jessa started a weekly outdoor “field-sing” in March last year, while Mick began learning and reciting a new poem every other day. This weekend, they bring their collaboration to the At The Mill grounds to present songs, ranging from traditional folk to pop standards, such as In My Life and You’ve Got A Friend, and poetry from D. H. Lawrence to Spike Milligan.

Built over a tennis court by Alexander Flanagan Wright, Paul Wright and Phil Grainger, the new theatre is under cover but open to the garden and mill pond surrounds.

All Summer At The Mill events are organised and run in accordance with pandemic guidelines. “Please book in groups you can sit with, and we will arrange your seating at a safe distance from other parties,” advises Alexander.

Tickets for Saturday’s 7.30pm to 9.30pm event are on sale at tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/512172.

Northern Aldborough Festival to open tonight with first of many sold-out concerts

Lesley Garrett: Sold-out concert on Thursday at Northern Aldborough Festival

THE 2021 Northern Aldborough Festival is going ahead as planned, with Covid-secure and social distancing measures, from today until Sunday.

The Haffner Ensemble, with pianist Danny Driver, open the festival tonight at St Andrew’s Church, Aldborough, near Boroughbridge, with a 7.30pm programme of Poulenc, Mozart and Beethoven.

The chamber ensemble was founded by oboist Nicholas Daniel, with each member of the quintet being a chamber musician, soloist and principal of the Britten Sinfonia.

In Kindred Spirits, 4 Hands, 1 Piano, alias British Baroque specialist Julian Perkins and Italian pianist Emma Abbate, perform works by Greig, Mozart and Rachmaninov tomorrow, same time, same venue.

Taking part in Wednesday’s 11am Young Artists Showcase at St Andrew’s will be four Yorkshire rising talents, ranging in age from 12 to 17: Emilia Jaques, soprano, Alexander Abrahams, piano, Annabelle Dowell, flute, and Ava Brule-Walker, viola, accompanied by Penny Stirling and William Dore.

Ampleforth College pupil Emilia Jaques won the 2018 BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year and has appeared on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night Christmas Special with Alfie Boe. Ripon Grammar School pupil Alexander Abrahams won the top prize at the Ripon Young Musicians of the Year awards.

Flautist’s daughter Annabelle Dowell, 14, is a Class A winner at the British Flute Society Competitions. Aba Brule-Walker, Abrahams’ fellow member of the Yorkshire Young Musicians, has won several prizes at the Ripon Young Musicians awards and will attend the Purcell School for Young Musicians, in Bushey, Hertfordshire, from September.

For An Evening With Richard Coles, the parish priest of St Mary’s Church, Finedon, will be swapping one church for another, St Andrew’s, on Wednesday at 7.30pm.

The Rev Richard is a multi-tasking vicar, being a journalist and presenter too, on BBC One’s The Big Painting Challenge and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, as well as having a pop charts past as the keyboards-playing half of the Eighties’ electronic pop duo The Communards.  In 2016, he competed in Celebrity Masterchef; in 2017, he partnered Australian dancer Dianne Buswell to week-two exit in Strictly Come Dancing.

On Thursday, William Bracken gives an 11am piano recital of Franz Liszt’s Ballade No 2 in B Minor and Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit at St Andrew’s.

Viktoria Mullova: Performing with her son, bassist and composer Misha Mullov-Abbado, at St Andrew’s Church, Aldborough, on Friday night

At 22, he has achieved many of his ambitions already, such as performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall and winning first prize at several international competitions.

Born into a musical family, he began playing piano at four and his studies have taken him to the Royal Northern College of Music and onwards to the Guildhall, where he is studying with Ronan O’Hara and Martin Roscoe. He is a keen jazz performer, composer and arranger too.

South Yorkshire soprano Lesley Garrett appears with her regular accompanist, pianist Anna Tilbrook, a repeat visitor to Northern Aldborough Festival, on Thursday at 7.30pm at St Andrew’s.

Born in the Yorkshire pit village of Thorne in 1955, Garrett studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London, won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize and rose to prominence at English National Opera as principal soprano.

She has sung with all Britain’s leading opera companies; performed on the world’s biggest stages and with every leading orchestra; released more than a dozen albums and sung not only opera and “other serious music”, but also light classics and Broadway fare, and made television and radio appearances aplenty as singer and host.

Violin virtuoso Viktoria Mullova and double bass player Misha Mullov-Abbado, combine for Music We Love, same location, same time, on Friday night.

Mullov-Abbado’s compositions Blue Deer, Brazil and Shanti Bell will be complemented by works by J S Bach, Profokiev, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Schumann and Zequinha de Abreu.

Mullova works regularly with period ensembles such as the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, Il Giardino and Accademia Bizantina, along with appearing each season with international orchestras and conductors. Jazz bassist, composer and arranger Misha is the son of Viktoria and conductor Claudio Abbado.

In the Last Night Outdoor Concert in the grounds of Aldborough Manor, The Rozzers pay tribute to Sting and The Police on Saturday. From 6pm, guests may bring a picnic and watch the main-stage entertainment, kicking off with support act So 80s and climaxing with an orchestrated firework display.

On Sunday, at 10.45am at St Andrew’s, Northern Aldborough Festival Voices perform moving choral music by English Renaissance composer William Byrd at the closing Festival Eucharist. The celebrant will be the Reverend Karen Gardiner; the preacher, the Reverend Canon Barry Pyke.

The Haffner Ensemble, Julian Perkins & Emma Abbate, Richard Coles, Lesley Garrett, Viktoria Mullova and Last Night Outdoor Concert events have all sold out. Tickets are still available for the Young Musicians and William Bracken at aldboroughfestival.co.uk.

Why playwright Amy Ng has transferred Strindberg’s Miss Julie to 1940s’ Hong Kong

Jennifer Leong as Christine in New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse’s Miss Julie

ON the Chinese New Year in 1940s’ Hong Kong, celebrations are in full swing when Julie, daughter of the island’s British governor, crashes the servants’ party downstairs.

What starts as a game descends into a fight for survival as sex, power, money and race collide on a hot night in the Pearl River Delta in British-Hong Kong playwright Amy Ng’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s once-banned Swedish play.

On the eve of New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse’s new tour opening at York Theatre Royal, Amy takes part in a quickfire question-and-answer session. 

How does it feel to be able to bring Miss Julie back to live audiences, from tomorrow at York Theatre Royal?

Amazing.  Hopeful.  Anxiety-inducing.  Hostage to Covid-variants.”   

Why did you choose to transfer Strindberg’s 19th century play to 1940s’ Hong Kong, and what does it add to the story? 

“The initial idea to adapt Miss Julieto Hong Kong came from Alex Clifton, artistic director of Chester Storyhouse. He envisioned a contemporary Miss Julie that could comment directly on the political situation in Hong Kong now, caught between its British colonial past and the realities of rule by Beijing. 

“On reflection, I felt that a contemporary adaptation of Miss Juliewas not possible as the social taboos surrounding sexual relationships across class and race are simply not as strong now as they were in the past.  

“I thought that the set-up of two servants versus an aristocrat was full of potential — if we made the two servants Chinese and the aristocratic lady a daughter of the British colonial elite in Hong Kong.  I picked the late 1940s because this was the time when social structures and racial hierarchies started to quake.  The British colonial masters had lost prestige and respect after their defeat in Hong Kong by the Japanese, and things were never quite the same even after they resumed power after the war.”    

Playwright Amy Ng

What does the transposition to Hong Kong add to the story? 

“Obviously transposing the story to Hong Kong allowed me to explore racial relations and colonialism, which are themes completely absent from the original Strindberg play.  It also allowed me to counter the misogyny in the Strindberg version by building up the character of Christine, envisioning her as a member of the sisterhood of domestic servants (“sor hei”), who chose celibacy to retain their freedom in a patriarchal society where wives were subjected to their husbands.  

What do you hope audiences take away from watching Miss Julie? 

“How race, class and gender hierarchies distort personal relationships; how those tensions can destroy everything that is genuine and beautiful in relationships unless we challenge those hierarchies.”    

Finally, what would you say to anyone considering buying a ticket for the show?

“You won’t regret it!  Director Dadiow Lin has created a beautiful production with the amazing actors Jennifer Leong, Sophie Robinson and Leo Wan.”  

New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse’s 2021 tour of Miss Julie opens at York Theatre Royal, June 22 to 26, 8pm nightly; 3pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Amy Ng:  the back story

AMY Ngis a British-Hong Kong playwright, whose theatre credits include Under The Umbrella (Belgrade Theatre/UK tour), Acceptance (Hampstead Theatre) and Shangri-La (Finborough Theatre).

She is under commission to the Royal Shakespeare Company and ice&fire, is developing her play Thatcher In China at the National Theatre Studio and is part of the inaugural Genesis Almeida New Playwrights Big Plays programme.

REVIEW: Fidelio, Opera North at Leeds Town Hall, June 9

First proper live performance in 15 months: Opera North in Fidelio at Leeds Town Hall

IT was 451 days since Opera North’s last appearance before a live audience, according to general manager Richard Mantle. #

This was also claimed as the first night of this version, despite having the same cast – though with a different conductor – as had taken part in the livestream performance last December.

The explanation may well lie in the mysterious omission from the programme of the then director Matthew Eberhardt. Indeed no director was named at all this time round.

Conducting Francis Griffin’s reduced orchestration was Paul Daniel, erstwhile music director of Opera North (1990-97). With a dozen 25-year members in his orchestra, he was on familiar territory and conjured an easy response from his charges, notably hushed at the start of the quartet and at the emergence of the prisoners.

Occasionally, in Act 1, he strayed too far the other way. But he did not have the benefit of a sound engineer to balance the tone as his predecessor had enjoyed online.

At some point our critical faculties may kick in again, but at this stage it hardly mattered. December’s anger had dissipated into a vast sense of relief on both sides of the podium – the sheer joy of seeing singers, players, audience – so that gratitude outweighed most other considerations. 

There were some slight differences in approach by the principals. With her short hair parted in the centre, Rachel Nicholls’s Leonore looked more boyish than ever. Her anguished recitative prepared a Komm, Hoffnung that was both powerful and heartfelt, underpinned by succulent horns – a champagne moment.

Toby Spence’s Florestan opened up with a spine-chilling Gott, delivered from a seated position with head bowed, that seemed to come from nowhere. When they reached their final duet, they could hardly contain their laughter, so absurd did it seem not to embrace.

Robert Hayward’s vengeful Pizarro was more psychopathic than ever, while Brindley Sherratt’s Rocco had greater bite, tougher and less avuncular. The youngsters, sung by Oliver Johnston and Fflur Wyn, were similarly more vivid.

Matthew Stiff’s genial Don Fernando delivered David Pountney’s intermittent English narrative, but all else was sung in German. Glorious Technicolor it was not, but contrasts ran deeper, enhanced by Daniel’s knack of emphasising the score’s darker timbres.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Gary Stewart parades themes & skills old & new on Lost, Now Found lockdown album

Gary Stewart: Fortified at forty

IN the week when Gary Stewart turns 40, the Easingwold singer-songwriter has released his lockdown album, Lost, Now Found.

“The album was recorded at home and is pretty much all me, with the exception of a few musical friends, like Rosie Doonan, Ross Ainslie and Mikey Kenney,” says the left-handed guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, whose birthday was on Monday.

“Especially with this album, when you finish a recording, there’s that culture, that thing, where you always think it’s the best you’ve done, but I really do, because I had the time,” says Gary.

“The difficulty is that normally I don’t give myself time to write songs because I’m always doing other things, but I think I’ve tended to use that as an excuse before, but that couldn’t be an excuse this time.”

Before Covid-19 became the invisible enemy in March last year, Gary’s diary would be filled with such commitments as playing drums for Leeds band Hope & Social and guitar for Rosie Doonan; alternating the drummer’s seat for eight years in the Harrogate Theatre pantomime orchestra pit; hosting the Greenwich Village-inspired Gaslight Club acoustic hootenanny gigs at Oporto!, in Call Lane, Leeds, and fronting a seven-piece covers band, touring the UK with Graceland: A Celebration of Paul Simon’s Classic.

“In lockdown, I could give myself to writing after quite a hiatus from doing that. Suddenly, you have all this time and you can either squander it or you can try to use it productively, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be productive,” he says.

Perthshire-born Scotsman Gary had cut his teeth performing on the Leeds music scene for ten years before moving to Easingwold. Writing songs in the folk/pop vein, and influenced by the major singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s – Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and assorted members of The Eagles – he had released three albums and two EPs to date.

“The last album came out in November 2018, but I didn’t really give it the push it deserved, probably because there were other things going on, though I did have a launch night at The Crescent [in York],” he says.

Lost, Now Found emerged over a burst of song-writing between April and June 2020, ten compositions completed in “lightning time” by his own standards. “I started with a song, Leopard, that had been kicking around my head and notebook for 18 months or so, with a verse and chorus,” says Gary.

Gary Stewart performing at A Night To Remember at York Barbican. Picture courtesy of Ian Donaghy

“As a self-confessed professional procrastinator, my fear was that I wouldn’t stick with it or even bother to give myself a fighting chance, but thankfully I managed to finish it, and I thought, ‘let’s try to expand how I write, moving on from the usual four chords’.

“My girlfriend is a big Beatles fan and that kind of influenced my writing. For me, when I’m writing an album, I always think, ‘what would interest me as a listener?’, while trying to write each sing in a different key, though I didn’t quite manage it in end!”

“Technophobe” Gary ventured into the realm of D.I.Y. musician for Lost, Now Found, playing, recording, mixing and producing the album as a solo work.

“I thought, ‘I may as well spend time learning the technicalities of recording, learning how to use software of industry standard,” he recalls. “Arts Council England enticed me with its Developing Creative Practice fund, so I applied, got the funding, and that helped me to buy a laptop, an interface and a couple of really nice microphones,” he says. “This in turn led me down the rabbit-hole and into the Wonderland of home-recording.”

The next two months were spent learning a new trade on-the-go while recording the ten new songs. “It was a really interesting process, as I didn’t have to worry about playing on the songs because I can play what I need to a reasonable standard,” says Gary, who studied orchestral percussion at Leeds College of Music from 1999 and lived the big-city life until relocating to Easingwold in 2014.

“I’ve played for such a long time, I’m like a magpie, or a musical carpetbagger, picking up different things to play, like the guitar when I was 14/15.

“What was great this time was being able to get the sound I wanted, and all those things make me feel it’s the best album I’ve done: the recordings are good, the sound is excellent.”

Multi-instrumentalist Gary has enlisted the help of a handful of musician friends to “add colour” to assorted songs. Rosie Doonan, who has worked with Peter Gabriel, duets with Stewart on Hot To Trot, Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja and Lost, Now Found, and Mikey Kenney, from Band Of Burns, lends string arrangements to Rainy Day Lover and Sailors And Tailors.

Ruth Varela‘s artwork for Gary Stewart’s Lost, Now Found lockdown album

BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ross Ainslie, from Treacherous Orchestra and Salsa Celtica, plays whistle on Front Lines, while Sam Lawrence and James Hamilton contribute woodwind and brass respectively to the opening track, Tailspin. “Under the pandemic restrictions, we couldn’t meet up, but I was able to send the tracks to them record their parts,” says Gary.

Lost, Now Found captures the sound and feel of a 1970s’ era singer/songwriter record. “My D.I.Y. approach to recording, coupled with my musical influences, help give the album its lo-fi sonority: warm-sounding acoustic guitars and drums; plate reverb vocals, and instruments captured as naturally as possible, with very little effect,” says Gary. “Think Tapestry meets Tea For The Tillerman.”

Stylistically, the album embraces 1960s and 1970s’ artists alongside more contemporary folk/pop luminaries: The Beach Boys’ drums and vocal-harmony influence are apparent on Hot To Trot and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja; John Martyn and Nick Drake bounce off each other in Tailspin; lead single Leopard has a Villagers vibe, while the plaintive feel of Still Crazy-era Paul Simon is present on Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and the title track.

“These are ten songs that I’m really proud of,” says Gary. “Songs that deal with themes I constantly return to, consciously or sub-consciously: fabrics of my character that I’d like to change (Leopard and Chest); procrastination (Hot To Trot) and redemption, coupled with new beginnings (Tailspin) and straight-up love songs (Rainy Day Lover, Sadder Day Song and Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja) – songwriters just can’t get away from writing love songs!”

Inevitably, too, there are songs woven more indelibly and intertwined with the time and circumstances wherein they were written: family loss, both physical and mental, for Sailors And Tailors and Lost, Now Found and the triumph over adversity of the NHS for Front Lines.

“Some songs came really quickly, like Front Lines, which came from a conversation with my percussionist, who’s a paramedic, and told me of paramedics being put on the phone to speak with cancer patients who couldn’t be treated during the pandemic.”

This summer marks Gary’s return to performing, kicking off with Gary Stewart’s Folk Club from 7.30pm to 10pm on July 3, replacing the Silent Disco that has now aptly fallen silent that evening in the open-air setting of At The Mill, in Stillington, near York (box office: athemill.org).

“It will be a very special, one off, folk club: part folk night, part headline gig, with an eclectic mix of acts and then me doing a set,” says Gary.

Gary Stewart’s poster for his Graceland shows. The Crescent, in York, awaits on September 18

As At The Mill’s Alexander Wright explains: “The first half will work like a traditional folk night. Hosted by Gary, people in attendance are given the opportunity to play and share – music, stories, songs or poems. If you want to share something, then bring your instrument and your voice and we’ll see you there!

“The second half of the evening sees Gary take to the stage for a headline set. We can’t wait for Gary Stewart’s Folk Club. We love a folk night – and we really look forward to seeing and hearing all the wonderful things you bring to share!”

Gary is back on drums for Hope & Social at The Crescent, York, on July 15, and he will be in solo mode on the July 31 bill for Meadowfest, Malton’s boutique midsummer music festival, headlined by Lightning Seeds (box office: tickettailor.com/events/visitmalton/348810/s).

In The Crescent’s diary for September 18 at 7.30pm is Gary’s Paul Simon show, Graceland, with tickets on sale at £12.50 at seetickets.com.

Even in such strange times, Gary Stewart is living out a young Scotsman’s vow to himself. “I consciously made the decision that I was going to make music, as even if I didn’t make a lot of money, I’d still want to make music because that’s the win of it,” he says. “I’ll always work hard at it, though sometimes I could be more proactive!”

More proactive?  The multi-tasking new album, the diverse live performances, would suggest otherwise, Gary.

Gary Stewart’s Lost, Now Found was released on June 14 on CD, 12 vinyl and download.

Just how multi-instrumentalist is multi-tasking Gary Stewart?

ON Lost, Now Found, he contributes vocals, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, hi-string guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, keys, xylophone, glockenspiel, congas, bongos, shakers, triangle, tambourine, finger cymbals, temple blocks and…thighs. Oh, and he recorded, mixed and produced the album.

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, NCEM, York 14/6/2021

Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer at the National Centre for Early Music, York, at Monday’s Songs Under Skies double bill

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York

EAST Yorkshire singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, like so many musicians divorced by lockdown restrictions from their livelihood of live shows, had taken to streaming gigs to the alienating sound of silence.

No wonder she smiled at the welcoming sound of applause, as reviving as hearing birdsong after being stuck indoors. “It’s lovely to be sharing live music for the first time in a long time,” she said at the 7pm outset of week two of Songs Under Skies, the acoustic outdoor festival run by the NCEM, Fulford Arms, The Crescent and Music Venues Alliance.

All those mid-pandemic night streams, and her guitar never misbehaved. First live show back, and a string snapped, whereupon Katie administered a string re-fit at a speed to impress Formula One wheel-changers. Joshua Burnell would later refer to her handiwork as “the fastest in the history of music”.

“It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase,” said Katie Spencer

That said, Katie’s primary handiwork is her acoustic guitar-playing, a gentle caress to lyrics that have the scent, sentience and scene-painting of poetry, sung in a voice that lingered in Monday’s NCEM churchyard air.

Raised by the seaside near Hull, she sang of how the water shapes both the land and the people who live there in her best number, Edge Of The Land. Weatherbeaten and Shannon Road were similarly affecting in a re-introductory set best summed up by her sentiment: “It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase.”

Katie will be doing so again in support of Martin Simpson at Primrose Woods, Pocklington, on July 1 and at The Magpies Festival at Sutton Park, Sutton-on-the-Forest on August 14. Hopefully, that guitar will be on best behaviour.

Half an hour would pass for an audience as socially distanced as the churchyard graves before prog-folk songwriter Joshua Burnell took to the blue awning stage with keyboard player Oliver Whitehouse.

Not even a sound alarm could put Joshua Burnell off his stride on his return to the concert stage.

Burnell is a multi-instrumentalist on his recordings, but here he focused on acoustic guitar, adapting to the night temperature that demanded constant re-tuning, a routine that afforded him the time to talk between songs, although not to the length that had prompted a BBC Radio York presenter to advise him he should hand out a pamphlet the next time he introduced new single Shelagh’s Song in concert.

No such pamphlet was forthcoming or necessary. Joshua is an engaging storyteller as much as an eloquent songwriter equally capable of evoking Tolkien, folk forefathers, Al Stewart, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and even Marc Bolan’s puckish dictionary.

He name-checked Ian McKellen for the opening Labels, recalling how the thespian knight had pondered “Why do we need to put labels on love?”. “Do you know what, Sir Ian, you’re right,” he said. “So throw your labels away, ‘Cause love has no use for them,” Joshua duly affirmed, almost enough to make any reviewer desist from further labelling on this occasion.

Joshua is as good at excavation as at conjuring new material, typified by an obscure but wonderful cover version, Eli Geva, Norwegian songwriter’s anguished Siege of Beirut ballad from an album of 12 banned songs from around the world.

The artwork for Joshua Burnell’s single Shelagh’s Song

Next came the aforementioned Shelagh’s Song, his account of how early-Seventies Edinburgh folk singer Shelagh McDonald vanished for 30 years after a particularly bad LSD trip. The re-surfaced Shelagh so loved the song she has sent Joshua a parcel with a letter, artwork and some lyrics she never published. Actions can speak so much louder than labels!

Joshua had just adjusted his guitar tuning again in the night cold when a new interruption tapped him on the shoulder: a sound alarm going off in the neighbouring bustle of Walmgate. One look from Joshua, and it was gone, as if ashamed at having held up “a bit of an anthem for positivity and things to come”: Golden Days, written in lockdown as the good weather rolled in and the vaccine programme was rolled out.

Not even the Prime Minister’s 6pm postponement of Freedom Day could deflate Joshua. “I still feel optimistic that we’re in a better place than we were a year ago,” he asserted.

If one lyric encapsulates retro-futurist Burnell in 2021, it would be: “Did I go through the wardrobe door because it’s been winter here for much too long”. Indeed it has, and as Songs Under Skies nudged and hushed it out the back door, he ended with Lucy, his variation on a “Ziggy Stardust character song”. Closer to Bolan than Bowie, if a label must be applied, but Lucy under darkening skies was a diamond finale.

Review by Charles Hutchinson