REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Rachel Sermanni and Gary Stewart, National Centre for Early Music, York, November 23

State of grace: Rachel Sermanni on stage at St Margaret’s Church, home of the National Centre for Early Music, in Walmgate, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

BEING born gloriously Scottish is simply the luck of the draw. What the performers at the NCEM on Tuesday chose to do with those lovely accents is anything but arbitrary.

Rachel Sermanni’s upbringing in the Cairngorms must have contributed to her distinctive personality, and certainly can be heard ringing through her wonderful singing voice.

Sermanni has only just turned 30. It’s almost a decade since she opened up for Jesca Hoop at one of Tony Fothergill’s much-missed House Concerts. Then, she had the charisma but not the songs, but now an adult, she is much further down that (never ending) road.

Her 75-minute set was richly textured – high praise as she was playing solo – and drew on songs from across her career. As a performer she naturally draws you in, and her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming. While sometimes on record her material lacks heft, live and buoyed by her stage craft, it made for a really enjoyable evening.

Singer-songwriter Gary Stewart (who also fronts a Paul Simon tribute show built around the Graceland album, by the way)

Things had got off to a promising start with a charming support set from Gary Stewart. Comparisons with Paul Simon were inescapable, even down to the tank top, but then is there any higher benchmark for a singer-songwriter?

Born in  Perthshire, we are lucky to have Stewart live near York, and he performed a set of songs from his home-recorded lockdown record, Lost, Then Found. His lilting, airy voice and dextrous finger picking were a treat.

While it was a shame he didn’t play his dainty Sadder Day Song – where laying on the grass in York’s Museum Gardens finally makes it into song – there was still much to enjoy. Pick of the set was Sailors And Tailors, which wittily and tunefully brought back to life the romance of his Scottish ancestors.

Kudos to Please Please You promoter Joe Coates’s attuned ears for matching these two performers.

Rachel Sermanni: “Her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming,” says reviewer Paul Rhodes

Sermanni’s songs took the evening up another level. While she professed to be rusty, the occasional ‘alternative’ note added rather than detracted, making it feel much more human and real – more in keeping with her organic persona.

She wove in a mix of happy songs, with the audience stirred into voice for Dream A Little Dream Of Me (made popular by Doris Day), bitter (the curiously titled Tractor and searching and sad (Everything Changes, a standout from 2014).

Her most recent EP focused on her response to giving birth, Swallow Me sharing the stage with its darker brethren, Travelled. It makes her a highly relatable artist. What Can I Do sparkled, with our Covid powerlessness adding extra layers of meaning to her powerful cry.

Her fascinating introduction to discovering that Semisonic’s late-1990s’ hit, Closing Time, was actually a song in disguise about fatherhood almost made up for Sleeping, which was less hidden, rather winking, in plain sight. It was one of very few weaker moments.

In contrast, her pre-encore set finished with Lay My Heart. Easily her most memorable number, or at least the most anthemic, this enraptured song of being in a state of grace was stunning. Written under the influence of the aurora borealis, it might have been better to leave the audience in that condition.

Custom and good manners demanded an encore, which didn’t reach the same heights but such was the warmth in the room that we could have looked on into the early hours, like Sermanni under those dancing Canadian skies, whisky full until frost grew from our noses.

Review by Paul Rhodes

Michael Chapman’s concert at Merchant Adventurers’ Hall to be streamed on Sunday

Michael Chapman recording Ancient & Modern at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York, for streaming on Sunday

VETERAN troubadour Michael Chapman has recorded a special concert during Lockdown 2 at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York, to be streamed online on Sunday (29/11/2020) at 7pm.

Filmed on November 12, the Ancient & Modern recording represents a look-back over the long and illustrious career of the 79-year-old Leeds singer, songwriter and guitarist, who combines classics and newer compositions in a concert also featuring a support slot and interview by close friend and mentee Katie Spencer. 

Sunday’s event marks a first venture into streamed concerts by the York community venue The Crescent and promoters Please Please You and Ouroboros, alias Joe Coates and Harkirit Boparai.

“This is new terrain for us, but we are big believers in Michael and his music, and it’s an honour to present him during these times and at this point in his career” says Boparai. “Michael is a unique musician with more than 50 years of experience, floating between Americana, blues and psychedelic folk.”

Boparai was delighted the recording could go ahead despite Lockdown 2 being imposed from November 5. “We were lucky, the lockdown nearly threw everything, but then it emerged under the Government guidance that streaming and rehearsal were permitted as long as everyone involved were ‘professionals’,” he says. 

“They still want us to work! I also think, to be fair, they saw the value in allowing culture to continue in an online form. 

Chapman by candlelight: The poster for Sunday’s streamed concert from the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall by Michael Chapman

“Merchant Adventurers’ Hall had a new clerk starting in the week of lockdown, and I remember anxiously waiting for their decision and interpretation of guidance…”.

Good news was forthcoming, whereupon Chapman could head to the hall. Explaining his choice of concert title, he says: “I wanted to call it Ancient & Modern in reference to the hymn books of days gone by and because it reflects the songs I selected to play for this show.” 

The title also acknowledges Chapman’s approach and sound. While firmly rooted in traditional folk, blues and Americana, his constant pushing of the envelope has inspired a new generation of artists, such as instrumentalist-turned-singer Steve Gunn, who produced his last two albums for the Paradise Of Bachelors label, 50 and True North, featuring pedal-steel guitarist BJ Cole and singer-songwriter and guitarist Bridget St John.

Gunn says: ‘It’s been an honour to share a stage with Michael, or even just to be in the room when he’s playing. I know so many of his stories and songs by heart now. I cherish them.”’

This continuous evolution of style has garnered a cult following for Chapman, also making him virtually impossible to categorise. While this may sometimes infuriate reviewers and concert bookers alike, it is exactly what keeps his fervent supporters on board and has brought a whole raft of younger appreciators to his music over the past decade. 

Chapman’s journey has taken him from the acoustic virtuoso of the early Cornish folk days, typified by his Fully Qualified Survivor album, through to Memphis Soul, courtesy of Stax producer Don Nix, and the album Savage Amusement, dipping into New Age music via Heartbeat, and onwards even to full-on improv for Thurston Moore’s label, Ecstatic Peace.

Moore says: “Michael Chapman, beyond the machinations of the record industry, became the great teacher for all of us guitar playing songwriters coming up in the late-20th century. With an organic mix of passion and remove, he showed that getting lost in the music was a way to find the truth of the heart. No better lesson learned, I’d say.” 

After making the acoustic guitar his own, Chapman has been exploring the electric guitar in these latter, mellower years, while still retaining the intensity of his playing and song-writing.

Chapman may be approaching 80 – that landmark will fall on January 24 2021 – but it will not diminish his need to move the music forward, dip into the past and embrace the present with as much enthusiasm and fervour as a man at his stage in life can muster. 

“Michael’s online concert will be available for ticket holders to watch as many times as they like for up to three days from the time of broadcast, and you can watch on computers, phones or through smart TVs and Chromecasts,” says Boparai.

For more information and tickets, head to: For a downloadable video teaser, go to:

Tickets cost £10 or you can choose to pay £15 to further support Michael Chapman and the freelance production crew during these difficult times.

For the last word on Chapman’s lasting impact, here is Rockford, Illinois guitarist, singer and songwriter Ryley Walker: “One of my greatest influences in life. Taught me to play guitar better, act like a professional, and always demand the cash at the end of the night. 80 years and just getting started. A true honour and privilege to call Michael a friend and mentor. MC shows love and truth in every tune. Guitar king and living legend Michael Chapman!”