YORK singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich will play a home-city concert this summer, but make sure to arrive early.
He will be opening Futuresound’s 5pm triple bill at York Museum Gardens on July 18 as the first of two special guests for headlining Scottish-Italian singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti, with Irish blues and folk musician Foy Vance as the other.
First comes tomorrow’s release of his fifth studio album in 13 years, Some Things Break, the follow-up to 2021’s To Carry A Whale as Ben continues a fruitful partnership with Dirty Hit Records, the label that made him its first signing in 2011 at the age of 21.
“Given the way the music industry is shaping up, maybe I’ll release albums more regularly than I do now, but I’ll just release them when I’m proud of something, though I definitely need guidance to say, ‘time to go, it’s ready’,” he says.
“In this case, we wrote about 20 to 30 songs, done at different stages. Some artists will just write ten songs and release them all on a record, but for me, I need to make mistakes along the way, try things out, and the more I write, the clearer my goal is.”
He kept Dirty Hit in the loop all the way, as the recordings progressed with Grammy Award-winning producer Jimmy Hogarth and the album became more focused.
When judging a song, “my fear has got less thanks to God over the last few years,” says Ben. “But I’m not immune to needing friends, people who aren’t in the industry, to say what they think, feeding off their energy, because they’re less invested in the music industry politics. Ultimately, I want a song to be in everyone’s heart.”
Some Things Break was composed over two years, at locations across the globe, from Ben’s adopted home of Tottenham, London, to Nashville, Washington to Stockholm.
The recording sessions found him collaborating with fellow songwriters Mikky Ekko, The 1975’s Jamie Squire and Jon Green for an album with a broader range, both musically and vocally, combining his acoustic guitar at times with piano, choirs, drumbeats and effects in a layered soundscape.
“I do think these are the most emotional, spiritual songs I’ve done, where I thought I’d sing them in a higher range, but actually the voice has gone down – a bit of crooning! – and it’s nice to have those two voices,” says Ben, 34.
“The song always guides me, especially at the point of the vocal delivery or the choice of key. My thing is ‘whatever is best for the song’, if a friend is way better at playing the piano or Jimmy being better for a guitar part.
“Just by sheer chance, I did all the first album [2011’s Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm] in York, but now I have access to musicians all over. It’s been a long, long journey, starting 15 years ago, but I now feel God puts people in my path and I’ve got so lucky that people come my way.”
Take The 1975’s Jamie Squire, for example. “I had a message 12 years ago from Jamie saying ‘I’m a friend of Matt Healy [The 1975’s lead singer]…I really love your music,” Ben recalls. “I invited him to work with me, and he’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever met.”
Latterly Ben and Jamie have been working in London with Scottish singer-songwriter Katie Gregson-MacLeod, and Ben will link up with The 1975 pianist Jamie for his eight-date spring tour in support of the new album, opening at Leeds Brudenell Social Club on April 4.
Ben’s songwriting wanderlust took him to Nashville twice last year for three weeks each in April and October. “That’s where I met Mikky Ekko – best known for writing that beautiful song Stay, the Rihanna hit – and we wrote the most explicit song I’ve ever done, about my father [the late University of York politics lecturer Adrian Leftwich].
“I love writing songs that move people, and I was lost for so long that I feel like I’m almost making up for the time that I wasted. My diary is busy, busier than ever. I’m so lucky. I keep my head in the clouds but my feet on the ground.”
Tickets for April 4 at Leeds Brudenell Social Club: www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com
Tickets for July 18 at York Museum Gardens: https://futuresound.seetickets.com/event/jack-savoretti/york-museum-gardens/2929799
FROM Peter Pan mishaps to pantomime, rabbit obituaries to classic rock, prawn cocktail comedy to Eighties’ pop star nostalgia, Charles Hutchinson delights in all manner of arts events.
Theatrical calamity of the week…but in a good way: Mischief Theatre’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Leeds Grand Theatre, January 16 to 20, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Thursday and Saturday matinees
FROM the mayhem-makers of The Play That Goes Wrong and the BBC television series The Goes Wrong Show comes Mischief Theatre’s riotous spin on a timeless classic in the West End hit Peter Pan Goes Wrong.
As the hapless members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society return to the stage, once more they must battle technical hitches, flying mishaps and cast disputes as they strive to present J M Barrie’s awfully big adventure, but will they ever make it to Neverland? Box office: 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.com.
Book signing launch of the week: Bertt deBaldock’s Good Rabbits Gone Volume Three, Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, January 16, 4.30pm to 7pm
PYRAMID Gallery owner, curator and artist Terry Brett launches his latest collection of cartoon rabbit portrait tributes to celebrities and remarkable individuals who have passed away in the 108-page book Good Rabbits Gone Volume Three.
The cartoons are drawn by Bertt deBaldock (Terry’s alias) at the time of the individual’s death and assembled with Terry’s tributes or memories of the person in a volume covering September 2021 to December 2022. The book is free but donations are invited in aid of Refugee Action York.
Pantomime extra time: Pickering Musical Society in Aladdin, Kirk Theatre, Pickering, January 18 to 28, 7.15pm, except January 22; 2.15pm, January 20, 21, 27 and 28
PICKERING Musical Society has added two extra performances of Aladdin, now opening on January 18, rather than January 19, while a Sunday matinee on January 21 is a new addition too.
Director Luke Arnold’s cast includes Pickering panto favourites Marcus Burnside as Widow Twankey, Stephen Temple as simple son Wishee Washee, Danielle Long as principal boy Aladdin, Courtney Brown as principal girl Princess Lotus Blossom, Paula Paylor and Rachel Anderson as comedic double act Minnie Wong and Winnie Wong and John Brooks as the villainous Abanazar. Box office: 01751 474833 or thelittleboxoffice.com/kirktheatre.
New collaboration: The BJMC & Steve Coates Music Productions, One Night Of Classic Rock, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 20, 7.30pm
THE long-established BJMC (Bev Jones Music Company) is teaming up with new company Steve Coates Music Productions. Their first collaboration draws on Coates’s jukebox for a night of thunderous anthems from everyone’s favourite rock bands, such as AC/DC, Queen, Tina Turner, Status Quo, Eagles, Meat Loaf, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac.
Guitarist Mickey Moran combines leading a six-piece band with joining Annabel Van Griethuysen, Clare Meadley, Jack Storey-Hunter, Chris Hagyard and Ruth McNeill as the show’s lead singers. Box office for returns only: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
From Russia with love of comedy on Valentine’s Day: Olga Koch: Prawn Cocktail, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 14, 8pm
RUSSIAN-BORN Olga Koch turned 30, achieved a master’s degree, went on an adult gap year, suffered salmonella, lost herself, found herself and washed it all down with a delicious prawn cocktail. “Think less Eat Pray Love and more Shake Scream Cry,” she says, ahead of her return to Theatre@41 after previous visits with Homecoming in October 2021 and Just Friends in October 2022. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Gig announcement of the week: BC Camplight, presented by Please Please You & Brudenell Presents, The Crescent, York, March 15, 7.30pm
DOES a curse dictate that Brian ‘BC Camplight’ Christinzio cannot move forward without being knocked back? Or that the greatest material is born out of emotional trauma? While making his 2023 album, The Last Rotation Of Earth, Christinzio’s relationship with his fiancé crumbled after nine inseparable years.
This break-up amid long-term struggles with addiction and mental health led to an extraordinary album of heartbreak, “more cinematic, sophisticated and nuanced than anything” that New Jersey-born BC has done before. Hear the results in York. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.
Nostalgia on the horizon: Martin Kemp, The Ultimate Back To The 80’s DJ Set, York Barbican, March 29, doors, 7.30pm
SPANDAU Ballet bassist and EastEnders star Martin Kemp takes to the decks to spin “all the best of the hits” from the Eighties in an unstoppable singalong. Dig out your best Eighties’ attire, grab your dancing shoes and prepare to enjoy a night of pure Gold! Yes, fancy dress is encouraged, he advises.
“It’s amazing! People absolutely lose themselves, singing to every word,” Kemp told ITV’s Good Morning show. “It’s the most euphoric atmosphere I have ever been in, in my life!” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
New year, new album, new tour: Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, April 4, 7.30pm
YORK singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich follows up Dirty Hit Records’ February 9 release of his fifth album, Some Things Break, with a nine-date spring tour that opens in Leeds.
First up is Ben’s new single, New York, a song that came from a writing session with labelmate Matty Healy, from The 1975. Healy asked his permission to perform it at a one-off show, opening for Phoebe Bridgers in 2021, and now comes Ben’s version. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.seetickets.com.
In Focus: Blue Light Theatre Company’s pantomime, Nithered!, Acomb Working Men’s Club, Acomb, January 18 to 26
BLUE Light Theatre Company’s tenth anniversary pantomime, Nithered!, is a frosty fairytale adventure by regular writer Perri Ann Barley to match the wintry weather in York.
Formed by Yorkshire Ambulance Service staff, they performed their debut pantomime in 2013. “It was supposed to be a ‘one-off’ production to raise funds for a colleague who had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease but was so successful that it’s still going to this day, and we’ve even branched out into performing plays too,” says Nithered! director Craig Barley.
“Since that first panto, more than £22,000 has been raised for our chosen charities: the Motor Neurone Disease Association (York) and York Against Cancer. Extra performances have been added over the years to accommodate more people, due to our shows’ ever-growing popularity, and there’s also a waiting list for people wanting to join the cast.
Acomb Working Men’s Club has housed the show since 2013. “It’s been our home for so long as they gave us the space for free for so many years, so we could maximise our charitable donations,” says Craig.
“We can seat 200 and offer use of the bar, meaning a relaxed performance which has received so much good feedback. New audience members are pleasantly surprised when they arrive and see the size, layout and the room all dressed up accordingly – putting them immediately at ease and into the panto spirit.”
All ten pantomimes have utilised the same production team: co-producers Perri and Craig, alongside choreographer Devon Wells and stage manager Dave Holiday. “Between us, so much has been achieved on the tiny stage at Acomb Working Men’s Club, from magic carpets to levitating witches!” says Craig.
The cast still consists of Yorkshire Ambulance staff along with other talented performers from in and around York.
“We like to do things a little differently, creating a brand-new storyline every year, among other things,” says Craig. “But at the same time adding some traditional elements, such as the Dame, played by Steven Clark, who writes additional script material too, and the villain, Glen Gears, who has been with the company since the very beginning. Both of them are very much audience favourites.”
Introducing the storyline in Nithered!, Craig says: “The usually bright and happy village has been shrouded in a permanent frost by the evil Snow Queen (played by Perri Ann Barley), who has enlisted the Big Bad Wolf’ (Glen Gears) to govern the land on her behalf and to keep the population down.
“Mother Goose (Brenda Riley) and the villagers are struggling to cope with the never-ending winter and, with the Wolf around, they are living in constant fear for their safety. Things take a dramatic turn when one of the Three Pigs (Simon Moore, Kevin Bowes, Kristian Barley) is kidnapped by the Wolf.”
Whereupon the villagers decide to take matters into their own hands and head out on a very risky rescue mission. They enlist the help of the Fairy Godmother (Steven Clark), who finds herself in a face-off with the Snow Queen herself, but who will prove to be the most powerful?
“Will the villagers overcome the Big Bad Wolf? Will the everlasting winter come to an end? To find out, come join us and step right into the weird but wonderful world of Nithered!,” says Craig.
The cast also features Richard Rogers, Linden Horwood, Julie Shrimpton, Nicky Moore, Pat Mortimer, Zoe Paylor, Chelsea Hutchinson, Kalayna Barley, Kathryn Donley and Harry Martin, plus new members Aileen Stables and Audra Bryan.
“With this being our tenth anniversary, the team have really gone all out to give the audience an amazing experience and cannot wait for everyone to see it.”
Looking ahead, this summer Blue Light will present Murder At Reptilian Park, a new comedy murder mystery by Perri Ann Barley, to be staged in conjunction with the Galtres Centre in Easingwold. “It will run there from June 20 to 22, including a Saturday matinee, bringing us a whole new audience and new challenges,” says Craig. Tickets will be on sale soon on 01347 822472 or at galtrescentre.org.uk.
“Perri masterfully crafts our unique pantos, giving audiences new and interesting storylines featuring some familiar characters, which take them away from some of the other tired classic panto stories to give our audiences an experience like no other, ” says Craig. “That’s why so many return year after year.
“Perri is now working with London Playwrights [a resource for emerging playwrights] as she branches out to try and make her passion for writing a career. Not only this, but she’s also in talks with another professional theatre in Yorkshire, but more about that later.”
Blue Light Theatre Company in Nithered!, Acomb Working Men’s Club, Front Street, Acomb, York, January 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26, 7.30pm; January 20, 1pm matinee. Tickets: £12 adults, £10 concessions, £8 children. Box office: 07933 329654 or bluelight-theatre.co.uk. All proceeds go to Motor Neurone Disease Association York and York Against Cancer.
YORK singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich will embark on an eight-date headline tour next spring, opening at Leeds Brudenell Social Club on April 4, in support of his new album.
Set for release on February 9 on his regular label since becoming Dirty Hit Records’ first signing, Some Things Break follows 2021’s To Carry A Whale, 2019’s Gratitude, 2016’s After The Rain and 2011’s Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm.
All written and performed by London-based Benjamin, the track listing will be: I’m Always Saying Sorry; Moon Landing Hoax; Break In The Weather; New York; Some Things Break; Spokane, Washington; God’s Best; A Love Like That; Only You and Don’t Give Up On The Light.
Composed over the past two years at locations across the globe, from London to Nashville, Washington to Stockholm, Some Things Break was produced by Grammy Award-winning Jimmy Hogarth, who can name Amy Winehouse, Sia and Antony And The Johnsons among his production clients.
Some Things Break also features collaborations with fellow songwriters Mikky Ekko, The 1975’s Jamie Squire and Jon Green and reveals a broader range in Benjamin’s voice, while calling on richer instrumentation by comparison with the more stripped-back sound of his earlier work.
His acoustic guitar remains present throughout, but at times is backed with piano, choirs, drumbeats and effects that create a dense and layered soundscape for his vocal candour and vulnerability.
Reflecting on this new direction, with its subtle reinvention in his sound and honesty laid bare in his lyrics, 34-year-old Benjamin says: “It feels like a new voice, in a way. I guess a more human and perhaps a more surrendered voice.
“Learning to hold onto certain things and let go of others, with as much grace as possible, I feel like I’m hiding less on this record. Ultimately, I think it’s a record about a kind of slow acceptance that some things break and, for me, sometimes that’s necessary for healing.”
Some Things Break is preceded by the single Moon Landing Hoax, out now with a live video Landing directed by Harvey Pearson and starring Jamie Squire performing alongside Benjamin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCG83YjC15U).
“To me this song is about healing, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and about all the mad sh*t one can get up to or into on that winding road,” says Benjamin. “I’m so excited to be back on the road next year and to play many new and old songs live again.”
His fellow York musician, The Howl & The Hum bassist and keyboards player Bradley Blackwell, was overheard at the close of the third and final night of the original line-up’s farewell Crescent shows this week that he would be working with Benjamin on the tour. Watch this space.
As ever, Benjamin will be giving his material a fresh perspective when adapting both seasoned fan favourites and songs from Some Things Break in an intimate setting in his shows at Leeds Brudenell Social Club on April 4; Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, April 5; Summerhall, Edinburgh, April 6; Band On The Wall, Manchester, April 8; Lantern, Bristol, April 9; Earth Theatre, London; Acapela Studio, Cardiff, April 11, and Workman’s Club, Dublin, April 13. Tour tickets are on sale from www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com
Did you know?
BENJAMIN Francis Leftwich’s songwriting, co-writing and collaborations with other artists have grown over the past few years, writing with The 1975, Nick Mulvey, CMAT (Irish singer-songwriter Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson), Holly Humberstone and Rachel Chinouriri.
Did you know too?
BENJAMIN was the first act to be signed by Dirty Hit Records, to be followed by The 1975, Wolf Alice, Beabadoobee, Pale Waves and Bleachers. Debut album Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm reached number 35 in the UK charts in July 2011.
THE summer season of festival delights is drawing to a close but the outdoors still beckons Charles Hutchinson, who also looks ahead to big names northwards bound.
Festival of the week: Leeds Festival, Bramham Park, August 25 to 27
THE last big outdoor festival of the Yorkshire summer season kicks off on Friday with headliners Billie Eilish (Main Stage East) and Imagine Dragons (Main Stage West). Look out that day too for Steve Lacy, Declan McKenna, Rina Sawayama, Becky Hill and Little Tjay.
The Saturday bill includes headliners Sam Fender and Foals, Loyle Carner, Wet Leg, Leeds band Yard Act, Bicep Llve and Frank Turner. Among the Sunday acts will be headliners The Killers and The 1975, Central Cee, Nothing But Thieves, Knucks, Case Atlantic and Arlo Parks. Comedy and dance stages are on the menu too. Box office: leedsfestival.com.
Tribute show of the week: Supersonic Queen, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Sunday, 7.30pm
SUPERSONIC Queen return to the JoRo with its “strongest, most talented line-up yet”, guaranteed to blow your mind. Ten years and counting on the tribute act circuit, these musicians “care deeply about delivering the most authentic and entertaining performance”, full of energy, enthusiasm and Queen hits by the dozen. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Exhibition of the week: Sean Taylor, Illustrations, City Screen Picturehouse café bar, Coney Street, York, until September 2
COINCIDING with City Screen Picturehouse’s latest Culture Shock season of Bruce Lee films, Sean Taylor is exhibiting paintings and pen and graphic drawing at City Screen Picturehouse. Icons aplenty feature, bold and striking.
Circus show of the week: All Ways Good Company in Swings & Roundabouts, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Sunday, 11am to 1pm
JOIN Jane and Dora, a mum and daughter circus duo, on three trips to the park, where they will share their tales with you and hear yours too before hosting an interactive finale.
Commissioned by Hullabaloo Theatre, Swings & Roundabouts is a selection of short stories about everyday moments in the park, told in an extraordinary way as Jane and Dora flip and fly, turning the park into an aerial playground. Then have a go yourself on the aerial equipment, whatever your age. Wear long sleeves but no jewellery or clothes with zips. Box office: atthemill.org.
Last of the summer season: Olly Murs and Scouting For Girls, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, Wednesday, gates open at 6pm
OLLY Murs concludes Cuffe & Taylor’s season of outdoor gigs on the Scarborough coast with support from Scouting For Girl on Wednesday night. After four years off the music radar, focusing on The Voice and Starstruck, Murs released his seventh studio album, Marry Me, last December, the title being prompted by his now fiancée Emelia Tank.
Tonight, at Scarborough OAT, DJ Pete Tong is in action with his Ibiza Classics. The Essential Orchestra and Jules Buckley will be there too. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.
Outdoor theatre show of the week: Slapstick Picnic in Peter Pan, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Wednesday, 6.30pm
SLAPSTICK Picnic whip up a three-hander version of Peter Pan, inviting imaginations to soar as they dish out J M Barrie’s timeless tale of hapless pirates, feral children and a particularly punctual reptile.
Look out for polished buffoonery and swift silliness as the cast members swap wigs, wings and waistcoats to play all the parts at Slapstick’s characteristic breakneck pace. A percentage of ticket sales will be donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Box office: atthemill.org.
Folk night of the week: Gary Stewart’s Folk Club, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Friday, 7.30pm
EASINGWOLD musician Gary Stewart’s Folk Club, a regular feature in At The Mill’s summer seasons, runs in two halves: The first is a traditional folk club, where anyone can come and play and offer up a song, a tune, a poem or a story. “Just turn up and let us know!” says Gary.
The second half is a headline set by a guest artist, in this case budding York singer-songwriter and newly formed producer Kitty VR, who fashions and performs her songs on electric guitar alongside her delicate vocals, with a sense of vulnerability and relatability. Box office: atthemill.org.
As recommended by the late John Peel: Nina Nastasia, The Crescent, York, August 29, 7.30pm
NINA Nastasia, an alt-folk artist of Calabrian-Italian and Irish descent, was born and raised in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Despite studying piano and showing an early talent for writing short stories, she initially had no aspirations of pursuing a career in music. Nevertheless, seven albums have ensued, along with airplay on the late John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show and album collaborations with Jim White.
After a period of relative obscurity, Nastasia returned in July 2022, signing a record deal with Temporary Residence to release Riderless Horse, recorded in upstate New York by Steve Albini and Greg Norman. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.
Damian Lewis, yes, that Damian Lewis, at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, October 1, doors at 7.30pm
ACTOR and now singer and guitarist Damian Lewis will play Leeds as the only Yorkshire gig of his 11-date tour with his jazz and rock band in support of debut album Mission Creep, released on Decca Records in June.
Lewis wrote all the album’s original songs during the pandemic’s first lockdown, although the origin story began when, after leaving school, he took to the road with his guitar and went busking through continental Europe. This experience has stayed with him ever since and is reflected in the album, produced by his friend, jazz musician Giacomo Smith. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.co.uk or seetickets.com.
Birthday celebration: Eight@Eighty, Joni Mitchell 80th Birthday Party charity concert, at The Basement, City Screen Picturehouse, York, November 2, 7.30pm
STAN Smith is organising a celebration of Canadian-American singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 80th birthday this autumn. Taking part will be Edwina Hayes, Emily Lawler, Gracie Falls, Holly Taymar, Jeremy Bradford, Laura Ingram, Sarah Dean and Stan himself. Box office: stansmith.org.
Booking ahead: George Benson, supported by Melissa Errico, Leeds First Direct Arena, July 3 2024, 7.30pm
LEGENDARY American guitarist and singer George Benson, 80, will play Leeds on the closing night of next summer’s five-date British tour.
The ten-time Grammy Award winner will be performing such Gibson soul, jazz and blues favourites as Give Me The Night, Lady Love Me (One More Time), Turn Your Love Around, Inside Love, Never Give Up On A Good Thing and In Your Eyes. He is working on new music too. Box office: ticketline.co.uk.
In Focus: Director Zoe Waterman on reviving Alan Platers’s musical Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 at the SJT
ALAN Plater’s 2004 musical Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 is being revived most warmly and wittily by Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake.
This summer’s glorious co-production finds these northern powerhouse producing theatres collaborating for the third year in a row after Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling in 2021 and Emma Rice’s account of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter in 2022.
Zoe Waterman, who directed Jane Eyre at the SJT last year, is at the helm for Hull playwright Plater’s fortifying wartime story of the North’s most glamorous all-girl Forties’ swing band, whose band leader, Betty, needs to find new musicians for an important BBC job after the latest exodus of members in the arms of American GIs.
“I am absolutely thrilled to be directing Blonde Bombshells Of 1943,” says Zoe. “We’ve got a glorious and terribly talented cast; it’s such a privilege to work with performers who are not only stunning actors but also phenomenal musicians.
“It’s always a joy to make work that celebrates women, and this isno exception: full of hilarious, practical, strong characters who make do and mend as the time dictates and manage to pull an all-singing, all-dancing performance out of the jaws of an air raid.”
Zoe also directed Jim Cartwright’s The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at Theatre by the Lake in 2019, and when the three theatres discussed who should be the director this summer after settling on Blonde Bombshells for the 2023 co-production, Zoe was approached for the task.
“I’d been called by Paul [SJT artistic director Paul Robinson], who I knew from the SJT, and I’d worked a lot at Theatre by the Lake, where I’d really cut my theatre teeth, first doing a one-person show, then a three-hander in the studio and then graduating to a main theatre show,” she says. “I’d spoken with Lotte [artistic director Lotte Wakeham] at the Bolton Octagon too.”
Crucially too, Zoe had experience of mounting actor-musician productions: “I did The Borrowers that way at Theatre by the Lake and Jane Eyre was in that format at the SJT, and I’ve done actor-musician pantomimes at Theatr Clwyd,” she says.
“I absolutely love this way of working, though I wouldn’t want to do only this one form of theatre, but I love that thing of weaving the music into the story and really thinking of them as one in this piece, whereas in some actor-musician shows you think, ‘if they could have afforded a band and actors, that would have been better’.
“But to have actor-musicians front and centre in this show is fantastic and it works wonderfully.”
Step forward Verity Bajoria, Lauren Chinery, Georgina Field, Stacey Ghent, Rory Gradon, Alice McKenna, Gleanne Purcell-Brown and Sarah Groarke, who appeared in the 2004 premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
Four weeks of rehearsals in Bolton – where Zoe was working for the first time – has led to a June run at the Octagon, followed by a July stretch in Keswick and now the August finale in Scarborough.
“So often in regional subsidised theatres, in-house productions run for only three weeks, so it’s gone in a blur and you’ve missed it, but co-productions give both audiences and actors a longer run at it,” she says.
“From starting in Bolton, it was wonderful to see how the show had developed by the show’s 50th performance, at Theatre by the Lake.”
Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 runs at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until August 26. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com .
PETER Buck is far and away the most well-known member of The Minus Five, which is essentially a vehicle for the tuneful songs of Scott McCaughey, sometime second guitarist to Buck in REM.
Likewise, the “support act” The No Ones, comprised of exactly the same musicians, playing the same instruments.
Buck quietly played the bass in a not dissimilar style to his rhythm guitar playing. While all eyes were on him, his total attention was on following the changes in the music.
Guitarist Frode Strømstad’s solos were fast but essentially empty but his rhythm guitar was good. In truth, Buck also lacks his own voice as a bass player. This is a band whose members are happy to play in the service of the material rather than competing for the spotlight.
Drummer Arne Kjelsrud looked like he was having a wonderful time, a smile fixed on his handsome face as he and Buck held the songs together. McCaughey was the front man and singer, the one speaking to us too.
Having toured this same venue with Luke Haines in February, Buck and The Minus Five were back in Leeds, this time playing second fiddle to a Bon Jovi act next door on the Brudenell’s bigger stage.
“Is this the biggest place I’ve ever played?” Buck joked, in response to an early audience question. “Perhaps, in Leeds, in the last month.” It was the one nod to being in the presence of a man who has sold out stadiums around the world.
While lacking any overt star appeal, the band has a loyal following. The songs are mostly strong but never scale the same heights as REM. The No Ones sported a couple of more memorable songs; one about the late, great Phil Ochs and the best about a very much alive Jenny Lewis. A song for The Beatles was by some stretch the worst of the night.
The Minus Five set was unsurprisingly the stronger. Better sound, better songs, same personnel. Quietly prolific under the critical radar, their latest is the second instalment about Neil Young. Two back-to-back Young numbers were among the highlights, a fuzzed-up Hitchhiker and then a seemingly impromptu Revolution Blues.
In short. no razzmatazz, just good songs well played. The Minus Five are not really a big deal, but fun to see live.
LAURA Cantrell is one of a rare breed. Seeking a life, rather than a career in music has enabled her to resist the drip-drip to pander to today’s fads, which is perhaps why her body of work is so consistent.
Cantrell is also a DJ of note, so it was not a surprise that the setlist on Friday was crafted with the same care that goes into her songs. The 13-tune, 80-minute set showcased her new album, but began and ended with tunes from her debut and had enough forays into her back catalogue to keep everyone happy. It helped that over more than 20 years almost everything she has released is of the highest quality.
Despite being an Americana artist, what also startles is how many of her songs feel like bona fide hits – from the 1960s. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s Brand New Eyes recalls Ronnie Spector. Do You Ever Think Of Me (from her proper debut, Not The Tremblin’ Kind) would sit proudly in the country pop canon of Skeeter Davis, while Two Seconds, the closing song on Friday, can devastate just as effectively as her heroine Kitty Wells. Listening to too much Wells can be a bit of a straightening experience, but Cantrell’s set was far more varied.
This was her first show at the Brudenell since 2016, and it was clear from the first that she hasn’t spent the last seven years gargling stones and whisky. Her voice was as clear and wonderful as ever.
Kicking off her UK tour, Cantrell’s five-piece band were still, laughingly, brushing off a few rough edges, but these enhanced rather than detracted from the show. Adding too much polish would obscure the music’s soul.
Alongside Cantrell (rather than at a deferential sidestep), Mark Spencer and Jimmy Ryan on electric guitar and mandolin shone. They took in the different contours of the Americana map, with country at the centre, but more than a smidgen of rock, rockabilly and folk.
Cantrell’s new album, Just Like A Rose, her first since 2013, is among the strongest of her career. It is saying something that the new duet with Steve Earle of her signature song When The Roses Bloom Again (penned by Jeff Tweedy, but made entirely her own by Cantrell) is not the best tune on the record.
That honour goes to AWM – Bless. AWM (Angry White Man) is a protest number that takes aim at any number of entitled white-backed alpha males. Written in anger, it retains a dignity that makes such songs endure.
When it comes to Laura Cantrell, the Leeds crowd were powerless. They also enjoyed entertaining opener Doug Levitt. This songwriter is leading a colourful, itinerant life, a former foreign correspondent and travel writer too (listen to his Greyhound Stories on BBC Sounds).
His first album, Edge Of Everywhere, is an apt title for his journeyman songs. The pick of the bunch, (not coincidentally the shortest by some distance) was I Killed Buddy Gray.
The crowd gave Levitt a warm hand, but for Cantrell they really didn’t want her to leave. A great night at the Brudenell, thanks to Joe Coates and Please Please You Productions.
CINDER Well, multi-instrumentalist Amelia Baker’s experimental American roots project, will play The Band Room, at Low Mill, Farndale, on the North York Moors, on September 23.
Nigel Burnham’s typically intriguing latest signing released her latest album, the mysterious Cadence, on April 21 on Washington DC’s independent label Free Dirt Records.
Cadence drifts between two far-flung seas: the hazy California coast where Baker grew up and the wind-torn swells of County Clare, western Ireland, that she has come to love. The title refers to the cycles of our turbulent lives, to the uncertain tides that push us forward and back.
Recorded not far from the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, the new songs search for a sense of grounding and a feeling of home.
Although California’s beaches are the backdrop, Irish influences emerge too, after Baker gained a Master’s Degree in Irish Traditional Music Performance from the University of Limerick, where she studied with masters of the tradition, including Siobhan Peoples and Martin Hayes, and settled in County Clare, her adopted new home.
The folklore of the old ways still looms in her mind, tinged with the growth that comes from a return to roots.
On Cadence, Baker expands Cinder Well’s sound to take in percussion, trance electric guitar and lush string parts, courtesy of Lankum’s Cormac MacDiarmada.
Traces remain of Cinder Well’s doom folk, but Cadence balances heavy lyrics with a more expansive sound that recalls Los Angeles’ mythical Laurel Canyon years.
“So much of my music has been made far from home,” says Baker on her website, cinderwellmusic.com. “There was something about recording in California that felt cathartic.”
Caught between two worlds, Cadence recaptures the rhythms of life after a time of deep isolation, seeking balance amid uncertainty, reclaiming creativity post-personal strife.
Cinder Well’s previous album, No Summer, one of the Guardian’s ten best folk albums of 2020, was a love letter to County Clare. However, as the pandemic cut her off from the United States, with a long stretch of intense quarantine, she knew it was time to return home.
Travelling back to her hometown on the central coast of California, she took the time and space to hone a creativity blunted by isolation. Natural imagery, always a key source of inspiration for Cinder Well’s songwriting, appears again in songs full of moonlit caves, edgy cliffs, dark purple sunsets, birds and shadows.
Plants growing out of cracks in rocks in the song Well On Fire symbolise resilience, and the cold Atlantic wind in Gone The Holding embodies the hardness of consequence.
“These songs have a feeling of being lost in the woods, but writing from that place,” Baker says. “They were written in a process of getting unstuck.”
While reconnecting with home and the sea, and resurrecting her childhood interest in surfing, Baker set about song-writing more deeply, determined to break through the creative block she felt.
She experimented with electric guitar and worked on new tunings inspired by English folk guitarist Nic Jones, adapting the music to her own voice using down-tuned instruments.
She pored over New Age classic The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity, American author Julia Cameron’s 1992 self-help book, leading her to write Overgrown, her first song in a decade in a major key.
A chance connection with Venice Beach recording engineer Harlan Steinberger’s Hen House Studios provided the perfect opportunity to record in Los Angeles, a place where Baker had always dreamed of making an album.
In another moment of serendipity, old high school friend Phillip Rogers joined Baker on drums and collaborated on arrangements. Bassist Neal Heppleston and violist Jake Falby contributed too, along with Cormac MacDiarmada.
Heavy yet hopeful, Cadencemoves beyond the minimalism of No Summer, being more expansive, brighter coloured, with higher peaks, perhaps a reflection of the world outside the studio.
“It’s so wild,” says Baker. “You’re in the quiet sanctuary of the studio behind thick wooden doors, then you walk outside and it’s the chaos of Venice Beach.”
Driving down the coast along the scenic Highway 1, Baker sang along to Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark to warm up for the recording sessions, then settled into a calming space that allowed her to explore new directions.
The feeling of being suspended between two worlds is woven through Cadence. “I was continuously trying to reconcile having homes in two places,” says Baker. “I was trying to hold both of those parts of me.”
Splitting her time between the West Coasts of Ireland and California, she concludes: “The ocean is my homebase, no matter where I am.”
Cinder Well play Leeds Brudenell Social Club, September 19, 8pm; The Greystones, Sheffield, September 20, 8pm; The Band Room, Low Mill, Farndale, September 23, 7.30pm. Box office: Leeds, brudenellsocialclub.co.uk; Sheffield, mygreystones.co.uk; Low Mill, thebandroom.co.uk.
Did you know?
CINDER Well’s Amelia Baker teaches fiddle, guitar and songwriting lessons.
NEW York country singer Laura Cantrell opens her 14-date British summer tour at Leeds Brudenell Social Club on Friday.
She will be promoting her first studio album in nine years, Just Like A Rose: The Anniversary Sessions, released on June 9 on the Propeller Sound Recordings label.
Nashville-born Laura, 55, is joined on the recordings by longtime friends Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Rosie Flores and Paul Burch.
Featured too are musicians Mark Spencer(Son Volt, Lisa Loeb),Jeremy Chatzky (Ronnie Spector, Bruce Springsteen), Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives), Fats Kaplan (John Prine, Jack White), Dennis Crouch (Robert Plant, Diana Krall) and Jen Gunderman (Cheryl Crow, Jayhawks).
Cantrell’s co-writers include Mark Winchester(Randy Travis, Carlene Carter), Fred Wilhelm (Rascal Flats, Faith Hill) and Gary Burr (Patty Loveless, Ringo Starr). An unreleased Amy Rigby song and a new recording of When The Roses Bloom Again, adapted by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, are further highlights.
Originally, the album was intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Cantrell’s debut, Not The Tremblin’ Kind,in 2020, but recording was delayed by Covid restrictions. Eventually, the new collection was completed in studios in the New York City area and country capital Nashville.
“I thought I had figured it all out,” Laura muses, as she recalls her initial puzzlement in 2019 at how to acknowledge the approaching 20th anniversary of her first album. “I wanted to salute different aspects of my music life for the last two decades, to create more of a celebration than a traditional album.
“The idea of recording and releasing a series of singles in real time was intriguing, so I started a crowd-funding campaign and launched it on March 1 2020.”
Within days, the world was a very different place, however. Cantrell duly placed her plans on hold while the pandemic raged in her neighbourhood in Jackson Heights, New York, and throughout the world.
Slowly and fitfully, she pushed on as restrictions and delays changed the timeline and shape of her plans. “We moved so slowly I thought ‘this isn’t even happening’. But with the help of many great ‘music people’ the songs emerged,” says Laura.
“There was a risk working with different producers that the results would feel disjointed, but I love where the album landed. Having come through the gauntlet of the pandemic, I felt so much joy in the process, I hope people hear and feel that in the tracks themselves.”
The material spans Cantrell’s latest songwriting and songs she has been humming to herself since before she had had her own band or played her own shows. “It is interesting maturing into your musical worldview,” she says.
“You still have songs that hit you like you’re a teenager with your first crush, and others that reflect more experience and nuance, or frustration with tough realities, and then those you just love purely as music – there’s a bit of it all on this album.”
Since 2000, Cantrell has released the albums Not The Tremblin’ Kind, When The Roses Bloom Again (2002), Humming By The Flowered Vine (2005), Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs Of The Queen Of Country Music (2011), No Way There From Here (2014) and The BBC Sessions (2016).
She was a favourite of the late pioneering radio presenter John Peel, who called Not The Tremblin’ Kind “my favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life”. She recorded several Peel Sessions for the BBC from 2000 to 2004 and appeared on the first Peel Day programme on BBC Radio One commemorating the first anniversary of Peel’s death.
She presented a weekly country and old-time msuic radio show on WFMU, The Radio Thrift, and since August 2017 she has hosted Dark Horse Radio, SiriusXM’s weekly programme featuring the music of George Harrison on The Beatles Channel. Her show States Of Country streams on GimmeCountry.
Away from music, Cantrell held a day job as a vice-president in the equity research department of Bank of America until 2003 and later began working as a recruiter for AllianceBernstein.
Brudenell and Please Please You presents Laura Cantrell, supported by Doug Levitt, at Leeds Brudenell Social Club on Friday (23/6/2023) at 8pm. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.co.uk or seetickets.com.
Track listing for Just Like A Rose: The Anniversary Sessions
1.Push The Swing (Laura Cantrell/Mark Winchester)
2. Bide My Time (Mark Winchester/Laura Cantrell)
3. Brand New Eyes (Amy Rigby)
4. Just Like A Rose (Laura Cantrell/Mark Spencer)
5. When The Roses Bloom Again (Jeff Tweedy/Public Domain)
6. Secret Language (Laura Cantrell)
7. Unaccompanied (Laura Cantrell/Fred Wilhelm)
8. I’m Gonna Miss This Town (Laura Cantrell/Fred Wilhelm)
9. Good Morning Mr. Afternoon (Joe Flood)
10. Holding You In My Heart(Laura Cantrell/Gary Burr)
PLAYING Leeds Brudenell Social Club on Friday will bring back memories of Stephen Jones’s early Babybird travels.
“We deliberately requested these places [Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, London and Cardiff] as it feels like a rite of passage to return,” he says of this month’s short tour.
“These cities featured in our first tours in 1996 and 1997 and are the most memorable for the between-song banter and the enthusiasm. Though I live near Manchester, these other cities are our musical homes too.”
Joining 60-year-old Stephen on the road will be guitarist Luke Scott and drummer Robert Gregory, fixtures in the line-up since 1995, and bassist Danny Lowe, a band member for 15 years. “Everyone’s doing different things these days – Luke is a senior lecturer in London – but as soon as we get into the tour van it’s like a Chuckle tour,” he says.
Babybird officially split after ten Top 40 singles and 11 albums in 2013, but Stephen continues to write prolifically – up to seven songs a day – for solo release on Bandcamp. Around 100 albums so far and still rising, recorded on a laptop, Stephen still bursting with “monstrous lullabies for an unstable world”.
“Writing tunes is just something I can do,” he says. “Mowing the garden, I’ll put off forever, but going upstairs to the ‘fourth room’ to write the lyrics, that’s the hard part.”
He has been known to write in six-hour bursts, but he does not have a set routine. “Sometimes at four in the morning, I’ll have an idea that I’ll put on the phone, but I’ve never been the kind of writer who will be writing every day because that’s what they do. There’ll be days where I get up and don’t want to do it, but when I do it’s a pleasure,” he says.
“Looking back to those early albums [lo-fi Stephen Jones recordings made initially on cassettes in his Sheffield bedsit over six years], I had no intention of releasing them, but people were coming over and stealing them and saying I should release them!”
Now as then, “I always write for myself. I think everyone does. If you write for an audience, you become an automaton,” he says.
One tour preview summed up Stephen Jones’s post-2013 career as one where he will still “persist and meddle”. “I don’t think I would use the word ‘meddle’,” he says. “But I need to keep going financially, so you have to persist, and even if I had another job, I would persist with making music – but I’ve never had to give it up.”
Born in Wellington, Telford (“the same place as the comedian Stewart Lee,” he notes), Stephen was raised in Repton, Derbyshire, and Nottingham, where he studied film; made those notorious bedsit albums in the Steel City; moved to Manchester, and then to London for 15 years.
Home for the Jones family is now Hale in Altrincham, just outside Manchester. “We were living in a really nice place in London, a maisonette, but with no garden and with two kids, we decided to move back north. Nice garden…and my wife’s mother lives up here too. I love being on the verge of the Lake District,” he says.
If one album were still to sum up Babybird, it would be October 1996’s Ugly Beautiful, the one with “songs to annoy, enjoy and employ God with”; the one with the singles Goodnight, Candy Girl, Cornershop and global hit You’re Gorgeous.
“Obviously some songs I write are out-and-out happy and beautiful too, but that album title sums up everything. I like to write about subjects that aren’t necessarily dark but are realistic. When lots of songs have a sheen, if you’re going to write songs like a David Lynch film, there has to be beauty within,” says Stephen.
“I studied film on the creative arts course at Clifton, at Nottingham Polytechnic as it was then. Fassbinder movies; David Lynch; Eraserhead made a big impression on me. That’s my humour. Dark!”
You’re Gorgeous, a number three hit in autumn 1996, will forever be the signature song, with its theme of male exploitation and yet a misleadingly upbeat chorus. “It’s funny what happened,” says Stephen. “Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, whose humour I don’t like, did a version. The Wurzels have done a version. Pinky And Perky, they did it, without changing the lyrics. The Smurfs wanted to change the words, so we could say ‘No’ to that!” Dame Berwick Kaler once sang it in a York Theatre Royal pantomime too, by the way.
Stephen wrote the song in his lo-fi recording days. “I always thought it might be a hit of course, but I was listening to Stewart Lee talking to Adam Buxton on his podcast about successful acts who wanted to be cults and those who are underground but who wanted to be successful,” he says.
“It’s a hard gap to straddle, but I’ve kind of done both and that’s why ‘Gorgeous’ is good, because although it can define you, I can keep going into the studio because all the airplay keeps the money coming in.”
Stephen has come through a heart attack too in 2017. “It did stop me in my tracks. It was like having an iron cage put over me, but it was coming,” he says, attributing what happened to alcohol. “Does it make you reassess? Well, you do for a while, but then you go back to a glass of wine.
“What I’m doing is the same as an office job. Now I get up every 20 minutes when I’m writing – and I go to the gym too. I was in a ward with four men who looked so much worse than me, but then depression comes, but you come out of that. The doctors say I’m in better health than ever, with a stent in me, and now I’m just having a good time doing these gigs.
“There’s no pressure to promote things, which doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s perfect now. I’m older now. I was inspired by the tail end of punk, seeing The Stranglers, and it’s still that DIY thing of glueing your sleeves together, thinking it’s totally up to you what you do.”
Stephen’s 20-year friendship with Johnny Depp found “lyrical diamond” Stephen attending the Hollywood A-lister’s guest appearance with guitarist Jeff Beck in Manchester last May in the aftermath of Depp’s successful libel trial against ex-partner Amber Heard. “I was meeting him in the dressing room, shortly after the verdict. I fell over and smashed my leg. I now have a huge tear,” he says.
Nothing that will stop him from performing in Leeds on Friday, however, still searching for the meaning of life that he happily acknowledges he may never find.
Babybird, supported by Terrorvision’s Tony Wright, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, May 5, doors 7.30pm. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.co.uk.
Did you know?
STEPHEN Jones has written two novels, The Bad Book in 2000 and Harry And Ida Swap Teeth (also the title of a Babybird B-side) in 2003. He wrote the score for the 2004 film Blessed.
Did you know too?
CHEF, cookery book writer, TV presenter and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay used Babybird’s song The F-Word in one of his TV series.
GLENN Tilbrook & Beautiful Landing play Leeds Brudenell Social Club on June 11 as one of three warm-up shows for Glastonbury Festival.
Fifty years since he first answered an advert placed by Chris Difford, looking for like-minded sorts to form the Deptford band that became Squeeze, an ending is nowhere in sight.
Squeeze made their recording bow with the Packet Of Three EP in 1977, leading to such enduring pop classics as Take Me I’m Yours, Cool For Cats, Up The Junction, Another Nail In My Heart, Tempted, Labelled With Love, Black Coffee In Bed and Hourglass, alongside landmark albums Argybargy, East Side Story and Some Fantastic Place.
Squeeze’s demise in 1998 – not permanent – saw Tilbrook embark on a solo career that spawned the albums The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook in 2001 and Transatlantic Ping-Pong in 2004.
In 2009 came Pandemonium Ensues, made with his solo band The Fluffers, followed in 2011 by The Co-Operative, an album of spirited original songs and covers with his friends from Nine Below Zero.
2014 brought Happy Ending, Tilbrook’s most personal and political solo work in a series of evocative portraits of time, people, and places, featuring writing and vocal contributions from Chris McNally, Simon Hanson (Fluffers/Squeeze drummer), Dennis Greaves (Nine Below Zero) and his children Leon and Wesley.
Squeeze re-formed in 2007 and have kept Tilbrook, 65, busy touring around the world, but he still finds time to take his solo show out on the road from time to time.
Now he is joined by Beautiful Landing, a young five-piece indie band from South East London to leaf through the Squeeze and solo back catalogues, complemented by covers and surprises.