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(4 / 5)
A quartet of talented young musicians who met at University in Newcastle on the folk degree course six years ago, have committed their musical chemistry to record, with the release of their debut album.
The Rachel Hamer Band make a beautiful sound together on “Hard Ground,” the 10-track album funded by a bursary, after impressing audiences at UK festivals and folk gigs, establishing themselves as a band to watch.
Not afraid to re-interpret traditional music, the album is an insight into the lives that Rachel has come across, her relationship with The North East, her heritage and some material that is just “cracking fun” with the band.
Produced by Ian Stephenson, it is an even-listen with light and shade in the material, and the quality of the main focus of the album; Rachel’s lovely vocal, spot on. Like she’s there in the room with you. The intimacy of the set is not to be taken for granted.
But it is not just about the voice. This is a unit and they have a decent amount of chemistry. Whitley Bay’s Rachel Hamer, guitarist/singer Graeme Armstrong, filddle player and clog dancer Grace Smith and flautist Sam Partridge.They have gained a good following from support gigs to the likes of The Unthanks, The Young ‘Uns and The Wilsons, as well as their own headline shows.
Their sound dips its toes into the deep well of the traditional, while keeping their sound their own. The voice holds the attention across this entire album, and track four sums it up really: the trad’ tune “What A Voice.” That voice is gifted, sensual, calming and sweet.
Graeme Miles’ “Blue Sunset” opens proceedings nicely, then songs from Jean Ritchie, Jim Molyneux, Alan Bell, a very good job on Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over,” Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird,” and the closer “Will Jobling,” penned by Andy Dutfield; a song about the last man to be gibbeted in the North East for a crime he didn’t actualy commit.
“What A Voice,” and “Gyspy Laddie,” are the two trad’ offerings. Guest musicians on the album are Ian Stephenson on double bass and cello, Richard Hammond (no, not that one!) on percussion and Ken Hamer on vocals. One sole original from within the band, half way through the album, with Rachel Hamer’s “Bevan Boys.” Rachel was inspired to write this song after a conversation with a family friend about his surprising history, and his stories of men he had met when he became the North East’s first Bevin Boy during World War Two.
Bevin Boys were young British men conscripted to work in the UK coal mines between December 1943 and March 1948. Chosen by lot as ten percent of all male conscripts aged 18–25, plus some volunteering as an alternative to military conscription. Nearly 48,000 Bevin Boys performed vital but largely un-recognised service in the mines, many of them not released from service until well over two years after Second World War hostilities ended.
Not sure why this song is called Bevan Boys and not Bevin Boys, as the war-time programme was named after Ernest Bevin, a former trade union official and then British Labour Party politician who was Minister of Labour and National Service in the wartime coalition government. Notable Bevin Boys include football legend Nat Lofthouse, comedian Eric Morecambe and actor and Mencap charity supremo Brian Rix.
The Rachel Hamer band most definitely need to write much more of their own material for that “difficult second album”, if they want this band to progress and develop. But overall a very promising start for a talented young British folk band, with a gorgeous voice out front.
Two previous four-track EPs and now their very pleasing debut full album; surely lots more to come once they start crafting their own material and gain more experience on the road and in the studio. More ‘on solid ground’ than ‘hard ground’ methinks!
By Simon Redley
Hard Ground Review- FATEARachel Hamer Band
Album: Hard Ground
Label: Self Released
The debut album from the Rachel Hamer Band, delivered all ship shape from Simpson Street Studios by the potent hands of Ian Stephenson. It sees the four piece Newcastle based band drawing on their individual cultures and upbringing, gathering together Sam Partridge and his floating High Peak flute, Borders guitarist Graeme Armstrong and Teeside clog dancer/fiddle player Grace Smith. Rachel Hamer herself brings her own Whitley Bay singaround background and together the quartet gather to bring a collection of songs of the NorthEast.
A title which suggests a struggle, indeed it's a hard ground which may have lain fallow, yet mined richly by The Young 'Uns. A hard ground which is reflected in a sparse musical landscape in a set of songs which are mined from the traditional and the likes of established and iconic names in the field of social commentary in song, Graeme Miles and Ewan MacColl. Struggles and hardships are the common and provide the overriding theme which runs through the choice of material; especially calling on the industrial culture of the North East.
Having set the tone and painted the background picture with Graeme Miles' 'Blue Sunset', there's an ominous drone on Jean Ritchie's 'West Virginia', bemoaning mining disasters across the world before Rachel boldly takes 'What A Voice' unaccompanied. Her own 'Bevan Boys' - the subject matter rooted in historical fact - fits perfectly in the set and she includes an interesting take on 'Gypsy Laddie' - her version of 'The Ballad Of The Gypsie Laddies', carefully pieced together from various collections. A song which provides a lighter tone, traditional with Rachel's own twist, it's possibly the pick of the album. A close call with the narrative of 'Will Jobling', the tale of the last man to be gibbeted in the North East, driven by a sawing fiddle, again championing the cause for the unjust.
Ultimately, what comes across is the strength of the heritage of these songs, the way they arrive, having been passed across generations by being sung and shared. It's a set which shows due respect and a sensitivity to the material and the subject matter. Melancholy yet challenging and seeking escape like the red winged bird of the Billy Ed Wheeler song, Rachel Hamer and her band do a grand job of conveying a set of austerity and bleakness with rays of hope.
Hard Ground is the debut album from The Rachel Hamer Band: Rachel, Graeme Armstrong, Grace Smith and Sam Partridge. The Newcastle based quartet are the current recipients of the English Folk Dance And Song Society’s Graeme Miles Bursary which helped to fund the project. Appropriately, then, they open with one of Graeme’s songs, ‘Blue Sunset’.
The hand ground of the title is the ground of industry although ‘What A Voice’ is rather more metaphorical. Graeme’s song celebrates, if that’s the right word, the effects that industrial pollution can have. The fumes from the factory chimneys turns the sunsets blue in summer, the Tees is amber-brown and reflects the skies in violet and orange. Hardship and death are common themes of the album and next up is Jean Ritchie’s ‘West Virginia’ an oddly matter-of-fact account of a woman’s response to a mine disaster.
‘The Digging Song’ is the first hint that there might be a lighter side to the band. It’s an old joke that you’ll quickly recognise. Later, Ewan MacColl’s ‘School Days Over’, lauding the nobility of labour contrasts with Alan Bell’s ‘Alice White’ which concerns the suffering and degradation of the women. Between then sits Rachel’s composite version of ‘Gypsie Laddie’, another few moments of lightness unless you happen to be the deserted lord, of course.
The chief melody instruments are Grace’s fiddle and Sam’s flute and whistles. Graeme’s guitar provides the rhythmic foundation with support from producer Ian Stephenson on double bass and cello and Richard Hammond’s percussion although the most notable percussive sound is that of Grace’s clogs! Throw in Sam’s harmonium and the band can produce a really solid sound to back Rachel strong, distinctive voice and can break out into decorative passages without missing a beat.
Hard Ground is an exceptional debut album by anybody’s standards and I predict a great future for The Rachel Hamer Band.
Liverpool Sound and Vision Rating 8.5/10
The North East of England is one that for many years, decades, had the same sense of enforced isolation thrust upon it as cities such as Liverpool by the alleged powers that be down in the Westminster Village; if it produced something viable, if it contributed to society by being something other than suits and great swathes of money that could be generated at the pressing of an electronic key, then to those entrenched inside the Palace of Westminster, it held no significance.
The stories of the brave men who endured the Jarrow March, of the people who built the ships that sailed the world, who dug deep like their cousins in Yorkshire, Wales and all manner of places in search for the raw materials to keep the fires of Britain going during the war, this was the Hard Ground they fought for, to have employment, to seek better lives whilst all the time wrecking their health through the power of coal dust and government insincerity infecting their lungs and sapping their strength.
It is in these and other members of the hardy North East population that The Rachel Hamer Band’s debut album, Hard Ground, offers more than a casual but much loved insight into the world on the area close by the North Sea; it is a charting of a social history at times ignored, at others forgotten by those who have found that their lives are more important than the society at large.
Each piece of coal, each mine worked, each life lost, each night washing the black engrained dust mixed with sweat off the bodies, this is the story of a society that gave, the people that lived around them, the despair, the hardship and the bravery that went hand in hand, this is the Hard Ground won, in many way arguably more important than some of the fighting that took place over foreign fields, yet somehow lost in time like the names of those who gave their lives in pursuit of coal.
Rachel Hamer really tackles the subjects at hand with sensitivity and flair, not one to mince her feelings, she and the band take songs such as The Digging Song, Bevan Boys, the sensational Alice White, Will Jobling and West Virginia into the open arena and let them breathe fresh uncluttered air, the sea breeze casting its life ahead of those who live underground and giving us all a reason to remember the hardship endured so we could all keep warm.
A beautifully entrancing Folk album, one that captures the sense of loss of those who have been forgotten by great swathes of the country, Hard Ground is there to be dug.