Grateful Fred's Christmas Bash Featuring Merry Hell Acoustic and The Big I Am

12th March, 2014 By Peter Cowley on the FATEA website

Grateful Fred rounded off a memorable 2014 with a fabulous end of term Christmas Bash featuring the marvellous Merry Hell Acoustic, ably supported by local heroes The Big I Am.

This year has been a great year for Grateful Fred's at The Atkinson with a superb roster of artists, including The Toy Hearts, The Stray Birds, Hannah Aldridge, Rita Hosking, Thea Hopkins, Sheesham & Lotus & Son and Eric Taylor, amongst others.

The year has also been tinged with sadness, following the untimely passing of longtime Fredhead Glynne Callaghan who was remembered tonight when the Grateful Fred house band played "Bring Me Sunshine" in tribute to Glynne. Other highlights of their set were old favourite "He'll Have To Go" and Jimmy MacCarthy's "Ride On" which featured some scintillating electric guitar from Fretful Ged.

Next up were the unique The Big I Am [ Pete McPartland and Colin Heaney ]. When I say unique, I mean just that - what other band features cuatro and tenor ukulele? The combination of these two unusual instruments creates an amazing sound, a meeting of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis with West African griot music and a smattering of Ravi Shankar. As I said, unique. Their live shows are an absolute delight, as is their beautiful album "Gathering Skies", which, if you have not heard, you simply must.

After the intricate, filigree, string-driven music of The Big I Am came the altogether more raucous Merry Hell Acoustic. Don't be fooled by the "Acoustic" tag, this band rocks even without its full electric line-up.

Tonight we had the "Lite" version of MH, a mere six piece, featuring the four Kettles [from left to right John, Andrew, Virginia and Bob] plus excellent fiddle player Neil McCartney [ex- Big Geraniums] and electric bassist Nick Davies [formerly of Sound Marshals and Jesus In India].

Merry Hell delivered a blistering opening salvo of "Drunken Serenade" [good impression, Andrew] ; "Let's Not Have A Morning After [Until We've Had A Night Before]" and the bankers' favourite song "The Crooked Man". Lead vocalist Andrew Kettle was in fine form with his voice "like a strimmer in a bucket of gravel".

More Merry Hell classics followed with the likes of "Bury Me Naked", "Blink And You Miss It", "Loving The Skin You're In"and "Hope You Don't Mind".

Merry Hell have just released a new EP and from that we had the delightful "The Baker's Daughter" [she rises and rises] as well the marvellous title song "The Ghost In Our House".

The band has made a wonderfully atmospheric video for this song, which was shot and produced by fiddle player Neil McCartney [mainly in the Old Courthouse in Wigan, where John Kettle has his studio].

Whilst Merry Hell are famous for their anthemic folk-rock, they also have a gentler side, as witnessed by the romantic ballad "Rosanna's Song"[ a live version of which appears on the new EP] and Virginia's whimsical tale of "The Butcher And The Vegan" [a most unlikely affair].

Merry Hell's main set ended with Virginia's "One More Day", which contains the immortal line "I miss you like a World Cup penalty".

After rapturous applause, the band returned to play Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?". As you may be aware, this song was the subject of the recent Armistice Pals project which was the brainchild of Merry Hell's very own Damien Liptrot, together with Helen Meissner of Folkstock. The resulting EP was produced by John Kettle and features Merry Hell backing a host of stars from across the folk firmament. As an aside, I was honoured to be asked to join in one of the recording sessions at John's studio in Wigan [the Court of Sessions ?] as a member of the Pals Community Chorus. This chorus was re-enacted tonight as the audience joined in on an unaccompanied section of the song.

Merry Hell's second and final encore was a spirited rendition of "Let The Music Speak For Itself", featuring some fine fiddle from Neil McCartney.

Thus ended a splendid programme of events at Grateful Fred's in 2014. Roll on 2015.

Let the music speak for itself. Indeed.

Peter Cowley