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John WardJohn Ward
Album: Sargasso
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 12

John is a Suffolk based singer-songwriter who has been plying his musical trade since the mid 1980's, both here in England and overseas.

His self-written songs have always been located within his personal and geographical environment and now living close to the coast in Suffolk, his current album 'Sargasso' has a strong sea and ocean narrative.

This is John's seventh album release and as well as performing solo, he plays regularly as a duo with violinist Mario Price and as a member of the ceilidh group Skiphire. In 2013 he formed a regular band consisting of guitarist Stephen Mynott, Les Woodley, double bass and mandolin, Andy Marr, cajon, percussion and his wife Lynne Ward adding harmony vocals and mandolin. His website tells us that this band creates a rich, deep sound full of harmonies in the folk rock idiom and beyond.

As though this isn't enough to keep anyone busy, John is also a published author, regularly gives bodhran workshops, is a great advocate for local music and I have just spotted that back in 2011 he introduced the 'Broad Roots' stage to the prestigious FolkEast festival.

For 'Sargasso' his band joins John with duo collaborate Mario Price on violin and Ian Sainsbury on piano. John himself sings on all the tracks and adds acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, ukulele and bodhran as required!

The album was recorded at Pond Farm Studios and all twelve tracks are John Ward originals. It is eye catchingly packaged and I particularly like the inlay booklet design and front cover picture, which sweeps round onto the back as well. Along with the lyrics, each song has a little preamble explaining some of the inspirations and ideas behind them, which is a clever idea. The CD booklet and cover design are credited to Chris Newman who is well worth a mention here.

Opening track 'Hammer and a Saw', apparently inspired by one of John's early influences, Pete Seeger, enters on lovely acapella harmonies before John comes in with his guitar and vocal. John has quite a high register voice and it put me in mind a little of Reg Meuross and in places, Pete Coe. The song really chugs along with a tight band feel and some warm harmonies throughout.

'Pass it On' is a slightly slower number with a beautifully picked guitar part and some sweet musical swells underneath before switching to more straight forwarded strumming as the vocal starts within the body of the song. It boasts a very catchy chorus as well and I can imagine lots of folk club audience participation with this one.

Track three, 'Adrift' is a very strong song and an early favourite of mine. It is a stripped back affair with John's vocal entering just ahead of his guitar, which is very effective and it continues in this vein as it subtly builds throughout with discreet instrumentation and harmonies. As with many of John's songs, it is easy to imagine this being picked up by someone and given the 'big voice, big band' treatment.

As well as the previously mentioned sea and ocean narratives, John has a broad song writing range touching on current political and economic themes in 'Pull the Ladder Up' warm nostalgia and a call to appreciate what you have in 'The Good Old Days Are Here' and the ballad based, jazz blues of 'Careless Days'.

All the music here is universally strong and another couple of stand outs for me are 'Miners' which surprisingly for a folk song isn't about a British pit closing down but instead a chance meeting with an old prospector in Colorado and 'Let Me Be Your Ship'. This one has a picked guitar intro so beautifully recorded you can almost feel the bass notes resonating in your chest as if you were holding the guitar yourself.

'Hard Times' has to be my favourite song on the album, but not my favourite performance. Pete Seeger is acknowledged in the liner notes as an inspiration again and the track has a driving, earthy feel and proper, old time blues vibe as the band cooks along. However, where John's voice is just right for the other songs, here I think he has wrote something that demands more of a gruff, tortured bellow to do his work justice. If Nick Cave or Tom Waits sang this it would be on the soundtrack to Peaky Blinders by now!

More generally, with John's wide song writing lens and easy way with a chorus, it is not hard to imagine a few of these tunes being picked up and covered by bands like Fairport Convention who tend not to produce much of their own material. Equally, but maybe less lucratively, I imagine some will also become staple numbers for folk club floor spot and 'in the round' performers, particularly in John's own stomping ground where I imagine he has a pretty high profile.

This is an enjoyably authentic album. Some strong song writing with fine performances by John and the band, all beautifully recorded. What comes across strongly throughout is John's experience, love and commitment to not just his music, but also to the wider times, places and people that inspire him and carry the traditions forward.

Paul Jackson