A Conversation With Merry Hell

This is the story of three brothers from the North Country [Wigan, actually]. They formed a band named after a brand of child's pushchair [The Tansads]. They toured far and wide in the 1990's and released five albums before disbanding.

Those three brothers were Andrew, Bob and John Kettle. Now, with John's wife Virginia and former Tansads Lee Goulding and Andy Johns, plus bassist Andrew Dawson, they have formed a cracking new band who are taking the festival scene by storm- Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Merry Hell.

Merry Hell have just released their much-acclaimed second album "Head Full Of Magic,Shoes Full Of Rain", a most worthy successor to their excellent debut "Blink. ..and you'll miss it".

Through the good offices of their manager, Damian, I caught up with Merry Hell at Chester Folk Festival at the Lord Binning pub at Kelsall near Chester.

Vocalist Andrew Kettle recounted the story of how the band came into being....." Just for a laugh, we decided to do a couple of Tansads reunion gigs at the Citadel in St.Helens [ this was July 2010]. The shows sold out, so we decided to do a third. We also played some pub gigs for a laugh and made a demo cd. Our manager took the cd to a music convention and left it on a table for cd's by new acts. When he was sweeping up after the convention, Steve Heap of Mrs. Casey Music found the cd and put in his pocket. He played it in his car on the way home and liked it. The best thing he liked about was that all the information was written in marker pen! We got a record deal and this our second album".

John Kettle takes up the story...."The reunion came after a long break. It was a healing of old wounds. The Tansads were constantly gigging, we did about 800 concerts. We lost our artistic perspective and the media became our audience.

Since The Tansads, we have had 15 years of life experiences and this opened the floodgates for songwriting - we have 4 songwriters in the band [Virginia, John, Bob and Lee] all vying for position. The main is thrust is that we write our own songs. We don't come from a celtic/ folk music background, our influences are more rock and roll, like The Levellers and Roy Harper. Virginia is the key songwriter in the group. She's a Chester girl and this is the first time she's played Chester Festival".

Virginia- " I started out playing in folk clubs in Chester -straight after the raffle".

John then introduced middle brother Bob "the other key songwriter in the group,who plays mandolin and who is the smiliest man on the festival circuit".

Drummer Andy Johns is also from Chester and was in the final line-up of The Tansads. He was previously in a band with Virginia and, indeed, introduced her to future husband John. Andy said that "playing the Chester Festival is coming back home. I last played here [at the Lord Binning] 27 years ago".

I asked John about the guest appearance of Dave Swarbrick on "Let's Not Have A Morning After" on the new album. He said that "It was an unbelievable honour. He did a beautiful [fiddle] part which lifted the whole thing to another place. We have a huge ambition to play live with him".

Virginia told me of another forthcoming collaboration with another great player , Gordon Giltrap. "We met him at the Great British Folk Festival at Butlins, Skegness. He saw us play and said that he would like to something with us".

Merry Hell then played a short acoustic set, beginning, appropriately enough, with a Tansads song, "Fear Of Falling", from the 1994 album "Flock". What struck me immediately was the fact that Andrew's and Virginia's voices complement each other perfectly.

This was followed by Virginia's delightfully quirky song, "The Butcher and The Vegan" from "Blink". Virginia is a wonderful songwriter as this charming tale of a "most unlikely affair" clearly demonstrates.

Next we had the debut live performance of Bob's excellent "I Never Loved Anybody Like I Love You" from the new album.

Just to demonstrate the strength -in-depth of the songwriting talent in this band, we next had one of John's songs, "Lean On Me Love" [also from "Blink"],which he wrote on a trip to Nashville.

Most bands would be count themselves fortunate to have just one songwriter of the ability of Virginia, Bob, John or Lee, but Merry Hell have all four !

The acoustic set was completed by Andrew's hilarious solo version of Jake Thackray's "The Jolly Captain" [which you can experience for yourself on YouTube at Merry Hell-Merry Helloween- Jolly Captain].

Later in the evening we were treated to a superb headlining concert by Merry Hell in all their powerhouse electric glory. After seeing them in full flight, it is no surprise that they firm festival favourites.

With a muscular rhythm section that most rock bands would envy, electronic keyboards, guitar and electric mandolin, they sound like the missing link between the Pogues and New Order. On top of that intense, almost punkish sound they have two very talented vocalists in Andrew and Virginia. Andrew's powerful, raspy voice is perfectly complemented by Virginia's mellifluous harmonies and counterpoints.

Clearly, Merry Hell is a band that is going places. Catch them soon at a festival near you!


Peter Cowley
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