“the feral folk phenomenon Ash Mandrake”
“singer-songwriter, guitarist and distinctive performer who plants roots music firmly back into the earth”
(David Metcalf: Bath Story Telling Circle)
You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ll never forget it. You’ll never be the same again.”
(Roger Nuttal: Folk At The Oak, Bishop’s Cleve)
FULL REVIEW 1 (2011: Folk At The Oak – Bishop’s Cleeve)
There are moments in everybody’s life that will remain forever as a marker to something exceptional. Ash Mandrake’s performance at the Oak was one of those moments for me.
Not one for holding back and infamous for speaking my mind, for once, I must rein in my verbosity, because I would otherwise be in great danger of making what I have to say, unbelievable.
Like some modern day minstrel, Ash took us all, through his stories and songs, on a rollercoaster ride of exquisite beauty and pathos through fantasy lands populated with mythical and fantastic beasts, through tales of love and adulation into hideous places populated by evil and horror. From the sublime to the ridiculous and from surreal to the ethereal.
Twice he brought tears to the eyes of the audience, once through the sheer beauty and emotion of his rendition of Starry Starry Night, (one of only a few covers), and second, through total and uncontrollable tears of laughter. It was as though the whole audience had been mass hypnotised. Nobody could stop laughing.
It would be impossible to put Ash’s music into any known genre or indeed, style. I’ll tell you what, here’s a list of just some of the people he reminded me of throughout the evening; in no particular order, Viv Stanshall, Richard Burton, Yes, Pentangle, Robert Fripp, King Crimson, Foy Vance, Jeff Buckley, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre and many many more.
It’s two days since the event and I still can’t get it out of my mind.
It would not be a complete review if I didn’t mention the technology that he uses to perform his unique act, but in doing so, I run the danger of giving it prominence over his skills. He uses a series of loops to build up complex melodies and counter-melodies for both his voice and his guitar(s).
So deep and intricate are some of these that you find yourself memorised and sucked into the very fabric of the song. Not only are you left wondering how it all came together so perfectly, but then there is the realisation that it had to be written in the first place. If you can’t hold the construct in your mind whilst you hear it, how then did anybody conceive it in the first place?
Take a look at the guitar he uses. The first impression is that it has two necks and is covered with leather. Ah, but that doesn’t take into consideration the detail. It’s more that that. The bottom neck supports both the bottom six strings of a twelve string guitar, (strung in a very unconventional way), and the low three strings of a Bass guitar. For the technically minded, start trying to work out the effect of these strange configurations on the neck tensions, as well as the fretting and bridge issues. On top of that is a more or less conventional 6 string electric with some interesting pickup configurations. Oh and just for good measure there’s a fixed vocal Mic that feeds aspects of the vocal loops.
Overall, Ash Mandrake is by any measure, one of the best artists it has ever been my privilege to meet. If you see him advertised anywhere, get yourself a ticket. Get one for your neighbour too, he’ll be in your eternal debt.
(Roger Nuttall: Bishop’s Cleeve 2011)
FULL REVIEW 2 (2008: Tower Of Song)
N.B. My kit has been through several rebuilds (with the emphasis on reliability) since this review. It was written in August 2008 at the beginning of my tour (I’d decided to get out and start walking, no matter what I was wearing on my feet).
Occasionally, when moons from distant planets draw in line, and whales murmur symphony scores from ocean beds, you may see an artist so startling and original that the experience defies description. Ash Mandrake is the type of artist so unusual, so totally distinctive, that there is no ‘type’ to pigeonhole his style or delivery into. Ash Mandrake, frankly, is a genus of music and performance entirely to himself; a new species of music and musician.
You get an inkling of this even before the set starts: he unpacks an instrument that looks like a musical weapon from Mad Max. Two guitars are welded together in some way, a six-string sits on top, not unlike Les Paul’s original ‘plank guitar’, while below a twelve-string has been reduced to ten strings by cutting away two tuning pegs, then a selection of frets have also been removed, all the better to slide you with… And this whole strange concoction looks to be covered in leather, or customised in a distinctive way. From behind the instrument’s body a microphone in brightly striped cloth snakes its way around, linked into the machine, organic and integral to the creative melee of machinery and instruments…
Clearly this is an instrument of great contemplation and experimentation, completely unique and unavailable off-the-shelf to ordinary mortals. The same description applies to the songs and music that subsequently comes from it. Ash Mandrake’s set starts with a gloriously inventive use of loops, poorly served by the dismal quality of audio, yet still revealing an incredible skill, dexterity and subtle use of timing. A consumate musician and singer unfolds, completely taking charge of the space, and making his presence massively felt in the little universe of the audience and stage. The loops whirl and bounce, while the vocals soar on top, a mixture of folk, opera and drama.
You all sit, mesmerised, few able to sip their pints now, totally astonished, completely absorbed… Something magical, astonishing and perplexing is happening right in front of you. It’s as if a woodland sprite has come to life, or an oak tree has walked in, tuned up and started sharing its Mysteries. Collectively you are hypnotised.
The songs range from roaring drunken drinkers’ spells, to stories of spuds that can fool a foolish King to throw away his gold, to enchantments for the rising Sun, or spells about snails that snatch and steal the crop of pumpkins, painstakingly planted and reared, lost overnight.
These are songs rooted in the earth: folk music, but not as convention would have it. Folk in the sense of supernatural, connected to nature, instinctive and untrained, completely natural. This is what a singer sounds like who has no need for conventions, who is beyond normal boundaries, beyond normal reality. It sounded, for all the earthly world, like the songs of mushrooms in autumn: rootsy, earthy, wild.
Ash Mandrake is a gifted musician, incorporating a variety of textures and styles to his playing as well as deftly weaving in loops of vocal and guitar phrases. The sound, sadly, was let down by poor electronics: frequently the guitar connection, perhaps overloaded with experimental wiring and custom soldering, kept cutting out completely. The audio quality of the loops themselves was much weaker than the original, yet this was all overlooked by the audience, instantly forgiven for the treat of such rare, live magic. The vocals swooped from quiet descriptions and storytelling mode, to grunting gutteral growls, holistic howling, screeches and yells, to pure, broad, unhindered singing. Wonderful!! A set full of imagination, incredible skillfulness as a musician and songwriter, plus a uniquely brave, completely naturalistic performance style. A force to be reckoned with, thank goodness, or Gaia, or whatever strange gifts and grace give this artist his Muse.
Look, listen, and marvel.
(Paul Nocher; Birmingham 2008)