by Ian Mann
June 28, 2022
His intelligent and evocative songwriting is augmented by his versatile and highly effective vocals and he is also well served by his various instrumental and vocal guests.
Mansel Davies – vocals, electric, acoustic & bass guitars, harmonica, Beth & Kate Davies – backing vocals, Brendan Day – drums, Malcolm Jenkins & Gwyn Griffiths – percussion, Jasper Salmon – violin, Rik Lawton – saxophone, Al Thomas – electric, acoustic & slide guitars, James Wood, Owen Firminger – electric guitars, Ken Davies – spoken word voice
Mansel Davies is a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and harmonica player who performs regularly in South and Mid Wales and the Welsh Marches in line ups ranging from solo to quartet, often under the banner ‘Acoustic Sessions’. As well as writing and singing his own songs he also performs covers across a variety of genres including blues, folk, rock, country and pop.
Although not strictly a jazz performer Davies has established strong links with Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny and performed on the Blues Stage at the 2015 edition of that organisation’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
In April 2016 he returned on a regular BMJ club night as part of a double bill opposite the Bristol European Jazz Ensemble at the Melville Centre. Unfortunately I had to miss this show as I was covering that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
In 2017 Davies returned once more on a regular club night to play with a trio featuring guitarist Paul Wyman and cellist Emma Archer. The event was another double bill with the Davies trio now playing opposite jazz pianist and composer Dave Jones and his quartet. Most of Davies’ many pub gigs find him playing covers but this jazz club event in front of a paying, listening audience allowed him to focus fully on his own material – and very impressive it was too.
Some of those songs resurface on Davies’ début album, of which he says;
“‘Breaking Bread’ is my first solo album, having been a solo performer for the last 20 years or so. I wouldn’t say I’m a prolific songwriter but over this time I have penned a clutch of songs which I have now decided I want to record professionally.
I’ve played with many musicians over the years and wanted to reflect this on the album. I’ve used friends of old, as well as creating friends of new. I’ve also used family members, with my daughters supplying the sweet backing vocals and my 96 year old Dad opening the album in a patriarchal sort of way, as well as having the final words on the album, a sort of bookend. I also decided to use several electric guitarists, the aim being to create variety of style and sound.
I recorded the album at Berry Hill Studios in the Forest of Dean, engineered by the ever-patient John David. John brought a wealth of experience to the table/desk, having played bass with Dave Edmunds. It was then mastered by the more youthful Gethin at Hafod Mastering in the Vale of Glamorgan.
My intention was to enjoy every minute of the process and not rush it. This I have definitely achieved. I sincerely hope the album is enjoyed for what it is. This will encourage me to get the second album up and running over the next year or so”.
The eleven original songs embrace blues, folk and country influences and it’s tempting to describe Davies’ music as a kind of ‘Welsh Americana’. There’s an agreeably rootsy, ‘lived in quality’ about Davies’ vocals, which suits his material well.
The album commences with “I Wait For You”, a song that was featured at the 2017 Abergavenny show. Emerging from a forest of percussion the piece also features acoustic guitars and harmonica and the speaking voice of ninety six year old Ken Davies, Mansel’s father. The first half of the song is essentially Ken’s powerful and moving monologue set to music. Ken has a classic ‘Welsh orator’s voice’ - think Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, which helps to ensure that his involvement represents far more than just an indulgence on Mansel’s part. Ken’s speech includes the phrase “Breaking Bread”, thus helping to establish the album’s narrative arc.
The second half of the tune finds the music gathering momentum and Mansel taking over the lead vocals. There’s a suitably yearning quality about the vocals and the lyrics, plus a colourful arrangement embracing many elements, including guitars, drums, violin and the backing vocals of Mansel’s daughters, ensuring that this opening track is a real family affair.
“Ten Years In The Wilderness” is another song that was performed by the trio in Abergavenny. Here Al Thomas’ incisive slide guitar gives the music an authentic country / Americana twang that is highly effective.
“Hey Mama” was inspired by a conversation Davies that overheard in a bar and is delivered in the persona of the young woman whose words he had overheard. Davies adopts a conversational, semi-spoken, world weary tone for his vocal. Soaring, blues flavoured electric guitar adds a pleasing grittiness to the arrangement. It’s not made clear who contributes this, Davies himself or one of the three guest guitarists.
“Shake It To The Right” is introduced by Day’s drums, with Salmon’s violin subsequently giving the music something of a folk rock feel. Meanwhile the guitars bring a blues and rock-billy-element. The title might suggest a throwaway dance number but Davies’ growled, angry vocals address various political and environmental issues in the manner of an old school hell-fire preacher – or maybe even Nick Cave.
The largely acoustic “Why Don’t You…” cools things down again, a reflective ballad featuring a softer vocal style from Davies, plus the exquisite harmonies of his daughters.
The only co-write on the album is “The World’s Gone In For Repair”, credited to Davies and one Sal Jennings – who she?, or even he, I could find nothing online.
In any event the song features Davies’ Dylan-esque vocals and a saxophone solo from Rik Lawton. Evocative lyrics combine with buoyant grooves to exhilarating effect.
“The Chosen One” addresses the moires of modern life with increasing desperation, underpinned by a circling melodic motif that gradually gathers momentum and intensity. There’s a couple of cogent electric guitar breaks that complement the urgency of the lyrics.
“When The Winter Comes” addresses the loss of summer and the passing of the seasons seasons and also features some extended instrumental breaks featuring guitars and saxophone.
The poignant “Where The Young Lovers Go” is another song that was performed at Abergavenny. On this recorded version Archer’s cello is replaced by the sound of Salmon’s violin, but the results are no less haunting. Slide guitar is also featured in this arrangement, plus Day’s drums, which provide a welcome additional heft throughout the album, but without ever becoming intrusive. His overall contribution is consistently impressive.
“Falling For You” is one of the most obviously blues influenced songs on the album and includes some excellent guitar soloing. Davies opts for a warm, conversational vocal, wisely avoiding the overly macho posturing of much electric blues.
The album concludes with the title track,“Breaking Bread”. Initially wistful, but ultimately triumphant, the song moves from largely acoustic beginnings to a soaring climax featuring electric guitars and saxophone, with violin featured along the way, alongside a spoken reprise from Ken Davies.
As an album “Breaking Bread” represents an excellent début recording from Mansel Davies. His intelligent and evocative songwriting is augmented by his versatile and highly effective vocals and he is also well served by his various instrumental and vocal guests. There is some excellent playing and singing throughout this record.
The arrangements are imaginative and varied throughout as the music embraces an impressive range of styles. The sonic details of both voices and instruments are well captured by engineers John David and Gethin, both of whom deserve credit for the clarity of the final mix.
These are songs that more than pass muster in comparison with those of more established artists and it is to be hoped that this album will help to put Davies on the wider musical map.
The quality of the material demands that they be heard by the wider public and that it features more fully in Davies’ many live performances. These are songs that deserve and demand to be heard, there’s more to the live music experience than just drunkenly singing along to covers.
“Breaking Bread” is available via Mansel Davies’ Facebook page;
Also from Andy’s Records, Aberystwyth via;
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