Five traditional music releases which have lightened anxious times.
The Spring of 2020 will, of course, live long in the memory. The tragedy, frustration and anxiety experienced by the general population in countries where the political response to Covid-19 has been, shall we say, sub-optimal, have been met and matched in musical circles with remarkable creativity, resilience and humour. Social media, the only platform left, has become populated with a wealth of live-streamed gigs, solo performances and video collaborations. Paypal has been the online busker’s proffered hat, and merchandise, especially CDs and downloads, has replaced the concert ticket. Here, then, are five personal highlights of this activity in the world of European folk and traditional music.
Green Matthews: Roots and Branches (Blast Records BFTP013)
Chris Green and Sophie Matthews lightened the mood within a week of the UK Lockdown with their Keeping It Local tour, being a series of daily videos from the various rooms, garden and garage of their West Midlands home. The duo demonstrated a wide range of instruments and repertory with panache and an agreeably silly sense of humour. As Green Matthews, Chris and Sophie have quite the back catalogue of recorded work, but 2019’s polished studio album Roots and Branches stands out as the perfect introduction to the broad historical sweep of their music and song, from the medieval to the music hall. Chris’ choppy, tense and energetic mandocello and cittern are reminiscent of the great Donal Lunny, while Sophie’s precise phrasing and articulation on English border bagpipes, flute, recorder and Baroque oboe is always impressive. These two are professionalism, wit and charm, on a silver platter.
Jackie Oates & John Spiers: Needle Pin, Needle Pin
Prolific tweeter and former Bellowhead melodeonist John Spiers has been hosting his own Lockdown virtual pub sessions in his garden shed, via YouTube. The same channel has also hosted a couple of appearances with John’s Nettlebed Folk Club colleague, the singer and fiddle player, Jackie Oates. It was their mesmerising performance of Congleton Bear, a song from Jackie’s Staffordshire home town, that immediately had me ordering a copy of this joint project. This track opens the album, it’s gentle six-eight rhythm and whimsical lyric making it an early anthem for this bizarre period of time. Jackie’s breathy vocal timbre and warmly toned fiddle are strongly yet sensitively supported by John’s sweet and punchy melodeon. Mike Cosgrave guests on understated piano. Much of the material draws on Jackie’s research into the songs and ‘tells’ associated with Bedfordshire lace making, an unusual and, as it turns out, worthwhile source. This is a warm, homely and gentle album, a comfort when all appears chaotic and unpredictable in the outside world.
Will Pound’s A Day Will Come (LULUBUG005)
Mouth organ and melodeon maestro Will Pound has been a prolific and, at times, extraordinary, online busker, but it was this pre-lockdown recording project that his followers were all waiting for. When a day finally came, in early May, the result surpassed all expectations. During 2019, Will had travelled across Europe, collecting tunes from all 27 member states of the European Union. Back in the UK, he assembled a band of outstanding musicians, including the celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The often eminently danceable tunes, arranged not by country but in mutually complimentary sets, dart all over, in an aural starburst of great music. Thus we have ‘Latvia/Belgium,’ ‘Netherlands/Spain,’ and so on. In addition to Will himself, holding it all together, as a common thread, there are outstanding performances on oboe, soprano sax and bagpipes, from Jude Rees, and on rhythm guitar, from Jenn Butterworth. The stylistic palette moves seamlessly from Irish to English, Klezmer, Jazz and Blues. Another striking feature, and a heartbreaking one, are the spoken word pieces by Bohdan Piasecki, written from the perspective of a departing EU citizen. The whole is a bittersweet experience, to which the listener will want to return, again and again. This is quite beautiful.
Brown Boots: First Steps
Will Allen (melodeon) has been another prolific online performer, gracing his Facebook followers with a tune a day, throughout the pandemic, while his Brown Boots colleague, Martin Clarke (fiddle), has hosted the Tunesday Tuesdays group on Mr Zuckerberg’s volume of physiognomies, herding musical cats into learning and performing the same tune more or less simultaneously, to entertaining effect.
First Steps initially strikes the listener as imitative of the group Leveret, in its use of varied textures and an exploratory, free form, approach to what is, after all, dance music. This is both flattering and unfair. In their own words, ‘Our music is steeped in playing for dancing, so we didn’t want to lose those grooves. Instead, we’ve combined them with a range of styles, timbres and shades, to capture our listeners.’ They have succeeded. Will’s sprightly box style draws on the most treasured elements of Irish and English traditions, and Martin’s fiddle positively sings in places. There’s some excellent, tubthumping, unison playing here, and great variety. If you’re in a rush, dive straight into the glorious hornpipes at track 7, The Underhand and The Wonder.
The Lochdoon Ceilidh Band: Now, That’s A Ceilidh!
Garry Alexander is one of Scotland’s mavericks and innovators of the piano accordion, which is how that fine tradition has developed over the decades. His playing is characterised by speed, precision, an effortless knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities, and a certain wildness which is difficult to define, but 500 miles from the staid reputation of the Scottish Ceilidh band as portrayed by its detractors. This is a man who doesn’t play ‘safe’, but from the soul.
This project sees Garry reunited virtually, via mobile phone recording, with some old friends, including the brilliant Borders fiddler, Roddy Matthews. Garry assembled the various contributions on his home computer and produced the album, which also features Gavin Piper, Robert Finnegan and Johnny Bridges.
Now, That’s A Ceilidh features familiar sets and fine tunes. Standouts for this writer are the slow airs Doddie, Garry’s own tribute to the Scottish Rugby legend Doddie Weir, and Mrs Jamieson’s Favourite, a showcase for the exquisite fiddling of Roddy Matthews. The dances are great entertainment, throughout, whatever the listener’s energy level.
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