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Owen Ralph "Chamber Folk" Album Launch

Venue: Cecil Sharp House
Town: Regent's Park
Date: 14/06/2018

We've seen big bands before, Bellowhead and Eliza Carthy's Wayward Band spring to mind but this was something very different. Owen Ralph can't get much closer to the core of English folk music, being a marketing office at EFDSS, and whilst he's a classically trained composer and multi-instrumentalist he considers himself to be a folk fiddle player at heart.

By combining these various elements he's taken the route used by the like of Vaughan Williams, Greig and many others and turned traditional songs into contemporary classical music. However, whilst doing that he's retained the essence; these are still recognisably folk songs and so it was entirely suitable that this album was launched at Cecil Sharp House as several of the songs played were collected by Cecil himself in both England and the Appalachian mountains of the USA.

The 10-piece ensemble Owen gathered together for the evening gave him an enormous range of sound to call on. Whilst many of the instruments such as the fiddle, cello, percussion and keys are being seen more in bands, the addition of an oboe was a new one on me and it made a huge impact. It isn't a sound normally associated with folk music and gave a theatrical lift to the songs. Indeed, several of the songs would have been very much at home on a West end stage with their stories of lost or doomed love.

The very good audience also reflected combination of music on display. Whilst there very obviously some traditional "folkies" present, for many others this might have been a new experience and it's to be hoped that they've discovered folk music is a very viable genre that they would want to explore further. There was look of surprise from some, including the conductor, when we started clapping along to the dance tunes and I got the impression that isn't something that happens often at a chamber orchestra recital.

The songs themselves were firmly based on traditional folk. Cecil Sharp has already been mentioned and he contributed "Seaport Town" collected in the Appalachians and a variant of possibly the better known Bruton Town with its tale of class system murder. "The Sign of the Bonny Bluebell" was closer to home, being originally collected in Somerset, as was "The Robber" which was put to a tune Owen found in the Vaugh Williams Memorial Library located just outside the hall we were in.

As well as the orchestra Owen invited guest singers along for the evening. Laura Smyth contributed "Alison Davis" and Rosie Hood gave us "Isabel" which was written by Owen and is a version of The Outlandish Knight with a happy ending. Owen had also scored Rosie's "Furlong of Flight" for the evening and that became one of the highlights.

It wasn't all big band, though. Owen sang "Poverty Knocks" solo, accompanying himself on the concertina and that also worked very well. Owen has a good, delicate voice but just very occasionally it had to compete when the ensemble was in full flight so it was nice to hear it on it's own.

It was a terrific evening of music, however, and one that can be considered unique. It's doubtful that the event can be recreated on anything like a regular base, and almost certainly wouldn't tour, so it was an evening where those of us fortunate to be present can say "I was there". It confirmed something I've held for a long time, that genre in music is artificial and people should be encouraged to bring different influences together. Owen Ralph has shown, superbly, that this can be done and he should be congratulated for it. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the EP has being getting a lot of play.

The EP is now available through the website, Bandcamp or Amazon. You should certainly consider making it part of your collection. Not only is it very good in its own right, but it represents a real contribution to traditional music and one that will hopefully inspire others.

Tony Birch - Words & Pics

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