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Chris Foster Chris Foster
Album: Hadelin
Label: Green Man
Tracks: 11

Chris was one of the major forces on the folk circuit in the late-70s, a tremendously gifted singer-guitarist working within the tradition who was often spoken of in the same breath as Messrs. Carthy and Jones. After releasing two acclaimed albums for Topic, though, he became disconnected from the scene over the next decade or so, working primarily with Mobile Arts. To all intents and purposes, his return to folk music came in 1999 with an excellent comeback album Traces, which both consolidated and built on his deep understanding of the tradition while remaining aware of contemporary writing and mindful of the continuing need to refresh by gaining new perspectives on traditional material. This approach produced another fine album, Jewels (released in 2003, shortly after a timely reissue of Traces), before Chris moved to Iceland, marrying traditional singer Bára Grímsdóttir, with whom he’s since performed in the duo Funi. Chris never lost his passion for the English tradition, however, and in 2008 he released a further solo record, Outsiders, in my view one of the truly outstanding folk albums of the decade. And undoubtedly the hardest of all acts to follow! – but fast-forward to the here and now, and Chris at age 70 has confounded potential expectations by delivering a vibrant new collection that definitely gives Outsiders a run for its money and is a sure-fire candidate for pick-of-2017 already.

Hadelin is an extremely well considered selection of songs that (in Chris’s own words) “have all sorts of connections with people and places (he) has known over the years”, while referring to “all things that remain a constant, albeit shifting backdrop to the human condition”. Although this is nominally a solo album, Chris has, entirely appropriately, chosen his backing musicians very carefully, to represent the next generation – to whom he’s passing the torch of tradition, as it were – along with others with whom he’s worked over the years, while also inviting Jim Moray to produce the record.

The title, I was intrigued to discover, comes from the lyric of The Trees They Grow So High, which is one of the eight traditional songs thoughtfully reworked by Chris for this new album, and it receives a typically well-researched reading that meaningfully conflates a number of different versions and for which Chris’s intelligent, flowing guitar lines and Trevor Lines’ supple five-string double bass pointing together provide a brilliantly supportive (and genuinely interesting) accompaniment. Other impressive traditionally-sourced offerings here also demonstrate Chris’s gift of adapting and transforming ostensibly familiar material into something fresh-minted and illuminating, both ageless and contemporary. These include Rosie Ann (a particularly compelling version of the Lucy Wan ballad) and The Gardener; both of these boast a rich-toned and exceptionally sympathetic accompaniment from Jackie Oates on five-string viola. Jackie also figures on another album highlight, The Holland Handkerchief, for which Bára has written a gorgeous, ornate string arrangement that configures Gillian Stevens into a veritable consort of viols. Elsewhere, the musical setting extends to the full ensemble sound of an authentic English country dance-band, amongst which Chris plays hammered dulcimer and John Kirkpatrick one-row melodeon – firstly on The Faithful Plough, then on an imaginatively sprightly treatment of The Life Of A Man that lifts its celebratory tone by springing delectably into the tune Greensleeves (the one that Cecil Sharp noted from Somerset fiddler Henry Cave). At the other end of the scale the charming The Trees They’re All Bare (originally from the singing of George Townshend) receives a glorious Copper-esque a cappella part-song arrangement (by Bára) involving Chris, Bára, John K, Jackie O, Amy Dawson and (an especially wonderfully present) Jim Causley.

Of the disc’s three departures from purely traditional repertoire, one marks a completely new venture for Chris: Spring Song is his first ever own-composition, and an exceedingly fine one too; its enviably poetic, intensely life-affirming concluding message of “Hail the hum of hedge and hive, it’s good to be alive” fades into fresh air and birdsong at the close of the CD (a neat bookending device, for its opening track The Seeds Of Love had arisen from out of the ether of birdsong). The remaining pair of non-traditional tracks are compositions by Leon Rosselson, of whose songs Chris has always been a devout champion and superlative interpreter. Once When I Was Young and the more extended commentary Who Reaps The Profit? Who Pays The Price?, written well over three decades ago, are both quintessentially prescient and still eerily relevant today. Chris makes light of Leon’s unique writing style, his often tricky melodies and agility of vocal phrasing.

I mentioned in my review of Outsiders that to get the measure of (and indeed get the most out of) Chris’s performances the listener needs to treat them with the same degree of respect he himself accords to his source material, to savour every nuance and give them time to work their special magic. For there’s something magical about Chris’s way with a song, what I can only describe as an immediate, “living” breathing interpretation (meticulously considered, yet nowhere artificially pointed) that brings its lyric alive and somehow accentuates its relevance. Eight years on from Outsiders, that special interpretive magic is still there; indeed, it’s possibly even more potent since Chris’s voice now betrays something of the pained vulnerability of age but also its resolute defiance while retaining the essential intimacy of direct communication.

Finally, I must mention that the CD has been produced with exemplary clarity by Jim Moray, assisted by Dylan Fowler, and the whole affair is impeccably packaged, the disc being housed in a beautifully designed digipack with full colour booklet.

I won’t hesitate in recommending this album unreservedly, and it will definitely feature in the year’s best when award-voting comes around.

David Kidman