Dave Burland has for long been regarded as something of a benchmark (deliberate play on words intended!).amongst folk performers. He's unquestionably one of the major inspirations of the latter-day folk revival, a masterful singer and guitarist whose deceptively laid-back delivery fully makes you believe that it's all as effortless as breathing. For close on 50 years he's been a mainstay of folk clubs and festivals as a headline soloist, and an in-demand collaborator on other folks' recording sessions. His long-term influence on fellow performers is wide-reaching, not least for his unashamedly eclectic repertoire that accords equal respect for traditional song and classic works by contemporary songwriters right across the fields of folk, rock, country and even rock'n'roll - in which latter arena, for close on 30 years, he's been moonlighting (and letting his hair down!) fronting the popular "bop till you drop" outfit Shagpile. In which connection, for his latest venture Dave has joined forces with two of his Shagpile colleagues, Dave Fisher (keyboards, lap and pedal steel guitars) and Bryan Ledgard (percussion), to form the self-styled Awkward Squad.
On the deliberately titled Okkard, the three musicians deliver eleven songs that they rightly regard as classics of their genre, straddling the musical boundaries and often confounding expectations of performance style in the process. And naturally there are examples of the latter at work on Okkard… not least the rousing Watersons chorus-session staple Country Life, which is transformed into a piano-rolling soft-shoe shuffle. For Okkard's impressive opening gambit, the traditional ballad Reynardine is given a sensitive electric-piano-backed triple-time reading that in its own mellow way complements both the glacial menace of Sandy Denny's seminal version and Bert Jansch's celebrated, more animated account. The dark ballad Lamkin (first covered by Burland on his You Can't Fool The Fat Man LP) here conveys sinister fate with chilling keyboard tones and deliberate pace. A straightforwardly affectionate take on Spencer The Rover (which, amazingly, seems to be the first time Dave's recorded it) closes the disc, segueing neatly into a last waltz, Ashokan Farewell. That's the traditional contingent of the disc; elsewhere, there's the customary nods to Little Feat with (Terry Allen's) New Delhi Freight Train and (Lowell George's) Long-Distance Love (the latter previously outed on Rollin'), a spirited train-ride on Steve Goodman's City Of New Orleans and a jolly trot of a revisit of Lal & Mike's Bright Phoebus (complete with a cheeky, jokey piano intro which I won't spoil by saying any more). There's also a pleasing gospel-flavoured take on Dylan's Lay Down Your Weary Tune (the only track where Mr. Burland yields the lead vocal to a fellow band-member), a barroom-lounge-style account of the Delmore Brothers' Blues Stay Away From Me, and a wonderfully relaxed jazzy saunter through Willie Nelson's Crazy that features Chris While and album producer Julie Matthews on backing vocals. The only track I've not mentioned is the okkard-one-out, Kitchener's Finger - an excellent Burland original with all the feel of an authentic traditional song, that's been doing the rounds of his live set for a while now; here the tune The Bloody Fields Of Flanders forms an apt coda.
Okkard is the sound of three musicians thoroughly comfortable in each other's company, at the top of their game and responsive to everything the songs might demand, while very obviously having fun, really getting off on performing the songs they hold dear. The only awkward thing about this album is the fact that it has to end at all - you get the feeling these guys could carry on playing their favourites all night. And I'd want to be there as a fly on the wall!
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