Peter's name is always likely to be best known as stalwart fiddle player with Steeleye Span (of whom he was a member through four decades, give or take a brief spell out near the end of the 70s), and during his tenure with that band he made guest appearances on other artists' records and experimented with jazz and other musics. Peter's penchant for creative experimentation undoubtedly provided the impetus for the formation, almost a decade ago now, of the three-piece Gigspanner with guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Sacha Trochet. Gigspanner is an absolutely unique band, with an unmistakable sound, of whom it's been said that the musicians take traditional songs and tunes to places they've never been before, by way of the techniques of free jazz and absorbing influences from classical music and a number of world musics. And, complicated though it sounds (and not quite the whole truth), I can't really better that as an entry point.
Gigspanner's debut CD was 2009's Lipreading The Poet, an astoundingly accomplished offering which set out Peter's stall not at all tentatively (after all, what else could be expected from three master musicians?). Aside from a rumoured live set in 2010, there was no further "product" for close on six years, when the magnificent studio album Layers Of Ages was released (in 2015). So it came as something of a surprise to learn of the present live album. Its "Big Band" credit refers to the expanded lineup that appeared at Nettlebed Folk Club in January this year, whereby Gigspanner was augmented by the widely acclaimed young duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin (now known collectively as Edgelarks). And what a fabulous team they make, together producing a hypnotic, intensely realised fusion which develops organically out of a traditional folk base into a startlingly new musical form with few if any true antecedents even within the hallowed worlds of prog and folk-rock.
Although the original traditional songs as presented by Gigspanner are still recognisable from their sources, the onward flights of musical and interpretive fancy are staggering in their natural invention, often arising out of impressionistic flourishes conjured by the texts. It's inevitable that Phillip and Hannah's artistry provides a new dimension to Gigspanner's already pioneering music, but here the whole is even greater than the sum of the individual (and even collective) parts. Phillip's outstanding dobro playing delicately graces the fulsome filigree tapestry, while the poignant Last Broadcast (written by Hannah and Phillip in memory of a journalist killed while reporting in Syria) features the special sound of the chatturangui (Indian classical slide guitar). Phillip's wonderfully expressive singing comes into its own on Banks Of The Nile and Silbury Hill (an atmospheric original by Phillip and Hannah that exudes the spirit of place), while he brings an animated rootsy vibe to The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn, an unexpected excursion into Americana territory for Gigspanner that really moves and excites (this track fairly brings the house down!). Of the set's three instrumental items, Peter's own composition Sharp Goes Walkabout is particularly attractive and mesmerising in its loose rambling interactive improvisations, while encore King Of The Fairies gives the audience an excuse to get up onto the floor with the closest Gigspanner come to folk-rocking.
Peter's excellent fiddlemanship is a constant, of course, its combination of classical and folk influences arguably best showcased on The Butterfly; its combination of freewheeling imagination and poise is irresistible, while Sacha's admirably sensitive percussion and Roger's dextrous guitar adventures provide exactly the right kind of foil for Peter's explorations of melody and texture, over which the exquisite overlays of Hannah and Phillip dovetail brilliantly. Perhaps the high points of the entire set for me are the brooding majesty of the aforementioned Banks Of The Nile, and the centrepiece epic 10½-minute rendition of Death And The Lady that transforms and builds from a jazzy prelude and quietly insistent mantra into a blistering electric-guitar barrage. Another highlight is the well-trodden broadside Hard Times Of Old England, and here Peter's thoughtful reinterpretation is worlds away from the swaggering boogie of his old band Steeleye and really gets to the heart of the resignation of the lyric. The fact that three of the disc's selections (Death And The Lady, Hard Times Of Old England and King Of The Fairies) all appeared on Gigspanner's Layers Of Ages album only last year should not deter anyone from purchasing this exceptional live set, since the live renditions with Phillip and Hannah are very exciting indeed and the combined musicianship of the five-piece Big Band, being intrinsically uncontrived, is thus most compelling.
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