This combination of musicians is somehow not one I’d expected to find gracing a new CD, let alone a fully-fledged tour, but that’s just what happened a couple of months ago, and by all accounts the tour was spectacular. It took a while for the CD to come my way, but it’s been back and forth on and off the player several times and as a result I’d not got down to penning this review until now.
Neither Peter nor John should need any introduction to folk fans. Peter, of course, as Steeleye Span’s fiddle player par excellence and exploratory side-project Gigspanner (whose own music has knocked me sideways), with ace melodeonist “Squeezy John” one half of the celebrated Spiers & Boden partnership and later a mainstay of the mighty Bellowhead, even managing a stint with Eliza Carthy’s Ratcatchers band. Both musicians are therefore no strangers to the tricky art of collaboration, but even so I’ve not have foreseen this particular collaboration. (According to the sleeve credits, it took the insight and vision of Folk East Festival organisers to bring the two musicians together back in 2016…) But hell, it proves dynamite – if not quite in the full-on virtuoso manner but rather in the intelligent and empathically considered responsiveness that extends from the arrangements to the playing and the progressive development of musical ideas, and back again every which way. Both musicians are noted for their keenness to investigate new musical territories and organically explore both ideas and concepts while maintaining full respect for their sources, and while folk, classical and even jazz expressions and techniques play a part the end product is often indescribable by any of these conventional classifications. Even on the slower-paced musical adventures, there’s a spring in the proverbial step and a genuine joy in the individual and collaborative music-making that’s inclusive for the listener and thus impossible to resist – which brings me back to the CD being on and off the player with some frequency!
In a way, this is an album for the folk cognoscenti, in that the tunes played are almost all of traditional origin, albeit not all treated in quite the accustomed manner – those with knowledge of the sources will delight in spotting creative twists and turns and knowing cross-references that crop up everywhere, but these embellishments and inventions are carried out with such musicality that the original tunes are greatly enhanced and given a new lease of life. And Peter and John make the most of their instruments’ permutations of timbre and expressive nuance, so that the switching-round of roles, melodies and counterpoint is a constant source of delight for the listener.
The opening track is entitled Cuckoo, which gives a very obvious clue to the theme and sources for its material. Somewhat like a classical suite, it moves from a lyrical, if plaintive slow waltz (with just a hint of Greensleeves perhaps) through to the briskly rumbustious thumping morris of The Cuckoo’s Nest tune. Next track, A Bruxa, takes its cue from a passionate composition by Galician musician Antón Seoane, while Transatlantic Session staple Waiting For The Federals makes great play of trading parts almost reflectively as its textures richly expand and develop. The duo’s capacity for joyous interplay is even more pronounced on the step-dance-and-hornpipe set that follows, where Scan Tester is subjected (one might say) to Murphy’s Law much in the vigorous manner of a stomp-some Spiers & Boden arrangement. (They don’t even trip up for a millisecond on the trickier rhythms of the Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives set or on the unusual Isadora’s Reel, which packs gleeful syncopation a-plenty into its mere 2½ minutes – by some measure the shortest item on the disc.)
And so the disc proceeds, with further high points in the well-contrasted menu including a near-eight-minute rhapsody on Bonny At Morn that opens with an extemporised fiddle prelude before exploring the main tune in a gently bleak setting of considerable beauty. Similarly with Rosebud In June, which imparts the tune with a piquant thoughtfulness that emphasises its nostalgic, maybe slightly elegiac lyricism. A prevailing mood of stately, slightly sombre lyricism characterises the disc’s closing item, The Long Walk Home, an eloquent John Spiers composition that divests its sinuous, cyclic motif with considerable power and onward momentum – and subtle melodic and rhythmic nuances – during the course of its unexpectedly restrained improvisatory development. It really does conjure up the feeling of that long walk home, yet in a thoroughly positive and invigorating way.
In complete contrast is the duo’s skipping extended caper through Paddy Carey’s Jig, with Peter’s playful pizzicato driving and sparking off the rhythmic revelations that his bowstrokes later provide when the melody is handed across from John’s melodeon; this deep joy then in turn sparks off delirious counter-melodies that you just expect to go on for ever, such is the musicians’ immersion in the tune’s seemingly endless possibilities – even when a more pensive aura permeates the invention in an interlude prior to the final fulsome ensemble repeat. Genius!
Which is a word I’d also apply to the very special rapport demonstrated by Peter and John here. They totally engage the listener, for they possess a real gift for communicating feeling and emotion as well as mood and atmosphere, and in a purely instrumental context to boot – which is no mean achievement, and one to be much celebrated.
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