This is an unexpected gem of a record, and Richard proves quite a discovery. Richard hails from Blackburn, Lancashire, and he seems to have made it his mission to bring to our attention the traditional music of his native north-west, much of which is less than widely known in comparison with that of other regions of the UK. Richard's well equipped for this mission, for he's blessed with a strong musical personality, both as singer and guitarist. And he presents his chosen material with a directness, a total honesty that's abundantly stimulating and very refreshing. The total quality musicianship, the sheer dedication to the cause, the absolute commitment in every note and phrase - Richard is generous but entirely natural in the process of sharing of these attributes with his listeners, who are able to catch the sheer excitement of his performance first-hand, with no barriers of production gimmickry placed in our way.
I mentioned Richard's musical personality - well, on a first-glance superficial hearing one might be tempted to class him as a north-west-based counterpart to Martin Simpson. For sure there are similarities, not least an absolute command of his instruments (in Richard's case, guitar and mandolin) in a variety of moods and techniques, as well as a certain spiritual and stylistic kinship that's less obviously quantifiable. But in truth, the seemingly ready-made Simpson comparisons begin to recede and pale into insignificance when you start to appreciate the sheer breadth of Richard's talent. The fantastic energy he brings to his guitar and mandolin playing is brilliantly mirrored in his singing, for he also possesses a real gift for singing, with expert control of dynamics and an indigenous, authentic (and not overdone) Lancashire burr. He really holds your attention, for his voice is capable of a wide expressive range (from the plaintive yet defiant Four Loom Weaver to the delicacy of The Garland and the savage relish with which he dispatches the tale of The Black Cook). Now you don't often find such a well-developed singing voice and a brilliant instrumentalist residing in the same body (hey, it just ain't fair!)…
Richard possesses a truly astonishing ability to tackle a tremendous variety of material and presentation, from strict traditional a cappella (The Press Gang) to seriously virtuoso picking and rich, sparkling and often highly driven accompaniment to die for (in almost any mode or tempo you choose). And he's one hell of a composer too, as the disc's two instrumentals demonstrate par excellence - most especially the standout title track, a truly sublime six-minute patchwork that's a masterwork of rugged, tender beauty. Glancing (after listening to the CD) at Richard's website, I discover that he also plays in various different ensembles -Clitheroe Irish quartet Drop The Floor, the intriguing duo project Squirrels In Space (with Malaysian jazz guitarist Az Samad), Mike Harding's "flexible ceilidh band" the William Small Small Orchestra, and the Union Street Country Dance & Ceilidh Band! Little wonder, then, that he appears well at home with such a broad spectrum of folk and roots music as you hear on this album (and more besides). It's a real powerhouse record from start to finish. Whether on settings of 19th century Blackburn poets William Billington (the plangent Friends Are Few When Foak Are Poor) and Robert West Whalley (Me Nebbur and Pendle Sally, the latter sprightly ditty collected from the singing of the estimable Sid Calderbank), and Edwin Waugh ("the Lancashire Burns") (The Garland) … or on those thoughtful instrumental showcases …or a lyrical country-waltzer-style lilting treatment of Green Grows The Laurel, or Ron Baxter's rollicking broadside The Silent Walkabout, or on the seriously roof-raising Blackie's Polka which forms a breakneck coda to The Black Cook. And although you could justifiably say that Richard's consummate musicianship needs no embellishment, he selectively engages Becky Taylor (whistle and concertina on two tracks) and Julian Taylor (octave fiddle on one track), to very good effect.
Finally, the CD's presentation can be viewed as complementing Richard's resolutely unassuming and unshowy nature - admirably simple and direct, with plain font for text, easily readable, with no unnecessary clutter or distraction. This emphasises Richard's "just get on down and listen to the music within" stance. So go on and do that - it's bound to make you feel good.
|Robb Johnson: My Best Regards||Mikey Kenney: The Counsel Of Owls|
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