After more than three-and-a-half decades in the game, Steve's still delivering the goods and treading the boards giving his all with a fresh-minted selection of songs from all across tradition: well researched, well sung and spiritedly accompanied. He's one of the artists whom I'd go out of the way to catch in live performance, in fact. But at the same time, I also always look forward to Steve's sporadic album releases, not least because they clearly and faithfully encapsulate his live personality and afford us the opportunity to savour his interpretations repeatedly and at greater length. This is essential, since a key aspect of Steve's artistry is his penchant for presenting versions of well-known titles which encompass not only unusual text-variants but also less-often-heard tunes. Steve's insightful booklet notes invariably provoke thought on the songs and their meanings, inspiring and positively encouraging us to make our own comparisons with other variants (and without being forbiddingly scholarly).
Spirit Of The Game, Steve's seventh solo album, takes its title from the final section of the laws of cricket, Steve's "other passion". It bowls a superb 12-song salvo which is absolutely typical of his repertoire: sensibly varied in subject-matter, mood and pace and sporting a satisfying batting-order. The studio environment finds Steve in fine (dare I say suitably canny) fettle; the nuances of his accomplished singing voice and intuitive English concertina self-accompaniment are sympathetically captured and balanced by producer Olly Knight, while on three of the songs Riki Gerardy's smoothly contoured, lyrical (if also slightly understated) cello augmentation is a really nice touch too. The texture is for the most part kept admirably uncomplicated (the exception being Blow Ye Winds, for which Steve pulls out more stops by overdubbing energetic cittern and tenor banjo parts). Oh, and the mighty Wilsons lend their glorious voices in particularly full-throated chorus support on three of the selections: rousing disc finale When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, and maritime pieces Blow Ye Winds and Old Maui - the latter is done to the tricky tune The Bowery, which post-dates the more familiar English version).
Two of the songs bring in Steve's perennial predilection for Napoleonic matters, which reaches a kind of apotheosis with a quite stunning a cappella rendition of one of the many songs entitled Plains Of Waterloo (this one, unusually, reports the actual battle in fairly accurate detail); after this tour de force, Steve convinces us (with the authorial help of Mark Knopfler) that - at least for the time being - he's Done With Bonaparte!… Steve also continues his personal journey through the Stephen Foster songbook (which began, as no doubt for all of us, with Hard Times) with the rarely-recorded gem Gentle Lena Clare. The latest instance of Steve's long-standing empathy with the songwriting of Paul Metsers gives us one of the album's standout tracks, the moving narrative Lampedusa, while other successes here include The Maid Of Erin (probably only a Victorian parlour ballad, but Steve makes a persuasive case for it here), Highland Soldier (a version of Mary And The Soldier), and the delightfully humorous ditty Wholly And Fairly (which, one might say, forms the disc's silly-mid-on point!). Indeed, I hope Steve won't mind my saying that the robust relish he displays in his vocal work generally (though perhaps especially on Loose Every Sail) puts me in mind of John Kirkpatrick (and what better role model, I say?). Finally, Steve's long-term trawl through Gale Huntington's books of American whaling songs this time nets him three titles, one of which, perhaps surprisingly, is the above-mentioned gospel number.
The CD is packaged within a commodious DVD-size case, and the purchaser is further invited to send for "a free bonus CD and an upgraded booklet" which form part of a wider Tradition Bearers project documenting Steve's music and story. In addition, full song texts are listed as being available on The Tradition Bearers' website.
So, in summary, if you're stumped for a present for a fellow folk-enthusiast, then you won't be on a sticky wicket if you choose this CD. And in terms of continual listener appeal and repeat-playability, this one runs and runs and scores highly, for all that it's "over" too soon.
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