This is how folk music should be heard.
Following their own powerful 2015 debut From Here, Stick in the Wheel’s latest release follows band members Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter as they travel the country collecting intimate live recordings of some of our most important folk musicians.
The idea behind From Here: English Folk Field Recordings, the sleeve notes explain, was to create ‘a snapshot of English folk music right now’, while the method of recording is intended to place the listener ‘in the room’ with the artist. The title reflects the theme of the work; each contributor was asked to consider what the phrase ‘From Here’ meant to them, ‘by way of place or geography, as a way of looking back to musical origins, or simply where they are at this very moment in time’.
An admirable endeavour, but a tricky one to pull off.
Fortunately, Nicola and Ian are spot on. The sparse recordings capture the intimacy and immediacy that folk music requires to communicate – every slip on the fret or crack in the voice becomes a part of the story we tell and intrinsic to each rendition – and the collection features a healthy mix of the familiar and the novel, the seasoned and the green, songs and musicians alike.
The performances are by turns sad, sweet and stirring. Some are more successful than others, but each is undeniably authentic and – no surprise to anyone who has followed SITW this far – uncompromising.
Rob Harbron’s performance of Morris tunes ‘Young Collins’ and ‘Getting Up Stairs’ are notable for his sheer skill on the concertina, while Bella Hardy spins an engaging yarn on ‘The Ballad of Hugh Stenson’. Time and again, though, it is the raw recording method that is the key.
A case in point is Jon Boden. If any criticism could be levelled at Boden’s best-known project to date, the folk collective Bellowhead, it is that they were produced to within an inch of their lives. But here, free of the mixing desk, his version of the old standard ‘Fathom the Bowl’ is restrained and heartfelt, bringing real pathos to a familiar tune.
Another who thrives in this environment is Stew Simpson, who thunders Ed Pickford’s north east mining song ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’. The title is a dialectical reference to our pitman’s prowess with a pick, but the true subject is the resilience of the workers, the solidarity of the community, and the bitter irony of devoting your life to a task that will ultimately end you as the years of breathing in coal dust take their toll. Simpson’s version is visceral and defiant. You want to be in the room? When Stew hits the final note you can feel the window frames rattle.
Elsewhere, the elegant simplicity of Lisa Knapp’s ‘Lavender Song’ brings a picturesque romance to the south London satellite of Mitcham that this reviewer never thought possible; while John Kirkpatrick perfectly captures the melancholy of ‘Here’s Adieu to Old England’.
Peta Webb and Ken Hall contribute a far from perfect vocal performance on ‘Just a Note/Wild Wild Whiskey’, but imbue these moving immigrant songs with such emotion it’s churlish to complain. Two generations of Carthys also get in on the act – Martin with a humorous rendition of ‘The Bedmaking’, his daughter Eliza with ‘The Sea’, a broadside ballad collected from Chetham’s Library in Manchester.
Sam Lee explains his choice of song, ‘The Wild Rover’, was inspired by memories of hearing it for the first time at Forest School summer camp, while Nicola Kearey describes learning her contribution, ‘Georgie’, from the BBC documentary Folk Britannia, and SITW band-mate Fran Foote selects a tune she picked up from the singing of her mother. It’s a sweet illustration of the universality of folk. It doesn’t matter if you first heard it round a campfire in the woods, or on a settee in your front room, if the story connects, it’s impossible to ignore.
Any duds? A couple, but out of 17 songs, it’s not a bad hit-rate, and such is the overall success of the project, to list them feels like nitpicking.
So ‘From Here’, it seems, is a nice place to be. And as a survey of the English folk landscape, and a document of a moment in time, the album is indispensable.