PETER KNIGHT AND JOHN SPIERS – Cambridge Junction, City Roots Festival, 6 March 2018

Peter Knight And John Spiers
Photograph by Philip O’Brien

Same venue, different day. In the space of a week, three entirely different acts have made their distinct impressions in this same room. Tonight it’s Peter Knight And John Spiers, an inspired pairing first conceived of in 2016 and now touring Well Met, their first album together, recorded in January this year. The elegance and lyricism of their playing is the common denominator here, each complementing the other, smoothly coursing together like fine clockwork.

Each tune and set is lovingly crafted, with thematic and rhythmic variations explored unhurriedly, inviting the listener in to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of each one.

Knight’s playing is a revelation. A world away from folky fiddling, it’s fully informed by the classical style, all long sweeping bow strokes and eloquent legato. Yet he never loses the essential folk heart of the music, tracing a graceful line of his own making.

The melodeon is an eerie beast, breathing like a ghost over your shoulder at one minute, harrumphing like a euphonium the next. One moment turning out jolly hornpipes, then droning with deepest melancholy. It’s a curious kind of versatile, but Spiers knows exactly how to capture and manipulate its range, adding maximum colour and savour to the music.

Opening with ‘Paddy Carey’s Jig’, Knight’s waist-height plucking transitions to bowing, as it does on the second tune, the American ‘Waiting For The Federals’. Except here it’s much more a classical chin-held pizzicato, its raindrop effect giving way to a Scottish-influenced playing style that even manages to evoke a hint of distant bagpipes.

‘Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives’ is a fascinating set, reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, with the melodeon taking on a metronomic drone quality and the fiddle only taking on a more rustic aspect in the later stages.

‘Rosebud In June’, that Steeleye Span stalwart, becomes a beautiful, poignant, almost filmic melody with Knight adopting a more slurred style towards the end. The emotional pull of this and Northumbrian lullaby, ‘Bonny At Morn’ are stand out moments, as is Knight’s virtuoso solo spot.

Since an audience member has shouted out a request, Knight casually picks up and runs with it, saying “I don’t normally do requests – unless I’m asked”. From the album, An Ancient Cause, ‘From A Lullaby Kiss’ demonstrates a touch of gypsy style with the fiddle sounding periodically flute-like. It’s the only song of the evening to feature any sung lyrics, and suitably weighty they are, too.

For Spiers’s solo, we are treated to a trio of hornpipes, two of which are his own. ‘George Green’s College Hornpipe’ is succeeded by ‘Ewan Mac’s Export’, a tune written for a friend moving to Scotland, and ‘Hyena’, originally ‘Autumn Hornpipe’ but renamed by fellow sessioners as “it’s got a high E in it”. His other featured composition, ‘The Long Walk Home’, captures the authentic slow plod of tired feet.

Elsewhere, ‘Cuckoo’, a trio of cuckoo-related tunes, is followed by a jolly hornpipe pairing, ’Scan Testers No.1 Step Dance/Murphy’s Hornpipe’. To Galicia for the coiling waltz,‘A Bruxa’ (‘The Witch’), by Milladoiro’s Antón Seoane, and home again for Nigel Eaton’s ‘Halsway Schottische’, before wrapping up the evening with a spirited encore of ‘Isadora’s Reel’. And what an evening: contemplative, accomplished and one to relish for some time to come.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: