Based in Bristol, but born in Norfolk, Kelly stakes a claim for a Best Album nomination in next year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards to add to this year’s Horizon win. Backed by his six-piece live band, comprising Jamie Francis on banjo, fiddler/guitarist Ciaran Algar, percussionist Evan Carson, Graham Coe on cello with Toby Shaer and Archie Churchill-Moss providing woodwind and melodeon, respectively, Pretty Peggy their first album together, also features contributions from folk stalwarts Cara Dillon, Damien O’Kane, Mike McGoldrick and Geoff Lakeman.
Save for three numbers, all the material is traditional, refashioned and refurbished, opening with a rousing haul away tempo take of the whaling shanty ‘Greenland Whale’ that can’t help but bring Seth Lakeman to mind. Dillon and McGoldrick’s Uillean pipes complement ‘Bonnie Lass Of Fyvie’, the pretty Peggy-o of the title, a jaunty Celtic-hued version that successfully avoids sounding like any of the many previous recordings.
A tale of lost childhood love regret, the equally lively, thigh-slapping, fiddle-driven ‘Angeline The Baker’ has Appalachian roots and then comes the first of the original numbers, ‘When The Rievers Call’, a Jamie Francis song about the raids on the Scottish borders during the middle ages featuring, unsurprisingly, some fiery banjo work and again recalling that Seth Lakeman sound.
Returning to the traditional repertoire and featuring O’Kane on electric tenor guitar with a melodeon solo, ‘If I Were A Blackbird’ is a lovely, lilting and gently ripping take on the Irish love song, reversing the lyric’s genders and set to a tune based around Chris Wood’s ‘Ville De Quebec’. This is followed by the darkly menacing ‘The Shining Ship’, a suitably spooked and nervy six minute tale, sung in low, at times whispery tones with swirling sonics, of a woman lured aboard a ghost ship by her long lost lover and based on the 17th century Scottish ballad ‘Demon Lover’.
Featuring himself on piano and Shaer on fiddle, the only Kelly original is ‘Chasing Shadows’, another lively tune about understanding that “the deepest dark comes just before the dawn”, and one of the more contemporary sounding tracks. Then comes the comic relief, ‘The Close Shave’ being New Zealand singer Bob Bickerton’s variation of the traditional romp, ‘Barrack Street’, about a gold miner relieved of his treasure by a man posing as a woman.
The obligatory instrumental track comes with ‘Shy Guy’s Serve’, a jaunty fiddle medley of Shaer’s ‘Josh’s Slip’ and Algar’s ‘Rookery Lane’, before they dig into the more obscure pages of the Dylan songbook and turn up the volume for ‘Crash On The Levee’, a punchy and driving version of ‘Down In The Flood’ off The Basement Tapes. The penultimate number is another traditional English folk song, drums, fiddles and flutes pumping along sexually euphemistic ‘The Keeper’ with its call and response derry derry down chorus, the album ending with the intitially subdued but gradually gatheringly strident strains of The Rose, Kelly’s translation of the French song ‘Le Beau Rosier’, originally by Belgian outfit Naragonia with whom he played mandolin last year.
Having practised his art as a youngster singing to the family’s cows, in 2012 Kelly was a finalist for Britain’s Got Talent (the one won by Pudsey), at which time he said “I don’t want to make a mediocre album of covers just to sell as many as possible on the back of BGT…musical integrity is really important to me.” He’s clearly lived up to his words.
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Artists’ website: www.samkelly.org
‘Angeline The Baker’: