GREENMATTHEWS – A Christmas Carol: A Folk Opera (Blast Records BFTP011)

A Christmas CarolThe Dickens novella A Christmas Carol has become almost integral to the Yuletide celebrations since its publication in 1843, helped and sometimes hampered by innumerable movies, some better than others. But at a time when the world seems to be governed by Scrooges, Gradgrinds and other self-servers who can’t even claim honest greed, perhaps we could do with revisiting the story of the melting of one of the stoniest of hearts. So GreenMatthews have added A Christmas Carol – A Folk Opera to their impressive catalogue of Christmas-related CDs. Besides Chris Green (voice, guitar, mandocello, piano, accordion, bass guitar and drums) and Sophie Matthews (voice, flute, English border bagpipes), the CD features special guest Jude Rees of Pilgrims Way (voice, oboe, melodeon).

Perhaps the first thing to say is that while this set has been toured in the last couple of months in combination with a set of seasonal songs and carols, it isn’t an opera as non-folkies might understand the term. Rather, the narrative is conveyed on the CD (as on the concert tour, I believe) through a set of 20 tracks with Chris Green’s lyrics set to traditional tunes, with no spoken narrative or continuo.

The first track, ‘Introducing Scrooge’, is a lengthy scene-setting track. The other tracks describe specific events and scenes from the novella (‘The Ghost Of Christmas Past’, ‘Fezziwig’s Ball’, ‘A Funeral’, and so on). ‘The Conclusion’, like the rest of the narrative, follows Dickens’s story faithfully, as I remember it. No surprises there, then, but the story as Dickens wrote it is more than strong enough to survive this condensed narrative. In fact, Chris Green has done an excellent job of conveying the essential plot points in this abridged form.

The music, as you’d expect, is excellent, with good singing and outstanding instrumental work. The choice of traditional melodies is fairly restricted, especially considering the repetitive use of warhorses such as ‘Dick Darby’ ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Villikins’, but the arrangements cleverly ring the changes with variations in instrumentation and form, with major-key melodies suddenly turning up as a minor-key variation and vice versa. Perhaps the CD could have benefited from the interpolation of one or two of those other seasonal songs here and there, or a few more tunes like those that find their way into ‘Fezziwig’s Ball’ (my favourite track).

Still, it’s all great fun, and I may well investigate one or two of their other Christmas-related CDs, in defiance of my inner Scrooge. By the time you read this, it looks as if the ‘Christmas Carol’ tour will be more or less finished, but you may well find it worthwhile to check out their web site to what other tours are in prospect, as well as their catalogue of CDs.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: www.greenmatthews.co.uk/

PILGRIMS’ WAY – Stand & Deliver (Talking Cat Records TCCD1748)

Stand & DeliverThere has been a change along the Pilgrims’ Way. Lead vocalist Lucy Wright has moved on and in her place has come singer and maestro of reeds and wind, Jude Rees, formerly known as The Littlest Oboe during her time with Isambarde. Jude brings the band’s complement of instruments to fifty. Stand & Deliver is their third album, a themed collection, and before I tell you whence comes the title track you should know that this isn’t the most serious collection of traditional songs you’ll hear this year, despite the number of grisly deaths it includes. The clue is right there on the cover.

Many of the songs will be familiar to most listeners but the liberties that the Pilgrims sometimes take with them are another matter. These are songs of robbers, thieves, highwaymen and other n’ere do wells. The set opens with ‘Caveat For Cutpurses’ which reminds me a little of Strawhead in their youth and sure enough the text is from Ben Johnson’s Bartholemew Fair via the Roxburgh Collection. ‘Ibson, Gibson, Johnson’ is a variant on a familiar song but the outcome is the same so beware of naked women tied to the ground by their hair.

I think I’ve heard ‘Shoot Them All! (Box On Her Head)’ before but I can’t remember where and Jude delivers this tale of a female serial killer with some relish. ‘Cadgwith Anthem’ is sung with appropriate seriousness with gorgeous harmonies and instrumental delicacy. In contrast, I think Jon Loomes or Edwin Beasant plays electric guitar through a fuzz-box on ‘Saucy Bold Robber’. Their version of ‘Robin Hood & The Bishop’ comes from France and differs somewhat from the version recorded by the late Tony Rose in having lines in French and a “derry-derry-down” chorus although the story and main melody are the same.

Tom Kitching takes the lead on ‘Gaol Song’ with strange mechanical sounds imitating the sound of the treadmill and a couple of lines of an old blues and wailing harmonica courtesy of Edwin. ‘Turpin Hero’ is taken at a merry pace and is that a crumhorn? I do believe it is. Edwin is the lead on ‘Adieu, Adieu’ initially over Jon’s piano before the orchestra joins in and their arrangements really do verge on the orchestral.

‘The Elms Of Tyburn’ is the one song on the album that is pared down to the basics – essentially Jon’s acoustic guitar and something drone-like far behind it. Finally, the title track, which was written by Stuart Leslie Goddard (oh, look him up, I’m not doing everything for you) brings the album to a suitably amusing close – was there a doo-wop chorus in the original? However you approach it, this is a brilliant record – great songs, innovative ideas, fine singing and playing and a whole heap of fun.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.pilgrims-way.net