CARA DILLON – Upon A Winter’s Night (Charcoal CHARCCD008)

upon a winter's nightIn the absence this year of a new Kate Rusby festive collection for folk fans to warm their chilly cockles, Cara Dillon, aided and abetted by husband, musical partner and producer Sam Lakeman, steps up to the seasonal plate for her first Christmas offering, Upon A Winter’s Night, an 11-string stockingsworth of traditional nuggets, hymns and originals.

It’s one of the latter, the title track, written by Sam and Noah Lakeman, that kicks things off, a jaunty Nativity scene setter that also features Uilleann pipes, Luke Daniels on accordion and Kathryn Roberts on backing vocals. There’s three other originals, Cara and Sam providing the piano backed ‘Standing By My Christmas Tree’ with its interpolation of ‘Silent Night’ and bells-pealing keyboard notes as well as the simply arranged lullaby closer ‘Mother Mary’, he on acoustic guitar and she joined on vocals in the final refrains by a family affair of Colm, Noah and Elizabeth Lakeman. The third is Sam’s own instrumental contribution, a lively woodland romp with ‘The Huntsman’, again featuring Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes and Daniels on accordion alongside fiddle from Niall Murphy and James Fagan’s bouzouki with Ben Nicholls providing stalwart bass.

The other numbers are the couple’s arrangements of, by and large, very familiar seasonal tunes, first up, introduced by Murphy’s fiddle sounding like a hunting horn, being a traditional folk-sounding reading of ‘The Wexford Carol’ that gathers to fulsome fiddle finale. Rather less known, based on a traditional Polish carol, ‘Infant Holy, Infant Lowly’ is another lowing lullaby and introduces John Smith on guitar. Considerably better known is the evergreen ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, here taken at a swayalong tempo on the back of fiddle, pipes and accordion and featuring guest viocals from both Roberts and Sam’s father, Geoff.

By contrast, while often given a rousing chorus flourish, here ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ is an altogether more contemplative affair etched out by just her voice and Sam’s piano, a fine companion piece to the wholly a capella ‘O Holy Night’, Adolphe Adams’ 19th century setting and translation of a French poem (Midnight Christians) on which she duets with older sister Mary, their version joining a list that includes Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Bing Crosby and, more recently, Ellie Goulding.

This is, in turn, followed by another breath of fresh winter air with ‘Mary Bore A Son To God’, one of the earliest known Irish language carols and sung here in the original Gaelic (‘Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia’),a slightly softer reading than that previously done by Horslips with Henderson’s Wilson taking the fiddle parts.

Finally, once whisperingly recorded by Bono, there’s another traditional Irish carol, ‘The Darkest Midnight’, which taken from the Kilmore Carols collection of South Wexford (albeit a trimmed down version) is again arranged for just her voice and Sam’s acoustic guitar and piano, another lovely grace note to a collection that very much has its mind set on celebrating the real meaning of Christmas. A touch more contemplative than Rusby’s South Yorkshire offerings perhaps, but likely to prove an equally enduring bauble on folk’s festive fir.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.caradillon.co.uk