Well, here’s an unexpected early Christmas gift. Recorded in summer 2019 when they led the folk course at The International Summer School in Dartington, they recently came across the recording and decided to share the memories. Live, unabridged and complete with song introductions explaining the songs, as anyone who’s seen them perform will know it goes without saying that the musical quality is exceptional, but the addition of Devon brother-sister duo Becky and Danny Cleave adds an extra touch of magic.
The set list is packed with now familiar favourites but at the time seven of them had only recently been released on The Sea Is My Brother album, five of which lead off the concert opening with their captivating rendition of ‘Was It You?’, an imagining of Captain Scott’s last thoughts as he awaited death on Antarctic ice in 1912 written by Ewen Carruthers with the arrangement following that by Mike Silver.
It’s followed, guitar augmented by fiddle and drums, by ‘Hall Sand’, about the loss of the south Devon fishing village of Hallsands, washed away in the early 1900s when its shingle was dredged to extend the Plymouth dockyard, the song a setting of John Masefield’s prophetic 1903 poem with the chorus lifted from John Galsworthy’s more defiant ‘Wembury Church’. The third, boldly performed after only one practice run with David on lead, is shantyesque swayalong ‘Liverpool City’, a spin on ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ with an additional nod to Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’.
Although it might have made more thematic sense following directly on from ‘Hall Sand’, ‘Elizabeth Prettejohn’ is his lively guitar, percussion, accordion and fiddle instrumental, a commemoration of the village’s last resident who defiantly remained in her hillside home until her death in 1964, though here without the album version’s trumpet. The fifth in a row, after some tuning up and some banter about Poldark, is sung by Freya, ‘Lost To The Sea’, David’s first person swayalong song about the 21 Chinese immigrants who were drowned when trapped in the sinking sands by the incoming tide while harvesting cockles in Morecambe Bay, building musical momentum towards the haunting fiddle solo end.
The first of the traditional numbers is their rousing mandolin-accompanied take on the Scottish sailors’ homecoming shanty ‘Mingulay Boat Song’, marking the first of their now three live recordings of it (the others being on Live At Acoustic Roots and Saving The Good Stuff). Audience participation is invited with David on cittern, continuing the maritime theme and taken from 2017’s Anna Is A Dancer and adapted from the poem by Cicely Fox Smith, the jaunty ‘North Sea Ground’ is a celebration of Grimsby as sung in the voice of a sailor called, what else, Johnny.
Following banter and a plug for the merchandising, Freya takes back the vocal baton, David on harmonies, for the title track off ‘The Sea Is My Brother’, while, inviting crowd leg slapping and finger snapping, led by David with a swirl of accordion, ‘My Boy Jack’ is another from Alice Is A Dancer, returning to the current album for the final pre-encore of ‘The Saucy Sailor Boy’ (though originally appearing in 2013 on Dawn Breaks by David Harbottle and the Friendly Cats), David’s new crowd singalong friendly melody and mandolin and fiddle arrangement of the 18th century traditional. They return, anchored by drone with Freya on strong upfront vocals accompanied by mournful fiddle and guitar, to round the night off with another traditional, ‘Black Is The Colour’, that would, sporting Appalachian and Celtic folk tones, eventually find its way on to their most recent album, The Beacon. The album ends, bookended by sounds of the sea and, accompanied by fiddle and drone, with the awesome sound of the massed choral voices on a bonus studio recording of ‘J.S. Bach’s St Matthews’s Passion’.
Available via Bandcamp and other digital streaming platforms, this is a wonderful further reminder why they are among the elite of the folk elite.
Artists’ website: www.harbottleandjonas.com
‘Mingulay Boat Song’ – live (but no Cleaves):