It is, let’s be honest, something of a mouthful as names go, but, the line-up now comprising of Knight and core band members Roger Flack and Sacha Trochet alongside ‘recent’ recruits Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry plus new addition John Spiers, it’s one worth getting your tongue around.
Their first studio album following the live debut (no numbers from which are reprised here), it’s all traditional material with 50% of the tracks running past the six-minute mark, the first of those, Martin on lead, being the opener, ‘Awake, Awake’, an American folk ballad variation on Silver Dagger, sometimes known as ‘The Drowsy Sleeper’ (maiden eager for her lover to depart before mom and dad come up), sourced from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians and flowing into the instrumental ‘Ellen Smith’ as Knight’s fiddle and Henry’s dobro entwine.
Mournful, sparse pizzicato fiddle notes appropriately open the slow swaying ‘Long A Growing’ (aka ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), the familiar lament about a young lad who died before his time, leaving his young bride to raise their son, sung in suitably sober fashion by Knight (who, of course played on the Steeleye Span Now We Are Six version back in 1974), Spiers’ concertina underpinning the melancholy.
Rather cheerier lyrically is the eight-minute plus, stately-paced pastoral courtship song ‘Searching For Lambs’, another number revisited from Knight’s Span past (this time 1989’s Tempted and Tried), Martin gliding over the shifting notes with padding percussion from Trochet and interplay between accordion and harmonica, the instrumental break pretty much doubling the running time of the Steeleye version.
That same album also featured the subsequent number, returning to darker manner and matter of ‘Betsy Bell And Mary Grey’, reverberating guitar notes introducing a funereally paced single drum beat death march as Knight recounts the true story of how, in 1666, the daughters of two Perthshire gentlemen built a bower to avoid catching the Great Plague, only to be infected by the lad who, in love with both, brought them food, all three inevitably dying. A cautionary tale for self-isolation and social distancing, methinks.
Things thankfully lighten up with the lively ‘Daddy Fox’, a celebration of canidae cunning that dates back to the 15th century, although the version here, featuring Spiers’ accordion and Henry on beatbox harmonica, comes from Dartmoor via The Young Tradition by way of Cyril Tawney, and gets a leg-slapping bluegrassy treatment that segues into the Morris tune ‘Not For Joe’.
At this point, Spiers steps up to the microphone with the others providing refrain accompaniment for ‘Haul On The Bowline’, an old short-haul shanty, with hand percussion from Trochet, paired with a Breton hornpipe tune, followed by the pulsing intro to ‘Earl Brand’, another from Sharp’s Appalachian collection and also known as ‘The Douglas Tragedy’, Martin on vocals and Knight’s fiddle underscoring the tragic tale of two lovers eloping, pursued by her brothers and father, with everyone, naturally, winding up dead.
Another much recorded staple from the canon, ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ receives a suitably wintry treatment, opening sparsely with voices sounding like the wind moaning before guitar, fiddle and dampened percussion arrive to create a tense dynamic. The collection ends with two further lengthy numbers. Opening in minimal form with Knight’s fiddle and Martin’s banjo, the seven-minute reading of ‘Courting Is A Pleasure’, also sung by Martin and learnt from the singing of Nic Jones on Penguin Eggs, gradually builds as hand percussion arrives and the instrumentation and vocals built in intensity before ebbing away. Finally comes the fiery nine-minute instrumental finale, marrying Irish and French-Canadian tunes with ‘The Star Of Munster and Reel Du Tricentenaire’ as everyone gets to take a solo (yes, even folk music has clattering drum solos) bringing things to a rousing climax. As masterful as you would expect from the combined stellar talents involved, for any traditional folk enthusiast, this Natural Invention is a real mother of necessity.
Artists’ website: www.peterknight.net/gigspanner-big-band
‘Awake, Awake’ – live: