GREENMATTHEWS – Roots & Branches (Blast Records BFTP013)

Roots & BranchesGreenMatthews, who have appeared in these pages before, are Chris Green who plays keyboards and a variety of stringed instruments, and Sophie Matthews who plays all manner of aerophones from English border bagpipes to baroque oboe. Both sing but it’s Sophie’s instrumentation that provide Roots & Branches’ distinctive sound, particularly when tackling a couple of Playford tunes like ‘Childegrove’ and ‘The Indian Queen’. If you associate Playford with the shilling-in-the-bum dancing style this will change your mind.

The majority of the material is traditional, or nearly so, but Chris and Sophie have worked hard to give such songs as ‘High Germany’ and ‘The Blue Cockade’ a new feel without altering them too much. I applaud them for what they have done with these songs and ‘Daddy Fox’ which they have borrowed from Barry Dransfield. The opening track, ‘The Escape Of Old John Webb’, is a variant of the ‘Billy Broke Locks’ story that comes from Massachusetts and was once recorded by The Kingston Trio. John Webb was a coin-maker who wasn’t averse to knocking out a few extra in support of American independence; needless to say that got him into trouble and it sets the album up well.

Now, I begin to have problems. Chris has written a new tune for ‘The Bone Lace Weaver’ and I can’t imagine why. The usual tune, composed in the 1960s though it may be, is perfectly suited to the song and would suit GreenMatthews’ instrumental style equally well. Later he essays a new tune for Ernest Jones’ ‘Song Of The Lower Classes’ – the customary tune is a 19th century hymn paired with the lyrics by Martin Carthy and it’s difficult to improve on. Fortunately, Chris doesn’t try to improve on Vaughan-Williams’ tune for ‘Linden Lea’ (someone else has and I detest it) and I like his arrangement very much although it’s taken a little too fast for my taste.

Oh, dear. It seems that I’ve got a down on GreenMatthews but actually Roots & Branches is a very enjoyable record – although I reserve the right to be critical. I’m old enough and curmudgeonly enough to do so but I admire their approach to the music contained herein.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.greenmathews.co.uk

‘The Blue Cockade’ – live:

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.

GreenMatthews

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/