While their planned tour fell victim to CoVid 19, Live At Acoustic Roots, recorded in Wigan on March 7 this year and available for download from Bandcamp, offers welcome compensation, even if doesn’t feature the three-member line up that would have been out on the road at some of the gigs with fiddle player Annie Bayliss joining Devonian duo Dave and Freya. That would have been icing on the cake, but the cake itself is still baked to perfection and extremely tasty.
The set draws primarily on their current studio album, The Sea Is My Brother, both that and this opening in sterling fashion with ‘Was It You?’ Freya on concertina for a stunning reading of Ewen Carruthers’ song about Captain Scott’s last thoughts awaiting death on Antarctic ice in 1912. It’s followed, Freya singing lead, with a twinning of two numbers, ‘Halls Sands/Elizabeth Prettejohn’, the first a setting of John Masefield’s prophetic 1903 poem with the chorus taken from John Galsworthy’s Wembury Church, concerning the south Devon fishing village of Hallsands which was washed away in the early 1900s when its shingle was dredged to extend the Plymouth dockyard, the latter a lively instrumental spotlighting Dave’s finferpicking with Freya’s concertina subbing for the album’s trumnpet, in memory of the village’s last resident who remained in her hillside home until her death in 1964.
The lyric making reference to the their first meeting, ‘Liverpool City’ is a mid-tempo swayalong shanty in which the narrator’s torn between the call of the sea and his love on land, the deserved applause giving way to Freya encouraging the audience to join her in a singalong to another nautical number, the near eight-minute and previously unrecorded ‘Mingulay Boat Song’. A glorious reading which, in the final stretch features Freya singing unaccompanied before launching into the lively instrumental coda of Phil Cunningham’s ‘The Hut On Staffin Island, it’s a traditional homecoming Scottish folk song with arrangement and English lyrics by Sir Hugh Roberton, the conductor of the famous Orpheus Choir of Glasgow and published in his Songs of the Isles, two years before his death in 1952.
Dipping into 2017’s Anna Is A Dancer, ‘North Sea Ground’ continues the maritime flavour, Dave on lead with Freya counterpointing on the refrain for a setting of Cicily Fox Smith’s poem in celebration of Grimsby and its lad and lasses. Continuing with the interpretations, they rise to the formidable challenge of taking on Sandy Denny’s immortal folk classic ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, a minimal guitar drone accompanying and underscoring the melancholy in Freya’s haunting vocal, returning to self-penned material for Freya’s ‘The Sea Is My Brother’, the traditional ballad-styled title track of the recent album, inspired by and named for Jack Kerouac’s lost autobiographical novel about the bond between man and the ocean and the restlessness it embraces, their voices entwining around the concertina and simple fingerpicked guitar.
It’s back to the covers for a spinetingling close harmony, slow waltzing take on Natalie Merchant’s ‘Motherland’, her 2001 critical commentary on American contemporary culture and political structures with a call for shelter and a return to more caring times. As this version shows, the resonance remains.
Reaching back to 2013 and the days of David Harbottle & The Friendly Cats, they revive their version of the playful traditional ‘The Saucy Sailor Boy’ from the Dawn Breaks album, giving it a suitably thigh lapping treatment that reminded me of Megson. And, finally, Freya on harmonium with Dave providing complementary meditative guitar, they end with another previously unrecorded number, but part of the set for some years, the traditional Celtic ballad ‘Black Is The Colour’.
Live At Acoustic Roots is their seventh full-length album and their first live recording, further adding incontrovertible evidence that they are one of the finest folk duos in the country. They’ll be back out touring next (or maybe later this) year, you’d be foolish not to see them.
Artists’ website: www.harbottleandjonas.com
‘Was It You?’ – live: