David Hughes is something of a rebel which should endear him to me but, to be honest, I’ve always been a bit Marmite about him. I’m sure that would please him no end.
A solo acoustic gig is probably his forte and this set, recorded at The Blue Boar Hotel in Maldon, finds him on home ground and in his element. He has a spiky humour which he underplays and it takes him a while to warm up. ‘David Hughes 116th Dream’ doesn’t really work; it’s too close to him to have universal appeal, unless you habitually dream about Emerson Fittipaldi. ‘Wasted’ is self-deprecating and ‘Blue Car’ is surprisingly tender although it raises a wry smile. ‘You And I Both Know It Had To End’ is where he really gets into it. His introduction, over a demonstration of late 60s guitar picking, is wickedly funny. The album title comes from this song and it’s bitingly funny in his understated way.
From here on it’s all good. ‘Immortal, Invisible’ is a brilliant put-down of modern religious observances as far as the singing of hymns is concerned. I think I share his views on religion but like him I’ve suspended my incredulity many times to enjoy a good sing. ‘Thoughts And Prayers’ takes a swipe at the superficiality of Facebook and in sharp contrast ‘Heart Of Stone’ relates the story of a small town murder and people’s reactions to it. It’s sung unemotionally in a way that reminds me of Bob Dylan in his early reportage period. It’s a song that everyone should hear.
Hughes’ mix of dry humour and serious points compels you to listen carefully, lest you miss something, and his finger-picked guitar is as understated as everything about him, giving the impression that he’s better than he wants to let on. I’m a lot less Marmite about him now.
It’s been 14-plus years since Fairport Convention’s chief songwriter, co-lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, songwriter-musician and all-around renaissance man David Hughes, and Chris While and Julie Matthews (the renowned folk duo While and Matthews) joined together for a holiday side project called St. Agnes Fountain, fondly dubbed the Aggies by loyalists.
The quartet and its fans will tell you their musical magic is only fully unleashed during their as-soon-as-they-are-announced sell out concerts across England. That is further reason to celebrate the artistry of their albums. Christmas Is Not Far Away, the Aggies’ just released ninth album, is now available online and at upcoming shows.
The album features the Aggies at their best – both individually and as a group. Chris Leslie’s bewitching musicianship (don’t miss ‘Old Time Christmas on the Front Porch’), Ms. While’s and Ms. Matthews’ enchanting harmonies (‘Shadows of the Past’) and Mr. Hughes’ amusingly irreverent word play (‘Immortal Irreverent’) combine to make this a stand out offering.
At first, I was disappointed by a few songs on this album including ‘The Heart of Christmas Day’ by Ms. Matthews.
Perhaps that’s because a disproportionate number of artists who released holiday albums this season have included several songs aimed toward the despondent. Over the Rhine’s Blood Oranges in the Snow, comes immediately to mind. But Over the Rhine acknowledges their holiday music is for those who struggle with the season.
When I originally heard the song penned by Ms. Matthews, I thought it was a bit of an outlier in an otherwise joyful album. I was wrong. The more I listened, the more I found that and other atypical Aggies’ songs intriguing, especially as they are sequenced.
Christmas is Not Far Away is a charming respite from the too jolly and too sorrowful holiday music that is readily available. Like the Aggies’ tour, expect this album to become a part of your holiday tradition.
I’ll just admit it; I’m jealous of those that can celebrate the holiday season with St. Agnes Fountain’s live and newly recorded music “The Twelve Years of Christmas.” In a season filled with holiday albums and tours from artists ranging from Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta to Cee Lo Green, the just-released St. Agnes Fountain album is truly a holiday jewel of re-imagined traditional and more contemporary music. Like most jewels, this one is rare. It’s available, for now anyway, only at the Aggies’ concerts, which are only in the U.K. Yet even those that need to wait to purchase copies should not miss the chance.
The quartet – acoustic guitarist, songwriter and author David Hughes, Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie, and award-winning folk duo Chris While and Julie Matthews – have created a 13-track holiday album that sways from reverent to lighthearted to downright humorous especially on Hughes’ witty “Christmas Thoughts and Prayers,” a true hoot. But overall, the collection is as warm and intimate as a cup of cocoa on a cold winter night.
It’s a fair bet that the acoustic version of the J.S. Bach classic “In Dulci Jubilo” will rightly receive the most notice from critics and fans. Yet other songs – notably the breathtakingly beautiful “All Through the Night” that features Chris Leslie’s haunting, angelic lead vocals – are equally deserving of rich acclaim. Other don’t miss tracks include Beth Nielsen Chapman’s elegant “There’s Still My Joy,” and the joyful “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”
Indeed, this album is just another reminder of why St. Agnes Fountains deservedly carry the “super group” moniker though they speak to individual listener’s hearts.