SARAH MCQUAID – The St Buryan Sessions (Shovel And A Spade Records SAASCD002)

The St Buryan SessionsMany eagerly-anticipated tours were wrecked by the onset of that wretched pandemic, including an aborted six-week tour by Sarah McQuaid. Sarah and her long-time sound engineer and manager Martin Stansbury had long been considering a live album that would reflect Martin’s awareness that “a transformation happened when she stepped on stage that had never been captured by myself or anyone else in studio.” Clearly, lockdown was not the time the time for a conventional live-in-some-stadium concert album with a massive audience and flying pigs, even if that had been Sarah’s style. While several fine artists have (at least partially) filled the gap with live videos, Zoom concerts, and even home-produced albums, The St Buryan Sessions goes beyond that. Crowdfunding enabled her to finance a recording session in her local church (St Buryan, in West Cornwall) which has resulted in a fine collection of album tracks and videos, and it does indeed go a long way towards capturing that transformation.

Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Sweetness And Pain’ previously appeared on the album Walking Into White with each verse sandwiched between other tracks, but is sung here as a complete unaccompanied song. It combines a lovely melody and emotional lyric, while the natural reverb of the venue emphasises Sarah’s delicacy of tone without detracting from the power of her projection.
  2. ‘The Sun Goes On Rising’ is a song co-written with Gerry O’Beirne. Sarah’s acoustic guitar supports her powerful, almost bluesy vocal, contrasting muscular lower register tones and crystalline head register.
  3. ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’ was the title track of Sarah’s most recent studio album. Here Sarah’s vocal and electric guitar are mightily augmented by Martin Stanbury’s looper magic, so that multiple Sarahs provide backing vocals.
  4. The piano-accompanied ‘The Silence Above Us’ was also first released on If We Dig Any Deeper… I thought I’d miss the guitar and bass also present on the older version, but in fact the reduced instrumentation and the ambience of the venue make the performance, if anything, more intense, succeeding in capturing what Sarah describes as “the sense of isolation, refl­ection and mingled hope and despair that we were all feeling at the time.
  5. ‘One Sparrow Down’ uses only floor tom by way of accompaniment, scaled down a little from the percussion featured on the version on the previous album, but remains totally effective in its quirky observation of predation at work.
  6. ‘Charlie’s Gone Home’ is one of the very earliest of Sarah’s songs, dating back to the late 1980s. Even then, it seems, she was not only an accomplished singer of folk songs but becoming a major songwriter in her own right.
  7. ‘What Are We Going To Do’ is the second of three songs co-written with Gerry O’Beirne – in this case, one that wouldn’t sound out of place as an entry in the Great American Songbook.
  8. ‘Yellowstone’ was first released on 2015’s Walking Into White, but the theme of worrying over things we can’t control is no less compelling today, when every week seems to flag another natural or unnatural disaster. I love the hint of flamenco in the guitar arrangement here.
  9. ‘Time To Love’ is a very pretty song co-written with Gerry O’Beirne.
  10. The previously unrecorded ‘Autumn Leaves’ combines one of my favourite singers with one of my favourite songs, the standard written by Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert and Johnny Mercer, including Prévert’s original French lyric as well as Mercer’s English version.
  11. ‘In Derby Cathedral’ would seem an appropriate and effective choice of song for the venue even as a straight guitar and vocal performance: the use of a tap delay to allow Sarah to sing in three-part canon with herself makes for a performance that can only be described as stunning.
  12. The title of ‘The Day Of Wrath, That Day’ is a literal translation of the first line of the ‘Dies Irae’, and this eerie electric guitar piece is a perfect illustration of sophisticated technique used to build atmosphere without relying on superficial pyrotechnics.
  13. ‘The Tug Of The Moon’ probably isn’t going to replace ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as the New Year celebrator’s song of choice, but it’s a fine song.
  14. ‘Rabbit Hills’ is a song by the much-missed Michael Chapman, who produced and played on her last studio album, and whose Ibanez Artist electric guitar Sarah plays on some tracks here. On this one, however, she plays piano, not guitar, giving the song a very different feel from that on Michael’s album Fully Qualified Survivor.
  15. ‘Last Song’ revisits a song first recorded on I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning, a touching song that explores the links between grandparent, parent and child, and the sense of loss when a grandparent dies too soon to meet their grandchild.

This may strike you as being a little left of field, as live albums go. There’s no audience, so no applause between tracks or spoken introductions. Yet I’ve heard her sing many of these songs both in concert and in sessions, and it’s a very similar experience. It helps, of course, that Martin Stansbury has done his usual excellent job of engineering the sessions, while taking advantage of the natural acoustic properties of the church to add value to Sarah’s normal PA setup, using ambient mics. (Morgan Lewis and John Crooks also deserve a mention for the quality of the video.)

For someone new to Sarah’s music, The St Buryan Sessions would make an excellent introduction, but my guess is that even hard-core fans who already have studio recordings of most of these songs will appreciate these new takes on some very classy music. I know I do.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘In Derby Cathedral’ – official video: