A great deal has happened since Granny’s Attic released their second album, Off The Land, three years ago. A lot more people have heard of them now and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne has, rightly, become a solo star. Good for him but is it good for the band? If Wheels Of The World is any guide and if he can balance the two strands of his career, then the answer is yes. Cohen is certainly the dominant force although George Sansome takes lead on four tracks but competing with a melodeon can be hard work. Producer Sean Lakeman has done a sterling job in maintaining the balance without suppressing any of the trio’s power.
Most of the material is traditional and the title track which opens the set is new to me. It surveys the political landscape of the early part of the 19th century and its movers and shakers or “spinners” as the lyric has it. Sounds terribly modern, doesn’t it? The other song I hadn’t heard before, ‘What I Saw In My Dream As I Slept In My Chair’, covers similar ground. Between these two is the classic ‘Ship In Distress’ and the first tune set; a piece from Playford paired with one of Lewis Wood’s own compositions. The same sort of juxtaposition occurs in ‘Riddle’s Hornpipe/The Circus’.
‘Banks Of Green Willow’ has long been a favourite of mine and I’m old enough to remember hearing Shirley Collins sing ‘Gilderoy’ back in the 70s. Before you say anything, yes, Sandra Kerr had it first and Shirley increased the lovers’ ages to a more respectable seventeen. George does a wonderful job of what is, after all, a woman’s song and, needless to say, the lyric has little in common with the real life of the outlaw, Patrick McGregor. ‘The Highwayman’ and ‘Our Captain Cried “All Hands”’ would give the record a rousing finish except that they are separated by the beautiful ‘Fenland’, composed by Lewis.
Wheels Of The World gives me hope for the future of traditional music – it’s about the only hope we have left.
Mick Ryan is, as we all know, is a prolific song-writer and skilled at melding his ideas into shows or folk operas as he is happy to call them. Here At The Fair is his sixth such show and, as always, he has assembled a fine cast: Heather Bradford, Alice Jones, Pete Morton, Geoff Lakeman and the trio Granny’s Attic – George Sansome, Lewis Wood and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.
Ryan’s shows are usually historical and/or political subjects so this particular fair is set up in a country town in 1850. Initially it’s all very jolly with the instrumentation featuring reeds and euphonium echoing the sound of a fairground organ. The various characters introduce themselves and comment on their lifestyles. Ryan is generous in sharing out the parts with Geoff Lakeman playing Doctor Maldini, the snake-oil salesman; George Sansome as a ballad-seller; Heather Bradford plays the fortune-teller Madame Lavengro and Pete Morton is allowed to go completely over the top as Professor Sleary, the owner of the flea circus. Ryan plays Vincent Crummles, the showman, with Alice Jones as his daughter. Aficionados of Charles Dickens will recognise the names.
Gradually, a darker story begins to emerge. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne plays the clown Steven Starling who, we learn, is searching for his father. The second disc begins with Maldini recalling the events at Peterloo and Madame Lavengro remembering the last great Chartist meeting. There are other missing persons in this story – is there a link between them? As the show progresses the characters confess the truth about the hardship of their lives in a travelling show, admit that their best days are behind them and confront the truth about themselves. Any more information would be spoilers.
Mick Ryan’s songs are always singable, which is why so many people borrow them, and even in the darker moments of Here At The Fair there is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Things may be bad now but they were good once. Sadly, in the words of ‘If Only’, there is no going back so everyone blinks back the tears and looks forward.