Hard Ground is the debut album from The Rachel Hamer Band: Rachel, Graeme Armstrong, Grace Smith and Sam Partridge. The Newcastle based quartet are the current recipients of the English Folk Dance And Song Society’s Graeme Miles Bursary which helped to fund the project. Appropriately, then, they open with one of Graeme’s songs, ‘Blue Sunset’.
The hand ground of the title is the ground of industry although ‘What A Voice’ is rather more metaphorical. Graeme’s song celebrates, if that’s the right word, the effects that industrial pollution can have. The fumes from the factory chimneys turns the sunsets blue in summer, the Tees is amber-brown and reflects the skies in violet and orange. Hardship and death are common themes of the album and next up is Jean Ritchie’s ‘West Virginia’ an oddly matter-of-fact account of a woman’s response to a mine disaster.
‘The Digging Song’ is the first hint that there might be a lighter side to the band. It’s an old joke that you’ll quickly recognise. Later, Ewan MacColl’s ‘School Days Over’, lauding the nobility of labour contrasts with Alan Bell’s ‘Alice White’ which concerns the suffering and degradation of the women. Between then sits Rachel’s composite version of ‘Gypsie Laddie’, another few moments of lightness unless you happen to be the deserted lord, of course.
The chief melody instruments are Grace’s fiddle and Sam’s flute and whistles. Graeme’s guitar provides the rhythmic foundation with support from producer Ian Stephenson on double bass and cello and Richard Hammond’s percussion although the most notable percussive sound is that of Grace’s clogs! Throw in Sam’s harmonium and the band can produce a really solid sound to back Rachel strong, distinctive voice and can break out into decorative passages without missing a beat.
Hard Ground is an exceptional debut album by anybody’s standards and I predict a great future for The Rachel Hamer Band.
Artists’ website: www.therachelhamerband.com
The Rachel Hamer Band live at Todmorden Festival: