THE SERVANTS’ BALL – The Servants’ Ball (D.Wink CD13)

The West Sussex Gazette, December 15, 1938

The Servants' BallThe other evening, I had the good fortune to be assigned by this paper’s editor to attend a performance given at the Whittington Village Hall by an ensemble of performers going by the name of The Servants’ Ball. Individually, they comprise banjulele (a sort of banjo and ukulele crossbreed) player and step dancer Ewan Wardrop, fiddler Ben Paley, Rob Harbron on concertina, Ben Nicholls playing upright bass with Julian Hinton at the piano and Evan Jenkins providing assorted percussion.

Their repertoire ranges wide across a number of popular musical style, some steeped in the folk traditions of this country, Europe and the plantations of America, others harking back to the days of Victorian music hall or reflecting such contemporary fashions as the current enthusiasm for ragtime music. Indeed, they are well versed in popular passions, opening their programme with an instrumental number entitled ‘Egyptian Princess’ reflecting the current craze for Egyptology, it’s snake-charmer rhythms prompting several members of the audience to engage in what is termed a “sand dance”, its strutting movements modelled on tomb paintings, emulating the famous comedy routine of music hall act Wilson and Keppel who, you may recall, enjoyed a successful run at the London Palladium as recently as 1932. Had Howard Carter been among the throng, I feel sure he would have joined in.

Their repertoire for the night intermingling such dance tunes with songs of music hall vintage, they proceeded to delight, Wardrop, a ukulele player to rival George Formby, singing ‘The Bird On Nelly’s Hat’, a turn of the century vaudeville cautionary comedy ditty composed by Arthur Lamb and Alfred Solman about a lovestruck lad being fleeced of all his money by the titular golddigger.

Returning to instrumentals, led by concertina, they had the audience taking to the floor for the polka-influenced ceilidh tune ‘Number One Dance Step’ on which Wardrop demonstrated his foot tap talents to great effect before drawing applause and roar of approval as Hinton launched into the well-known ‘Champagne Charlie’, the lyrics written by Birmingham factory worker Joe Sanders who, under his music hall stage name of George Leybourne introduced the song, sponsored by champagne firms, into his act in 1868, boosting his income to almost fivefold to £120 a week.

Returning to dance tunes, introduced with a roll on the drums, next up was ‘Sultan Polka’, composed by Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert for Sultan Abdulaziz I of the Ottoman Empire, this was followed in turn by ‘Pretty Little Dear’, not, as you might think, the 1926 comedy number by Frank Crumit, but rather another concertina dance tune, this of Sussex origin, which I understand the ensemble learned from the work of the renowed Scan Tester from Horsted Keynes, whose Country Dance Band often perform at such local functions.

Allowing the crowd to take a respite from their lively footwork, it was back to music hall for ‘I’m A Man That’s Done Wrong’, or, to give it the full title, ‘I’m a Man That’s Done Wrong to my Parents’, a sorrowful lament of a ne’er do well spurned by his family, Wardrop singing “I once wronged my father and mother, Till they turned me out from their door, To beg, starve or die, in the gutter to lie, And ne’er enter their dwellings no more” dating back to the end of the 1880s and reputedly written in Dorsetshire by one H. Strachey.

Having had time to catch their breath, the revellers were then encouraged back on to the floor for ‘Wild West Gallop’, a lively tune encompassing fairground whirligig, minstrel rag and quadrille and, from there, bearing the time of year in mind, straight into ‘Winter Cotillions’ medley before, accompanying himself on piano, Hinton returned to sing ‘Beautiful Boy’, an amusingly far fetched Victroian tale of no known authorship about of how a young lad was forced to undergo any number of surgical procedures, such as stretching his mouth wider, to make him to look more attractive to the opposite sex,with some unfortunate side effects. Let us hope the medical profession never encourages such nonsense.

Coming to to the close of the evening, they had time for two further tunes, Harbron leading them in the bouncing along ‘Les Rats Quadrille’, composed in 1844 by Gervasius Redler for student dancers or “les petits rats”, and returning to the fad for all things Egypt, Egyptian Ballet, an adaptation from Ballet égyptie by the composer Alexandre Luigini’s. Finally, it was the turn of Nichols to lend his stentorian vocals for a lugubrious six-minute variation of the children’s lullaby of ‘Old King Cole’ with the lyrics revised to talk of the monarch summoning Paganini, Paulo Spagnoletti and the London-born Nicholas Mori to satisfy his predilection for trios, the mock serious song continuing to talk of his secretary declaring a mole on his face as “boding something would take place but not what that something would be” and how the musicians parted company when the king started snoring on page 44 of Giovanni Battista Viotti’s ‘Concerto in G’, their dozing alcohol-doused patron then setting himself alight with his pipe and exploding, the number finally ending by inviting listeners to view the records at the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

A perfectly agreeable night of dancing, laughter and merriment that sent the party goers home happy and humming the tunes, I would not be surprised if, in say 80 years, some similarly enterprising folk musicians didn’t reprise the programme to afford equal delight to their own audiences.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.facebook.com/theservantsball

A (possibly) serious video about The Servants’ Ball:

ROB HARBRON – Meanders (own label ROBRECD003)

MeandersI sometimes wonder if the playing of the concertina should, like practicing the bagpipes, be a regulated solo activity. Bob Copper famously taught himself to play with the beast under his jacket and his arms down the sleeves the wrong way so as not to be heard. That said, Alistair Anderson has done alright with it and both Peter Bellamy and Tony Rose used it successfully as an accompanying instrument. Astonishingly, given his long career, Meanders is Rob Harbron’s first totally solo album, played solely on a vintage Wheatstone Aeola.

Meanders has garnered 5-star reviews already which will leave me as the sole voice crying in the wilderness but I am not fond of the concertina, or the melodeon for that matter, as a solo instrument. Call me unsophisticated if you will but the concertina needs a showman like Anderson or Tim Laycock to stir me. The opening track, ‘The Brink Of July’ does meander a bit although I can hear the roots of something traditional in there as I can in ‘Like A Christmas Tree/Polly In The Wood’. The relative simple ‘One String Jig’ is just that if you can appreciate the idea of a tune ostensibly written for a single string on a fiddle translated to concertina.

The melodies of ‘Midnight Schottisches 1 & 2’ take their time to emerge but emerge they do, blinking in the darkness. The best track for me is ‘Calgarth Hornpipe/Keswick Bonny Lasses/Iron & Coke Hornpipe’. The first two tunes are traditional and are what the concertina was built for and the third is written by Rob in the same style but from here on he is, to my untrained ear, meandering a little too much. But…here’s a strange thing: in ‘The Ship That Never Returned’ I keep hearing hints of Peter Bellamy’s setting of Kipling’s ‘The Looking-Glass’ which apparently came from ‘Just As The Tide Was Flowing’. Is this the folk process in action?

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.robertharbron.com

LEVERET – Inventions (Rootbeat RBRCD38)

InventionsAfter two very successful albums and sold out gigs, Leveret bounce back onto the music scene with Inventions, an album of original material which was recorded live at Real Life studios in April 2017.

Leveret comprises of fiddler extraordinaire – Sam Sweeney, who was 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year. Not surprising as his talents have enhanced Bellowhead, also Folk Royalty Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band, and acclaimed singer/songwriter John Boden’s Remnant Kings, not forgetting his own very successful Made In The Great War project.

Melodeon player extraordinaire – Andy Cutting – has won BBC Radio2 Folk Awards Best Musician three times and has played with Topette, Rock legend Roger Daltrey, Blowzabella and June Tabor.

Concertina genius – Rob Harbron who leads the English Acoustic Collective summer school, collaborated with The Full English also Jon Boden, Fay Hield and many more.

So you would expect, with all this talent and skill for them to produce a CD of tunes that would be amazing to hear, and quite rightly, they have! ten glorious original tunes of varying tempos, ranging from reels, jigs and un-pigeon-holeable tempos, they delight the listener. If I have to be pushed for a favourite, it has to be the lively ‘Two Nights at Chieveley/Henry Blogg’.

I have seen them play live and can see the mutual respect for each other, impeccable timing, genuine love of playing their music and delighting the audience. Music at its best, but appealing to those who just like music!

This is a worthwhile album addition to anyone’s collection. I really enjoyed it and is the in the car taking me away from the hustle and bustle of reality. Keep an eye on their website for live gigs, check them out, pre-order the Inventions album and purchase their previous albums.

Jean Camp

Artists’ website: www.leveretband.com

‘Grenville Morris’ live:

FAY HIELD live at the West End Centre, Aldershot

31st March 2017

Fay Hield live
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party started their spring tour at a brisk pace – seventeen songs, including two encores, in a tight ninety minutes. I can imagine there being a bit of tension in this situation particular as Fay announced that ‘Fair Margaret And Sweet William’ had been arranged by Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and herself only that afternoon. We probably wouldn’t have known if nothing had been said but it is rather impressive to write an arrangement and play it from memory a few hours later. Still, I do think they need to relax a bit.

Fay began, as his her custom, with ‘Willow Glen’ accompanied only by Harbron. The rest of the band appeared (Ben Nicholls being fashionably late) for the unusually jolly ‘Tarry Trousers’ and ‘The Weaver’s Daughter’. Fay did promise us a fair share of misery later and had also promised that she would bring her banjo on this tour. She was as good as word and proved to be a melodic player in what I suppose we must call the English style.

After ‘Old Adam’ it got an outing on ‘The Old Grey Goose Is Dead’ with a new sombre tune. I suppose that it’s a generational thing but Fay was surprised to learn that most of us knew it from childhood as ‘Aunt Nancy’ or ‘Aunt Rhody’ and I was surprised to learn that she didn’t. The geese got another name check in ‘The Grey Goose And The Gander’ and the first set closed with ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’.

The second half began in upbeat fashion with ‘Pretty Nancy Of Yarmouth’ and got back to the misery with ‘Green Gravel’ and the aforementioned ‘Lady Margaret’. The band took its turn with a version of ‘Bold Princess Royal’ before ‘Go From My Window’ with Roger Wilson handling second vocal and Sweeney switching to nyckelharpa. ‘The Lover’s Ghost’ made a suitably mournful closer.

The first encore saw Fay solo and unaccompanied with ‘Young Maid Cut Down In Her Prime’ with the Hurricane Party returning for ‘Long Time Ago’. The music was as splendid as ever and sometimes us oldies like to get home at a decent time but please guys, slow things down a bit.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.fayhield.com

‘Raggle Taggle Gyspy’ live:

FAY HIELD – Old Adam (Soundpost Records SOPO 5003)

FAY HIELD - Old Adam (Soundpost Records SOPO 5003)Fay Hield’s third solo album is all traditional except when it isn’t. That is, except when the tune is by Hield herself and/or Jon Boden or the song is written by Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy or Tom Waits. Although not given full billing on the front cover, The Hurricane Party – Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Roger Wilson, Ben Nicholls and Toby Kearney – are back alongside the aforementioned Mr Boden and Martin Simpson. Fay is scrupulous about crediting her sources and I do worry when those sources are singers I grew up listening to.

The opening track, ‘Green Gravel’, is described as a playground song although there is a misery about it that isn’t very childish but that mood is quickly dispelled by the jolly ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ and ‘Katie Catch’. The title track is a non-Biblical account of the life of the first man, told as though the expulsion from Eden didn’t happen – it is said of Eve that “her neighbours she ne’er scandalised” and she is described as “the jewel of woman found”. Yeah, right.

The best version of ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’ I ever heard was by Rosemary Hardman and the version by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, which Fay uses here, ignored the melodrama and inherent comedy of the song. Rosemary recorded the song nearly fifty years ago and perhaps sensibilities have changed but I always found Tim and Maddy a bit po-faced about the story as is Fay. ‘The Hornet And The Beetle’ makes a serious point and ‘Jack Orion’ is a famous tale of what? – not quite cuckolding although we can suppose that the countess is married so it’s probably adultery. Whatever, it’s a ribald tale but with murder in the final verse. Tom Waits’ ‘The Briar And The Rose’ seems an odd choice at first glance coming, as it does, from one his more difficult albums, The Black Rider, but strip away the preconceptions and you can see the traditional themes woven into the story.

Needless to say the arrangements are beautifully judged often casting a new light on a song and ‘Go From My Window’ is a perfect example. It can be a real dirge but the banjo and up-front percussion give it pace and the key changes in ‘Anchor Song’ seem to enable Fay to get through it in record time. Leaving aside personal preferences this is an excellent album by any standards.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.fayhield.com/

‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ live at well-known north London venue:

Fay Hield Announces Details of New Album

Fay Hield Announces Details of New Album

Following the considerable success of The Full English album and touring band, which she assembled, singer Fay Hield is due to release her 3rd solo album, Old Adam on Soundpost Records on 12th February 2016 and will tour in February and March too. Meanwhile, a digital single, taken from the album, featuring ‘Willow Glen’ and ‘Green Gravel’ is now available.

Old Adam is a fresh and original exploration of how we use stories and music to understand what it means to be human and combines not only Fay’s gift for unearthing striking material but also her distinctive and naturalistic delivery of it. These qualities have won her critical acclaim for her previous solo albums (Looking Glass in 2010 and Orfeo in 2012, both on Topic Records) including several BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and a nomination for Folk Singer of the Year.

Old Adam contains 14 tracks, ranging from ‘The Hag In The Beck’ from the 1600s to ‘The Briar and the Rose’, a version of a Tom Waits song. The title track explores the oldest story in the book: the fantasy of a purity of life, before corruption and sin. “Perhaps it was a result of the developing sins that we have these songs to help us make sense of it all”, says Fay.

‘Willow Glen’ is taken from the Lucy Broadwood collection, while ‘Green Gravel’ (from Alice Gomme’ s Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland) is an interpretation of a playground song. ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ moves into the realms of fantasy, with an enticing glimpse of a world we could inhabit, if only we would follow our hearts. Themes of justice (and injustice) are explored in ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’ (from a version by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior) and ‘The Hornet and the Beetle’ is from the collection of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Many of the lyrics are adapted by Fay and she has written several tunes as has her partner, Jon Boden. The arrangements on the album are all by Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party.

Fay is accompanied on Old Adam by her stellar band, The Hurricane Party, which consists of some of the finest folk musicians working today; Rob Harbron (English concertina, fiddle, vocals), Sam Sweeney (fiddle, viola, cello, nyckelharpa, vocals), Roger Wilson (fiddle, guitar, mandolin and vocals), expanded to include Ben Nicholls (bass) and Toby Kearney (percussion) and including special guests Jon Boden and guitar maestro, Martin Simpson.

As well as enjoying a blossoming recording and performing career, Yorkshire born and bred Fay is also an academic, lecturing in Music at the University of Sheffield where she specialises in the role folk music plays in the construction of communities. With her unique combination of performance and academic talents, it was perhaps inevitable that she would be invited by the English Folk Dance & Song Society to head their ground-breaking Full English project. For the first time many of the finest early 20th century folksong collections can be found in the most comprehensive searchable database of British folk songs, tunes, dances and customs in the world.

Fay assembled The Full English Band, pulling together half a dozen of the top talents on the English folk music circuit, including Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and double bassist Ben Nicholls. This “supergroup” toured for two years and released a self-titled album, again on Topic Records, winning Best Group and Best Album at the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Fay Hield continues in her passionate and engaging exploration of the repertoire of the English tradition. At times sparse and contemplative, at others, fired-up with a spirit lifting rhythm and plenty of rousing choruses, the music on Old Adam is both captivating and thought-provoking.

Artist’s website: http://www.fayhield.com/

‘The Poor Old Weaver’s Daughter’ live :