A female folk supergroup of musicians, originating as a duo in 2017 with singer-songwriter Bella Gaffney and mandolin wizard Polly Bolton, they expanded to include fiddle player Holly Brandon and Sarah Smout on cello and thus The Magpies took wing, Tidings referring to a group of such birds. Having established a formidable live reputation (for which I can vouch, although sadly Smout was absent ill when I saw them), they now release their debut album, an amalgam of traditional tunes, self-penned material and a brace of covers with Bolton adding banjo and bouzouki to the instrumentation.
Tidings opens with scratchy mandolin driving the breathlessly sung traditional ‘Two Magicians’ with its tale of witchcraft and transformation before a brief and bustling mandolin and fiddle instrumental run through Liz Carroll’s ‘Catharsis’, leading to Gaffney’s liltingly airy Americana-tinged ode to being free sway ‘Run River Run’ with Bolton’s mandolin solo and Smout underpinning on cello.
The second cover is up next, Bolton’s banjo introducing ‘Rock Of Ages’, an early Gillian Welch backwoods flavoured song on which she takes lead vocal before handing over the reins to Brandon for her self-composed fiddle instrumental ‘Foss Island’, the others adding further textures for a number that’s too suffused with Appalachian-Celtic shades to surely have been inspired by the retail park in their hometown of York.
The second of Gaffney’s contributions comes with the banjo dappled break-up song ‘No More Tears’, another number drawing on American traditional influences as she sings of how she “stole his heart but my heart is cold” and that she left him “of my own free will” and then it’s back to the traditional woodpile with the second instrumental, the lively ‘Shuffle Set’, Bolton’s nimble picking showcased on a medley of uncredited tunes
Stretching to just under seven minutes, the final traditional choice is a familiar one with Bolton on mandolin and harmonising behind Gaffney’s lead for a quietly mesmerising take on ‘Galway Shawl’. It ends then with Bolton’s two songs, first up being ‘Golden Girl’, a stark banjo-spooked tale of a lover’s apparent suicide and young girl and her mentally ill mother going mad with isolation and grief during the 19th Century lead mining in the Yorkshire Dales. And, finally, ‘Balls To The Wall’ is another instrumental, an all-out flurry into mandolin-driven Balkan rhythms with each of the musicians interweaving amid the ebb and flow, a number designed to elicit handclap audience participation towards the end and, were folk clubs that liberal, warranting clouds of dry ice. It’s not Christmas yet, but this is definitely glad tidings of comfort and joy.
Artists’ website: www.themagpiesmusic.com
‘Run River Run’ – official video: