Sunday, 13 July 2014

PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARTIN

CD Review

Live in Calstock

This collection from Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin is hands down the winner of the best album at the 2015 Radio2 Folk awards. 

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin
If it isn't then everyone who has any concern with folk music should boycott the BBC, ditch their radios in the deepest ocean and ceremoniously gather to burn their TV licences at Salford Quays in full view of Mark Radcliffe's Folk Show studio.
Right from the opening bars of Henry's fantastic guitar playing you stand up like a meerkat who has heard something untoward.
Live In Calstock is a stupendous collection of tracks from two of the hottest folkateers on the scene at the moment.
The sound and production is superb, in fact the only criticism of this album is it's not a double CD. From start to finish this is an album of sensory overload there is so much to hear, experience and enjoy on it.
Where do you start, there is Henry's sublime guitar and dobro work, his creative use of the gobiron, then there is Martin's gorgeous and rich voice and her ethereal fiddle playing.
The best duo winners of the 2014 Radio2 Folk Awards produced a great album with Mynd but this one just ramps up their game to 11.
From the opening bars of Henry's guitar, which produce a sound that's a cross between Ry Cooder and Ravi Shankar you think WOW! this is something special. The album opens with the medley Cuckoo's Nest/ Adam the Poacher with the first part instrumental on Henry's wailing and evocative strings.
Then in come the rich tones of Martin for the second part and they create such an atmospheric sound that it's at this point you think, "Damn, I wish I had been there."
Lancashire lad Henry's guitar playing supports the strong singing of Martin before again coming to the fore to take the song out with that same haunting sound.
Hannah Martin
This gives way to Death and the Lady which has an opening just as atmospheric as the first with Martin adding the throaty tones of her fiddle to the harmonica of her partner before bringing in the lyrics.
The song has a strong ethnic beat and Martin's fiddle playing, on occasion, has a slight jazz edge. Henry's rasping tones on his gobiron are fantastically colourful but only give a hint of what is to come on later tracks.
The song is built in layers, all of which individually are worth listening to but meshed together they produce a song which is the equivalent of the brushstrokes making up a masterpiece. One of the new offerings from the Devon duo is Stones which gives Martin a chance to showcase the slightly country side to her singing. The slide guitar and banjo picking projects onto the song a strong bluegrass feel.
The melancholic wailing of Martin's strings open Thirty Miles and this time Henry gets a chance to exercise his tonsils with this slow bluesy ballad. His gentle singing is very restful and under-girded beautifully by his slide guitar and his partner's easy but distinct fiddle playing. There are little incidentals thrown in too that stop you getting too mesmerised by the duo.
Harmonica fans are going to go into rapture with Underground Railroad. Henry's almost onomatopoeic and breathy playing of his gobiron is just glorious. Inspired by the secret route used to smuggle black slaves out of The South, Henry has captured wonderfully both the discrete secrecy and frantic tension of the movement. The way his desperate sounding breaths are kept as part of the performance give it that feeling of African tribal rhythms.
As if this album didn't have enough going for it Martin even throws in Shakespeare with Three Witches and to top it all it opens with the banjo, how good is that? Martin has a such a smooth voice, a little like June Tabor but with a higher range and a slightly more polished-edge sound.
Phillip Henry
The duo follow this up with a fourteen minute medley, opening again with Henry exercising his Indian musical training. The trilogy of Elegy/Whitsun Dance and Banks of the Nile opens with such an evocative sound you could be sitting in the shadow of the Taj Mahal watching the sun set or on the steps leading down into the Ganges as the light of day disappears below the horizon, these are the sort of images Henry's playing conjures up.
Then there is the juxtaposition of Martin's traditional narrative with the Indian music gently following along in the background and to add yet another strand of delight in comes her fiddle soaring above it all. Fourteen minutes may sound a long time but when you start listening to this you realise you could listen to it for hours.
This set of songs and tunes is the musical equivalent of a fairy ring you have to be careful you do not get lost in there and never return. The whole is absolutely fantastic but the Banks of the Nile just about edges it as the best part but only by a strand from one of Martin's fiddle strings.
Roseville Fair is a bit like the cherry on the cake it seems to be their purely as a treat. It has that bluegrass/country feel about it and while this may sound like a perfect album, being brutally honest, Martin's and Henry's voices don't harmonise that well on this track. However, you can forgive this because the range of sound on their instruments makes up for any shortfall in execution and there is even a lovely Spanish guitar twist to finish it off.
With I Get Home, Henry shows his virtuoso guitar playing and more than matched by the jaunty sound of Martin to produce a nice, light, gentle folk/jazz tune which is just a sheer joy to hear.
The Painter is the least complex song on the album. For the most part it's a stripped down gentle ballad,with just the simple strings of Henry and lush voice of Martin, but this is in no way a criticism and there are a few embellishments thrown in by Henry on his strings.
The last of the medleys gives Martin a chance to show her virtuosity on the fiddle for the opener of Green Boots/I Don't Want To Know. As it moves into the second part Henry takes over with some extremely impressive picking on his guitar which again has that hint of the great sub continent in the bent notes. Even though there is only two of them, somehow Martin's strings give the piece a fuller orchestral sound.
Henry & Martin's new album
Silbury Hill will be extremely familiar to H&M fans with Martin's incredible voice carrying the ballad along beautifully.
Once again Henry moves in with what could well become his signature sound where there is that mix of bluesy and Indian sitar-like notes fused together.
Even with more than hour of music the end of the album comes too soon.
Live In Calstock, which is in Cornwall, goes out on their fantastic song The Nailmakers' Strike Part II. It has that really distinctive opening with Henry's gobiron, although as he opens the singing his blowing of the steel baguette seems to take a little out of him and some of his lyrics sound a little laboured but when Martin moves in for her part his singing picks up.
One of the wonderful things about this song is the gently thumping rhythm which mimics the sound of the nailmakers working at their furnaces and presses. Martin's fiddle playing on this is superb and coloured in wonderfully by Henry's harmonica. It's lovely how between them they play with the harmonies and rhythms with their various instruments, adding twists and turns.
Nailmaking was big in the Black Country and to use a colloquialism this is a bostin' album.

Live In Calstock is out on July 14 on the Dragonfly Roots label and distributed through Proper Music.