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The Long Way Home
Make no mistake this is grown up folk and if the genre ever wanted to create a sub-genre where the music is elevated to high art then Steve Knightley and Phil Beer's new album would be among the first candidates. Unsurprisingly it has been nominated for best album in the BBC Radio2 Folk Awards.
The duo bring history to life with their music in the opening track Breme Fell At Hastings, the battle which was a defining moment for England as a nation.
What sounds like one of the languages created by the much-loved JRR Tolkien this track opens with Michael Wood speaking Saxon and the narrative focuses upon Breme who personifies the nation he is "the heart of England".
Knightley tells the tale more like a storyteller than a musician which proves highly effective and together with Beer, Miranda Sykes, Ange Hardy and Knightley's teenage son Jack they create a story which has the feel of the old Norse sagas.
Hallows' Eve is one of the more seasoned songs on the album and which has been a staple part of the duo's repertoire for some time. Hallows' Eve or Hallowe'en is a cause of celebration for many cultures and while is it here celebrated as being very British is it the Irish who claim to have the roots of Hallowe'en, Jack O'Lantern and trick or treat.
But with all this aside it is a song of celebration of the old passing and the new yet to come, about reunions with friends and the dearly parted where all come together.
Beer, Knightley and Sykes are joined this time by Bridge Inn Shandymen who add the feel of a celebration not only of the winter which lays ahead but of the year passed.
This gives way to the much mellower and far more acoustic Hambledon Fair which draws its lyrics from several sources and is a gentle ballad from Knightley, helped along by the soft tones of Jackie Oates' voice and silky strains of her viola. This is a beautifully lyrical songs where the two voices harmonise wonderfully.
They couldn't really have produced an album about their English roots without including a shanty and Keep Hauling is it. Bringing back the Shandymen to provide the salty vocals this song is obviously rooted in tradition but still has that modern feel to it as Knightley's softer voice fronts the refrain from the Shandymen to produce a sound which probably couldn't have come from anywhere else but England.
'Twas On One April Morning has traditional folk running through it like a DNA strand and they pull out the stops for this one even down to the clack of the Morris Men's sticks. The hopping tune is further enhanced by the presence of two of Beer and Knightley's most successful discoveries, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin.
There is a slight deviation with Sweet Bella in that it comes through on 12 bar blues almost with a ragtime strand to it, not a style you immediately associate with Albion but then folk music has never been exclusive. Beer on his mandolin and Henry on gobiron add some really cool colour to the song.
The Old Lych Way is one of the real gems and shows you why Beer, Knightley and Sykes so often work together because when they mesh, as they do on this track, something magical happens.
Walk With Me (When The Sun Goes Down) could be accused of being slightly narcissistic in that's it's a folk song about a folk festival and the town of Sidmouth which holds the event. However, the song is a beacon of hope in that SoH are letting everyone know that there are things in life other than austerity, greedy bankers, soundbite politicians and cutbacks. There is a whole culture and tradition in havens such as Sidmouth where people still find time to sing, dance and tell stories about ordinary, everyday life. The trio are once again joined by Henry and Martin on dobro and fiddle respectively.
Virginia is a song Beer dug out and overlaid a new tune. This is a deportation song where prisoners were shipped off to the Americas and his unadorned style of singing, with a hint of melancholy, just highlighted by Knightley's guitar is about as traditional a folk offering as you will get.
John Harrison's Hands is SoH's version of the tale of a true English pioneer written by two great Scottish musicians, Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeill. Harrison was a clockmaker who saved countless lives with his marine chronometer.
|The new album|
Their final track is a romantic and gentle ballad which once again employs the skills of Oates and Hardy to produce what is a gorgeously voiced song of a couple separated by war and ends what is an incredibly, intricate and thoroughly enjoyable collection of songs.
The Long Way Home achieves what it set out to do and shows the eclectic sounds and traditions which have come from these shores and, even more so, they have shown that only those who are steeped in the music of the folk and the land from whence these tunes come can tease out what many others overlook and lose sight of in the cacophony of commercial music.
The Long Way Home is on the Hands On Music label and available now through the band's website and download sites.