In the sleeve notes for the track From The Bone Orchard, from which this second solo CD from Gavin Davenport derives it’s title, he reveals, “I’m indebted to any one who has kept alive the songs that make up the canon of our tradition.” It’s a simple enough statement perhaps, but also one that is fundamental to the musical journey that Gavin has embarked on. The song itself is one of three original compositions amongst the 12 tracks, in which Gavin sings, “From the bone orchard these songs I have taken, none was forgotten and not one forsaken, but kept on the lips like the name of a friend, from bar room to bedside, from birth to life’s end.”
Gavin describes the song itself as a “sideways exploration” of the way that songs survive, with what he describes as “an organic living spirit.” Yet, much more than a sideways glance, it seems to have captured the very essence of the folk tradition and also speaks volumes about the spirit that Gavin has brought to this wonderful CD. It’s brimful of vitality as he inhabits the stories of these songs, makes them his own and in the process lives up to his manifesto promises.
There’s a great energy to this record. I have read elsewhere that Gavin regards himself as a singer first and to his credit, much of the power of The Bone Orchard is in the vocal delivery. He has a commanding voice, but also one that is capable of sympathetic nuance, so whether it’s the misery of the transports, the knowing sleight of the poacher or the thrill of the races, the drama of the stories and the fates of the protagonists are brought to life.
That said the arrangements and playing are also top notch, serving to build the drama and bring a certain dash to proceedings as appropriate. For this, regular sparring partner Tom Kitching, whose fiddle appears pretty much throughout, takes some credit. With double bass, the thoughtful use of drums and percussion, melodeon and even slide guitar and hurdy-gurdy added to Gavin’s multi-instrumental skills, the settings are varied and the music seems to flow with a natural pace.That probably helps the sense of economy, with the 12 songs extending to just over 50 minutes, it’s not that any of them is short and sharp, but there’s a briskness that definitely heightens the enjoyment.
Of course some of the subjects are grave and demand a more somber approach. Two takes on the transports certainly give us that. The first is the opener Whitby Lad and the opening scrape of strings and cymbal splashes seem to suggest the tilt and roll of a storm lashed ship, or perhaps the ill wind that follows our protagonist. Jim Jones In Botany Bay, is writ through with regret and bitterness. Despite the obvious defiance of the last verse, the plaintive melody suggests the fear and sense of injustice that many of the wretched people shipped to Australia must have felt.
But then there is the bold orchestration of Fair Rosamund that brings an almost cinematic sweep to what seems to be a compact ballad fragment, which none the less packs an emotional punch. The same is true for Gavin’s composition Wooden Swords And May Queens, although it’s the swelling brass section here that creates the spine-tingling effect. Both have subtle but different effects, the whispered voice in the first verse of the former and the radio tuner of the latter seemingly carrying ghostly echoes.
There is some fun to be had, however, with Long Legged Lurcher Dog there’s a warm heart to the tale of a poacher helping a policeman nurse his sick wife back to health with a nightly pheasant. That the policeman eventually joins the nocturnal hunt keeps the moral ambivalence of needs be as needs must, making it probably a deal more accurate than some of the swaggering poacher’s ballads. There’s also something of a gallop to Creeping Jane, with the instruments used to develop the coiled tension of the races and neat use of banjo and slide guitar. In typical style, however, the ballad is written posthumously to celebrate the achievements of the winning mare.
Perhaps my initial favourite is the winning courage of the Bold Dragoon, which seems to be a more positive spin on the imperilled newly weds meeting the angry father and retinue. The titular soldier seems to win the battle fair and square and whilst ribs are rattled, there’s a might less gore, pointless slaughter and lamenting than say Lord Douglas.
Your vote might equally go for Hymn For The New Year, simply by virtue of adding some good cheer sentiments to an equally good tune and thereby offering an alternative to Auld Lang Syne. The massed chorus at the end seems to offer some hope of a way forward.
As he’s pointed out elsewhere, to some degree there is a Darwinian process of natural selection taking place. The memorable bits live on. If you ever spend time researching folk music, you quickly discover things are far less straightforward than that, but as an overall principal, it at least offers hope of retaining your sanity.
Still the interchangeable plotlines and fragments will stand as many treatments as there are people prepared to voice them and so, Gavin takes his place in the natural order of folk music, entwining his DNA with that of the songs. In doing so he’s created a thoroughly enjoyable record that manages the unlikely marriage of economy and generosity. That latter quality extends both to his sources and influences, but also to the listener, making this handsomely packaged disc one that won’t be straying far from the player for a good while to come.
Review by: Simon Holland
[stextbox id=”black” caption=”Live Dates”]
05/04/13 Otley, West Yorkshire, Kork’s Piano Lounge, Otley, United Kingdom (Cancelled)
Address: Victoria Hall. With Tom Kitching on Fiddle
17/05/13 – 19/05/13 Shepley, West Yorkshire Shepley Spring Festival United Kingdom
Band Show featuring Tom Kitching, Nick Cooke and Tim Yates
Details and tickets[/stextbox]
Album Stream: The Bone Orchard