The singer/songwriter/guitarist occupies a very crowded area in today’s acoustic music scene. It’s a challenge for anyone wishing to stand out from the crowd. Stuart Forester’s tactic is to set himself firmly in the traditional idiom, partly with arrangements of traditional songs but mainly by adopting traditional phrasing and delivery within his own songs. This by no means makes him unique but it certainly differentiates him from a good proportion of the competition. A Yard of Ale, Stuart’s second album, has 10 of his own compositions, including an instrumental, plus two other songs.
What determines whether a song survives long enough to become traditional? In all honesty, luck is probably the most significant factor but, looking for something more reproducible, songs that tell a good story and that resonate with the daily lives of singers and audience could be a good bet. Stuart Forester certainly has an eye for a good story and the wandering life of his childhood along with his time as a musician and roadie with rock bands has given him plenty of material. His roaming family eventually settled in Hull, Stuart has now made his home in London and these two cities provide the inspiration for a trio of standout tracks on the album. The opening track, Mitcham Fair Green, re-tells a familiar theme, a couple’s passionate, never to be repeated, night together after meeting at the fair ground. It’s a tale of the present day that could as easily have been sung a couple of hundred years ago. A south London location is also the inspiration for Duke and Little Renie. A glimpse of a skinhead wedding on the Old Kent Road led Stuart to weave a tale of love, marriage and family life flowering from inauspicious beginnings.
Hull is the setting for Stuart’s probably strongest song, Star of the West. Inspired by the memories of a hard drinking, hard fighting good friend from the relatively recent past, it evokes a time and place that would chime with ne’er do wells from any era. Forty, fifty years ago, traditional song and Hull were brought together in unforgettable fashion by The Watersons and Stuart pays his respects to this common heritage with a splendid treatment of a Mike Waterson song, Cold Coast of Iceland.
There are songs on the album dealing with country matters, but it’s the tales of urban life that bring out the best of Stuart’s song writing. In The Roving Labourer, our man tells of wandering the country, Aberdeen to Truro, Hull to Liverpool finding rough and ready work wherever he goes. But the impression lingers that he moves pretty rapidly between these cities, feeling most at home in the dockside pubs and whorehouses.
Whilst the album stands on the strength of the songs, Stuart is no mean finger-style guitarist and plays Appalachian mountain dulcimer most effectively on the album’s one instrumental track, Gitonyossie. Six of the tracks bring in other musicians, Jack Barnaby on melodeon and harmonium, Phil Martin on fiddle and viola and Clayton Marks taking on guitar when Stuart switches to dulcimer.
Stuart’s vocal delivery is crisp and clear and from time to time stirred memories of Martin Simpson. But it would be unfair to describe Stuart’s music in terms of comparisons; the lyrics give the music a strength rooted in empathy for the character portraits they paint. You’re left keen to learn more of these often flawed but always fascinating people. Allying these lyrics to accessible, sometimes even catchy, melodies and arrangements that support and never overwhelm the songs has made Yard of Ale into a musical package that delights and satisfies. I look forward to catching Stuart Forester in live performance sometime soon.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Monday 22nd July
Folk in the Cellar
42 St Pancras Way, Camden
London NW1 0QT
Thursday 15th August
The Icarus Club Shortlands
5 Station Road
Bromley BR2 0EY