“Well I’d rather be under rated than over rated,” Steve Tilston tells me with a bit of a chuckle. It makes me laugh as I respond, “Good answer,” with a slight sense of relief as Steve has admitted suggestions that he remains just a fraction below most people’s radar ankle. It’s his website that has prompted this line of enquiry, littered as it is with quotes from peers and critics in praise of all aspects of his guitar technique, songwriting, live performance and recording. Rightly so too, but many of them seem to hint that Steve is still awaiting your discovery. If that is the case as you read, then I urge you to check out Happenstance with all haste, because as this autumn has started to deliver a bumper crop of varied and myriad delights, it is one of the best CDs you will hear this year, or any other for that matter.
Perhaps the Folk Award for Best Original Song, bestowed for the title track of his Reckoning CD, but shared with Bella Hardy, has made a difference. Steve acknowledges, “Yes it’s put a few more bums on seats.” He recalls that around 2011/12 a head of steam built up around that album, the Folk Award and a Later With Jools performance, which in turn led to the offer of BBC4’s songwriters circle and he brims with enthusiasm revealing, “It definitely upped the game and put me more into the spotlight.”
He’s rightly proud of the whole of his 43 year career, however, which has taken many different twists and turns. If perhaps the ambitions of ‘household name status’ that the 20 year old aspired to with his debut LP haven’t quite been met, there are certainly no regrets and Steve has quietly built a sizeable and dedicated audience regardless. But looking back over the whole there are obvious highlights you could pluck out, be it working with Ballet Rambert or with Maggie Boyle and John Renbourn. His solo work too has merited the whole Free Reed box set treatment, yet Steve is quite happy to continue to change the musical settings in search of a new challenge.
It turns out that Happenstance is an appropriate title. The newly christened Steve Tilston Trio came together with no more ambition than playing a gig in Bath. As Steve explains, “I’ve known both Stuart Gordon and Keith Warmington since the 70s. They play as a duo and I’ve previously played with them both separately but not together. But we booked a gig at the Rondo Theatre in Bath and obviously had to knock a few songs into shape. We just had such a great time and it just seemed to work so well.”
Steve was surprised by the instrumental mix and admits, “I thought that harmonica and fiddle would be fighting for the same musical oxygen, but they play off and work around each other together, like a couple of musical velociraptors.” All three quickly realised that there was something special happening, so one gig became several and such was the continued enjoyment, that the trio felt a document of their work would be worthwhile. Plans for a live album were quickly hatched.
Steve recalls, “There’s The Christchurch studio in Bristol, it’s the old BBC facility there and we discussed having a small invited audience of about 30 people in, but thought we’d better see what we sounded like first, so did a bit of recording.” As it transpired, they were so impressed with the results they decided to simply carry on. Steve points out, “We’ve actually ended up with a very live sounding record anyway and several of the tracks are recorded with me singing and playing guitar at the same time, which of course is a nightmare when you come to mix, because of the bleed between the instrument and voice.” Whatever the complications, there is an energy and natural flow to the record that more than compensates for any (indistinguishable to my ears) sonic blemishes.
Most of Steve’s releases come under his own name and while it seems odd to see the Trio credit emblazoned on the CD, Steve is no stranger to collaboration having recently explored a fully fledged hook up under a joint billing with Yorkshire band The Durbervilles on the Oxenhope EP. Steve explains that the key difference between that project and this comes in the arrangements, “The Durbervilles are great but it’s an intricate thing with six piece harmonies and so on. It has to be really well choreographed, you have to know when you’re stopping and starting and how everything fits together, whereas the trio leaves a lot more room for improvisation.”
As discussed above, if you follow his career timeline, it shows he has regularly rung the changes and followed the muse wherever it leads. I wonder whether there is an almost wilful streak at work. Steve isn’t sure that’s accurate pointing out that, “I have to keep trying different things to keep myself engaged, interested and interesting in what I write. I am essentially a solo artist, but just last week I played a gig down in the west country with the trio and followed it up with a couple down in Cornwall, one solo and one sharing the bill with my daughter Martha. It’s just what I do.” He adds, “It’s mix and match and that’s the way I like it. The trio is just the latest part of that, you might call it an indulgence, but to my ears we make a good noise together.”
Indulgent is probably a loaded word, but what does come across is that great sense of fun and enjoyment. There are some playful moments and also moments when the trio’s playing jumps off the thermometer, it’s that hot. The mix of songs also suggests that ringing the changes has been inspirational. There are even a couple of songs plucked from Steve’s back pages, the wonderful Sometimes In This Life and Rocky Road. The first of those is something of a, “Secular Hymn,” as Steve explains, “It’s just a celebration of life that I’ve been asked to play at weddings and funerals. It can shuffle off itself, out of the repertoire for a year or so, but I always bring it back and just wanted to hear what the trio would make of it. It’s good to revisit old songs with a fresh outlook.” The latter Steve originally donated to Fairport, but both have buffed up a treat and more than justify their revisit.
There’s a superb interpretation of Yeat’s The Wandering Aengus, which Steve has written a new tune for. He’s nervous of sounding arrogant as he admits, “There have been several stabs at this by various people, but I’m not sure anyone has nailed it. It’s a lovely poem and of course stands on its own, but there’s something about some of Yeat’s work that suggests it was written with a tune in mind. I love it as a lyric and when I sat down with it, I just thought the words and my tune came together really well. It begs the question, ‘Do I think my version is better than all of the others?’ I guess that’s not for me to judge but I’m really pleased with it.” Rightly so Steve as it’s another of the CDs obvious highlights.
The opening track Beaulah Road (listen below) has really captured my imagination and I suggest to Steve that there are probably people of a certain age who would identify with taking the scenic route – as a child, my dad would do anything to avoid the main roads when we went on holiday. Steve agrees, telling me, “The Irish Festival Of The Sea was on in Liverpool and they were performing one of my songs, so I’d been invited to go and hear it. As usual my first inclination was to bomb up the motorway.” For some reason a change of heart, however, took Steve on a trip he felt compelled to write about and he explains, “As the song unfolds that’s just how it happened. I drove from south Wales up to Merseyside. I did go and see my uncle Bill for a cup of tea and we talked about how he used to take me fishing in the Dee. He could pull salmon out like there was no tomorrow. It stirred my Welsh roots and there’s stuff about that in there too, without me making a big song and dance about it. Then climbing up on Sugar loaf and looking down on Ceridigion and the Irish Sea. When I got there I was treated to a great meal in China Town and got a box seat to watch the Liverpool Philharmonic play my song. The perfect end to a perfect day, it just had to be documented.”
Then there’s Jimmy’s Train, a medley of two Jimmy Guiffre pieces, Which Steve confesses “I’ve had for a few years and have always thought, ‘One day I’ll record this,’ and we just started messing about with it in a sound check and it just fell into place so well with the fiddle and harmonica, we had to get it down.”
I’ve mentioned some playful moments and one of those come in Martin Said To His Man, where a little guitar interlude introduces a familiar tune. Steve reveals the punch line saying, “It’s such a great surreal song, but is of course anti drinking. Elizabethan Serenade is written by a man called Binge and I couldn’t resist putting then both together.” We have a chuckle and I tell Steve that when the same trick happens in Jam Tomorrow it made me laugh out loud, as it’s just so clever, but I won’t spoil it for you and you’ll need to discover it for yourselves. Steve picks up on this, “Hopefully it’s a little though provoking. I just wanted to write something whimsical but with bite. The stiletto can do more damage than the lump hammer after all.”
I’m searching for ways to describe the trio’s sound, which at times is very English, but with elements of American roots music laced through it. Steve is keen to steer me towards the folk baroque, “It was when I heard the likes of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham that I knew that was the direction I wanted to head in. But that whole thing is a magpie scene anyway and I’m certainly a musical magpie. I’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Courting Is A Pleasure for example has almost TexMex or African rhythms going through it.” That perhaps confirms a little of what I’m hearing, but wherever the constituent parts are picked from, it’s a most satisfying musical stew.
There is room for a song from Keith Warmington, Sentimental – which has the feel of a standard about it, to the point I can’t quite believe I haven’t heard it somewhere before – and a nifty tune from Stuart Gordon to end the CD. Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face The Music And Dance, also makes the cut and Steve’s wry sleeve notes refer to learning it for his elder daughter’s wedding, “Not the song she was expecting,” apparently.
Returning to the issue of his current status, Steve points out, “This profession is not a meritocracy, I discovered that pretty early on. But then what attracted me to the folk scene was that you didn’t seem to have to play the fame game in the same ways that pop stars do. That said to earn a living you have to do certain things, not all of which I enjoy – I hate getting photos done, for example. But you can’t tread water. Even so, when I picked up my Folk Award I was told to keep the speech brief, so I just thanked everyone for acknowledging a career that had thus far demonstrated all of the urgency of wind erosion!” We both dissolve into laughter and Steve manages to add, “I’m a tenacious bastard, I just keep at it.” And it’s a damn good job you do Steve, because it’s a damn good job you do.
The trio will be out on tour including a special show at London’s Bush Hall with Wizz Jones on 11th October and Steve will also be playing a few solo shows mixed in from the end of September, through October and into November and right into next year.
Review / Interview by: Simon Holland
Album Stream (via Deezer)
Released Sept 1st via Hubris Records
20 Kingswingford, Woodman Folk Club (solo)
22 Bognor Regis, Southdowns Folk Festival (trio)
03 Leicester, The Musician (trio)
04 Saltaire, The Live Room (trio)
05 Gateshead,Old Town Hall (trio)
10 Bromsgrove, Folk Club (trio)
11 London, Bush Hall (trio – Special guest Wizz Jones) TICKETS
12 Bristol, Folk House (trio)
13 Wickham, Wickham Centre (solo)
14 Runcorn, Folk At The Prospect (solo)
21 Beverley, Not The White Horse Club (solo)
24 Rotherbury,Rotherbury Roots (solo)
25 Castle Carrock, Watson Institute (solo)
26 Water Yeat, Village Hall (solo)
01 Bath, Chapel Arts Centre (trio)
02 Penzance, The Acorn (trio)
06 Kirkham, Willows Social Club (trio)
08 Oldham, Playhouse 2 (trio)
13 Ely, Folk Club (solo)
19 Northampton, Great Knights Folk Club (solo)
21 Bridgewater, Arts Centre (trio)
23 Totnes, Ariel Centre (trio)
29 Bingham, Folk Club (solo)
14 Milngavie, Folk Club (solo)
28 Cardiff, St. David’s Hall (trio)
8 Dronfield, Coal Aston Village Hall (trio)