Any band that can claim a history over 35 years surely has something to celebrate. When that band has a sound built around the skirl and drone of pipes and hurdy gurdy and an international reputation for creating some of the most imaginative and well loved music of modern folk, enshrined as standards for many a session player, then you know they are really special.
For Blowzabella though it hasn’t been a continuous line. The band eventually had to take a break from the exhaustion of constant touring at the start of the 90s, with the members all diving off into other projects. But the mid point of that decade was marred by the tragic death of stalwart melodeon player, Dave Roberts, a feature of their early success, who had originally replaced founder Bill O’Toole on the latter’s return to Australia in 1979. Whether spurred by that common loss or from missing the joy of what they had previously created the band reformed the following year to play a few live shows, which then became an annual commitment.
The full history of Blowzabella is a complex story, however, which you’ll find already well documented on FRUK. Suffice to say here, that since celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2003, the momentum has once again picked up and a trio of new albums have been released. The first of those, Octomento came out in 2007, their first new recordings since 1990. Dance, a live album followed three years later and maintaining that rhythm, the new release Strange News is with us now.
Although the line up has changed down the years the current Blowzabella is Andy Cutting, Jo Freya, Paul James, Gregory Jolivet, Dave Shepherd, Barn Stradling and Jon Swayne. Diatonic button accordionist Andy Cutting has twice won the Musician Of The Year category at the Folk Awards and was something a firebrand young star when he first joined the band before their 1990 release Vanilla. He joined not long after Jo Freya, who added her skills with another type of reed, playing both sax and clarinet. Jo also sings and although the band are rightly famed for their tunes, the songs prove welcome interludes in this set.
It’s easy to see why both were attracted to the band that already comprised several extraordinary players. What’s really outstanding about the band is that both Paul James and founder Jon Swayne alternate between border pipes and saxophones, which completely shifts the sonic palate into unique musical territory. Combine Gregory Jolivet’s hurdy gurdy, an unusual instrument in its own right, with the violin and octave violin of Dave Shepherd and the bass of Barn Stradling, with Patrick Bouffard adding an additional Hurdy Gurdy on this disc and the sound fair leaps from the CD.
So it should as most of this music is made for dancing and its certainly hard to keep entirely still while it plays, even though throwing a few shapes doesn’t do much for the accuracy of one’s typing! All the same, the back and inside of the CD offer the real clues as to what this is all about. The inside picture in particular really seems to have captured people simply having fun, while the one on the back shows the neat formations of ceilidh or country dancing.
That said, the CD actually starts in more reflective mode with one of the four songs to feature Jo’s voice. All Things Are Quite Silent, has a certain swagger and a killer bass line, with something of the European influence showing through perhaps, but it’s those saxophones that suddenly kick in en masse after the third verse that elevate the song to a thing of wonder. It’s one of those – dare I say it, yes I dare, I dare – prog moments.
[pullquote]…prepared to push at that musical envelope and create its own rules in the process[/pullquote]For someone who grew up in the 60s and 70s there was never any doubt that you could push the boundaries of music wherever you would want to take them. Granted, it didn’t always go well, but the term is used very much as a positive rather than a pejorative. Blowzabella on ice, a sudden outbreak of cape wearing or other hair-brained-too-big-for-their-boots-nonsense is entirely unlikely, just a band that is very comfortable with its musical skill set, so is prepared to push at that musical envelope and create its own rules in the process.
The trick is repeated again in Le Petit Chien / The Long Drive and the very wonderful and brooding Malique. As impressive as the burst of saxophone are, however, as noted above, all of this band are musicians at the top of their game. The layers of harmony, the interweaving melodies, the instrumental tones – everything seems so finely judged and in its place, you have no choice but to submit to Blowzabella’s rules and follow the flow of the wonderful music they create.
The second of the songs is the title track also known as A Blacksmith Courted Me, which I believe spawned the tune known as Monks Gate, later purloined for To Be A Pilgrim. But here it’s a given a more sorrowful lilt to fit the theme of the spurned lover, whose errant beau has married another, despite the promises made. It’s a truly lovely arrangement none the less. The pipes in particular have a beautiful quality.
They are back in more strident, urgent effect with skirl and swirl for Falco, however, another instrumental that boils with Blowzabella’s famed wall of noise. It’s typical of the subtle gear shifts and The Muffler / Bashkar’s through Black And White Box / Ubu The King into the next song, Searhing For Lambs and the tune it’s paired with, Main Dans La Main, demonstrate the full range of Blaowzabella’s orchestration.
The song in particular with it’s multi-tracked voices is a delight and those saxes and clarinet once again make their presence felt to glorious effect in the following tune, which positively bounds along, with a sunny French or Spanish air, presumably high on the promise of love with the lamb seeking maid.
One final song Nelly Was A Milkmaid is a neat interlude in the midst of the four remaining tune sets that take the CD to its conclusion. It’s a sprightly if cautionary tale of the perils of hay stoops and dishonourable chaps called young Roger. Mind you the overall tone suggests that Nelly had her fun too and the fact that she seems prepared to name the consequences of her fling after her seducer, offers at least the possibility that it perhaps wasn’t such a bad thing to disobey her instructions.
Still it’s perhaps those four tune sets that best display the engine of Blowzabella engine at its purring best and any of them could be plucked as a favourite, with different moods and instrumental textures keeping everything alive with possibility. For these ears it’s possibly Billy Ruffian / The Schoolhouse that have the edge, although that may well have changed by the next time the disc stops spinning.
The schottishes, rondeaus, bourrées, mazurkas, rants and step dances are naturally enough, designed to get bodies moving and there is little doubt that they will hit their target wherever Blowzabella are playing, even perhaps in the privacy of your own home, as be advised it really is hard to keep seated with Strange News in the CD player. It’s a bold and adventurous fusion of sounds and influences funnelled through some of the keenest compositional minds out there, but also just tremendous fun and a joy to listen to. Hey..! There’s even a waltz in five time and I didn’t know you could do that… But I’ll give it a damn good go!
Review by: Simon Holland
Hand In Hand (Main Dans La Main)
All Things Are Quite Silent
Recording in France 2013
In the studio (2013)
Released: 16 Dec 2013 via Blowzabella
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