Over the past decade, husband and wife duo Stu and Debbie Hannah have been a fixture on the gig circuit, taking a decidedly DIY approach to the music business. Everywhere the play they seem to charm audiences, with their stories and songs, leaving them with a smile and clutching a CD. In A Box counts as their seventh album overall in a decade of impressive music making. With the official launch gig for this new CD this Friday at Kings Place in London, with another series of dates to follow, it’s time to take stock of yet another superb CD.
I’ve known and followed Megson fairly closely for a number of years, if not quite from their first album, from not long afterwards, having met Stu at a Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman gig. The Lakeman connection had been made by then, with Seth singing their praises and inviting them to tour with him, while Sean would help with Production on their second album. It all seems like a long time ago and is probably the better part of 10 years, which probably goes some way to explaining why they are also one of the acts on the folk scene that I have seen perform most often.
Live Stu and Debs have an easy rapport and banter between themselves and with the crowd. Their shows have always been a mix of good humour and moments of heartbreak. Some of their own songs, which often carry a melancholic edge and a gorgeous tune are especially poignant. There are also strong flavours of the North East and Teesside in particular, where the pair grew up and also first met. They still boast strong accents, essentially little changed by years of living away from the region, which comes across in both their speaking and singing voices.
Their affection for and connection to their native region formed the backbone of Smoke Of Home, an album released seven years ago that sort of set the template. Once they had a theme and a number of songs arranged, mostly with a pretty sparring instrumental mix the album was recorded, pressed up, released on their own label and then the touring began. Booking themselves, looking after themselves with some notable support with distribution and PR, to all intents acting as a cottage industry.
Everywhere they played they won fans, made new converts to the cause and sold them a CD or two in the process. Whilst not a path to instant wealth, it’s sustained them well enough and probably made them the envy of those less well organised, or tied to disadvantageous deals. They also steadily acquired acclaim from a real range of critics and others that has remained at a pretty consistent level, ever since. The reviews page on the Megson website is worth a gander, as something else that a few other acts will cast an avaricious eye over. There have been three nominations in the Best Duo category of the Folk Awards, although quite why they haven’t won is something of a mystery.
But it’s when they sing together that their chemistry really shows through and they harmonise wonderfully well together. Debbie has a bright and clear voice, while Stu can be a tad earthier, they owe much to a background of Chorale singing. Stu has slyly admitted before that he joined the choir, because he noted there were a number of good looking lasses in the ranks. It may have been a little tongue in cheek, but there’s no question that Debs was already a member and it is where they met.
If the choir schooling shaped their voices, it’s worth also noting that Stu is also a very good guitarist, although he often favours the rhythmic snap of the mandola. He provides the glue for their sumptuous harmonies, with clever intricate lines that weave between the voices and finds the gap with seamless grace. Debbie’s own instrumental skills are also more apparent, adding accordion to the whistle that was for many years her instrument of choice.
If Smoke Of Home set a template, then Take Yourself A Wife and The Longshot have both built on the legacy. It’s notable that the attendant information accompanying the new release tends to skip over When I Was A Lad, their album of children’s songs released a couple of years ago. Inspired by the birth of their first child, it’s maybe a little out of kilter with the rest of their catalogue, but is still a fine album packed with their usual wit and vigour, perhaps lacking the weight that the others unquestionably have. There has also been a stop-gap live collection, which mostly flew below the radar, but has probably sold well to their regular gig going fan base.
The new album certainly has some weight to it, tackling as it does life’s passage. While the title In A Box suggests the way in which many of us leave this mortal coil, it’s a little more complex and fun than that. Death, however stalks the first track, Clifton Hall Mine, with an elegiac, moving hymnal to a mining disaster, in this case at Clifton Hall near Salford. The track is also notable for its muted and heavily damped piano, as well as a tug of Dobro slide from Ben savage of The Willows.
If that’s a sombre start, then Bet Beesley And Her Wooden Man is a ribald tale of widow who remarries and gets more (or should that be less) than she bargained for. It features a fine fiddle contribution from Seth Lakeman, which suggests the connection and friendship have lasted the test of time.
If there’s something that becomes immediately apparent through the first couple of songs, Charlie The Newsmonger confirms that the sound is much fuller and perhaps a little denser than before. Stu has done a fair bit of production for others and the studio time is clearly paying dividends. Although they haven’t shied away from production technique and overdubbing in the past, this album feels a little different.
The River Never Dies is the first wholly new, original composition on the album and a homage to the Tees running on through the ages. It’s a brilliant song that starts with WWII bombing raids and charts how despite some of the indignities heaped on the watercourse, it’s flow is continuous and links communities through history. It’s an absolute classic, which somehow seems wise without trying. But so too is Dirty Clothes, a song which the sleeve notes suggest is about growing older, but not necessarily wiser.
The originals don’t have the monopoly on emotional clout or even wisdom and Old Folks Tea, from the pen of pitman poet, Tommy Armstrong is a nice bit of social history brought to life with a stunning vocal from Debbie. Still I Love Him is a traditional song given a new tune and another gorgeous vocal, despite the gritty subject of an abusive husband, with Debbie supported by Jade Rhiannon of The Willows and Jess Morgan. Jade also crops up on Songs To Soothe A Tired Heart, a lullaby originally destined for When I Was A Lad, a song which offers another thoughtful change of mood.
The album ends with the title track, but before that is the curious story of a Mowhawk Indian, who called himself Moses Carpenter and was part of a travelling show. When it reached Middlesbrough, he unfortunately contracted a fever and died, but there was an extraordinary outpouring of grief, with thousands lining the street for his funeral procession. It probably deserves to be thought of as one of Megson’s boldest and most unusual songs and arrangements yet, although in fairness, each album has thrown up something that pushes at any perceived limitations of the duo format.
The title track is another peach and gave me a cause to chuckle over the box set of Friends, but is a nice wry look at the ephemera we collect and the things we keep. There are memories locked in much of the junk that occupies lofts and garages across the land, but there is also a heap of useless junk, often not even serviceable or useful. Having moved house and seen boxes go from garage to cellar to loft, still unopened, I know it all too well. Still, it can be a sad day when you get rid of stuff, beautifully captured here.
Although it’s tempting to put In A Box down to an, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” work ethic, Megson’s modus operandi is much more engaged and switched on than that. This isn’t an album that simply follows a formula, but another vibrant and vital collection of songs, carefully chosen and combined with wit and panache. It will make you think, make you laugh, give you goose bumps and maybe a tear in the eye. In A Box is a veritable treasure chest.
Review by: Simon Holland
16 – ALBUM LAUNCH PARTY – Kings Place, London
17 – New Greenham Arts Centre, Newbury
18 – Family Folk Show @ Wiltshire Music Centre
18 – Wiltshire Music Centre
22 – David Hall Arts Centre
23 – The Old Bull, Royston
24 – The Corn Hall, Diss
24 – Family Folk Show @ Corn Hall Diss
02 – Nettlebed Village Club
14 – Live @ The Tithe
29 – Winchester Discovery Centre