The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth is worthy of a review in its own right. Part of the 15th Century fortifications built to protect the naval port, its Great Hall has become a top notch music venue under the expert guidance of Ken Brown’s Square Roots Promotions. I’ve yet to meet an artist who hasn’t been blown away by the experience of playing there and I doubt there’s another venue where the audience could watch the Queen Mary sail by while waiting to enter.
Following a great response to his 2013 ‘solo’ album, A Cut Above, Will has put together a 4 piece touring band, performing much of the material from the album. The current band members all contributed to the album, but, there again, so did the likes of Kris Drever, Martin Simpson, Tim Edey, Andy Cutting and Damien O’Kane. If the band ever thought about having some big shoes to fill it was rapidly pushed aside as they plunged headlong into the first tune set, Soldier’s Joy/Floating Candle/The Duchess, 6 or 7 minutes of boundless energy and enthusiasm that finished to cheering and stamping from an already captivated audience. Will’s astounding virtuosity on his array of harmonicas naturally takes centre stage but this opening set also showed that Henry Webster on fiddle, Chris Sarjeant on guitar and John Parker on double bass would get ample opportunity to take the lead during the course of the evening.
One great advantage of featuring the harmonica as a lead instrument is the wide variety of musical styles that it’s already associated with. So, whilst its rôle in the band’s traditional tunes may be breaking relatively new ground, it provides the opportunity to merge influences as varied as bluegrass, jazz, gospel, blues, the list goes on, and I’ve forgotten to mention Mozart. We’ll come back to him later. What is straight-away apparent is that all 4 musicians are thoroughly at home with this melange of styles and indeed thrive on the stimulus it provides. Delve a little into their backgrounds and one soon discovers just how varied this can be. Henry, whilst still to graduate from Trinity Laban this summer, has a cv packed with credits in both the folk and classical worlds and is currently excited to be involved with the band Tandem (see the FRUK introduction), producing a sound he describes as folk electronica. John’s extensive CV stretches back to the early 2000’s and includes a UK No.1 single with Nizlopi. Will’s and Chris’s careers have been firmly rooted in the folk tradition whilst exploring novel approaches and collaborations at every opportunity.
Giving full reign to this potential means that, throughout their set, different combinations come to the fore. So, the morris dance tune, White Jock, featured harmonica and guitar, whilst for Old Tom of Oxford, it was harmonica and fiddle. Each player gets to develop solos with the other keeping a vamp going and it’s clear from the eye contact and body language signals that these are somewhat open ended arrangements, imparting a freshness and vitality to the performance that’s a pleasure to see and hear. When Will and John teamed up for their unique take on Amazing Grace, we were treated to a series of virtuoso bass solos, with the bass becoming a percussion instrument as well as providing intricate variations on the melody. Listening to the interplay between the more delicate bass runs and the harmonica I was taken back to Danny Thompson weaving his bass around Jacqui McShee’s voice in Pentangle. Daring to mention that to John later, I was delighted to hear he’s been working a lot with Danny recently. To top that, John provided a beat-boxing interlude. Truly a band full of surprises!
This is fundamentally an instrumental outfit but, as his solo work testifies, Chris has a fine voice for traditional song and he used it to good effect in the one song of the night, the ghostly night visiting tale, Bay of Biscay.
The mix of the traditional and the adventurous delighted the Square Tower audience and for an encore we were treated to a rousing version of the Appalachian bluegrass ballad, Old Joe Clark, with all the instruments, plus John’s beat-boxing, given a final chance to shine. This was a band already delivering performances that can take your breath away but I was left with the feeling they are only just beginning to explore their full potential. I’ll be fascinated to see where it takes them. For Will, the Band is just one outlet for his talent, he’s continuing to gig with his wife Nicky as Haddo, and is in rehearsal with a new venture, an as yet unnamed trio, combining his harmonica with the lute of Jacob Heringman and recorder/fiddle from Emily Askew. They intend to focus on renaissance and early music. Which brings us nicely back to within two or three centuries of Mozart. Where did he fit in to the gig? Well, a certain Michael Turner compiled a series of tune books in the 1840s and 50s and one of his dance sets contains a waltz thought to have originally appeared in Mozart’s German dance collection. There’s no doubt that neither of them could have imagined the arrangement The Will Pound Band gave to it.
Review by: Johnny Whalley