The last couple of years for Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar have been remarkable by any standards. They released their debut album, The Queen’s Lover in 2012, won the BBC Young Folk Award in February 2013 and then the Horizon Award, for best newcomers, at the main event at the Royal Albert Hall a year later. On the back of such obvious acclaim, naturally they have also been busy gigging, playing Cambridge and Cropredy, amongst notable festival bills and a regular round of folk clubs. Somewhere in the mix, they’ve also managed to squeeze in the recording of a second album, The Call, just released via Fellside Records. It’s an absolute peach of a record too, and if you’re seeking the proof that they deserve to be riding the crest of all of this acclaim, then this new CD offers more than ample proof.
As the first of those awards suggest, they are indeed young, and their website reveals that they are dividing their time between music and education. I don’t know if it’s bang up to date, but it reveals Ciaran is an A Level student, while Greg is a little older and in the process of reading for a politics degree at the University of Exeter. It’s also no surprise to learn that both come from musical families, but while regularly mixing with the folk club and festival circuit from a young age may be the bedrock, both have clearly made the most of opportunities to build on those foundations.
Both are multi-instrumentalists, with Ciaran in particular an All-Ireland and All-Britain champion fiddle player on several occasions. He naturally, therefore majors on fiddle and whether weaving around Greg’s voice or leading the tune sets, he displays both abundant technique and feel for the material in equal measure, deft, delicate and daring by turn through the full dynamic range. Ciaran also plays tenor banjo and bodhran, both of which are an obvious, over-dubbed presence on the album, but also guitar and bouzouki as well as adding his voice in harmony.
In the meantime, while his musical partner was taking on all comers in fiddle championships, Greg was out learning his trade performing support slots for the likes of Lau and Karine Polwart, the kind of billing you just don’t get unless you can obviously cut it. His superb guitar is a perfect match for Ciaran’s fiddle and he also plays bouzouki and English concertina. Then there’s Greg’s voice – expressive, confident, but with a fetching tremor and a gift for finding the emotional weight of a song – his singing catapults this to a whole new level as he’s one of the best singers on the current scene.
There are two other things that also warrant attention. Firstly Paul Adams of Fellside Records has a great knack and enviable track record of finding and nurturing young folk talent and has done so again here. Paul also has a reputation for quality sound recording and The Call certainly doesn’t disappoint in that respect. He and Linda duly get credit form Greg and Ciaran in the sleeve notes for their support, expertise and friendship. The second thing is that the sleeve notes themselves display a modesty that makes it clear Greg and Ciaran understand they are still learning their art. That said, there is also a sense of purpose and quiet confidence, suggesting both are also keenly aware that they are making a pretty good fist of it so far and damn well enjoying it in the process.
Track one, Roses Three, captures it all brilliantly. It’s a great song, which has apparently drifted in from Sweden, with Vicky Swann and Jonny Dyer credited with the translation and adaptation that begat this version. With the softer tones of the bouzouki as the launch pad, both Greg’s voice and Ciaran’s exquisitely playful fiddle make the most of a tale, which as the notes point out has a surprisingly happy ending. An impossible errand, a triumph by sleight of hand – well, yes and no, as it was all a joke anyway and true love wins the day. It’s a strong contender to see the pair nominated at the Folk Awards for the third consecutive year in the Best Traditional Song category.
The first of the tune sets, The Silent Jig, (inspired by the silent disco) follows, setting off as a nice exchange between Greg’s wonderfully woody guitar and Ciaran’s frisky fiddle. It picks up momentum and shows off all of Ciaran’s skills, with banjo and bodhran over-dubbed and added to the mix. It also features one of his compositions alongside those of Joanie Madden and Áine McGeeney of Irish band Goitse (pronounced Gwi-cha).
Greg comes to the fore again for Royal Comrade, also known as The Lakes Of Coolfin / Shallin. This version Greg learnt from Jim Causley, whom he credits as a good friend, perhaps with the South West folk scene connecting the two. There’s just something about the phrasing and the telling of the tragedy of a drowning that recalls Jim, but Greg’s voice really makes the most of the drama. In one of those folksong sixth sense moments, the sister dreams of the death and the introduction of Ellie Lucas’ voice towards the climax is a goose-bump moment. She also sings on The Workhouse, which is one of the more modern compositions to appear, plucked from Mick Ryan’s folk-opera, The Pauper’s Path, which I believe is possibly due for a revival of sorts and needs further investigation on the strength of this.
Returning to the tradition, The Rose In June is a curious song. Greg starts it a cappella, with Jeana Leslie joining after a verse and adding sparring piano. Ciaran then layers a mournful undertow of fiddle, but the song is suddenly lifted with the introduction of the Cumbrian Two Chaps Choir (Robert Hallard and Andy Hughes). Still, it’s another tragic tale about the titular fishing boat and curious in that it seems to be about the power of prayer, yet despite their piety, the captain and first mate are drowned. That they end up in heaven and are thus saved is, I suppose, the point, yet the narrative seems rather austere and joyless in its fundamentalism.
The final traditional arrangement on the album is as Greg points out a controversial one, being The Cockkfight sometimes known as The Bonny Grey. As he explains, songs about hunting and whaling in particular also fall into this category, but are a part of our social history. Nonetheless, with the massed voices once more on hand, the spring of the bouzouki adds a lively swagger to the somewhat nefarious storyline.
There are two more tune sets in the second half, with Absent Friends, having an appropriately elegiac feel and coming from Irish stock. The double tracked fiddle is matched by the tug of sympathetic guitar and the second tune in the set that give the piece its title, is especially beautiful. George, named after the albums engineer, by contrast is more whimsical and in four parts, starting in stately style, but eventually taking flight with the complex patter of bodhran and the late arrival of a flurry of banjo picking offering a breathless finale. Ciaran explains it as both a gentle dig in the ribs and mark of gratitude for the skills of George Hunter-Brown.
It’s the four remaining songs that really stand out, however, with Ciaran’s Away From The Pits being the pick of them. It’s a heady metaphor that uses his hometown of Stoke to conjoin the central theme of an unhappy mix of mining and romancing. As neither seemingly suits the protagonist too well, a life with the sea as a cruel mistress seems the preferred option. Call And The Answer and the album’s closer A Season In Your Arms, also both deal in the poetry of affairs of the heart, but with a more favourable disposition. The first of those borrows from DH Lawrence and both are absolutely sublime.
Another dramatic, emotional spike, however, is created by James Keelaghan’s Cold Missouri Waters, telling the true story of the Mann Gulch fire and the deaths of 13 brave fire-fighters in 1949. It’s a moving piece written from the perspective of a survivor, who failed to persuade the casualties to follow his escape, taking the lingering guilt to his grave. James is one of Canada’s great and probably most under appreciated songwriters, certainly this side of the Atlantic. With its US setting, this is probably his best known song, but still a bold choice and handled with real empathy.
In all, The Call is another great album that gets better as you give it time to unfold. It straddles that paradox of seeming so simply done, yet brimming with passion and conspicuous craft. You know a lot has gone into its creation, not least in getting Greg and Ciaran to the point where material like this can flow from them and through them so naturally. There is a massive amount of skill on tap, but most tellingly in the sleeve notes it says, “…these are songs and tunes that we enjoy: enjoyed hearing at folk clubs or from friends around the country and enjoyed writing and arranging.” It’s that sense of enjoyment that comes shining through and that is something for us all to revel in. If this is The Call, the response is a resounding, “Yes!”
Review by: Simon Holland
Away from the Pits (Live at The Ram Club)
Album Stream (via Deezer)
11 – Tamworth Folk Festival
16 – Biddulph Up In Arms
17 – Newport Folk Club
18 – Folk on the Farm
19 – Settle Victoria Hall
21 – Stockton Folk Club
23 – Lowdham
24 – ‘A Day’s Work’ Warwick Folk festival
27 – Folk on the Moor
29 – Philleigh Folk
30 – Haver Folk
04 – Folk on Monday, Green Note, London
05 – Hoy at Anchor Folk Club
06 – Willows Folk Club
08 – Prince Albert, Stroud
09/10 – Dartmoor Folk Festival
12/13 – Broadstairs Folk Week
14 – ‘A Day’s Work’ Broadstairs Folk Week
15 – Downend Folk Club
16 – Folk at the Hall, Trelawnyd, North Wales
17 – Moira Furnace Folk Festival (Russell solo)
17 – ‘A Day’s Work’ Moira Furnace Folk Festival
18 – Tonbridge Folk Club
19/20/21 – Whitby Folk Week
23/24 – Shrewsbury Folk Festival
28 – Black Swan Folk Club, York
06 – Ley Arms Folk Club
09 – St. Neots Folk Club
20 – Folk in the Lounge, Holland (Russell solo)
27/28 – Southdowns Folk Festival
03 – Derby Folk Festival
04 – London Folk Fayre