It has been a remarkable four year rise to prominence for Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. In 2010 they were spotted by Steve Knightley, busking during festival week at Sidmouth and by February 2014 they were voted Best Duo at the BBC Folk Awards. During those four years they’ve released two studio albums and toured extensively, both in their own right and playing support for Show of Hands. It was no surprise, then, that Steve invited them to be part of this year’s Family Day at Abbotsbury. With their third album, Live in Calstock, about to be released, Folk Radio UK took the opportunity to catch their Abbotsbury performance, talk with them about the new album and hear what the future holds.
What, I wondered, had been the thinking behind the release of a live album? Two-fold according to Phil, there is material they regularly perform in their live set which they’ve not previously recorded and the arrangements of songs that have appeared on albums have matured over time. So, for both those reasons, it was a chance to preserve a little piece of the duo’s history. The album was recorded during a single performance at Calstock Arts Centre in May of this year, so it certainly provides an up to date snapshot of their live sound. And great quality live sound it is, for which credit must go to Colin Boyd who looked after sound on the night and their regular producer, Mark Tucker, who recorded, and subsequently mixed and mastered, the result.
The 13 tracks of the album in fact present 17 songs and tunes, highlighting a feature of Phil and Hannah’s live sets, running material together to create textured, evolving pieces. Elegy, Whitsun Dance and Banks of the Nile have appeared on previous recordings but here are combined giving 14 minutes of highly evocative interplay between voice, dobro and Phil’s Indian slide guitar, the chatturangui, with songs that date from both World War I and the Napoleonic wars. For the most part the versions of previously recorded material aren’t major re-workings but beautifully demonstrate how, for live performance, Phil and Hannah have been able to pare away the multi-tracking of the studio recordings whilst retaining the original atmosphere and impact of the arrangements. What is noticeable is the confidence which Hannah applies to her vocals; her trade mark slides and ornamentation are delivered with panache.
Among the tracks recorded for the first time are some I’m delighted to see included. Underground Railroad gives Phil a chance to show off his beat box harmonica prowess, generating the unmistakeable image of an America railroad. The Americana feel is reinforced with the traditional Roseville Fair given a beautifully lyrical treatment, allowing Phil to take the vocal lead for a change. A final mention must be for the pairing of Phil’s instrumental composition, Green Boots, with John Martyn’s I Don’t Wanna Know, the vocal delivered by Phil on melody and Hannah on harmony, dobro and fiddle providing the perfect accompaniment.
These comments on the album have drawn attention once more to the great range of influences that pervade Phil and Hannah’s music, traditional English, Indian, Americana, blues, gospel. Were they conscious, I wondered, of a balancing act when trying to incorporate such variety? Well certainly, they agreed, their aim was balance, they looked to blend in whatever felt appropriate to a song, firmly avoiding any sense that track 1 was trad., track 2 Indian and so on. They were also quick to point out that their music grows from a pot of shared influences and tastes; it would be a mistake to associate a specific genre with either one of them. One great advantage they see to this approach is they can put together sets to appeal to quite different audiences. The day before we talked they had played the Maverick Americana Festival; in August they’ll play Sidmouth Folk Week and they have the material to satisfy both.
It was clear they felt the duo configuration and the success it has generated was special and something very much to be protected. Nonetheless, they have used other musicians on their recordings, Matt Downer on bass and Robbie Burgess on drums and percussion played an important part in the recording of Mynd. Phil was in no doubt as to their value to the recording and so, yes, they would always be likely to seek out such musicians to provide a tight, reliable rhythm section. But, for live performance, the duo was the unit. That’s not to say they don’t occasionally muse on other possibilities, but always as a separate project, and, sat on the grass waiting to play a festival set, the idea of putting together a larger festival band seemed to have its attractions, but don’t hold your breath.
As for their next steps, they have numerous festival appearances coming up and, for some of them, they will be part of a “larger festival band”. Not one of their own making, though, it will be Steve Knightley’s Wake the Union Band. After that, they go international with a South African tour scheduled for September and other overseas visits likely to follow in 2015 along with a new studio album. For now though, they’ve given us the superb variety of music on Live in Calstock to enjoy.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Live In Calstock is Out Now, Order via Bandcamp: http://philliphenry.bandcamp.com/album/live-in-calstock
For their latest news and tour dates visit: http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk