Unexpected delights lie behind that title. Very much in the mould of the hugely successful Darwin Project, and Cecil Sharp Project; The English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Folk By the Oak Festival at Hatfield House (childhood home of Elizabeth I), hit upon the idea of hiding a group of eight performers away for a week at the historic location and leaving them to create some music and songs based on Elizabethan themes. We first reported on the project in December last year and the live sessions were performed at Hatfield House and Cecil Sharp House back in March. Following an enthusiastic reception in the music press, the CD is on general release from this week.
With multi-instrumentalist and medieval/baroque specialist Emily Askew as part of the gathering, we’re assured a sound that authentically echoes the Elizabethan era. Nancy Kerr’s staunch work as part of The Full English makes her a shoe-in for this project; and who better than Martin Simpson to bring a guitar to a collaboration that celebrates a period when music moved from sacred and vocal, to secular and instrumental? Bella Hardy brings her considerable vocal and writing talent, her mix of traditional and contemporary influences ensuring an approach that reaches across centuries to take hold of the modern consciousness; and Jim Moray’s peerless song writing and arranging skills bring drama and excitement.
Scottish harpist Rachel Newton, having recently released her second (and immensely impressive) solo album, brings her haunting voice and innovative instrumental skills. Devon slide guitar maestro John Smith adds a flavour of the colonies and the rich warmth of his voice, and the wonderful Hannah James brings accordion, vocals and, of course, clogs to the mix.
As the album opens Rachel Newton’s is the first voice we hear… or rather that of her harp. Its augmented bass rhythms set the pulse racing as Nancy Kerr’s dramatic vocal offers a compelling start in The Shores of Hispaniola. This strident anti-slavery song lays a curse at the feet of the slavers as the instruments build in layers to a stormy crescendo before disappearing into a darkened night. The life of a common land labourer was little better than that of a slave, and John Smith’s London gives voice to one man’s dream of a better life. Vocal and slide guitar both bring an air of the New world, while a rich, droning viola provides a contrast to the pace.
Martin Simpson’s voice was made for ballads; and in Christopher Marlowe his vocal compels you to listen, making you thirst for in every word. The eponymous Marlowe was one of the period’s greatest writers, and one of its most infamous bad boys. There’s even more power, and darker yet, when Martin and John collaborate on Elizabeth Spells Death. The song shows Elizabeth on the brink of madness as she tries to come to terms with the signing of Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant…
Those who bring this warrant here for me to sign
I would tear out their scheming tongues
I would strike them blind
Bella Hardy’s tribute to Shakespeare’s Hermia, Love In Idleness, could easily slip into the pages of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With intricate guitar work and a dreamy, hypnotic vocal…
Where his serpent’s tongue beguiling
in whispers spoke me fair
Now from dulcet dreaming here sounds discord and despair
Soft love turned black adamant while the nightingale did sing
And his words were naught but moonshine
in this middle summer’s spring
Rachel Newton’s electric harp makes a second appearance in the track that seems to take all the elements that make this such a memorable and wonderful album – and then push that little bit further. Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women / Gather the Owls is delivered with a three part harmony that, rather than being close, covers a wide sound spectrum to great effect. With the electric guitar blending in it’s reminiscent of Fairport Convention. The trio of Newton/Askew/James took the work of one of the first female poets to be published, Amelia Lanyer, for this song; and the closing instrumental takes on an enlivening, European feel. Broadside does even more to illustrate the power collaboration can wield. With intricate guitars from Smith & Simpson bringing a hint of desert blues and a song from Nancy Kerr that champions gender equality on the high seas.
There’s so much more to enthuse about on this album and far too little space to do it justice – Jim Moray delivers a beautiful and gentle ode to John Dee, an imaginative and impassioned scientist of the time, in The Straight Line and the Curve; In True Lover’s Knot Untied / The Great Hall Hannah James and Emily Askew bring a strong medieval flavour to a Derbyshire ballad and Askew’s The Monnington Pavane / Ortiz Ground seems to provide, more than any other track, a real sense of the Elizabethan; and there’s ingenious imagery in Nancy Kerr’s The Oak Casts His Shadow.
So – no galliards (well, barely a hint anyway), no merrie England, no ennoblement of Old England’s adventures on the high seas. The Elizabethan Session brings to life the history, the culture, the cruelty of medieval England as vividly as any history book; and far more authentically than any Hollywood movie. It’s a unique collaboration that’s brought voices from the past in to the mouths of the present. It sings the dreams, and nightmares, of paupers and princesses alike and encourages a new view, of an old story.
And I pray that the poor and the lowly of glorious England
Your Turks and your vagabonds.
Gypsies and masterless men
Will tear down the walls and the castles of fair Gloriana
That are built from the bones of the slaves of Hispaniola
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Elizabethan Session is out now. Order via: Amazon