Music, more often than not, is inextricably linked to particular geographic locations. Certain bands are said to have the Manchester sound, the New York sound, the West Coast sound. Even if an album has been conceived, written and recorded entirely within the apparent geographical vacuum of a studio, the studio itself becomes the location (to the extent that certain studios – Muscle Shoals, for instance – have acquired a musical reputation that almost transcends the town or city in which they are based). It is almost impossible to distance any kind of music from a corresponding physical space, and in the case of folk music the link between sound and place is often more than an implied or accidental one. This is partly a result of historical and social factors – many folk songs were written about actual events (historical, personal, sometimes imaginary) that occurred in a period when travel was more difficult, communications less advanced and local flavour more pronounced. A sense of place gave a real identity to these songs and as a result many hundreds of them have titles that refer to the names of towns, hills, woods and other features of the landscape.
For the most part, The Old Dance School perform songs of their own making rather than traditional material, but more than any other band I know have taken this site-specific approach to composition to extremes. On previous albums, many of their tracks have come with explanatory notes detailing, amongst other things, how certain places influenced the conception of those tracks. It turns out they are a well-travelled bunch, taking their influences from the Outer Hebrides, Exeter and pretty much everywhere in between. New release Steer in the Night is a live album, but rather than going down the more common route of documenting one particularly good show, they have cherry-picked songs from a host of previous live performance recordings captured on tour in autumn 2013 in Bristol, London and Birmingham. This approach fits in very nicely with their place-conscious method of songwriting. It also means that, instead of having a snapshot of a band at a particular time, we have a record of a journey that is both physical and musical.
So what of the music? Opener Blue Horse gives a good indication of the band’s sound. An instrumental led alternately by the violins of Helen Lancaster and Samantha Norman and the trumpet of Aaron Diaz, it has a distinct quiet-loud ebb and flow that owes as much to post-rock and film soundtracks as it does to traditional folk. The musicianship is spectacularly tight, almost like a fleshed-out version of Bristolian folk-minimalists Spiro, while the playful time signature hints at composer Jim Molyneux’s love of jazz.
Craigie Hill, on the other hand, focusses on the lyrics. It is the only traditional song on the album, but is well chosen for its subject matter of parting and travel and for its vivid descriptions of Ulster’s River Bann. The displacement evoked in the lyrics is reflected in the contrast between the Celtic sound of flutes and the New World jazz implied by the trumpet. Slightly closer to home is instrumental The Enlli Light, a blustery acoustic guitar, fiddle and woodwind-driven account of a night spent on a squally sea by a mystical Welsh island.
Beatty’s songwriting reaches an impressive peek on Sula Sgier, named after the tiny Atlantic island forty miles north of Lewis famed for its gannet population and for the tradition of the annual guga hunt in which up to two thousand young gannets are taken for the table. The song pits the ambiguities of multinational ecological development against difficulties of maintaining an ultra-traditional way of life, takes the form of a father-son discourse. As social history and social comment it is pertinent; as a very human story of generational differences and similarities it is deeply moving, and made all the more so by the fact that Beatty’s own father was the first ‘outsider’ to be allowed to accompany the hunt. This is a very obvious example of a song being inseparable from a place – this kind of hunt only happens in one place on the entire planet – and also of the importance of song as oral history.
From The Air uses a different tactic. Another instrumental, it takes as its subject a flight between Exeter and Glasgow and is an attempt to convey musically the infinite intricacies of natural landscapes seen from an aeroplane window, succeeding beautifully with repeated, accelerating violin phrases. The flip side of this is Helen Lancaster’s reflective Silver Tide, which uses a slow, shifting viola melody to convey the tranquil magic of luminescent seawater, while The Taxidermist wordlessly brings a stuffed hare leaping back to life.
Although the musical forms of the past – from traditional narrative song structures to seventies folk-rock inspired percussion – are apparent all over this record, there is also a distinctly modern feeling to it. The Real Thing, with its sweet vocal harmonies, tells a tale that is at once current and timeless, and combines a reference to silver nitrate and a nod to high wire performer Charles Blondin. The blend of musical influences reflects this blend of old and new. The North Edge, for example, marries a soulful, modern jazz-influenced trumpet intro to Laura Carter’s traditional-sounding woodwind and a song that compares favourably with Richard Thompson at his most acoustic and unhurried.
We are also treated to an interesting arrangement of Sydney Carter’s modern hymn to the Peasants’ Revolt, John Ball, the sustained, complex fiddle of Wen and the gorgeous instrumental Swifts and Martins, a lively meditation on migration and departure. This last track perfectly sums up what The Old Dance School do so well: they recognise that folk music is both transient and permanent. Permanent in that it often contains universal ideas and themes (in this case themes of place and belonging), and transient in the way that its style is constantly evolving, as all music evolves. The Old Dance School are willing to evolve with it. What sets them apart from other folk bands is their eagerness to embrace the new. In a live setting this makes for songs that are conceptually fascinating, and thrilling in their performance.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Steer in the Night: Live is out now on Transition.
Order via The Old Dance School Shop
Sep 26 The Forge, LONDON,
Sep 28 New Mills Town Hall, HIGH PEAK,
Oct 04 The Greystones, SHEFFIELD,
Oct 16 Craigdarroch Arms, MONIAIVE,
Oct 17 Woodend Barn, BANCHORY,
Oct 18 The Met, BURY,
Oct 19 Mint Lounge, MANCHESTER,
Oct 22 The Musician, LEICESTER,
Oct 23 Theatre Severn, SHREWSBURY,
Oct 24 The David Hall, SOUTH PETHERTON,
Oct 25 Exeter Phoenix EXETER,
Oct 26 Perthshire Amber Festival, DUNKELD,
Oct 29 The Red Lion Kings Heath, BIRMINGHAM,
Oct 30 The Mill, BANBURY,
Nov 01 Courtyard Theatre, HEREFORD,
Nov 02 Artrix BROMSGROVE,,
Nov 04 Anchor Folk Club, SOUTHEND-ON-SEA,
Nov 05 Chapel Arts Centre, BATH,
Nov 07 Subscription Rooms, STROUD,
Nov 09 The Wharf, TAVISTOCK,
Nov 14 Folk House, BRISTOL,
Ticket Links and more details: http://theolddanceschool.com/