Steve Ashley should need no introduction to Folk Radio readers. Forty years after Stroll On, a debut album that some consider the equal of Liege and Lief, this song writer and interpreter of the English tradition has worked with and alongside some of the genre’s greats and over a career peppered with highlights, This Little Game may just be one of his best.
It starts with a trilogy of songs whose subject-matter yearns for a return to a more simple time, that acknowledge the need for friendship and love above all else. Here’s To All The Babies, tongue ever-so slightly in cheek, is an opening shot at inclusiveness, a global journey through race and class by way of all our children. Playground Days mourns the loss of innocence and will register with listeners of a certain age. Finally, People In Love celebrates marriage. The music for all three, like their messages, strips away anything superfluous for clean guitar melodies that carry Ashley’s sober vocals. All are warm, welcoming and beautifully rendered.
The first real standout, however, is That’s Why, an overtly political song railing against the futility of modern war and dissembling politicians. Cradled in a lovely finger-picked melody, it pulls no punches and is worthy of wider circulation –
‘There was a demo for Iraq / Two million people came / And we said if you attacked / It would not be in our name / But you went in all the same / Like you really couldn’t care / And left a million dead / On the lies of Bush and Blair’.
Other songs provide a vehicle for Ashley’s take on religious tolerance, Time To Heal, and the life of the travelling singer, Be True To You. Social commentary sits alongside tales of love and loss, none more harrowing and vital than The Last Deeds Of Love, a desperately sad treatise on the end of a partnership. All the small things we take for granted when we’re together are magnified, raised like welts in the words –
‘When the clothes are gone from the home / With the toothbrush and the comb / When the shoes no longer to roam / Have all been thrown / The grief and sorrow remain in every wall / and they’ll be there when tomorrow comes to call’.
If you can make it past that song, Ashley returns to the theme of the album’s openers. In Your Heart is reminiscent of Tracy Chapman’s All That You Have Is Your Soul, a gently declamatory request to look inward for understanding, and All Will Be Clear completes the chronological cycle started in Here’s To All The Babies, winding down our lives with a barely perceptible sigh but a clear conscience. To say the album is accomplished would belittle the talent on show and the consistency of Ashley’s output over five decades. Ten albums in, songs of this quality do nothing more than prove all the plaudits.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
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