Few people have made a boon of the banjo’s tone and timbre as Dan Walsh does on the superb Incidents & Accidents. Perhaps it’s the route that he’s taken which has particularly shaped his music. Dan was originally inspired by a love of traditional Irish and Scottish jigs and reels, but like all banjo players his gaze has also been drawn across the Atlantic and a love of bluegrass and mountain music has been tempered with a healthy regard for both blues and jazz, playing the latter in an orchestra while still at university. In that style at least, he’s getting into the territory of Béla Fleck. But then there are the real surprises, the excursions into dub reggae, or the even more exotic hints of Arabia and Egypt colouring his melodies and you can now add to that a self professed love of Ragas and Indian classical music that make themselves obvious here. For Dan no musical genre is out of bounds and if it can be played, it will. He’s a stylist sui generis.
It’s fair to say Dan has made a considerable impact n the UK music scene since he first emerged around 2009 with a debut album, Tomorrow’s Still To Come, that caught many by surprise. He then became part of the successful and acclaimed Walsh & Pound with harmonica virtuoso Will Pound. Their eponymous, debut album, brought them under the auspices of Mark Hutchinson, the former Rainbow Chaser, and Rooksmere studio has become the creative laboratory for cooking up Dan’s strange brew, a potent mix of all of the above with a healthy dose of very good, original songwriting to spike the mix.
Of course a man of such talents has been in demand and he’s played live and on record with Seth Lakeman and The Levellers, while beyond Walsh & Pound, his latest collaboration is with the unique and hugely exciting Urban Folk Quartet. There are other collaborations and tours that have seen him play around the world, but three recent ventures serve to underline the variety of styles that fall within his compass, touring with concertina legend Alistair Anderson, Indian sarangi maestro Suhail Yusuf Khan and Canadian country singer Meaghan Blanchard. Of course such wild free range will not endear him to everyone, some people want to impose their own strictures, but for anyone with a keen ear and an open mind, Incidents & Accidents is all the proof you’ll need of the merits of Dan’s approach.
Several of the elements described above make a direct impact on Incidents & Accidents, and the album starts with Time To Stay, a typically strong bit of songwriting that also shows Dan’s clawhammer technique to stunning effect. It also sets the stripped back tone for the album, this is mostly just Dan, his banjo and voice. The guest appearances this time round are kept to a minimum, although Patsy Reid’s fiddle, Nic Zuppardi’s mandolin and Mark Hutchinson adding percussion and vocals all make a telling contribution. So too does Meaghan Blanchard, who adds backing vocals and also shares a songwriting credit, cementing one of those connections.
For this opener Dan sings a blues song written about leaving Newcastle where he lived for some time. The lure of his home town of Stafford (and the local pub) has won out, although the leaving is tinged with regret as he sings, “I look back over my shoulder as I close the door, This place has been a home to me a part of my very core, I still love this City, And I’ll still come back for more.” There’s the subtle use of backing vocals to accent the chorus as the song builds in intensity, but the song really works because of the intensity of the banjo and the gritty conviction in Dan’s voice.
Songs dominate the album, but the second cut is a tune called Lost Rambler, one of a couple of tracks that draw directly on mountain music roots, with a minor tuning, the other being the song With A Memory Like Mine. The former is a typically fluid piece of playing, while the latter uses the dark minor tones to tell the heart rending tale of the loss of a son to war. The details of the grey skies at the burial add to the sense of despair and is a typically potent song written by Darrell Scott and his late father.
The two sandwich another anti-war song, The Hermit Of Gully Hollow, which knits together several of those connective threads, being a story Dan learnt about while touring Canada, set to a traditional Finnish tune taught to him by Suhail Yusuf Khan. As the sleeve notes suggest, it’s a truly international effort, with a delightful melody that benefits from Patsy Reid’s fiddle and some harmony singing to lift the chorus. It tells the extraordinary story of Willard Kitchener MacDonald, a pacifist, who jumped from a troop train in the US and fled across the border to Nova Scotia, where he lived alone in a tiny hut for 60 years.
The instrumentals all differ, but each is a delightful mix of technique and tunefulness. Wobbly Trolley has a playful syncopation and woozy funkiness, which Dan put’s down to, “Having had a few. Once more the fiddle works in tandem with Dan’s banjo to put the world in a spin, stretching time signatures and cutting across the bright tune with a lurching effect and the suggestion that one of the wheels is about to fall off. Whiplash Reel displays a very obvious Indian influence and some particularly fiery playing with shifting rhythm and tempo that sounds absolutely authentic. It’s a stunning piece.
Those two sandwich another diversion as Dan picks up the guitar, demonstrating he has absolute command of that instrument too, for the moving story of old singing and acting star Glen Mason, who he and Nic Zuppardi encountered in a nursing home in Surrey. They played as part of the Live Music Now scheme for the residents, amongst whom was the former actor and singer Glen. Although much diminished by dementia, Dan and Nic were able to learn a couple of songs from his repertoire and get him singing along. But here the story reflects the confusion as well as the joys of the day, as Dan reflects on the fact that Glen has only fleeting grasp of where he was, who he’s with or why with lines like, “I don’t know when I got here, It may have been a week ago or it may have been some years, sometimes there’s laughter and sometimes a tear, But the song always stays.”
Dan’s own confusion comes out in Only Way To Go as he wrestles with doubts about his chosen life as a musician. He confesses the song relates to leaner times with his mother’s words reverberating in the chorus. The song is a co-write with Meaghan and also features her harmony. Leaner times, or at least the plight of the homeless, the haves and the have-nots also inspired The Missing Light. Again the song comes out of playing gigs in unusual places for good causes, this time a homeless shelter in London.
The Tune Set is a simple title, but the most complex of the instrumental passages, compiling three segments that are firstly inspired by Scottish and Irish airs, with the second section composed on Barra, although only in Dan’s mind as he gave himself a holiday break from his instrument. The final part is homage to good times and the good people of New Zealand, a country Dan has visited on tour. The final track is another moving song and another inspired away from home as Dan recalls being with his mother and being moved to tears by a tombstone in Ireland, by the inscription, “Our child dancing in the wind.” It’s an emotive final piece as Dan gets inside the heartbreak of losing a child and the life unlived.
It’s powerful stuff and in keeping with the other compositions here, a sign of a songwriter who is growing in stature to match his obvious instrumental talent. Despite its comparatively sparse arrangements, Incidents & Accidents is wholly satisfying as a result, a perfect blend of great playing, so finely realised it is at times simply breathtaking, with a gift for telling a story that gets straight to the narrative heartbeat, making for an exceptional record all round.
Review by: Simon Holland
Incidents & Accidents Tour Dates
11/03 – Housmans, Church Stretton
13/03 – Woodman Folk Club, Kingswinsford, West Midlands
14/03 – Great Broughton Village Hall, North Yorkshire (with Alistair Anderson)
17/03 – Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford
18/03 – Llantrisant Folk Club, Wales
19/03 – Ritz Acoustic Club, Burnham on Sea (with Christi Andropolis)
20/03 – Anvil Theatre, Basingstoke
21/03 – Melting Pot, Redruth
25/03 – Faversham Folk Club
27/03 – Hales Club, Market Drayton
28/03 – Falcon Hotel, Bromyard
31/03 – Hoy At Anchor Folk Club, Westcliff-on-Sea
03/04 – Brewtown Folk Club, Burton-on-Trent
04/04 – Maddemarket Theatre, Norwich
07/04 – Green Note, London
11/04 – Kingsdown Wine Vaults, Bristol
12/04 – Nailsea Folk Club, Somerset
15/04 – Byre Theatre, St Andrews
16/04 – University Kings Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1pm)
18/04 – St Boswells Live,Scotland