The Jaywalkers made the final cut of the BBC Young Folk Award in 2008, playing a virtuosic and entertaining style of music that marries the band’s main influences of folk, bluegrass, country and western swing. Whilst the finalist recognition did them no harm, they had already made a head start by establishing themselves as one of the very best young bands working on the British Folk scene. Their blend of astonishing instrumental skills, three part harmony and impressive slap bass giving a strong rhythmic pulse was always a winning combination, setting the live circuit ablaze, but also confirmed over the course of two very well received and entirely home made CDs. Now with the third album, Weave, the stakes have been raised, with a deserved Emerging Excellence Award from Help Musicians UK enabling The Jaywalkers to work with producer Andy Bell. The results are superb and the CD easily lives up to the award’s tag and with nine new originals amongst the 11 tracks, confirms a creative surge, which Andy has brilliantly captured in the studio.
As much as anything though, it’s the original songwriting that sets them apart and in this, the main contributor Mike Giverin taps into his Rochdale roots and casts his natural storytellers vision across the post industrial revolution landscape and society of Lancashire. With the majority of the new songs coming from his pen and accounting for all but two tracks here, Mike’s tales champion the honest folk, the working classes, and in the best of folk traditions give a voice to the underdog and those often downtrodden and rarely getting their due. Whether it be the grit of mill town’s folk, the coming of technology at the expense of jobs, the fight for fair pay or the simple tale of true love and music making being at odds, there are characters and morality tales here, brought vividly to life.
Mike started out playing brass as a junior member of the Whitworth Vale and Healey Brass Band between the ages of eight and 13, until the strictures of the arrangements started to cause more frustration than enjoyment. Aged 14, however, he describes being dragged to a Nickel Creek gig, which despite his apparent reluctance proved transformative. It was seeing mandolin maestro Chris Thile in full flow that suggested an alternative musical course and that has been his musical calling every since.
Fiddler Jay Bradbury also made an early musical start, literally growing up surrounded by instruments. She first took to the stage with her dad and uncle at the tender age of four. It was four years late, however, that the fiddle became her focus and ever since she’s been exploring the full range of its potential, through sessions, depping with other bands and just learning from people who play in different styles at every chance. A bit like Mike, it was Alison Krauss who provided a special calling, although her appetite saw her taking onboard the more progressive style of Casey Driessen, while also noting other alumni of the Berkeley College, American Music course that was his grounding.
Lucille Williams, who adds the bottom end and rhythmic foundation with her upright bass, calls her hometown of Helsby, as a hotbed of bluegrass. That’s probably in large part due to the regular sessions that take place every Thursday, with all comers invited. The sessions are also tied to the Sore Fingers summer school and to Lucille’s brother Stu, who has actually tutored both Mike and Jay, although with all of them having already met on the bluegrass session and festival circuit it seemed almost inevitable that these three fine musicians would eventually join forces.
With Andy Bell at the controls Weave is a real feast of music and has a great balance between space and intensity. Jay takes the lead vocals, ably supported by some lush harmonies and fiery interplay between her fiddle and Mike’s mandolin, while the bass slaps, twangs and thrums to keep things motoring. Both Mike and Jay also play guitar and there’s some really tasty playing almost casually overdubbed into the mix.
Bow Down is a case in point with some really slick picking, but the song has all of the signature elements and a real playfulness in its strutting bass, accentuated by the sly little riffs, casting the odd, rhythm-shifting, classical motif into the pot, which bubbles vigorously on a Gypsy-jazz campfire. The message may be, “Now this ain’t no life for living and this ain’t no life of mine, Now the working bell is tolling and it’s time to hold the line,” and all about hard times, but it’s a riot of skillfull playing and an absolute joy to listen to.
There’s no let up either, with The Mountain Chicken, actually a frog, which explains the rather strange cover illustration, simply picking up the pace. As with nearly all of the instrumental sections, the way the fiddle and mandolin mesh and dart in and around each other’s lines is absolutely stunning, in fact at times it’s jaw dropping, but equally joyous and the merry dance of this track gives an extra meaning to the albums title as the instruments criss-cross to creating brighter and bolder patterns.
Much of the emphasis is on keeping the tempo high, but the title track, which slows the pace is lovely piece that explores the way that one generation would follow another into work and in most cases be glad to do so. There’s an extra note of pathos with the octave fiddle deployed to melancholy resignment. Big Scotia, however, gets us back into upbeat mode and is one of two traditional tunes on offer. The Jaywlkers have apparently been playing it for some time without realising that there were lyrics for it, until a recent visit from American friends, The Stray Birds filled in the blanks. So, naturally enough, the song features here. It’s a cracker too with a great lift on the choruses as the harmonies hit their mark and some utterly astonishing instrumental fills throughout.
Millstone which follows is a co-write credited to Mike and Jay, with the latter setting the song in motion with a killer fiddle riff. The song is based on a true story, although given a twist, with a humble mill girl inheriting great wealth only to find a life of privilege rather empty. It’s a passionate funky piece, with the fiddle adding a percussive tone to the verses and once more, some great harmonies and instrumental links, with more of that casually excellent guitar playing at the edge of the song.
There are three songs based on a book of Lancashire dialect poems that Mike discovered. The first is the story of fiddler Jack, who is faced with an ultimatum from his wife to sell his instrument as she needs new clothes. He seems less than impressed by the idea. The track opens with Jacks Lament, a tune that captures his forlorn mood, while the song itself gives voice to the joy that the instrument can obviously bring. Oh the dilemma… Wife – fiddle, fiddle – wife? The other two Age Of Steam and Slave For The People deal again with the harshness of industry, the relentless march of ‘progress’, regardless of the human cost on one hand and the struggle to get fairly rewarded for an honest day’s toil on the other. Slipped into the midst of these is the rather lovely It’s Been A Long Day, with it’s odd foray into minor key licks and tales of hardship out in the fields, tempered by the warmth of love and welcome to be found at homecoming.
That sequence then brings us to anther showcase instrumental Chased, written about being chased by sheep! It seems Jack was out twitching and wandered into a field where the sheep, thinking him part of the farm staff, mobbed him in search of food. More seriously though, he’s also explained that the tune arrived as a complete vision, with the full arrangement forming over the first few notes. By Mike’s own assessment this can be a dangerous thing, hard to make happen as the results can often disappoint. It seems however that The Jaywalkers are well enough drilled to put in the hours to deliver the piece as imagined and given its complexity, starting with an absolute flurry of notes and never letting the sparkling tune slip for an instant, there must be some hours invested in this, but it’s an absolute stunner. The ending sounds nigh on impossible!!
Finally Moonshiner, returns us to the tradition and slows things down, but with a neat change of rhythm and pace. While the tune here has a Scottish or Irish lilt, the origins of the song are probably American, although typically with the tradition, numerous versions and claims for its provenance exist. The sentiment remains the same, however, the joys and sorrows of the demon drink.
Weave is a wonderful record and as described above The Jaywalkers obviously live up to their Emerging Excellence Award, as so much of this sounds so natural and effortless, although you know that they’ve put in the hours and hours of practice and rehearsal to make it seem that way. The playing, at times, ranges off the scale with endless melodic invention of the type that had me grinning from ear to ear. Their unique sound, based on collective and individual musical backgrounds, mixes their love for progressive American bluegrass forms with a Lancashire hotpot of working life and social injustice putting them in a field of their own. Just drive a few sheep in through the gate and we might get a couple more brilliant tunes out of the mix up!!
Review by: Simon Holland
Weave is out 27 April 2015 via RootBeat Records
Pre-Order it here
They are also about to embark on a tour of Ireland followed by more dates across the UK. Click here for details.