This is quite some tribute album! It celebrates the centenary year of the birth of the iconic folk singer, songwriter and activist Ewan MacColl (née James Henry Miller), and features sensitive, thoughtful and considered new interpretations of a number of MacColl’s original compositions, here spread across two CDs.
The roll-call of performers may seem like a veritable who’s-who of the folk music scene, but they’re also something of a tip of that particular iceberg for sure (albeit even less so than the proportion represented by this selection of just 21 examples from amongst the enormous catalogue of MacColl’s songs!).
Whatever its inevitable omissions – both in terms of potential performers and potential song-inclusions – this set does still go a long way to demonstrate the enduring power and relevance of MacColl’s immense legacy, providing evidence of his continuing “presence” and his great influence. This influence is not to be underestimated – on the folk revival, folk songwriting, performing standards and modes among much else… both onward, down through the generations (directly, in the case of two of MacColl’s grandchildren, Neill and Calum) and through the eager participation in this set’s recordings of so many of today’s greatest folk performer-interpreters, spanning musical genres and styles (as indeed does MacColl’s own songwriting, so much of which remains very much relevant today, even notwithstanding its frequently highly specific historical topicality or temporal frames of reference). And as one might well envisage, the set is bound to contain both artistic successes and honourable (comparative) failures and have its share of less fathomable curios. Yet here, even the latter are entirely forgivable in context.
A good number of the artists involved possess a ready and natural identity with the songs they’ve chosen to perform; in this category we find for starters the various members of the Waterson: Carthy clan – Eliza (Thirty Foot Trailer), Martin (I’m Champion At Keeping ’Em Rolling), Norma (The Moving-On Song) and Marry (sounding uncannily like Lal on The Exile Song). But there’s plenty more outstanding contributions. Karine Polwart delivers a truly standout interpretation of The Terror Time that alone is arguably worth the price of the entire set. The Unthanks give us a gently intimate take on Cannily Cannily; Seth Lakeman a bold, spirited Shoals Of Herring; Paul Brady a lyrical Freeborn Man; Martin Simpson brings an acute empathy to The Father’s Song; and Rufus & Martha Wainwright team up for an appealingly delicate duet on Sweet Thames, Flow Softly. Others acquitting themselves characteristically well include Billy Bragg (Kilroy Was Here), Christy Moore (The Compañeros), Kathryn Williams (the surprisingly little-heard Alone, written for On The Edge), and Chaim Tannenbaum (My Old Man), and Dick Gaughan revisits Jamie Foyers with feeling (he’d previously covered the song on his Songs Of Ewan MacColl tribute album in company with Dave Burland back in the late-70s).
Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan both surprises and pleases with a deceptively understated take on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Jack Steadman’s tremulous delivery of the markedly less familiar early-60s opus The Young Birds (featured as a Song of the Day) brings a real sense of atmosphere to this eerie remembrance. Damien Dempsey’s version of Schooldays Over coasts along jauntily rather in the rolling singalong manner that folk singers have customarily bestowed on Dirty Old Town, while that latter classic is given to Steve Earle, who seems to be trying to outdo the rough-house Pogues/Dubliners at their own game. I’m not at all sure about Jarvis Cocker’s decidedly strange, half-whispered reading of The Battle Is Done With (from the Radio Ballad The Fight Game). And finally: personally I’m not entirely comfortable with David Gray’s portrayal of The Joy Of Living, although I can appreciate that other listeners may well find the fragile, cracked quality in his singing voice more attractive – and then again, that particular song is so intense a creation that any artistic response to its chokingly emotional lyric is bound to be at variance with many an individual listener’s own response – in which respect, the song just has to be included in any tribute collection for its iconic status alone.
MacColl clearly remains a key inspiration to folk performers of all levels of expertise from the grass-roots amateur to the top-bracket professional musician, and this well-appointed tribute collection will go some way towards ensuring that this inspiration will continue to permeate through the scene for some time to come (well, who can forecast eternity?).
Review by: David Kidman
Tour – Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl
In early November Eliza and Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson will join Peggy Seeger and Neill and Calum MacColl, along with other guest artists (to be announced shortly), for a few special concerts celebrating the songs of Ewan MacColl, marking 100 years since his birth.
3rd Nov – Liverpool Philharmonic
4th Nov – Salford Lowry Theatre
5th Nov – Gateshead Sage
9th Nov – London Barbican
Other special guest artists will be announced shortly. Click here for more details.
Out Now on Cooking Vinyl
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