I thought I knew what to expect when Alex asked me to take a listen to Red Diesel. Sure, it has been quite a while since Pilgrims’ Way’s debut album, almost five years in fact. But Wayside Courtesies made such an impact, leading to the trio being nominated for 2012’s Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, that I was confident they would have abundant high quality material to continue in similar vein. I was only slightly right. Certainly, Red Diesel contains an excellent selection of traditional songs and tunes every bit as good as those on Wayside Courtesies. Equally, Lucy Wright’s arresting vocals and the extensive instrumental talents of Lucy, Tom Kitching and Edwin Beasant are, again, mightily impressive. But, enriching all of that, Red Diesel expands Pilgrims’ Way’s repertoire in a couple of unexpected directions and features arrangements with a depth and variety that reveal just how much the band has matured over the last five years.
One thing has very obviously changed; the trio are now a quartet. Jon Loomes has officially joined the band but this isn’t quite as major a change as one might think. Jon was closely associated with them at the time of Wayside Courtesies, guesting on hurdy gurdy and getting a production credit, albeit whilst hiding behind the nom de chat of Forbes Legato. Rather, it seems, Red Diesel is the product of a band each member of which has grown in confidence and stature and which, collectively, has taken giant steps along the road towards their declared aim, “to give English folk a new set of shoes and see where it runs”. On the way they’ve added some distinctly non-traditional elements to both repertoire and musical palette.
The album opens with a classic traditional song of Napoleonic times, The Rout of the Blues. The version here is based on one I first heard on Robin and Barry Dransfield’s 1970 album of the same title. I loved the song then and have sung it regularly ever since. So, for me, any new version will have to stand comparison with the Dransfield’s. Pilgrims’ Way have managed it. An underlying rhythm is set from the start with a staccato fiddle and a bass riff that continues throughout, the melody is introduced on a second fiddle and then Lucy’s voice takes over, high and light compared with the male voices more often associated with the song. I confess I was captivated from then on, impatient to hear more.
The next track is another well-known, English traditional song, here called Howden Town but often known as The White Hare, maybe of Howden, maybe not. Fast paced, as befits a hunting tale, the rhythm is again driven by the bass but also electric guitar and fiddle. Lucy takes the verses but all available voices come in to give the choruses real punch. As the track progresses we get a first taste of the distinctly non-traditional instruments that crop up throughout the album. In this case it’s Jon on Hammond organ first producing, in typical Hammond fashion, an ebb and flow of sound that underlies the rhythm but then takes centre stage with fills between verses, as the liner notes suggest, think English tradition infused with Booker T and the MGs.
The Playford tune, Mount Hills, is given a less adventurous treatment, fiddle and melodeon predominating but with mandolin and cello helping out initially. However, as the tune builds other bowed instruments join in before the track transitions into Ride in the Creel, the strings fading as the vocal is preceded by another simple but insistent bass rhythm. This rhythm is the backbone of an arrangement that builds progressively as the strings return in seemingly ever greater numbers, eventually being joined by a bass brass instrument of indeterminate genus. The band proudly state that between the four of them they play no less than 40 different instruments on the album. So, I don’t feel too inadequate confessing it would take a musical ear far more educated than mine to identify them all with confidence. It would also be rather missing the point to try, these multi-layered arrangements add massively to the appeal of the album but are surely best appreciated as a whole, the English folk equivalent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Of the remaining four traditional tracks, not all adopt the same style, Six Dukes, for example, features Lucy’s expertise on Jew’s harp with fiddle, banjo and percussion staying largely in the background until the final crescendo. But all seven traditional tracks reinforce the reputation that Pilgrims’ Way have been building since the band’s inception. A reputation for producing splendidly innovative yet sympathetic takes on familiar, traditional songs and tunes.
But what of the repertoire ‘extensions’ mentioned in the opening paragraph? Three contemporary songs make up the remainder of the album and each takes the band in a different direction. Possibly the most unexpected is Magic Christmas Tree, a reworking of the Incredible String Band’s Chinese White from the 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion album. Not many bands have chosen to cover ISB material, I guess the songs have generally been considered to be too much “of their time”. But Pilgrims’ Way seem to have seen through that. Sure, the lyrics are still irredeemably nonsensical but delivered with Lucy’s crystal clear voice and sense of timing a far more smoothly structured song emerges and is given a backing that emphasises the melody. But it is this backing that adds the requisite twists to raise the song well above the ordinary as the mix of instruments progresses from being predominantly strings to that of a brass band. Pilgrim’s Way wonder if this has made the song even weirder. With their treatments of Paul Simon’s The Boy in the Bubble and Les Barker’s Maybe Then I’ll Be A Rose the band has focussed less on the instrumentation and more on letting Lucy’s voice shine through in all its splendour. In both cases, songs that are already to be treasured have been given a thorough extra polish.
It’s been a long wait for a second full album from Pilgrims’ Way but with Red Diesel they have come up with a CD that puts them firmly back into the leading pack of young traditional musicians.
Tracks are in the Folk Radio UK playlist from today…So tune in!