Magnetic North East CIC is a community interest company promoting the music, arts, culture and heritage of the North East of England. Water of Tyne is its first CD release, and boldly sets out its stall by bringing together, under the curatorship of one of the region’s key musical ambassadors (Northumbrian piper, fiddler and singer Kathryn Tickell), 17 of the region’s finest musicians and singers, to perform a collection of tunes and songs inspired by the mighty River Tyne. Those involved include Kathryn’s trio The Side (Louisa Tuck, Amy Thatcher and Ruth Wall), master guitarist Ian Stephenson, melodeon player Julian Sutton and the young ensemble Superfolkus, with additional cameo roles including The Unthanks, Hannah Rickard, Bob Fox and Mike Tickell.
The 13-track collection begins in the only possible (indeed, both logical and rightful!) place – with the archetypal ballad that’s almost certainly the North East’s best-loved folk song (as well as the album’s theme, of course); The Water Of Tyne is here given a beautifully honest and direct vocal reading by Hannah Rickard, a talented young singer who’s been an important part of Kathryn’s Northumbrian Voices project (read Kathryn’s Folk Radio UK interview on the project here). Following the time-honoured tradition of classic LPs (ha!), the album’s penultimate track is an exquisite instrumental reprise of the song, fulsomely scored and led by Kathryn’s magisterial Northumbrian pipes.
Songs comprise just under half of the tracklist, and each one is a standout rendition. Bob Fox’s (interviewed here) account of Jimmy Nail’s unashamedly nostalgic Big River (voted overwhelmingly by readers of The Journal as their favourite north-east song!) has claim to be the finest of the many recorded versions (it’s also superbly sympathetically accompanied by Kathryn’s Northumbrian pipes). The album finale, Coaly Tyne, benefits from the solid, gritty and characterful voice of Kathryn’s dad Mike, himself one of the region’s outstanding traditional singers. Earlier in the disc, Mike speaks the words of Bede’s Sparrow, a brief snippet from the writings of the Anglo-Saxon historian adapted for performance in Michael Chaplin’s play Tyne. That same dramatic work also provides another of the disc’s highlights, Song For A River At Night, which proves a real discovery. This moody, uncharacteristically jazzy number was composed by Kathryn to reflect and develop metaphysical thoughts (based on an Alan Plater dramatisation of a short story by Michael’s father Sid) arising out of “here I sit with a tear in my eye”, which but for one word-change comes straight out of the lyric of The Water Of Tyne.
The tracklist is deceptive, for the well-known titles therein conceal inventive and ingenious reworkings using less-often-heard tunes or fascinatingly different lyrics. Dance (To Your Daddy) is particularly interesting, being a collaboration between Superfolkus’ singer-songwriter Eve Simpson and Kathryn herself that compiles lyrics from a number of different variants of the well-known traditional song with lines from a song that Eve herself wrote borrowing traditional lines. Confusing though that sounds, the result is thoroughly natural. The traditional anti-press-gang song Canny Keel Lad, sung here by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, uses the singularly appropriate new melody composed by Kathryn.
The disc’s instrumental tracks prove more than mere interludes – although three of them are subtitled thus, and take the form of intriguing semi-improvised pieces based on the melodies of Tyneside songs. There’s also Between The Piers, a delightful lilting tone-painting, and, best of all, Agustín Fernández’s singularly beautiful cello-and-harp duet Aqua Tinae that paraphrases and develops elements of the actual Water Of Tyne melody.
The prevailing mood of the collection is laid-back and reflective, with unstated emphasis on the (perhaps unexpected) lyrical beauty of the River Tyne; that’s not to say that the occasional more rumbustious Geordie ditty might not have been entirely out of place here, but the disc is a truly lovely collection just as it stands, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Also, it ought to do much to boost the image of the region and its heritage – and let’s face it, if it inspires folks to visit the many and varied delights of the region then it can’t be a bad thing at all.
Another selling point is that even those folk music enthusiasts who have more than a passing knowledge of Tyneside music and traditions, who will doubtless already own recordings of at least one or two of the disc’s items, will find this new disc a rewarding and stimulating sequence in its own right, and definitely a worthwhile addition to their library shelves.
Kathryn Tickell & Friends: Water of the Tyne is released 28 October 2016
Grand Launch Concert (with special guests) Fri 4 Nov, 2016. 7.30pm at Sage Gateshead (Tickets)
Photo Credit: Tony McAnaney