Stick in the Wheel’s ‘From Here: English Folk Field Recordings’ is such a simple idea you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. Draw up a list of some of the best recording artists on the English folk music circuit, suggest a pertinent theme, have them each record, in various non-studio settings, a song that relates – literally or obliquely – to that theme, and package it all as a kind of geo-historical document/contemporary art work. That is exactly what Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter – both members of anarchic London folk combo Stick In The Wheel – have attempted, and the results are as diverse and as invigorating as you could hope for.
Stick In The Wheel’s own sound is one bound inexorably to their home city, so it is no surprise to learn that the theme they have chosen – ‘From Here: English Folk Field Recordings’ – covers the ideas of belonging, of home, of communal living, and of a sense of place. What really marks this collection out is the breadth of interpretation shown by the motley collection of collaborators. First up is a sprightly rendition of the Bedfordshire May Carol by Jack Sharp (day job: frontman for folky psych-rockers Wolf People). Sharp takes the challenge laid down by the album’s title at face value: the Carol originated just a few miles from his hometown. His version pays homage to Shirley Collins, but the confident guitar playing is all his own.
Carter and Kearey have attracted some of the biggest names on the folk scene: Eliza Carthy indulges her love for the footnotes of history by contributing a striking arrangement of the broadside ballad The Sea. It is typically rousing, but also as delicate as lace. Free reed supremo John Kirkpatrick gives a melodeon masterclass on the relatively well-known Here’s Adieu To Old England, in which longing and belonging are entwined, and we are also treated to a Young Collins/Getting Up Stairs, a pair of Morris Tunes by Rob Harbron, on of our finest concertina players.
Bella Hardy, owner of one of the clearest, most brilliant voices in modern folk, gives us nineteenth century Peak District song The Ballad Of Hugh Stenson, its abrasive violin scrape the perfect foil for the crystalline vocal notes. And the godfather of the English folk revival, Martin Carthy, revisits The Bedmaking, a song collected from Dorset singer Marina Russell that he first performed in the 1970s. The years have dimmed neither his exuberance nor his skill as a singer and a guitarist.
Bellowhead stalwart Jon Boden serves up the patriotic drinking song Fathom The Bowl. Lisa Knapp’s Lavender Song is little more than an adapted flower-seller’s cry, but its two brief minutes contain some of the most emotive and expressive singing you are likely to hear all year. Bristolian instrumentalists Spiro take a purely creative stab at the album’s remit: Lost In Fishponds is a composition of their own, and a stirring, sparkling one at that. Other artists take the opposite route: Sam Lee’s slowed-down, unaccompanied version of The Wild Rover is the perfect vehicle for his warm voice, and he manages to render the song both familiar and unique, while Fran Foote pulls off a similar trick with The Irish Girl.
Elsewhere there are virtuosic but heartfelt fiddle tunes (Sam Sweeney’s Bagpipers/Mount Hills), and a moving snapshot of the lives of Irish itinerant workers in 1950s London (Pete Webb and Ken Hall’s Just A Note/Wild Wild Whiskey). Maybe best of all though is Kearey’s own contribution, the unaccompanied Georgie, a poignant and plaintive appeal from a poacher’s wife on behalf of her condemned husband. Or perhaps the accolade should go to to Stew Simpson’s downright startling Eh Aww Ad Cud Hew, or Fay Hield, whose Bonny Boy approaches the clarity and simplicity of the Anne Briggs recording that inspired it.
The album’s rousing send-off comes courtesy of Welsh singer Men Diamler, whose self-penned 1848 (Sunset Beauregard) is the closest the album comes to an outright political protest song. But this being a Stick In The Wheel release, the political, however well concealed, is always bound up with the creative. After all, the whole record is concerned with the idea of belonging in a particular place, and how could that not be political, especially in the current climate, where arguments about freedom of movement are rife. From Here does not draw any conclusions, but it does embody a peculiarly English kind of diversity, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. It is a celebration of the democratic nature of folk music, but more than that, it is proof that this kind of recording still matters on the most visceral of levels.