Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band: Live
Self Released – 9th August 2017
In any conversation about the history of British folk rock, it is nigh on impossible to overlook the accomplishments of Peter Knight. He joined Steeleye Span, primarily as a fiddle player in 1970 and stayed in the band until 2013 (with a brief hiatus in the late 70s), and his characteristic and technically accomplished style was an integral part of the band’s classic sound. But Knight has always had – excuse the pun – plenty more strings to his bow. In the 1980s he dabbled in free jazz with Moire Music, recorded an album in 1999 with former Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson and guested on tracks by Celtic-tinged neo-prog act Mostly Autumn. He even found the time to put on a Womble suit and appear as Uncle Bulgaria (anonymously at the time) on Top of the Pops.
But the best of his recent work has come as part of the three-piece Gigspanner, who fuse the old flourishes of folk rock with touches of jazz and an admirably wide-ranging selection of world music influences, from Aboriginal Australia to France (where Knight currently lives), via Africa and the Balkans. He is joined by guitarist Roger Flack (founder member of Celtic rock band the Tabs) and percussionist Sacha Trochet, and as a trio they have released two excellent studio albums, Lipreading the Poet and Layers of Ages.
But the current album is something a little bit different. It was recorded live on tour, and the band is fleshed out to a five-piece by the addition of award-winning multi-instrumental duo Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry. These additions to the lineup necessitated a subtle change in name, and, for now, at least, they are going by the name of the Gigspanner Big Band.
The album opens with a slow-burning rendition of Banks of the Nile, full of brooding violin drones and surprising, almost Oriental twangs which act as a canvas for the artistry of Martin’s uniquely expressive singing. Even more extraordinary is a ten and a half minute version of Death and the Lady, made famous by the likes of Shirley Collins, Norma Waterson and Bellowhead. Knight’s contribution to that particular club might just be the best yet. It kicks off with a jazzy, remarkably dextrous acoustic guitar, the sung verses thump along with a quiet intensity, provided in part by Trochet’s minimal, insistent drumming. Just over half way through the song breaks down into a series of impressionistic violin trills before rebuilding itself into something altogether different, gradually increasing in tempo and intensity to an electrified and electrifying squall of folk-rock noise. It is an exhilarating piece of music, the match for anything Knight produced in the Steeleye Span glory days.
Knight recorded the English ballad of post-Napoleonic economic depression, The Hard Times of Old England in 1975 for Steeleye Span’s All Around My Hat album. At the time it was rendered an upbeat, almost jovial romp. The version here is gentle and resigned, the impossibly pretty fiddle solo at its heart can’t hide the fact that the hope in the final verse is forlorn. It is tempting to read this song as a comment on present day England as much as a historical document, but the continued value and power of the lyrics reside in their ambiguity.
King of the Fairies begins with a traditional-sounding flutter of fiddle, but Knight and his band are never content to dwell completely in the past. The propulsive guitar and percussion give a passing nod to classic 70s folk rock while simultaneously lending the track a modern edge; the tight structure of the piece is a springboard for the individual band members to explore their considerable talents, and the results are jazzy in feel if not in sound.
One of the most impressive things about the album is the sheer variety on offer. There is the variety provided by the contrasting but complementary styles of the musicians, and the variety of ways in which the songs are structured and presented. The Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn is a multifaceted mini folk opera of a song with a startlingly good passage of bluesy acoustic guitar at its heart. When the voices come together for the stirring final verse, it becomes clear that the group has a natural knack for timing and a well-honed sense of the dramatic possibilities of unorthodox song structure.
Silbury Hill is dramatic in a different way. Atmospherically sung by Martin, it uses detailed, place-specific lyrics and mystical landscapes to get to the heart of very human concerns. But what comes through strongest (and it always does with Gigspanner, particularly on their live recordings) is the sheer and obvious joy in their music. It is a joy born out of the freedom of their approach to music making, and it allows them to experiment in a way that is unshowy but always technically excellent. On Butterfly, for example, the fiddle takes flight early in the track, using classical reference points rather than rooting the piece in the folk idiom, but this co-opting of entirely different musical styles never feels forced, incongruous or opportunistic. When halfway through the song the arrangement becomes decidedly folkier, the switch seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Final track The Last Broadcast begins with a pleasingly mystic eastern twang. Once again led by Martin, whose earthy voice, full of understatement and control, is one of the revelations of the album, it showcases the wide range of Gigspanner’s stylistic and geographical influences. But despite the gleefully exploratory nature of the band as a whole and each of the individual players, despite their willingness to disappear down musical rabbit holes, there is a distinct unity of purpose that results in a sound that is instantly recognisable. The Gigspanner Big Band are a unique musical proposition; they are taking folk music down new and enthralling paths. They are also one of the most exciting live bands you are likely to see this year (or any year, for that matter), and this recording documents their energy, skill and hard work brilliantly.
Gigspanner Big Band Tour Dates
August 9th – St Andrew’s Church, Ashburton, Devon
Tickets from firstname.lastname@example.org | Phone 07957 280129 | LINK
August 10th – United Reformed Church, Stratford-upon- Avon
Tickets from the RSC Box Office | 01789 403416
August 11th – Fairport’s Cropredy Convention
August 13th – Peter Knight’s 70th Birthday Concert – The Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire
Gigspanner Big Band PLUS John Spiers | LINK
Order the Album
Order Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band: Live here: http://www.gigspanner.com/shop.html