Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – The Wife of Urban Law
Self-Released – 31 October 2017
Peter Knight turned seventy this year, but the former Steeleye Span fiddler shows no sign of slowing up. In fact, so prolific is he that it’s barely a couple of months since I sat down to write the review of his last record under the Gigspanner name. That album – recorded live with the expanded Gigspanner Big Band – was a revelation, exploring the wildest shores of folk rock and steering close to jazz, oriental music and even a beguilingly avant-garde brand of drone-based modern composition.
Now Gigspanner are back in the studio and have reverted to a three-piece – a kind of folk-rock power trio. Knight is joined by guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Sacha Trochet, both of whom also contribute bass parts. The Wife Of Urban Law (the album’s title was inspired by a nineteenth-century Oxfordshire gravestone) was completed with the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign – proof that contemporary, internet-based promotional techniques can sit comfortably with traditional art forms.
But to call Gigspanner a purely traditional band is, of course, some way short of the mark. The Wife Of Urban Law begins with the decidedly eastern twang of Urban’s Reel, and hand drums add to the exotic flavour, before Knight’s fiddle descends, seemingly from nowhere, with a breathless, swooping run of notes. It is one of the few non-traditional compositions on the album, and the only track on which the whole band gets a shared writing credit. There is an apparent ease with which the trio play off one another (which, in reality, is probably anything but easy to achieve) that immediately lends a sense of joy to the sound. It feels improvisational as if a modern jazz band had decided to look to the vernacular music of the past for inspiration, and this approach yields results that are paradoxically both familiar and exploratory. Their version of Spencer The Rover, for example, begins as a simple folk song but breaks down a third of the way through to make room for a beautiful fiddle solo from Knight, closer to classical music than to folk. After the welcome musical digression, the song (an English ballad regularly performed by the Copper family) reasserts itself and rambles, like its subject, to a happy conclusion.
The manner in which the band play fast and loose with the idea of traditional song structures is a major part of their appeal. It is genuinely exciting to hear a band expanding the possibilities of folk music in so many different directions. The subtle, bluesy guitar licks that ornament Green Gravel provide an effective counterpoint to the song’s inherent strangeness. It is an old playground song, meant to accompany a simple game whose origins are uncertain. Song collector Lucy Broadwood, writing in 1893, suspected that it was ‘a dramatic representation of mourning,’ and the tone of this version – arranged by Fay Hield from various scraps – reflects its morbid theme.
Lament For The Life Of Urban Law is a Peter Knight composition. It is comprised mainly of shivery fiddle notes that flirt with discord, a low drone, and the occasional dark rumble of percussion. From this minimal palette Knight creates an intense musical landscape, dark and abstract, that conveys both fear and grief. It resembles the soundtrack to an uncanny, autumnal ghost story. Much closer to the folk tradition is Peggy And The Soldier, a ballad popularised by Martin Carthy. Its narrative – unfaithful wife leaves her husband and baby to sail away with an exotic but ultimately unpleasant traveller – is a familiar one but the manner in which it is sung and played gives it new life. It is tender, soft and resigned, and the band resist their louder, more experimental urges. The facts of the story are related but no blame is apportioned – the situation benefits none of the characters. The sweetly weary tone of the song is surprisingly moving.
Bold Riley, a sea shanty collected by A.L. Lloyd, starts as a pretty typical rendition, before a brooding, building instrumental break brings a piece of the ocean to the heart of the song. It then reverts back to its original structure with perfect timing, showing off the band’s theatrical side. It is followed by The Blackbird, a sinuous piece beginning with hand drums and clipped guitar phrases which give way to a typically masterful fiddle-led section, positively dripping with the musicality of the birdsong implied by the title. As the tune progresses, the fiddle and guitar begin to play off each other, once more indicating the improvisational qualities of the musicians. It becomes apparent only at the end that the track is a live recording, a fact that makes its coherence and beauty even more astonishing.
On Penny The Hero, a Peter Knight song about the old game of shove penny, plucked fiddle strings impart a distinctly African melodic feel, while the song’s ‘seagull’ refrain is a reference to shove penny scorers chalking the number three sideways so that it resembles a bird in flight. The juxtaposition of this unconventional musical approach with the very traditional, very English lyrical subject works surprisingly well.
The album ends with a sublime interpretation of Rocking The Cradle, an old song, probably from Ireland originally, but collected as far afield as Australia. It is a lengthy but deceptively simple piece, the second half of which is taken up by a spacious instrumental section that allows ample room for each instrument to dictate its own delicate motif. This method could so easily go wrong, but Gigspanner make it work – there is no unnecessary jostling for position amongst the performers, nothing overly showy or ostentatious, just an engrossing sound-world with shared musical empathy at its heart.
The same could be said for the whole record. With Gigspanner, Peter Knight has assembled one of the most quietly brilliant sets of musicians in the folk world and beyond. The WIfe Of Urban Law is both experimental and accessible; it is music that respects the past without being in thrall to it. And more importantly, it is a record of stunning and sustained beauty.
Pre-Order The Wife of Urban Law here: www.gigspanner.com/shop.html.
Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Tour Dates
31st The Tin Tabernacle, Hythe
Tickets from Art Write
High Street, Hythe
Shane Record Art Studio
The Old High Street, Folkestone
Call John Cook on 07803 087552
2nd: Wadsworth Community Centre (Hebden Bridge)
01422 344458 or 07731661053
3rd: Helmsley Arts Centre (North Yorks)
4th: Victoria Hall, Settle
5th: The Music Room, Liverpool Philharmonic
0151 709 378
6th:Town Hall, Bishops Castle, Shropshire
8th: Red Lion Folk Club, Birmingham
9th: Huntingdon Hall, Worcester
10th: Farnham Maltings
11th: Tuppenny Barn, Southbourne, Hampshire
12th: Hitchin Folk Club
13th: Colchester Arts Centre
14th: Dartford Folk Club
16th: Silver St Sessions, Cotleigh Brewery, Wiveliscombe
17th: David Hall, South Petherton
18th: Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth
19th: Plaitford Village Hall, Romsey
Hosted by New Forest Folk Festival
21st: New Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth
23rd St John’s on Bethnal Green, London
24th: The Ram Club, Thames Ditton
0208 686 9421
25th: Calstock Arts Centre, Cornwall
26th: Matthews Hall, Topsham, Devon (for Topsham Folk Club)
29th: Pound Arts Centre, Corsham
30th: St Helen’s Church, Alveston, Gloucestershire
1st St Edith Hall, Kemsing, Sevenoaks
4th Nettlebed Folk Club
For more details visit: www.gigspanner.com