Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys – Pretty Peggy
Navigator Records – 6 October 2017
By the time Cornwall-based Sam Kelly, originally from Norfolk, released his second EP, Spokes, in 2015; the preceding debut EP (Your Way Home) had marked him out as someone to watch, and he’d already been touring extensively with future fellow Lost Boys Jamie Francis and Evan Carson. Sam and friends soon realized they had something special, and they weren’t alone. After quickly establishing an enviable reputation for charismatic live shows, his first album, The Lost Boys, lit the blue touch paper and set off the fireworks – earning him a session spot on the Radio 2 Folk Show and the Horizon Award for emerging artists at the 2016 Radio 2 Folk Awards. For that album, Sam enhanced the live trio by enlisting the services of Ciaran Algar (fiddle) and Graham Coe (cello). After enlisting the expertise of Toby Shaer (woodwind) and Archie Churchill-Moss on melodeon, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys were born, and on October 6th their new album, Pretty Peggy, is released.
It’s immediately clear that fireworks are something Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys do very well indeed, as Pretty Peggy opens with the first of a fine collection of traditional songs – The Greenland Whale. The delivery of these songs, although firmly and honestly rooted, moves well beyond the tradition. Greenland Whale is a dynamic, confident opener with an acoustic guitar beat and The Lost Boys in fine voice for the chorus. There’s a rousing blend of banjo and fiddle to expand the sound for the chorus, with banjo providing harmonies through the verses alongside a quiet wail of the fiddle. In the quietly steadfast fiddle rhythms, though, there’s something more; there’s a pang of hunger that grows to a rock-inspired fiddle-frenzy for an energetic closing sequence. That assertively adventurous approach comes across full force when the band open Bob Dylan’s Crash On The Levee with atmospheric strings and an inspired beat that provides ample space for Jamie and Evan to let rip on banjo and drums. Sam does a good job of convincing us he’s easily capable of a rock vocal too. Moving beyond cover versions and traditional song, Jamie’s own song, When The Reivers Call, is a Borderland tale of action and adventure where a cello inspired beat contrasts with Sam’s almost whispered vocal. A clever change in timing leads to a bass-driven battle scene that closes with the sound of a hundred bow-strings.
There are more gentle and even wistful, sections to the album, of course. Not least, in the enchanting Bonny Lass of Fyvie, the source of the album’s title. I can’t deny it warms my heart to hear Sam take a song I grew up with on such an accomplished, gently skipping outing. The effortless flow of vocal, guitar and banjo over fiddle harmonies gently builds verse by verse, and an exceptional guest appearance from Cara Dillon turns this endearing rendition into a captivating duet, with the added splendour of Michael McGoldrick on Uilleann pipes. The love songs and the guest appearances continue with If I Were a Blackbird. Chris Wood was available to help The Lost Boys with the finer nuances of his Le Ville De Quebec melody. Alongside Sam’s lilting vocal there’s the quiet elegance of Damien O’Kane‘s electric tenor guitar, then Archie’s melodeon makes a welcome appearance to lead the gently building waltz of the bridge towards an exultant final chorus. That same melodeon provides a far more fiery opening for one of Sam’s own songs, Chasing Shadows. Archie somehow manages to emulate Pete Townsend‘s Baba O’Riley synth intro for an uplifting and fast-paced song of hope, with just the right amount of pop. An undoubted festival hit.
Shy Guy’s Serve provides an opportunity for Toby and Ciaran to confirm their worth as tunesmiths as well as musicians. For this beguiling tune set, melodeon provides the gentle introduction to Josh’s Ship; tempting flute, fiddle and guitar to the dance before Michael McGoldrick‘s Uilleann pipes add a final spark. Fiddle takes the lead for the joyful Rookery Lane, leading the whole band to its wonderfully stormy conclusion. It’s a reminder that traditional folk with a keen contemporary edge is what Pretty Peggy is all about, and there are yet more songs to prove the point.
Banjo, melodeon and spine-tingling atmospheres set a ghostly scene for The Shining Ship. It’s a dramatic interlude with a hot, Saharan wrath. There’s also a spot of comic relief, though, as Sam relates the story of The Close Shave; an entertaining variation on Barrack Street, learned from Andy Irvine and set among New Zealand’s west coast gold rush. The Keeper (or, A Keeper Went Hunting) is one of the finest examples of traditional English euphemistic balladry around. The Lost Boys have not only nailed this one, they’ve hammered it soundly to the deck of a ship for everyone else to dance on. There’s joy and relish in Sam’s vocal and the sea-shanty style delivery of the call and return chorus is the best I’ve ever heard. Emphatic evidence of the band’s collective ability to take a great piece of tradition and weave it into something wonderful. Which brings us to Angeline the Baker. Ever since a very youthful Rufus Wainwright joined Kate & Anna McGarrigle (and others) to sing Hard Times on the first Transatlantic Sessions series, I’ve had a soft spot for clever arrangements of Stephen Foster‘s songs. With Banjo, beats and what must be a challenging time signature, Sam and friends take this sorry tale of unrequited love and imbue every note, every word with pace, spirit and heart; with the joy of the music for its own sake shining through.
The Rose brings Pretty Peggy to a close with a reminder of Sam’s days with Belgian band Naragonia. He’s translated their Le Beau Rosier into English and placed it in a frame of steadily building sequences. Opening with soft guitar and a whispered vocal that’s echoed by carefully crafted flute, the sound widens with Toby’s Uilleann pipes and builds towards a vast, enthralling closing sequence.
Pretty Peggy undoubtedly takes the solid grounding gained on The Lost Boys a step further, for which Sam and Jamie’s arrangements were the backbone. In Pretty Peggy, there’s been a far wider collaboration that seems to have produced an even richer, more accomplished sound. Pretty Peggy has everything the music lover could wish for. There are no musical or geographical boundaries. There’s excitement, and infectious rhythms, soul-stirring vocal arrangements, masterful instrumentation and even inventive touches – like the use of plectrum plucked piano strings and even stool squeaks for effects.
Above all, there’s enjoyment, honesty and passion in Pretty Peggy that firmly adds Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys to the list of artists who are proving that great party bands are no longer the exclusive domain of the Scottish & Irish music scenes. Pretty Peggy is easily one of the best albums to come from the ever-growing world of youthful folk music.
Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys Tour
11-14/10 COSTA DEL FOLK, PORTUGAL
27/11 KINGSKERSWELL Parish Church
28/11 NORWICH Arts Centre
29/11 LONDON Cecil Sharp House
30/11 NEW MILTON Forest Arts Centre
01/12 STAMFORD Arts Centre
02/12 KINGS SOMBORNE Hall
05/12 SHOREHAM BY SEA Ropetackle Centre
06/12 BIDDULPH Up in Arms
07/12 SHEFFIELD The Greystones
Pretty Peggy is out on the 6th October and available to pre-order now – http://smarturl.it/8j4qah