Blowzabella – Two Score
Self-Released – 30 March 2018
The magnificent Blowzabella has just celebrated its 40th (two-score, of course!) birthday in style with a big bash at Cecil Sharp House. The performing unit that bears the name (that of a late-17th-century English jig, you’ll recall) has always been something of a unique force, a veritable one-off (though a mightily influential one) among dance-based ensembles, from its early days as a doyen of the alternative festival scene, later surviving a disbandment hiatus to re-form (following a triumphant anniversary comeback in 2003) and develop and expand its own inimitable (principally self-penned) repertoire, arriving at its current status as a highly respected purveyor of a huge range of dance music through the unrivalled expertise and musicianship of its members. The Blowzabella brand-name has, inevitably, undergone several personnel changes over the course of its history, but for the past dozen years the lineup has remained stable, a seven-piece comprising Andy Cutting, Jo Freya, Paul James, Gregory Jolivet, Dave Shepherd, Barnaby Stradling and Jon Swayne. And what a team, whose members so obviously get on brilliantly together and play to each other’s strengths, hence the at times quite overwhelming (though not over-the-top) spirit of abundant joie-de-vivre in their self-confessedly maverick music-making.
All the while, Blowzabella have stayed true to their basic principles – stated on the band’s splendidly informative website as involving “the use of drones and unusual instruments, memorable tunes, an emphasis on strong rhythmic playing and improvisation around the melody, harmonies and rhythms so that every piece can develop over time through live performance”. The strongly individual blend of instrumental colours continues to make great capital out of the twin poles – droning hurdy gurdy and (English) bagpipes, underpinned by supremely chunky, driving bass – with plenty of busy, cooking interest in the tasty intermediate layer of melody provided by diatonic button accordion, violin, viola, soprano and alto saxes, clarinet and penny whistle, all surfacing through the texture in various delightful and surprising permutations over the course of the disc. The special Blowzabella groove is less of a “wall of sound” and more of an intricate, dynamic and constantly interweaving tapestry, whether on the stomping, animated rhythms of the dance tunes or the carefully configured yet spontaneous-sounding backdrops and settings to the songs (four out of the disc’s twelve tracks).
Taking these first, the considered vocal work proves to be another of Blowzabella’s strengths, albeit one hitherto unsuspected (by anyone who didn’t catch the band’s last album, 2013’s Strange News, which also included four songs in its tracklist). Jo proves herself skilled at adapting traditional song, on the Baring-Gould-collected Adam Was A Poacher and the “quintessentially English” broken-token song Blackberry Fold – both are judiciously expanded with extra lyrics that make better sense and give greater continuity to the tales. The Uttoxeter Souling Song, neatly done in close harmony by Jo and Paul, is cannily succeeded by Andy’s tune Turner’s (written, so we learn, while walking his dogs!), whereas Bushes And Briars arises genially from Paul’s “rant step dance” The Lark Descending, in an apt double-homage to Vaughan Williams (whose own interest in English folksong was said to have been sparked by hearing that song sung in Essex in 1905).
The tunes, although observing due form and structure, don’t feel in the slightest bit strict-tempo or strait-jacketed; this is undoubtedly due to the strong sense of creative rhythmic energy that both informs and arises from the actual playing and from the relationship between the parts. As well as the characteristic Blowzabella fire and spice, there’s a perennial abundance of contrast between the tempos and settings, and never a dull moment for the listener. Opening track Cé, a composition by Gregory, is (evocatively) described as “a fuzzy pentatonic rock waltz”, albeit with more of a Balkan flavour to its metre perhaps. Jo’s set of SCCS Polkas fairly charges along the roads of her local villages, while The Grenoside Processional Dance is a glorious minor-key hornpipe created by Dave’s father Dick from figures in traditional dance tunes used by that locality’s sword-dance team. Coteeto, written by Paul as part of his score for a production of Milton’s masque Comus, depicts “nocturnal sport and play” in an enticing 3/8 time-signature and with birdsong obbligato! Camdence is an affectionate little earworm in 6/8 which Gregory composed for Barnaby, while closing track Colin is a “European-style waltz” written by Jo in celebration of the birthday of Colin Taylor, a long-term fan of dance music. And last but certainly not least, if the rollicking Lord Frog or the rumbustious Juggler’s Jig/481 set don’t get your feet a-tapping a-plenty, then there really is no hope for you methinks!
Two Score is available to order direct from the band at http://blowzabella.co.uk/shop and from record shops and the usual digital music platforms.
They have also published a tune book that contains all the tunes and songs composed, arranged and recorded by Blowzabella on this album and “Strange News” (2013).
Blowzabella Upcoming Dates
Fri 11 to Sun 13 May. Blowzabella Festival. Halsway Manor. Somerset. Guests: Naragonia (Belgium). Weekend tickets SOLD OUT. Tickets available for Saturday night only.
Wed 27 June to Sun 1 July. Gran Bal Trad. Ivrea. Italy.
Fri 6 to Sun 8 July. Rudolstadt Festival. Germany.
Sun 5 and Mon 6 Aug. Sidmouth Folk Festival.
Sat 11 and Sun 12 Aug. Broadstairs Folk Festival.
Fri 17 Aug. Fete de la Vielle. Anost. France.
Sat 18 Aug. Etetrad Festival. Italy.
Fri 24 and Sat 25 Aug. Shrewsbury Folk Festival.
Sun 26 and Mon 27 Aug. Towersey Festival.
Fri 21 to Sun 23 Sept. La Tour du Pin. Nevers. France.
Tue 25 Sept. St David’s Hall. Cardiff.
Wed 26 Sept. Pontardawe Arts Centre.
Thur 27 Sept. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
Fri 28 Sept. Brewery Arts Centre. Kendal.
Sat 29 Sept. Holmfirth Civic Hall.
Sun 30 Sept. Kennington Village Hall. Oxford.
Fri 5 to Sun 7 Oct. Northern France – to be confirmed.
Fri 12 to Sun 14 Oct. Blowzabella Workshop Festival. Hamburg. Germany.
Photo Credit: Lieve Boussauw