Peter Knight & John Spiers – Well Met
Self Released – 1 March 2018
When two of the most venerated figures in the recent history of folk music get together, there can be little doubt that the result will be something special. Peter Knight has roughly sixty years of recorded output behind him. As the fiddle player in Steeleye Span’s classic lineup, he helped bring folk music to perhaps its widest audience and has worked prolifically ever since. His latest project, Gigspanner, combines his mastery of folk music with his background in classical playing and his love of exploratory jazz and African rhythms. Even at this stage in his career, his willingness to venture into new musical territory is undiminished, and his appeal reaches far beyond folk into the realms of contemporary experimental music.
John Spiers hasn’t been around for quite as long, but his involvement with Bellowhead – arguably the most popular and critically acclaimed folk group of the new millennium – has led him to be regarded as one of the most talented and expressive melodeon players on the circuit, while six albums with former Bellowhead bandmate Jon Boden (Spiers & Boden) and a spell with Eliza Carthy (and the Ratcatchers) have proved his collaborative credentials.
Well Met is Knight and Spiers’s first album as a duo and focuses on new arrangements and unconventional juxtapositions of old dance tunes. Musically, the emphasis is on the differences and connections between the two instruments, and the new nuances and details that this synergic approach can coax out of these well-worn compositions, which range from the familiar to the almost-forgotten.
The album’s opener, The Cuckoo, contains perhaps its most well-known tunes. An amalgamation of three different explorations of that most enigmatic and suggestive of summer birds, it traces a path from melancholy to rowdiness. The cuckoo has long been a favourite subject of folk song in England (and Scotland), its unique resting habits making it ripe for bawdy allegorical interpretations. It is also ambiguous – a harbinger of summer but also a bringer of sadness and marital discord. Both artists have previous experience with these tunes, not least the ribald Cuckoo’s Nest section of Steeleye Span’s Drink Down The Moon (no prizes for guessing what the ‘cuckoo’s nest’ refers to), but here, without words, the energy and emotion of the song must be channelled through the music alone. The pair do this brilliantly – from Knight’s plaintive fiddle in the yearning opening section through to Spiers’ quick, brazen playing of the closing morris dance.
Things get more exotic with A Bruxa, which is a waltz written by Galician musician Anton Seoane who plays with the group Milladoiro (‘bruxa’ is a Galician term for a witch). Knight’s high fiddle lines take it from stately to passionate and back again, while Spiers provides the grounding, until the song’s choppy, urgent final passages, where both instruments take flight. Waiting For The Federals is more of a mongrel tune: versions have popped up from the Ozarks to Galway. This version begins with gently plucked fiddle strings while the melodeon carries the melody, then proceeds, languid and inscrutable, with both instruments taking turns to lead and the interplay becoming ever more expansive.
That interplay reaches even greater heights on Scan Tester’s No.1 Step Dance/Murphy’s Hornpipe. Lewis ‘Scan’ Tester was one of the great underappreciated heroes of English folk dance, and one of the reasons it survives as a musical form to this day. He learned to dance in his father’s pub in rural Sussex, and collected and concocted tunes for the concertina from an early age. This jaunty tune carries the weight of its history lightly, thanks to the brisk playing. Like Tester, John Spiers was born into a folk dancing family and is well aware of that history and of the importance of music as a shared experience.
Bonny At Morn introduces itself with a lengthy, compellingly experimental fiddle section and builds slowly into a stark, beautiful musical landscape. An old Northumbrian lullaby, it has been sung by Louis Killen and Lisa Knapp in the past, but in this instrumental state it transcends the boundaries of sleep and becomes more like something out of an evocative, haunting dream. It even seems to stretch and compress time in the way that dreams do – its eight minutes are over in a flash, yet you feel that you have experienced something greater than eight minutes in length.
In 2011 Nigel Eaton composed Halsway Schottische as a kind of universal melody, meant to be played (and adapted) by as many different musicians as possible. Knight and Spiers add their own version here, and it is surely one of the best. The melody is achingly pretty, and its hidden complexities are teased out and built upon in a way that sounds truly spontaneous. Equally fresh-sounding is Paddy Carey’s, a long, lively interpretation of a neat and intricate jig which seems to grow more uninhibited as it goes on.
Rosebud In June is another tune previously recorded by Steeleye Span. This time around, Knight’s fiddle stretches out the melody, which becomes pensive and almost sombre, providing a stark contrast with its apparently cheerful subject matter. It is a testament to the way in which music in general and these two musicians, in particular, can fashion and control human emotion without the need for words.
The next two tracks are more upbeat. Easter Thursday/Three Case Knives combines an old English country dance and a nautical hornpipe, while Isadora’s Reel is short, buoyant and frisky. The collection ends with perhaps its most striking and melodically unconventional piece, The Long Walk Home, which highlights themes of departure and arrival with subtle and open-ended elegance.
Despite the tunes and the instruments on Well Met being almost entirely folk-based, there is something more akin to jazz in the way they are handled. Improvisation and invention meet the listener at every turn. Knight and Spiers have created a musical document that resonates with history, but also something that should inspire future generations of musicians to engage with Britain’s folk dancing heritage, and the beautiful, mysterious tunes that can be found within that heritage.
Knight and Spiers March 2018 Tour
01 London: Cecil Sharp House
02 Alfriston: The Old Chapel
03 Ashford: Revelation St Mary’s
04 Hitchin: Folk Club @ The Sun Hotel
05 Colchester: Arts Centre
06 Cambridge: The Junction
08 Worcester: Huntingdon Hall
09 Leicester: Guildhall
10 Halesworth: The Cut, In Conjunction With FolkEast Festival
11 Lincoln: Performing Arts Centre
12 Sheffield: Greystones
14 Hexham: The Queen’s Hall
15 Leyland/Preston: Fox Lane Sports and Social Club
16 Settle: Victoria Hall
17 Liverpool: The Music Room, Liverpool Philharmonic
18 Bishop’s Castle: The Town Hall
19 Nettlebed Folk Club
21 Fareham: Ashcroft Arts Centre
22 Basingstoke: The Forge at the Anvil
23 Corsham: The Pound Arts Centre
24 Calstock: Arts Centre
25 Topsham: Matthews Hall
27 Bridgwater: Arts Centre
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas