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Chris Quinn

Across The Divide


by Ian Mann

September 01, 2016


Quinn's original songs are thoroughly convincing with their attractive melodies and intelligent lyrics while the outside material, much of it traditional, also works well.

Chris Quinn

“Across The Divide”

(Rhythm And Roots Records LC50393)

Chris Quinn is a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter based in Shrewsbury who has been a popular presence on the live music scene in the Midlands and the Welsh Borders for a number of years, both as a solo performer and as half of a duo with fellow guitar player, singer and songsmith James Hickman. These two once traded under the name The Badgers before adopting the more prosaic Hickman & Quinn with the release of their highly accomplished début album “Times” in 2009, a collection of excellent original songs with both musicians contributing to the writing process.

Quinn is a versatile musician who began performing as a folk singer but whose style now also embraces blues, pop and jazz. He has fulfilled the role of rhythm guitarist in groups led by the Shropshire born, Amsterdam based gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso Robin Nolan and has also helped to promote jazz and other music at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse venue in his adopted home town. He is also an acclaimed educator and teaches guitar across a variety of styles in Shrewsbury and the surrounding area.

In 2012 Quinn released the album “The Odd Couple”, a good natured collaboration with the Dutch guitarist and vocalist Arthur Ebeling, a frequent and popular visitor to the UK.  Here the duo tackled a number of well known songs drawn from a variety of genres with the music being given an additional rhythmic impetus courtesy of the presence of double bass player Tom Hill. Live shows by Ebeling and Quinn are always hugely enjoyable affairs that combine a high standard of musicianship with a genuine sense of bonhomie.

I’ve seen Quinn perform in a variety of contexts over the years ranging from solo pub appearances to arts centre shows with Nolan’s trio. The most recent was a solo Sunday afternoon pub session at one of my local boozers, the Grape Vaults in Leominster. It was there that Chris was kind enough to provide me with a copy of this, his début solo release from 2015, which I’m at long last getting around to taking a look at.

In May 2015, shortly before the recording of “Across The Divide” I covered one of Quinn’s live shows, this time playing to a fee paying, listening audience (not always the case at pub gigs) at a Black Mountain Jazz Club event at the Kings Arms at Abergavenny. Here Quinn tailored his set to suit the demands of a jazz club crowd as he mixed interpretations of jazz and blues standards with the more folk orientated material that remains his first love and stock in trade. Nevertheless that performance included many of the songs to be heard on this impressive new album, among them some highly accomplished original compositions. The versatile troubadour was very well received by a jazz club audience who seemed to positively relish being taken out of their musical comfort zone.

I recall talking to Quinn after that Abergavenny performance and remember him telling me of the impressive list of talent that he’d lined up to appear on the then forthcoming album. It’s certainly an impressive cast of guests with the perennially popular Dan Cassidy appearing on fiddle together with his fellow American Larry Melton on double bass. Eamonn Coyne of the hugely successful Salsa Celtica contributes tenor banjo and tenor guitar and the line up is completed by another Irishman, master percussionist Cormac Byrne who has played with folk rock superstar Seth Lakeman, jazz trumpeter Neil Yates and the band Uiscedwr among others. It’s a tribute to Quinn’s playing and writing skills that he’s been able to assemble such a stellar line up.

The album opens with the Quinn original “Fly Away” which was played as a deserved encore at that Abergavenny gig. Here Quinn’s urgent acoustic guitar, literate lyrics and conversational vocals are augmented by the sounds generated by his guests with Cassidy’s fiddle catching the ear on a pithy solo and Byrne’s percussion providing considerable rhythmic drive, particularly on the rousing choruses. 

The sound is more pared down on the gently wistful “The Call Of Home”, a hymn of praise to the natural beauties of the English landscape and coastline. Quinn’s lyrical imagery is rich and evocative on this beautiful contemporary folk song.

“Jolly Beggarman / Red Haired Boy / Blackberry Blossom” is a lively set of traditional folk tunes arranged by Quinn which gives the instrumentalists a chance to shine, particularly Coyne on tenor banjo and Cassidy on fiddle . Quinn’s guitar helps to give the music impressive an rhythmic impetus as he reprises some elements of his role in the more jazz orientated Robin Nolan group.

The tune of the traditional “Shady Grove” will be familiar to many listeners as that of “Matty Groves”, the gruesome Scottish murder ballad made popular by Fairport Convention. The lyrics sung by Quinn in his bluegrass style arrangement are far less grisly and I recall him explaining that his version of the tune is actually a “New World mutation”  in which different lyrics have been added to an existing melody, a common occurrence in 19th century America in the wake of the waves of immigration from the British Isles and mainland Europe.

“Comin’ Down In The Rain” was written by the Nashville based musician Buddy Mondlock but the best known recording of the song is by Nanci Griffith, whose version of the tune inspired Quinn to cover it. Again it’s covered in a broadly bluegrass style with Coyne and Cassidy enhancing Quinn’s confident singing of the evocative lyrics.

Quinn’s own “ The World Was Spinning Round” stems from the British folk tradition and features crisply strummed acoustic guitars and a warm vocal performance. I’d like to think that the line “the cobbled streets that lead us to the town” is a reference to Quinn’s adopted home of Shrewsbury.

“The Tail Of John Lewis And Little Omie” is Quinn’s attempt to write a narrative ballad encompassing both the British and American folk traditions. It’s folk music so it it doesn’t end well as the villainous John Lewis murders the golden haired Little Omie and sends her body floating down the river. The invigorating arrangement includes some dexterous guitar and banjo picking and the melodic fiddle flourishes of the impressive Cassidy. The violinist is a fascinating character, born in the US he is the brother of the late Eva Cassidy and now lives in Iceland. However he has strong links to Shrewsbury thanks to his long standing association with James Hickman and still returns to the area on a regular basis where he has has acquired a loyal local following for his consistently excellent live performances. Cassidy is steeped in the folk tradition but such is his versatility that he also leads his own Swing Quartet playing jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

The lyrical content of the Quinn original “Lonely Lady” is scarcely any less bleak but there’s an engaging warmth about the performance with Quinn expressing genuine sympathy for the character that he has created. It sounds like something Ralph McTell might have written and includes some more tasteful guitar picking.

The album concludes with Quinn’s solo performance of“Pittenweem Jo”, written in 1960 by the Scottish songwriter John Watt but based on an earlier traditional tune. Indeed the piece has the feel of a traditional song with its simple melody and faux naïve lyrics. 

“Across The Divide” is essentially a folk album and I assume that the title is a reference to the way in which Quinn and his colleagues seamlessly merge the British, Irish and American folk traditions.
Quinn’s original songs are thoroughly convincing with their attractive melodies and intelligent lyrics and the outside material, much of it traditional, also works well with the Mondlock song adding an unexpected dash of country to the mix.

The performances are also good with Quinn’s warm, confident, conversational vocals matching the material well. He also impresses instrumentally as do the stellar cast of musicians that he has assembled. It seems invidious to single out individuals but the presence of Cassidy is guaranteed to enhance any record.

“Across The Divide” has been well received by the folk press and Quinn’s stock continues to rise , not only on the folk and roots scene but also with jazz audiences as well. There’s much to enjoy here for all followers of good music.

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