by Ian Mann
May 25, 2010
Anybody who likes well played, well chosen songs from both the British and American folk traditions should really enjoy these guys.
Dan Cassidy is a fascinating character. He grew up in Maryland,USA and began learning the violin at the age of ten. He’s now a supremely versatile violinist, comfortable across a wide range of genres from classical to rock. It’s probably as a folk fiddler that Cassidy is best known whether it be the bluegrass and country stylings of his native US or the Celtic music of the British Isles. Cassidy’s love affair with Britain was ignited by the music of Shetland fiddler Aly Bain but equally important was a chance encounter with the musical Hickman family from Shrewsbury, England. This was the beginning of a long friendship that in time developed into a musical partnership with the younger James Hickman, a talented guitarist, singer and songwriter. Cassidy now resides in Iceland but remains a frequent visitor to the UK where he and Hickman have built up a loyal following for their entertaining live shows, particularly in Hickman’s native Welsh Marches. Besides their folk duo the pair also form part of the Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet where Cassidy displays his jazz chops in a “Hot Club” setting. And yes, he is the brother of the late singer Eva Cassidy and appears on several of his sister’s albums.
James Hickman also comes from a musical background and learnt guitar from his father, an avid bluegrass enthusiast. Hickman began playing folk clubs in his teens and and later played as one half of popular local combo The Badgers with fellow guitarist/vocalist Chris Quinn. The pair now trade under the name Hickman and Quinn and remain active on the local circuit with an album, “Times” under their belt. More recently Hickman has been a member of the excellent Uiscedwr alongside fiddler Anna Esselmont and percussionist Cormac Byrne.
I’ve seen the Hickman/Cassidy duo on several occasions and always enjoyed their music and their witty repartee between numbers. Cassidy is that rarest of creatures, an American who does irony, I guess it comes from spending so much time on this side of the pond. The duo play everywhere from pub gigs to theatres and consistently wow audiences in both environments. As a dedicated beer drinker I usually see them in a pub but most recently it was at a village hall event, “The Floor” at the village of St. Michael’s near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. This delightful monthly event is a kind of musical review that features an eclectic mix of talented local amateurs, usually including the two organisers, plus a professional headline act. Besides Hickman and Cassidy these have included bluesman Eddie Martin and Oysterband guitarist Alan Prosser who played a solo set with a little help from the Oysters’ regular singer John Jones. These events are hugely popular, the hall is always packed, the audiences generously supportive and at a fiver it’s great value for money. And they get a couple of barrels of Hobson’s marvellous beer in too!
It was at The Floor that Dan kindly gave me a review copy of “Severn Street”, the duo’s long awaited album. The album contains an inspired selection of cover versions ranging from “trad arr. by” to Bob Dylan plus a couple of original songs by Hickman and a tune by Cassidy. The material forms the basis of their stage act and many of the songs were immediately recognisable from their live performances.
The album commences with the traditional “Jim Jones”, a bitter tale of the transportation of the eponymous Jim to Australia on a prison ship. Hickman’s hoarse, querulous vocal and pressure point acoustic guitar sum up the desperation and defiance expressed in the lyrics. Cassidy’s keening violin adds punctuation, colour and a leavening sweetness. With its strong melody and graphic lyrics the song remains a staple of their live set.
“I’m Beside You” is a winning Hickman original with an assertive, arresting melody and a positive, life affirming lyric. Cassidy’s Celtic tinged violin dovetails perfectly with Hickman’s insistent guitar.
“The Shipyard Apprentice” tells of the hardships suffered in peace and war by a worker in the Clyde shipyards. It’s a powerful song with angry but poetic lyrics by Archie Fisher set to a memorable melody by Bobby Campbell. Sometimes known as “The Fairfield’s Crane”, a Glasgow landmark mentioned in the first line of the lyrics, the song has a strong leftist tradition and has been covered by the great Dick Gaughan among others. Here it’s a solo feature for Hickman who does it justice, his distinctive vocals treating the song with the gravitas it deserves and bringing out at least some of the pain, anger and hard won dignity expressed in the lyrics.
Cassidy’s emotive playing on the slow air “Inisheer” is breathtakingly beautiful. The melody seems timeless but Dublin based accordionist Thomas Walsh wrote the tune as recently as 1987 after a trip to the island. The piece is now a standard part of the Celtic folk repertoire but I don’t think I’ve heard it played as delightfully as here.
“The Walls Of Time” draws on Hickman and Cassidy’s background in bluegrass music. Written by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe the lyrics, written from the point of view of a man grieving at his beloved’s graveside look positively mawkish when seen in print. But it’s still a great and much covered song that also has a hint of the country blues about it. It suits the timbres of Hickman’s voice with Cassidy’s wailing fiddle adding an extra emotional emphasis. Timeless stuff.
“Sweet Anna” is Hickman’s attempt to write an original song in the English ballad tradition. For me it’s the weakest track on the album and irritatingly twee. Nevertheless a brave attempt.
“Stay Away Child” is an instrumental and essentially a feature for Cassidy. I could listen to this guy play all day so this quickly puts the album back on track.
I like the duo’s slowed down arrangement of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”. Hickman invests Dylan’s lyrics with a real tenderness and Cassidy’s violin conjures up the empty spaces of Dylan’s Minnesota homeland. Excellent, and as convincing a Dylan cover as I’ve heard in quite some time.
“McShane” by Finbar Furey is a story song about Irish emigration. The violent subject matter is less suited to Hickman’s tremulous warble than the Dylan piece. I can’t really imagine him punching a tinker’s lights out as described in the lyrics. Not quite a total success.
It’s left to Cassidy to end the album on a high note with his lovely original instrumental tune “Lady Arabella’s Lament”.
In the main “Severn Street” has been well worth the wait. There are several palpable hits, a couple of near misses and only one real clinker. The album is a success in it’s own right but it also makes an excellent souvenir for anybody who has been fortunate enough to see the duo live. It’s in this context that they really excel, anybody who likes well played, well chosen songs from both the British and American folk traditions should really enjoy these guys. Their good natured presentation of the material adds hugely to the event and in Cassidy they have a quite brilliant instrumentalist. Check them out if you can. Dates can be found at http://www.hickmanandcassidy.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus