by Ian Mann
December 06, 2012
The pair look to both the American and Celtic folk traditions and present a well balanced show that also engages through the witty banter and repartee between songs.
James Hickman and Dan Cassidy, Tarc Gallery, Stamford Bridge, Worcestershire, 27/11/2012.
The folk/roots duo of James Hickman (guitar, vocals) and Dan Cassidy (violin) are popular figures on the live music circuit throughout the UK playing venues ranging from folk clubs to theatres. They have a particularly strong following in the Welsh Borders thanks to Shrewsbury born Hickman’s other projects including his solo shows and his popular duo with fellow guitarist and vocalist Chris Quinn.
Cassidy was born in Maryland, USA and is famously the brother of the late and much loved Eva Cassidy, appearing on several of his sister’s enduringly popular albums. Cassidy is now resident in Iceland but is a frequent visitor to the UK, returning each year to tour with Hickman. I’ve seen the pair several times at venues ranging from pubs to village halls and they always present a hugely enjoyable show that engages not only through the excellent singing and playing but also the witty banter and repartee between songs. Although each show has been broadly similar I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each one, these guys always deliver musically and the jokes remain funny even if you’ve heard them before.
Hickman and Cassidy have played at Tarc before and their act is particularly well suited to this intimate venue as they draw the audience in with their songs and stories. The only disappointment tonight was the absence, through illness, of Deborah Rose who curates and usually presents the Gallery’s music programme. She would undoubtedly have played a support slot and would probably have sung with James and Dan and both her company and her singing were much missed. If you’re reading this Deborah I hope you’re feeling much better now. However with Hickman and Cassidy around the audience were never likely to be short of entertainment. A word of praise here too to Tarc’s Rosemary Kirby who produced the best meal yet at these popular supper and music events.
Much of Hickman and Cassidy’s material is drawn from their (very good) 2010 album “Severn Street” (reviewed elsewhere on this site) but since I saw them last they have added a number of new songs and instrumental tunes to their set and seem to have developed a growing fascination with the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe. Nevertheless the pair look to both the American and Celtic folk traditions and present a well balanced show that also tips it’s hat to jazz, which of course suits me just fine.
The duo began with an instrumental, the Irish tune “Stay Away Child” sourced from the “Severn Street” album. The medium paced tune acted as a showcase for Cassidy’s superior fiddling skills with Hickman keeping immaculate time on acoustic guitar.
The liberal inter tune verbals usually throw up a few interesting facts. Even though I’ve seen the duo a number of times I was unaware that Hickman had lived in Iceland for a year working with Cassidy’s jazz combo the Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet. With this in mind Hickman sang his original song “My Dearest Fling”, a tune with a playful lyric written in a 1920’s / Django Reinhardt style. Pure pastiche but great fun.
The haunting Irish air “Inisheer” is one of the most popular items in the duo’s repertoire. Inspired by a visit to the island named in the title the piece sounds ancient and timeless but was in fact written by the Dublin based accordionist Tom Walsh as recently in 1987. Simple but emotionally direct and highly effective Cassidy’s beautiful playing on this piece never fails to bring a lump to the throat.
Although Hickman writes most of the duo’s material is drawn from outside the band but they choose their sources well. A good example of this is the powerful traditional ballad “Jim Jones”, an angry song that tells of the tribulations of the eponymous Jim as he is transported to Australia on a prison ship. The words are full of graphic imagery and Hickman sings them with a profound sense of involvement with Cassidy’s keening violin lines adding colour to Hickman’s tautly strummed guitar.
Cassidy’s love affair with Celtic music was sparked by his discovery of the playing of Shetland fiddler (of Boys of the Lough fame) on the American TV music series “Down Home” Cassidy’s Bain inspired “The Teetotallers Reel” opened with a passage of dramatic, virtuoso solo fiddling and was thereafter short, sharp and sweet.
The first set closed with Hickman singing Bill Monroe’s much covered bluegrass classic “The Walls Of Time”, a bleak tale of a bereaved man grieving at his wife’s graveside and trying to communicate with her through “the walls of time”. It’s grim stuff but kept the right side of mawkishness by a great tune embellished here by Cassidy’s percussive bowing and wailing solo allied to Hickman’s powerful and suitably emotive vocal.
After a pause for coffee our troubadours returned with a modern bluegrass piece written by Hickman. His assured singing and topical lyrics pointed the finger at bankers and politicians in this tale of the new depression. Hickman and Cassidy are not an openly political act but several songs including this, “Jim Jones” and the later “The Shipyard Apprentice” suggest a sympathy with the folk leftist tradition.
Cassidy’s dry humour delivered in a stylised American drawl is a big feature of the duo’s live shows. His highly amusing impersonations of a string of famous US presidents presaged a lively set of Celtic tunes, “The Painter’s Jig” and “The Tempest Reel”.
Hickman harbours a fascination for the music of Bob Dylan and his solo sets frequently include something from the pen of Mr Zimmerman. One of his most effective covers of a Dylan song is “Girl From The North Country” which was recorded for “Severn Street” and was superbly played and sung here with Cassidy’s understated violin shadings gently enhancing Hickman’s vocal.
“The Shipyard Apprentice”, sometimes known as “The Fairfield Crane” features the words of Archie Fisher set to a melody by Bobby Campbell. The song tells the tale of poverty and suffering in the Clyde shipyards, it’s a bitter, angry song full of powerful imagery. Hickman’s voice manages to capture something of the anger and stoicism expressed in the lyrics with Cassidy’s bow strikes and pithy solo adding to the atmosphere. A left wing folk staple this is a poetic, powerful song that has been covered by Dick Gaughan and many others.
More Cassidy impressions, among them the soft targets of Johnny Mathis and James Blunt, presaged the lovely “Ashokan Farewell” a lament written about the American Civil War and described by Cassidy as “bitter sweet” before he played it on vibrato heavy solo violin.
The bluegrass tune “Little Maggie” featured fleet fiddling and equally speedy guitar picking as the duo ended the evening on a rousing note. An encore was inevitable and the pair returned to romp joyously through “Tiger Rag”, a tune recorded variously by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers. It’s also in the repertoire of Cassidy’s Swing Quartet who are due to tour the UK again in November 2013.
Even allowing for the absence of Deborah Rose this had been a hugely enjoyable evening of music that stepped lightly across genre lines and which featured some excellent singing and playing. Long term friends and musical partners Hickman and Cassidy exude an easy charm and their “odd couple” humour based on age and cultural differences is often extremely funny. I’d defy any fan of good music not to find something to enjoy in one of their shows.
From Deborah Rose;
“Latest excellent review from Ian Mann of James Hickman and Daniel Karl Cassidy performance at The Tarc Gallery.. I was sorry to miss this one.. but thanks to Derek Mills for superbly hosting it by all accounts 😊”
Thanks Deborah. Yes, Derek did do a fine job with the announcements and engaged in a bit of banter with James And Dan. Nice one.
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