by Ian Mann
July 01, 2019
An excellent evening of instrumental folk music. As part of a genuine double bill both acts delivered excellent sets of their own before teaming up for an engaging collaboration towards the close.
Owl Light Trio
Brackenbury & Neilson
Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry, Shropshire, 29/06/2019.
This double bill was presented as part of the “Folk at The Hermon” series at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre in Oswestry.
Curated by Claudia Lis and Barry Edwards the Hermon presents an eclectic programme of jazz, folk and world music events in addition to live theatre, comedy, poetry slams, workshops and more. The former Welsh Congregational chapel represents an excellent performance space with good sight lines and excellent acoustics. Claudia has deployed her artistic skills to decorate the place in agreeably Bohemian fashion and the venue also boasts a well stocked bar.
When I first attended the venue back in 2017 for a performance by the guitar duo of Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier the turnout was disappointingly low but since then the tireless efforts of Claudia and Barry have seen them developing an audience. My next visit to the Hermon at Easter 2018 saw around fifty people turning out for an excellent performance by those quirky Liverpudlian jazzers The Weave.
Claudia admits that attracting audiences for folk events has been easier than it has been for the jazz strand and this was reflected in tonight’s turn out of around seventy on the hottest night of the year to date. Virtually all of the downstairs seats were taken so we watched this event from the upstairs gallery.
Oswestry is somewhat distant from my Herefordshire base so I haven’t visited the Hermon quite as often as I would have liked, despite my friendship with Claudia and Barry and despite the impressive roster of jazz and folk artists that they’ve hosted over the last couple of years. This has included jazzers Gilad Atzmon, Alan Barnes, Julian Costello and Maciek Pysz plus folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow, now nationally known for performing the theme song to the BBC television series “Gentleman Jack”.
Turning to tonight’s show for which my interest had been piqued by the recent “Knife Angel” EP by violinist and composer Faith Brackenbury, an excellent recording made in the company of the leading jazz musicians Martin Speake (alto saxophone), Alex Maguire (piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Oli Hayhurst (double bass) and Will Glaser (drums). The work is a four movement suite lasting around half an hour in total and was inspired by the Knife Angel sculpture created by artist Alfie Bradley at the British Ironworks Centre near Oswestry. I also enjoyed a conversation with Bradbury at the recent performance by the Rob Luft Band at The Hive in nearby Shrewsbury.
My review of the “Knife Angel” EP can be read here;
Tonight’s double bill presented Brackenbury with her regular duo partner John Neilson (piano, accordion, concertina, bouzouki) in a shared bill with the Oxfordshire based Owl Light Trio. The previous evening the same two acts had performed at an Oxford venue with Brackenbury & Neilson opening for the Owl Light Trio. Tonight on Brackenbury & Neilson’s home turf it was the turn of the Oxfordshire trio to take to the stage first.
OWL LIGHT TRIO
Named after their 2017 début album “Owl Light” the trio consists of Jim Penny on concertina, Jane Griffiths on fiddle and viola and Colin Fletcher on acoustic guitar. Their repertoire includes traditional folk material arranged and adapted by the trio and is sourced from various folk traditions around the British Isles and beyond. Penny and Griffiths also write for the trio and the group also covers material by other contemporary composers working in the folk idiom.
The trio commenced with a Penny composition called “The Politician, the Lighthouse & the Trained Cormorant”, the curious title derived from an unfinished Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This proved to be an energetic opener with the intertwining melody lines of Penny’s concertina and Griffiths’ fiddle given considerable rhythmic impetus by Fletcher’s rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, his chording giving his colleagues room to stretch and soar. Griffiths took the first real solo of the night and there was also a series of invigorating melodic exchanges between fiddle and concertina.
Tonight’s performance included a number of tunes not included on the trio’s début album. Presumably these are newer, as yet undocumented pieces that are likely to turn up on the next recording. From the tune titles I’d assume that the short set comprised of “Peel” (as in bells) and “Five Pints of Doom Bar” represented a couple of original compositions. This presented a gentler, more pastoral side of the trio with Fletcher adopting a more melodic, finger picking style on the guitar as Penny and Griffiths delivered longer, more languorous melody lines with the concertina sometimes providing an underlying drone beneath the fiddle. Elsewhere the interplay between Penny and Griffiths continued to impress, the combination of instruments proving to be very effective.
The segue that opens the album was to feature next. This teamed Penny’s “Centime in Space” with the Scottish fiddler Mike Vass’ s “Cavers of Kirkcudbright” on a segue featuring lilting fiddle melodies and cleanly picked acoustic guitar, with the second tune of the sequence bringing an increase of energy levels.
The trio dipped into the Swedish folk tradition for their next piece, the title of which they couldn’t actually pronounce. “We just call it ‘r r r’” said Penny, who handled the bulk of the announcements. Or was that ‘aa aa aa’ given the Swedish double vowel sound. Whatever, the music sounded good with the now familiar mix of concertina and fiddle underpinned by picked acoustic guitar. The concertina is an instrument that us jazz fans hardly ever see, even though its relative, the accordion, has made considerable headway in the jazz world in recent years thanks to Richard Galliano and others. I have to say that I was greatly impressed with Penny’s virtuosity on the instrument and by the way that he combined so effectively with Griffiths throughout the performance, whether dovetailing and intertwining, or exchanging melodic ideas.
Sourced from the “Owl Light” the traditional Irish tune “Lucy Farr’s” had a particularly beguiling melody and featured Griffiths on the deeper toned viola, giving the music a melancholic, but undeniably beautiful edge.
Owl Light Trio concluded their performance with the original tune “My Good Friend”, described by Penny as “an ode to friendship and conviviality”. This proved to be a suitably energetic and uplifting piece featuring lithe concertina melodies and dancing fiddle allied to taut, rhythmic, propulsive guitar strumming as the trio finished with a flourish, prompting an excellent reception from an appreciative Oswestry audience.
During the break I treated myself to a copy of Owl Light Trio’s début album and can confirm that it holds up very favourably in the home listening environment with engineers Richard Neuberg and the band’s own Colin Fletcher deserving credit for the quality of the recorded sound. It’s a little outside my usual listening zone, but that can sometimes be a good thing, and it’s none the worse for that.
BRACKENBURY & NEILSON
Faith Brackenbury and John Neilson have been working together as a duo since 2013. Both live in the Welsh Border area around Oswestry, Neilson in Wales and Brackenbury in England. The title of their début album, “Crossings” refers to the countless times the pair have crossed the border in order to play together. It also references the village of Rhydycroesau, one of the two locations in which the album was recorded, the place name meaning ‘ford of the crosses’ or ‘crossings’.
Brackenbury & Neilson differ from Owl Light Trio in that almost all of their material is original. They not only draw on the folk tradition but also dip into other musical genres as well, including jazz and contemporary classical music. It’s this willingness to traverse musical boundaries that also serves to make “Crossings” a particularly appropriate album title.
All of their original material is jointly credited with most of the pieces beginning as free improvisations (very jazz!) before being, in the duo’s own words “knocked into shape”. The titles of many of the resultant tunes have names relating to locations specific or local to the performers, often with a story attached to them.
That said the performance began with a tune from the duo’s album prosaically titled “Fifteen”.
“The middle section of this piece is in alternating seven and eight time, which added together gives you the title” they explain. Featuring Neilson on the Hermon’s resident upright piano and Brackenbury on violin the piece was more contemporary in feel than the Owl Light’s material, embracing those jazz and classical elements alluded to above and occasionally nodding towards the avant garde. Like most of the duo’s music it was richly evocative and genuinely beautiful.
Neilson moved to piano accordion for another tune with a numerical title. The simply monikered “Number Six” was acknowledged as an example of a piece that had grown out of a spontaneous improvisation before undergoing further development. Neilson’s virtuosity on the accordion helped to give this item more of a conventional folk feel. This was one of the earliest pieces written by the duo and they no claim to have forgotten how it got its name. I found myself wondering whether the “Number Six” title is actually a reference to “The Prisoner” TV series starring Patrick McGoohan, which was famously filmed in the Italianate style Welsh tourist village of Portmeirion, developed by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.
I’m on surer ground with regard to the influence behind “Echo’s Bones”, which Neilson informed was the title of a poem by Samuel Beckett. With Neilson returning to the piano this was a dramatic piece mixing folk and neo-classical influences with Brackenbury deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques. Rich in terms of both dynamic contrast and harmonic development this was a performance that transcended the apparent limits of the duo format as the pair delivered another absorbing and immersive performance.
The first ‘outside’ item came in the shape of the tune “Fingal”, written by the Swedish folk fiddler Ellika Frisell, once a member of the band Filarfolket. Frisell’s tune was sourced from her solo album “Tokpolska”. Featuring Neilson on piano accordion this was a lively tune with a true folk feel about it.
The “Crossings” album commences with the original tune “New Invention”, named for a South Shropshire hamlet situated between the towns of Knighton and Clun. Like many of the duo’s location inspired pieces it evoked a strong sense of place with the rippling of Neilson’s piano simulating the gentle babble of the River Redlake that passes through the village. Meanwhile there was a yearning quality about the sound of Brackenbury’s violin that seemed to reflect the Victorian style aspiration of the place name. All this plus a sense of tranquillity and spaciousness evoking images of the rural Shropshire idyll chronicled by A.E. Housman. I was particularly impressed here by the melodic exchanges between Brackenbury and Neilson.
Next came a set of tunes with the traditional Albanian folk tune “The Joy of Labour” presaged by Neilson’s response piece “The Labour of Joy”. Featuring Neilson on piano accordion the composer’s own composition possessed a suitably introspective feel before morphing into the livelier traditional piece, a tune with a pronounced ‘Eastern European’ quality about it.
The title of “The Plastic Bridge” references the new foot bridge over the Nesscliffe bypass on the
A5, the deck of which is made from fibre-reinforced polymer. With Brackenbury playing viola (as I recall) this proved to be one of the duo’s most varied pieces, passing through a range of moods and dynamics and with Brackenbury again deploying pizzicato techniques at times. Accompanied by Neilson at the piano she was given plenty of scope for self expression and at one juncture the piece included her most percussive and aggressive bowing of the set. Neilson briefly picked up the concertina towards the close to introduce more of a folk aspect to this dramatic, and sometimes dark, piece.
The duo closed with “Bonizac”, named after a hamlet in Brittany, and thus something of a companion piece to “New Invention”. This piece featured Neilson on piano and incorporated a Breton folk tune, reflecting Neilson’s interest in the music of that region.
At this juncture Brackenbury and Neilson invited the members of Owl Light Trio to return to the stage to create a one off quintet – well, almost, I assume something similar had happened at Oxford the night before.
With a line up two violins, accordion, concertina and guitar the five musicians romped through a mazurka written by Joel Turner before engaging in a bout of instrument swappage for the North African flavourings of Neilson’s “The Erg”, named for the ever shifting sand dunes of the Sahara.
“I love stereo concertinas!” remarked Griffiths as Neilson and Penny doubled up while Brackenbury again deployed pizzicato techniques. Neilson made a further switch to bouzouki before the close of the tune.
Neilson made a final move back to accordion for the set of lively Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada) tunes that rounded off an excellent evening of instrumental folk music. Both acts had delivered excellent sets of their own before teaming up for an engaging collaboration towards the close. Despite their different approaches each act complemented the other very well in a genuine double bill and I’d be loath to pick a favourite, having thoroughly enjoyed both sets. I’d come to this gig due to Brackenbury’s involvement in the jazz world and was initially a little worried that it might all be a bit too ‘folky’ for me, but that was emphatically not the case.
Like the “Owl Light” album the richly evocative “Crossings” also makes for highly satisfying home listening and I’d certainly be interested in hearing something from the numerous other projects with which Brackenbury and Neilson are involved.
Congratulations to both groups for an excellent evening of music making and to Claudia Lis and Barry Edwards for having the vision to make it happen. It’s good to see the Hermon thriving, the venue is a very welcome addition to the Arts scene in the Welsh Borders.
For details of future events at Hermon Chapel please visit http://www.hermonchapel.com
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