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Whalebone and funky


by Ian Mann

June 09, 2009


An arresting blend of folk and rock influences from this acoustic instrumental trio.

This is the third album from this instrumental acoustic trio based in the Shropshire town of Bridgnorth. Founder member Steve Downs played guitar for such diverse figures as Roy Wood and Charlie Landsborough before forming Whalebone as a duo with fellow guitarist Charlotte Watson. Both were initially rock players but the folk influence of Landsborough became an increasingly important factor on the newly formed duo. The addition of fiddler Sarah Ibberson saw the folk element become even more pronounced as evidenced by much of the material featured on this live recording from 2008.

“Rootsy..” was recorded at the Cinnamon Arts Cafe in Bridgnorth (at that time owned by Ibberson) and is a good example of the group’s approach mixing traditional material with originals in the same vein plus distinctive versions of “rock classics” as Downs and Watson show that they’ve not forgotten their rock roots.

In the main it’s lively stuff full of jigs and reels such as the opening “King Of The Fairies” featuring Ibberson’s dramatic high register bowing above the rhythmic drive of the two guitarists. However as the beautiful air “Piper’s Weird” shows the trio can also play with great subtlety when required.

These opening two tunes are traditional pieces arranged by the band and feature Ibberson as the main instrumentalist. The original “Mouse” sits well with the traditional material but gives more prominence to the guitars; as a general rule the lead parts are played by Downs with Watson holding down the rhythm.

The group’s versions of “rock classics” are fairly striking reworks but are done with a degree of respect and affection for the originals. Indeed even the album title seems to tip it’s hat to The Who. They’re certainly not the kind of arch piss taking as purveyed by Hayseed Dixie and their ilk. When I saw the band at Leominster’s Bell Inn recently they performed a remarkable version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” (sadly absent here) and I believe they have some Led Zeppelin in the repertoire too. On “Rootsy..” the choice is Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing”, done instrumentally but fairly straight thus giving Downs the chance to show off his guitar skills.

Whalebone original “September Reel” mixes taut “Pinball Wizard” style guitar with Ibberson’s floating violin and there’s some string bending soloing from Downs too. It’s short but very arresting.

Another group original “Sheikh” adds a Middle Eastern flavour to the pot revealing world music as another influence among the various sources, a direction the trio may consider pursuing further.

A radically altered version of a Green Day tune “Time Of Your Life” leads off a three tune set teaming it with Whalebone originals “River Spirits” and “Come To Dance”. The Green Day piece is treated delicately, almost like an air and whilst I must confess I’m not familiar with the original “delicate” is not a word I’d normally associate with the American threesome. “River Spirits” is the vehicle for some lively guitar picking with fiddle coming in for the rousing “Come To Dance”.

The pairing of the traditional tunes “Tenpenny Bit” and “Rakes Of Kildare” makes for the most obviously “Irish” music of the set with Ibberson’s fiddle prominently featured.

Two attractive original compositions follow, the rousing “Travelling Song” and the group’s signature tune “Two Wild Women”, a six and a half minute epic that seems to owe something of it’s structure to Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” in the way it builds in intensity despite taking a sharp turn into more obviously folk orientated territory.

Finally a blistering set of three traditional tunes “Red Haired Boy/Mason’s Apron/Devil Amongst The Tailors” ends the album on a suitably energetic note.

Whalebone ply their trade in the pubs of the Midlands and the Welsh Borders and “Rootsy…” catches them on a particularly good night at one of their favourite venues with a supportive crowd that audibly gets right behind them.

Whilst the album obviously catches them at their best I’d urge anyone living in their catchment area to check them out. The quality of the musicianship is way above the average for pub bands in this area and they always deliver a good night out. The rock covers are inventively and affectionately done and are always big crowd pleasers but the folk and original material is hugely enjoyable too.

Check out for details of recordings and forthcoming dates. The group seem to be particularly popular for beer festivals which makes them a band after my own heart.

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