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David Kidman of Fatea

reviews Maid on the Shore by Niamh Boadle

Lancashire-born Niamh’s one of the new generation of performers who’ve been immersed in tradition from an early age (in her case not only that of English folk music but those of Irish song, music and dance too!). A veritable veteran of the North-West’s Folkus workshops, Niamh rapidly became incredibly well versed in several different disciplines, going on to garner multiple awards (BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards Finalist and winner of competitions at various folk festivals including Bromyard and Wath) - all by her mid-teens! And in 2016 she’s due to complete Newcastle’s Folk & Traditional Music degree course. So it’s almost inevitable that by now she’ll have attained an artistic maturity beyond her years, a state which album number two, Maid On The Shore, certainly confirms, while still harbouring plenty of promise and signposting to a future secured within the top echelons of the folk circuit.

Although I’ve been incrementally impressed by Niamh’s stage presence on each successive occasion that I’ve seen her perform live, I’m unable to comment on her parallel artistic progression on the recording front since (sadly) I never received Niamh’s debut album (Wild Rose) for review. However, it would appear from Maid On The Shore that the recording studio environment is currently beneficial for Niamh in that it enables her to indulge in a modicum of creative overdubbing, while WildGoose producer Doug Bailey’s expertise and abundance of skilled guidance and encouragement have resulted in some very believable arrangements that well convey the essence both of Niamh herself and of her chosen material.

First, though, it’s hard not to be won over by Niamh’s singing style, which in addition to its exemplary control and clarity of diction also achieves an added degree of character (and yes, drama too) through her natural and adept (yet not overblown) use of decoration. Her blend of relaxed poise and deliberate pointing at times calls to mind the singing of June Tabor, although the individual voices of the two women are quite different. I’m glad that Niamh has chosen to present three of the disc’s songs a cappella, and her reading of Thomas Davis’ inspirational The Flower Of Finae (learnt from Karan Casey) is an exceptional achievement that makes a powerful centrepiece for the CD. The other two a cappella selections (The Boys of Mullaghbawn and Dark Inishowen) may feel less substantial, if only by virtue of their brevity, but Niamh’s treatments prove no less distinguished. By contrast, Niamh also turns in a delicious syncopated canter through The Creggan White Hare that’s almost a cappella (only her graceful bodhrán lolloping along for company). Elsewhere, Niamh proves herself a singer capable of even greater diversity of expression on the scatted, jazzy phrasings of a song she wrote for (and about the wartime exploits of) her own grandfather. This is just one of three self-penned songs here, all disc highpoints as it turns out: Forget-Me-Not is based on a tragic story in a Preston newspaper clipping from 1881, while Red Dust Road was inspired by a recent Australian road trip Niamh made.

Second, there’s Niamh’s instrumental prowess to consider: again impressive, but not so overwhelming as to be knowingly showy. Her guitar technique is steady and assured, with a good sense of rhythm; pushing ahead with the requisite urgency and yet at the same time feeling quite unforced (the disc opener Forget-Me-Not provides a ready example of this). Niamh’s guitar, in common with any other instrument she plays (fiddle, whistle, mandolin or bodhrán) is heard to genuinely support the song she’s singing rather than accompanying it for its own sake; this is such a welcome change from the “look at me, I’m wonderful” stance of so many young-folk pretenders. The album’s one purely instrumental track, Ice On The Water, is an intriguing reworking of an American waltz composed by George Reynolds into a rather more Scandinavian-sounding piece whose performance style seems influenced almost as much by Niamh’s classical fiddle training as her folk-cred.

Niamh’s repertoire is commendably even-handed, with half-a-dozen traditional songs given due balance by the three own-compositions mentioned above and two contemporary pieces (by Anthony John Clarke and Kate Fagan - the latter’s Roll You Sweet Rain being a special delight, with its added vocal harmonies and Paul Sartin guesting on oboe to provide counterpoint for Niamh’s fiddle lines). Whatever the source, though, Niamh’s well-developed skill in arrangement is well to the fore, especially on Green Bushes and the album’s title track where the instrumental parts mirror the tension in the narrative.

With attractive design and artwork to boot, Maid On The Shore is most appealing product: a significantly accomplished and well-sounding disc that one might say boadles extremely well for Niamh’s future career in the folk world.