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David Kidman of David Kidman

reviews Sharp Practice by Mary Humphreys & Anahata

This CD is a treasure. Exquisite in every detail, right from the
slightly punning title (recognising Cecil Sharp’s enormous contribution
to published English traditional folk song) down to the exemplary
clarity and expressiveness in both vocal and instrumental performance.
Strangely, Mary’s is not a familiar name except among cognoscenti – even
though she’s sung for many years in the folk clubs of Manchester and
Yorkshire. (This is the first of her recordings to be widely available,
indeed.) Mary is now based in East Anglia with her partner Anahata, a
talented instrumentalist who’s as well versed in orchestral, chamber and
improvised music as in traditional folk dance. Both musicians play in
ceilidh band Fendragon with Dave and Gina Holland, whose fiddle and/or
flute crop up occasionally on this disc to augment Mary’s English
concertina, banjo and keyboard and Anahata’s cello, anglo concertina and
copious melodeons. Together they create a textural blend that’s really
appealing, at once refined and cultured, sprightly and rumbustious;
there’s nothing remotely stiff, wooden or leaden about their ensemble
work here. Their accompaniments to the songs are richly textured,
although deceptively sparse in impact and thus never obtrusive. Mary’s
singing proves the attractive focal point of much of the disc – provided
you don’t insist on “pretty” singing, that is, for her voice is earthy
and expressive, clearly in the mould of Chris Coe (whom she namechecks
in her notes) and also oddly reminiscent at times of Norma Waterson. And
she sings from the heart, with a true involvement, dedication and
passion and an evident relish in communicating the song’s essence (only
once or twice did I feel that technique gets in the way of appreciation
– her uncharacteristic use of ornamentation on Spotted Cow, for
instance). So now to the repertoire. The disc’s subtitle (Rarities and
Renovations from the English Tradition) sets out Mary’s personal stall
in typically direct and truthful fashion, for she includes several songs
that have hitherto undeservedly languished in obscure corners and been
rarely collected (let alone heard in performance), alongside variants of
better-known songs which qualify as renovations, refreshing and often
innovative ventures that enable us to approach with renewed enthusiasm
songs that you might think have already been “done to death”. Into this
latter category come Mary’s version of the old chestnut The Mermaid in
which the usual ending is reversed and everyone goes home happy ever
after (while, intriguingly, the setting’s in the minor key!), Barb’ry
Ellen (where Mary sings a reconstructed text to the wonderful tune
collected by Sharp from Louie Hooper), and Sheath And Knife, where the
affectingly stately momentum of the accompaniment gives a different kind
of impetus to the ballad’s development and the inevitability of its
outcome (note also that Mary’s reconstruction gives Sir William the
final emotional comments on the tragedy). Back to the first-mentioned
category, and the disc’s two principal rarities turn out to be its
greatest delights. The first, No My Love, Not I (When Fishes Fly), is a
song that captivated me at once when I first heard Mary sing it at the
Ryburn 3-Step folk club, where she was once resident (she graciously
allowed me to “collect” it from her straightway, and my own adaptation
has since become a kind of cornerstone of my repertoire). This song so
very powerfully marries a truly beautiful tune to a decidedly
unsentimental account of an all-too-familiar tale.  The second of the
rarities, Pride Of The Season, is also a real jewel, and Mary sings it
unaccompanied (interestingly, this song shares with No Me Love a common
source – Kenneth Peacock, who collected it in Newfoundland in 1958).
After all that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that four of
the disc’s 13 tracks are instrumental sets which feature superbly-judged
combinations of familiar and unfamiliar tunes. And a further four tracks
pair songs with tunes in an eminently enticing and imaginative way –
especially notable is the closing “East Anglian set” which morphs Waltz
For The Valeta into The Faithful Sailor Boy. And so what if Mary’s
lively rendition of Young Banker (from the Frank Kidson collection)
closely mirrors that of Chris Coe – whose version Mary heard long before
the popular Watersons one, as it turns out – since it’s given an extra
degree of lift by the infectious arrangement. I could enthuse further,
but I don’t want to spoil the delicious element of surprise and
discovery you’ll get on playing this lovely disc.