David Kidman of fRoots
reviews Beyond the quay by Tom & Barbara BrownFor their fourth WildGoose record, the companionable West Country couple have chosen to present an entire programme of songs with a maritime leaning - but with not a shanty in sight! And it's a resounding success.
Some of its songs have been in Tom and Barbara's repertoire for years in one form or other, but this themed disc furnishes an ideal opportunity to revisit them. Two sets of paired songs have their origins in Seascape, a show about North Devon maritime history which Tom and Barbara put together back in 1979: Padstow Bar To Lundy Light, an evocative travelogue, was specially composed by Tom for the project, as was The Wreck Of The Montagu, the true story of an embarrassing naval disaster. Other songs discovered by Tom & Barbara at around the same time include The Watchet Sailor (for which Tom provides Barbara with an imaginative guitar accompaniment) and the Newfoundland ballad The Spirits Of George's Bank. The latter, together with a further six of the disc's sixteen tracks, is sung unaccompanied - a testament to the excellence of the couple's sturdy singing voices. These are also heard to good effect on The Ship In Distress, for which the sole instrumental accompaniment is provided by some eerie harpeleik (Norwegian fretless zither) chordings. Although Tom and Barbara always treat their chosen (predominantly traditional) sources with respect, they're not averse to having fun with the material too, as their brilliantly characterised “argument” of The Herring's Head demonstrates, while they also relish Redd Sullivan's venomous Firing The Mauritania. Elsewhere, Barbara delights in singing The Blackbird “in the old way” (in the version collected by Fred Hamer from Shropshire singer May Bradley) - as also does Tom with The Bold Princess Royal.
Outside of the purely unaccompanied selections, the Browns are accorded some distinctly spirited backing from (among others) Keith Kendrick and the Askew Sisters, whose contributions so perfectly match Tom and Barbara's own lively, passionate delivery. For instance, I don't think I've heard a more infectious treatment of Ten Thousand Miles (Away): here you can virtually feel the salt spray in the wheezing bellows-action of Hazel's melodeon, with Keith's anglo concertina and Emily's breezy fiddle steering the gallant barque along on the morning tide.
Sporting informative (if somewhat discursive!) booklet notes, this is a superbly programmed, vitally performed collection that convinces on all levels: neither a dry, dusty ship's chest of maritime academia nor a hastily-cobbled set of songs to appeal to the sea-faring novice or tourist, but a significantly entertaining hour's worth of good songs well sung, proving that the traditional folk experience is very much alive and well.