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THE WILSON FAMILY - The Wilson Family Album

THE WILSON FAMILY - The Wilson Family Album
Harbourtown Records HARCD055

The mighty Teesside a cappella merchants are a well-established and popular act at many a more discerning folk festival and yet to some extent, their profile has remained resolutely regionally-based. They’re seriously unmissable (in more senses than one!), with a unique mob-handed presence that’s felt as well as heard! And yet, since their ‘professional’ debut as a five/six-piece in 1979, they’ve released only four albums.

Although each of the five Wilson brothers (Chris, Ken, Mike, Steve and Tom) is a fine and distinctive singer in his own right, it’s for the characteristic combined-Wilsons in-yer-face wall-of-sound that the Family is renowned, their stock-in-trade being an overwhelming, some would say overpowering ‘glorious noise’, where what comes across above all is the sheer forthright ebullience, the joy of singing; of siblings together in close harmony, creating out of contrasted yet complementary individual voices something consciously controlled and arranged yet without a trace of preciousness; internally flexible and yet also immovable as granite. Their performances cannot fail to impress, at whatever level. Indeed, the songs – and their performance – could almost be regarded as their ‘religion’; not least in that the sheer fervour and full-throated passion of their delivery has undoubtedly influenced (and given confidence to) many a singer (notably – many might say – the latest ‘young kids on the block’ The Young ’Uns).

And certainly the Wilsons were a key inspiration when I first took up singing, as much also for their uncompromising philosophy which, as I discovered, chimed so exactly with mine own. A philosophy which, then as now, is summed up perfectly in the album’s original sleeve note, which is reproduced in full for this welcome re-release: “A love of traditional songs as well as a recognition of the expression of contemporary social issues through song has resulted in our repertoire being considered by some to consist of incompatible bedfellows – we have never attempted to give a rational justification nor felt a reconciliation necessary.” Quite. And little wonder, then, that – as the lads say in the new, 23-years-on sleeve note that’s appended to this reissue – the passing of years has given them no good reason not to continue to include the majority of these songs within their current and on-going repertoire.

Set opener, John Barleycorn; the shanty Bay Of Mexico; Nelson’s Death And Victory; Peter Bellamy’s landmark Kipling setting Big Steamers; Ian Walker’s Hawks And Eagles; and chorus-friendly favourites Byker Hill, Young Banker and Sweep Chimney Sweep; all staples of their live sets for many years now. But there’s also the spellbinding combination of Martin Carter’s Somewhere In Japan with Dick Gaughan’s fiery Think Again, peerlessly performed on this studio recording. And what’s more, considering the tightly-knit nature of the group’s total repertoire, it might come as a surprise to find that almost none of the 18 pieces included on this record are duplicated on any of the Wilson Family’s previous or subsequent recordings: there’s only the group’s regular set-closer Close The Coalhouse Door, and Rap Her T’ Bank – and even the latter, by the way, was not included on the original LP and is added to this re-release presumably because it dates from the same sessions.

Over the years, the Wilsons have received numerous requests to re-release this album on CD but have, they say, “always been a little circumspect as to whether it would work as well in the smaller continuous track format”. However, they need not worry in the slightest, for they have every right to be extremely proud of these recordings. Their original hope, as expressed in that 1991 sleeve-note, that “this album will bring many more converts as well as satisfying existing believers”, is also every bit as relevant and true today as the performances themselves, which have more than withstood the test of time and the ravages of two decades.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 101 of The Living Tradition magazine.