Link to Living Tradition Homepage






Transition Records TRANSCD04

If ever a band belied the image conjured up by their name, then The Old Dance School is one such! No staid group of geriatrics gathered together for a sedate ceilidh practice, but instead a bunch of seven tremendously assured young musicians who have their own abundantly creative take on folk tradition and are entirely unafraid to call on any influence from their background and musical and life experiences. First encounter with their music can be a touch bewildering, in that although their basic template may be quite easily bagged as fusion-trad-folk there’s clearly a lot more going on in the mix even from the start.

Between them, the various band members encompass a breadth of musical experience (including the fertile fields of jazz, opera, early music and rock), but they all embrace a common love of folk music as a celebration of a shared cultural heritage and a joyous and enthusiastic expression of music-making. A key part of their mission is to make folk music accessible to younger people – but not by dumbing down or bastardising its core elements.

The beginnings of TODS as a performing unit stem from the musicians all studying together at Birmingham Conservatoire back in 2006 (the name comes from the location at which they used to meet – the Betty Fox School Of Ballet building). Birmingham, of course, being a hotbed of jazz, folk and world musicians and the stamping-ground of the esteemed Joe Broughton (who’d produced their stunning 2008 debut album Based On A True Story) and latterly the Urban Folk Quartet, whose percussionist Tom Chapman also plays a leading role in TODS – his cajón is a distinctive, signature element within the band’s sound, making a spicy change from the usual bodhrán-or-drumkit choice. Actually, the band’s whole instrumental complement is a little unusual, with a combined brilliance and richness that stems from the luxury of two violins (Helen Lancaster and Samantha Norman, the former doubling on viola), and a mini-wind-and-brass section comprising Laura Carter (whistles etc.) and Aaron Diaz (trumpet and flugelhorn); the lineup’s completed by guitarist and main vocalist Robin Beatty, the aforementioned Tom Chapman (cajón) and Adam Jarvis (double bass).

Producer Calum Malcolm has captured with intense clarity and presence the unique mix of colours produced by TODS, and a keen sense of atmospheric balance is maintained by the occasional incorporation of subtle loop textures that enhance the overall sound-picture. Forecast moves up a gear or two from Based On A True Story in its ever-more-vibrant inventiveness, with a set consisting almost entirely of own-compositions that are by turns exciting and thoughtful. Typically, an animated instrumental set will stake out its groove and get you involved right away, then by next circuit it’ll wrongfoot you by turning the time-signature into something really weird for a few bars or more – check out the tightrope of The Wire Over The River for starters! But the band are well versed in exploiting the amazing array of rhythmic possibilities in any tune or its setting, more so while they have so many avenues to explore with the diversity of instrumental colours they can summon forth. On the faster pieces, even though there are times when a violin will take the melody line, the part-writing is generally not that associated with a typical instrumental or session band, but more akin to the spatial (“vertical”) approach you find in classical music. At the same time, the band take good account of the more organic possibilities that jazz brings in, and the music never feels straitjacketed by any imposed structural considerations (The Taxidermist is a good example of this). The more contemplative of the instrumental pieces, often directly inspired by landscapes or experiences of the natural world, are beautiful experiences that contain many subtleties within their ostensibly simple musical thoughts: Little Lewis, written by Helen for the son of a close friend, is tender and beautiful yet (like its dedicatee) exhibits a strength in its capacity for growth within its basic structure.

Three of the disc’s ten tracks are songs: of the two from the pen of Robin Beatty, the enigmatic The Real Thing stands out, while the third is a delicate, but surprisingly effective 7/8 canter through Sydney Carter’s bold clarion call John Ball. So my forecast for TODS is that this energetic, fresh and supremely innovative musical statement will prove a winner and convince doubters who believe that all young bands are skilled tune-merchants with nothing behind their displays of technique: that’s so clearly not the case with TODS.

David Kidman

Secure On-line mailorder service
Buy this CD online from The Listening Post
The Listening Post is the CD mailorder service of The Living Tradition magazine.
This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.