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PETE COE Backbone


Backshift  BASHCD57

Pete Coe is often blessed with the ready-made critic’s epithet “one-man folk industry”, one which he wears lightly and modestly; and yet his lasting influence on the folk scene over the past 40 years (and continuing onward) is still inexplicably underestimated except among the cognoscenti who savour each of Pete’s comparatively rare solo gigs. Very few performers can so ably and persuasively take us from deep joy to thoughtful commentary via hardcore ballads and music-hall, all during the course of a single club or concert set and with expert instrumental and vocal dexterity.

Backbone, Pete’s latest CD, although a studio production (and an exceptionally well recorded one too), is both a finely balanced representation of his live set and a demonstration of his perennial strengths as a performer and educator. It also ideally encapsulates his predilections, his total understanding of (and unflinching commitment to) his chosen repertoire and his keenly scholarly approach to its sources, all tempered with an unrivalled vibrancy and a delicious sense of fun. Pete’s special way of bringing the material so very alive stimulates the listener into a fresh appreciation of what might otherwise be considered dusty and at best dull fare.

Take his version of Byker Hill, which opens the disc in splendid fashion: a lively and catchy but at the same time thought-provoking rendition, with loads of telling detail in the instrumental accompaniment (bouzouki, fiddle, concertina, mini-brass section – but it never feels overloaded) and a perceptive final verse that brings the song up to date. Only Pete could get away with following that with a seriously dark ballad: here, Fair Margaret & Sweet William, banjo-backed in authentic Appalachian fashion with brooding textual nuances so powerfully conveyed by Pete’s distinctive vocal styling. And the disc goes on to include brilliant treatments of two more “big ballads” (Wife Of Usher’s Well and Cruel Mother), without making the record sag under their weight or import. Other moments of sheer interpretive genius come with Pete’s shuffle-jazz setting of Cyril Tawney’s Monday Morning, which is exceedingly cannily followed by his superb version of Cyril’s version of Flora, Lily Of The West, and the age-old tall-tale of Blind Man He Can See (told with a gleeful abundance of true Yorkshire relish). Not to mention the fact that for added value (and devilment) Pete squeezes in (phrase chosen carefully!) an equally gleeful bonus track, his priceless, acutely-observed parody The Sound Of Hohner, arguably the melodeon joke to silence all other melodeon jokes…

Pete’s latest versions of Bob Zentz’s Light From The Lighthouse and the ceremonial Poor Old Horse will raise the roof of your CD player; here, as more selectively throughout the CD, Pete’s own lusty playing and singing are entirely fittingly counterpointed by the resplendent contributions of his cohorts and collaborators (sorry, it’s impossible to avoid all those punning “coe-worker” references!) who include Johnny Adams, Chris Coe, Alice Jones, Kirsty Bromley and Hugh Bradley. And the joyous atmosphere of the whole Ryburn 3Step tune-session experience is captured in the wonderful set of jigs (band 3) with its pumping piano, thrusting, bouncing fiddle and melodeon and clattering hammer dulcimer, while the CD’s second instrumental track, a delicious (if unexpected) pairing of two Swedish fiddle tunes, is no less gorgeous or vital. This is an exceptional record, cogently demonstrating that Pete is as much a backbone of the modern folk revival as this fine disc should itself by rights form a backbone of your own CD collection.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 87 of The Living Tradition magazine.