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Brief Lives

Hallamshire Traditions  HATRACD03

At last, here’s the solo debut of the singer/musician/songwriter who’s perhaps best known as one quarter of that excellent Sheffield band Crucible, but who also keeps himself inordinately busy playing with ceilidh band Hekety, Glorystrokes and the Privateers (not to mention a fairly recent stint as editor of South Yorkshire’s folk quarterly Stirrings!). Inevitably it’s Gavin’s own dynamic, forceful presence that pervades Brief Lives; it’s an urgent record, exuding immediacy almost as if his life depended on making it (life is brief after all) – but at the same time there’s a distinctly considered air about the project, with Gavin clearly having thought long and carefully about his chosen material and his approach to it, and spending time to thoroughly get to grips with its interpretation before committing it to CD. For, as he humbly insists on the press release: “these songs have been around a lot longer than I have and deserve to speak a little louder than me”.

The qualities of starkness (direct, uncompromising vision) and tenderness (affection and respect for sources) go hand in hand in Gavin’s keen realisations (and in some cases, recompositions) of traditional ballads and broadsides. His singing voice has a bold attack and commanding sense of expressive import, that’s complemented (for the most part not compromised) by its distinctive tremulous vibrato. This instrument turns in two storming unaccompanied performances here, the disc being brought to a memorable close with a dramatically charged rendition of House Carpenter that he’s wrought out of the base metals of versions by performers as diverse as Peter Bellamy and Kelly Joe Phelps. The other unaccompanied song is the extraordinary Silent Alarm; an original composition of Gavin’s taking the form of an unambiguously contemporary narrative (a violently emotional depiction of a slice-of-modern-day-life that’s every bit as masterly in its own way as Chris Wood’s One In A Million).

On the remainder of the record, Gavin accompanies himself on anglo concertina, guitar and cittern, with some exceedingly effective guest contributions from Ian Stephenson of 422, Kathryn Tickell’s band and KAN (here on double bass), fellow-Cruciblers Richard Arrowsmith (melodeon) and Helena Reynolds (fiddle), Matt Quinn (melodeon), Tyler Carson (fiddle), Natalie Fischer (backing vocals) and the album’s producer Tom Wright of PBS6 and the Eliza Carthy Band (backing vocals, banjo and guitar). With all those resources to call on, it’s no wonder that the aforementioned starker acappella moments are offset by what turn out to be decidedly chirpy renditions of Seven Gypsies, Ratcliffe Highway and British Man Of War, while the disc opens with a neat chunk of “misery in a major key” (Two Pretty Boys).

But for me, highlights among the accompanied tracks are Gavin’s inspirational version of the ostensibly unpromising Dutch folksong A Snow White Bird (taking on board the “fabulously singable” English words by Sheffield-based singer Jenny Reid), and his superb new account of Young Hastings (itself a slightly mangled variant of Tam Lin) which sports some particularly harmonious, atmospheric fiddle playing (Helena) within its fulsome box-driven setting. And then there’s False Knight, another standout, just Gavin here but with a spectral echo effect placed in the opposite channel to his concertina, somehow seeming to evoke the very ghost of his own grandfather who gave his life in WWII and whom this personal version of the ballad commemorates. Gavin’s take on On Board A Ninety-Eight is creatively set to a transposition of a morris tune.

All told, then, Brief Lives is a carefully crafted record, containing thoughtful and honest responses to traditional material which also have something to say about the present. It’s a record that Gavin was absolutely born to make, and reassures us that the tradition is in safe hands.

David Kidman

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