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SPARE HANDS - A Dead Bod: Songs Of The Humber Waterways

SPARE HANDS - A Dead Bod: Songs Of The Humber Waterways
Private Label

The “loose collective” of Hull-area-based singers is swift to follow up on the success of its two previous CDs with another sturdy, superbly characterful and well-sung collection of folk-heritage songs with a specific Humber connection. The hallmarks of Spare Hands’ two previous albums are present and correct here – boundless enthusiasm, gritty authenticity, robust musicianship and lusty singing, backed up by a high standard of research, all indicative of Spare Hands’ intense pride in their heritage and their respect for the past and their sources.

This latest collection is honestly and accurately titled, and while its subject-matter may be drawn from a narrowly-defined geographical area, its contents certainly transcend any purely local-interest or “limited appeal” tag. This time, only a small handful of the items were familiar to me – suitably rousing accounts of The Collier Brig and Bill Meek’s brilliant ode to the steamer Lincoln Castle, and The Trip (a description of the daily routine of a Tom Pudding tugman plying the Aire & Calder, one of a sequence of three songs by Gezz Overington halfway through the CD). Otherwise, much of the easy familiarity of the songs emanates from their tunes, which in the best songmaker tradition are ‘borrowed’. In this category we find The Ballad Of Dead Bod (Botany Bay), Bury Me Down At Cape Kanin (Red River Valley) and Final Whistle (a retelling of the tale of Hull steamship SS Rialto, to Spancil Hill), while Billyboy and The Battle Of Sykehouse Lock are ‘localised’ adaptations of existing songs.

All members of Spare Hands are in great voice; Mick McGarry is particularly impressive, his sensitivity of expression on songs like Final Whistle truly complements his signature rough-hewn in-yer-face delivery on the more outgoing pieces. Spare Hands’ instrumental palette (whistles, fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, harmonica, guitar and various squeezeboxes including the streb – electronic to you and me! – melodeon) is attractive and fulsome without overegging the (Tom) pudding, so to speak. And although the lads’ able musicianship fits the songs well, the CD’s instrumental tracks are better than makeweights too. There’s a poignant, reflective moment with W.F. Sowerby’s depiction of a rather hair-raising voyage of the Humber Keel “Sobriety”, while Spare Hands’ good mate Dave Hill drops in to perform his own delectable, sprightly The Flying Lock Key (another tune based on a true boating experience), and staple session tune Midnight On The Water proves an apt and convivial coda for Goodbye, Old Humber Keel.

This is an object lesson in how to produce a folk-heritage CD, with detailed booklet notes (and there’s plenty of supplementary information and full lyrics available on the group’s excellent website). Once again, all proceeds are ploughed back into the ongoing project to research and promote songs of the local heritage.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 121 of The Living Tradition magazine.