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MICK RYAN & PAUL DOWNES Away in the West

Away in the West

WildGoose Studios    WGS375CD

Where do you want me to start?   With the good news, or the very good news?
Okay, let me make up your mind for you. 

We’ll start with the good news that – contrary to a rumour I heard – Mick and his erstwhile partner Pete Harris, have not broken up.  Far from it.  It is just that Pete is not enamoured of long trips to gigs any more, and as he is equally well-known for his blues band, he finds that he can get a big percentage of all the gigs he wants, within just 40 miles of his home in the South Coast region of England.

Now, he is some act to follow.  Not only is he a dazzling instrumentalist, he is a fair old singer to boot.   His harmonies (and fantastically simpatico accompaniment) fitted the beautiful baritone voice of Mick Ryan, like Gerald Moore fitted Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.    Pretty close to perfection, in other words.  And so, it is good news that the partnership is not over.

But the very good news is that Mick has done the “impossible” and replaced such a formidable performer, with a man who can actually match Pete in both areas of voice and multi-instrumental virtuosity.  I refer to Paul Downes, a man who needs no introduction to British folkies, and someone furthermore, who has paid his dues to the Folk Scene several times over.

They have come up here with an album that provides lots of highs, and nothing that even came close to making me frown.   (Aren’t there any negatives?  Surely, in any proper objective review, there should be one or two?  Otherwise reviews just become puff-jobs.)  Okay, push me to name a negative aspect and I would say that I miss WildGoose’s hallmark classy liner booklet: we have here just a double page, with a single line explanation against some songs.  I could have done with much more information on the writing and history of the songs (I say “history”, for several of the songs come from Mick’s back-catalogue).   And, if I am to be hyper-critical, I might say that perhaps one song slightly jarred: No Evil, the song Mick wrote after visiting the Workhouse Museum in Southwell in Notts.    I too have twice visited that National Trust property, and whilst finding the staff pleasant and the contents fascinating, could not come away with anything other than a huge feeling of sadness from what is really an unspeakably grim place.   And whilst Mick captures the pain of the place in his lyrics, the lively melody (slightly bizarrely) does not quite match the words.  The song thus comes over as a rather jaunty piece.

But, as I say, the highs of this CD far outweigh the lows.    Too many highs to list in full, but here goes.  First, there is a quite magnificent song at track 12, almost hidden away (i.e. you don’t expect it coming) ready to explode into your consciousness.  Mick’s song Fire Against The Cold, is the song of the album, and was inspired by Brian Keenan’s account of how he coped with solitary confinement in the Lebanon.  The song is a supreme example of what Mick Ryan the songwriter does best: he takes a specific scene/story etc, and turns the micro into the macro, so the song can fit anyone, anywhere.   There is fine vocal harmony here from Paul, incidentally, on a very strong chorus, and also, Paul Hutchinson’s accordion shines through.

The Institute, the song that closes the album, is also about the Southwell workhouse, and is one I embraced more readily than the aforementioned No Evil.  It is a strong song with a divine chorus (again, Paul’s vocal harmonies are sublime).
Other songs that registered strongly, were Mick’s lyrics to a trad melody for South Armagh (Paul’s plaintive banjo to the fore): it is a song that tells us that preconceived notions are sometimes wrong; Love Is Life, a touching song Mick wrote following the death of his father, and featuring some gutsy guitar work from Paul; and Greenland, a whaling song learned from the singing of AL Lloyd (imaginatively arranged by Paul).

And it occurs to me as I bring this review to a close, that it has been remiss of me not to mention Jackie Oates on viola.   That viola pops up throughout the album and is never less than authoritative throughout.

Dai Woosnam

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