The Red Horse
OCK Records 060, 2000
The magpie effect in band repertoires in England, for some thirty or forty years, at the least, is self-evident: one may cite the 1950s and 1960s EFDSS compilations with Nan Fleming-Williams' name prominent; the Rakes; Flowers and Frolics and so on: quite natural, quite proper and with plenty of traditional precedent. Then there's the attempt by Tony Engle at Topic to draw attention to what was apprehended then (c.1973-1976) as English Country Music and has since been extended, latterly by Katie Howson et al, as another example. The discovery and rediscovery of eighteenth and nineteenth century manuscript collections has to be especially applauded as, for one thing, helping to redress an overemphasis on Playford and company (who have served, mark you, and continue to serve the tyro well); and to ridding the air of the smell of snobbery: print is - I believe this is how it's put - 'cool' again. Thus Hardy, Vickers, Joshua Jackson - does anyone recall an LP entitled Trip to Harrogate, 1977, which had a selection of tunes from JJ on it? - William Andrews as recently published by the Wren Trust in Okehampton only a dip into the past: there's an astonishing range on tap. Scan Tester's music on Topic's 1990 album provides a perspective.
Here, with Geckoes, the process is continued even if the band's repertoire has all the makeup of a Chelsea soccer team. Shetland and Northumbrian tunes, named-composer tunes, a Mackenna favourite, selections from print - English, Irish, French, mixed collections, family manuscripts, session tunes (one Belgian), a Welsh clog dance With that lot you've got to have an extremely strong band personality; and you've got to convince that it all sits well together.
I'm reminded, too, of an episode at Bampton some years ago when the side under the then squiredom of Francis Shergold danced to what was known as 'the Italian tune' (Rod Stradling was instrumental, I believe, in introducing it [As an interesting foreign tune which sounded very much like a Morris tune - yes and the tune for a Bampton double side-step dance - no! - Ed.]). A voice from the crowd - at the pre-Whit Sunday practice, I think - jocularly queried the event. 'That's not traditional, Francis?' Francis, puffing a little, rose to the bait. 'That is now!' he proclaimed.
If it works, use it Doubtless arguments will rage. For the moment, given the legitimacy of international trawling, what do Geckoes make of it?
First, the pace of their tunes seems to me, in the main, to be steady and appropriate to what one apprehends as a sort of standard, but not exclusive, dance fare of jig, hornpipe (in its four-four guise) and polka - but I have strong reservations about the colouring of the band's attack (below).
Second, there's plenty of experiment: a bass guitar, for instance (Andy Cheyne or Tom Miller), where a variety of approach is found. Sometimes, for example, instead of a regular emphasis on the first quaver of a three-or four-quaver phrase (jig or hornpipe, say), each quaver is played a sort of running effect. At other times, of course, the musician does choose to mark the rhythm with a single emphasised note; and, yet again, there's some cross-rhythm. There's a brave and welcome use of the concertina as a front-line melody-instrument (Andy Turner) Frequently, too, the same concertina adds an infilling sustained note against which the melody run is posed. And it's used in the upper register quite a lot, sometimes playing melody - parallel to or without any other melody instrument. Electricity is prominent where guitars and keyboards are involved. There's plenty of interchange amongst the instruments - fiddle, concertina, melodeon (Dave Parry); some voice interludes; some irregular rhythmic approaches to tunes. The use of ornament on notes is sparing throughout: a mark, perhaps, of a particular vision of how the music should progress.
There's a danger in all this, too, mind, as noted below.
Track 1 provides a moderate start: Da Full Rigged Ship and The Lad that Keep the Cattle, carefully presented rhythmically, but with what does seem to be an unease in jig-time. We also get a strong bass-line (a bit clangy) infill and cross-rhythms; but a melody line somewhat distanced at times. The melodeon and piano entry here provides enough bass on their/its own, as it happens. Track 2 is, I believe, better: beginning with The Great North Run '86 and following with Dark Girl Dressed in Blue (the Mckenna tune). Maybe the melodeon lacks sparkle in the second tune but there's a simple bass, unobtrusive harmonics and a well-balanced instrumental coming-together. Unfortunately, eventually, the sound becomes bland, the fiddle overwhelmed and the concertina line (top register) not really emphatic enough to make a difference.
Sometimes, indeed, as in track 3, you get the impression that the band is good on effect but that the substance is less impressive. The whistle here, for example, has you wondering: why bother? ('Well, I just happened to have one with me.') As a listening experience, the second tune on the track, Venosc, a pleasant French composition, could grow on you - an effective progression of the bass line helps, for instance; but where does dance come in? Similarly, Sommervals (track 4 - from, I guess, Sweden) has a distinctive listening ambience though, as a tune, in its second half, it does not seem to have achieved a settled state - may be a little 'drawing-room' for use at a dance. Attached to Sommervals, The Furze Field, from the late Arnold Woodley (good to hear this played), is slipped neatly in with a reduced kind of sound and has a surprising, single drum beat striking the stately rhythm. There are signs, in this way, that the band's ideas could work.
I was delighted to hear two tunes previously unknown to me in Market Rasen Quickstep and Louth Quickstep (blurb says that they have a 'down-home stomp' about them ?) I don't believe, though, that the fiddle made the most of its opportunity as lead instrument and the bass seems to me to need more variety where the choice has been to provide less. The melody line in the second tune, a more choppy one altogether than the first, could have done with being made more prominent. I can't quite see, either, what the introduction to the track or the one or two novelty effects thrown in are meant to achieve - what's the triangle - or whatever - doing here? ('Well, I just happened ') This kind of intrusion is detached from the progress of the tunes.
The blurb asserts that these are 'inventive arrangements' and that the music is 'full of fresh ideas'. Well, yes and no. Overall, I found that there's an absence of distinctive character in the playing. The fiddles (Caroline Ritson and Andy Cheyne), I have to say, exemplify this. It's a fine line, but you might expect a leaning on the note here and there or, maybe, a flourish around it which could have the effect of inspiring other players to focus, to play for each other more directly and so to achieve a distinctive camaraderie which will vest itself in the sound. Clearly here the band chooses to make an overall, sober impact where the individual instruments are used in a complementary way: usually, tight enough playing, the threads held together more or less by Tom Miller's keyboards (lauded in the blurb as extending the band's 'musical palette') and by Andy Turner's concertina. Still, there seems to me to be an absence of divil.
In this respect, I could've done with more use of the mechanical space available on an Anglo-concertina, the 'whuff' it can give; whereas Andy Turner seems content to play the notes in a relatively restrained manner (he does, at least, let go with the odd fandangle). The melodeon, too, sometimes sounds soft in the same way.
I believe the band to be genuinely trying to find a 'voice'. Yet there's a sense, for me, that they've tried too hard. There's often a lack of naturalness in the playing. The band seems, at times, to be afraid of a simple, clean melodic line and must involve all the instruments somehow which, in the end, clutters the sound.
It's a band that cannot quite seem to relax, especially in jig-playing: nowhere there does it sound comfortable. I can't put a finger on it but, perhaps, its because the jig phrasing is somehow lost: a sense of a collection of notes which haven't coalesced into music.
In tracks 6, 7 and 8 the band tends to fall away. First, the three tunes that make up Track 6, The Red Horse, The Shaven Crown and The Lamb, named by Andy Cheyne, the composer, for pubs, all have complex, irregular rhythmic impulses: a novelty indeed; clever, even; but overdone. You can't always handily detect the lines of the tune and the idea of 'schottische' - for that is what they're called - turns into a shaky one. A contrapuntal effect is offered through slabs of held notes but the two opposed impulses don't mesh. Then the band stops and sings - that is, uses sounds (Jacques Loussier stuff) but not words - in an equally complex fashion. Great fun: well done in its way ... but what's it got to do with dancing (for instance)? The ending of the track is pure gimmick.
Nor, in Track 7, does the band seem to have any conception of the shape of a reel, The Silver Spire. Once again, it plays notes; but does not phrase the tune. Perhaps an occasional off-beat emphasis in the melody line could have aided impulse. Once again, the counter is a series of sustained chords and the concertina in top register. A second tune is yoked in with the reel, Far From Being Gruntled by Andy Cheyne again, called here a polka - but that's a tune that ought to have a different pattern to a reel. It's second half, in any case, is particularly flat. If, finally, this really is a polka, then I'm Jackie Daly.
There seems to be an intention to run this particular track in with the next (what dance had the band in mind?) - a sustained note connects them - but here we move into jig mode (I Do Not Incline and Tousle yer Kerchie - O'Neill and - why, stap me - the same Joshua Jackson) and, once again, the band's discomfort with jig-time is evident. The fiddle here simply can't cope with the rhythm and the central thrust of the tunes against the by now familiar sustained note and upper-register concertina together with a slack melodeon might all combine to indicate failing imagination. The melodeon, in the second tune, is peculiarly muffled, the counter-runs almost ugly. The instruments don't sound as if they're in charge and they get slightly out of synch. Interesting: the comment, in the blurb, on the jigs is that they're 'full-on' - whatever that might mean - and 'driving'. Can't say that that's my impression. The track offers band image right enough but the ending of this track is, truly, cat! The band has let its potential colour run away with itself, the impact of the CD become more important than the function of the music. Fair enough in one way; but see below
It's not that the playing is at all bad per se but it's just a little distanced from total familiarity and ease with the tunes and, as far as listening to them goes, without a clear direction. Novelty effect wears off and the substance of the music doesn't always rise.
There's a delicate pick-up in the next track which I assume to be Scottish a Brice followed by Trip to the Bar, the first a French tune and the second a recent composition (Chris Beaumont) in which case, my CD inset has an unfortunate glitch in it, since these listed tunes are transposed with the listed hornpipe tracks. Whatever, and there's a nice piano backing here, I wonder what kind of dance is in mind? This track is very much against the run of play throughout the CD. The link between first and second tune is wasteful (how do you dance to it?) and a sharper definition of melody altogether is needed in that second tune. Again, too, it's certainly not unpleasant as a listening piece and this listening potential, as noted, is scattered throughout the CD, but we're made aware through this that maybe the band has probably tried to mix too many modes - resulting from too wide choice of sources, perhaps. Are we meant to listen or to dance? Can the band make its mind up? That is: is it drawing attention to itself as a practical working band or is it trying to throw the shape - absolutely legitimate (whatever your likes or dislikes) in both cases? I believe it to be caught between two stools. Thus, for instance, the deliberate slowing-down of The Furze Field and then a reversion to regular rhythm before the final bars (skilled dancing!)
The hornpipe track, True Blue, London Hornpipe and Jack the Courser - all unfamiliar tunes, got from family manuscripts, for which the band earns Brownie points, encapsulates both problems and success. The pace throughout is very steady but the treatment gets cluttered - too many instruments, too many different sounds, that absence of cleanliness in melodic line, a lack of fluency in phrasing in the second tune. I'm not sure, either, if the band has quite sorted out its use or otherwise of dotted notes. Yet the tunes more or less flow. The band seems to be reasonably comfortable. The third tune has a pleasant overall sound to it. You get, then, the sense, that a 'voice' can be managed as long as it's not overcomplicated.
The following track involves a sung version of a nursery song, Nickely Hood (Caroline Ritson): straightforward if unremarkable - but why? Is this dance-music or not? Is this an interlude? The jig rhythm once more initially fails to bounce though the band does get into a kind of stride as the track progresses through a second tune, The Cream Pot. I sense that this tune is played at a slightly more brisk pace than previous jigs on the CD. Inevitably, by now, though, the clutter returns.
Track 12 (Morris Dance and The Knife Edge - our Belgian tune) has a melody line played on concertina and melodeon but when the melodeon goes into accompanying mode the rather pedantic emphasis pushes the concertina melody into the background. In the second tune, the edge of articulation in simple runs of notes is fudged. The track stumbles. What started off in spritely enough fashion ends in a weak second half of the second tune.
Finally (with Ffaniglen and Suddo Heb Oirhain), we seem to return to the kind of sound made at the beginning with the same sort of approach of clangy guitar, sustained concertina notes and a bit of a mishmash of sound ultimately. Is this, then, the supposed benchmark of the band? We're urged, in the blurb, to 'just listen to that closing medley'. Pity it's in jig time. The tunes get slacker and slacker, stutter, and are almost strangled.
Well: what kind of band have we got? For a start, I'd hate to think of the trouble in setting-up in Aldworth, Hailey or Kingswear village halls. I doubt if any of those places or others like them could afford the fee anyway. That, as the man said, is the way of things; but, immediately, the implied wholescale largeness of conception poses a question: what kind of audience or participation is the band aiming for? Here's the blurb:
Geckoes are in the front rank of bands on the English Ceilidh scene. A favourite attraction at dance clubs, Geckoes regularly bring their exciting music to major folk festivals including Sidmouth, Towersey, Warwick, Whitby and many others. Geckoes' music has all the energy and style that it takes to fill a floor with hundreds of delighted - if somewhat sweaty - dancers.So there's an English Ceilidh 'scene'? Well, well. Hundreds of sweaty dancers You're welcome this is clearly a band of its time. However, I do resist the following:
The heart and spirit of The Red Horse is dance. There isn't single one of its thirteen tracks that doesn't drag you right out of your chair, getting that body of yours moving to irresistible rhythms.Well, the blurb would have it that way, wouldn't it; but see my point about a division of target?
Some works, then. Some definitely doesn't.
Oh: nearly forgot: band of its time there's a virtual tunebook available but I can't work out exactly where. Try the Geckoes website: www.hulot.demon.co.uk/Geckoes.htm
Ultimately, I reckon that there's a fair amount to admire on this CD and experiment is always engaging but the band seems restless, without a distinguishing mark as yet. I'm not convinced that novel effect is sustained to satisfying proportions. The band seems to me to unclear about a purpose on occasion. Perhaps it needs to 'chill out' for a while (is that correct?) - and do a bit of thinking?
Something is missing: and I'd gauge it to be that degree of absolute confidence which comes from long playing habits. There's a clear urge for newness here, for making some kind of mark on a 'scene', but it turns out sometimes to be self-defeating because the musicians aren't, it seems, fully enough conversant with their material to be able to play, as it were, without thinking (give them fifteen years). Even when you ignore the usual hype, you're faced with a piece of plastic here which has to grab you by whatever's handy and it stands to reason that that isn't, strictly, your dancing urge or capacity. Six and half out of ten, I reckon, but I expect I'll get slaughtered
Roly Brown - 23.3.00
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