The Full English – review

Sage, Gateshead
Folk stars combine for a joyful celebration of traditional songs, on a tour that springs from a digital music archive project

A hundred years ago, if you'd wanted to hear a genuine English folk song you'd have had to find a farmer or labourer or village elder who happened to know one. Now all you need is a Wi-Fi connection – thanks to the Full English, a £50,000 lottery-funded project to create a digital archive of source materials freely available online.

Singer and folk scholar Fay Hield was commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society to create new arrangements from the archive; and what began as a promise to perform a few numbers at the launch party turned into an album and tour by a collective of folk-world A-listers including Martin Simpson on guitar, Seth Lakeman on fiddle and Bellowhead's Sam Sweeney on seemingly everything including the splendidly arcane nickelharpa, a Scandinavian cross between a typewriter and a violin.

Some of the song collectors were every bit as colourful as the music they preserved. Martin Simpson mused on the sheer improbability that the eccentric Australian composer Percy Grainger [ ] should have displayed his athleticism while staying in a north Lincolnshire stately home by hurling a cricket ball from the front lawn, running through the building and catching it at the back. "You don't get that with Bartók" he observed.

In the interest of variety, not all the songs were drawn from the archive. Fay Hield's plangent version of Ralph Vaughan Williams's arrangement of Linden Lea was a fine example of a classical composer who borrowed freely from the folk tradition receiving payment in his own coin. And it was surprising to discover that the archaic refrain Fol the day-o love is sweet-o/Seeds are blooming underneath our feet-o has been freshly written for the project by the fiddler Nancy Kerr, for whom the seven-piece ensemble laid down a compelling beat-o.

Seth Lakeman showed a special affinity for the dark, broadside ballads collected by Frank Kidson. Stand by your Guns was a rousing, self-motivational piece originally sung on the decks of an 18th-century man-o-war; Portrait of my Wife (the wife being dead of course) had the lowering, sombre beauty of an angry sky. Bassist Ben Nicholls switched to concertina for a saucy shanty comparing the hospitality of Spanish girls to their less forthcoming English counterparts. Even with the full English on offer, there's always someone who prefers a Continental.

The Full English is at Darwin Suite, Derby (01332 255800) on 26 October then touring until 2 November.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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