Chris Leslie – Fiddle Back: Album Review

Furloughed Fairporter uses his lock down incarceration productively.

Release Date:  Out Now

Label: Paws Records

Formats: CD

Like many of us, lots of the people we depend upon for our musical stimulation have been forced onto the WFH treadmill in order to ensure that our supply of great music does not run dry during these testing times.  Fairport multi-instrumentalist, Chris Leslie, incarcerated at home at the end of May and seeing his prospects of playing live (including at the beloved Fairport’s Cropredy Convention) slowly melting away, recognised his opportunity to give the world a positive boost.  The result is his excellent new album, Fiddle Back.

Not just a welcome piece of product in these Fairport-deprived times, Fiddle Back is a splendid collection of songs and tunes in its own right!  Half instrumental, half vocal; half self-composed, half trad-arr, this is a great album which enables Chris to stretch out and show us all what he can do with a range of instruments, his wonderful voice, his composing biro and a bit of home studio wizardry.  He plays all the instruments and sings all the harmonies – roll over Mike Oldfield – and the result is a pleasure to listen to, from start to finish.

We kick off with The Traveller’s Song, a typical Chris Leslie composition with a mystical feel that I suspect we’ll be hearing included in a Fairport set before too long.  The Flight/The Irish Devil is our first serving of Trad and, by now, we’re starting to get a feel for the effort that has gone into selecting and mixing the instrumentation.  The Flight is a light, happy Irish air; The Irish Devil has aa slightly more sinister edge, but is equally happy and enjoyable and the instruments – violins, mandolin and mandocello (I think) blend together wonderfully. 

The Trad theme continues with Old Morpeth, a fluent foot-tapper in which violin and mandolin vie for the lead role, before we head off into “familiar but different” territory with Chris’s version of Fairport’s first classic folk song reworking, A Sailor’s Life.  Chris’s version of the song on Fiddle Back is, perhaps, truer to the originally collected version of the song, with more focus given to the vocal and the lyrics than to instrumental pyrotechnics and the result is radically different to the Fairport version but equally valid and enjoyable, particularly the ghostly harmonies at the end of the song when the narrator realises that her “Sweet William” is no more…

Chris’s fascination with the sea has always been clearly evident, as Fairport epics such as Edge of the World and Mercy Bay testify.  On The Sea Spirit, he takes the opportunity to give an instrumental voice to the sea’s power and the resulting tune invokes images of wild Scottish and Scandinavian coastlines.  Sticking with the instrumentals, St Anne’s Reel is another lovely tune with instrumentation once again masterfully arranged, and Sandy River Belle gets the feet tapping with its Appalachian rhythms.

Perhaps the album’s centrepiece is the beautiful Song for Andreas.  Dedicated to Andreas Pile, the maker of Chris’s treasured 1925 Hardanger fiddle it’s one of Chris’s personality studies (think also The Fossil Hunter, Theodore’s Song or Rui’s Guitar) in which the main  subject of the song is embellished with biographical details of the principal character.  This approach works marvellously on Song for Andreas, and the fiddle playing is lovely too!

Curly Headed Ploughboy is a well-known Morris tune, originally collected by Cecil Sharp in Abingdon, Oxfordshire and it’s been recorded by Chris before, on Grandson of Morris On.  This time out, he’s given the tune a bit of a salsa feel, and it’s a good, lively injection that’ll have me whistling the tune on my next walk.

Angels of the North and South/Elvish is the album’s longest track.  An amalgam of two of Chris’s tunes, we start with a Scottish feel, given a mystical edge with the addition of whistle, which then suddenly changes into a chaotic, frantic skirl with strong Swedish tones.  Cornish-influenced Gwyr ha Gwynn ha Glas is summery and pastoral and Resia Valley Melody is a tune from the region of Udina in Northern Italy which conjures pictures of pre-COVID revellers, circle dancing in the village square.

On closing track, Fiddle Back, Chris reaches out to demonstrate what he and his beautiful fiddles can do.  Hearing this album, I’m so pleased that Chris discovered Fairport all those years ago, that, in turn, Fairport knew to look no further that Chris when the need for a new member arose and, finally, that Chris chose to use his lockdown-enforced free time to come up with this excellent album.  Thank you, Chris Leslie!

Fiddle Back is out now and can be obtained, direct from Chris Leslie on his website.

Read Chris Leslie’s contribution to our Why I Love column here.

Watch Chris sing I’m Already There with Fairport Convention (from 2010) below. You can join Fairport Convention on their YouTube channel on 15th August for Fairport’s Cropredy Connection; an evening of music in place of the annual festival.

Chris Leslie: Website / Facebook 

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