Folk with a twist, from The World’s smallest Big Band.
Release Date: 1st May 2021
Label: Mrs. Casey Records
Formats: CD / Digital
If you are one of the growing legion of admirers that Banter have gathered during their many festival appearances of recent years you will, no doubt, be waiting impatiently and in great anticipation for this latest offering. And I’m pleased to be able to tell you that your impatience is to be rewarded and your anticipation justified – because Banter 3 is a truly wonderful album – great, great fun, and a pleasure from start to finish.
Formed in 2015, “due to a ‘happy accident,’” Banter are: Tim Walker on drums, percussion, brass, vocals and dance calling, Nina Zella on keyboards and vocals and Simon Care on melodeon – all familiar names to anyone with an interest in the UK folk scene. Both of their previous albums, Yes (2017) and Dove (2019) were highly acclaimed and for this third outing, Banter add a fascinating and enjoyable twist to their traditional roots. With one exception, all of the songs and tunes on the album have traditional origins but, in a successful effort to “escape the full-on folkyness” (their words) of the original songs the band have applied new Nina Zella tunes to a number of traditional songs and have rearranged some familiar tunes to include strains of jazz, blues, pop and funk. And it’s an approach that works wonderfully!
Folk Historian and biographer Nigel Schofield captures the zeitgeist perfectly when he describes the music on Banter 3 as “Folk from a parallel reality” and his conclusion that “Banter 3 stands up proud and makes you want to shout ‘Brilliant!’” is no idle overstatement. Banter have been described as “The World’s smallest Big Band” and, on the evidence of Banter 3, that’s a description they thoroughly deserve – whilst there are many moments of great subtlety, when Banter decide to rock out, they do so with huge passion and pleasure – there are times when you’d swear that there must be twelve of them!
Banter 3 is one of those relatively rare albums on which every track is a cracker. The approach that the band have taken has succeeded in giving a contemporary feel to the songs, whilst respecting the traditional roots and managing to keep them intact. Nina’s tunes are tasteful and melodic and her piano playing is excellent; Tim’s brass contributions are, alternately jazzy and stately, and occasionally veer into Dixieland territory, whilst Simon’s melodeon provides a constant reminder of the traditional origins of the music. In many ways, the treatment of the tunes reminds me of Simon’s work with Whapweasel, and (occasionally) there’s a bit of a taste of Bellowhead about things.
The album gets off to a scorching start with The Labourer, a jaunty number on which Nina and Tim provide highly contrasting vocal parts and Bellowhead’s John Spiers makes a guest appearance on melodeon. Forsaken Mermaid is quieter, beautifully sung by Nina and given real atmosphere by the subtle touches of brass and percussion. The excellent Gathering Flowers is jazzy and funky, whilst the bright, happy Gloucester Hornpipe broaches reggae territory before heading off into Dixieland.
The melding of contemporary tune to traditional song is particularly successful on The Hitchin May Day Song, with Nina’s anthemic tune anchored to the song’s traditional roots by Simon’s underlying references to The Floral Dance. Tim introduces Moll in the Wind with a trumpet fanfare before heading into an arrangement that first recalls a theme tune to a Bond film that’s yet to be made, then gets souly, with some wonderful interaction between Simon’s melodeon and Tim’s trumpet.
My favourite track is possibly the beautiful Blackbirds and Thrushes. Nina gives another spine-tingling vocal performance, her tune is enchanting and, once again, Simon provides the traditional anchor, this time with a repeated “Brighton Camp” melodeon line. The album works up to a breezy finale with the Tide A’ Flowing/The Duchess tune set, the anthemic Country Life and the frantic Rare Bog, another excellent take on a well-known Morris tune that takes us on a trip from a Lancashire town square back into Dixieland.
Banter, and this third album in particular, have already garnered many admiring glances from folk’s movers and shakers. Steve Knightley (Show of Hands) describes Banter as “Featuring percussion, trumpet, melodeon and keyboards, Banter is an infectious, genre-hopping trio, mixing Morris tunes, soulful vocals and raucous chorus songs into a concert to ceilidh headliner,” whilst the great Ashley Hutchings, the architect of flok/rock, had this to say: “Banter have opened a new chapter with their exciting take on basically English dance music.”
But I’ll leave the last words to Fairport’s Simon Nicol who applied his lyrical turn of phrase to describe Banter 3 as follows: “Banter are a continuing problem for me. As they grow stronger and more confident in their unique voice, I still don’t know which I prefer: the effortless, irresistible danciness of it all, the lightest touch disguising the strongest pulse; or the strange beauty of the songs – all quirkiness and silk. Both these elements are reinforced on the (extremely well recorded) new waxing – so you can share my dilemma yourselves.” Simon, as always, has hit the nail squarely on the head. Listen to Banter 3 – I know you’ll agree.
Not featured on the album, but get a taste for Banter by watching their lockdown video of Jump at the Sun here: