Johnny Coppin – River of Dreams: Album Review

Stunning new collection from Gloucestershire’s supreme singer, songwriter, composer, anthologist and broadcaster, Johnny Coppin.

Release Date:  25th February 2022

Label: Red Sky Records

Formats: CD

Stunning.  Stunning.  Stunning.

There are probably other words in the English language that can express the sheer beauty of the new album from Gloucestershire singer/ songwriter/ composer/ anthologist and broadcaster Johnny Coppin, and they may even be more objective and descriptive than the one that I’ve chosen, but “stunning” is the adjective that I’m sticking with.  River of Dreams is a marvelous album – sublime, mellow, evocative, uncluttered and beautifully performed by Johnny and his hand-picked team of highly accomplished musicians.  Every song is perfectly crafted and beautifully performed, the selection of instruments to accompany each song is faultless and Johnny’s vocals are exquisite.  River of Dreams is, indeed, a joy to behold.

I’m sure that many At The Barrier regulars will be familiar with the work of Johnny Coppin.  He first entered our consciousness back in 1968 when he formed the prog/folk/rock band Decameron, a band that started life as a duo with singer/guitarist Dave Bell and slowly evolved into a six-piece lineup with the gradual addition of members Al Fenn (guitar), Geoff March (cello), Dik Cadbury (bass & violin) and Bob Critchley (drums).  I managed to catch Decameron on a couple of occasions during the mid-70s, including a memorable show in the autumn of 1975 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, when they appeared as part of a folk-rock extravaganza with Dutch band Fungus, Steve Ashley and Jack The Lad.  Curio:  Decameron were managed for a while by Jasper Carrott’s Fingimigig Agency!

Johnny released his first solo album, Roll On Dreamer, back in 1978, and, including live and compilation sets, River Of Dreams is his 23rd offering, and follows his live Midwinter set from 2020.  His work has included collections of poems-set-to-music, taking in the work of Gloucestershire poets such as Ivor Gurney, FW Hartley and Eva Dobell and an album-long collaboration with Cider With Rosie author, Laurie Lee – 1986’s Edge of the Day.

Along the way, Johnny has worked extensively with the likes of Phil Beer – with whom he has collaborated and toured, often as a duo, since 1976 – Mike Silver, fiddler Paul Burgess (formerly of The Old Swan Band) and ex-Decameron colleague Dik Cadbury.  For twenty years, he was the presenter of the BBC Radio Gloucester acoustic music show, Folk Roots, and, in 1986, he curated and presented Song of Gloucestershire, a BBC television special.  And all of this is just a lightning skip through Johnny’s long list of achievements…

Much of the material for River Of Dreams was written during lockdown and it’s wonderful to see yet another example of a respected musician using that period of enforced confinement constructively and rewardingly.  Eight of the twelve tracks on the album are Johnny Coppin compositions and, as well as the frustrations of and opportunities offered by lockdown, the songs cover a wide range of subject matter, including historical legend, wartime heroism, folklore, the natural beauty of these islands and the pleasure of existing.  As I’ve already indicated, Johnny’s selection of accompanying musicians is exemplary, and, here, his chosen few includes a number of long-term accomplices.  Johnny plays acoustic guitars and piano and takes the lead vocal on every track and, at various points throughout the album, he’s helped by Paul Burgess on fiddle, Dik Cadbury on harmony vocals, John Broomhall on piano and keyboards, Mick Chandler on drums, Gareth Sampson on bass, Geoff March on cello, Ben Church on dobro and David Pickering Pick on piano.  They make a beautiful sound.

As one would expect from a musician with Johnny’s poetic background, the lyrics are given prominence in every song.  Johnny is blessed with a wonderfully clear, rich, tuneful voice with an impressive range and he uses that asset to great effect to deliver each and every song with subtle clarity.

I was hooked right from the opening bars of The Bisley Boy, the song that gets River Of Dreams underway.  It’s a fascinating song that recounts the legend of a boy who, the story alleges, stepped into the shoes of the young Elizabeth – daughter of King Henry VIII – when she died suddenly whilst visiting Bisley Court in Gloucestershire and went on to reign in her place, as Queen.  The story is delivered as good, solid slice of folk-rock and, from the outset, we’re treated to some wonderful fiddle from Paul Burgess.

The frustrations of lockdown are echoed in the lyrics to Break Free, a nice, laid-back song with a lovely acoustic guitar solo from Johnny and the album’s first taste of John Broomhall’s wonderful piano.  The winding course of the mighty River Severn, its tendency to flood and the elvers that inhabit the river’s water are all celebrated in Song of the Severn, a homage to Sabrina, the goddess of the river.  It’s a majestic tune, brought to its full height by the cello contributions from Geoff March, and it’s one of the album’s true highlights.

The risk-filled activities of the Special Operation Executive (SOE) who worked undercover in occupied France during World War II are honoured in In The Heart of the War, another great song, structured around Johnny’s acoustic guitar, with a soft but solid bass part from Gareth Sampson and some lovely, subtle organ passages from John Broomhall.  The lyrics capture perfectly the sense of danger and stress of the undercover work undertaken by the SOE, but also contain a strain of optimism that reflects the likely mindset of those undertaking that work.

Let’s Find A Way is, quite probably, the best, most reflective song on the subject of lockdown that I’ve heard yet.  Alongside the tribute to the front-line personnel that kept the country functioning during the pandemic’s darkest days, the song touches on – not only the stresses and frustrations of confinement – but also the opportunities that many of us seized, to reset and rediscover.  As always, the musicianship is spot-on and the highlight this time is the dobro embellishments from Ben Church.

Johnny’s connection with Laurie Lee is revisited with Long Summer, a Lee poem to which Johnny has applied a delightful musical accompaniment of guitar and piano.  Johnny describes Lee’s poem as “A powerful and passionate evocation of summer” and it’s certainly that – on a cold, February afternoon, I found myself yearning for those warm and lazy days!  The icing is spread onto an already delicious cake by John Broomhall’s delightful piano coda.  American Civil War story, When The Master Calls The Roll, is the first of the songs that didn’t spring from Johnny’s productive fountain pen.  Written by Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell, the song tells the story of a soon-to-be-married couple whose ambitions were shattered by war.  Structured like an English folk song, particularly when Paul’s violin joins the fray, it’s an excellent number, wonderfully performed.

Johnny has long admired the tune of the Gaelic song A’ Choille Ghruamach and The Green Isle uses that tune, with new words provided by the poet Alison Brackenbury.  Alison’s lyrics recall the stories of Beira, the mother of all Scotland’s gods and goddesses and Johnny sings them with great expression and passion.  Johnny accompanies himself on piano and Paul’s recorder adds to the feeling of solitude that pervades the song. 

The traumas and freedoms of separation are explored, by way of a set of short anecdotes, in A Thousand Milles Away – to a simple yet fulfilling backing of guitar, dobro, bass and light-touch drums, before piano, guitar and more of that delightful Geoff March cello step in for The Greenway, another of the album’s real highlights.  Written by Stroud singer/songwriter Jehanne Mehta, it’s a song that describes graphically the delights to be found by wandering along the paths and byways of these islands.  That’s a subject matter very close to my heart and I found myself re-living some of my favourite walks as I listened.

The pleasures of greeting a new day in the company of a favourite companion are celebrated in first light, to an accompaniment of Johnny’s fingerpicked guitar, before the album closes with Dreams, yet another delightful – if sad – song, illuminated by a final flourish of Geoff’s cello.  It’s a truly wonderful ending to a superb album.  In fact, I’ll use that word again: Stunning.

It’s worth adding one last word.  The whole package is completed by the album’s artwork – a set of incredibly atmospheric photographs of south-west Ireland’s Beara Peninsula by Martin Fry that capture the essence of the music on this excellent album to a T.

If you’re going to be in the Cheltenham area on Thursday 7th April, you could do worse that popping along to The Beacon Theatre at 7:30pm, where Johnny will be performing the launch concert for River Of Dreams.  Tickets for the show are available by clicking here.

Not featured on River Of Dreams, but get a feel for Johnny Coppin by watching the official video to last year’s winter song, Keep The Flame here:

Johnny Coppin Online: Website / Facebook

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