Hannah Read & Michael Starkey – Cross The Rolling Water: Album Review

Hannah Read & Michael Starkey gives those Old-timey, good-timey good vibes from Appalachia via the old country.

Release Date: 3rd June 2022

Label: Hudson Records

Format: CD / Digital / Vinyl

A remarkable listen, seeming scarcely of this age, transporting you back to simpler times and sturdy play for its own sake. Yet, still, somehow, sounding so current and now as to be slightly confounding. Hannah Read and Michael Starkey are both Scots, but Read has been Brooklyn based for some time, the plan being to immerse herself in old timey string band traditions, she wanting her fiddle playing to step back from the swirling and swooping virtuosity of her homeland, seeking to find a more homespun earthiness. Starkey is a banjo player from Edinburgh with a similar aim, to cut all the excess back, to reveal the pure core of melody intrinsic to a tune. So, kindred spirits. Meeting at an Appalachian session in the Scottish capital in late 2019, by December 2020 they were ready to commit this project to tape, a mix of traditional airs and self-penned pieces. If it sounds like a found sound capture of mountain folk in, well, any decade between now and the 1920s, then that is credit to the musicians and to producer Andy Bell. (Incidentally, if you are racking your brain as to where you know the name of Read from, it is from the Songs Of Separation project, on the Isle of Eigg, in 2015, the meeting of ten minds, ten women, singers and instrumentalists all, Eliza Carthy and Karine Polwart for two.)

Plain fiddle and banjo, unadorned, makes up the most of the album, proving anything other than one-dimensional. Apple Blossom opens and is a delight, a special, if you will, the two instruments all you need, together adding all the notes you need, none to waste and none to spare. Blue River follows and I am already under their spell, the sawing fiddle casting charms as Starkey’s banjo places every step in place. The livelier hoedown of Charleston follows, and everything is right with the world. At this stage I don’t know which songs are from the tradition and which their own, but, you know, it doesn’t matter a jot, it all fits snugly together and works as one. My ears are suggesting there is additional guitar, so, needing a retreat to the insert, I discover each play occasional and additional guitar. (These notes also credit Starkey for Good Vibes. And some!)

Shenandoah may be known, the Ana├»s Mitchell song, and adds vocals into the mix, Read showing herself to have a strong and sweet voice, much in the style of Suzanne Vega. Her voice and guitar, with a banjo scaffolding from Starkey is exquisite, a surprise after the instrumentals thus far. I defy you not to play it again and again, ahead of letting the album progress. Rose Tree then has a baroque feel to the banjo, calling to mind the classical interpretations of Bela Fleck, with Read’s sawing drone adding texture, ahead of picking up the melody, which has a whiff of Waiting For The Federals, a tune with as many names as renditions, but one I mainly associate with Ry Cooder. More of the same with North Missouri Wagoner and Ready For The Times To Get Better, the latter with a driving feel, and further vocals By now I have read the credits and seen this, characteristically, given Starkey’s fluid guitar, comes from the repertoire of Doc Watson, if an earlier song ahead of him. Starkey adds some sepulchral backing vocal, and it is a standout track.

Waltz De La Funguy follows; do you possibly think that could be a play on words? A dirgey, in a good way, instrumental, it is again fiddle and guitar, the banjo set aside for a second tune in a row. It is this variation, adding and subtracting instruments and adding and subtracting voice that sets this set apart from more sterile renditions, even if more faithful. An instrumental version of the earlier Shenandoah follows, the banjo strapped back on, setting the tone for the hootenanny of Old Kentucky Whiskey, which it puts you in the mind for, the odd intermittent vocal suggesting a little too much may have been imbibed. Sycamore Tree dances down similar routes, a break from the fiddle/banjo then maybe necessary, Starkey’s own Leonard’s Blues providing just that, a superlative dual guitar jous,t akin to the best of, again, Doc and, this time, Merle Watson, when the father and son play together. Johnny Come Along closes proceedings, much as they started, the consummate blend of fiddle and banjo. I’m exhausted and grinning.

Out of fashion, out of style, out of trend, this record shouldn’t really succeed. But it does, on the back of the clear good-natured enjoyment of it all, good vibes indeed, of the performers and their stellar performances.

Here’s Shenandoah from Hannah Read & Michael Starkey:

Hannah Read & Michael Starkey: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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