Ashley Hutchings – More Songs From The Shows: Album Review

The Guv’nor – 100 Not Out. Ashley Hutchings gives us More Songs From The Shows.

Release Date:  19th August 2022

Label: Talking Elephant Records

Formats: CD

Well – would you believe it?  More Songs From The Shows – Talking Elephant’s new compilation of highlights from some of Ashley Hutchings’ most recent song and spoken word projects is The Guv’nor’s 100th album release!  His career to date spans six decades, has involved more than 200 collaborations and, it seems, there’s still plenty fuel in the Ashley Hutchings tank.

More Songs From the Shows features selections from four Hutching projects – From Psychedelia To Sonnets, Ashley’s retrospective of his career from those heady Summer of Love days, through influences drawn from literature, theatre, classical music and dance, Beginnings of Fairport Convention, his look back to those days when – in his words – “the rules of safety-first were left unheeded” – as Fairport found their fledgling feet, Dylancentric, that celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s seminal 1969 comeback concert on The Isle of Wight, and, most recently Paradise and Thorns, Ashley’s return to the love songs of his magnificent 1987 triumph, the By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down and Wept album and its 2018 sequel.

Ashley Hutchings and The Albion Band have a long association with the theatre and multi-media production.  It’s a love affair that started back in 1977, when Ashley was invited to produce a TV Special, Here We Come a-Wassailing, that focused upon the midwinter pagan traditions of our islands.  The affair blossomed when Ashley and the Albions provided the music (and numerous cast members) for Keith Dewhurst’s National Theatre production of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford novel, then went into overdrive as The Albions became involved with productions including The Albion River Hymn (a celebration of The River Thames), numerous Albion Christmas Shows and The Wild Side Of Town – a campaign-with-music conducted with naturalist/environmentalist Chris Baines aimed at raising awareness of urban wildlife.

In 1992, two albums – Songs From The Shows and Songs From The Shows Volume 2 – compiling highlights from each of the above projects (and others) made their appearance.  Since then, Ashley’s fascination and involvement with the multimedia possibilities of the theatre have since continued unabated, it’s time now for a further collection.  Talking Elephant has duly done the honours.

From Psychedelia to Sonnets was Ashley’s 2016 project.  Accompanied by Ruth Angell on vocals, violin, guitar and keyboards and our old friend Becky Mills on vocals and guitar, the project was Ashley’s reappraisal of his own career, through song and spoken word.  More Songs From the Shows includes five selections from the project, and they’ve been wisely chosen.  Welcome to the World, a recollection of the discovery of adolescent love is a great opener, with nice acoustic guitar from Becky, some lovely fiddle from Ruth and a signature half-spoken vocal from Ashley, Want of Will is an Ashley poem and Pedalling The Suffragettes is a wonderful song, originally composed for the Lark Rise… project – great lyrics and beautiful harmonies from Ruth and Becky.  Ashley’s poetry gets another outing in One-Eyed Owl, a recitation that morphs into a great song with Ashley and Ruth sharing vocals, before Song Of Two Bridges tells the ‘life’ stories of, respectively, London’s Westminster Bridge and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, each from the bridge’s own point of view.  It’s thought-provoking, and great fun into the bargain.

In 2017, Ashley was prompted by the 50th anniversary of that most venerable of British institutions, and the band he was instrumental in forming – Fairport Convention – to revisit the formative days of the band, with help this time from Becky (again), Guy Fletcher on drums and violin, Ani McNeice on guitar and Gerry McNeice on lead guitar.  About Dawn, the first of the selections from the Beginnings of Fairport Convention project is a classic.  Using the activities and experiences of dawn in both a literal and a metaphorical way, the song reflects upon the pleasures of Ashley’s present-day life and the dawn in the life of Fairport as the young band return in the early morning returns from gigs in “their rattling van unloads its cargo of disheveled youth.” Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire was, of course, a staple in the early Faiport’s set and the version here is sublime.  Ashley delivers one of his best-ever vocals and Becky manages to sound uncannily like the late, great Sandy Denny.  Crazy Man Michael completes the early Fairport selections and it’s a lovely, folky, version with some violin parts from Guy that evoke the one-and-only Swarbrick with accuracy and with huge respect.

At The Barrier was entranced by the ‘official bootleg’ recording of the Dylancentric performance on the Isle of Wight in August 2019 (see our December 2019 review here).  Bob Dylan himself has famously referred to Ashley as “…the single-most important figure in British folk-rock” – an assessment with which I most whole-heartedly concur – and, with Dylancentric, Ashley repaid that compliment with interest.  The three tracks included here are all excellent.  We’re treated once again to Ashley’s take on Lay Down Your Weary Tune – a song that was an early Fairport favourite, as well as a lovely I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and, perhaps best of all, the band’s version of One of Us Must Know that features a great Blair Dunlop vocal and some fantastic swirling organ from Jacob Stoney that carries more than just a hint of Al Kooper’s influence.

Paradise and Thorns is, reportedly, Ashley’s favourite of all his recent ventures.  The project expands the classic By Gloucester Docks… album which was Ashley’s personal love story and is packed with songs that will entrance any listener of any sensitivity whatsoever.  Lost in the Haze is simply wonderful, laced with observations such as “First love doesn’t pick the right moment – it strikes when your hair is a mess” that are both vivid and imaginative. Brief Encounters, a song that appeared on the original Gloucester Docks album is revitalized by a marvelous Becky vocal, before this excellent compilation is brought to its close with two Hutchings/Dunlop, father/son, compositions, Devil May Care in Our Dancing Shoes and Thirty-Two Years and Lifetime.  Ashley is clearly uncomfortable with the key of the former, but – somehow – his vocal works well and Thirty-Two years is, quite simply, a wonderful song with which to close a wonderful album.

Much of the material in this excellent compilation will be familiar to Ashley watchers, and it’s great to be able access such a well-considered selection on this one single disc.  The layout of the disc does help to emphasise the close links between each of Ashley’s subjects and there’s an amount of crossover between the four projects that is made very evident by the ordering of the tracks.  The CD is packaged in an attractive cover that is full of informative notes.  In short – this is a compilation that ticks all the boxes.

Congratulations on the century, Mr Hutchings!  Here’s to the next 100!!

Not the version included in this compilation, but listen to Brief Encounters from Ashley’s 1987 album, by Gloucester Docks I Sat Down and Wept, here:

Ashley Hutchings Online: Website / Facebook / YouTube

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