John McCusker – The Best of John McCusker: Album Review

Tremendous pot-pourri containing all aspects of the virtuoso fiddle man, John McCusker, covering all his collaborations and solo work.

Release date: 20th January 2023

Label: Under One Sky

Format: CD / digital

john mccusker

Can it really be thirty years plus since I nervously squeezed into the Mackadown pub in Birmingham, a notoriously rough pub back then, as it started a trial of live music gigs? I was there to catch the Battlefield Band, who had just sustained the loss of celebrated singer and multi-instrumentalist, Brian McNeill, his imposing shadow replaced by this wee slip of a boy.

That slip of a boy was McCusker, and it seemed he had been recruited fresh from school and was a bit of a whizz on the fiddle. And indeed he was, fast becoming a fella to keep an eye on.

A decade later he was in Kate Rusby’s band, later grouping up with Idlewild man, Roddy Woomble, performing both with him and on his first solo albums, as well as an eponymous trio, adding Kris Drever to that pairing. I caught all of these, entranced, delving also into his nascent solo repertoire. Mark Knopfler had meanwhile picked up on him, he becoming a regular member of his band. Simultaneously he was enrolled into the house band for Transatlantic Sessions, alongside a stellar cast of his peers, where he keeps a permanent chair, as well as keeping going another trio, McGoldrick McCusker Doyle, which maintains further the link with his Knopfler and Transatlantic Sessions bandmate, McGoldrick. He also tours his own band and has had time to produce any number of his peers, including Eddi Reader and Eliza Carthy, as well as being musical director for various TV programmes, notably Billy Connolly’s World Tour of New Zealand.

And this but scratches the surface. Busy boy. Boy? Well, he still looks impressively youthful, even if his ‘Goodbye Ginger’ locks have, well, said goodbye. (Does anyone remember the brief mohican?) So it isn’t before time it has been thought fit to scoop up a generous sorting of his work, solo and band, for himself or with others, and collate it for our listening pleasure, a wide-drawing selection offering both surprise and remembrance, four new tracks included also. Appealingly, the two discs dip and skip across his career in a non-chronological order, to vary the fare; one thing this isn’t is a gaunt parade of fiddle instrumentals, there being a few where one might be hard-pressed to find the instrument at all, together with a generous smattering of the vocalists who have worked with him.

Starting with a flourish, the first disc opens with The Big Man Set, an instrumental favourite from Goodbye Ginger, released originally a full 20 years back, a loping and lively swagger, fiddle at the fore of a full band; guitar, box, whistles and bodhran. The lively title track, The Wishing Tree, from the McG McC D album of that name follows, and which displays the near-intuitive interplay between the fiddler and the flautist. One of the many pin-drop moments comes next, Jessica’s Lullabye, the first tune of a trio, collectively It’s A Girl, relating to the birth of his daughter of that name. Tempting as it is to introduce every track in turn, space won’t allow such luxury, so, plucking the swetest cherries, one is the first vocal track, Baron’s Heir/Sadenia’s Air, the title a giveaway as to who it may be, the track coming from Sadenia “Eddi” Reader’s 2007 release, Peacetime, helmed by McCusker at the production desk.

Another vocal gem comes from the first Mrs McCusker, Kate Rusby. Night Visiting Song. The whistle and cittern come from McCusker, showing his deftness across a range of instruments. And, whilst we stick with voices, it is Karine Polwart for The Shepherd Lad, a Battlefield Band selection from 2001. A male voice appears with the maudlin melancholy of Roddy Woomble, from the glorious trio album made by Drever McCusker Woomble in 2008, with then the second Mrs McCusker, Heidi Talbot taking the honours for Sprig Of Thyme, from their joint album, from the happier times of 2018.

Instrumental highlights on disc one include another syncopated swagger, the title track from Goodbye Ginger, the double bass, Ewan Vernal, superb, with the guitar of near omnipresent collaborator, Ian Carr, also high in the mix. Finally, and to conclude comes Colin’s Farewell, a beautiful and graceful air, from the soundtrack album Heartlands. It is McCusker on the piano for this one, as well as fiddle, with Andy Cutting supplying the accordion and, of course, McGoldrick the flute.

Disc two and Calendar Boys, from 2016, has a special updated reprise, as Calendar Boys 30, featuring a choir of his peers which, amongst singers already on the album, includes Katherine Priddy, Adam Holmes and Karen Matheson, as well as his Transatlantic Sessions buddy, Jerry Douglas, on some atmospheric trademark dobro. More McG McC D before the unmistakeable voice of Julie Fowlis chimes in with ‘S Tusa Thilleas, one of three cuts from Under One Sky, the ambitious project McCusker put together in 2009, with the aim of encapsulating the folk traditions across the British Isles. It is gorgeous, with the others being some more Roddy Woomble: Lavender Hill, and John Tams, at his most croony, soothing best for, aptly, Hush A Bye. The Kate Rusby vocal from Goodbye Ginger’s the bold Privateer is a high point of that album. and of this one.

An instrumental track, the title track, from the aforementioned duo album he made with Talbot in 2018, Love Is The Bridge Between Two Hearts, is perhaps one of the sweeter tunes selected, to which the heady contrast of Foo Foo is quite a shock, with its funky bass and the incoming swell, as it develops, of Neil Yates’ trumpet. Those who are familiar with the Folk On Foot podcast may not realise McCusker wrote the theme; it is a pleasure to hear it here. One of the earliest tunes is Kev’s Trip To Brittany, from Yella Hoose, in 2000, and it has lost none of its charm. There is also a delectable duet with Irish fiddle player, Helen McCabe, Not A Care In The World, a new track, from a duet album, I guess, broadly hinted at on Instagram, not so long ago. With also the 2016 reprised version of the Under One Sky title track, like several others, from that year’s Hello Goodbye, and perennial Battlefield Band favourite, Leaving Friday Harbour, this disc is as well stocked with tunes as the first.

Closing the whole shebang comes a real dust-in-the-eye moment, barely a minute and a half of Billy Connolly gently singing Pokarakere Ana, from the TV show, Billy Connolly’s World Tour of New Zealand, for which McCusker was the musical director. A worthy and fitting way to complete this compendium, and unlikely to be the last best of this still less than half-centenarian must have in him. Much more enjoyable than I had expected, and I am a fan of fiddle music and would have embraced the all-instrumental showcase it could have been, all the better by not so being.

Recommended, if but one (personal) gripe. Back when I caught that young lad in the Mackadown, still too young to be served, I recall a tremendous tune, one of his first, he played that night with the Battlefield Band. Featured also on a cassette I bought, by Fiddler’s Five, a grouping from Temple Records he was also involved with. Farewell To Ravenscraig will just have to appear on the next volume.

Here’s Not A Care In The World, with Helen McCabe:

John McCusker online: website / Facebook / twitter / Instagram

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