A terrific pell-mell helter-skelter whirl through the possibilities of harmonica, box and guitar. Also features voice.
Release date: 24th February 2023
Label: LuluBug Records
Format: CD / digital (bandcamp)
In the vein of “Is it on, Tommy?” and “Are you ready, Eddie?” (answers on a postcard), the opening “OK, err, are you ready, Jen” is already instilling a good frame of mind, with this record leaping out the traps at full pelt, and never quite stopping. With 9 lively tracks, or, if you prefer, 17 tunes, a good time is guaranteed for all. This is their first duet album, ergo the name, but this pair are certainly no strangers to each other. Pound is the ridiculously talented mouth harpist, as happy with trad as with bluegrass, and likely no fool with the blues either, Butterworth the doyenne of Scottish guitar accompaniment, who seems to pop up on stages everywhere, quite apart her membership of Kinnaris Quintet. Pound’s 2018 opus, A Day Will Come, covered the folk dance music of the then UK-inclusive EU, and amongst the crew of stellar supporting musicians, both on the disc and on the road, Butterworth supplied much the rhythmic pulse. Pound is as adept on the melodeon as the harmonica, with it sometimes hard for the listener to see the join, and Butterworth will, on occasion, show off that she too can sing. This is one such occasion.
Some of these tunes are familiar, well known even, but it is their unique take upon these, as well as the lesser known, that engages, as they fire off each other, chucking the gauntlet between them as they go. Accomplished live performers, one senses this is how they go in that setting, challenging each other, ever onward and upward, two nights seldom quite the same. To capture that spontaneity, it took barely two days, live in the studio, to get this project done and dusted, under the aegis of Keir Long at Glasgow’s GloWorm studios.
Reckoned, the opener joins a Pound composition, inspired by the playing of Liz Carroll and Martin Hayes, with a pair of tunes from Scots fiddle legend, Addie Harper and Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass titan. As with his EU-inspired record, music don’t know no frontiers. At first, puffing and blowing like an old bluesman, Pound immediately treads roughshod over any expectations. Butterworth keeping a spiky rhythm going, as the harmonica bridges all styles to nail the melodies, as they tumble out, seamlessly. How? Don’t ask me, but it if it is as exhausting to play as it is to listen to, he must have lungs like basketballs. Blackthorn then melds a couple of Rapper tunes, and offers a slightly less frantic pace. Slightly, with, again, neither of the instruments content to play to expectation, little surprises creeping in from either and both of them. It is quite lovely, not to say telepathic. As it becomes the second tune, The Irish Washerman, and as it progresses, there are notes that seem almost randomly produced, were it not they fit so well, if oddly, to the whole.
UK festival audiences are getting ever more familiar with the Breton bal tradition, so the next pairing, each written by Pound, evoke just that Gallic feel. The track is called Bourées, appropriately, as the two tunes both are, and it is to melodeon he has switched, giving a gentler overall sound. At times he contrives to make his instrument sound like brass, or, maybe, bombarde, given the reference, and, with Butterworth counter-crossing the rhythms, there is more than a hint of jazz here, meaning, astonishingly, fusion, just as much as hot club or gypsy. That mood doesn’t linger, however, as, never content to rest on any laurel, it is the sole song of the set that follows. A Peggy Seeger anti-nuclear anthem, Better Things, written for the 1958 Aldermaston Marches, it is unashamedly retro. Butterworth has a pure and clear voice, her accent coming through intact as she accompanies herself, with Pound sucking and blowing like a mad one. Think Dylan, if he could play, with the solo in the middle being a delight.
Back to the box with the deliberately challenging The Workout Suite. So called, as over the three tunes, Pound sets himself the task of exploring, finding and using every note on the D/G diatonic available to him, figuring out each and every scale. That he manages should be no surprise, perhaps other than to other players of the same instrument, yet it all effortlessly avoids any overt sense of look at me or showmanship for the sake of it. Maybe not effortlessly, with the middle tune, The Frenetic giving the flavour. All Pound tunes, too. And, if you are needing a breather, tough, as it is with the tune from the live tour of A Day Will Come that they move next to, a Quebecois-styled take on some Handel. His Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba, to be more precise, or, as here, simply Sheba. As Pound bounces up and down the buttons, Butterworth adds all the necessary rhythm section required, playing rhythm, melody and basslines all at once, all with a percussive style that astounds. Not for the first time the notes need checking to make sure a bassist hasn’t snuck in. They haven’t.
Battle Of The Somme is certainly the tune this listener knows the best, courtesy of the versions by assorted Albion Bands and even a live version by those Fairport boys who seem popular about these pages. Originally written by Pipe Major William Lawrie as a retreat, from the parade ground, not the battle, it is generally taken as a slow march with a sense of pomp and ceremony. This version unveils layer upon layer of fragility and is as mournful as anything commemorating such a grim episode of warfare should ever warrant. I’m listening to it now, and it is sorrow, not stiff-backed pride that is provoked, as emotion seeps out Pound’s melodeon, Butterworth providing applicably sombre footsteps.
If a pick me up is needed to shake away that maudlin mood, Beggarman gives just that; Butterworth heartily strumming, and Pound back with gob-iron firmly in his maw, doing for this instrument what he did for his other in The Workout Suite. Matching Soldier’s Joy with The Jolly Beggarman, he goes progressively AWOL, syncopating and sliding with reckless abandon. Butterworth is chucking in a fair few wobblies for this one, too, and it is a celebration. Which now means a put me down is needed, with Speedy, yes, that one, as in Speed The Plough, another chestnut of the repertoire. But the duo imbues it with a bluesy feel never quite before encountered. Giving a feel the tractor may only have three wheels, or the donkey a lame leg, there is a wonderfully lop-sided and loping feel they have grasped. Sod the straight lines the furrows may not achieve, it is a fabulous version, and a great way to end the album, not least as it segues into the unexpected hop, skip and jump of the Hesleyside Reel. Blimey, indeed.
Invigorated? Too bloody right. And, for sure they are coming to a field, OK, hall, near you soon:
March 2nd: The Blue Room, Lincoln
March 4th: Core Music, Hexham
March 5th: Flowergate Hall, Whitby
March 6th: Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
March 9th: The Barn, Lancaster
March 10th: Temperance, Leamington Spa
March 11th: Quay Arts, Newport, Isle of Wight March 18th: The Institute, Laxey, Isle of Man
To get you in the mood, here’s Speedy:
Jenn Butterworth online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram
Will Pound online: website / facebook / twitter / instagram
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