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Brian Peters & Gordon Tyrrall
Issue 45 Nov/Dec '01 - by Alan Rose




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The dynamic duo discuss evolution with Alan Rose

I recall the early seventies around the West Yorkshire folk scene with more clarity than I deserve, and well remember back then how any music connected to the name "Gordon Tyrrall" would be well worth hearing. He always seemed fresh from some mighty Leeds session, either with tunes bursting from his flute or yet another totally original guitar and voice treatment of something significant and traditional. It was only when he started to make records that we received the full impact of his virtuosity – his self-deprecating style when playing live meant that audiences refused to believe their ears! As a member of first Iona and then Dab Hand he recorded and toured with top-notch Anglo-Celtic musicians, while his solo work developed along the seemingly contradictory paths of serious study and red-hot playing. The years roll by, the albums keep coming and he always seems to find new areas to explore, from peasant poets to Buddhist conundrums.

My acquaintance with Brian Peters' music is neither so long-standing nor so recurrent. However, I was given the opportunity to play, review and enjoy his "Sharper Than The Thorn" CD in 1996, and shortly afterwards to see the stage production, "The Widow's Uniform". Despite its obvious flaws, this was a gallant (and dramatic) attempt to bring the wonders of Peter Bellamy's Kipling settings to a wider audience and I was greatly impressed by the show in general and by Brian in particular. Like Gordon he has multiple strings to his bow, making a name on the one hand as a squeezebox expert on both melodeon and anglo-concertina, and on the other as a singer and guitarist unafraid to take on some of the biggest ballads around. He also revealed a sympathy for American traditional music in his work over several years with Sara Grey.

Could they recall how it was they first took that big decision to go full-time? Gordon remembers it well: "I was in the van, setting out on tour with Iona, and Margaret Thatcher's election win was on the news, so I can date it with some certainty to 1979. Going professional was just a matter of being in a band and deciding to try it full-time." Thatcher had a part in Brian's decision too: "I was working full-time as a research scientist until 1987, but her government had cut the funding so much that it was a constant struggle to get contracts renewed, and finally I found myself out of a job. I was already playing folk clubs on a semi-pro basis so I just took it from there." What had attracted him to the squeezebox, I wondered? "The first folk festival I ever went to - Whitby in 1977 - I saw the late Mel Dean (once of Old Swan Band) stand up in a room and play some tunes on the Anglo, and I just thought it was so cool I had to get one myself."

The pair kept running into one another at various festivals and, having heard Gordon's then duo with Dave Townsend, and been impressed by the combination of guitar and concertina, Brian asked Gordon to play on a few tracks of the "Seeds of Time" album in 1991. Live dates followed, and they quickly found that as well as a shared musical compatibility they had a common philosophy - a philosophy obvious to anyone with ears who has heard either "Clear the Road", their 1996 debut album, or "The Moving Moon", their current offering. Despite promises of Beatles, Stones and Dylan (who, to be fair, do get a look in), most of their material is drawn from the British tradition. And in both their solo work and duo material, they have always looked for the less-common variants of songs, so that well-known titles like 'The Mermaid' or even 'The Wild Rover' come out sounding like you've never heard them before. How do they go about finding their material? "I've actually recorded three different versions of 'The Mermaid' in my time," mentions Gordon. "Quite a lot of the stuff comes from books, but I'm also listening to a lot of recordings of traditional singers like Harry Cox or Joseph Taylor, and learning songs from them. In a way a song feels more alive when you've heard someone actually sing it, rather than just seen it in the pages of a book. Sometimes you think, well maybe no-one ever sang this because it isn't really that good!"

Brian has a similar approach: "I'm working on a new solo album at the moment, and several things on that come from recordings of source singers. Sometimes you hear Harry Cox or Walter Pardon's version of such-and-such a song and it sounds so complete that you don't really want to mess with it. Other times I'm working with very raw material from the Child Ballads, cutting and pasting from several different versions, adding bits of my own and maybe rewriting a tune or lifting one from somewhere else. Which way I choose to approach a song is on a whim, really. I think both of us follow the model of the 70s revivalists - Carthy, Nic Jones, Pete and Chris Coe - who were very much into creating their own distinct repertoire. When I set out I thought it was unpardonably naff to just lift songs off the records of those kind of people; and now there are so many recordings of traditional singers available on CD, there's no shortage of raw material." "It's all about making your own interpretation," insists Gordon, "not just in finding a different version of something, but in the way you treat it each time you perform it. I try to bring out the emotional content of the song - that's what music is about for me, a means to the expression of emotion." Gordon has developed as a songwriter, too. "Yes," he remembers, "I think one or two people close to me were a bit surprised when I started coming out with my own songs on, let's say, social issues. It wasn't what they were expecting...."

To start with, the repertoire consisted mainly of one playing and singing his arrangement of a song or tune he'd discovered, while the other "tried not to get in the way too much!" However, this has evolved into a more genuinely two-pronged approach to arrangement: "Things are emerging jointly now," Brian explains, "so on 'High Barbary' we start off with me singing against Gordon's guitar, and the box doesn't come in until later; or on 'Crockery Ware', Gordon sings to my concertina accompaniment. We were on tour last week and messing around with some new tunes in between gigs, and I felt they were starting to come together almost instinctively, after playing together for quite a few years." Gordon believes in the evolutionary theory of repertoire, maintaining that there are definite Darwinian elements at work as some songs or tunes dwindle from the set list whilst other fitter specimens prosper and grow. "Sometimes nothing actually gets said, you just find that a certain song has got quietly dropped!"

Both Tyrrall and Peters have now been professional musicians for many years, and during that time have seen significant changes in the club and festival scene. "To a certain extent," says Gordon, "folk music is emerging into the mainstream with Arts Centre gigs and airings on Radio Three, but the folk clubs are in continuing decline. I still really like folk clubs, and I think they're a unique performing environment which it would be a great pity to lose. I notice people on the internet chat groups are actually starting to defend them now, after years when everyone has done nothing but knock them." Brian's with him on this: "You can perform things in a folk club which make demands on your audience, that you can't always do in other types of venue. It's a mixture of the intimate environment and an emphasis on people actually listening."

Brian and Gordon are both finding an increasing amount of work as teachers; residential weekends like those organised by Hands On Music at Witney - where Gordon has led workshops on both flute and guitar, and Brian has taught melodeon and concertina - are becoming ever more popular, and both of them take individual pupils too. "Shops are opening up everywhere for 'folk' instruments," says Brian, "and there's a demand there both from younger people discovering acoustic music for the first time, and from older ones who've got a bit of money to spend. Box players all seem to want a 2000 Castagnari these days!" Maybe that's part of the reason for the decline in the clubs: if someone has spent a fair amount of time and money learning to play, say, the concertina, the last thing they want to do is to go to a folk club to listen to the whole variety of what goes on there - they want to go to a session where they can play all night! Who wouldn't? "Well I wouldn't," Brian declares, "I think you need to listen to other people, not just play all the time."

Which is where the festivals gain over the clubs - our box-player plays in a session all night, goes to Brian's workshop next morning to find out what they should've been doing, then goes to see Gordon and Brian in concert in the afternoon to find out how far they still have to go - the best of all possible worlds. We are talking about evolution again. The folk scene is going to change, the popular bits will grow and the unpopular bits will drop off - it's the way it's always been, and both Gordon and Brian are refreshingly pragmatic. As well as their solo careers and the duo, they have a number of other projects on the go - both play in ceilidh bands (Magnetic North and Rising Sun Band respectively), Gordon is proud to be one of Maggie Boyle's guitarists, and Brian is a kingpin of The Rocky Mountain Ploughboys who bravely bring the melodeon to anything from Old-Time American music to Chuck Berry! As for the pipeline, there is talk of a tour revisiting Gordon's album 'A Distance From the Town' which so satisfyingly set many of the poems of Northamptonshire poet John Clare alongside the dance tunes Clare collected. "Brian and I still perform a few things off that album, like 'The Quiet Mind’ and some of the instrumentals, and I'm looking to put together a small band, maybe with some of the others who played on the CD, and go out and do a live show." Which is definitely something to look out for.

But the duo remains an important part of the picture. I've always thought that the duo format is in some ways ideal, giving a bigger sound than a soloist can hope for, but allowing a flexibility that starts to disappear when you add more musicians. Tyrrall and Peters like to think of themselves as a mini-band. Having two guitars, flute from Gordon and a range of free reeds means they have the instrumental side of things well covered, and for evidence of vocal expertise and commitment, as well as an increasing use of harmonies, I have only to refer readers back to the aforementioned CDs. But that's only if you don't have a chance to see them live.

Alan Rose

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