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Various Artists - "A Full Head of Steam" - AFHOSCD 001

I'm not sure when the romance of the railways died for me: the first time I had to clean a buffet car kitchen where not so much as a work surface had been wiped in 6 months of daily use? Or maybe swinging a pick in driving sleet at 3 a.m. on a January morning, mending the track? While this collection of songs performed by a "who's who" of north-east England's finest celebrates the railways, it acknowledges and affirms experiences such as mine.

The year 2000 is the 175th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington line and this album is part of the celebrations.

The history of the railways, a story which touches all of us, is told here in 15 fine songs. Chronologically, we journey from "A Dream of Steam and Freedom", a Jez Lowe song about George Stephenson's vision performed here by Bev Sanders to Vin Garbutt's haunting rendition of Graeme Miles' "A Railwayman's Farewell to Darlington" about the closure of the "works", and thence to the best song I've encountered for a while, Eddie Walker's stunning "North Road" which tells of a father taking his son to see "The Barren Land of Earth and Bricks" that was once the heartbeat of a railway town.

The Whisky Priests look at things from the engine's point of view. Lindisfarne reprise "Train in G Major", and another Graeme Miles song "Jacko the Shunter" features some fine harmonies from the Wilson Family. America's railroad tradition is represented by Skerne's "Midnight Special" and Martin Stephenson's exquisite version of Doc Watson's "Southbound" (although I'm sure Houghton-le-Spring wasn't in the original!)

Richard Grainger's "Diesel and Coal" evokes personal memories with it's tribute to "Toiling and Heaving and laying the Tracks", and Simon Hawarth does his burgeoning reputation no harm with "The North-Eastern Line". Each track deserves a mention, and indeed this is worth buying simply because it has lots of familiar people singing quality songs not necessarily in their normal repertoire; but "A Full Head of Steam" is much more than that. No leaves on the line here, just love and pain and joy and despair. Hope and dreams, sweat and blood and oily rags, diesel and betrayal. These songs tell of the gift that this region gave to the world, and how that gift was used and ultimately abused.

I hope this CD will "cross-over" to people who aren't necessarily on the folk scene, because all these artists deserve a wider audience; but for me "A Full Head of Steam", rather like a beautiful old locomotive, is much greater than the sum of it's parts. It's another gift from the North-east of England.

Last week I bumped into my neighbour Jimmy and his grandson, Connor. "Where are you off to" I asked "We're going to watch the trains" said Connor, eyes sparkling with excitement under his Thomas the Tank Engine cap. Did I say the romance of the railways is dead? Ask the 4 year olds.

Steve Ingham

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This album was reviewed in Issue 37 of The Living Tradition magazine.