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NORMA WATERSON Hannibal HNCD1393

One of the great voices of the folksong revival has been that of Norma Waterson, first heard in the 1960s, she gave strong leading lines and harmonies to The Watersons folk group. Each member of the group was hailed, quite rightly, as a singer of quality both solo and collectively. Their voices had a warm natural sound, it was like hearing old friends who had come round for a good sing. Yet for all their time on the folk music scene there have been so few solo recordings, therefore the record under review, together with the recent release by Lal Waterson: "Once In A Blue Moon" (Topic TSCD478), has come as a pleasing addition to the Waterson catalogue.

One of the joys of the Waterson:Carthy (Topic TSCD475) record was to hear Norma singing after such a long absence from the recording studios. On that record the songs were mainly traditional, a style that falls naturally to her, whereas the record under review contains contemporary songs outside of the traditional scene. With a few exceptions I must say that she handles the songs with a straight forward easy approach that brings an original and often delightful reinterpretation of the spirit of the songs.

Some of the songs are from writers with folk roots so they are readily adaptable to a singer from the traditional genre. Among these writers are Jerry Garcia "Black Muddy River"; Richard Thompson "God Loves A Drunk"; Lal Waterson "Anna Dixie" and Norma Waterson "Hard Times Heart".

Norma's singing on these tracks is relaxed, with easy style and delivery; her enjoyment of the songs comes across quite obviously. The wry lyrics of "God Loves A Drunk"; the happy optimism of "Black Muddy River"; the bitter sweet irony of "Hard Times Heart" and "Rags and Old Iron" make this record a delight. "There Ain't No Sweet Man" (Fred Fisher) is a wonderful blues well fitted for Norma and she makes a fine job of it. It is with these uncomplicated honest songs that she is most at home.

It would be a fine thing to say that every track is a delight but I have reservations about two with which I am not quite comfortable. Billy Bragg's "St. Swithin's Day" is delivered at a straightforward brisk pace that does not give any insight to the song's content it is almost like a filler. I feel that taken at a slightly lower pace Norma would have had space enough to explore the lyrical lines making more of the song. "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" (Declan MacManus) is one of those art-type songs, its lyrics are quite good and have a depth of emotion that is attractive but the acrobatics of the tune make it an impossible song to sing with any warmth or humanity and I feel that it does not sit well with Norma's style, however, the fine guitar break will bear repeated listening.

I feel I must compliment the impeccable accompaniment; I suppose one might expect that Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Roger Swallow, Danny Thompson and Richard Thompson would automatically produce an affinity with the material and singer and I am pleased to say that on this record this expectation is fulfilled. There is a great deal of sympathetic arrangement without being intrusive to the singer, beautiful underpinning of the lyrics giving atmosphere, humour and style, an object lesson on how to accompany a quality singer.

The vocals from Eliza and Martin Carthy add volume and harmony when needed and never outstay their welcome. A lovely version of "Pleasure and Pain" with light harmonies weaving tonal patterns around the main vocals carried by Norma. A special appreciation of the vocal accompaniments from Eliza, often lightly stated, enough to colour the lyric, breaking off to leave solo voice then returning to fill the sound, helps to lift this record into the realms of perfection.

There is much to recommend this record, it is one that grows with each listening, constantly stimulating the ear and mind with musical fills and solo breaks from the instrumentalists, a clever vocal touch that one had missed last time, and through all of it Norma Waterson's fine singing, in control, solid and splendid. I applaud the step to set Norma in a contemporary setting, it works very well and gives a wider spectrum to our perception of her talents. I hope it is not too long before we have another Norma Waterson record, perhaps one of traditional songs, the genre in which this important singer shines.

Nick Caffrey

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This album was reviewed in Issue 18 of The Living Tradition magazine.