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MIKE & LAL WATERSON "Bright Phoebus" Leader LESCD2076

In my sleevenotes to The Electric Muse, I described this as "the definitive folk rock album" - a strange claim on the face of it, since there isn't a rocked-up Child ballad to be heard, and many of the songs owe more to styles like the French chanson, yet in 1972 I felt, and I still feel, that this album was what that misnamed genre was all about.

To be true, all the usual suspects are here: Fairport alumni like Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Maddy Prior and almost every other significant voice in the revival at that time, and of course Martin Carthy. And, of course, there are the superlative production skills of Bill Leader, whose seminal influence upon the revival has yet to be fully acknowledged. Like Ralph Peer in the rural deep south, Leader contributed to what we now consider as the sound of tradition in ways those who have followed his lead will never, probably, understand.

Yet, significant as it was, Bright Phoebus has not had the effect one might have hoped at the time. Partly, this is down to the vagaries of the record business. Bill sold his Trailer label to someone else when the economic pressures became too much for him, that person sold it on, and it disappeared from the shelves. Now, nearly thirty years later, it is available once again. And about time.

Where does one start? There IS the uproarious, unbuttoned, almost end-of-the-pier hilarity of Rubber Band, Magical Man (in which Mike Waterson's "I'm the original magical man", with its characteristic shake on second syllable of "orIGinal", never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my head), and of course, the title song, which should have become the anthem of the revival, if there were any justice (which there ain't, as we all know).

There are Lal's dark visions, often enlightened, as in the last verse of The Scarecrow, by a sudden blast of sunlight. For me, these are what I return to the album for most often, and for me the peak of them all is Red Wine and Promises, with its rejection of proffered love: "I don't need nobody helping me;/Don't need no bugger's arms around me." Rarely have I encountered a deeper understanding of the self-destructiveness that alcohol can bring to the over-indulgent. (This is the only track where it is not Lal singing, but her sister, Norma, and a wonderful job she does of it.)

Again, the sudden appearance - it is almost an intrusion - of Bob Davenport's unaccompanied voice on Child Among the Weeds is a remarkable coup de musique. Whose idea was this? Bill Leader's, I suspect, but whoever, it is a stroke of genius.

Have I anything bad to say about this album, with the consummate artistry of its accompaniments, especially when the acoustic guitars of Carthy and Thompson are playing in tandem, the fine ensembles, and the sequence of superb song after superb song? Well, I don't like the C&W-tinged Danny Rose, with its Döppler-shift police car sirens, very much, but others may hear it as the high point.

I don't have much time for league tables in music, and anyway, after thirty years it's probably not eligible, but if there is room in any kind of Folk Hall of Fame for it after all these years, then Bright Phoebus should have the prime place of honour. And if you buy only one album this year, whether your tastes be topical or trad, then this should be the one.

And, please, though Lal is no longer with us, couldn't you start singing some of these songs in public, Norma and Mike? They don't deserve to only be heard electronically.

Karl Dallas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 43 of The Living Tradition magazine.