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MICHAEL RAVEN & JOAN MILLS "My Old Friend" Michael Raven MRCD80

Readers of this magazine will know Mike Raven as a witty and erudite writer with the ability to get the musicians he interviews to bare their souls in public. Guitarists know him as a prolific composer, arranger and editor with some 80 collections of his music in print, and as a dynamic solo guitarist - all that powerhouse Celtic Flamenco stuff. However, ask Mike what means the most to him and he will tell you it is his poetry and his songs. And what good songs they are.

On their previous CDs Mike's works have taken their place beside traditional pieces and the compositions of other authors. On My Old Friend he has had a hand in everything. Most are entirely original, though there are two settings of Housman poems, a couple of traditional tunes used to carry his lyrics and a collaboration with Harvey Andrews.

The latter is the title track, My Old Friend, written shortly after the death of one of Mike's dogs. Such pieces can be maudlin and sentimental, even embarrassing. Not here. This is a powerful expression of grief that is a classic:

Often now I stand and stare, And think of times beyond all care, And wish to God that you were there. Sleep you well, my old friend.

Mike pulls it off again with his Song for Diana. It is a brave, or foolish, man who tackles that subject, but this piece works because it is really about feelings of loss in general, not just this particular death.

And there is yet more angst with a splendid big band version of Che Guevara, and heartache with the evergreen Queen of the Night.

However, it is not all gloom and despondency. There is an ode to Errol Flynn, a gorgeous journey down English Lanes, a prison ballad stoutly sung by guest singer Johnny Collins and a song of longing called The Maid from the Northlands, which Mike wrote for Joan whose mother came from Donegal.

Joan Mills is an exceptionally gifted singer. She has a lyrical, lilting voice with an underlying air of melancholy that is immediately appealing, and which she uses very expressively. It is not a big voice, but it is full of sonorous colours. What is more, her use of ornamentation is very natural and her little melodic variations are a joy to hear. By the way, the young girl on the horse in the cover picture is Joan, at her uncle's farm at Castlefin.

The accompaniments on this CD are more varied and fuller than on their previous recordings - double tracked electric guitars, keyboards, bass, harp etc. - but there are several examples of the 'one guitar one voice' pieces, which carry on the Dowland/Schubert tradition that Mike is so keen to maintain. One of these is the quasi hymn, Is My Dear Lord Asleep?

This is a lovely, lovely CD and the lily has been gilded by the inclusion of a 36 page booklet that includes the words and music of all the songs and transcriptions of the five guitar solos. The solos, by the way, are proper solos with no multi-tracking or guest musicians. Mike's sound is as rich and full as ever; there is no light gauge string tinkling here. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance bristles with vitality, Spanish Morris is a dashing example of his Celtic Flamenco, and Sheba's Daughter is a film theme if ever there was one. Altogether there are 18 tracks and the playing time is just over one hour.

Michael Russell

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This album was reviewed in Issue 30 of The Living Tradition magazine.