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KATIE'S QUARTET "Katie's Quartet" Old Hat OH3CD

"Traditional music is defined by style rather than repertoire: discuss". That's the sort of theoretical nicety that academic types like to ponder and musicians seldom bother themselves with, but the CD in my hand is a good illustration of it. The Katie in question is Katie Howson, and her Quartet an excellent English dance outfit, the present incarnation of what was once the Old Hat Band. The point being that Katie and John Howson have for some time now been happily immersed in the traditional culture of East Anglia - where old ways have died harder than elsewhere - and played for years alongside several of the best local musicians, with the result that, although the choice of tunes on this album is actually pretty eclectic, the "feel" and sense of locality are tangible.

Unlike the pioneering Old Swan Band and most of their followers, Katie H. plays the four-stop, one-row melodeon favoured by the old boys, with the shade of Oscar Woods hovering benignly at her shoulder. She plays splendidly, with loads of brassy lift and oomph, and subtle syncopation. Alongside on hammered dulcimer, Reg Reader is a bona fide traditional musician and a fine player; his grandfather's instrument has a lovely tone, though a softer one than modern tastes demand, and it doesn't always cut through the mix as much as I'd have liked. John Howson holds down the beat on strummed tenor banjo, and in a departure - an inspired one - from traditional practice, the bass end is carried by Rob Neal's snorting cello, which also contributes massively to the rhythmic drive. The result is a gutsy slap in the face for the lumpen-electric tendency amongst folk dance bands, and a sound that is unmistakably English.

Did I say English? Well, so the ears would have it, but study of the liner notes reveals, alongside Scan Tester and Billy Bennington covers, tunes purloined from Scotland and Ireland, Quebec and Australia; good tunes, too, all given that distinctive East Anglian stamp. Plenty of the expected polkas, but jigs and waltzes as well, even a reel or two - though as played here they're reels, Jim, but not as we know them. It's functional (tune lengths listed for dancing purposes) and it's fun. Chauvinists in my neck of the woods persist in believing Southern English dance music to be stodgy and uninteresting; well, hear this guys, and eat verbiage.

Brian Peters

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