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THE OLD SWAN BAND - Swan-Upmanship WildGoose: WGS 320 CD

When I first played this CD, I was bowled over. And I felt like the ca t that had all the cream. Except I did not purr and then fall asleep. On the contrary, I found myself first tapping my feet and drumming my fingers on my desk, before "taking to the floor" somewhat, and moving around my house as if given a sudden injection of energy. Such was the infectious quality of this album, that it got me to my feet.) This is their first album since 1981, and thus their first "post-Rod & Danny Stradling" CD. There have been a few personnel changes since they started life in 1974, but none more important than the cataclysmic one in 1982 when the Stradlings left. At that time it was figured that they were irreplaceable in their roles, and thus a decision was made to go for an all-fiddle line up.

One thing that hasn't changed in the thirty years of their existence is their desire to concentrate on English dance tunes, rather than Celtic. Thus the tunes on this album are almost totally English in source: though the Basque tune that forms the basis of the wittily-named "Basquet of Oysters" is a notable exception, and so is a fine Swedish tune that starts track 11. This latter is so impishly mischievous it almost threatens to fly off Puck-like into the Swedish Forest, were it not for Heather Horsley's secure piano keeping the whole tune tethered down, like the guy ropes on a tent about to take to flight.

[A piano, eh? Did you not just say that they'd gone "all-fiddle" ? Well no, not quite.] The fiddles are complemented by Neil Gledhill's gutsy bass saxophone, Jo Freya's flirty provocative tenor sax, and Martin Brinsford's energetic percussion. And John Adams's trombone provides the stern voice of reason to make sure that some of the band members do not (musically speaking, you understand!) "disgrace" themselves and get caught in flagrante delicto!

But, as I have hinted, best of all I liked Heather Horsley's piano. She kept a watchful eye over the proceedings, and her piano is there like a pulse beating through the whole thing. It seems to me she is fitted with a Duracell battery: given a marathon session, my hunch is that when the other instrumentalists eventually throw in the towel, she'll still be going strong, adding her checks and balances to the whole glorious affair.

But I wouldn't be an honest reviewer if I did not say that I was not pleased by one tiny aspect relating to this CD. I refer to the current trend to show a "false start" as a track on the tracklist. Yes, I know every man and his dog is doing this these days, so why shouldn't Old Swan?

Well, here's for why. They are too good for such gimmicks, that's for why! Oh no, I am not suggesting that they discard the false start (lets have it if for no other reason that such fine musicianship NEEDS its rough edges to remind us there is flesh-and-blood and not computers behind such sweet sounds). But please do not show it as "track 4". Yes, I realise that they do indeed show that it lasts just 8 seconds, but the casual browser picking up this CD in a record shop sees 16 tracks (he is unlikely to check the individual timings) . when in reality there are 15. He is being ever-so-gently conned. I am surprised that such a prestigious label as WildGoose did not veto this.

And one other problem for me. The more I have played this album, the more I have missed the human voice. (That said, I'm sure Doug Wright of WildGoose would respond with "it's a DANCE album remember", and he'd be right. But that still would not invalidate my comment. I could be reviewing a book, say, of sparkling prose: but that would not stop me from suddenly craving for some poetry using strict metre and rhyme.)

But minor caveats. If English folk dance music is your thing, then look no further.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 59 of The Living Tradition magazine.