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The Mellstock Band - "The Dance at the Phoenix" - BEJOCD28

I am delighted to say that the Mellstock Band, consisting of Charles Spicer, Tim Hill, Phil Humphries and Dave Townsend (director), are known to me. They are England's leading exponents of West Gallery style music, and the use of the name "Mellstock Band" (from Thomas Hardy's Wessex stories) is no accident. Hardy was a fine folk musician and the band repertoire never strays far from its Wessex/Dorset roots. The band's usual/unusual musical paraphernalia- concertina; fiddle; clarinet; flute; serpent; trombone; oboe; cor anglais and percussion- are further augmented here by some delightful guest playing from Martin Brinsford (percussion), Pete Cooper (fiddle) and Gill Redmond (cello). There is no specific theme but its skilful interweaving of Dorset (Wessex) songs and tunes, with Cotswold and even Northamptonshire pieces, together with nicely read prose both in the actorly style of Charles Spicer and in the sweetly executed Dorset dialect of Phil Humphries, adds up to a very substantial score on the pastoral "ah" rating, You cannot fail to be romanced and cossetted by this excellent recording.

From the opening track- "Major Malley's Reel" - when the serpent "that rare boneshaker" first leaps into life to the last track- "The Girl I Left Behind", you are transported back to the time of Hardy and Dickens, and the fact that TV directors have already taken the opportunity to put Mellstock into costume dramas is not unsurprising ("Pride and Prejudice" and "Oliver Twist").

Favourite tracks for me were Charles' version of "The Ruined Maid" (set to the tune for Dorset/Wilts ballad "The Bold Grenadier"); Dave's "Bold Nelson's Praise" (to a tune relative of the "Princess Royal"- more Sherborne than Chingford); a musical arrangement of "The Ploughboy"- with a lovely solo fiddle introduction from Pete Cooper (from the playing of Norfolk fiddler/ singer Harry Cox); and the full band on "Peggy Bond" (from the playing of Northamptonshie fiddler/poet, John Clare). I've also heard a lovely parody of this last piece retitled "Artichokes and Cauliflowers" performed by music hall exponents John Townsend and John White. Well this is great music, well executed by the leaders in the field and there's even a Christmas tie-in with two tracks having a seasonal flavour : "Otford" (While Shepherds Watched) and "Keepen Up O' Christmas" (from the writing of Dorset's own William Barnes). Get out and buy it!

Tony Kendall

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This album was reviewed in Issue 46 of The Living Tradition magazine.