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JUDY DINNING - Best Kept Secrets

JUDY DINNING - Best Kept Secrets
Big Sky BS152

The folk scene is still in shock after the tragic and untimely death of Judy, one of the very finest singers of recent years, a little over a year ago in October 2013 (just short of her 60th birthday) after a long battle with breast cancer. Judy herself could well have been termed a best kept secret, however, even though her superb singing was a known quality among, and held in high regard by, cognoscenti. Her career in folk music stretched over a quarter of a century, from early successes (her teaming with local musicians in the trio Passport, then as a duo with Dave Smith in the 80s), on to her triumphant return in the 90s first as a member of quartet Lucky Bags and then in a five-year stint with the line-up of Jez Lowe’s Bad Pennies during which time one could say the secret was finally beginning to leak out! Finally, though, she was able to front her own band; she formed Real Time with Kenny Speirs and Tom Roseburgh and this close-knit outfit continued to make excellent music for the whole of her final decade, with no letup in quality even while her health was deteriorating.

Her final concert took place at North Shields in July of last year, barely six months after the memorable concert captured on the Live At Sage DVD – of which more below. Sadly, I only saw Judy perform live a handful of times and only got to actually meet her on a couple of occasions, but the warmth of her personality and her entirely unassuming nature made as strong an impression on me as her brilliant, sensitive and totally captivating singing (and discovering for the first time on these discs Judy’s intensely realised renditions of songs key to my own repertoire has, I feel, brought me even closer to her). Yes, Judy was a very special lady.

This two-CD set presents a career-spanning, must-have collection of genuinely Best Kept Secrets: over two hours of recordings, obscure and hitherto unavailable artefacts that both demonstrate her vocal expertise and musicianship and round out the picture of her artistic achievements for those unacquainted with her versatility over a healthy range of music all covered by the term folk. The set isn’t chronologically arranged; instead it neatly intersperses recordings from different vintages in a credible and highly listenable sequence. There’s half a dozen informal recordings dating from the Passport era, where Judy’s spine-tinglingly pure tones pierce through the inevitably rough reproduction (and even compete at times with the ringing of cash-registers!); a number of mid-80s studio tracks accompanied by Stu Luckley and Andy Hawking that include a stunning cover of Robin Williamson’s The Circle Is Unbroken; six charismatic solo cuts recorded in the studio by George Welch in 1996 (including a particularly moving take on Kate Wolf’s Green Eyes); three turn-of-the-millennium Bad Pennies’ tracks from concert and radio; a pair of characteristically vital Lucky Bags’ favourites recorded at 1995’s Melrose Folk Festival.

The set also contains a goodly number of recordings which aren’t date-referenced at all; in the main, these comprise solo performances of her own songs, many of them (incredibly) previously unheard, but also included is a rarely-heard Jez Lowe song (Military Road) that was written specially for Judy. On the most recent item of this collection (recorded at a Dutch gig in February 2013), Judy directly, and most touchingly, addresses partner Kenny on Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love. The CD-set closes with a masterly pairing of Dimming Of The Day and Judy’s own beautiful closing-time anthem The Night Is Young. I can’t stress too highly that Best Kept Secrets is a fabulous memorial to, and celebration of, Judy’s exceptional talent: not only as a wonderful singer and persuasive songwriter, but also as an accomplished guitarist – and even an accordion player, on a convivial folk club run-through of Allan Taylor’s Fiddler John! And presentation-wise, Best Kept Secrets comes complete with a whole host of lovingly chosen and well reproduced photos and an affectionately annotated biographical booklet essay.

Sensibly, none of the items on the above double CD are duplicated on the Sage DVD, which presents Judy, joined on stage by Kenny Speirs and Claire Mann, performing a total of 18 songs; nearly half of these are traditional in origin (many from her beloved Northumbria). With each song, whatever its provenance, she directly expresses her affinity for – and uniquely winning way with – her chosen material, for complete identification proves the key to her interpretive skill (and not just on It Suits Me Well and that obligatory cowboy song!) and the communication is immediate and all-embracing, refreshingly free of any attention-seeking technique-driven artifice. There’s such an easy, natural bond between Judy and her on-stage collaborators, it’s impossible not to be drawn right into the experience. The evening contains so many precious moments within the individual songs (not to mention the occasional spotlight-focus on Judy’s bodhrán playing!), but the whole evening also has a companionable flow that can only be achieved by musicians of this calibre who clearly rejoice in a genuinely two-way empathy that also feeds out inclusively to their audience.

Several of the songs are old favourites that have been oft-recorded, but on this live gig familiarity doesn’t breed contempt and these well-loved songs receive benchmark performances that surely gain much additional poignancy from the occasion. Any purchaser of this DVD is bound to count it among the most treasured of live recordings in his/her collection.

All profits from both CD and DVD will – entirely fittingly – be shared by the charities Macmillan Cancer Support and Tynedale Hospice At Home.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 105 of The Living Tradition magazine.