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DAVE THOMPSON - Fire And Wine: An Armchair Guide To Steve Ashley

DAVE THOMPSON - Fire And Wine: An Armchair Guide To Steve Ashley
Private Label ISBN: 9781492184959

Dave Thompson is an ex-pat Brit currently resident in the USA who has written scores of books on a wide range of topics, including music, for which he invented the Armchair Guide series as a means of providing a concise overview of the careers of key neglected figures. These books have to strike a delicate balance, serving at one extreme as an introduction for the newcomer and at the other as an appreciation and evaluation for those already very familiar with the work of the performer in question.

His love of Steve’s music is evident throughout. Attracted by the sleeve, the personnel and a general fondness for folk-rock, he began with the first album, Stroll On, of which he writes: “[no other folk-rock] album has given rise to so many conversations, revelations or friendships.” What could have been mere hagiography or a job of journeywork is instead a labour of love, replete in detail, honesty, appreciation and generosity towards the reader.

Quite rightly, the consistent high quality of Steve’s intermittent output is taken as read and this raises one of several issues addressed throughout – why is it so regularly categorised with terms such as “forgotten classic”, “neglected gem” and “lost treasure”?

The answer is complex, of course, but lies largely in the context in which Steve’s work has been created. As an artist, he has often found himself caught between the twin headlights of the music industry and the folk scene. Alongside a detailed and studiously researched account of Steve’s career, Thompson fills out that context – the machinations of record companies; the contemporary scene, particularly the albums and artists with whom Steve has been involved; the folk-scene, even down to explaining how a singers’ night works for anyone not familiar with it. So, alongside discoveries and insights into Steve’s life and music, the book takes time to cast new light on topics as wide ranging as the early Albion Band, Anne Briggs’ unusual career path, Anthems In Eden, a Dylan concert and a decades-spanning friendship with “Norfolk Pete” Bellamy.

Thompson’s style is more than biographical or muso-critical, veering towards the picaresque, as one travels through the fascinating life of a singularly private man. Every so often along the way, one encounters an album, as Quixote might come upon a windmill or Pip a life-changing eccentric. In each case, we are treated to an in-depth explanation of both context and content of the album, often supported by insightful recollections from the impressive array of fellow travellers interviewed for the book.

On every occasion, Thompson’s approach makes one want to go back and listen once more to the album (or perhaps regret the absence of a long-since-snapped cassette tape). That, of course, is exactly what any decent music biography should do. This is not a guide that encourages passive reading: you’ll be out of that armchair and heading for your CD rack, LP box or on-line ordering facility.

Entirely appropriately for a book about what you might be missing, it concludes with not only a detailed discography, but also a guide to recordings and live versions of all Steve’s songs, including cover versions. This is apt as the book closes with new songs awaiting his next album, but already making their own way in the world through performances by other artists.

While not an official biography, the volume is legitimised by an introduction and coda by Steve himself. His remark in the last couple of lines (please don’t be tempted to flick ahead – the significance of context is important here too) is quintessentially Steve in its understated aptness. It will make you smile and it will make you think…as Steve’s songs and this book about them have done throughout.

Nigel Schofield

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This album was reviewed in Issue 100 of The Living Tradition magazine.