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Hooky Mat Records HMR018

This disc is the second to showcase the distinctive and widely celebrated musical talents of this husband-and-wife partnership (the first, Heather And Sweet Smoke, appeared back in 2009). For those readers seeking background, Chris is a fine Scottish singer who learnt much of her repertoire first-hand from such important source singers as Jeannie Robertson, the Stewart family and Norman Kennedy. After spending much of the 1960s on the Fife folk club scene, she moved to Tyneside, where (aside from a short stint working in the south of England) she’s remained ever since. The incomparable Johnny, of course, remains a vital mainstay of the north-east folk scene. He and Chris both bring to their performances a sense of constant pleasure equivalent to their commitment to the material they choose, naturally exhibiting a true pride in their heritage and traditions.

This new disc follows the pattern established by its predecessor, presenting a well-balanced hour-long menu that delivers a selection of songs drawn from both Scottish and north-eastern traditions, with three tune-medleys interspersed for good measure. On the latter, typically sprightly accordion-and-piano arrangements of the likes of the Sunderland Pier hornpipe, replete with emphatic snap-rhythms, are fair guaranteed to make you tak’ the floor!

As far as the songs are concerned, although every item’s a gem, the jewels in the crown for me this time round are the thoughtful, hymn-like poetry of A Mackerel Song (penned by Aaron Watson, probably in the 1890s and forecasting the eventual demise of the inshore fishing industry) and the canny combination of The Collier Lad with Johnny’s own time-honoured composition Guard Yer Man Weel. Chris’s singing is straightforward and direct in its expressiveness, measured and at times slightly deliberate perhaps but always keeping an expert handle (no pun intended) on the necessary control of line and phrase. Her pacing is invariably exemplary and closely allied to the example set by her mentors, in which regard her majestic a cappella rendition of Queen Amang The Heather proves a close call on the Belle Stewart version we all know and love. The disc’s finale and title song is one that Chris admits she unashamedly stole from Johnny’s repertoire – and is an honest and affectionate expression of feeling for the native coast; here, her legato may not quite be even, but her genuine emotion is not in doubt.

Elsewhere, Johnny himself reliably takes the vocal part for The Blyth Sailor’s Farewell and The Bonny Fisher Lad and contributes typically robust yet elegant accordion backdrops for Chris’s singing: his accompaniments are by and large both responsive and unobtrusive (although I did perhaps find his foil for Chris’s interpretation of the “muckle sang” Glenlogie a touch too elaborate). But this honestly-conceived and unpretentiously executed disc harbours no serious reservations, and will doubtless bring much pleasure to the listener.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 99 of The Living Tradition magazine.