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MARY HUMPHREYS & ANAHATA "Sharp Practice" WildGoose WGS 312CD

This CD is a treasure. Exquisite in every detail, right from the slightly punning title (recognising Cecil Sharp's enormous contribution to published English traditional folk song) down to the exemplary clarity and expressiveness in both vocal and instrumental performance. Strangely, Mary's is not a familiar name except among cognoscenti - even though she's sung for many years in the folk clubs of Manchester and Yorkshire. (This present CD is the first of her recordings to be widely available, indeed.) Mary is now based in East Anglia with her partner Anahata, a talented instrumentalist who's as well versed in orchestral, chamber and improvised music as in traditional folk dance. Both musicians play in ceilidh band Fendragon with Dave and Gina Holland, whose fiddle and/or flute crop up occasionally on this disc to augment Mary's English concertina, banjo and keyboard and Anahata's cello, anglo concertina and sundry melodeons. Together they create a textural blend that's really appealing, at once refined and cultured, sprightly and rumbustious; there's nothing remotely stiff, wooden or leaden about their ensemble work here. Their accompaniments to the songs are richly textured, although deceptively sparse in impact and thus never obtrusive. It's Mary's singing that forms the attractive focal point of much of the disc - provided you don't insist on "pretty" singing, that is, for her voice is earthy and expressive, clearly in the mould of Chris Coe (whom she namechecks in her notes) and also oddly reminiscent at times of Norma Waterson. And she sings from the heart, with a true involvement, dedication and passion and an evident relish in communicating the song's essence (only once or twice did I feel that technique gets in the way of appreciation - her uncharacteristically idiosyncratic use of ornamentation on Spotted Cow, for example, although I acknowledge that Mary's aim in this instance was to sort of emulate the feel of the singing of her hero Joseph Taylor, whose recording of the song had first inspired her). So now to the repertoire. The disc's subtitle (Rarities and Renovations from the English Tradition) sets out Mary's personal stall in typically direct and truthful fashion, for she includes several songs that have hitherto undeservedly languished in obscure corners and been rarely collected (let alone heard in performance), alongside variants of better-known songs which qualify as renovations, refreshing and often innovative ventures that enable us to approach with renewed enthusiasm songs that you might think have already been "done to death". Into this latter category come Mary's version of the old chestnut The Mermaid in which the usual ending is reversed and everyone goes home happy ever after (while, intriguingly, the setting's in the minor key!), Barb'ry Ellen (where Mary sings a reconstructed text to the wonderful tune collected by Sharp from Louie Hooper), and Sheath And Knife, where the affectingly stately momentum of the accompaniment gives a different kind of impetus to the ballad's development and the inevitability of its outcome (note also that Mary's reconstruction gives Sir William the final emotional comments on the tragedy). Back to the first-mentioned category, and the disc's two principal rarities turn out to be its greatest delights. The first, No My Love, Not I (When Fishes Fly), is a song that captivated me at once when I first heard Mary sing it at the Ryburn 3-Step folk club, where she was once resident (she graciously allowed me to "collect" it from her straightway, and my own adaptation has since become a kind of cornerstone of my repertoire). This song so very powerfully marries a truly beautiful tune to a decidedly unsentimental account of an all-too-familiar tale. The second of the rarities, Pride Of The Season, is also a real jewel, and Mary sings it unaccompanied (interestingly, this song shares with No Me Love a common source - Kenneth Peacock, who collected it in Newfoundland in 1958). After all that, it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that four of the disc's 13 tracks are instrumental sets which feature superbly-judged combinations of familiar and unfamiliar tunes. And a further four tracks pair songs with tunes in an eminently enticing and imaginative way - especially notable is the closing "East Anglian set" which morphs Waltz For The Valeta into The Faithful Sailor Boy. And so what if Mary's lively rendition of Young Banker (from the Frank Kidson collection) closely mirrors that of Chris Coe - whose version Mary'd heard long before the popular Watersons one, as it turns out - since it's given an extra degree of lift by the infectious arrangement. I could enthuse further, but I don't want to spoil the delicious element of surprise and discovery you'll get on playing this lovely disc.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 57 of The Living Tradition magazine.