English Dance And Song - Spring 2014
It's tempting to call Sara Grey an
but this would sound too
such a light-spirited performer,
and personality have brought
both sides of the Atlantic for
decades. She is simply incapable of
anything disappointing, so it's a
review her latest release. Sara's
with its trilling vibrato, is full of
humour, while her relaxed
playing is backed with sparse grace
Paley's fiddle and guitar and vocal
Kieron Means, Sara's son
long-time collaborator (and excellent
performer in his own right).
the songs are rulers here,
stories they have to tell! There's
Dean, released from prison in
an experiment to test the
skills of blood hounds (he
their scent and was never
Belle Starr, famous for harbouring
immortalised by Woody
the famous boxing match
English 'Unicorn' Thomas
the 'Yankee' John C. Heenan.
wonderfully informative sleeve
singers are just as important as
and we learn that the searingly
'The Colorado Trail' was sung by
Texas rancher in the late
1800s to his
doctor, who wrote down the
words. I was
especially pleased to hear
'Bury Me Not
on the Lone Prairie' on here,
Sara and Kieron enraptured me
in a live
concert some years ago, and a
the eerily beautiful 'Lonesome
Wolves', which Sara also recorded
Ellis back in 1981.
To top it
all, there's a fantastic 'tall tale'
in the form
of 'The Boaster', which Sara
two months to learn (when you
you'll understand why!) while a
the singing of the wonderful
Riddle, 'Merry Willow Tree'
of our rich, shared musical
I've played this album many
already and it brings me more joy
each time I
hear it. Quite simply: you need
this in your
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Sara's latest CD brings another wide-ranging collection of songs
showcasing her distinctive performing style. She's been touring
in the company of her son Kieran, himself no mean guitarist and
singer, so it's natural that Kieron, along with fiddle ace Ben
Paley (son of veteran Tom) furnishes Sara with topgrade
As before, virtually all of the material is drawn from old-time
heritage, ably researched by Sara from the hidden corners of
that tradition where the ring of the familiar often coexists
with the unexpected twist or unknown variant. Thus, opening
narrative The Ballad Of Lost John Dean carries resonances of a
field holler, while the rousing (and fun) disc finale Rocky
Island closely echoes Shady Grove and The Merry Willow Tree is a
satisfying variant of The Golden Vanity. Bury Me Not On The Lone
Prairie (from the singing of Alan Lomax's sister) turns out to
be a cow boy reworking of old ballad The Ocean Burial.
Sara also makes a persuasive case for Bright Sunny South being
an entirely different song from well-known Sweet Sunny South,
initial and structural resemblances notwithstanding. Bright
Sunny South may have been ensconced in Sara's live repertoire
for some time, but it still provokes a frisson of discovery
overlaying its partial familiarity. The value of Sara's
enterprise is also, invariably, heightened by the honest
crediting of sources in her suitably detailed yet economic liner
notes. For, however obscure the song, Sara always finds a good
reason for its unearthing.
Four tracks are performed a-cappella.
Lonesome Roving Wolves, done in duet mode, gives a striking
demonstration of how closely Sara and Kieron's mother-and-son
voices work together in vibrato-rich harmony. Sara's own voice
then rises unadorned and solo on the charming tale of Old
Dolores, delighting in bringing this 'sweetheart' song to her
listeners gathered round the campfire, while she audibly
relishes the wordy challenge of The Boast er just as much as
the telling of the allegorical pugilistic tale of The Yankee And
The contrast between rancher's love song The Colorado Trail and
Henry Thomas's Bull Doze Blues almost couldn't be greater, but
Sara tackles both with equal facility, with the extra benefit of
Kieron's expert guitar and voice backing her on the former. The
archetypal West Virginia modality of Cherry River Line trundles
along nicely with full instrumental complement. And the
recording is given an exemplary balance by Fellside's Paul
Adams, who completely understands these musicians and their
joyous and keen internal dynamic.
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You can't hurry Sara Grey. You can't just jostle her along. She
goes at her own stately pace, touring when she wants, recording
when she feels like it. like a sturdy buckboard, Sara has only
one gear, marked "Unhurried". You could say her performances
have a similar one-speed quality about them, but what you're
hearing is a constant subtle shift in pace and register rather
than a series of lurches and swings. Down In Old Dolores marks
her latest visit to the studio, and it's ... unhurried.
The first thing you hear is the quiet chuckle of Sara's banjo.
Her playing has often attracted the epithet "deceptively
simple", but in fact there's nothing deceptive about it. Simple
is what it inarguably is. I'll wager that no banjo picker has
played fewer notes in their career than Sara Grey, and she's
been picking half a century and more. Enough is as good as a
feast would seem to be her motto, and I've no quarrel with that.
Her son Kieran Means weighs in with occasional guitar and
backing vox, and here and there Ben Paley adds some
authentically scrapy fiddle. It's a few years since I heard
Kieron, and I was unprepared for his rich, slurry baritone, but
it makes a dandy contrast to his mother's airy tones,
Sara has tended to specialise over the years in the New England
and Appalachian repertoires, but here she ranges freely from sea
to shining sea. She revisits the spooky Iowan song lonesome
Roving Wolves, first heard on her Fellside debut Making The Air
Resound back in the day, and zigzags round the southwest states
for the likes of Old Dolores, Ballad Of lost John Dean and The
Colorado Trail as well as picking round her own backyard for
Bright Sunny South, The Yankee And The Unicorn and Rocky Island.
The songs gathered here cover a range of moods, but all seem
infused with that wistful melancholy so characteristic of
American frontier song. You also get a skirt-swinging banjo
tune, Black Bear On The Mountain, halfway down the trade.
Sara's in good voice throughout, You can hear the occasional
huskiness on the unaccompanied selections that discreetly
reminds you she's well into her eighth decade-not to mention the
fluttering vibrato that she ascribes to her possession of a
double (or bifid) uvula. (A condition manifested by 2% of the
population-l looked it up so you didn't have to.)
Down In Old Dolores shows Sara Grey in as fine a fettle as ever.
It's a collection without a weak spot: genial, tuneful and ...
unhurried. Or did I say that already?
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The title track of Sara's latest CD, sung in solo unaccompanied
glory, tells of an old town down in New Mexico (or is it
Colorado!), allowing Sara to use a photo of an old adobe
hacienda, complete with string of drying chillies, on the
cardboard cover - could it be that the jewel case is a Thing Of
Elsewhere, Sara and Kieron ring the changes. As well as their
consummate banjo and guitar accompaniments, on Lonesome Roving
Wolves they do a haunting a capella duet, while
old-time-fiddler-in-chief Ben Paley joins them for Doc Boggs'
wonderful Bright Sunny South, the sprightly Johnson Boys, the
undeniably lonesome Cherry River Line, and the highly danceable
Black Bear on the Mountain and Rocky Island - the former a tune
without words and the latter a tune with words!
If you know Sara's work, there's not much else to say except
that Dolores is an entirely fitting and Up-to-the mark addition
to her considerable body of work. If you don't know Sara's work,
you will be able to buy this album and have your socks knocked
off by the sheer energy and musicality it contains.
Even Paul Adams of Fellside, who is usually never stuck for a
few hundred words, can only manage a couple of quotes and a
short paragraph in the press release. Don't worry, Paul. The
music speaks for itself ...
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