Dave Swarbrick & Simon Nicol’s Another Fine Mess: Live In New York ’84  

cover art for Another Fine MessAfter nearly twenty years, Swarbrick and Nicol have begun touring the UK folk clubs as an acoustic duo again. The first time around, it was as one of the spinoffs resulting from Fairport Convention’s early-80s hiatus, with a couple of hard-to-find albums released at the time. Even the 1997 CD compilation of those recordings, Close To The White Bear, is now deleted. This time around, interest has been stirred again by the 2001 Atrax CD reissue of the In The Club cassette, which Swarb is seen selling from a basket, presumably at an early Cropredy, on the back of this new CD. The response was so good that the duo arranged various gigs around their otherwise very busy schedule in late ’02 and early ’03, and it was decided a new album should be forthcoming – or at least a first-time release of a live performance from their original incarnation.

The subtitle is self-explanatory – the CD was largely recorded at Folk City in New York in April 1984, with the exception of the final track, which comes from a Bristol, UK, performance a couple of years earlier. Interestingly, though there is inevitable crossover between some of the songs and tune sets on Another Fine Mess and other Swarbrick/Nicol albums, there is enough variation in the arrangements and enough new material presented to make it pretty much essential, even for anyone lucky enough to have those recordings. In any case, the quality of the musicianship, the fun of the performance and the obvious delight of the audience all combine to make this CD pretty irresistible altogether.

Seven of the twelve tracks are tune medleys – to be expected, given the the duo’s reputation for these sets. These are often Irish tunes such as “Young Black Cow/Lord Inchiquin” but others from further afield are also included such as the Nova Scotian medley “Democratic Rage/The Constitution/President Garfield’s.” Even some of the more familiar tracks are presented here in somewhat different form – for example, the medley which comprised “Humours Of Cappa” and “Swallowtail Reel” has two more tunes added to it, “Tobin’s Favourite” and “High Road To Linton,” while the “Flitter Dance Medley” sounds very different in an acoustic duo format as opposed to the full band version from Swarb’s Lift The Lid And Listen album. The second tune, “Peter O’Tavy” is also considerably slower than on the original recording.

The songs include older Fairport favourites such as “Rosie” and “John Barleycorn.” They also perform Richard Thompson’s “Poor Ditching Boy,” which suits the more sparse arrangement, and an apparently unrehearsed acoustic version of “Matty Groves,” included as a request. Their years of performing it with FC stood them in good stead for adapting it to this format (this is the earlier 1982 recording mentioned previously). Another rarity is a version of “Carthy’s March,” first recorded on a Swarb solo album with Martin Carthy on guitar – which segues into the Fairport instrumental medley “Royal Seleccion #13.”

Throughout, Swarbrick plays with the expected fire and gusto when necessary, and with obvious sensitivity on the airs and ballads. His only lead vocal work is on “Rosie” though his backing vocals blend well with Nicol’s performance on the other songs. On the instrumentals, it is apparent Swarb is often improvising around a tune and enjoying doing so, but the intrinsic understanding between his fiddle and Nicol’s guitar ensures it all stays well and truly on track.

The spoken introductions are equal parts informative and witty, and their inclusion helps to give what must be a good indication of what the duo were/are like live. It is very pleasing to see more recordings and gigs from Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol considering their original time together was reasonably brief. Like the music they play, they are adaptable and beyond mere fashion, which makes it a pleasure to hear them at any time. Might we be so bold as to ponder the possibility of a new recording from the duo in 2003?

(Atrax, 2002)

This review was originally written for Australian Fairport e-zine Fiddlestix.