When I started out to write this review, I found myself at a loss for words. How do you describe “yet another Celtic music album?” Just what do you say about the umpteenth collection of traditional songs from England/Ireland/Wales/Scotland/all of the above, that’ll make this particular album stand out from the rest? Good question. Despite the majority of my ancestors hailing from those regions, and my genetic disposition towards getting drunk and stealing horses from my neighbors (these days, it’s lawnmowers!), I’ve never had the best ear for the music of my forefathers. Maybe I’m cursed. Or maybe that little bit of German in me is finally getting his revenge.At any rate, that’s how I approached The Northumberland Collection, by Kathryn Tickell and Friends. I’m sorry. I looked at it as just another Celtic album. I’ve been there, done that. I went through my Chieftains/Silly Wizard/Steeleye Span phase in high school, and then stashed the tapes in a closet. Now, because I’m morally opposed to discarding any music, I still have them, because I think I may have to pull them out for a nostalgia bend later. And, in fact, that’s exactly what The Northumberland Collection inspired in me.
This is a collection of songs and tunes, mostly traditional arrangements, from Northumberland. Now, it’s a sad testament to my lack of geography skills, that even with a map included in the liner notes, it took me some actual research to ascertain that the Northumberland is, in fact, one of England’s largest counties and not a part of Scotland. And to correct my earlier assumptions, it’s not even “Celtic.” It’s English Traditional, with Celtic influences. There is a difference, Virginia.
Okay. We now know where Northumberland is. We know that this is a collection of English traditional songs. We can even narrow down that this is an album featuring Kathryn Tickell (small pipes, fiddle, viola), Terry Conway (vocals and guitar), Carolyn Robson (vocals), Julian Sutton (melodeon), and no less than seven other musicians, representing such instruments as fiddle, harp, guitar, bass, piano, 12-string guitar, and Border pipes. Tickell, as the featured musician in the title, is the main energy and spirit in this collection, appearing in most, though not all, of the tracks.
For those who’ve never heard of her, Kathryn Tickell is a relatively well-known English piper and fiddle player, who was actually born in Northumberland, making this collection something of a very personal work for her. Some of the artists she’s worked with in the past include Nick Holland, Troy Donockley, Maddy Prior, and Sting.
Now comes the real question. Is it any good? Oh, yes.
It’s beautiful, well-crafted, and expertly woven. Tickell knows her stuff, and her friends certainly know theirs, and although I can’t be certain, I have a very strong suspicion that they’ve done justice to the Northumberland tradition.
For instance, “Bonny At Morn” is a gorgeous little song, featuring Sean Barry on the harp and starring the angelic voice of Carolyn Robson. Although the tune is simple and the plot straight-forward (a mother tries to convince her children to wake up and do some actual work), it’s still a stunning example of what’s right with the album. You don’t need flashy when you have expertise.
“Otterburn” is one of Tickell’s originals, commissioned to commemorate the six hundreth anniversary of a battle of the same name (And to us Americans, tell me that six hundred years isn’t mind-boggling. That’s roughly three-times the age of our country! No wonder this album has such an timeless feel to it. ) It’s a lively piece, full of energy and enthusiasm, and capturing, if not outright evoking, the feeling of battle.
Then we have a medley like “Old Morpeth Rant/Morpeth Rant/Hesleyside Reel,” which is quite simply a toe-tapping, finger-drumming, get-up-and-move kind of piece. It’s the sort to grab you, swing you a few times, and toss you into the midst of the crowd, just to get you out of your seat.
“Fareweel Regality” is another one of those timeless songs, the ones that really do carry the weight of hundreds of years behind them. The surprise of this haunting, poignant, farewell ballad is that it was written in 1984 by Terry Conway. Had I not read that in the liner, I might very well have mistaken it for a traditional song. It has just the right blend of touching sentimentality and wistful romanticism to fit right in. Of all the songs on the album, don’t miss this one.
Yes, this album’s worth buying. It might not win Best of Show, or Best of Breed, but it’s still a sterling example of the genre. Go out and enjoy it. As for myself, I’m off to dig up some of my old tapes. It’s been too long.
(Park Records, 1999)