Alistair Anderson, a leading light in the music of Northumberland, launches a brand new band with the release of their superb debut album. Alistair Anderson & Northlands are a four-piece outfit drawing upon Alistair’s extensive experience, married with three emerging young talents of today’s folk scene. Sarah Hayes, Ian Stephenson and Sophy Ball.
Ian met the three who were then young teenagers, in the 1990s at a summer school which he established and steered for two decades. Ian and Sophy are also graduates of Newcastle University’s folk degree, which Ian set up in 2001.
They mix new songs and classics from the 18th century, driving Northumbrian jigs and reels contrasted with a waltz learned from a friend in New England. Folk star Jez Lowe composed the opening track, “Taking On Men”, a track where Sarah Hayes sublime vocals drift over the gifted guitar of Ian Stephenson. From the off, it is obvious this is uber-credible folk territory. The opener drops hints of the major talent on this album; Alistair’s concertina and pipes offset by Sophy Ball’s fiddle and Ian Stephenson’s guitar skills, while allowing Sarah’s vocals to remain the main focus.
Alistair has a formidable track record, having played with the High Level Ranters in the early sixties and seventies. Ian Stephenson is in demand; having played guitar for The Kathryn Tickell band and Celtic supergroup Kan, to Baltic Crossing and the Andy May Trio. On hearing him across this CD, we now know why. Alistair is in demand as a Northumbrian pipes and concertina soloist, having undertaken no less than 35 tours of America.
The atmosphere created by this album takes me back to my childhood listening to Joe Hutton, one of the leading pipes players who Alistair performed with and learned from, among other Northumbrian shepherd-players. I heard Joe, sadly no longer with us, and others playing after they would meet up for a drink and end up in my Grandfather’s (a fellow Northumbrian shepherd) farmhouse in Bellingham, Northumberland. The gentle beauty of Joe playing those small pipes is indelibly etched into my head and heart to this day.
The fiddle playing of Sophy Ball on David Cahn’s “Fiesta Waltz” takes you to a blissful place where your troubles will become distant. Stand out track for me is the closer of the dozen, “I Drew My Ship Into A Harbour.” the small pipes pride of place; building behind the vocals, while fiddle and guitar weave a mystical sound as the foundation from which the vocals can float up from, until the pipes finally drift off.
“The Snow It Melts The Soonest,” penned in 1821, by Thomas Doubleday under the pseudonym, Josiah Shufflebotham of Gowk’s Hall” is tender but with depth, the vocals beautifully balanced with the fiddle. Lifting the pace, Sarah Hayes’ lovely flute on the medley “Redeside Hornpipe” / “Kyloe Burn,” blended with the subtle guitar work of Ian Stephenson really works in harmony. “Last Shift,” opens with some under-stated double bass and maintains a downbeat pace as Sarah does credit to Mike Tickell’s lyrics, guitar and pipes steadily building in the background.
“Reel De Mattawa” / “Wedding Bells,” is straight up, no nonsense folk at a level above most that you will hear today. Guaranteed to prompt a tail feather or two to be shaken. Ian’s guitar provides a solid backbone on the medley, “Iain Macphail’s Compliments To Chrissie Leatham” / “Cooper Of Stannerton Heugh” / One-Horned Sheep”, fiddle and pipes driving things along.
This balanced, delightful album really is a credit to Alistair, Ian, Sophy and Sarah; skilful, accomplished and creative musicians individually, but as a band they have palpable chemistry and that much talked about X-factor (no, not that one!). Alistair has allowed the material – beautifully varied – and the music to come first and resisted the temptation to push his incredible musicianship to the fore, at the potential cost of the overall quality of the production.
By Ian Shipley
(1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’