At the Bristol folk festival Pilgrims' Way had no CDs for sale. Although their performance was early in the day - the first coffee was still going down - they'd pulled out the stops like the Phantom of the Opera on the organ. But folkier. So when their first album, Wayside Courtesies, eventually arrived through the post several weeks later, sent by Jane Brace who also does PR for Show of Hands, it had a gentle press of expectation weighing upon it.
To say that Wayside Courtesies repays repeat listening would be to undersell it. After elbowing its way to the front of my CD shuffle on the strength of its noises, I eventually plugged into the album on a train, heard the lyrics properly and was gripped. There's a unifying sensibility that is playful and brave, intelligent and sensual, emotionally turbulent but optimistic. There's also an interesting amount of gender-bending on the album, making Wright - since she says she was mainly responsible for the choices - possibly the first female, red-headed, metrosexual folk musician from Macclesfield.
Track one, Only a Soldier, is a witty, real politik tale about why you should never underestimate a man who kills people for a living. It's an old story: girl meets boy, boy is social inferior who wields a mean cutlass, father attempts to prevent marriage by sending a posse after the would-be son-in-law, boy kills posse and terrifies the father, so much so that the father throws in his entire fortune for good measure. Love conquers all, eh?
To ring the changes, track two is sung from the point of view of a handweaver living on the cusp of the industrial revolution who falls in love with a factory girl with lovely breasts: cue saucy metaphor about keeping their shuttles in play. Track three, Martinmas Time, is about a farmer's daughter who cross-dresses and wins a game of dares with an entire troupe of soldiers, galloping out of their barracks spurs-a-jingling with her maidenhood in tact. ("Woo!" we're exhuberantly told.)
Adieu Lovely Nancy is heartbreaking, Young Men are False is true, Tarry Trousers is a paean to sailors, whose advantage is that they don't stick around for long. It contains the line "Give me the lad whose tarry trousers shine to me like diamonds bright", which is the best description of female stupefacation in the face of her beloved that I've heard since "With his hammer in his hand he looked so clever" (The Blacksmith). I didn't know whether to laugh or sigh.
Pilgrims' Way and their producers - Forbes Legato and Jon Loomes - have used the studio judiciously to heighten their live effects without mutating the experience much. I mainly noticed vocal overdubs. So what we get is an ornate chapel of sound, in which minute social distinctions are understood but often ignored, the girls are as fickle as their lads and there's a Jew's harp being twanged in the corner.
Speaking of which, Wright is studying in Manchester for a PhD in ethnomusicology and comes from an extended family containing a couple of professional musicians. "My uncle Michael is active on the international Jew's harp scene. And I did a study at SOAS [the School of Oriental and African Studies in London] of how the instrument's used all over the world." She was on the phone, explaining that a Jew's harp looks like a mushroom-shaped bottle opener and that it isn't necessarily a small harp for those disinclined because of their ethnicity to buy a larger one. "It's called lots of things all over the world. In Italy it's known as a scacciapensiere, which means 'thought dispeller'. We tried not to over-use it on the album, though, because it's not everyone's cup of tea."
Between the three members of the band there is no structured musical training. "We've all felt for a while that we're a bit outside the mainstream folk scene because we're of the generation that might have done the Newcastle folk degree or attended Folkworks." Lucy is 26, Tom 28 and Edwin 31.
"We met at sessions in Manchester: there's one called the dulcie session that is younger than average. I'd always loved unaccompanied singing but decided when I moved there to go to more sessions. And it was Edwin who really brought things together. He's great at supporting people musically and he engineered the meeting between Tom and myself. I'd seen Tom around before but was too shy to speak to him because he was a professional musician.
"I'm always just amazed by their musicality. I take a song that I think they'll never be interested in and they turn around and do something really clever and unexpected with it."
The band's name and the name of the album come from track ten of eleven, A Pilgrim's Way, which is a version of the Rudyard Kipling poem set to music by Peter Bellamy and described on the sleeve notes as a "great humanist anthem [which] means a lot to us". It reminded me of A 17th-Century nun's prayer, a framed copy of which I have on my fridge: it used to belong to my grandparents. The song is the most lyrically dense on the album but deeply moving, offering a framework for a way of life.
In the land through which The Pilgrims' Way passes the taverns ring with song, the young eye each other speculatively and it's all to play for. The music is fine, delicate, accomplished and coherent. They've made a terrific first album.
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