Reviews of the CDs

The Robber Bird

The Robber Bird CD cover - click for detailsIn my opinion the finest English Folk Band for concerts (in spite of personnel shifts), Magpie Lane release a much-anticipated CD which still manages to exceed our high expectations.

All five sing, and the instruments are fiddle (Mat Green), cello (Sophie Thurman), anglo-concertina and melodeon (Andy Turner), bouzouki, guitar and harmonica (Jon Fletcher), and percussion (Ian Giles).

The album begins solidly, with stirring version of The Muffin Man from the Mittel manuscript which blends into a robust singing of the Lark in the Morning to a variant of the tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Mrs Verrall in Horsham, Sussex. And it is quite typical of the kind of verve andf dedication they put into their music. It really makes the feet tap and the mood rise and fall with the tune.

This is not to say they eschew the lyrical - the instrumental work and Sophie's vocals on The Turtle Dove (another R V Williams recording, this from David Penfold of Rusper, Surrey) is as tenderly artistic a performance as you're ever likely to hear.

The English tradition forms the backbone of the repertoire, though there are a couple of Irish jigs, a 6/4 hornpipe from John Kirkpatrick (Shreds and Patches) and a Graeme Miles song (When the Snows of Winter Fall).

The CD is beautifully packaged, with easy-to-read, detailed notes on the songs and tunes. Interesting to see that they have sourced some items from the Village Music Project. All that ABC coding was worth it!

Sadly, the nearest booking they have to Shropshire is at the Red Lion Folk Club in Birmingham (16th May). Still, if I want to show someone why I love English folk music, I can play them this.
Flos Headford, Shreds and Patches, Spring 2012
This offering from the Oxfordshire quintet is quite the best offering of English traditional songs and dance tunes that has come this way in many a day. They have a well chosen and balanced programme, full of change of pace and variety
Vic Smith, Sussex Folk Diary, June/July 2012
I've listened to it over and over again, and I really do like their stuff
Mike Harding, Radio 2
Magpie Lane, established in 1992 and with six CDs already to their name, are a highlight of the Oxford folk scene and champions of a clear melodic style of traditional folk music. The Robber Bird (alias the magpie) is even more of what we have come to expect from this talented group. Many of the songs are familiar and sung over an impressively expressive range. Brash, confident songs like ‘Poaching Song’ and ‘Travel the Country Round’ are interwoven with the soulful, mournful sounds heard on ‘Oxford City’ and ‘Turtle Dove’. A favourite is ‘Isle of France’ with its fine vocals and atmospheric arrangements on voice, fiddle, guitar and drum.

Morris tunes make a brief appearance. After a short harmonious burst of ‘The Shepherd’s Song’, there is a lovely refreshing version of ‘Bobbing Joe’ on anglo concertina and, following the rest of the song, ‘Glorishears’ with Mat Green’s unmistakeable morris fiddle doing what it does best and contributing to a sound that has something of an acoustic Albion Band feel to it! A couple of Irish jigs are also featured – the lovely lilting ‘Christmas Eve’ on concertina and a very danceable, heavily phrased ‘Duncormick Mummers’ Jig’.

Only the last song, ‘When the Snows of Winter Fall’, has a known composer. Graeme Miles’ song is a good one to finish on, leaving the words and phrasing in your mind to encourage another playing. Don’t be fooled by the otherwise excellent insert where the notes mistakenly refer to him as ‘late’; this is a little premature.

The Robber Bird comprises Ian Giles (vocals, percussion), Andy Turner (vocals, anglo concertina, melodeon), Matt Green (vocals, fiddle), Jon Fletcher (vocals, guitar, bouzouki, harmonica) and Sophie Thurman (vocals, cello).

Sue Swift, English Dance & Song, Spring 2012
Stylish and competent are both words that work well here. The latest album by this experienced band covers a number of very good interpretations of some well known and less familiar songs. Diction is clear and there are no fumbled lyrics while the accompaniments reflect the high level of musical competence in the band. There is much to like here...

For fans of traditional music and song, quality intonation and clear presentation, this is a gem... the album is exactly what one would expect from these performers, high quality in all areas.
Paul Davenport, fRoots, August/September 2012

Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell

Knock at the Knocker CD coverMagpie Lane have turned their hands to many different themed projects down the years and are every bit as listenable here as ever. They are equally effective singing in permutations from solo to full ensemble and (a big plus in my book) make good use of a cello in their arrangements. They offer a particularly attractive arrangement of Cherry Tree Carol and extend the season with November Drinking Song (chorus: "get yourself to some cosy inn and drink the winter away") which has some notably lively concertina from Andy Turner

Nick Beale, fRoots

 

 

Six for Gold

Six for Gold CD coverthis Oxfordshire sextet represents the very best in the English country dance and song tradition… an accomplished and joyous album that’s the finest in its genre in many a moon
Sing Out
Their sixth CD follows what's become a familiar pattern: inventive arrangements of traditional songs (often unusual per se or in unusual versions) and interesting source notes - an approach they carry off extremely well, producing what's quite possibly their strongest set to date. It's probably to the good that they don't possess a lone superstar vocalist, they achieve much more variety by sharing the duties around differing permutations of the six of them. Again, everyone contributes something worthwhile to the musical side, although Andy Turner's concertina and Sophie Polhill's cello rate a special mention. 

The crisply rhythmic Jovial Cutler is calculated to lift the spirits and morphs very neatly into the Morris tune Old Molly Oxford. They also have a very nice version, with massed vocals, of Pete Coe's Juniper Gentle And Rosemary, while the orchestration of Foggy Dew builds subtly and effectively and they do a great job with the carol Lazarus. Elsewhere there's material from tune books, broadsides, the Coppers, Joseph Taylor, Scan Tester and other mainstays of the English tradition.
Nick Beale, fRoots
Perfumed with imagination and skill. The imagination comes in the arrangements, which back but never overwhelm the singing. Indeed, in songs like 'A begging I will go' and 'Once I was a shepherd boy' they positively bounce the vocal along. The singers uphold the Beautiful Jo tradition of expressing the song clearly, without affectation or histrionics. The songs are beautiful. These six Magpies have brought us a touch of gold.
Roy Harris, Taplas
Carefully chosen material, meticulously arranged and honed to perfection... Familiar songs have been revitalised and given a new burst of energy either through original arrangements - 'A Begging I will Go' - or full blooded chorus singing - 'The Constant Lovers'. 72 minutes of quality music
Folk London
release consistently good albums of English songs and music
Mike Harding, Radio 2
There can be few bands blessed with such fine singers, subtlety of accompaniment, rich mixing of diverse instrumental tones. Notable is the new maturity of Benji Kirkpatrick's guitar work. This album is a joy from start to finish. The sound is definitely English traditional, but such a beautiful example comes along all too seldom. Andy Turner, one of the most overlooked tenors and concertina players in England, provides wonderful harmony vocals with Ian Giles. Also unusual to find are a pair of confident female voices to complement them. Marguerite Hutchinson and Sophie Polhill not only match each other and the men vocally; the start of Around the Maypole/Asiatic brought a thrill I haven't had since recording with the Mellstock band 10 years ago. Sophie's cello is the perfect foil to Matt Green's fiddle playing, which grows in stature with every recording. I was impressed by her opening to A-Begging I Will Go, where the band tastefully use the dance tune Grimstock as linking motif. Marguerite also manages to blend in various whistles, a trick most bands can't carry off.

The choice of material is excellent, and the combining of tunes is sensitive and effective. There are some of my favourite songs and tunes here - The Constant Lovers (have all my favourite bands recorded that this year?), Long Peggin’ Awl (nice to hear Benji singing), Bold William Taylor, Argeers, etc.

The rhythmic backing from Benji and Ian is first class throughout. I loved the way they chose to end the album; they put it all together on one track - fine vocal lead, great chorus singing, growling raunchy instruments - so the first thing you want to do when the track ends is to play the whole CD again.

Just to let readers know that I do listen critically, even to a great album like this, I'd include one quibble - there's a cuteness to some female vocals that doesn't always gel with the otherwise very English sound. But that's not a reason to miss out on this CD. It's beautifully recorded and presented, with informative notes. You want this one in your collection, I promise.
Flos Headford, Shreds & Patches  
Class act; solid album. Magpie Lane are a group from the Oxford area giving lush deep harmonies and quality instrumental arrangements from talented and experienced musicians. lan Giles' voice is wonderful - rich and warm, and in Andy Turner they have surely one of the most graceful of anglo concertina players. Mat Green is one of the finest fiddlers in the English style; Marguerite Hutchinson and Sophie Polhill, relatively recent additions to the group, have strong, sensitive and accurate voices, and contribute wind and cello to the sound, and Benji Kirkpatrick binds it all together. That is some line-up. Six musicians; the Sixth Magpie Lane album; and, as the rhyme on the back cover says, '…Five for Silver, Six for Gold…’

The album contains sixteen tracks: three tune sets, and thirteen songs. All members get to lead at least one number, except Mat Green, and it is a great showcase for the variety yet coherence of the styles of those voices. And the full, six-voice harmony gives the whole its signature. It's good stuff.
Barry Callaghan, English Dance & Song
Magpie Lane are a sextet from Oxfordshire with a slew of wonderful albums under their collective belts. You couldn't ask for a warmer, more vibrant sound; they truly give life to English country music. As the group incorporates a cello for some effective bottom, as well as recorders, it is not hard to envision the group as the sort of country dance purveyors that one might find in a staid drawing room. Thankfully, however, the Magpies dispel that assumption quickly. By comparison to classical groups that mine traditional English country songs (like the Baltimore Consort, or the Revels groups), the Magpie Lane approach lets the songs and tunes breathe and bloom in all their native wildness.

I have long admired the selection of tunes that grace each Magpie Lane record, as they usually find songs that are somewhat startling (on their excellent Christmas CD Wassail, for example, they offered a tale of a foxhunt from the perspective of the doomed fox). On Six for Gold, the songs this time around are more familiar, such as "John Reilly", "A-Begging I Will Go," and "The Constant Lovers." But Magpie Lane do not disappoint, because the vocal performances are nothing less than a treat. Ian Giles' voice is warm, and the man never overwhelms a song. Plus, this is one ensemble that enjoys sharing the singing: nearly everyone gets the spotlight, and all join in for harmonizing. Magpie Lane also boast not one wonderful female voice, but two: the twin threat of Marguerite Hutchinson and Sophie Polhill practically turn the group into the Steeleye Span of the country set. Sophie's treatment of "John Reilly" gets high marks for her sweet, clear singing. Pete Coe taught the Magpies "Juniper Gentle and Rosemary," Marguerite's lead being stunningly fleshed out by all.

It's great to see young Benji Kirkpatrick in the band, contributing both bouzouki and guitar work, and tying Magpie Lane to the groundbreaking work of John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris. But the whole group plays with such sensitivity that they are now setting the bar in the realm of traditional interpretation. Mat Green's fiddle work and Andy Turner's concertina wizardry adds further spit and polish, making this a great country dance music set for dancing and not just armchair listening. It all comes together on "My Old Hat That I Got On," with its use of three different dance tunes and "All for me grog" chorus. With Six For Gold, Magpie Lane has surpassed itself, trolling about their English heritage with relish and genuine delight.
Lee Blackstone, RootsWorld

earlier CDs

The band obviously have a real love for their material. The songs and tunes are played with great gusto and the acapella numbers are note-perfect. The enthusiasm is infectious and I found myself, at the end of side two, wanting to play the whole album again.
Wayne Stote, Rock ‘n’ Reel magazine.
The music and songs are all performed with a deep respect for the material, retaining the traditional flavour completely ... Will prove a delight to lovers of traditional English music and song,
Folkwrite magazine
If there were a pub session in heaven, it would sound like this.
Sing Out!
I sometimes wonder what a foreigner’s (even your average Englishman’s) idea is of English music. I think if Magpie Lane travelled as ambassadors of our music and song they really couldn't be bettered for a lively interpretation which respects the tradition.
Rod Harrington, Radio Somerset Sound
Well performed and programmed and accessible without compromising what made the music special in the first place.
Nick Beale, Folk Roots
Should a Guatemalan musicologist stop you in the street in the next few days and ask you to define the essence of English Folk Music, save yourself a great deal of breath, keep your mouth firmly closed and just give him this album... The playing of this seven piece band, accompanied by friends who include Chris Leslie, is flawless... This is a collection to warm the heart.
Jon Sims, Folk on Tap magazine.
well researched, well played, well sung and well produced. What more could you ask for?
Lars Nilsson, Green Man Review
To capture the spirit of wassailing, try Wassail! - a Country Christmas by Magpie Lane, absolutely the most splendid performers of English traditional music
For rural English Christmas traditions, the best album of the season is Magpie Lane's Wassail! A Country Christmas [Beautiful Jo BEJOCD-8 (1995)]. A seven-piece acoustic folk band that features all manner of voices and instruments - concertina, flute, recorder, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, pipe and tabor, cello, and more, Magpie Lane perform a wide selection of Christmas carols, wassails and dance tunes. Many of the selections are quite unusual - clearly, they enjoy researching some of England's out-of- the-way folk songs. One outstanding and uncommon song on the disc is the lament of gardeners, who were always frozen out of work in wintertime. Another, better known lament commemorates a flock of sheep that was smothered beneath a heavy snowstorm in the Isle of Man. The spooky story of "Herod and the Cock," the ominous ballad of the "Standing Stones," and a humorous eighteenth century satire called "Stuff your Guts," along with several generally cheerful wassails and jaunty dance tunes, make for a great mix of moods. Instruments are handled tastefully and deftly, with lots of nice guitar playing and guest fiddling by Chris Leslie.
Steve Winick, Dirty Linen #67

Reviews of live performances

Magpie Lane/Habbadam at the Teignmouth Folk Festival, Central Theatre, Saturday, June 19, 2010
They blew me away – and few folk groups do that. Ian Giles has a remarkable voice and buttressed by the talent that surrounds him, this is a band with much firepower – instrumentally and vocally. In the present incarnation: Andy Turner/Sophie Polhill/Mat Green/Jon Fletcher play concertinas, melodeons, cello, whistle, fiddle, guitar, bouzouki and harmonica. And all sing – when they suddenly burst into five part harmony it is a joy to behear, offering a majestic swathe of sound.
excerpt from Rod Warner's Words & Music blog - read full review
Thanks for another great evening. Every time Magpie Lane appear at Ringwood Folk club we are near to capacity, with plenty of great singing from you and the audience. It's really good to hear proper Southern English Traditional music played so well.
Rod Biggs, Ringwood Folk Club