Plaudits for Swarbtricks

It’s not often a CD comes along where the title is practically a review unto itself. However, “Swarbtricks: A Collection Of New Melodies Purposely Composed for the Violin & Mandolin by David Swarbrick, Arranged & Performed by Duncan Wood & Guests” does come pretty close! So in effect, it is a new Dave Swarbrick collection, expertly played by other people.

If one were listening without the above information to hand, it would be easy to think all 17 selections were traditional – ala Swarb’s first few solo albums in the 1970s – but he in fact wrote them recently with friend Duncan Wood in mind. Dave’s wife Jill Swarbrick Banks takes up the story:

“Duncan is a wonderful musician who plays with Cathal McConnell (Boys of the Lough) up in Edinburgh and sporadically around Britain. He is a superb fiddler and a terrific admirer of Swarb. He is also an Art Dealer of repute; he has his own Gallery in Edinburgh. Anyway, he & Swarb are great pals. Swarb played a gig up in Edinburgh with Duncan and Cathal; Swarb wrote a tune in the Scottish style for Duncan, next thing I know…. he’s writing tune after tune after tune. It poured out of him for about six weeks, day and night! He was complaining of not being able to sleep because the tunes were playing in his head and he was fighting to get them down on manuscript paper before they evaporated! This happens a lot anyway, he gets the Muse and he just writes wonderful stuff! It’s almost as if someone occupies his head for a while. Spooky. Anyway, this CD is the result of this activity.”

The material is all acoustic and all instrumental, and is in exactly the right hands. Swarb’s tunes can often go to unexpected places, which can require several hearings to get the head around just as a listener, so to master and play them as skilfully as Wood, McConnell, Martin Macdonald, Gavin Sutherland and Maureen Hunter do here is certainly a testament to their instrumental dexterity.

However, there are plenty of other tracks that are immediately accessible, such as the opener The Roaring Broadside wherein Wood multitracks on violin, mandolin, subtle percussion etc to create an attention-grabbing start to the proceedings. Along the way, various jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs etc are placed in a sensible order and include such treats as the O’Carolan-esque Through The Woods, and the instantly enjoyable medley Foxed And Faded / Bargains a Plenty / The Secret Store / The Dealer.

Specific details are provided for each track, so it can be stated that the last-named medley was inspired by nothing more nefarious than paper restoration and antique collecting. The well-designed cardboard digipak cover doesn’t include any pictures of the musicians but since that leaves more room for details of the music itself, it seems a fair trade.

Regardless of whether the tunes be new or old and how many listens it takes to get the various twists, turns and nuances, ‘Swarbtricks’ stands as a thoroughly enjoyable collection of melodies. Not many people other than Dave Swarbrick could have written them, and not many others than Duncan Wood & Guests could have done them this much justice.

Review by Michael Hunter.