Once A Day

Nick West's reviews for Bucketfull Of Brains and Rock'N'Reel

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Location: London, United Kingdom

Co-editor and publisher of Bucketfull Of Brains since 1996.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Southern Tenant Folk Union

Southern Tenant Folk Union

Ugly Nephew Records UNR004

STFU surfaced in 2006 playing around the London clubs like Come Down And Meet The Folks, Honky Tonkin’ Sunday and What’s Cookin’. Initially they appeared to be a side project of Pat McGarvey, long-time sidekick of Sid Griffin in the various incarnations of the Coal Porters over the last decade. As the Coal Porters made their turn towards bluegrass Pat had become an accomplished banjo player and immersed himself in the genre. It didn’t see m surprising that he might wish find another outlet allowing more space to spotlight his own songwriting. How Dark This Earth Will Shine’s ‘Morning Song’ had shown the quality of Pat’s writing but inevitably the Coal Porters would predominantly feature Sid’s material and their musical direction would be primarily his.

What was immediately striking about STFU was that this was no pick-up band. There was a quality apparent from the get-go. Pete Gow and Eamonn Flynn, from Case Hardin and Foghorn Leghorn respectively, bought known track records of quality. But stand-up bassist Matt Lloyd, fiddler Frances Vaux and singer-guitarist Oliver Talkes, though comparatively unknown quantities, proved each to be rock solid. Talkes particularly, who’d really appeared out of nowhere, marked himself immediately as a voice of gravitas and grandeur with the timbre of an old soul.

Folk were inevitably impressed by the shows but nobody realised how fast things were going to run. Pat had sent a few demos out to Americana labels without much response but then he was contacted through MySpace by Ugly Nephew who wanted to put out a record and wanted to do it soon. He jumped at it, but it meant a process in which a band was learning to be a band while recording an album in a Harlesden front room on a two-track and while some members were still trying to familiarise themselves with the whole bluegrass dynamic. That gives you some idea of the achievement here.

Because the STFU album is an exceptional debut album featuring exquisite playing and very strong songs. They’re mainly McGarvey compositions; the timescale and the learning curves, made that inevitable; but Ollie Talkes, who’s never previously been on a record, takes possession of every song he sings. ‘Who Is Going To Love You Now’, ‘The Cold Flagstone’ and Flynn’s ‘Candle Waltz’ all turn up goosebumps. And the harmonising and the instrumentation throughout are similarly haunting; precise, textured, always riveting, and always emoting.

What was the catalyst to start this band? Was it meeting Oli?

Pat: I thought Oli had such a great voice so I wanted to do something with him. I had quite a few songs lying around, but about nine months before that I’d seen a band in America called King Wilkie at a big bluegrass industry showcase in Louisville. I saw them play in a hotel room and it was these six young guys in retro looking suits, playing old-style, quite Gothic sounding, but cool, and I thought there’s space for similar in the UK. So I forged ahead on my own and then thought I’ll just do it myself with Ollie and Pete singing lead vocals and I’ll build a band around those guys. Old timey, traditional sounding songs but not pastiche, not cheesy sounding songs. Try and write good material that reflects my experience of life, but using old time phrases and imagery.

So the voices provided the main thrust?
Pat: It definitely started with an idea for the sound of the vocals and then as I wrote more songs for the album and the other guys wrote songs they started to be geared more to who was going to perform them. It actually happened quite quickly. Eamonn Flynn from Foghorn Leghorn, I met him down at What’s Cookin’ one day and asked whether he’d be interested in playing mandolin, and he chased me up after that. I found Frances and Matt out of an advert in Loot.

How has everybody taken to playing bluegrass?

Pete: We all come from different places. Case Hardin are more like a standard rock thing, Fran comes from an acid jazz, Irish folk thing. But we’ve all immersed ourselves in the bluegrass sound, we’ve all tried to understand it, but then bring our own bits to it. We’re grounded in this tradition but then there’s people like myself and Fran and various other people’s influences trying to drag us away from it. It just makes quite an exciting sound.



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