CD review: Wilson & Swarbrick “Lion Rampant”

lionrampant coverWILSON & SWARBRICK
“Lion Rampant”
(Shirty Records)

Reviewed by Michael Hunter

I’m afraid I must start with a controversial statement – this is an album of no great surprises.  Quite predictable, in fact.  Please let me explain, though…

When two acknowledged “masters of their game” come together, you just know it’s going to be intriguing.  Jason Wilson, Canadian reggae star, and Dave Swarbrick, legend of English folk and folk rock have played live and recorded the occasional track together before, but now present their first full-length album, in the form of ‘Lion Rampant’.  They both care about the music they play, be it their usual style or as here, an amalgamation of the two and then some.  So you see, it’s predictably high quality, well-produced music with intelligently considered arrangements.

The collection of guests that help out on various tracks do nothing but add to the listening experience as well.  No shocks there either.  Although the recording locations are spread throughout the world – for example, Swarbrick, Jerry Donahue, Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick recorded at Swarb’s studio in Coventry / Pee Wee Ellis (ex-James Brown and Van Morrison saxophonist) in Bristol, and The Bevvy Sisters in a Scottish studio – the overall sound quality works together so well that a listener would be unlikely to pick any difference in tone or fidelity. It’s all just so predic…

Actually, I don’t think I can carry this “predictability” shtick any further!  This s a great album, that despite combining what some may consider music from disparate cultures, works entirely as its own concept.  It is certainly not a novelty, or an amusing diversion for anyone involved, and is easily worthy of repeated listens.

Jason Wilson has always been interested in reggae and Scottish music, so both elements are naturally strong here.  This includes a few Robert Burns pieces, such as the unusual combination of My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose with No Woman No Cry.  There is no reason this pairing shouldn’t work musically or thematically, and Wilson’s emotive vocals along with Swarbrick’s beautiful fiddle lines ensure it is so.  Backing vocals on this are by The Bevvy Sisters, who also provide lead on The Fish Gutters Song (one of many earworms from the CD).  Not that extra “folk cred” is needed but the addition of Peggy Seeger on banjo on this track inevitably provides it anyway!

Wilson provides the lead vocals otherwise, while Swarb is content to provide fiddle and mandolin throughout.  A few tracks are familiar from his earlier repertoire – though John The Gun for example has never had a reggae beat before.  The “Fotheringay 2” version had Jerry Donahue’s father Sam on saxophone; here it is Pee Wee Ellis with his own distinctive take.

Following on from a smooth brass-led soul version of Richard Thompson’s Why Must I Plead, Swarb contributes the beautiful Playford tune Jamaica – well, which other one would be more suitable for this project?  From the repertoire of the late Alistair Hulett comes Among Proddy Dogs And Papes in an outstanding brassy, rock arrangement.  An earlier version has appeared on a Hulett tribute album, but the ‘Lion Rampant’ track has extra added Swarbrick missing on the original.  One could imagine Roaring Jack having done it somewhat like this.

Speaking of rock, The Ballad Of Jack McLaren (a Wilson original) has what must be the first Dave Swarbrick punk rock violin solo, reminding us all why he earned the title “demon fiddler” all those years ago!  Quite astonishing playing.  The song itself has several tempo changes but all to good effect.

The same can be said of Damascus, which is roughly based on Burns’ Tam O’Shanter.  It’s a long track that passes through various musical stages including reggae and hornpipe, to a tender fiddle solo, a circus feel, through to a jazz-rock ending.  These twists and turns, far from disconcerting, keep the listener intrigued all the way along, and are perhaps indicative of the diversity of the album as a whole.

The Lads-A-Bunchum Medley is possibly the most unique of the tracks – I certainly haven’t heard Morris tunes in reggae style before.  This also features Carthy and Kirkpatrick as guests, and with the Jason Wilson Band behind them, almost sounds as if Brass Monkey had been formed in Kingston!  It not only works musically, but is quite captivating each time one hears it.

The album finishes with a soulful version of Dick Gaughan’s Sail On, with some excellent lead guitar from Jerry Donahue.  Special mention needs to be made of the adaptability of all musicians, particularly Wilson’s own four piece band comprising saxophone, bass, trombone and drums effectively on each track, no matter the style.  Wilson himself supplies guitar, keyboards, accordion and powerful vocals.  Another special mention also goes to Jill Swarbrick Banks for the impressive cover art.

Bottom line – this music works because it is in exactly the right hands.

Available from Swarb’s website –  (a few track excerpts can also be heard here).

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