Just when you thought the mainstream music industry had abandoned folk music for another generation, at least until the next bright spark decides it’s time for a new anti-fashion fashion statement, here come Island Records signing up Sam Sweeney. You assume they must have seen him leaping off amp stacks with Bellowhead, charging around the stage with Eliza Carthy or playing drums with Jon Boden but nope, this is an album of fiddle music as pure as pure can be. No frenetic speedsters, no grandstanding production, no artifice whatsoever – just tunes. Tunes which remind you that – though not necessarily obvious from Bellowhead, but certainly identifiable in Leveret – he’s a lovely fiddle player of real grace and a fine touch.
This, in essence, is a themed follow-up/companion to Made In The Great War, the album and show he toured with such success, telling the story of music hall performer Richard Howard, who was halfway through building a fiddle when called away to fight for king and country. His death on the battlefield meant the fiddle wasn’t completed until many years later, eventually ending up in Sweeney’s hands. Thus the carefully selected and deeply researched tunes relate in different ways to the Great War.
It opens poignantly with Highland Soldier, collected by George Butterworth, who was himself killed at the battle of the Somme. Sweeney subsequently takes us on an emotional journey that encompasses various different backgrounds – there are tunes from Belgium, France and Germany, involving marches, laments and dance melodies. No jingoistic, flag-waving Last Night Of The Proms triumphalism here… this is sensitive, fragile, emotive and extremely beautiful.
He calls in some favours from some of his old mates – Rob Harbron on concertina, Jack Rutter on acoustic guitar and Becky Price on piano pop up here and there and there is a certain grandeur to the Scottish pipe tunes, notably the sombre epic Battle Of The Somme. Nothing, though, quite matches the pairing of William Monk’s Eventide (Abide With Me) with the German Der Gute Kamarad for pointed juxtapositioning. An impressive work.