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Album review: Gregg Cave “Old England Grown New” (FRUK)

March 5, 2015

Gregg Cave - Old England Grown New coverGregg Cave has been an established part of the UK folk-rock scene since founding the band Cave at the age of 18. In recent years he’s worked on collaborative projects – notably as part of TRADarrr – while still finding time to establish his own solo career, which includes the recording of his self-released debut album Old England Grown New. Themed around the ideas of being rooted in one’s country and its history and blending contemporary folk with traditional material, the influence of late 1960s Fairport Convention is evident but never overwhelming.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given Gregg’s connections with various musicians who have, at one time or another, been members of Fairport; indeed, the venerable Dave Swarbrick guests on fiddle on the first track, The Bonny Lass of Anglesey. It’s a traditional song, taken from the Child ballads, ostensibly about a dancing competition although this is generally believed to be a euphemism for a sword duel or fight for the favours of the bonny lass of the song’s title. It’s a stunningly good opener with Duncan Coverdale’s rattling percussion and Brendan O’Neill’s solid bass driving it along and Dave Swarbrick’s edgy, flowing fiddle reminding us why he’s rated as one of – if not *the* – finest folk musicians in the country today. It’s followed by the title track, ‘Old England Grown New’, another contemporary arrangement of a traditional song, one whose bitingly political lyrics date from the 17th century and are still relevant today, more’s the pity. Duncan and Brendan’s rhythm section is as tight as you like without restricting Gregg’s open, spacious playing and the arrangement allows Nick Ellison’s melodic fiddle free range on one of the record’s highlights.

‘Born of this Land’ introduces a more contemporary-sounding folk-rock feel as Gregg picks up an electric guitar for an angry song about the injustices of modern life; a theme which is as appropriate today as it’s ever been. The rapid-fire riffing between Gregg and Nick in the middle eight is a joy to hear, bringing back happy memories of Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick trading licks around the time of Fairport Convention’s seminal Liege & Lief album. According to Gregg’s sleeve notes, ‘The Bunny Run’ is “the old local nickname for a street in Northampton oft frequented in the evenings by, err, courting couples”. Apparently still a favourite place even today for such activities, the song reflects Gregg’s fascination with placing timeworn subjects in a contemporary setting. Its lighter theme makes a good contrast to the darker ‘Born of this Land’ and this juxtaposition subtly highlights Gregg’s skills in sequencing a flowing and coherent album playlist.

Described as “an old song found in Northampton Library”, ‘An Atheist’s Grave’ is a solo performance by Gregg and an ideal showcase for his fingerstyle guitar playing and the rich and subtle timbres of his voice in a beautifully recorded piece. ‘We Need a Mother’ builds on this solo spot with a duo performance; Nick Ellison’s fiddle playing delicately embellishing Gregg’s despondent vocals and some sharp-edged bottleneck guitar in a heartfelt plea for the “yoof of today” to free itself of its unhealthy reliance on codependent relationships and Vauxhall Astras, in exchange for finding a voice of its own and a little bit of meaning in life.

‘Down by the Lake’ brings back Duncan and Brendan’s rhythm section and introduces the quietly assured voice of Jo Blake Cave on backing vocals in this uptempo number. Nick’s fiddle channels the bluegrass tradition while Gregg’s own harmonica playing brings a bluesy note to this very British interpretation of Americana. Despite its title, ‘Ancient Hymn’ is neither ancient nor really a hymn; rather it’s a country-tinged and sharply-observed commentary on 21st century materialism which may well be best heard at a high volume while cruising along the M1. Particular highlights are Jo’s harmony singing and Gregg’s lyric which, frankly, knocks spots off Chris Rea’s ‘Road to Hell’:

I’ve got a big truck with my name on the back
We’re gonna drive to hell, we ain’t coming back

The solo instrumental ‘Aida’s Lullaby’, dedicated to Gregg’s guitar, offers a moment of reflection and leads nicely into ‘Last Day’, the words for which are derived from the prescient Song: Last Day, a poem by the fiddler John Clare, also known as the “peasant poet”, who was active at the time of the field enclosures of the early 19th century. Featuring the duo of Gregg and Nick with a dusting of ethereal percussion, it also includes a guest appearance by Gareth Turner on melodeon (a type of button accordion). Its compositional changes between minor and major keys serve the lyric beautifully, adding a sense of optimism to the deeply pessimistic and bleak worldview encapsulated in John Clare’s poem.

The closing ‘William Morris-Wat Tyler’ again draws inspiration from a literary work of the 19th century, this time from A Dream of John Ball, the novel by William Morris about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. The stately, almost pastoral arrangement, has some nicely restrained electric guitar at the back of the mix while Nick’s fiddle takes flight over Brendan and Duncan’s rock solid rhythm. Once again, Jo’s harmonies add a sweet counterpoint to Gregg’s gritty lead vocal and the stirring lyric, calling for us to “stand fast, hold steady in this wind”, would have made as appropriate a rallying call for the Kentish rebels of the 14th century as it does to today’s dispossessed and disenfranchised precariat.

Although it may seem an almost unassuming record on first listen, make no mistake that Old England Grown New is anything but deferential; rather it has a quiet confidence and a strong sense of self-worth which, at a time when political and moral bankruptcy are the order of the day for our kleptocratic rulers, sets it apart from the herd. Gregg Cave is to be congratulated for expressing so clearly his vision of 21st century Britain viewed through the lens of our collective history and, in the process, making such a striking and memorable debut album.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (05 March 2015)

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