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Date: 22/07/11

Steve Tilston - "The Reckoning" (Hubris HUB006)

Cover of Steve Tilston's album 'The Reckoning'

Having been a few months behind when reviewing Steve Tilston's last album, the magnificent Ziggurat, I managed to get ahead of the game this time around when I found out that he had a new one out and ordered (and received) my copy nearly a month before its scheduled release date (this coming Monday 25th July, if you must know).

With any new work by someone you admire to a point nearly but not quite reaching idolatry, one is always slightly anxious prior to the first listen. I had the same feelings of anticipation mixed with trepidation when Kate Bush's Aerial came out nearly six years ago. Can he/she (one asks oneself) pull it off yet again?

Ziggurat was such a towering achievement that perhaps it is in any case unfair to expect that sort of standard to be maintained.

One thing that one may be sure of with a Steve Tilston album, however, is the standard of musicianship. Certainly the guitar playing throughout The Reckoning demonstrates that he is still on peak form; there isn't a single guitar overdub anywhere to be heard. The other players are also highly proficient. The arrangements, too, tend to enhance the songs and tunes, and seldom appear to be over-egged.

There comes a time in a man's life when he finds himself looking back and looking forwards; at where he has been and what he has done, and at what legacy he and his generation will leave to his children and grandchildren and those with whom they will share the world in times to come. This displayed itself on Ziggurat with such songs as The Road When I Was Young and In-between Years, and is again a prominent theme on The Reckoning as Steve Tilston moves into the seventh decade of his life and the fifth of his recording career.

So, what about the individual tracks? We lead off with This Is The Dawn, which evokes the sunrise with a highly fluent and tuneful paean to that strange and magical hour, and concludes to the sound of birdsong.

It is here, though, that something impinges on one's ears which is unexpected and slightly troubling. Perhaps Steve was suffering from the after-effects of a Spring cold, or maybe it's just the fact that he is now in his sixties and has been singing for his supper for over forty years, but that warm baritone seems to be showing some strain on this and some of the other tracks on this collection. But then, perhaps this is entirely in keeping with the performer's photograph on the front of the CD where - as you can see above - he appears in his aspect as The Wild Man Of Hebden Bridge.

The second track, Nottamun Town Return, is based on a traditional song which - under a veneer of apparent nonsense - hinted at seditious sentiments. Here Tilston brings it right up to date, with a sharp set of lyrics in which Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Charlie and Mrs Parker-Knoll and the Metropolitan Police (or, as the wonderful Philip Challinor routinely calls them, the Metropolitan Firearms And Headbangers' Club) are well and truly spiked. Take this verse on the infamous Cameron-on-a-bike PR job for one:

"Saw a man with two faces pedalling two wheels.
A tame pack of hounds hot on his heels
Hey Tally Ho! Hold the front page news.
Behind him a limousine bringing his shoes."

It serves as a reminder (should one be needed, which it bloody well shouldn't) that, for all the claims made for other styles, other genres, folk music has always been the genuinely radical and political expression of its day, attempts at Cecilsharpery and Sabines Bearing Gould notwithstanding.

The title track then follows, which speaks of the legacy which we are leaving for posterity; a legacy of pollution, aridity and sterility resulting from our own selfishness and short-sightedness. This is the first song in the sequence which deals with thoughts of what we have been left and what we leave behind, but - as perhaps befits a songwriter of mature years (though one who has not lost his passion) - it isn't the last. It also features a very pleasing oboe solo from Robin Tyndale-Briscoe.

Pennine Spring returns us not only to the same pastoral theme set out in the opening track, but also harks back to other songs in Steve's catalogue which seek to evoke the seeming eternity of the landscape and all the people who have inhabited it, passed through it and left their marks - however small, however eroded - upon it. The tune and its playing are mellifluous throughout and shows Tilston's mastery of style.

Oil & Water is a song which could only be written by a man pondering the shortness of life, with an undercurrent of the sentiment expressed by the legendary George Melly, who said that it was sign of growing old when you realised that you had stopped doing things for the first time and had quite likely started doing them for the last time. The slight pensiveness of the lyrics' sentiments is countered by a defiantly jaunty arrangement which, to my ears at least, is more than slightly Cajun.

The pivotal point of the whole album - and its longest track by a good three-minute length - is Memory Lane. This is a song about looking back, revisiting old haunts (and finding that they are haunted - by ghosts of one's own past selves), including an evocation of the sorts of places where a travelling minstrel of the modern age might have found himself during a long career on the road.

Despite this track's length - eight and half minutes - it never outstays its welcome, although the string arrangement performed by the Richard Curran Strings doesn't add as much to the song as it might, lending an unnecessarily sucrous air to what is really quite an unsentimental song given its subject matter.

Sovereign Of Tides takes us else- and otherwhere, to the Moon - or more accurately, its reflection in the sea. It also takes us in a distinctly Eastern direction, as there is in its modes, expression and instrumentation a clear Indian influence; the first time that I recall Tilston going along this particular road. The end result is beguilingly delightful.

The next track, Doubting Thomas (a reference to his own middle name), expresses his sceptical view of religion and its acolytes by way of a lively blues, containing such observations as:

"False -faced prophets peddle paradise.
Blind obedience is the going price.
Rich man thinks there has to be a way to buy.
To pass his camel through a needle's eye.
The poor pass through this world in chains."

and the true profundity of:

"Sometimes I'm a slave to my own free will."

There follows one of two purely instrument tracks, the hornpipe The Davy Lamp (dedicated to the club of that name in Washington - Tyne & Wear, not DC) segueing into the reel Fruit Fly. The piece is one of those "are-you-sure-it's-not-trad.arr.?" pieces which underlines Steve's deep understanding of the tradition, and is played with great verve.

Rio De La Miel is one of Tilston's rightly-famous story songs, telling of a Falangist captain during the Spanish Civil War and his attempts to hunt down the head of the local Republican guerilleros. The musical style is, naturally, Iberian and here - unlike Memory Lane - the string arrangement enhances the whole, complementing Steve's own virtuoso playing.

Weeping Willow Replanted is a twelve-bar blues in the style of Blind Boy Fuller, performed with great panache and - if the word can be used in such a context - exuberance, and here the (one hopes temporary) weakness of Tilston's voice is of little consquence; indeed it is the ideal medium for both the sentiments of the song and the way it is expressed.

The closing track - and the second instrumental on the album - is titled Ijna (Davy Ji). This may give the knowing a hint of what is to follow. And indeed, yes, this is a tribute to the late Davy Graham, featuring clear and deliberate echoes of that legendary guitarist's most famous piece. (Hint: if you don't get the 'joke', read the first part of the tune's title backwards). It is played once again with immense proficiency and without any sense of strain, reminding us that - for all that Steve is rightly lauded for his songs - he is also a guitarist of immense stature.

So, to sum up, is this album worth getting? Most definitely so. It isn't his best (he'd have to really go some to top Such & Such and Ziggurat), but the material is strong, and the guitar playing as proficient as ever, and these plusses outweigh by a country mile any doubts one may have with regards to Tilston's voice and to some of the arrangements. Steve at ninety per cent is still worth more attention than most any other singer-songwriter at full steam ahead.

The production by David Crickmore is clean, uncluttered and unfussy and is another of this album's attractions.

Don't just sit there, then. Go and buy this album. Clicking on the image at the top of this piece will take you to Steve's website where it can be had for a Crisis-busting 10 (plus postage).