Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RAVES!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 25/09/13

Steve Tilston Trio - "Happenstance" (Hubris HUB007)

Cover of Steve Tilston Trio's 'Happenstance' album

I'm only slightly late in picking up on this. I found out about this album around the start of the month, and finally got it in my sticky little mitts just over a week ago.

(I ordered it late on the Friday night and it was delivered on the following Monday; you don't get that sort of service from them there big places now, do you?)

Regular, long-term readers will need no reminding of my admiration for the work of Steve Tilston. If you don't fall into that category, then I suggest you read this, this, this and this first.

Anyway, note the small difference in Steve's latest offering: it's not just him, there are three of them this time as he is joined 'above the title', as it were, by his friends Keith Warmington and Stuart Gordon, both fine musicians in their own right.

That the writing credits should be led by Tilston, however, should be no surprise. Here we get six originals, although three of them are of older vintage, as I'll describe as we go on.

Happenstance kicks off with a new song, Beulah Road, which tells of a stop Steve made on a journey through Mid Wales between gigs. Immediately, the driving (sorry) shuffle which has long been one of his trademarks gets the listener going. This is followed by another 'geography' song, Blues For The North Wind in which he describes the experiences (external and internal) of his first winter in the Pennines, in a song which first appeared on his 1996 And So It Goes album. In both of these songs, the powerful harmonica of Keith Warmington adds an extra layer - giving the former an additional 'chug' and the latter an edge like an old stone wall.

Next comes the first of two 'trad. arr.' items, the Irish song Courting Is A Pleasure although, as Steve points out in the sleeve notes, the protagonist doesn't seem to get all that much good from the experience (what is it about Irish lasses called Molly that they all have the ould rovin' eye?). Nonetheless, the 'arr.' of this 'trad.' is deft and rugged, never lapsing into the saccharine mournfulness to which such songs are often ready prey.

It isn't just fair colleens called Molly (or even fair mollies called Colleen) for whom lovestruck boys will go to enormous lengths to impress though, and the next song - another Tilston original - Far Side Of The World tells of a young man sailing the southern seas primarily for the purpose of impressing lovely Nancy back home. There are so many resonances and points of contact with traditional songs in this rollicking number that it may well become another of those Tilston songs - like Slip Jigs And Reels, for instance - which people mistakenly think are traditional.

We then move on to another song of travel in pursuit of an elusive love, and the first of two (or possibly more; quod, as they say, vide) adaptations, settings or incorporations of other writers or composers. Song Of The Wandering Aengus is a putting to music of one of W.B. Yeats' works (although the poem lacks the definite article in its title). The setting is of a more modern bent, and the rhythm patterns of the words and the music intertwine like the little eddies in a gently flowing brook, although to my ears this sometimes causes a small loss in the song's coherence. Nonetheless, it moves beguilingly, and the playing on all instruments is accomplished and confident.

The second revisitation of his own material was always going to find favour with Yer Judge. Sometimes In This Life Are Beautiful first appeared on 1987's Life By Misadventure and was one of the first of Steve's songs I came instantly to love. So much so that I have - with a gratifying lack of anything remotely resembling a sense of shame - used the title as the strapline of the main Raves page. Here the whole trio plays its full part, with Stuart Gordon's strings, Warmington's mouth harp and vocal backing from both of them leading to a most pleasing reworking.

We then have another reach back into Steve's past repertoire, with one of those songs which get mistaken for the cumulative product of the tradition. Rocky Road was written for Fairport Convention (not the only one of his songs which those legends have purloined and made their own). Here Steve borrows it back and it is delivered with a jaunty solidity.

It's back to 'trad. arr.' for Martin Said To His Man, the lyrics a sort of spoofing contest between post-mediaeval drunks put over in a style redolent of the minstrel and madrigal tradition. The coda of this track is a rendition of Ronald Binge's gorgeous Elizabethan Serenade, a tune well remembered from listening to the BBC Light Programme in the sixties.

The album takes a different line in the next track, Jimmy's Train (see what I did there?), in which the Trio link together two pieces composed by legendary jazzman Jimmy Giuffre, Train And The River and parts of the Crawdad Suite. The piece provides not just an obvious opportunity for Keith Warmington to 'blow that thing' and for some sweet violin lines from Gordon, but also a showcase for Steve Tilston's own guitar virtuosity.

We get modern in another sense with Jam Tomorrow, a commentary on the way in which young people in these times of ideologically-imposed 'austerity' are being short-changed and shafted. The song is obviously heartfelt - Tilston probably looking with concern upon the world in which his grandchildren are having to grow up - but to me at least, it lacks the force and sharpness of Nottamun Town Return from The Reckoning. Something is salvaged by the addition of the tune of a certain song about river activities which will be familiar to members of the current régime (I'm trying to not spoil the joke here, that's why I'm being oblique; just buy the album and find out, won't you?).

In the five-disc Reaching Back set, Steve was heard doing a wide variety of cover versions of classics and standards. That theme is returned to here in a stylish vignette of Irving Berlin's Let's Face The Music And Dance, which he learned to play to perform - slightly incongruously, perhaps - at his daughter Sophie's wedding (Sophie, incidentally, provides the painting which forms the front cover of the album).

Keith Warmington does not, it seems, write many songs ("about one...every five years"), but one is included as the penultimate track. Sentimental is a blues-tinged number in which the singer laments the loss of love and what it has done to him: "You left me here sitting on the bed singing love songs to myself".

Happenstance concludes with a Stuart Gordon instrumental, Little Norris, named in tribute to the Devon farmhouse where much of the album was recorded. It's a jolly tune in the best English style and provides a lively conclusion.

So, to sum up: is it a good album? Yes, of course it is. Is it Steve Tilston's best album? No, because Ziggurat would - if you'll pardon the phrase - take some topping. But the playing from all three members of the Trio is proficient and is lively and sensitive in turns; Steve is in better voice than was the case on parts of The Reckoning (and in any case, he can be excused the wear and tear of forty-five years' performing); the material is well chosen; and the production is clean and unfussy throughout.

Your Humble Judge therefore warmly recommends Happenstance, and would be happy for you to click on the picture of the cover at the top of this piece and go to Steve's website to buy it.