Steve Tilston,
Of Many Hands
(ADA, 2005)

I have listened to and enjoyed Steve Tilston sing his own compositions on a number of albums. Now he takes a detour and brings us a fantastic album of the songs he loves from the folk tradition and, in so doing, he not only produces a top-class CD, he also preserves a canon of music that could so easily be neglected and lost.

On 12 tracks he performs, re-interprets and rescues some wonderful songs. In addition to the faultless performances, the insert booklet gives us the historical background to the songs and usually an indication of where he first heard them. The booklet alone is worth the cost of the album. Here are snippets of information that bring the songs to a new level and dimension.

"The Girl I Left Behind Me" opens the album. Don't be fooled by the title. The British will hear "Brighton Camp." The Irish will recognize it as "The Rambling Labourer" and John Wayne fans will hear the music of the 7th Cavalry regimental march -- and all that from a song of less than three minutes. "Going to the West" is a tale of migration and dates from the 1880s.

We all think we are familiar with "The Leaving of Liverpool," but listen to this version and prepare to shed your preconceptions. This is not the Aran-sweater-wearing, rollicking rendition. It is quieter, more thoughtful and revealing of the nature of the lyrics. The notes tell us that John Burgess was a real person who captained the David Crockett built in New York in 1853. Hearing this song reminds us of how many of our familiar folk songs have roots in true events and, sadly, that we seldom hear the lyrics of the more familiar songs we sing. A little snippet of "The Holy Ground" is inserted into the final verse.

There is probably not a single reader out there who is not familiar with "Barbry Allen" in her many guises. Here you get another version of that tale that combines the lyrics from both sides of the Atlantic. Usually heard a cappella, "Spencer the Rover" has an atmosphere of olde England.

The sea shanties of the sailing ships gave us some lovely sing-along songs. Few can better "New York Gals," and Steve gives us a wonderful version on this album. The final song on the CD is "Willow Creek," and it confirms Tilston as a writer and performer of folk music in that he adds his own lyrics to the familiar tune to produce what in a few years people will credit as "trad" when they record it.

For the technically minded, the insert also indicates the guitar tuning for each song -- how's that for service?

by Nicky Rossiter
15 April 2006

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