Music Review – Alaw. Dead Man’s Dance

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Wales should thank all the nation’s lucky stars that the inspirational and international guitarist Dylan Fowler owns the Abergavenny-based Taith Records and uses Stiwdio Felin Fach, his green oak eco-recording space, to produce a myriad of stunning and amazing albums.

The story of Alaw (translated into English, it means melody) is a shining example to that; Dylan joined forces with his step-son, Oli Wilson-Dickson, a smoking-hot fiddler and a member of other ventures including The Devil’s Violin and Jamie Smith’s Mabon. They recorded an EP, before Jamie joined the band and made Alaw a trio. Dead Man’s Dance is the second studio album, and it’s a joyous sizzler; Dylan’s knockout guitar, Oli’s fiery fiddle and Jamie’s mind-boggling accordion just weave, dance and drift into a gorgeous, ecstatic otherworldly space. You might think that Alaw is just another Mabon clone, but I can tell you emphatically that it’s definitely not.

Price: £13.22
(Taith Records TRCD00021)

For starters, Oli and Jamie’s instruments intertwine with the captivating guitar in Dylan’s tribute to his Breton colleague and touring partner, Soïg Siberil, in the deliciously complicated ‘Dawns Soïg’; suddenly, ‘Dawns Y Gŵr Marw’ (Dead Man’s Dance, a tune from wonderful fiddle and crwth player Cass Meurig’s collection Alawon John Thomas) plunges in to bring this giddy set to a magnificent finish. Oli writes a tasty triplet of very fine, melodious songs, and first up is ‘Stones’; regretful, almost apologetic, verses for angry words or actions that cannot be taken back. In shattering contrast and with cajon, fiddle, accordeon and guitar tearing delightful chunks out of the introduction, guest singer Gwilym Bowen Rhys employs his must-hear voice in the Welsh version of the shanty ‘Santiana’, words by J. Glyn Davies, the maritime colleague and companion of Stan Hugill (Aberdyfi resident, author, collector, linguist, artist and the last sailing shantyman); Antwn Owen Hicks from Carreg Lafar lays down some gleeful, dancing Welsh pipes to make this a spellbinding rip-roarer.

As far as the three musicians are concerned, Oli, Jamie and Dylan serve up so much appetising and absorbing mental food to last a lifetime. The brilliant juxtaplay is both intricate and delicate; ‘Pam Yr Oedi?’, a fabulous tune found in the booklet 250 Welsh Airs For A Shilling, follows ‘Hen Erddigan Morganwg’, which was collected by Iolo Morganwg. Dylan wrote ‘Iâr Fach Yr Haf’ (butterfly, literally ‘little summer chicken’) in memory of Dave ‘Chick’ Fowler, and the gorgeous ‘Pan Own y Gwanwyn’ is from Maria Jane Williams’ collection 1844 collection Ancient and National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg – Maria Jane was a friend of Lady Llanover, who encouraged Welsh culture, and the collection won first prize at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod.

Guest singer Georgia Ruth voices the starkly beautiful ‘Y G’lomen’ (The Dove), while Oli writes the free-wheeling ‘The Niffy Maggot’ and the kick-starter traditional tune ‘Johnny’s Welcome Home’. (Niffy? It turns out that Alaw first performed the tune in the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe, nick-named by the locals as ‘Niffy’.) Dead Man’s Dance finishes up with a trio of songs, two of them Oli’s work and ‘Lisa Lân’, which must be the most recorded Welsh traditional song of all – but Alaw just tops the lot, with Gwilym’s warm, chocolate-brown voice snuggled up to Oli’s viola, Jamie’s fleeting keys, Dylan’s dreamy strings, Gillian Stevens’ restless ‘cello and echoey harmonies for the absolutely cracking finale. ‘When It’s Gone’ is the perfect ending, with the voices of Jamie and Oli ringing out softly but clearly, and the lazy viola impersonating a bee in summertime. With Alaw’s second album creating so much excitement and critical acclaim, I can’t wait for a future third.

CD review by Mick Tems, FolkWales Online Magazine editor

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