This collective takes folk and expands the sonic palette enormously, so giving traditional songs a new richness and each song its own personality. This is a laid-back, eclectic feast of music.

Label: Gigspanner
Time: 10 Tracks / 63 mins

There are times when ‘big’ is highly relative, and that applies to Gigspanner, the trio formed by ex-Steeleye Span veteran Peter Knight. Its Big Band version still only has six members.

Normally, Knight is joined by guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Sacha Trochet, both of whom also play bass. The quality of the extra players speaks volumes about the band as a whole. Jon Spiers, founder-member of the folk supergroup Bellowhead (now there’s a big band!) brings melodeon. Philip Henry and Hannah Martin (now known as Edgelarks) featured in Band of Love (the folk-disco project we covered) and between them bring Dobro, slide guitar, harmonica, banjo and violin. All six sing.

Despite those numbers, the sound is never crowded. At times, against a restrained backing, you can visualise them, queuing up to take their separate turns at soloing, particularly on “Searching for Lambs.”

There’s no doubt about the folk roots of this album: there are two tracks where people are ‘bonny,’ one that sings of the ‘town-o’ and another that is unmistakably a sea-shanty. Opener "Awake Awake" (which really benefits from the Dobro) is one of three from Cecil Sharp’s famous collection.

But this release perhaps reveals Knight’s role in Steeleye Span co-founding the whole folk-rock genre alongside Fairport Convention. This outfit expands the sonic palette enormously, so giving traditional songs a new richness and each song its own personality. That makes the listening experience far richer.

Songs include the beautiful “The Snows they Melt the Soonest” and the equally melodic “Courting is a Pleasure,” once recorded by Jarlath Henderson, whose stunning re-invention of the song may have influenced its welcome inclusion here.

The folk songs tell stories, such as “Long a Growing,” about a child marriage and a young death. In singing this so matter-of-factly, Knight gives it an air of resigned sadness.

But could there be a more appropriate folk song for this year than “Betsy Bell and Mary Grey”? Apparently based on fact, the women attempt to avoid a plague by self-isolating in a remote bower. Unfortunately, a lover appears, bringing food, gifts – and the plague, with the predictable result. There are a couple of instrumental sections that touch on almost free-form and classical styles in places and they carry a yearning intensity that drives the emotional power of the song.

This collection has a strong dance component. The lively “Daddy Fox” verges on bluegrass, thanks to some dynamic harmonica playing and being partnered with a Morris tune; the shanty “Haul on the Bowline” is the disc’s only low point for me, but the Breton dance tune that it morphs into (“Laridé à Six Temps”) is exhilarating; and the collection ends with the Irish / French-Canadian instrumental pairing of “The Star of Munster and Reel du Tricentenaire”.

While the band is bursting with instruments, the downside is the lack of drums. Trochet’s percussion is appropriate for a trio, but the larger format sometimes needs a bit more drive behind it.

With the ten tracks generously averaging over six minutes, there is more to enjoy than just the singing (and Hannah Martin’s vocals have the brown-eyed duskiness of June Tabor’s voice); the whole experience is a laid-back, eclectic feast of music. Natural invention indeed. This is a cert for most best-of-2020 folk album lists.

Derek Walker