Dave Swarbrick, Swarb! Forty-Five years of Folk's Finest Fiddler (Free Reed, 2003)

Rejoice! My friends, for what we have here is the latest "4 -CD's and loads of goodies" box-set from Free Reed, the folks responsible for The Carthy Chronicles and Fairport unConventional. Given that Swarbrick's career has included spells as Mr Carthy's duo partner, and many years service aboard the good ship Fairport, you might be forgiven for wondering whether this whole new box-set actually constitutes an "essential" purchase. You'd be utterly wrong to wonder, but you might be forgiven!

Until The Carthy Chronicles was released (in 2001) I'd always questioned the validity of box sets altogether. Who, I reasoned, were they aimed at? Either long-term devotees of the artist who probably already owned 90% of the contents (let's face it, most of the "rare" and "unreleased" tracks that appear on these things have been circulating on bootlegs for years), or folks who just wanted an introductory package of a particular artist's work -- in which case they're more likely to buy a single, mid-price "Greatest Hits" CD than an expensive box-set.

That, as I say, was my position just a few short years ago. Box sets (I decided in my immensely irritating smugness) were mainly the preserve of people who bought records as "lifestyle accessories" to be displayed on glass-topped coffee tables. Thank the powers then, for Neil Wayne and Nigel Schofield, the geniuses behind the Free Reed series, of which Swarb is the latest. Geniuses? Well, Free Reed have quite simply rewritten the rulebook. Who but the extremely clever, dedicated and cunning could compile a 73-track collection of such a well-recorded artist and actually leave the listener wanting MORE?! While, in "Fairporthead" terms I'm a relative "newcomer" to all things Swarbrick (at a mere 41, I retain my boyish charm and youthful good looks), I like to believe that I'm pretty "clued-up" on the man's work -- but this is full of surprises.

Let's look at some statistics. A whopping 49 of these 73 tracks are previously unavailable anywhere, while a further 7 are "drawn from impossible-to-find, long-deleted albums." Fairport fans, even those who've already bought Fairport unConventional, can revel in 13 previously unreleased recordings of the band. What all of this adds up to is the fact that if you think that you've already got all of this material you are, in fact, Dave Swarbrick (in which case, hi Dave, hope that you like Green Man!)

The contents of the four CDs are themed and titled around the four initial letters of Swarb's full name - David Cyril Eric Swarbrick. "D if for Duo," "C is for Collaboration," "E is for Extras" and "S is for Swarbrick." Ready? Let's go...

The "D is for Duo" CD sees Swarb matched up with eleven different performers over seventeen tracks and thirty-seven years, with most tracks performed live. The seminal Carthy/Swarbrick pairing justifiably appears five times, while the "post-Fairport" collaboration with Simon Nicol and the "post-Whippersnapper" Kevin Dempsey get a couple each. Reading through the rest of the names constitutes something of a beginners guide to the folk revival -- tracks with Bert Lloyd, Beryl Marriott, Peter Bellamy, Savourna Stevenson, Alistair Hulett and Lars Kjaedegard all emphasise Swarbrick's omnipresence across both the years and the air-miles. Fairporters will particularly welcome the inclusion of Trevor Lucas, and a live rendition of "White Dress" by Ralph McTell. The astonishing consistency of Swarb's playing over these disparate partnerships throws up all kinds of questions and enlightenments. For instance, while both Martin Carthy and Simon Nicol provided the perfect foundation for Swarb's playful flights of inspired chaos, what would a long-term stage partnership with the exuberant Peter Bellamy have resulted in?

"C is for Collaborations" is the CD that covers, pretty much chronologically, Swarb's contribution to various groups throughout his career. While this aspect of his work is the best-documented and most well known, there are still surprises aplenty. The Ian Campbell Folk Group are often sadly overlooked these days, (in relation to say, The Dubliners) but in the early sixties they were the most innovative and influential band on the scene. Want proof? Listen to "Tail Taddle," recorded for a BBC TV show in 1965 and believe. Likewise, latter day Fairport fans, familiar with the older stuff only through studio recordings, may be astounded at the scuzzed-up garage band ferocity of the 1970 touring version, pre-dating the likes of Boiled in Lead by a couple of decades. Nine of the nineteen tracks feature various incarnations of Fairport. Whippersnapper was, for me, "the live band of the ‘80's," a perfect combination of stunning musicianship, spine-tingling vocal harmonies, swing, flair and humour. The passing of time hasn't diminished their effect on me in the slightest! Both The Keith Hancock Band and The Band of Hope included Carthy and Swarb in their ranks and their performances here caused me to engage in some light "bad Dobby!" type self-punishment at having never seen either of them! If I missed those through my own fault, I'll excuse myself for being ignorant of Eureka! -- an engaging Australian acoustic band with whom Swarb recorded in 1997.

"E is for Extras." And so, for the eccentric, the oddball and the obsessive among us, the fun REALLY begins! The booklet notes for this CD describes these tracks as "sixteen off-the-beaten-track Swarb recordings you are very unlikely to find anywhere else," and so they are. The album kicks off with a live recording of "Royal Seleccion #13" from a performance by the gloriously entertaining Swarbrick and Nicol duo, and follows it with Swarb's first recording session (for a 1961 Ewan MacColl maritime album). Fairport rarities abound, including a radio recording of an unrecorded line-up from 1976, a 1971 "Tam Lin" with Swarb on lead vocals and a frankly bonkers medley of "General Taylor/Mason's Apron" at the University of Chicago in 1970 (hmm, something was clearly "in-the-water in 1970..)

A few of the artists listed here require further explanation. The Three Desperate Mortgages was a name adopted by Messrs Swarbrick, Nicol and Pegg for a few folk club dates during one of Fairport's (many) periods of financial difficulty. Their ragged reading of "Now Be Thankful" is, truth to tell, pretty desperate too. The Pembroke Unique Ensemble is nothing more or less than a plethora of multi-tracked Swarb's' recorded for an interlude on a young Tradition album, and then, of course, there's the startling inclusion of "Pleasure and Pain" sung by Brian Maxine. Who's Brian Maxine, you ask? Well, in the seventies he held both the British middleweight and welterweight wrestling titles and achieved sufficient fame from his Saturday morning TV exertions in a leotard to fulfil his ambition of making a C&W-style record called "Ribbon of Stainless Steel" with Fairport Convention as his backing band. You couldn't make this stuff up... Add in some fine Whippersnapper material, a couple of Carthy tracks and a touch of Beryl Marriott and there's just the small matter of the final track to consider. Imagine, if you will, the acoustic duo of Swarbrick and Nicol being asked by some wag to play "Sloth" in a folk club. Well, being obliging chaps they duly obliged, resulting in over eight minutes of frabjous joy complete with Swarb's exhortations to the disbelieving audience: "altogether now! - Just a roll, just a roll."

"S is for Swarb" is basically a 21-track overview of Swarb's "greatest hits," the songs and tunes that have formed the cornerstones of his repertoire across four decades and more. "The Hen's March Medley," is a good example. Most of us probably first heard it in the 1972 Fairport version, or perhaps it's later inclusion in Whippersnapper shows as a showcase for the duelling fiddles of Swarb and Chris Leslie. Here we get a far earlier version - Carthy and Swarbrick tearing it up in 1967, in fine style. From the same year we get "The Widow of Westmoreland's Daughter" from Bert Lloyd and "Earl of Moray" from the Ian Campbell Folk Group. "Carthy's March/The Lemon Tree," "Rosie" and "Bonny Black Hare" are just three more of the enduring Swarbrick "staples" that appear in unfamiliar versions. Fairport classics include live versions of "Liege and Lief Medley" and "The Hanging Song."

For all the extraordinary music contained on the CD's, any self-respecting box set should offer more than just the sounds on the little shiny round things. Let's examine the package up to the point of actually listening to it!

Firstly, there's the box itself, which is a facsimile rectangular fiddle case, including the bows "stored" in the underside of the lid. Nice, but it gets better! In the top of the actual case we find a fiddle -- printed on the cover of a 136-page full-colour book, written by Nigel Schofield and Neil Wayne. This book is actually deserving of a full-length review all to itself, but suffice to say it's as good as one could possibly hope for, and then some. It includes a full career-retrospective, inspirations and influences, photographs, illustrations, memorabilia, quotes, weblinks and much more besides. If that was the whole package, the Swarb! box could already rest on its lavish laurels and wait for the plaudits to roll in, but there's more. Slipped under the accompanying book, there's another little surprise, a beautifully reproduced pastiche of one of those little violin case tune books that today's players still search out in antiquarian book stores. This one is entitled "Swarbrick's Collection of Merrie Melodies for the Violin," and is credited as being "transcribed by that Maartin Allcock, Llanfair, Gwynedd." It contains clearly transcribed notation (and in some cases, accompaniment chords) for twenty five of the best-loved pieces from Swarb's repertoire including "The Lark Medley," "Dirty Linen," "The Brilliancy Medley/Cherokee Shuffle," "Crazy Man Michael" and "Flatback Caper." Finally, we reach the actual CD's, all individually jewel-cased, and packaged to look like four individual fiddle strings. The whole package, from design concept to "usability" is absolutely stunning, to the point that one begins to wonder if Free Reed take a perverse delight in continually raising expectations purely to test the superlative-producing capabilities of reviewers! If there's a Grammy Award for "Best Design and Packaging in a CD Box Set" (there must be, there's Grammies for everything) then Free Reed can get the champagne on ice now.

I could spend the rest of the week happily extolling the virtues of this wonderful set, but you'd just get bored and my editor would go into deadline-induced apoplexy. Did I mention anything about Swarb's reaction to reading his own (premature) obituary in The Daily Telegraph yet? Or recount the tale of the swimsuit photo-session involving Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and a weight lifting Swedish glamour model? No? Oh well, surely, by now, you've already decided to buy this, haven't you?


[Stephen Hunt]

This Free Reed box-set has it’s own Web site here

For even more Swarb rarities visit Atrax Records

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