English singer June Tabor has one of the singularly most recognizable voices in folk music. Deep, resonant, and capable of producing fluid and melodious higher harmonies, her instrument has at times been compared with the rich and sometimes melancholy tone produced by a finely crafted cello. Her vocal style is one that hails back to the days of unaccompanied singers, when a voice alone carried not only the melody and rhythm, but its ornamentations were used as a percussive element to emphasize key elements in the story of a song. This style has been best exemplified by the singing of Martin Carthy, her closest male counterpart.
Like her contemporaries Maddy Prior, Mary Black and Delores Keane, Tabor has recorded a wide range of material, from deeply traditional to extremely contemporary, showing an on-going love of jazz. Like these fellow songstresses she first came to public attention with her work in traditional Celtic and English music -- indeed, some would argue that this is what she does best.
Tabor's recording career spans over twenty years and comprises roughly fourteen albums, along with innumerable guest appearances on other artists' recordings. Though she is not a songwriter, she has exquisite taste in material. Throughout her many albums Tabor has covered songs which explore her traditional roots, as well as the songs penned by contemporary writers working with the hue, color and tone of traditional music. With her ebony colored, almost gothic voice, Tabor perfectly captures the dark, brooding combination of danger and wonder found in the most moving of British traditional music.
Her first recording was the kind of artistic success most artists dream of. Silly Sisters became an instant classic and is still considered to be an essential album among Celtic music fans. If you own only one other June Tabor album, then make sure it is this 1976 debut/collaboration with Maddy Prior. Prior had been tremendously successful fronting her folk-rock band Steeleye Span for some six years by this point, when she hungered for a solo diversion. Her pairing with Tabor, who had previously worked with folk heavyweight Peter Bellamy on his Transports folk opera, seemed to be a natural return to her non-electric roots.
Few could have predicted the startling effect these two singers could produce when their powerful voices joined in almost otherworldly harmony and an uncanny dance of empathic counterpoint. Joined by the cream of the crop of Celtic traditional musicians, including Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and Danny Thompson, among others, Tabor and Prior are featured on twelve songs, with a thirteenth bonus track on the CD re-release, that made their indelible mark in folk music.
Safe to say, all tunes on this album are traditional. The highlights include Tabor and Prior's turn on a dime harmonies on "The Seven Joys of Mary," and their hilariously bawdy rendition of the pre-Viagra ballad "My Husband's Got No Courage In Him." Tabor and Prior's performances are so convincing that one might believe that tracks like the Mummer's dance, "Singing the Travels," or the forlorn tale of forced emigration, "The Grey Funnel Line" were actually pristine copies of ancient, rural field recordings. Rare as it may be, there is not a bad track on the entire record and Tabor's solo vocal performance on songs such as "Geordie," (backed solely by the percussive guitar of Carthy) or her rollicking duet on "The Game of Cards" helped to immediately establish her as an artist to be reckoned with.
The real gems, however, are the two songs where Tabor and Prior's
voices are completely unaccompanied and attain that haunting quality
that is so elusive and rare. "Four Loom Weaver" tells the forlorn
tale of a homeless weaver and her mate at the end of their luck, with
"no looms to weave on" and "living on nettles." Likewise, "The
Burning of Auchidoon" captures the air of madness, as tenants burn
their fields and dwellings rather than see them reclaimed. On this
last tune Tabor and Prior work themselves into a frenzied state of
intense, banshee-like singing that so frighteningly captures the
horror of the events.
Understandably, there was great anticipation for Tabor's first solo album, and none were disappointed when it was released nearly a year later. Airs and Graces was to establish a set of career-long standards and habits for Tabor. First off, every solo album Tabor has made since her debut has been titled with a word or phrase beginning with the letter "A," as in: Ashes & Diamonds, A Cut Above, Against The Stream, Abyssinians, etc. Tabor has always been fairly cryptic in her explanation for this and the definitive answer lies playfully out of reach. Airs and Graces also established Tabor's habit of working with a small ensemble of musicians, providing sparse arrangements, and occasionally singing completely unaccompanied.
The American CD release of Airs and Graces on Shanachie Records is typical in that it contains incomplete liner notes with no mention of who the musicians are on the tracks. One can safely surmise that they are most likely Jon Gillaspie on keyboards, synthesizer and recorder, Tony Hall on melodeon and either Nic Jones or Martin Carthy on acoustic guitar. The cover portrays a darker and more somber Tabor, who is dressed in black, with heavy, dark eye makeup against her pale skin, making her look like some sort of Elizabethan vampire from Doctor Who. Tabor demonstrates her complete mastery of the folk idiom, both assimilating and improvising off the vocal phrasing and timing of traditional singers of the original folk revival such as Belle Stewart and Jeannie Robertson.
Starting with the jaunty "While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping," the album continues the feel of the Silly Sisters recording. The material that Tabor choose for this album is first rate, both paying homage to her early influences of Sandy Denny and Annie Briggs, as well as leaving her own indelible mark on the material. Once again the "shivers up the spine" factor can best be found on the classic song of folk lycanthropy, "Reynardine" and the sad war tale of "Plain of Waterloo." "Waly Waly" is yet another fine example of Tabor's unaccompanied, natural metered singing, while "Young Waters" is a bone-chilling tale of betrayal where the hero meets his death by being rolled downhill in a barrel of knives. This is also the first album where Tabor includes two songs by contemporary artists, including Eric Bogle's "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and John Tams' "Pull Down Lads."
Tabor's next album Ashes and Diamonds (released in America on the Green Linnet label with actual liner notes) finds her backed by the then current Steeleye Span rhythm section of Rick Kemp on bass and drummer Nigel Pegrum. Tabor is also joined on selected tracks by Jon Gillaspie, Tony Hall and Nic Jones on acoustic guitar and even fiddle on one song. Some of the rural arrangements established on the Silly Sisters album, continued with the jolly, very English, hunting parable of "Reynard the Fox."
Sparse piano accompaniment augments Tabor's vocal, which is at its cello-like best on "Streets of Forbes," while "Lord Maxwell's Last Goodnight" receives a neo-Baroque setting using Gillespie's harpsichord-esque synth, JonesÇ classical guitar and Tabor's tightly metered voice. Likewise, JonesÇ rhythmic and empathic guitar matches Tabor's voice, point for point, while Gillaspie adds nice little synth fills on the traditional tale of lost love: "The Earl of Aboyne." "Lisbon" tells a classic tale of lost sailors, while "Cold and Raw" with its easy rolling pace is the first in a long line of songs Tabor would cover, equating attempted seduction with foul weather.
It is the unaccompanied songs however, that mark this as a truly great album. "The Devil and Bailiff McGlynn" has remained a long time favorite during many of Tabor's live performances. With it's sly humor, it would not have seemed out of place on the Silly Sisters album. "The Easter Tree" is another fine example of traditional unaccompanied singing, and an almost Pagan retelling of the Christian resurrection. The album ends with a double treat as Tabor weds two war laments: "No Man's Land" with the haunting, Scottish, "Flowers of the Forest." This last set of tunes is perhaps the clearest example of what a huge influence Tabor has been on the music of such comparatively newer artists as Natalie Merchant.
Tabor's next album, A Cut Above was a rare and fruitful collaboration with a young, soon to be revered guitarist names Martin Simpson. Tabor and Simpson are joined on the set by Jon Davie on bass, Dave Bristow on piano and synthesizer and Ric Sanders, a young fiddle player, at the time part of the Albion Band, but soon to make a name for himself as a member of the mighty Fairport Convention. While this album has a generally lighter tone than her previous efforts, it marks some very interesting changes including the first inclusion of a Richard Thompson tune "Strange Affair," which serves as one of the high points of the album.
A Cut Above has an unusual share of lighthearted tunes for Tabor's albums, such as "Flash Company," "Admiral Benbow," and "Riding Down To Portsmouth," which may owe much to Simpson's influence. Still, there's some fine deeper moments, including the true life mining tragedy song: "Number Two Top Seam," where nearly an entire town was swallowed into the earth. Another highlight is the melancholy lament for an old man's passing in "Joe Peel." The best tracks still are the deeper, somber toned, trapper's tale: "Davy Lowston," which features some lovely interplay between Sanders, Bristow and Tabor's full voice. The album ends with the lovely ballad "Unicorns" which sends the listener out on a nice introspective mood.
Abyssinians (named after the breed of cats Tabor favors) was originally released on Topic Records in 1983, with an American release on Shanachie Records that once again is mighty short on liner notes, including who are leaving out the backing musicians. One can figure out relatively quickly that a partial list includes hammer dulcimer player and multi-instrumentalist Andy Cronshaw. This is the first of the truly great Tabor albums, mixing traditional and contemporary tunes seamlessly together into a wonderfully atmospheric and dark album. Starting with an a capella version of the traditional "Month of January," this is immediately followed by the Watersons' tale of death and decay "The Scarecrow."
Two aspects of seduction and sex are explored in "One Night As I Lay On My Bed," and Bill Caddick's "She Moves Among Men (The Bar Maid's Song)." More grave matters are explored in the beautiful spiritual "Lay This Body Down," while Cronshaw's "A Smiling Shore" is a sad veteran's tale augmented by near classically arranged piano, cello and Tabor's beautiful voice. Tabor pays tribute to Anne Briggs with her arrangement of the traditional "The Bonny Boy" and "I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me," accompanied by a lone guitarist (who is probably Simpson). Seduction once again rears it's head in the incestuous "The Bonny Hind," before the album concludes with a staggering lovely unaccompanied version of Joni Mitchell's early anti-war ballad "The Fiddle & The Drum." All in all, Abyssinians is a near perfect album.
1988 was a particularly fruitful year for Tabor. First it saw her reuniting with Maddy Prior for a second Silly Sisters album, as well as cutting one of her best solo records. On No More to the Dance Tabor and Prior are once again joined by a stellar group of musicians which included among others; Cronshaw, Breton guitar wizard Dan Ar Bras, Scottish harp duo Sileas and keyboardist Hew Warren, who went onto to become Tabor's main accompanist and collaborator in the following years.
For those who knew and loved the lightheartedness of the first Silly Sisters album, this new recording came as somewhat of a shock at first. In many ways this is the darker counterpart to the first recording and very much reflects both Tabor's influence and her artistic maturity some ten years later. The album is not without it's lighter moments, as in the delightfully silly "The Barring of the Door," or the lovely interchange of voices in "Cakes & Ales."
But the truer, darker tunes are found in the medieval carol "Agincourt Carol/ La Route Au Beziers" where the singers are backed by Nigel Eaton's insect-like hurdy gurdy and Jim Sutherland's middle eastern percussion. Elsewhere the traditional Midlands tune "The Old Miner" is given a suitably ethereal arrangement featuring Dan Ar BrasÇ hypnotic finger style electric guitar, while Lal Waterson's "Fine Horseman" takes on a positively spooky air as Tabor and Prior's voice entangle with Patty Seddon's electro-acoustic harp and Warren's skeletal piano arrangement. The CD reissue contains a solo track each from Tabor and Prior, both backed solely by Huw Warren's fine piano playing. Tabor's contribution; "Rosie Anderson" is a classic tale of lost love that would not be out of place on her solo album of that same year.
That album, Aqaba is one of Tabor's finest works to date. It certainly is one of her best mixes of traditional and contemporary material and unlike her early efforts it maintains a singular mood of deep introspection that might be too intense for the faint hearted listener. The album begins with the quietly regal "The Old Man's Song" a John Tams/Bill Caddick composition -- a gem from their Home Service daysm told from the legendary Don Quixote's perspective. The traditional tunes on this album are all great picks including "Searching For Lambs," "The Banks of Red Roses," and "Bogie's Bonnie Belle." The CD might warrant a warning sticker that proclaims that listening to Tabor's versions of these songs will render all other versions inferior in contrast. Andy M. Stewart's much covered "Where Are You Tonight?" is given a splendid arrangement with Tabor backed by Martin Simpson's fluid fingerstyle guitar and Ric SandersÇ lovely multi-tracked violin playing. Likewise, one time 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant's " Verdi Cries" is " owned" by Tabor's authoritative singing and Dave Bristow's empathic synth playing.
One of the two main highlights of the album must be the title track penned by Bill Caddick, which evokes a Merchant Ivory style view of the old empire in the wild eastern dessert lands. The album concludes with the long and wistful "The King of Rome" which is a true tale of a heroic pigeon race. The song is given a majestic arrangement by Bristow and is carried Tabor's staggeringly emotional performance, as her voice modulates effortlessly between hope, sadness and eventual triumph. This last song maybe well be the quintessential example from this period of Tabor's power as a true storyteller.
In 1989 Tabor turned her attention briefly to traditional jazz standards with the album Some Other Time (the first and only time she broke from her "A" titled scheme, thus signifying a diversion from her regular projects). Many fans and critics found this to be a wholly unsuccessful album, particularly compared to her folk records. However, one would be remiss not tp point out that while the album is certainly not without many faults, it does contain a few gorgeous versions of songs such as Charles MingusÇ "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight."
Freedom and Rain in 1990 saw a woefully short-lived collaboration between Tabor and England's mighty and very electric Oysterband. Perhaps inspired by her guest spot with Fairport Convention during one of their annual Cropredy Reunion shows in 1987, Tabor takes on folk rock with a vengeance and is backed on this album by the world's best band to play it. The choice of material is somewhat amazing, including a darky brooding version American folkster Si Kahn's "Mississippi," a jaunty, gentle version of The PoguesÇ "Lullaby of London," and a go for the throat rendition of Richard Thompson's normally meditative "Night Comes In." Other joys are a dance-able version of Billy Bragg's "Valentine's Day is Over," a nordic rendition of Lou Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties," and a rollicking take on John Tam's "Pain or Paradise."
The three traditional tunes are once again pure pleasure, with "Dives and Lazarus" given an Oysterband bop till you drop rhythm, a lovely duet between Tabor and John Jones backed by a full horn section! "Dark Eyed Sailor" is a typical Oysterband rave up with Chopper's sweeping bass guitar and some very nice fiddle work by Ian Telfer. But the real treasure is a jumpy, take no prisoners rendition of the Scottish song of ultimate parental abuse (burning at the stake for not marrying the man of her parent's choice): "Susie Clelland." The album ends much too soon with Telfer's acoustic, folksy, "Finisterre." It is worth noting, though somewhat frustrating, that Tabor and the Oysters also released what is now an impossibly rare EP with them performing wonderful versions of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and "Somebody To Love," where Tabor sounding remarkably like former acid queen Grace Slick.
Tabor's next album didn't come until 1992, though she did contribute some fine tracks to the Hard Cash soundtrack, which helped to cement her working relationship with Richard Thompson, whose songs she continues to cover and with whom she may some day (hopefully) make an entire album. Angel Tiger is a watershed album, with only two traditional tunes on it, "Let No Man Steal Your Time," and "Ten Thousand Mile." Tabor nevertheless manages to bring the authority and authenticity of traditional music to this set of modern compositions. It helps a lot that she is working with some of the finest song smiths around, as the album's opener "Hard Love," a song by American folk singer Bob Franke clearly demonstrates.
Elsewhere, she draws upon some of her Freedom and Rain songwriters, this time writing specifically for her, as in Ian Telfer's haunting "The Doctor Calls." Elvis Costello contributes the stark and biting "All This Useless Beauty," and Tabor turns in a snazzy version of the Thompson/French/Frith/Kaiser composition "Blind Step Away." British satirist supreme Les Barker contributes two of his more serious songs with the endangered species minded "Elephant" and the album's highlight "Sudden Waves," based on the writings of Lewis Grassit Gibbons in his classic trilogy A Scot Quar . Tabor is backed throughout by a sedate ensemble of musicians including long time collaborators Huw Warren on assorted keys and violinist Mark Emerson, both of whom still make up her usual touring band. Tabor's voice has deepened on this album, not in tone, but in soul, and you will find some of her finest singing right here.
Against The Streams, released in 1994 can be viewed as the first part of a trio of albums in which Tabor stretches and expands upon the folk core of her material, experimenting with innovative new arrangements. Once again there are only two traditional songs ("False False" and "Apples and Potatoes" ), yet the feel of the album is deeply rooted in folk music thanks to Tabor's fine singing. The recording begins with a buoyant, accordion driven rendition of Eric Taylor's "Shameless Love" and a Cole Porter inspired version of Elvis Costello's "I Want To Vanish.," Richard Thompson's classic tale of a lady assassin "Pavanne" finds Tabor backed by a near classical sounding piano arrangement which quietly underscores the drama of the story, a technique also usefully employed in the sad tale of asbestos poisoning in the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia in "He Fades Away." The traditional "Apples & Potatoes" finds Tabor her most folksy in years, diddling to accordion and fiddle accompaniment.
Tabor even experiments with a spoken word piece to great effect in her reading of fantasy author Jane Yolen's prose; "Beauty & the Beast: An Anniversary." The album finishes with a song each from some of Tabor's favorite songwriters. First up is a lovely tale of devotion and fond farewells in Les Barker's "The Turn Of The Road," before sliding into the cool saxophone lead jazz of Ian Telfer's "Windy City." The CD ends on a quiet note with Bill Caddick's lovely, gentle lullaby "Waiting For The Lark," featuring some of Tabor's most beautiful and understated singing.
1996 also saw Tabor collaborating with Scottish harpist Savourna Stevenson and English double bass wizard Danny Thompson on an album called Singing The Storm . The album concept and musical arrangements were all the work of Stevenson, as part of a commissioned cycle of music for the 1995 Scottish Borders Festival. Stevenson found a true treasure in Tabor who contributed vocals to seven of the twelve tracks, including a gorgeous version of the traditional "Broom of the Cowdenknowes." Besides the title track's unearthly arrangement, the other highlight is "The Witch of Fauldshope," written by Les Barker and telling the tale of the legendary Borders wizard Michael Scott and his disgrace by and revenge on the song's title character.
Aleyn released in 1997 forms the middle part of the trilogy and opens with a bone chilling version of Richard Thompson's "The Great Valerio." The real news of the album is that Tabor choose over half of the material from traditional sources, Including beautiful versions of "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love, Tonight," "Go From My Window," "The Fair Maid Of Islington," and "Under The Greenwood Tree," all backed by a great core of musicians including Emerson, Warren, Andy Cutting and others. Tabor turns in a cabaret style version of Adrian May's "No Good At Love," that far exceeds anything she attempted on the Some Other Time album. Other highlights include a staggering piano driven version of Ralph McTell's tale of urban injustice: "Bentley & Craig," and a gentle pastoral version of Maggie Holland's "A Proper Sort of Gardner." This magnificent recording ends with soul stirring reading of the traditional spiritual "Shallow Brown."
Tabor's latest A Quiet Eye concludes and crowns the trilogy by once again placing well chosen traditional music with modern songs from her favorite writers: Thompson, Caddick and even Ewan MacColl. It is the synthesis of all her myriad influences into one cohesive whole, along with her innovative use of the brass heavy Creative Jazz Orchestra that makes this an outstanding album. The album starts out with a gorgeous version of the Child ballad "The Gardner" supported by the 11-piece orchestra, led by pianist/arranger Huw Warren. Richard Thompson has two of his best interpreted by Tabor, as "Waltzing for Dreamers" is fused with a stately instrumental oening written by Emerson, while "Pharaoh" is given a highly dramatic, theatrical arrangement. Maggie Holland's wry and political "A Place Called England" is given an appropriate brass arrangement. The traditional lament "I Will Put My Ship In Order" is a wonderful mix of sad lyrics and a deceptively positive instrumental backing, both enhanced by Tabor's emotive singing.
Two highlights make this an indispensable album: the first is Tabor's skillful synthesis of Bill Caddick's tale of English solders in the first World War, "The Writing of Tipperary" with the Jack Judge music hall ditty "It's A Long Way to Tipperary." The songs twine round each other and the tale unfolds like an epic BBC docudrama, told in music. The other highlight is surprisingly passionate interpretation of Ewan MacColl's lovely "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." In Tabor's skillful hands this once over-played love song has been transformed from a smulchy pop tune back to the graceful ballad it once was. The album concludes with a simply lovely and frankly definitive version of the traditional "The Water Is Wide."
Plans are a foot for Tabor to tour with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, having already performed some dates in her native England. With a new and focused direction in her music, and being in the best voice she has ever been, the time is ripe for June Tabor to get the wider recognition that she truly deserves. How appropriate that such success should come at a time when Tabor has finally found the perfect mix of her musical loves.