This Label is Not Removable

PICA Volume 2, 2005

This Label is Not Removable. Various artists. 3-CD boxed set. Free Reed, FRTCD 25 (2002).

Reviewed by Roger Digby

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The Free Reed record label was the most significant of the many enterprises that originated in the fertile and energetic mind of Neil Wayne, a leading enthusiast for the concertina back in the days when men walked on the moon and the junk shops were full of quality concertinas for the price of a pint. Like other labels devoted to minority interests (e.g. Leader/Trailer), the hope was that the specialist players, who would never have been recorded under any other circumstances, would be financially balanced by the more commercial acts who were playing to good audiences in the busy folk clubs. Some players like Mike Hebbert, John Kirkpatrick, Tufty Swift, The Old Swan Band, and my own Flowers and Frolics had a foot in both camps, being popular on the contemporary circuit, particularly the ECM resurgence, whilst also featuring free-reed instruments and respecting and learning from the earlier generation of players. Sadly the numbers didn’t add up, and Free Reed collapsed under financial pressures—fortunately not relevant to this review. A recent resurrection has seen a few ambitious projects of which This Label is Not Removable is a retrospective of the first twenty-five years.

All of the Free Reed vinyl albums are represented on this collection, and given the combination of old and traditional musicians with the wide variety of singers, songwriters, and novelty acts from the folk world, this creates an extraordinary hotchpotch of listening; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing these CDs without skipping some tracks. The concertina appears on sixteen of the sixty-one tracks, with the melodeon adding a free-reed presence on twelve more.

The great strength of Free Reed was its willingness to take risks with recordings that no other label would look at. If it was financial madness, it was also musical heaven. I mentioned Peter Bellamy’s Transports in my review last year (PICA, Vol.1). Free Reed also gave us the only recording of Mike Hebbert (FRR 009), a splendid mix of tunes of all styles with some guest vocals from Andrew Frank, and the only recording of Tommy Williams, tunes and reminiscences from this former Lachenal employee and MacCann giant—musical giant that he is. He was so physically small that when he stood up to play (which he did, being a true old stager) you worried that he would topple forward from the sheer weight of the instrument. Spring Time in Battersea (FRR 008) contains some excellent playing and transports you back to a different musical era. Gordon Cutty (FRR 006) was recorded after his dance band days, surely the only conventional dance band to have an English concertina leading an otherwise standard line-up, and he demonstrates how much drive can be achieved on the English system.

Bellamy’s Transports was not the only Free Reed triumph. There were at least two others. Together with John Tams, Neil Wayne visited County Clare and made field recordings of the wealth of Anglo players who dominate the sweet, gentle style of that area of Ireland. These were magnificent releases and actually appeared on the Topic label, explaining why there are a few tracks on recent Topic compilations, but none here. Nevertheless they are a feather in Free Reed’s cap, and their current unavailability at a time when Irish music is looking back to its great musicians and re-issues abound is as big a mystery as it is a loss to music. Here were Mrs O’Dwyer, Bernard O’Sullivan, Tommy McMahon, John Kelly, Chris Droney, and more; some of the finest players of that or any other time.

Pride of place in the Free Reed catalogue belonged to John Kirkpatrick’s Plain Capers (FRR 010); a superb musician with a wide audience, Kirkpatrick played Cotswold Morris tunes with drive and integrity. On this LP he was joined by Martin Brinsford and Martin Carthy (monkeys without the brass), as well as Sue Harris and Fi Fraser. Plain Capers was released in 1976 . This was the time of ‘Folk Rock’, a short-lived fad which was only survived by the very few who were good enough to develop it further. 1972 had seen the release of Morris On, which sought to bring the electric treatment to Morris music. It was great ‘fun’ to listen to, with all the implications of triviality that that three-letter word increasingly carries. Although not stated, John Kirkpatrick was the only performer with real Morris credentials, having been involved in the dance from his teens. Now John can enjoy a lot of joking (as opposed to ‘fun’), as is clear from his contribution of ‘Laudnum Bunches’ on William Kimber’s Absolutely Classic CD (issued by the English Folks Dance and Song Society, EFDSS CD 03 [1999]). Deep down he is very serious about the music; and it is hard not to see Plain Capers as his commitment to setting the record straight. Certainly it serves as a primer for Cotswold playing; it led many ‘ear players’ to new Cotswold tunes, it is supremely entertaining and satisfying to listen to, and it shows that music with lift, drive, pace, and sheer balls comes from good musicianship, not from an electric wall socket. It will be played and celebrated long after Folk Rock has been forgotten and abandoned in the bin-liner of musical fashions.

Like all Free Reed issues, This Label has ample documentation, but the proof reading and accuracy is hopelessly inadequate. Missing punctuation, incomplete parentheses, inconsistent formatting, and variable font size. There are major gaffs: page 12 does not follow from page 11, and the bottom of page 42 reads ‘Reproduce relevant notes from original insert?’: an editorial suggestion has found its way into the main text. Then there are the factual errors: I know for sure that the few short paragraphs on Flowers and Frolics contain three outright errors. How many others must there be!

The notes on the tracks, particularly the bullet points, are often repetitive, but the main body of the text contains an account of the origins and development of Free Reed which lead me happily down Memory Lane, and will give useful background to any readers who were not around at the time. This, after all, is the purpose of a retrospective: a combination of nostalgia for some and first-time knowledge for others. Unfortunately, should those others become fired with enthusiasm for some of the excellent music that is reissued here, they will be equally frustrated by the unavailability of nearly all of the originals. Free Reed owns some tremendous recordings, some still unissued; and any reissue is to be welcomed.

1. I must declare a slight interest, having played a small part in the first two items reviewed. Far from influencing my opinions, however, the presence of my own mistakes is a valid reminder of our human weaknesses.