The Demon Barbers’ demon fiddler returns to the recording front (after 2011’s Lady Diamond duo venture with husband Will Hampson) with a true solo album indelibly stamped with her feisty presence. Bryony only departs from the solo performance mode on three tracks where she engages guitarist Jack Rutter as accompanist – and even here, considerable restraint is exercised and the overall intimacy of the album session is retained.
Of Nightshade’s seven purely instrumental tracks, four consist of tune-sets drawn from northern-counties fiddle manuscripts (a speciality of Bryony’s), on which the lean (and ostensibly stark) texture of her solo instrument affords her complete freedom of expression, enabling her to create an enviable airiness around the melodies, embodying an almost classical sense of rubato (even bringing whirling Paganini-style flourishes into the St John’s Day hornpipe before launching into a tune rather aptly titled Paganini’s 2nd!). The opening set of dances may seem to hesitate a bit before getting into its stride, but it’s an inspired move to use Stybarrow Crag as a prelude to the main menu. Bryony’s fiddle playing is especially scintillating on these tracks, with invigorating bow strokes imparting a typically edgy quality. The remaining three instrumental items come from Bryony’s own pen, and these impress through a rhythmic elan that’s informed both by her wealth of experience as a dance musician and by a complementary flair for original tune creation whereby compositional versatility is displayed in the contrast between deft sensitivity (a medley of three waltzes) and sheer fieriness (the preceding rapper set).
The disc’s four songs demonstrate Bryony’s intuitive response to, and respect for, the tradition, as much through her flexibility of line as through her passionate delivery. The eight-minute ‘big ballad’ Kemp Owen (Child 34) is a natural tour de force, and yet it’s The Cropper Lads, also sung a Capella, which provides the disc’s vocal highpoint. Bryony’s persuasive take on the Lord Randal variant The Wild Wild Berry is done to a simple piano accompaniment, while The Queen Of The May’s intense, involving arrangement enjoys a luxurious multitracking of string sounds.
It’s unusual to find a solo album that is genuinely just so, and Nightshade is an honestly conceived, defiantly executed and richly satisfying example.
‘Nightshade’ is also listed as a runner up in the 2014 fRoots Critics poll Albums of the Year