Albion Band,
A Christmas Present
from the Albion Band

(Tracer, 1986)

I'd never even heard of the Albion Band, so I didn't know what to expect when I picked up a copy of the band's Christmas Present. Considering how many times it's been played over recent years, it was a good gift.

Based on an annual Christmas show the band did (still does?) around England, the album provides a broad spectrum of seasonal offerings in a variety of styles. Chances are, everyone will like something here, if not every track.

Beginning with a sonorous chiming of the hour (which always puts me in the mood for a ghost to appear in Scrooge's bedroom), the album's first track is an instrumental piece titled "In the Bleak Midwinter," which is played with a country guitar flair. Next, Cathy Lesurf sings a lusty version of the traditional carol, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day."

One of the treats on this album is the selection of narrative passages chosen from various appropriate texts. The first one, presented here, is an extract from Philip Stubbes' "Anatomie of Abuses" from 1583. The brief text describes the festivities accompanying the crowning of a Lord of Misrule, and the pageants which invariably follow. It sounds like a lot of fun, and the reader has chosen a delightful tone of scorn to read it.

That leads directly into a "plugged" version of "The Official Branle" (last word pronounced "brawl," a type of dance), which most holiday lovers know as the tune for "Ding Dong Merrily on High." Although it's over too quickly, this rendition would easily fit into the holiday playlist of most nightclubs. The Albion Band then beats a hasty retreat from the 20th century with "Worcester," a choral number which sounds more suited to an ancient cathedral.

"Christmas Must Be Tonight," written by Robbie Robertson of The Band, brings us back to an American country atmosphere, before the 15th century poem "I Sing of a Maid" is recited over the sparse, stately tune of "Bells of Paradise." Then we're treated to the most festive passage from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol -- Fezziwig's Christmas party in the days of Scrooge's apprenticeship. The descriptions of dancing, playing and food are read with palpable glee, and the dance tune "Welch Rabbit" is played next in a similar spirit.

The song "Shepherds Arise" leads neatly into "Personent Hodie," a ponderous chanted song owing words to the late 16th century and its tune to the mid-14th. The bass and percussion are 20th century additions. The next extract, from Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, is a conversation among several irascible music lovers who favor stringed instruments above all others. That's probably why on the next track, Lesurf is accompanied largely by strings for a cheerful "On Christmas Night All Christians Sing." That Sussex carol is followed by one from Sheffield, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," which benefits from a stunning vocal ensemble.

The next track is amazingly powerful. Based on the Christmas miracle of World War I, when British and German soldiers left their trenches to share some holiday cheer, the track combines a brief but heartfelt slice of the British rallying song, "Keep the Home Fires Burning," with the tender 15th century German song "Es Ist Ein Ros." Woven into the music are touching excerpts from letters written about the incident and collected in Parnell's History of the First World War. It's hard to listen without getting a chill.

The album concludes with "Somerset Wassail," one of the numerous English songs surrounding the tradition of singing for a bit of holiday food or drink. It's because of this album that this particular wassailing song is one of my favorites.

Besides Lesurf, whose vocal contributions to the album are easy to identify since she's the only female singer, the Albion Band comprised Ashley Hutchings on bass and vocals, Phil Beer on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and vocals, Doug Morter on guitar and vocals, and Trevor Foster on percussion. Guests are Matt Clifford on keyboards and John O'Conner on vocals.

A Christmas Present from the Albion Band is a gift worth opening and reopening again and again. If you can add it to your collection, I'm suspect you'll find it playing often during the holiday season.

[ by Tom Knapp ]