Blackbeard's Tea Party,
Heavens to Betsy
(independent, 2009)

When the packet of CDs arrived, I fretted for a moment. With a name like Blackbeard's Tea Party, I was quick to assume this was another band of well-meaning pirate-wannabe Renaissance faire performers who would sing only nautical songs, often with more enthusiasm than talent, and lots of bawdy pirate puns that are rarely funny.

Wait ... is that a sousaphone on the cover?

Yes, yes, it is. Blackbeard's Tea Party is not what I anticipated at all, and they're pretty darned good.

I began my musical exploration at the beginning, as is most fitting, with the band's 2009 recording Heavens to Betsy. It starts with a nautical song (of course), but the execution of "High Barbary" far exceeded my expectations. This is a band that isn't afraid to rock out while holding tightly to its British and Celtic traditions -- and it inserts enough oddities into its music to make it stand out from the crowd.

The band, based in York, England, is Laura Barber on fiddle, Dave Boston on djembe and percussion, Martin Coumbe on electric and acoustic guitars, Yom Hardy on cajon, tambourine and cymbals, Tim Yates on bass, sousaphone, trombone and melodeon, and Paul Young on vocals, acoustic guitar and melodeon. Young has a strong English voice that reeks (in a good way) of gin-soaked pubs and Martin Carthy influences. Barber plays a fine fiddle, which is always my primary concern in any band that has one. And the whole group works together well, injecting its oddities -- particularly the brass -- in clever and meaningful arrangements. I also love the way Coumbe's electric guitar drives beneath Barber's fiddle on the "Doom Waltz" set, and the gypsy hue they provide on the slightly sinister-sounding "Hummeabar." "The Belgian Tune" (helpfully described further as "a Belgian tune") makes particularly artful use of the 'bone.

Heavens to Betsy is a short album -- the band's first, it comes in at only eight tracks -- but each song or tune is solid and well-crafted. Don't expect much in the liner notes; instead, they provide a picture of the band that you can color! (Heh.) I look forward to the rest of this band's discography; I have two more of their CDs on the stack.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Tom Knapp

22 March 2014

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