I’ve lost count of the number of young female folk artists who send me material with publicity asserting that they ‘sound like a young Joni Mitchell’ along with photographs of themselves performing at festivals wearing as few clothes as possible, as if to make up for the fact that they aspire only to sound like someone else. There are also lots of nicely groomed, shiny-haired young men who tell me, usually with great pride and self-importance, that the folk revival of the 60s and 70s is irrelevant to their work – but who then send me a very traditional piece of folk storytelling, apparently under the impression that they have created something new and original, and consequently leaving all the hard work to those who are prepared to acknowledge a huge debt to the musicians of sixty years ago. However, every now and then something slinks quietly into my inbox that sounds like nothing else I’ve heard, and is so brimming with personality that I’m hooked from the first shuddering chord. Stick in the Wheel is one of those strange and beautiful creatures that slipped in quietly one evening, like a fly-by-night intent on mischief and insolence. This group deserves to be described only as sounding like themselves, to compare them to another group would be to overlook sheer originality of what they have created. Furthermore, I don’t need to see a glossy website and publicity material to understand that they have a deep knowledge of historic folk and a ravenous appetite for the ancient grime and human decay that is their home city of London. Stick in the Wheel has the confidence to grab words and melodies from our past and drag them, coarse and uncleaned, back into London’s still-filthy pubs and silt-braced riverside venues.
Bones is the new EP from this London trio. There are five tracks, each of which cries something different; some are their own interpretation of much older songs, and some are original work, but all have a strange prettiness and dirtiness to them. The overall effect puts me in mind of the disturbing beauty of dying flowers; sensuous roses at the moment that decay starts to creep in.
The opening track, Four Loom Weaver is a lament on starvation that dates itself to the time of the American Civil War, when cotton was suddenly – and inexplicably to the English weavers – in short supply. Like the best of our oldest songs there are many versions of this song on record in Roud’s collections, all lovingly wrapped in silk and stored by folklorists. Stick in the Wheel has revived a version from Lancashire, made it their own while paying great respect to its origins and, dare I say it, allowed it to still be relevant at a time whenthe almost medieval threat of starvation and disease once again haunts our poorest communities. All The Things is one of two original pieces on this EP. It is a beautiful and troubling song of fire, grief and loss. The whole song is engulfed in choking smoke out of which a sickening horror creeps up on you. It is so far from the limp whimsy that characterises so many folk acts on the current scene that it is tempting to describe this fire-storm as cleansing. The vocals are ramped up and the lyrics clear and arresting. With great poise and elegance the accompaniment is stripped right back to a pretty, but constantly churning few phrases which are given depth and a certain darkness by the tense, slow pounding of drums. Poor Old Man is a horrid little folk tale, but fascinating. Like the ballad of Long Lankin it tells an unsavoury tale from which the nice healthy part of you reels back in disgust, while the night side of your soul leans forward to hear it all the better. This is another original piece from Stick in the Wheel; they choose to twist the screw even tighter by turning the tale into a foot-tapping dance with lively string work swirling along behind the vocals. Again, instruments are added economically, and never for the sake of folkiness. No less striking is Bedlam, Stick in the Wheel’s version of a much older folk song called Bedlam Boys of which, once again, many versions are recorded. This one has more character than most others I’ve heard and is an ecstatic descent into lunacy; it screams in joy and liberty as the pain of madness is finally allowed a free-reign. The whole show is rounded with a sleep; the final piece is an instrumental composition entitled ‘Ends’, which, when it as woven its little spell, vanishes in a blink.
From its opening track to its concluding instrumental piece, Bones is dark, dangerous and curiously medieval. It is brimming with a shadowy and slightly sinister atmosphere that puts you in the mood to tap your feet and clap along, while wondering if there aren’t invocations written in somewhere underneath. Stick in the Wheel’s spirit is volatile and vulgar, and it dances wildly with the murky, dirty, ancient soul that is London. This is the London I was brought up in, this is music for people like me who love that city with all its filth, its unceasing stench and all its dark history. This is folk music washed raw by the foul, steel-grey waters of the Thames.
You can buy Stick in the Wheel’s ‘Bones’ EP from their Bandcamp site, and for news of live performances follow the group on Facebook, or check their website. You’ll find the links on this page. As well as many other London gigs, the group performs regularly at Tiller Flat Folk Club which uses the wonderful Golden Hinde II, the dry-docked reconstruction of Drake’s 16th Century ship, as a venue. The Tiller Flat Folk club raises funds to support the ship’s conservation.