The last gig of the City Roots Festival was, fittingly enough, the folkiest gig of the festival. Sure, there had been the likes of Sam Kelley with his mixture of new and re-arranged traditional songs, but this combination of Peter Knight, previously with Steeleye Span, on fiddle and melodeon maestro John Spiers brought a poignant purity to their playing. Their two sets drew heavily on the duo’s new album, ‘Well Met’, which features instrumental versions of several songs as well as dance tunes – mostly hornpipes – old and new. Whilst well attended it was noticeable that for some unfathomable reason this combination of musicians had attracted a predominantly male crowd to the Junction 2 – and whilst beards were deemed to not be compulsory probably half the audience had nevertheless taken up the option.
Peter Knight’s playing is precise and leans towards a classical style – not for him a rapid fire of notes, but rather there are elegant extension and beautiful clarity. John Spiers is the perfect foil, similarly able to provide sustained playing with his melodeon a living, breathing, “voice”, but also capable of piling on the notes on the sprightly dance tunes. The pair are a joy to listen to, and their between song joking, mainly about their age difference and the extent of tuning they require as Spiers switches between his three boxes as the music demands, gives the impression of old pals having a good time. This is often the hallmark of a great folk duo – if they’re having fun on stage then there’s a pretty good chance that the audience will be having fun as well.
Some tunes are named after they’re written – ‘The Long Walk Home’ is one such, which John Spiers explains just seemed to fit the idea of the early morning as the sun comes up whilst walking home after a music session in a pub that might have stayed open a little longer than permitted. Others are reinterpretations of songs, without the words, such as ‘Rosebud in June’ which Peter Knight recorded with Steeleye Span on the album ‘Below the Salt’. And then there’s the second half opener, ‘The Cuckoo’, which is a gorgeous set of tunes starting with a wonderfully elegant reading of the tune of ‘The Cuckoo she is a pretty bird’ before moving to the pagan glory of the Morris with not one but two distinct versions of The Cuckoos Nest, the second of which drawn from Longborough Morris is wildly rumbustious with John Speirs doubling on stomp box to enhance the beat. It’s a beautifully evocative piece, conjuring up a fantasy of rural England – walking on rolling hills and, early on a May morning, stumbling across a band of Morris men performing ancient rituals to summon up Spring’s vitality, all on some idyllic village green.
Midway through the second half both performers took solo spots – Peter Knight played and sang his ‘From a Lullaby Kiss’ which is full of carpe diem sentiments, whilst John Spiers gave a set of three hornpipes – two his own and the other appropriately enough for Cambridge was George Greene’s ‘College Hornpipe’. Easing towards the conclusion of the gig with the gentle and fey ‘Bonny at Morn’, there was a resounding finale of the lively ‘Isadora’s Reel’ capping what had been pretty much a perfect evening of folk music. And if this sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to catch live then the good news is there’s a tour ongoing throughout March across much of England.