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Paddi Benson, Grace Lemon & James Patrick Gavin – Volume One – A Curious Dance: Contemporary music for two Uilleann Pipers – a review

'A Curious Dance' by Paddi Benson, Grace Lemon and James Patrick Gavin ushers forth real disquiet as the nights draw in.

The cover art for A Curious Dance
Release Date
28 September 2023
Volume One - A Curious Dance
Grace Lemon, James Patrick Gavin, and Tim Fairhall combine traditional and experimental sounds in this fascinating six-track album. The music evokes a dancefloor of unquiet ghosts, blending haunting melodies with dynamic instrumental dialogues. One for those long autumnal nights gathered round the tape machine.

In 1852, Charles Dickens published one of his lesser-known pieces of Christmas writing. A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree describes a visit to St Luke’s, a private mental hospital, on Boxing Day in 1851. He saw patients, literally, unchained, dancing around a Christmas tree (still a novelty in 1851, hence the “curious” tree), receiving gifts, and was struck with the idea that there was little difference between the “affected” and the “unaffected” – that this delineation was meaningless; that freedom could be a cure for madness.

Slow Worm Records, Tom Moore’s (of Moore & Moss fame) Norfolk-based experimental label, has taken Dickens, and the ballroom dances that took place at Bethlehem/Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in the 19th Century, as a starting point and has released the utterly remarkable, A Curious Dance: Contemporary Music for two Uilleann Pipers. The pipers in question are Paddi Benson and Grace Lemon, expertly augmented by James Patrick Gavin on guitars and fiddle, and Tim Fairhall on double bass. Benson, Lemon and Gavin represent some of the most exciting, young, Irish musicians around. They are all steeped in the tradition yet determinedly looking forward, creating a broad instrumental picture, six tracks that fit as a perfect whole. 

If Dickens saw unrestrained dancing around an unusual totem, so Benson and Lemon have created a vivid sound world for the dancers in this unhinged craziness. Where Dickens enjoyed “a blaze of light and glitter”, so these two pipers dazzle with an extraordinary crossing of the streams. There are moments when trying to pull the two of them apart is a fruitless task, other times when the two instruments dash to opposite sides of the room, repelled as magnets. 

Four incredible musicians making music that is effortlessly strange, the soundtrack to a dancefloor overrun by unquiet ghosts 

This short, six-track album, starts with ‘A Primer’, a twinkling otherworldly portal constructed by the sweet, high, Irish notes of the “pipes of the elbow”. There’s a shimmer, a fractal haze, an echo of ‘The Mending Song (Mouse Round)’ from Bagpuss. A vague promise that whatever is broken can be fixed. Before the whole thing is blown away as so much dust, Fairhall’s bass gently anchors the tune to the ground before Gavin’s guitar gathers the whole thing up, sending it careening into a hectic dance. Before madness entirely overtakes proceedings, so early in the piece, a quiet descends, a breakdown, a tension that is entirely unresolved as the tune reaches its end. So the pattern is set for the album; four incredible musicians making music that is effortlessly strange, the soundtrack to a dancefloor overrun by unquiet ghosts. 

‘A Curious Dance’ feels like the central point of the album. It begins with the gentle 70s Folk stylings of an acoustic guitar, and you start, mistakenly, to feel as though you’re on solid ground until the Uilleann pipes begin their sharp dialogue, the two of them peck at one another until the tune has disintegrated. The solid ground has disappeared, there’s nothing to hold on to, you can feel your world sliding away. Then, once again, the solidity of Fairhall’s bass saves you. A reassuring heavy tread that allows the pipes to continue their bouts of high-octane confusion. Experimentalism is worth little if there’s nothing to anchor the tune but the bass helps make sense of the fanciful. Now bass, guitar and pipes work together and a wild, contemporary folk dance takes hold. It’s an exhilarating ride over unstable ground until the dancefloor becomes evident once again.

The counterpoint to all of this is ‘A Raving Melancholy’; both pipes set off a desperate mournful squirl, piercing and difficult until one of them, finally, drifts to the ceiling. One of the pipes remains tethered, joined by bass and fiddle. The difference here is that the double bass no longer has that dependable solidity. Now there’s something sinister about the sombre, foreboding plod. The melancholy is overwhelming, a brutal exploration of loss. Dickens himself couldn’t have created anything as textured as the nine minutes that unfold. There’s something novelistic in the sweep but it’s a novel as a tortured howl. 

The remaining three tracks seem to be almost snatches of sound compared with the majesty of the opening three tracks. That, however, would diminish their magnificence. ‘A Watcher’s Gallery’ starts with a fiddle and an insistent high note, layering instrument upon instrument until it explodes into a folk-y fury. On ‘A Peregrine’, the pipes coo to one another until the acoustic guitar fashions an upbeat tune. Finally Gavin’s fiddle wreaths huge Goth clouds overhead. It’s only a couple of minutes long but ‘A Peregrine’ drips with an atmospheric fog. Just as Dickens packed an entire world into the few pages of Edwin Drood, so Benson, Lemon and Gavin intricately construct the shadowiest of places. It is sublime and spooky.

If ‘A Curious Dance’ is supposed to conjure the unhinged crackle of an asylum’s ballroom then ‘[We Called For] A Waltz’ is a wonky reel-to-reel postcard from a different time. Smothered in tape hiss and finally unwinding altogether, it’s full of distorted wow and flutter. Old-fashioned and uncanny in the same way that the unexplained creak of a  staircase seems old-fashioned and uncanny. It leaves you on edge as the Uillean pipes distort horribly and, this time, the others can’t save them.

For those that love Lankum’s intense heaviness, or the disquieting, strange experimentation of the brilliant Ballads of Seduction, Fertility And Ritual Slaughter then A Curious Dance is one for the long autumnal nights. It’s almost certainly even better if you track down the limited cassette. A fantastic trip to the old curiosity shop. 

A Curious Dance: Contemporary music for two Uilleann Pipers is out on Slow Worm Records on September 28th and can be ordered as a download or cassette from Bandcamp.