Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Louis Campbell and Sam Sweeney in shadows.

Sam Sweeney & Louis Campbell, Shapes – a review

Locked away in a church in Derbyshire, Sam Sweeney continues to conjure up nourishment for the soul.

The cover of 'Shapes' by Sam Sweeney and Louis Campbell, showing their legs and instruments as they sit on chairs in an old church.
Release Date
5 May 2023
Sam Sweeney & Louis Campbell, Shapes
Sam Sweeney returns to the church in which he made 'Solo', this time accompanied by his favourite electric guitar whizz, Louis Campbell. Across six instrumental explorations, the results are simply heartrending. Highly recommended.

Sam Sweeney has done it again. Working this time with up-and-coming guitar genius, Louis Campbell, and his long-time producer, Andy Bell, Shapes is the second part in a series of EPs that began with last year’s Solo. One gets the sense that he has found a way of doing things that suits him to a T, and there’s an undeniable alchemy at work here – a gorgeous blend of musicianship and place; of musicians responding to each other, to the shift in the air, to the reflections of stained glass, bricks and mortar.

It goes without saying that Sweeney is an incredible player. He rose to fame on those strident Bellowhead arrangements, but here his touch is as light as the dust that plays in the dappled church sunlight. In Louis Campbell, he has found a foil to reflect that skill perfectly. It’s not so much that the two musicians dance around each other on this recording, more that they sense where the other is going and offer the support required to get there. It’s beautiful stuff.

A word on Louis Campbell, then. It’s not easy to be original when it comes to guitar playing for English folk music. Very loosely speaking, you either bash it out, driving the ensemble forward as a percussive instrument, or you work with a fingerpicking style that has been defined by the playing of Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Nic Jones, et al. Campbell manages to amalgamate his non-folk influences with the flourishes and ornamentations you might expect from the genre, and in doing so, he has created something that is already beginning to “sound like Louis Campbell”. His touch and tone are exquisite – masterful, even – and his sensitivity to his musical partner’s intent is enviable.

The idea that Sam Sweeney has found a new way of doing things does not apply solely to his choice of musicians and location. His method is to use 18th-century manuscripts and follow the shapes of the melody (hence the EP’s title), often ignoring the specific notes, time signatures, key signatures and rhythms. He began experimenting with this technique on his 2020 album, Unearth Repeat, and it has clearly had a very freeing effect. We’re not talking jazz, exactly, but there’s an improvisational nature to the resulting music that keeps it incredibly fresh – exploratory, even – quite a feat, it must be said, given how old the original manuscripts are.

Shapes is a dance you attended years ago with someone you long to see again – a memory that brushes by you in dreams and whispers, “I’m still here”.

So, what of the tunes themselves? While Solo contained glorious, celebratory moments such as ‘The Four Seasons’, Shapes is another mood entirely. This is an EP of longing and poignance – a much more insular sequence. You can hear in the opening choice, ‘Shape #1’, the remnants of a danceable tune, but the tenderness of Sweeney’s playing coupled with Campbell’s chording paint it with such poignance that it becomes a reverie – a dance you attended years ago with someone you long to see again – a memory that brushes by you in dreams and whispers, “I’m still here”.

And that mood does not let up. ‘Shape #2’ drips with the same longing. Campbell’s guitar weaves around the fiddle – a chord here; a single, held note there – caught in the moment, reverberating through the silence of that blessed church. It inhabits that liminal space between the thrill of having and the despair of having lost, in a way that only the most wonderful, heartfelt music can.

‘Psalm’ is the perfect demonstration of Campbell’s unique talents. Not only a master of his own instrument, he plays the church with extraordinary skill here, too, throwing sound against the walls and responding to the way it washes back over him. His electric guitar swells, rises, falls back, chimes, lingers and fades away. It’s almost as though this particular instrument was made for that specific acoustic space. While he never overwhelms the violin performance, that single guitar is everywhere. It’s quite extraordinary.

“Maybe it’s just the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man”, as a great writer once wrote, but there’s something incredibly affecting about this set of recordings. I’d urge anyone to find a quiet place with a good pair of headphones, turn away from all distractions and simply succumb. If you find yourself briefly altered by the experience, well, isn’t that what great music is supposed to do? I believe it’ll do you the world of good.

Shapes by Sam Sweeney and Louis Campbell is out on May 5th on Hudson records. It can be ordered and streamed from this link.