When any kind of solo instrumental recording drops into my mailbox, I cross my fingers that it’ll really grab my attention, rather than being a whole album of tunes that sound the same. When Sam Sweeney’s new EP arrived, I was obviously hopeful, and let me tell you, it has been a delightful revelation.
It took a few plays and a listening ‘work meeting’ (or party, if you will) in the kitchen for me realise that I like Solo very much. So much so that I’ve already been banned from humming one of the tunes while I’m at home. I’ll be honest though, it took a couple of listens just to realign my ears’ expectations – with no words and no band, where was my in? Then I stopped worrying and started really listening.
Recorded by Andy Bell (an icon of the folk scene in his own right) in the octagonal church of St Martin’s in Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, Solo feels like an invitation behind the closed doors of a practice room. You can actually read about Sam using the space for that very purpose in our recent chat with him. It’s not that any of it sounds like a rehearsal – far from it – but there’s something intimate about the whole thing, despite how much of the room’s naturally lively acoustic has been captured in the recording process. We might well have just wandered into St Martin’s, found this nice chap noodling on his violin, and been invited to stay for a while.
Many of the nine tunes on the EP are the result of digging around in old collections during 2020 and 2021, and it’s easy to understand how the long periods of lockdown left musicians like Sam looking for somewhere to channel their creative energies –
‘Not many positives came from being locked down, but unearthing these old melodies and moving into them provided me with such joy in an otherwise dark and musically lonely time.’
Solo is a small insight into someone else’s lockdown experience. Just one man and his fiddle. You can really hear the freedom that comes from that, too – lots of rubato, the pulse ebbing and flowing, and when individual notes are given a little more time, I found myself waiting for the release, like a rollercoaster going over the top (quite a small rollercoaster obviously – it’s just one fiddle, after all). As each tune progresses, there’s a real sense of evolution and without the distraction of countermelodies and harmonies from other instruments, it’s a chance to appreciate each carefully placed ornament and accent. New intricacies catch my ear each time I listen.
From the very beginning, I felt I was listening to something special. If you’ve ever seen Sam play live, you’ll undoubtedly be able to picture him in the octagonal nave, eyes closed, savouring every note. The Tradfolk team have debated for some time what makes him such an exceptional fiddler, and to be honest, no one could really put their finger on it. Upon first hearing Solo, I was really struck by how his playing is so lyrical, it’s almost like listening to a singer – he seems able to shape and emphasise each individual note like the consonants and vowels of a song.
Mostly though, I felt transported to other places and times – musical escapism at its best. In ‘The Four Seasons’, the double-stopped strings on either side of the melody are reminiscent of the Scandinavian fiddle sound, and the pairing of ‘Old Ways Best’ and ‘Booth’s Hornpipe’ put me in mind of a Regency dance. Think Mr Darcy and Elizabeth locking eyes across the room. Ok, that might just be me… Other tunes – especially the catchily titled ‘Untitled Waltz #1’ – left me with a sense of nostalgia that I can’t really explain.
One of the brilliant things about instrumental music is that it offers us our own little bit of imaginative freedom. Even when it’s strongly implied, we aren’t told how what we hear should make us feel. I’m sure you’ll find your own narratives within Solo, and that this is a recording you’ll want to revisit time and time again.