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Sam Grassie – Sandwood, a review

Exceptional fingerstyle guitar in the Bert Jansch mould. A promising folk talent emerges.

Release Date
29 February 2024
Sam Grassie, Sandwood EP
Sam Grassie's EP Sandwood, released by Broadside Hacks, showcases his remarkable fingerstyle guitar talent. Featuring tracks like 'Kishor's' and 'Return to Fingal,' the EP highlights Grassie's lyrical fretboard mastery and collaborations, including Nathan Pigott and Naima Bock. Despite evident influences from Bert Jansch, Grassie's remarkable talent is evident, promising a significant future in British folk. Sandwood is a compelling introduction to Grassie's potential as a leading folk guitarist.

Here it is, then – the new EP from Sam Grassie, one of Tradfolk’s young folk musicians of 2023. For those not already in the know, Grassie is an acoustic guitar wizard with London folk outfit, Broadside Hacks, and it is on their label that this recording, Sandwood, is released.

Grassie’s reputation as a remarkably talented fingerstyle guitarist is already growing, and so it’s the fingerpicking many of us will be here for. The opening track, ‘Kishor’s’, states his case wonderfully. It’s a liminal piece, dancing through the twilight and played with supreme confidence, as though he’s been doing this for the last six decades. Starting alone, Grassie is eventually joined by Nathan Pigott on saxophone, and the piece becomes a beautiful duet, perfectly judged and performed exquisitely. So far, so, so very good.

‘Put the Blood’ – a version of ‘Edward’ [Roud 200] – is dark, brooding and drenched in echo. It’s here that we’re introduced to Grassie’s attractive, understated voice… and if you thought the Bert Jansch influences in his guitar playing weren’t yet prominent enough, his vocals now complete the picture. The fact that the EP was made at the Bert Jansch Studio with the aid of the Bert Jansch Foundation (and that Grassie even looks, in certain pictures, quite a lot like Jansch) shows just how unapologetically this young man wears his hero’s influence on his arm.

This uber-influence continues into the third song, ‘Sandwood Down to Kyle’ (written by Dave Goulder) where, in a blind taste test, most people would probably assume they were listening to Jansch himself. The wonderfully talented Naima Bock makes an appearance on backing vocals and there’s an admirable fluidity to Grassie’s playing, but the addition of Tom Grassie’s flute – delicate and longing – does little to distract us from the Jansch similarities. Infact, the overall effect may be too distracting, veering on impersonation.

The lyrical beauty that Grassie finds in the fretboard that really takes the breath away

Here’s the thing with several of these emerging players (Chris Brain also springs to mind): they have huge potential, but there’s an occasional tendency to sound a little too much like their influences (and a tendency in many quarters to praise them unquestioningly for it). If it’s not Jansch, it’s quite often Nick Drake or John Martyn – towering, unavoidable figures if this is the musical path you’ve chosen to head down. Of course, it’s a significant thing to be able to play like your hero, but there’s a fine line between being influenced and creating a replica. What made those originals great was their ability to channel their own influences into something that immediately sounded new. I can’t wait to hear these still-evolving musicians in a couple of years, once they’ve got the urge out of their system and they’ve found a voice that they can truly call their own.

In Sam Grassie’s case, the final track on this EP, ‘Return to Fingal’, shows that he might already be there. It’s probably the finest piece of folk fingerstyle guitar playing I’ve heard in recent years. The dexterity is undeniable, but it’s the lyrical beauty that Grassie finds in the fretboard that really takes the breath away. I listen in awe, and no small amount of jealousy, and I don’t mind telling you that it brings tears to my eyes.

It may be an incredibly brief introduction (expect a full debut album out later this year) but Sandwood is a startling calling card for someone who might yet become the best British folk guitarist of his generation.

Sandwood by Sam Grassie is out now on the Broadside Hacks label. It can be downloaded from the artist’s Bandcamp page.