Fans of The Often Herd know that, despite their traditional bluegrass instrumentation, their voice is far more diverse than that. The combination of their wide variety of musical influences, from old-time and bluegrass to jazz and psychedelia, their impressive instrumental skills, and their inventive arrangements, helps them to stand out and sound entirely unique yet comfortably familiar all at once. After the release of their first EP in 2018, followers such as myself have eagerly awaited the next creation by Evan Davies (mandolin), Rupert Hughes (guitar), Niles Krieger (fiddle) and Sam Quintana (double bass), and this collection of 10 self-penned tracks was certainly worth the wait. Along with their usual lineup, the band have, to our joy, invited talented instrumentalists to join them in this recording, including Tabitha Benedict (banjo), Noel Dashwood (dobro), Ben Somers (tenor saxophone), Steve Hanley (drums and percussion), and Archie Churchill-Moss (melodeon).
Where the Big Lamp Shines is a journey – a journey akin to those one might find in a popular fantasy-adventure novel, where the main character tightens their bootstraps, dons their heavy backpack, and stomps along the way to seek their future. The album winds pathways from stunning landscapes, “where the flowers are all in bloom” (‘Casablanca’) to quaint villages where “the church bells chime” (‘Paradise Cement Works’), taking the listener through moments of ripping energy, quiet deliberation, and a peaceful landing. Along the way, they stop at what appears to be a mad party for ‘Cheese and Onion Pasty Rag’, so named for the bands beloved Greggs pastry.
‘Inner Peace’ launches the album with a bang, with strong and melodically unusual riffs across the instruments immediately hooking you in as Evan sings about what it is to detach yourself from technology in the modern world. As the mandolin and the fiddle create a rhythmic soundbed within seconds of listening, you can hear immediately how their creative arrangements bring dynamic depth to their songs.
If ‘Inner Peace’ is the enthusiastic and energetic launch of the journey, ‘Casablanca’ is the youthful happiness of an adventure taking shape, with its slick electric guitar parts transporting you to a beach somewhere, someplace far away. Between the bouncy instrumental sections and the transportative lyrics, this song puts you in a vintage convertible with the top down and the wind running through your hair.
If the entire album is a head of lush, natural auburn hair, ‘Cheese and Onion Pasty Rag’ is the fluorescent dyed streak from its years of teenage rebellion
And, just as you feel you’re settling into the soundscapes of the album, ‘Cheese and Onion Pasty Rag’ brings its unexpected party energy, with Ben’s cheeky tenor sax adding a lovely rounded tone alongside the string instruments, and flying into some exciting lines of improvisation along the way. If the entire album is a head of lush, natural auburn hair, ‘Cheese and Onion Pasty Rag’ is the fluorescent dyed streak from its years of teenage rebellion.
There’s also a feeling of uncertainty, perhaps even mystery, woven through this album, particularly evident on ‘Sycamore Gap’, an instrumental named for a historic tree standing beside Hadrian’s wall. The strong fiddle melody kicking off this tune somehow feels like a question being asked, to which the mandolin and guitar respond each with improvised solos, leading the entire tune to feel like a full conversation, rather than a stop-and-start show-off session as this format could perhaps otherwise have felt. The mystery is also present on ‘A Sparrow Lingers” – here the uncertainty feels more like confusion, searching for an answer, and the forest-feel of the initial instrumental section is quickly juxtaposed by the lyrics, “stuck in traffic, working shifts”. This immediate switch from the natural scenery of the album to the reluctant industrial cityscape within this song leaves you searching, just as the lyrics leave the sparrow doing the same.
Their final song of the album, ‘I Was’, is a heartfelt dive into what it means to be a musician, and between the long-held chords on the melodeon and the smooth bowed double bass, the arrangement feels like the arrival to the peaceful views atop a mountain. The emotion of the piece reflects the time spent navigating the paths to reach the summit, the friendships grown along the way, the confidence of having reached the peaks, and the view from the top – mirroring entirely how the lyrics reflect on their journey as a band.
So, if you’re ready to see these views, I recommend you lace your boots and pack your bags for Where the Big Lamp Shines. I know I’ll be waiting by the door ready to go on the next adventure with The Often Herd, cheesy pasty in hand.
For more information on The Often Herd and their upcoming tour commencing September 2022, or to buy their new album, head over to their website at theoftenherd.com.