The Ballad Of George Collins EP from UK singer songwriter Sam Lee is a three track delight showing exactly why his previous album Ground Of Its Own brought the artist a 2012 Barclays Mercury ‘Album Of The Year’ nomination. Consisting of three songs taken from the release, the EP is a total treat rich with the unique and innovative breath Lee has brought to folk music.
The North Londoner is a graduate of the Chelsea College of Art who went from a visual artist to being a teacher of wilderness survival skills (having been trained by Ray Mears), a part-time Burlesque dancer, and musically embarking on a unique four-year apprenticeship under the legendary, late Scottish Traveller, and balladeer, Stanley Robertson, to whom Ground of Its Own is dedicated. Researching and learning about the craft of traditional music led him to teaching and lecturing at Goldsmith’s College, Newcastle University, and the Royal College of Music. He also was the driving force behind the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winning Magpie’s Nest (now The Nest Collective) organisation, which the EP is released through, as well as many more things too numerous to mention.
The songs on the EP come from a collection of traditional material featured on his album, which Lee discovered through those years of research, songs predominantly sourced directly from English Gypsy and Irish and Scottish traveller communities. He has re-invented the old songs with his own imagination and passion but not lost their core heart and breath which makes for songs which equally and deeply intrigue, mesmerise, and enthral. The title track to the EP is a song originally collected and was adopted by the late traditional singer Bob Copper. It is quite glorious and instantly compulsive, the opening plucked strings and vocal of Lee whipping interest up into a ball of intent and compulsion. The initial atmosphere is quaint and earthy; its Celtic lilt tinged with already unexpected twists and touches. Into its eager and stirring stride a wonderful mix of irresistible cello teases, hypnotic unpredictable percussion, and delicious sounds from instruments we have probably never heard of let alone had the pleasure of their company before, caress and excite the senses. It is a sound which is easy to suggest but impossible to truly represent, a magical and ingenious piece of invention and imagination given to a truly classic song.
Lee has a voice which is raw yet mesmeric, his mix of ‘droned’ notes and warm inviting expression a distinctive pleasure which gives life to the words and world that spawn them as much as the sounds. In the following Goodbye My Darling he helps the initial soft simple sounds drift along with his narrative which has a kind of joyful swagger to its delivery, his strong yet gentle persuasion inviting strings, guitar, and more to join the eventual climatic. It is another resourceful and inspired take on tradition, musically and of its song bearing life, which without reaching the heights of the first song leaves one very contentedly immersed in its world.
On Yonders Hill completes the trio of songs, its exploration of the invincibility of the hare in folklore a pageant of reserved but heralding horns, shadowed and light soaked percussion beating a track alongside each other, and the picture drawing tones of Lee. It is a track which layers textures and feelings upon the ear to offer an emotive presence which is less instant and infectious as the other songs but as fully engaging.
The Ballad Of George Collins is wonderful as an introduction to an impressive and inspiring artist as well as the key to his album, its charm and majestic songs daring you not to move on to the full length gem, a contest you are bound to happily lose.
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