It’s hard to believe that Gigspanner only appeared on my musical radar some three and a half years ago. It was May 2012 and at the end of an exhausting period in my working life I booked myself into a hotel and did little else but sleep for 48 hours – apart from, that is, venturing out to see Gigspanner who were performing nearby. Other than knowing that they had been put together by Peter Knight, who I had seen perform with Steeleye Span several times, I had little idea what to expect and was too busy/exhausted to do much in the way of research prior to booking a ticket. But on seeing them for the first time I was utterly enthralled and immediately hooked. I’ve seen Gigspanner some eight times now and everyone I’ve taken along to witness the trio has been similarly transfixed and has become a firm fan. But perhaps the most telling impact was on someone I didn’t know at all. At one of Gigspanner’s gigs I slipped to the bar at the back of the room midway through the performance and as I whispered my order to the barmaid she promptly burst into tears. “I was expecting a normal night at work like any other,” she explained. “But I can’t believe this – it’s just so beautiful.” The power of music.
So what is it about Gigspanner? So many different influences come together: folk, classical, jazz, African, Cajun, Appalachaian, Aboriginal, Celtic rock, folk rock. The list goes on. You can hear so many different sounds coming together to create something totally and wonderfully unique. Classically-trained folk fiddle supremo, Peter Knight, works with percussionist, Vincent Salzfaas, and guitarist, Roger Flack, to build up an amazing texture of sounds. The musicians and their instruments don’t try and compete with one another and, although one of the trio is much better known than the other two, no sound dominates at the expense of the rest; such that the centre of gravity on stage subtly shifts from one to the other and back again as a tune builds up and the music ebbs and flows.
Gigspanner have a new album out Layers Of Ages. And in order that I could experience the new material in a live setting for the first time, I’d deliberately not purchased it before tonight’s show. A number of traditional songs are given the unmistakeable Gigspanner treatment and are included in the setlist tonight. This includes a stunning Death And The Lady, where dark, brooding electric violin blends with beautiful Spanish-flavoured guitar and mesmerising, pounding conga drums. Bows Of London is another real highlight, one of the most macabre of songs in a genre that has always had a close association with the macabre. Sometimes known as The Cruel Sister or The Twa Sisters it’s a tale of sibling rivary, drowning and creating a musical instrument (haunted and self-playing of course!) out of the deceased’s bones. Knight’s sweet, calm and understated vocal delivery always provides for a dramatic juxtaposition with subject matter of this type.
Other songs from the album, like a thoroughly reworked version of Steeleye Span’s traditional classic Hard Times of Old England and a superb Mad Tom of Bedlam, which were given an initial outing on last year’s tour, are included in the set again tonight. Like the two previous CDs, Layers Of Ages will be on my stereo many, many times from now on.
The new songs blend alongside a number of old favourites from the Gigspanner setlist that I was particularly pleased to hear performed once again, songs like Seagull (Knight’s recollection of the shove ha’penny game played in the Lord Nelson pub up the road from our venue tonight in Hastings old town), as well as the stunning tunes Sharp Goes Walkabout and The Butterfly. It’s probably worth saying a word or two about Knight’s gentle but witty, self-deprecating banter, too, always bringing us back down to earth after being transported who-knows-where during each piece of music.
So another Gigspanner gig tonight and another new fan: “I completely lost myself in that. I felt part of it,” was the verdict of one of our party tonight on hearing them for the first time. The audience response from a packed-out Stables Theatre, just as it was in the same venue this time last year, is rapturous. Thank you Gigspanner.