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Steeleye Span folk-rock band

Folk – album review – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner ‘The Wife Of Urban Law’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Folk rock icon, fiddle supremo and former Steeleye Span-er, Peter Knight, along with the rest of his trio Gigspanner have been busy lately. This is their second new album of the year. First, in the summer came a live album from the expanded line-up of the band (known as the Gigspanner Big Band) and now this autumn the trio release ‘The Wife Of Urban Law’.

For those unfamiliar with Knight’s current outfit (Gigspanner actually began as a side project to Steeleye Span but is now his main focus after leaving his former band four years ago), they veer more towards the folk end rather than the folk-rock end of the spectrum. However, to merely describe them as folk ignores the huge range of musical influences that are at play on a Gigspanner album; from English folk to eastern European, French, Cajun, African and even aboriginal influences.

This latest album continues in that vein and is as expansive and inventive as ever. Knight’s virtuoso fiddle is, of course, an intrinsic part of the overall Gigspanner sound but so, too, is the suitably atmospheric acoustic-electric guitar of Roger Flack and the absolutely spellbinding percussion of new boy, Sacha Trochet, who took over from original conga player, Vincent Salzfaas, recently.

Material-wise, imaginative interpretations of traditional folk songs like ‘Green Gravel’ and ‘Bold Riley’ sit alongside self-penned numbers like the lively ‘Urban’s Reel’ which opens the album and ‘Lament for the Wife of Urban Law’ based on an inscription on a 19th century Oxfordshire gravestone which gives the album its title.

Hypnotic, infectious, inventive and utterly, utterly unique, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner continue to shine and this is yet another superb album from the trio.

Released 31 October 2017

http://www.gigspanner.com/

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Previous reviews:
Gigspanner at Hastings 2017
Gigspanner Big Band at Hastings 2016
Gigspanner ‘Layers of Ages’ album
Steeleye Span in London 2015

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Peter Knight’s Gigspanner at The Stables, Hastings 22/3/17

My was review was originally published by the Hastings Online Times here

Peter Knight will be known to many as fiddle supremo for folk rockers, Steeleye Span, over four decades. The Gigspanner trio initially began as a side project of Knight’s but he left Steeleye Span for good in 2013 to concentrate fully on Gigspanner. While there are numerous cases of artists carrying on doing exactly the same old thing as they’ve always done in a brand new band with a similar sounding name, this is far from the case with Gigspanner. Of course, Knight’s virtuoso fiddle playing is still at the heart of Gigspanner’s sound; but rather than the typical ingredients of the classic folk-rock band, Gigspanner is a complete melting pot of musical influences: English folk meets Cajun hoe-down meets French waltzes meets Latin-American drumming and much more besides. All of it producing a magically diverse texture of sounds that is awe-inspiring and utterly enthralling.

The band has performed at the old town’s Stables Theatre on a number of occasions now and seasoned Gigspanner followers will have immediately noticed a change as soon as they walked into the auditorium and seen a different percussion set-up as they glanced towards the stage. Indeed, conga drummer Vincent Salzfaas who had been with the band since its formation recently departed due to changes in his personal circumstances and he’s been replaced by Sasha Trochet. Salzfaas’s congas were such an integral part of the unique Gigspanner sound I was wondering what impact the new arrangements would have. Fans of the trio have nothing to fear. While Trochet introduces a much more varied selection of percussion instruments the essential ingredients of the Gigspanner sound are still there and are added to, rather than diluted.

The band have strong Hastings connections, of course. Knight was resident here for many years and a familiar figure in music pubs around the town. Guitarist, Roger Flack, is Hastings-based and also plays with local band The Tabs, as well as being a regular participant in folk sessions in the Dolphin. A Hastings gig, therefore, always has something of a home-coming feel for the trio, particularly as a number of the band’s songs are directly inspired by the town. ‘Seagull’, for example, one of the songs written by Knight that is performed tonight, was inspired by regular sessions of shove ha’penny in the Lord Nelson. It’s also noteworthy for being one of the songs that Knight plays the fiddle, not with a bow, but by plucking. Just as the fiddle supremo produces a whole range of beautiful sounds using his bow, there’s a whole set of other sonic delights that come from his fingers, too. Other songs include traditional folk staples like ‘She Moves Through The Fair’ and ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ reworked to give them that unique signature Gigspanner feel.

As the evening draws to a close, once again the Stables audience respond with rapturous applause and once again, Hastings can be immensely proud of a music scene that has played a part in gifting the world a band of this calibre.

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http://www.gigspanner.com/

Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 16/12/16

My review was originally published on The Stinger independent music website here

Rounding off an outstanding year of Folk acts at St Mary in the Castle this year we had Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band. ‘Folk’ is a bit of a misnomer, however, in a set that embraced American gospel, Shakespeare. medieval tune sets, eighteenth century carols, jazz swing and a Latin-American cha-cha-cha – in Latin (!) – to name but a few.

Maddy Prior will be known to many as lead singer of folk-rockers, Steeleye Span.

But for a good number of years now she has joined forces with early music specialists, The Carnival Band, for what they term ‘Carols and Capers.’

While there is never any shortage of carol concerts and festive sing-alongs in Hastings, three things make an evening with Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band particularly special.

Firstly, there is the sheer range of songs and tunes covered. While there are some obvious Christmas favourites, like ‘While Shepherd’s Watched Their Flocks’ and ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’ many less well-known numbers and historical gems are unearthed, like ‘The Boar’s Head’ a 16th century English carol, as well as original material like ‘Bright Evening Star.’

Secondly, there is the huge range of weird and wonderful instruments in use. There are violins and guitars and drums and a lovely deep double bass, of course. But there’s also the sound of medieval bagpipes, shawms (a horn-like reed instrument popular in renaissance music) and many other authentic replicas from our musical past.

Finally, there is the amazing amount you learn about music, history and culture during the course of the evening. Each of the players has a very evident passion for the history and background to the music they play. Did you know, for example, that the reason why ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ became so well-known was because the 17th century Anglican church would only permit a small number of biblically-approved passages to be sung during services, and this was the only Christmas number on the list?

All this and the unique, instantly recognisable and still-beautiful voice of the great Maddy Prior. Although it was de-consecrated as a place of worship several decades ago, St Mary in the Castle still makes for a wonderfully apt setting for a Christmas celebration like this, even for a hardened non-believer like myself.http://www.maddyprior.co.uk/http://www.carnivalband.com/

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Related reviews:

Maddy Prior, Hannah James & Giles Letwin
Steeleye Span live in London
Steeleye Span live at New Forest Folk Festival

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner with Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 8/5/16

I’ve seen the mesmerising Gigspanner live on quite a few occasions now (nine times in the past four years) and described their utterly unique performances here and here and here!

Gigspanner are ex-Steeleye Span fiddle player, Peter Knight, guitarist, Roger Flack, and percussionist, Vincent Salzfaas. What is different about tonight though is that they are joined by folk duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – for what’s been dubbed the Gigspanner Big Band. I was always hoping this would be something special. But at the same time I didn’t want to see Gigspanner lose the essence of what makes the band so utterly unique into some generic worldy, folky sort of jam session. I needn’t have worried. Henry & Martin do bring something extra to the stage in terms the former’s awe-inspiring slide guitar and the latter’s additional fiddle and beautiful vocals. Yet at the same time they absolutely work with the grain of what makes Gigspanner the act that it is and adding to that rather than simply muddying it up.

It was nice to some well-established Gigspanner favourites in the setlist tonight: Butterfly, Death and The Lady, Hard Times of Old England and King of the Fairies as well as a beautiful Banks of the Nile (which many will know from Sandy Denny’s back catalogue) sung by Martin.

Gigspanner has always been a complete melting pot of musical influences: English folk meets Cajun jigs meets French waltzes meets African drumming and much more besides. And the guest duo certainly bring in a bit more of the English folk influence – but also, with the slide guitar, they bring an American country blues feel and, at times, traditional Indian influences, too, (Philips studied Indian classical guitar in Calcutta) which all add to the already rich texture of Gigspanner sounds and influences.

It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that one of the biggest cheers of the evening comes when Peter Knight lets slip that the five of them are going to be making an album together.

The venue itself also played a part in making this a special evening. Built into the cliff face in the 19th century as a church, it fell into disuse and disrepair in the mid twentieth century but was saved, given an extensive refurbishment and re-opened as a quite magical arts venue in the late 90s. A magical trio meets up with a magical duo in a magical venue. What more could we have asked for.

http://www.gigspanner.com/
http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/

12524155_10154157596306449_8129553487677285344_nPrevious reviews:
Gigspanner at Whitstable 2014
Gigspanner at Hastings 2014
Gigspanner at Hastings 2015
Album review: Layers of Ages

Folk: album review – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner ‘Layers of Ages’

Layers of Ages, Gigspanner’s long-awaited third album received numerous plaudits from folk reviewers when it was released last year. Deservedly so. Fiddle-player, Peter Knight, guitarist, Roger Flack, and percussionist extraordinaire, Vincent Salzfaas, have returned with another absolute gem.

Bows Of London opens the album, a song exploring those age-old themes sibling rivalry, murder and haunted musical instruments made out of human bones (well of course…) What really adds to the macabre nature of the subject matter though is the beautifully calm, understated way in which Knight delivers the lyrics. Death And The Lady is another highlight. Coming in at over nine minutes long, dark, brooding electric violin blends with pounding conga drums and Spanish-flavoured guitar to create a wonderfully atmospheric soundscape. However, for those yet to experience Gigspanner it’s difficult to emphasise the breadth of musical influences that this band explore. There’s lots of well known traditional material on the album, of course. But folk doesn’t even begin to describe the vast range of sounds you get to hear coming out of the speakers when Gigspanner are playing. King Of The Fairies, for example, has a Latin American feel while Louisina Flack immediately puts you in mind of a furiously energetic Cajun hoedown.

Not only have Gigspanner brought a fresh perspective on some really well-known traditional songs, the album revisits a couple of songs closely associated with Knight’s former band, Steeleye Span. There is a great version of Mad Tom of Bedlam which is given that unique Gigspanner treatment, as well as a new version of Hard Times Of Old England. The latter was recorded by Steeleye Span at the height of their rocked-up, mid-70s commercial peak. But it gets a thorough reworking here as a gentle, mournful ballad, providing a lovely finish to the album.

Having played Gigspanner’s previous two albums to death over recent years, it’s been wonderful to finally have a new one to play over these past few weeks. And what a masterpiece it is, wholly deserving of all the praise it’s received thus far.

Released: May 2015

http://www.gigspanner.com/

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Previous reviews:
Gigspanner at Whitstable 2014
Gigspanner at Hastings 2014
Gigspanner at Hastings 2015

Steeleye Span at Cadogan Hall, London 14/12/15

Although always described as a folk rock band, just how much weight Steeleye Span attach to one or the other of those two influences has tended to ebb and flow over time. They started off very folky, then got more rocky, then more folky, then more rocky… and so on and so on. At the moment we are at a particularly rock phase in Steeleye’s history.

Wintersmith, the Terry Pratchett-inspired 2013 album, set the band in a prog-infused direction and really gave guitarist/keyboardist, Julian Littman, a chance to come into his own and stamp his own influence on the band. It’s not a direction that’s going to please all fans but it’s one I’m certainly enjoying. “We keep movng forward – we’re not a Steeleye Span tribute act,” explains Maddy Prior at one point, as she introduces some of the newer material. And it is genuinely fascinating to witness.

We do get old songs from the back catalogue, even going back to the very first album. But the dark, heavy, progged-up feel of Wintersmith is carried through into much of the older material too, with lush keyboard passages, crunching bass lines and high-octane, melodic, screeching guitar solos. There have been a couple of personnel changes lately in this constantly-evolving band. New second guitarist, Spud Sinclair, and new fiddle player, Jessie May Smart, both bring something worthwhile to this latest musical direction the band are currently headed in. Smart is a versatile player, deftly moving from haunting and melodic to spiky and rocky, and she’s proving a worthy replacement for the legendary Peter Knight. Plus having another set of female backing vocals compliment’s Prior’s voice nicely.

It’s a well chosen selection of songs in the setlist for this tour. The excellent Wintersmith album is well-represented, of course, with songs like Crown of Ice, You and the brilliant The Dark Morris Song. But there’s some nice surprises, too. New York Girls, which I’ve always considered a fun but extremely lightweight novelty song from 1975’s Commoners Crown album (with Peter Sellers on ukele!), is transformed into something far more meaty and substantial. Cromwell’s Skull, a new song with (in the words of Rick Kemp) a real Floyd-ified bit at the end is absolutely fantastic and it’s great to see the band really rocking and progging it up. There’s the glam-folk 70s smash All Around My Hat, of course and there’s Blackleg Miner and Boys of Bedlam. But rather than encoring with the acapela Christmas hit, Gaudette, as on many previous the band all come back to stand at the mic stands to do a beautiful acapela Somewhere Along the Road, an old song of bass player, Rick Kemp, that has finally been given the Steeleye treatment.

The Steeleye Span bus continues to take us on a long, winding and unpredictable yet thoroughly satisfying journey.

http://steeleyespan.org.uk/

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Previous Review: Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner at The Stables, Hastings 26/11/15

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.

http://www.gigspanner.com/

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Previous Reviews:
Gigspanner at The Stables 2014
Gigspanner at Whitstable

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner at The Stables, Hastings 27/11/14

Gigspanner is not Steeleye Span. In spite of the slight similarity in name and in spite of the presence of long-standing ex-Steeleye fiddle supremo, Peter Knight, Gigspanner are a different proposition from the folk-rock legends entirely. And utterly wonderful for it, they are too.

Those attending a Gigspanner concert can expect a slew of varied musical influences: English folk-song, Irish traditional, French waltzes, Cajun playing, African sounds, and many more, all form part of the repertoire. The result is far from a random around-the-world mish-mash, however. Knight’s virtuoso fiddle combines with Vincent Salzfass’s conga drums and Roger Flack’s distinctive semi-acoustic electric guitar-playing to create something truly unique. Together, and it’s clear from seeing the three of them on stage how much they feed off working with one another, the trio create a sound that’s both coherent and instantly identifiable,  producing a recognisable Gigspanner feel across whatever they do. The way Salfaaz builds up a rhythm on his congas is a delight to hear and utterly captivating to witness. Royal Academy-trained Knight provides everything you would expect from one of the UK’s foremost folk fiddle-players, playing magnificently on tunes like The Butterfly, a traditional tune the band have turned into an absolute musical masterpiece. But you get much more out of Knight’s fiddle besides. Finger plucking his instrument for some of the numbers (like Dave Roberts’ French Waltz and Bonny Birdy) he draws some truly amazing sounds out of it. They even do a fast and furious Cajun fiddle number where Knight plays the instrument with his bow while Flack joins him pounding the very same strings with elongated drum sticks, or fiddle sticks as the famous expression has it

I have seen Gigspanner on numerous occasions but tonight’s performance being in Hastings, where the trio formed and continue to play regularly, gives it added poignancy. A number of the songs and tunes tonight have a direct Hastings connection, including Seagull, a song recalling Knight’s days spent playing shove ha’penny in one of the local pubs, and Rolling Down the Bourne, a tune named after the main thoroughfare (and underground stream) which runs through Hastings Old Town where the Stables Theatre is based.

A talented, imaginative and hugely creative trio, Gigspanner live is something well worth witnessing. Just don’t go expecting All Around My Hat…

http://www.gigspanner.com/index.html

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Previous review: Gigspanner at Whitstable

Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival 30/8/14

The New Forest Folk Festival is a small-scale festival that takes place on a farm just outside the New Forest on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border . Although it’s only been going a couple of years and is tiny compared to some festivals, they have managed to attract some great acts and some pretty big names, too. Steeleye Span headlining on the Saturday night is quite a coup so kudos to the organisers.

This is a slightly refreshed version of the band since their 2013 winter tour. Long-standing fiddle-player, Peter Knight, left Steeleye Span at the end of last year. The current crop of shows are therefore the first with his replacement, Jessie May Smart. Different members have come and gone over the years, of course, including seemingly irreplaceable ones. But what Steeleye have always managed to do is put together a convincing set of musicians that retains continuity with the previous line-up, draws on the rich back catalogue of the band while bringing in fresh blood or, in several cases, bringing back former members coming in for another crack at it. Smart has wisely resisted any attempt to become a Peter Knight tribute act (where would one start?) Nevertheless, she is a talented musician in her own right and as the band rocks out through their set she delivers some superb fiddle playing.

Just as they have form in successfully integrating new members alongside longstanding ones, so it is with the songs, too. We get a good selection of classic songs from previous decades. Thomas the Rhymer, The Weaver and the Factory Maid, Edward, Saucy Sailor and Bonny Black Hare are all included. But we also get a nice selection from their new album, too: the superb Wintersmith which came out last year. The Dark Morris Song and Wintersmith, inspired (like the whole album) by the writing of Terry Pratchett, are classics in themselves and easily stand up against the older material.

Julian Littman is a great lead guitarist. Joining the band four years ago he really came into his own on the Wintersmith album, contributing some writing credits and lead vocals as well as guitar. With Rick Kemp on bass, Liam Genockey on drums and multi-instrumentalist Peter Zorn, they provide classic folk rock backing to the wonderfully distinctive and beautifully clear voice of Maddy Prior. Steeleye Span have certainly not mellowed with age and their set is most definitely folk rock in all its glory, not simply folk with a bit of electrification thrown in.

As with all festivals when you see one of your favourite bands performing the time just flies by. And before long it’s all over bar the inevitable encore of All Around My Hat. “Don’t get all snooty about it being a hit,” Prior jokingly warned the crowd, “just sing the bloody thing.” And sing it is precisely what everyone did. Actually, I would never get snooty about All Around My Hat. For those, like me, who love both 70s glam rock and traditional English folk music – what’s not to like about Steeleye’s unique version of this song!

So, for those wondering whether it’s worth seeing Steeleye Span: “Is it still Steeleye without Peter Knight? Is Maddy’s voice still up to it? Is the stuff from their new album any good?” The answer is yes, yes and yes.

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Maddy Prior, Hannah James & Giles Lewin at Clair Hall, Haywards Heath 6/4/14

Haywards Heath on a drizzly Sunday evening.  We are seated in a very functional-looking municipal building in the heart of suburban south-east England. But when the trio come on stage the songs are most definitely very, very northern with a run of songs from the north-east and Cumbria. Brisk Young Window is a good opener, sung in harmony by the trio. For those familiar only with Prior’s folk rock workouts with Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, Hannah James and Giles Lewin performing as a trio are very much at the trad end of the folk continuum. We get unaccompanied singing, as well as songs accompanied by James, a rising star of modern folk, on accordion and Lewin, who has long collaborated with Prior on the Carnival Band Christmas tours, on fiddle and assorted wind instruments. We even get James donning her clogs for some energetic and brilliantly rhythmic clog dancing.

The second half of tonight’s show begins with a beautifully sung version of The Blackleg Miner, something Steeleye followers will be well familiar with. This is followed by a lovely song from Hannah James, Serving Girl’s Holiday, which outlines a seemingly never-ending succession of tasks the domestic worker has to undertake on her so called “holiday”. As James points out, there was probably a lot of wry ironic humour in many traditional lyrics which perhaps gets lost as the years pass by. We then hear a succession of traditional songs from different parts of the world including America and Austria. A long brooding version of The Fabled Hare follows, with Hannah James’ accordion providing the perfect moody accompaniment for this epic tale of man versus hare “he is running for my dinner, I am running for my life…”

Before they return for an encore the trio finish their main set with a stunning version of Nick Harper’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold which, Prior explains, reflects on both 16th century royal diplomacy and a 21st Century Levellers festival appearance.  Beautifully sung, this was one of the highlights of a very enjoyable evening for me.  Before tonight I had only ever witnessed Prior either with Steeleye Span or singing Christmas carols with the Carnival Band, but it was great to see her in a different setting altogether and this is a folk trio that definitely work well together.

http://maddypriorwithgileslewinandhannahjames.viinyl.com/