CD Review: St. Agnes Fountain – “Twelve Years of Christmas”
Of course Guthrie, like his father Woody Guthrie, is best known for musical protests against social injustice. Yet some of the songs Arlo Guthrie holds dearest, such as those he recorded after he parted ways with Warner Brothers’ Records, are anything but anthems.
“The first record I made was of old cowboy songs [“Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys”] because I loved them and wanted my kids and grandkids and great grandkids to hear them,” he said. “I put them out with no promotion, just for sale on my Web site…and the right people found them.”
So it is with the music by St. Agnes Fountain, known individually as acoustic guitarist, songwriter and author David Hughes, Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie, and award winning folk duo Chris While and Julie Matthews, formerly of The Albion Band.
The group’s 2001 holiday themed tour, its first, sold out as have most concerts on each subsequent tour. Certainly a 1998 limited edition Christmas EP by Hughes and Leslie and the name recognition of all four members lured early converts to the quartet.
But maintaining a loyal and growing fan base for more than a decade, especially when you only tour a few weeks a year in England, is quite another. Listen to “Twelve Years of Christmas” and you’ll see why the fan-based “Aggies” are so beloved. The songs on the album are a bewitching mix of reinterpreted traditional songs accented with contemporary songs including two originals.
Sadly I’ve not had the pleasure of attending an Aggies concert but fan accounts and video snippets of various concerts show the group, whose members clearly love playing, intricately weave humor and tradition into their performances. The result is purely joyful music.
Consider the first song on the latest album, “In Dulci Jubilo.” It seems difficult enough to reinterpret a J.S. Bach classic without choosing one that has been re-imagined by everyone from the Vienna Boys Choir, to Mike Oldfield to Mannheim Steamroller. Yet St. Agnes Fountain’s gentle acoustic version and mellow harmonies, add a welcome contemporary feel to the standard.
As a bluegrass fan, it was intriguing to hear the quartet reinterpret “Christmas Times a Coming” by Tex Logan and “Jerusalem Ridge” by Bill Monroe, the father of the format. One major gripe among some bluegrass fans, including the legendary Del McCoury who got his start with Monroe, is that so many in the format play and record paint-by-numbers music. That’s certainly not the case here with highlights including Leslie’s lead vocals on “Christmas Times a Coming” and his virtuoso fiddling and mandolin playing, which are as jolly as Santa Claus’ famous “Ho Ho Ho.”
Add to the mix Hughes’ humorous song “Thoughts and Prayers” – no, I’m not telling you the punch lines – and you have a bountiful holiday sonic feast.
One listen and you, too, will think that it’s not the holidays until the Aggies start to play.
Find out more about St. Agnes Fountain including the group’s upcoming tour dates (that are quickly selling out) on its official website.