Not that many will need reminding, but during 2021 the planet was gripped by an ongoing pandemic. Like so many others, this robbed Davey Dodds and friends the opportunity to promote their music, although if there was a silver lining it did give the opportunity to write and create. So, if memory serves, when I spoke to Davey, roughly around May 2021 and prior to the release of the splendid The Rite of Spring, he mentioned a follow-up ‘meisterwerk’ was in the offing.
Moving forward a year and again around May, gigs were back on the menu and finally the opportunity to promote those ‘lockdown’ albums. This was certainly the plan for Davey and his compatriots, however in a cruel twist of fate Davey was diagnosed with cancer. Time was needed for treatment and then recuperation. But Davey is not one of those guys you can keep down for long and gradually solo gigs started to emerge, followed by a return to the stage of the band format.
And so to the mooted The Rite of Spring follow-up. Well Cask Strength isn’t it, rather a stopgap release, comprising four new pieces and three re-worked offerings. Now there are numerous ‘stopgap’ albums in the careers of the famous and the hallowed, some are successful and some… not so. Cask Strength falls firmly to the former.
The album kicks off with a re-working of Three Lines and A Whip, taken from 2020’s Toadstool Soup. It’s a livelier sound, live even. It’s also heavier, Davey’s octave mandolin now with ‘stacked’ distortion, along with a similar initial treatment to his vocal. Sweetness is added by Colette DeGiovanni’s lovely voice and, as always, Davey’s wry and observant lyrics are marvellous, with no better illustration than in this opening track. The first verse tells of David Cameron’s alleged strange acts performed with a pig’s head at The Bullingdon Club. Not many songs I suspect have the hook-line “They caught him with his trousers down.” Verse two tells of a young lady who becomes embroiled in the drug scene, subsequently changing her appearance and identity and escaping to the north of Scotland. The final verse speaks of a regular Columbian visitor to North Cornwall. Splendid stuff… and before moving on to track two, I must mention the wonderful fiddle playing from Gillie Hotston, which weaves its way throughout. Here replacing the original pipes, her violin transforms the song – an inspired reworking.
We stay with Toadstool Soup for the spritely instrumental Dancing With the Jedi, a traditional reel which in many respects remains faithful to the original, tin whistles dancing on a bed of imaginative percussion. Once again there’s a welcome live feel, bolstered by additions to the aforementioned rhythmic structure. The first of the new songs, Whiskey Thief regales a somewhat difficult and fuzzy day, following the discovery of an empty bottle of malt – full the night before, but suspiciously empty the morning after? Musically it is much in keeping with the opening track.
With the music written by Daniel Billing and lyrics by Davey, Riding on My Unicorn is something of a departure, although not out of place. A jaunty, jolly song and in a lighter vein to the rest of the album, but bound together by Davey’s intoned vocal, and yet more of that delightful violin from Gillie. And she’s back this time with a lovely jazzy swagger, taking us into Master of Puppets. Davey’s lyrics struck home once again as he tells of “a shadowy culture club of people who are able to cruise through life without the pressures of taxes, workloads and worries”. This echoes my perspective – there are the rich, the very rich, there are billionaires and then there are those whose wealth and identities are not in the public domain.
The penultimate track, The Red Stag, is introduced by Davey’s mandolin and performed at a stately pace by the band, this time around allowing reflections on ‘the meaning of life’. Rounding off the album and last of the reimagined songs is The Magpie. Now there have been a number of iterations of this song since Davey Dodds’ acapella version back in 1979. There’s an up-tempo version performed by Red Jasper on Sting in the Tale (1990). Now a staple song in The Unthanks live shows and included on 2015’s Mount the Air album, which they performed wonderfully a few months later on Jools Holland’s show. More recently it has been covered by David and Romany Gilmour as part of their ‘Von Trapped Family’ livestream series.
So what of Davey Dodds & Friends latest version? Well Davey said that he wanted to record a version that sounded as he wished it to sound. More folkloric than folky. Safe to say that they have achieved this abundantly as it is consanguineous, much darker and Pagan in its delivery. Hopefully Davey and friends feel they have achieved their aim – personally I reckon they’ve nailed it…
Three’s for a girl and four’s for a boy
Five’s for silver, six for gold
Seven’s for a secret never told
Devil, devil, I defy thee
Devil, devil, I defy thee
Devil, devil, I defy thee…”
Cask Strength may, or may not, be the album Davey Dodds and his band of fellow musicians might have wished to release, but for my money it is bloody marvellous. And still more to come…
01. Three Lines and A Whip (6:18)
02. Dancing With the Jedi (3:23)
03. Whiskey Thief (4:02)
04. Riding on My Unicorn (5:12)
05. Master of Puppets (3:51)
06. The Red Stag (5:47)
07. The Magpie (5:09)
Total Time – 37:42
Davey Dodds – Vocals, Electric & Acoustic Octave Mandolins, Tin Whistle, Frame Drum, Bodhran
Gillie Hotston – Electric Violin
Daniel Billing – Bass, Acoustic Guitar (track 4), Electric Shruti Box
David Clifford – Drums, Vocals
Colette DeGiovanni – Vocals
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 1st February 2023