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June Tabor

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If there was one artist to fill the vast void left by the late, great SANDY DENNY (who died tragically in 1978), then Brit-folk chanteuse JUNE TABOR was certainly number one on the list. In her own unique, crystalline quaver, June dipped into ye olde traditional waters, merging them with more contemporary folk-rock arrangements on several exceptional albums. A product of the post-FAIRPORT/STEELEYE era (she’d work with both parties over the years), no one can argue about TABOR’s importance in today’s shape-shifting folk world.
Born 31 December 1947, Warwick in Warwickshire, June’s immediate impact was rather low-key, singing chorus on TONY ROSE’s 1970 set, `Young Hunting’ as well as on ROSEMARY HARDMAN’s `Firebird’ a few years later. Highlighting both the latter artist and herself, TABOR contributed two tracks (`Bushes And Briars’ and `The Fair Maid Of Wallington’) to the 1974 V/A concert set, `The First Folk Review Record’, while a few years previously `The Bleacher Lassie Of Kelvinhaugh’ and `Searching For Lambs’ had found their way on to the `Stagfolk Live Folk’ LP.
Relatively unknown at the time (spring 1976), June was equal to the task of co-billing when invited to team up with purist-folk’s biggest ambassador, MADDY PRIOR (of the aforementioned STEELEYE SPAN) on the vocal SILLY SISTERS collaboration; no one can dispute the genuine affinity and harmony between the pair on the likes of the tongue-in-cheek `My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him’, to name just one example. A favourite on John Peel’s Radio One show since her first studio broadcast in March 1975 (a 12” EP was later issued of her early ‘77 sessions), her first of numerous albums for Topic Records was the acclaimed AIRS AND GRACES (1976) {*8}. Purist folk to the nth degree, her best moments came via trad cues `Bonny May’, `While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’, an a cappella take of ERIC BOGLE’s `The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and JOHN TAMS’ `Pull Down Lads’.
Continuing her affinity with the work of BOGLE (i.e. `Now I’m Easy’ and `No Man’s Land’), album number two, ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1977) {*6}, once again featured the backing of NIC JONES and trad arranger Jon Gillaspie (alongside STEELEYE guests Rick Kemp and Nigel Pegrum); the melancholy `Streets Of Forbes’ brought out the best in June –
DAVE GOULDER’s `The Easter Tree’ was equally emotive. That same year saw her voice surface (along with BOB DAVENPORT) on works by FLOWERS & FROLICS plus PETER BELLAMY’s groundbreaking `The Transports’ recordings.
TABOR’s long-overdue rebound came by way of a collaborative set with virtuoso solo guitarist MARTIN SIMPSON entitled A CUT ABOVE (1980) {*8}, a quality record befitting the talents of both parties and a record that entwined and integrated their combined arrangements of sourced sea shanties such as `Admiral Benbow’, `Davy Lowston’ and the short ’n’ sweet a cappella `Riding Down To Portsmouth’, alongside covers from esteemed folk stars RICHARD THOMPSON (`Strange Affair’), ROGER WATSON (`Number Two Top Seam’), PETER BOND (`Joe Peel’) and BILL CADDICK (`Unicorns’).
Haunting, heartbreaking and positively harrowing, the solo ABYSSINIANS (1983) {*6} also showcased outside writers (as always) CADDICK (for `She Moves Among Men (The Bar Maid’s Song)’), The WATERSONS (`The Scarecrow’), JONI MITCHELL (`The Fiddle And The Drum’) and one gem from her new in-session buddy and producer, ANDREW CRONSHAW (`A Smiling Shore’); she’d sing on a few of the latter’s sets during the 80s.
Always worth the wait, 1988’s AQABA {*7} – the title track taken from another CADDICK song (she’d provided backing vox on his 1986 set, `The Wild West Show’) – found her maturing larynx never better than on the CADDICK/TAMS-arranged `The Old Man’s Song (Don Quixote)’, while the range of covers got wider, from DAVE GOULDER’s `Seven Summers’ to NATALIE MERCHANT’s `Verdi Cries’.
Exactly a dozen years from their inaugural enterprise, the SILLY SISTERS (TABOR & PRIOR) reconvened in 1988 with a seminal sophomore celebrity-session effort, `No More To The Dance’. Notwithstanding her duties with the ALBION BAND and LES BARKER, it was a busy time for TABOR, the subtle contrast between her Joni-like jazz-standards album SOME OTHER TIME (1989) {*5} and her OYSTER BAND collaboration FREEDOM AND RAIN (1990) {*7}, was indeed “Night And Day” (one of two Cole Porter numbers on the former set). The latter was a potpourri of contemporary and vintage folk and avant-garde pop from the likes of SI KAHN (`Mississippi’), The POGUES (`Lullaby Of London’), RICHARD THOMPSON (`Night Comes In’), BILLY BRAGG (`Valentine’s Day Is Over’), JOHN TAMS (`Pain Or Paradise’) and The VELVET UNDERGROUND (`All Tomorrow’s Parties’).
One could be certain of one thing from an album by TABOR: there’d be no fun, just sheer mournful misery – but that’s just what one was accustomed to, and what’s to change when the foreboding formula was working? ANGEL TIGER (1992) {*7} was no exception. Released on Cooking Vinyl Records like her previous collaboration, Ian Telfer (of said OYSTER BAND) was on hand to supply her with `The Doctor Calls’, while the pick of the covers came through BOB FRANKE’s `Hard Love’, ERIC TAYLOR’s `Joseph Cross’, BILLY BRAGG’s `Rumours Of War’, MICHAEL MARRA’s `Happed In Mist’, ELVIS COSTELLO’s `All This Useless Beauty’, LES BARKER’s `Sudden Waves’ and `Elephant’, plus the FRENCH-FRITH-KAISER-THOMPSON weld of `Blind Step Away’.
Costello was also a provider (`I Want To Vanish’) on her 1994 covers-versus-trad batch, AGAINST THE STREAMS {*8}, while her usual suspects of contributors ERIC TAYLOR (`Shameless Love’), RICHARD THOMPSON (`Pavanne’), PETER BOND (`The Irish Girl’), BILL CADDICK (`Waiting For The Lark’), Ian Telfer (`Windy City’) and newbie on the block ALISTAIR HULETT (`He Fades Away’) boosted the set no end.
Bypassing the Celtic-connection collaboration with SAVOURNA STEVENSON and former PENTANGLE bassist, DANNY THOMPSON, Singing The Storm (1996) – a lovely trad-cum-contemporary affair – TABOR was back with Topic and another solo set, ALEYN (1997) {*6}. Next to some hand-picked trad ballads (none more provocative than the mellow `Shallow Brown’), June was in fine fettle on RICHARD THOMPSON’s `The Great Valerio’, RALPH McTELL’s true tale of injustice `Bentley And Craig’, MAGGIE HOLLAND’s `A Proper Sort Of Gardener’ and the Holocaust dirge `Di Nakht’.
A QUIET EYE (1999) {*7}, ROSA MUNDI (2001) {*6} and AN ECHO OF HOOVES (2003) {*7} didn’t deviate from her pattern or panache, although the latter strayed over the border into Caledonian Celtic waters via a handful of murder ballads; KATHRYN TICKELL and MARTIN SIMPSON guested. Always reliant on intuitive arrangements, TABOR’s grandiose “Grand Lady of Folk” status was never more apparent than on AT THE WOOD’S HEART (2005) {*7} and APPLES (2007) {*7}.
Mounting her comeback two-fold in 2011 through the solo ASHORE {*7} and her long-time-coming follow-up with the OYSTERBAND: RAGGED KINGDOM {*8}, TABOR was picking up where she left off. While the first of these was mainly a traditional seafaring set (TAWNEY’s `The Oggie Man’ and an austere rendition of ELVIS COSTELLO’s `Shipbuilding’ exceptions to the rule), the latter spun out an altogether upbeat folk artist. In among tasty trad treats (`Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man)’ a true gem) were tastier covers of JOY DIVISION’s `Love Will Tear Us Apart’, PJ HARVEY’s `That Was My Veil’, SHEL SILVERSTEIN’s `The Hills Of Shiloh’, BOB DYLAN’s `Seven Curses’ and the Moman-Penn classic, `The Dark End Of The Street’.
Next to long-serving folk-rock mistress MADDY PRIOR, June is just simply one of the genre’s all-time greats, underrated only until you hear her exquisite vocal cords. RACHEL UNTHANK and her team of new trad-folk troupers have her to, er… thank – big time.
Two of the unsung heroes on June’s aforementioned “At The Wood’s Heart”, long-standing jazz musicians Huw Warren (piano) and Iain Ballamy (sax) augmented the lady on the trio’s collaborative QUERCUS project. From back in the day, recorded at The Anvil in Basingstoke, in March 2006, the eponymous QUERCUS {*7} album was belatedly released in 2013. Armed with a posse of traditional tunes, including Robert Burns’ `Lassie Lie Near Me’ and Shakespeare’s `Come Away Death’, British folk music took on a nostalgic modern jazz feel, with a handful of the cuts performed a cappella or spliced with the said musicians’ economical flair.
A success for the most part; winning awards in Germany where the set was released by ECM, the triumvirate reunited in the studio late in 2015 for the sophomore set, NIGHTFALL {*7}; dispatched in April 2017. If the power of song alone could resurrect the ghosts of the old masters (Burns’ `Auld Lang Syne’ opened the proceedings), the 19th century piece `Once I Loved You Dear (The Irish Girl)’ sat well next to `The Cuckoo’ and the nocturnal narrative, `The Manchester Angel’. Both Warren and Ballamy contributed the odd piece, however it was via living legends DYLAN and Bernstein-Sondheim (on `Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ and `Somewhere’, respectively) that a romantic June T could re-interpret so beautifully in her own inimitable aplomb.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Oct2016-Oct2018

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