Stepping Up: A History of the New Wave of English Country Dance Music
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Stepping Up: A History of the New Wave of English Country Dance Music
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cd cover Everyone likes a good story, and Stepping Up aims to provide one about the continued interest in English country music. This compilation of some of the genre's guiding lights is a recap and extension of a 1988 record, Tap Roots, issued by Folk Roots (now fRoots) magazine. Many of the original selections are present on the new CD: the new wave of country dance bands were groundbreaking then, and still ingenious now.

As on the original Tap Roots, expect a brief foray into the music's origins. The Morris Motors Band has the distinction of starting off the collection yet again with their widely influential recording of "Speed the Plough," a tune that virtually all of the new wave of dance bands knew intimately enough to proclaim as the real English national anthem; anthemic in its sounds, too, with the Morris' stately brass section. From there the collection segues quickly into the 1970s and beyond. The story unfolds as bands experiment with the instrumentation of old tunes (concertinas and melodeons brush up against tambourines, and later, electicity) and the writing of new tunes to fit in with the tradition. The listener also gets to trace the presence of melodeon master Rod Stradling across several influential bands (Oak, The Old Swan Band, Tiger Moth) that range from pure revivalist dance music to country dance that is open to world music influences.

Plenty of new blood shows a flair for English dance tunes beautifully played, such as the young group Dr. Faustus. Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice prove as a duo that the spark of full bands can be captured, as they lay down a sound appropriate for country dance in an Italian saloon on the American western frontier. For me, the most pleasurable tracks are those that push the envelope of English country music. The Cock and Bull Band's use of bagpipes and French wind instruments still excites, as does the Oyster Band's electric ceilidh sound. The extra impact of electric bass and drum kits really brings out the lift in the traditional songs, and still sounds charmingly radical. The Geckoes' cheeky introduction to "The Old John Peel" shows that a sense of humor still pervades the movement, nicely summed up by the justly popular Whapweasel's crazed, Madness-like approach to dance music.

Overall, the genre certainly sounds healthy. But as English country dance music is social music, it is a shame that no live tracks could have been included to show the rapport between band and audience. It would have been nice to see Edward II and the Red Hot Polkas included amongst the selections (left out, apparently, for contractual reasons), or other bands with unique styles such as the Band of the Rising Sun, but alas, final playlists rarely please everyone. It will be interesting to see whether the new wave continues to grow in popularity, and whether we will get a sequel to an already happy tale. - Lee Blackstone

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