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Ben Nicholls
Hudson Records
Review by Chris Nickson


cd cover Bass players (along with drummers) often fall beneath the radar. With a few exceptions, people rarely notice the rhythm section unless they make a mistake. Ben Nicholls isn’t a household name to listeners, but to musicians, he’s gold. He’s played with a range of lauded names, and he’s gathered some here for his first solo album, Duets. The title says it all – just two people on a track (except for one that has three), a real chance for a dialogue between two artists. Given the quality of those involved, it’s no surprise that everything is outstanding (and an indication of how highly musicians rate him), as on “Corydon” (video below), a very dark shape note hymn which pairs him with one of the US’s finest folk talents, Tim Eriksen, or “Northern Frisk,” where the bassist meets fiddle player Sam Sweeney on a tune that more than lives up to its title.


There are surprises, of course. The singer Nadine Shah, who’s not a name widely spoken in folk circles, offers a glowing, simmering performance on “Cuckoo,” while “Rolling Hornpipe” take a turn into the unusual as Chris Vatalaro plays a hornpipe on xylophone, electronics and percussion, or the final track, “Elen Waltz,” a very eloquent conversation between bass and Evan Jenkins’s drums (Nicholls also adds some electric guitar).

As ever, it’s impossible to fault Martin Simpson on “Flash Company,” a wonderful rendition of the song by two real masters, but Kris Drever proves just as fleet-fingered on the guitar for the tale of “The Greenland Whale Fisheries.”


The entire album is a cornucopia of delights, with everything worth hearing on repeat. But even with something so, so good, one track does stand head and shoulders above the others: Nicholls with singer-guitarist John Smith on Richard Thompson’s “Down Where The Drunkards Roll.” You can’t ask for better material, and together they offer an interpretation that’s as good as the original. Maybe even better. Spare, hopeless yet hopeful, you hold your breath as you listen. It’s that excellent, the icing on a very tasty cake.

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