What should you expect when a sideman (and that term is not meant in any derogatory sense, as sidemen generally have to be musicians of the highest calibre) steps to the fore: - are the results going to be a source of celebration as long suppressed musical ideas packed with inventiveness and originality are released and exposed to the audience they deserve or something of a snooze as half-baked self-indulgence is given its head? The sideman in question here being Steve Wickham, long time fiddle player for The Waterboys.
Happily this falls into the first category, being a collection of musical delights of varied textures, moods and hues, giving the listener ever increasing rewards from repeated listens because with Beekeeper, Steve Wickham has produced a collection of instrumentals and songs that variously entrance and energise and never fail to engage. More simply it’s a wonderful collection that deserves wide exposure. It is neither Waterboys-lite nor an echo of his former band, the excellent In Tua Nua.
Almost half the tracks here are instrumentals, but they are in no way filler, forming essential elements of the whole enterprise. One of my favourite tracks on the album is an instrumental piece titled The Bohemian. It’s a composition for violin and piano that last for just 72 seconds and so in no way overstays its welcome, but it is a tiny polished gem. Each track, both the instrumentals and the songs, has a different distinct character producing an album with a broad musical palette.
Entrancement comes with opening track And The Band Played On. Steve whispers his vocal over a band performance that wouldn’t be out of place on a Lilac Time (or, more obscurely, Virginia Astley) album. This is the only track with Steve as vocalist. The chorus from Katie Kim is dreamlike and beguiling. The album title comes from this song “I’m an amateur beekeeper, I keep only one bee” which given the pastoral mood of this song is wholly in context. But it is a puzzling song - apparently a series of memories of a relationship there is one verse that is contextually incongruous to me; “A favourite gun, a little black sheep, a prodigal son, tonight a widow will weep”. A memory of a murder? Yet the song ends with the words “…the shadows lengthen, but my song means life. Thinking of you this fine fine day, lift me up in your arms, carry me away.” There is love, there is optimism yet there is that shadow in the centre.
Perhaps deliberately, slightly perversely, that opening track has no violin (unless it is buried deep in the mix). That omission is immediately rectified by the second track, Two Thousand Years, which is slow solo violin. Each instrumental is very different. The second is a piece for violin, guitar and mandolin (I think) called The Hare, which fair gallops along and is definitely one of the energising elements here. There is the already mentioned The Bohemian (my limited knowledge of classical music suggests a Chopin influence, but I wouldn’t put money on it). The classical feeling is maintained on The Cells Of The Heart Which Nature Built For Joy, a violin duet with a Russian named Oleg Ponomarev. The album closer is another violin and piano duet, Cockcrow, which evokes that getting out of bed feeling wonderfully well. It’s beautiful, it’s brief and then it’s gone.
All the other vocal tracks have guest singers who, Mike Scott apart, are all unknown to me.
Song Of Lost Things, the second vocal track is sung by Ger Wolfe, who has a lovely tenor voice. The lyrics are reminiscent of Coney Island, opening with “Remember the days we walked down by the river, We’d catch a
trout and maybe catch another…” and carries on, pervaded by a sense of gaiety at odds with Van Morrison’s song. The verses recalling happy days that contrast with the plaintive chorus, the simple repeated refrain
“Rosalie where are you?” I love the touch where as Ger sings “Gulls are laughing while the tide is rolling…” Steve creates the sound of gulls calling on his violin. Simple, but very effective.
Ger’s vocal is one of two standouts for me. The other is by French singer Bruno Caliciuri on the song Sombres Soeurs de L’amour (or Love's Dark Sisters in translation). Despite the darkness of the title the melody is the lightest, brightest, most joyful on the album. It is sung in French and I’ve struggled to translate the bits I can make out, but all I’ve managed is odd fragments here and there. A recurring phrase is “Je besoin de rire" - I need to laugh. Whatever the lyrics mean the whole song just sounds fantastic.
The vocal track that will generate most interest is Stopping By The Woods featuring Waterboys' leader, Mike Scott. This is a song that starts with a sense of foreboding, a pulsing bass with eerie fiddle then Scott’s voice. A lyric about a horse ride through woods, it ends inconclusively about half way through “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep” and the music then continues for a while longer. Definitely not a Waterboys song.
The only lead female voice appears on Silence Of A Sunday featuring Camille O’Sullivan, who is an Irish singer and actress. It continues with the sombre mood of the preceding track, Stopping By The Woods. A femme fatale story - “I promised him heaven, but I sent him to hell”, it develops its own character with Camille’s half sung/half whispered vocal. Piano and acoustic guitar dominate until the song comes to a close with a melancholic clarinet solo. I assume Steve is the guitarist here, as there is no violin.
Of the remaining pair of tracks, there is Fractured, a country song with pedal steel and Steve’s fiddle (plus the bass of David Hood, veteran of Muscle Shoals sessions and ex-member of Traffic) providing the mournful backing for a lyric exploring all sorts of breakdowns from the personal to the national level while Song Of The River features a languid vocal from Irish singer/songwriter Joe Chester. It’s such a laid-back performance that he almost struggles to get the words out over a simple strummed guitar and plaintive violin accompaniment.
This is only the second solo album from Steve Wickham (I’ve only been made aware of his first Geronimo released back in 2004 with this release) but it suggests he should step to the fore a bit more. The diversity of this album is a strength for me but it’s possible others may feel the lack of a specific character or an overall unifying sound is a weakness; that the range and variety mitigates against being able to label it as “a Steve Wickham album”. But I’m absolutely fine with eclecticism of this box of delights that Steve presents us with.
So far 2017, as far as my musical tastes go, has been a cracking year for album releases and, when it comes to the end of the year and I’m considering my favourites, Beekeeper is going to be one of the records I’ll be thinking about. It could and should be one of yours too.