Tom Kitching : Seasons of Change (Book/CD)17 April 2020
"I'm devouring this book – not just reading it. Tom Kitching is one of the very best English fiddlers of the modern age; I didn't know he was also a very fine writer indeed. A wise and witty guide to this country pre-COVID19 - it's one of best books on England in recent years." - Mike Harding
Cheshire-raised fiddle player Tom Kitching woke the day after the Brexit referendum with a desire to understand England better.
His solution was to busk around it, observing the country from behind his instrument. The journey took eighteen months and seems to have been an unexpectedly addictive experience. The music was important to him, as he has explained,
"Busking has always been a deep experience for me ... I've searched for spaces where the sound is just so, the acoustic supportive and challenging."
But it was also a means to an end - enabling travel and interaction.
Busking opened rare doors and perspectives; in each place Kitching visited, as a living, temporary part of the street furniture, the locals accepted and trusted him immediately in ways a journalist might have found impossible. It also paid for lunch.
As he travelled, the book evolved. He blogged each day - the full series of posts and three linking 'interludes' make up the hard copy text.
Remarkably, the writing voice he found on the way matches that poet Simon Armitage uses for his long form prose - a collage of interior monologue, finely drawn description and reported conversation layered into unspoken wisdom.
The sections pass by with the lulling rhythm of steam train on track - Kitching arrives in a town, finds a pitch, plays, converses and reflects on the circumstances of each place with understated but telling insight.
As Mike Harding has said, Tom Kitching can write. The book is dense with vivid sketches-in-a-sentence, delivered as if softly spoken, in a hundred places as concise as,
"I arrived in Hastings on a damp, sodium coloured evening, the orange of a setting sun on wet pebbles and worn pavements."
He mentions Brexit only once in the foreword; after that the book is driven by moral values - openness and deep compassion - not politics, as it ranges from places of hard poverty and to those of gentler plenty; from Dudley ("an England reducing to the unholy trinity of Essentials, Desperation and False Hope, represented by discounters, pawnbrokers and fixed-odds betting machines") to Erpingham ("gardens packed with impossibly perfect tulips, verges thick with the softness of yellow primroses").
Sustained by the generosity of strangers almost everywhere he goes, his final conclusion is not prescriptive; he finds an England of fragmented identities held to be falsely definitive, and dreams of sympathy and connection.
Captured live in the intimate setting of Danebridge Methodist Chapel, Staffordshire, it is a raw, spirited, in-the-room set of recordings.
Kitching is a member of the BBC award-nominated band Pilgrims' Way and has been described by Living Tradition magazine as, "one of the best fiddlers in Britain".
This is his first album for five years, made in collaboration with Marit Fält, who plays Nordic mandola and cittern. Jude Rees' English Border Bagpipes added detail. There are 11 tracks - an exhilarating mix of the traditional, self-penned and adapted - tunes, jigs, polkas and hornpipes.
End-to-end, there is a huge, restless energy in Kitching's playing - as if he has laid cables from every place he visited to the chapel, to draw power from what he found travelling into his hands and instrument. The sound never rests, and at times is so percussive you need to drum the rhythm out in the air.
He is a fine technical fiddle player, but he has fire in his soul too.
Yet, though Kitching may have honed these tunes alone on the streets of a hundred towns, the album is a genuine collaboration with Marit Fält. They are an empathetic paring - in full storm they achieve an orchestral depth.
Tom has noted, “I was delighted to be able to revive my partnership with Marit for this recording – she is simply the finest musician I have worked with and her accompaniment has brought the absolute best out of these tunes.”
Which mirrors how Welsh folksinger Gwilym Bowen Rhys felt to have her contribute to his similarly magnificent solo album, Arenig,
“From the moment I first saw Marit play, she struck me as a special musician. Her instrument alone is enough to give any performance a different sonic taste - a ten string mandola with quarter tonal frets - but her playing is so percussive and harmonically imaginative that you have to constantly remind yourself that it’s only one instrument, and one musician making all these sounds.”
In a chapel on the edge of the Peak District, Tom Kitching and Marit Fält have conjured something outstanding.
Seasons of Change is English folk music brought fully to animated life. You will have to dance; the album is a freewheeling, carpet-chafing sack of glee.
Buy both. Read the book first. Listen to the album at dawn or last light, when there is nothing to distract from its intensity, and feel the life-affirming elation caught in the sound.
You can buy the book and the CD from Tom's own website.