Mike Billington Reviews

Mike Billington – Sol Invictus

SOL INVICTUS: Mike Billington

This is the first solo offering from Mike Billington, although he is a seasoned performer, who also plays in the duo Corvus and also was the founder member of two well known ceilidh bands, Madcap and the more recently formed Maggoty in 2011.
Mike also produced and presented the folk show on BBC Radio Manchester for five years during the 1980s.
There are many tracks that are instantly recognisable and are dealt with lovingly and with great quality.

You have to go back to the mid 1600s for the opening track “Nonsuch/Ductia”. This is the backdrop for Mike’s narration of “The Miller’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. The Ductia is from the 13th century and played on the Spanish bagpipes.

Learned from the singing of the late and much missed Ray Fisher, “Bonny at Morn”, tells the story of a mother trying to motivate her offspring into work and education. This is a fine rendition.

Always claimed as a Lancashire somg, “Little Piecer” is about a young lad getting up at dawn to go to the mill to crawl under the looms to piece together the broken threads. Wages were such that it really was slave labour and exploitation.

“The Trees They Do Grow High” deals with arranged marriages over 200 years ago between children not yet teenagers.

“Newlyn Town” in Cornwall became notorious through a broadside ballad. It tells of a highwayman who met his end on the gibbet in London.

“Long Lankin” became famous as a folk rock anthem performed by Steeleye Span. This much softer traditional rendition explains how a mother and child were murdered by the aforementioned Long Lankin, an evil and menacing chap. Theories abound abound who he really was.

A song with a light hearted feel follows. “Button Up Your Overcoat”, a song also recorded by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

“The Shearing” you might know as “Kelvingrove”, the story of a soldier who has his fun and goes off to war leaving behind a girl literally holding the baby.

Dating back to the early 1800s “The Snows That Melt The Soonest” is a beautiful song I first heard sung by the late John Wright.

It is always good to hear a song sung acapella. “Up Like The Swallow” is performed admirably by Mike.

We turn to the sea for “New York Girls”; the sailors are off around Cape Horn in search of money, adventure and, of course, women. Again, Steeleye Span performed this on their “Commoners’ Crown” album with Peter Sellers adding narration.

A lament, “The Flowers of the Forest” was written following the death of James IV and 10000 men at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513.

The late Tom Yates wrote “Bide a While”, a great song well performed. Mary Asquith made just one record released in 1978; here Mike pays his own tribute singing the title track “Closing Time” and, like Tom Yates, she is sadly no longer with us.

As a bonus, Mike performs four early tunes on authentic period instruments to bring the CD to a climax.

Mike can be justifiably proud of this, his first solo offering. It has a good choice of material performed with a real understanding of the subjects. Now he has a taste for recording solo, I am sure more will follow.

David Jones. Folk North West. Winter 2013


Mike Billington: Sol Invictus

Label: Epona
Tracks: 19
Website: https://www.eponarecords.com

You may remember Mike from the 70s renaissance-styled band Rebec; these days, he plays with the band Radnor, but I’ve come across him as one half of the duo Corvus, who released a quirky, if wilfully esoteric album (Gloves Of The Skin Of A Fish) a couple of years ago. It inhabited a strange, dark dimension involving modern takes on ancient folk myths melded with a medieval-to-renaissance instrumentation, and provided a compelling and sometimes disconcerting listening experience that also proved curiously comforting.

Mike’s solo album, Sol Invictus, was recorded around 18 months after the Corvus album, and represents a comparatively relaxed, if in the end rather wayward, selection of material that brings some contemporary songwriting into the mix to complement his usual preoccupations. However, especially in its early stages, Mike focuses our attention more directly on basic traditional sources. Nine of its tracks are what might be termed fairly straight renditions of traditional songs, ranging in depth and effectiveness from fine accounts of Long Lankin and The Snows That Melt The Soonest and a better-than-plausible interpretation of Bonny At Morn through to a less-than-persuasive, brisk runthrough of The Trees They Do Grow High. The latter, along with Flowers Of The Forest, tends unfortunately to emphasise that Mike’s singing is sometimes not his strongest suit, for these two songs in particular suffer from a distinct flatness of intonation.

There’s also a revisit of Newlyn Town (from the Corvus set-list). Mike accompanies himself on an impressive variety of instruments (guitar, bass guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, ukulele, recorder, crumhorn, rauschpfeife, tin whistle, melodeon, Spanish and Highland bagpipes, glockenspiel and assorted percussion), with help from sundry sessioners comprising Corvus colleague Bill Pook, Phil Davenport and Mickey Van Gelder (guitars), Nicola Smalley (violin), Ruth Spargo (cello), Rebecca Millington (clarinet), also backing vocalists Fiona Simpson and Shelley Rainey and Karen Dyson (aka two of The Bailey Sisters). Interestingly too, Maartin Allcock brings some “string bass and concertina samples” to Mike’s cover of Tom Yates’ lovely, inclusive anthem Bide a While (for which, by happy coincidence, Mike brings in as backing singer Bram Taylor, who had originally recorded the song on his own album of the same name almost exactly 40 years ago).

The nature (and status) of Sol Invictus as curio-cum-curate’s egg, hinted at above, is further accentuated by the unashamed, if somewhat fish-out-of-water interpolation of New York Girls and late-20s novelty-vaudeville number Button Up Your Overcoat (which I guess we all learnt from the nascent Bonzos!). And then, arguably even more so by the disc’s being bookended by music of a deliberately early-music persuasion, for it opens with a flourish with a recitation of Chaucer and a strident combination of Playford and a medieval Ductia, and ends with a sequence of four very brief medieval tunes. Even those listeners of more adventurous persuasion and eclectic taste may find the juxtapositions a touch uncomfortable, or else opine that the disc as a whole doesn’t quite hang together – a verdict with which I’d not entirely disagree, notwithstanding its many idiosyncratic charms.

David Kidman FATEA Magazine.