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Music review: Fabian Holland, Steve Tilston

Fabian Holland’s 2nd album and Steve Tilston’s 20th (as leader or co-leader) have few peers among current releases from guitar-toting English songsters.

Fabian Holland is not yet 30.

Steve Tilston is 66 years old; his debut album was issued in 1971, 42 years before Fabian’s eponymous debut.

Steve’s Stories to Tell  is as fine an album as he has ever made – a feast of diverse, finely crafted songs which finds their author full of zest, in good voice, and playing superbly.

To see and hear what I mean, check this ‘live’ solo version of the album’s opening song. (The album version sees Steve play 3 different guitars, supported by its producer David Crickmore on electric double bass, autoharp and percussion)

Fabian Holland’s A Day Like Tomorrow proves that its remarkable, mostly-solo predecessor was no fluke.

Fabian (as is also true of Steve) is not merely a prodigiously capable and deft player.  He’s an uncommonly sensitive one – his acoustic guitar parts always fit his songs, perfectly.

Sometimes – especially when playing slide – his guitar is almost literally a 2nd voice.

Fabian explains the song: ( in an article, here )

I lived in the county in Italy for a while and during that time my neighbour was this eighty-odd year old Italian woman who had been working on the land since she was seven.

She was about five feet tall and didn’t even speak Italian but only the local dialect.

She was a real character and tough as old boots.

There was a rumour going around in the village that she had affairs during the war with both the English and German soldiers.

When I found this out I just had to write a song about her.

Let’s consider each album, singly…

album cover design and artwork by Jerome Dineen
album cover design and artwork by Jerome Dineen

Steve Tilston’s friends, occasional colleagues, champions and admirers include not a few folks more famous than he is – Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were all of the above, whilst Rod Stewart was an early admirer.

In 1971 John Lennon wrote to Steve Tilston – even urged Steve to ring him  – but the letter only reached Steve in 2005.

This sparked a definitely-fictional film, starring Al Pacino – fictional, but helpful.

Danny Collins introduced Steve to many who otherwise would never have “discovered” this under-recognised artist.

For the facts – and the filmic fictions – about John’s letter to Steve, click this.

The real-life Steve Tilston has long been one of British folkdom’s finer songsmiths and guitarists.

He is primarily an acoustic finger-stylist, but not only that; he’s no slouch with a pick, and is also one of the few living exponents of the Arpeggione – a 19th century bowed guitar, akin to the cello.

(Click to see and hear Steve playing Arpeggione with Maggie Boyle in 1993)

Happily, the truth to tell is that Truth to Tell is an excellent introduction for any newcomer to Steve, and a rewarding, heartening album for his longtime listeners.

The songs are melodically strong, their lyrics intelligent, the playing lovely.

Four songs are performed solo, including the one “trad, arr Steve Tilston” – a quietly chilling, beautifully judged version of Died For Love.

Also solo is Pecket’s Well; the album’s one instrumental is typically Tilston – deft, elegantly “folk baroque”, but not over-fussy.

The other 9 cuts  – all, Tilston-penned – have their author’s voice and guitar/s in foreground, plus producer David Crickmore (on electric upright bass and/or percussion, piano, pedal steel guitar, melodeon and autoharp) and/or double bassist Hugh Bradley.

As writer and singer Steve is comfortable with his age and experience; he has not turned into a grumpy old man, nor a nostalgist, nor a desperately faux-young, aging trendoid.

On Lasting Love he is homespun-philosophical.

Grass Days vividly evokes his younger self and salutes early mentors Wizz Jones and  Ralph McTell.

There are several “environmentally aware” songs, including The Riverman Has Gone, which effectively references an iconic Nick Drake song…but if the listener misses the reference, Steve’s song still works.

Links, additional info

Purchase from Australian distributor

Artist’s site

album cover, designer not credited on album.
album cover, designer not credited on album.

Fabian Holland’s mostly-solo, “live in studio” first album was – hands down – the best debut disc I heard from any British songster-guitarist in 2013.

My heart sank when I saw that his 2nd album had a drummer-percussionist and a keyboardist-programmer.

In English-folkish album-land the arrival of drums, keys and more “production” all too often signifies commercial success (or the pursuit of it) and dumbing down.

The usual result is a loss of individuality, as the music becomes at once bombastic and bland.

Not here, however –  drummer-percussionist Fred Claridge is not a latter-day Gerry Conway.

If you share my allergy to “English folk-rock plod” drumming, fear not!

Like Fabian, Fred is agile, nuanced, highly inter-active; witness this disc’s version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine.

Keyboardist-programmer Jacob Stoney proves an occasional, welcome presence.

House Carpenter is the other “trad, arr”, also very adroitly interpreted.

Otherwise, the songs are Fabian’s own.

The opening Four Inch Screen is cheerful-satirical, lightly incisive.

Also incisive, Welcome to the Magic Show is darker, and effectively orchestrated by Jacob Stoney.

It’s probably safe to assume that Fabian does not own a selfie stick, does not eat at “Maccas”, and that he does not regard casinos as glamorous.

Fabian lives on a houseboat; The River is a keenly observed, dark but very compassionate song about the river’s (human) ‘rats’.

Spring is a cheerful ditty.

Throughout, Fabian’s guitar repays close attention, but does not aggressively seek it.

This very precise finger-stylist’s virtuosity is inescapably evident on the album’s one, brief, solo instrumental cut

Fabian does not have a big, “killer” voice, but the more closely you listen to his subtle, nuanced singing, the likely-higher your opinion of him as vocalist.

I think Fabian Holland’s best years are ahead of him, but he’s well worth hearing, now.

Links, additional info

Buy from Australian distributor.

Artist site


Published in music songs, in English


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