27 May 2022

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Stephen Riddell - Album Review: Acapella

05 Feb 2022 // A review by Kev Rowland

Performing with no instruments or studio trickery to hide behind is not for the fainthearted, so probably it of little surprise that it is unusual to find solo artists willing to put themselves out there like that. Possibly the one form of “popular” music where it can be found is folk, particularly folk from the British Isles where there is a long tradition of performing in that manner, deriving from the times in history when performers did not have instruments and songs were passed from one generation to another not through sheet music or recordings but by one person learning it from another. This led to collectors of music who were determined not to let old songs die out, with Alan Lomax being a major influence in America while in the UK, folk music will always be associated with Cecil Sharp who not only was a massive collector but co-founder of the English Folk Dance Society and the headquarters of the current English Folk Dance and Song Society is named after him. It is this society which maintains the Roud Folk Song Index, and all the songs on Stephen’s collection can be found there (he has handily included the index # for each song).

As one can gain from the album title, he performs all the songs with no instrumentation and little in the way of reverb, so it is quite “dry”. One can imagine being in the room while Stephen sang, and if one were to go and see him perform at a folk club in Wellington then this is exactly what you would hear. Although I am a fan of folk and folk-rock, I am not previously aware of all the songs included but that is not surprising given there are more than 250,000 in this one collection alone. He has performed one of my favourite folk numbers though, The Ballad Of John Barleycorn, which has been recorded a great many times by different artists. This tells the story of how to make beer, although one might not guess that from the rather dynamic and brutal treatment of John. Possibly it is because I am so used to the multiple versions available from the likes of Fairport Convention that this is one song which for me does not work quite so well, as Stephen performs this quite straight without the sense of humour and jollity this song deserves.

One song included which may be known to rockers is Greensleeves, here performed in a far more traditional styling than that which can be found on the debut Rainbow album. For many years it was said this was written by Henry VIII, although now it is thought it “only” dates to Elizabethan times. Stephen here captures the drama and emotion of the words, hitting the higher notes without strain and ensuring the listener is brought along the journey. The CD comes with a 28-page booklet which has not only all the words, but details of the songs themselves, where they came from, and the story behind it.

Even within the folk circuit it is rare for a solo performer to undertake a complete album in this style, and while I do have many in my collection where there are groups of singers performing like this, or solo performers for single songs, a set like this is rare. All power to Stephen for undertaking this work, and fans of British folk would do well to seek this out.

Rating: ( 4 / 5 )

About Stephen Riddell

Stephen Riddell was born in Christchurch and has been telling stories since he learned to talk. He started studying classical music at the age of five, mostly with focus on the piano, with a few years of guitar lessons, and continued to play music until his last year of high school. At this point the pressure and competition of classical music became too intense and he stopped playing entirely.

Having given up on music, Stephen turned towards filmmaking and sound engineering. He graduated from Victoria University in 2014 with a BA in Film (minor in Music) and created Riddell Productions, a production company that he runs with his twin – Michael Riddell. The two of them then got to work creating Portrait of a Knight (2018), a feature film musical about a painting that comes to life, as well as many music videos and documentaries that can be seen via their website.

After releasing Portrait of a Knight, Stephen happened to catch a few gigs at the Wellington Bluegrass Society and fell in love with the storytelling of folk music. By the end of the year he had bought himself a $20 harmonica and picked up a few old-time tunes. Since then he has expanded his harmonica collection, started re-learning the guitar and piano, written a number of songs and arranged many traditional ballads.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Stephen Riddell


Year: 2021
Type: Album
Kitchen Session
Year: 2021
Type: EP

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