Although it has been five long years since the release of the last Demon Barbers’ album Captain Ward, Damien Barber’s crew haven’t been resting on their laurels. Far from it, as they’ve been kept very busy with touring their unique folk and hip-hop music and dance extravaganza The Lock In. The high energy performance centred on a clash of folk and hip-hop cultures at an after hours session in the apparently deserted Fighting Cocks pub. The long-awaited follow-up takes the theme a dance step further. Disco at the Tavern is a collaborative effort with Grammy and Emmy Award winning producers Donal Hodgson and Kipper, who are perhaps best known for their work with Sting. The six-piece Demon Barbers are joined here by the vocals of the Wilson Family and no fewer than ten other collaborators, including Kipper himself on acoustic guitar and keys.
A short introductory piece, fittingly titled Intro, starts like a vinyl record cranking up to speed. A jolly fiddle/accordion dance party is quickly crashed by Ranzo’s electronic lead-in to a lively beat, fiddle and keys, with electronics and scratching courtesy of DJ Wax On. The presentation of the song that is often known as Wild Goose remains faithful to the customary lyrics but gains a pop makeover with a 1970s-style sax-led disco break after the third verse and en extended fiddle-driven jig after the fourth, accompanied by claps and more hip-hop scratching. Damien’s distinctive vocal ensures that the song’s chorus of “Ranzo, Ranzo, Wey-hey-ay!” hangs around long after the album has moved on.
The collection’s quickly established style of melding various genres of danceable music to the lyrics of mostly traditional songs takes a brief detour with the atmospheric, haunting keyboards and fiddle of the instrumental Aye Fly. But the flanged guitar and organ that are introduced halfway through bring back memories of sleazy cop shows which are quickly replaced by images of Jamaica and Kingston’s Studio One with the rim shots and deep bass reggae rumble of Rambling Rover.
Cyril Tawney’s Sally Free and Easy has been recorded in many interpretations, by the likes of Bert Jansch, Pentangle and the Corries but Marianne Faithfull’s version was most likely the closest to a pop version. Here, the Barbers take a different approach entirely, introducing the song with Damien’s multi-tracked vocal, with echoed accordion and spacey electronica that are reminiscent of the other-worldly soundscapes of Tangerine Dream or the Orb. Organ chords and a pounding club beat propel the song with the familiar accordion and fiddle joining in. By way of contrast, Damien takes a break for Sir Lionel, as Bryony Griffith takes the lead vocal over a ska reggae backing, but as he returns for a version of the Scottish ballad Two Brothers, with gentle piano and fiddle accompaniment, the tavern’s dancers can be imagined to be having a breather. Their rest is short though, as they are soon called back to the floor by the Barbers’ treatment of Loudon Wainwright’s humorous Swimming Song.
But it is on the final, title track that the Demon Barbers really shine. Disco at the Tavern is extended multiple genre dance music, the 12” version of almost everything that has gone before. Slow guitar arpeggios are joined by a gentle fiddle before drums and a disco bassline bring in a second instrumental encompassing jazz, fusion, funk, folk and hip-hop and ska that runs for seven and a half minutes of pure joy.
There is so much going on with this album that it is impossible to take it all in during the first hearing. A bewildering array of styles is woven into the pieces, as traditional folk songs are reinterpreted with a contemporary dance music twist. Overlaid by Damien Barber’s powerful, passionate vocal, it all results in a stunning collection of foot-tapping brilliance.