Robin Denselow learns how a chance pairing of melodeon player John Spiers and fiddler Peter Knight evolved into one of folk’s most inspired acts, exploring well-worn tunes in new and improvisatory ways
The track starts with an intense, compelling wash of sound from violin and melodeon before the two musicians ease into the first echoes of a well-known melody. Then they move away, settling on new but similar melodies and unexpected mood switches, before finally switching back to the main tune. That well-worked traditional favourite, ‘Scarborough Fair’, has been recorded many times (including the Simon & Garfunkel version that brought English folk to a worldwide audience), but it has surely never sounded quite as fresh, intense and exhilarating as in this instrumental treatment by two of English folk’s master musicians.
Peter Knight is best-known to older folk enthusiasts for the astonishing 43 years he spent with Steeleye Span, while John Spiers became a folk celebrity for his work alongside Jon Boden, both as a duo, with Eliza Carthy and in Bellowhead. Working together, Knight & Spiers explore a very different style – folk improvisation. There was no rehearsal before they recorded ‘Scarborough Fair’. “We just set up the mics and said ‘let’s do it’,” says Knight. “And we did. And it was possibly the first take. There’s nothing better.”
Knight & Spiers (photograph: Elly Lucas)
It’s the first track on the duo’s second album, Both in a Tune, which is remarkable for the brave and often exhilarating spontaneity in their reworking of traditional themes and new folk-influenced compositions. It’s an all-instrumental set, with no other musicians involved, and it includes dance tunes, both elegant or jaunty, and an edgy treatment of ‘Battle of the Somme’ that ends as a thoughtful, powerful lament. The aim, says Knight, was “to up the ante, in terms of how far we took the music in order to create something different, but not spoiling the folk music source. There are a lot of fantastic bands out there, right on the money harmoniously and rhythmically, but the question you have to ask yourself as a musician is, ‘is that what I want to do?’ I want something less predictable, to be honest.”
So how does the improvisation process work? “You are sometimes in searching mode,” he explains. “With tentacles going out,” Spiers adds. “You have to go through that process,” Knight continues, “to get to the other bits that are really worthwhile. We have arrived at some extraordinary areas of music, where dissonance actually becomes harmonious! And when you hit this sort of textural sound, I never want to leave it.”
The album includes new compositions by both Knight and Spiers, and two ‘open improvisations’ – ‘Drone in D’ and ‘Improv 3’, which involve wild violin and melodeon flurries and changes in direction that sound more like jazz than folk. “Interesting you should use the jazz word,” says Knight, “because over the years some people have come up to me and said ‘you are a jazz musician, not a folk musician’, and the jazz word in the folk world is something that people get frightened of. I think that my mentality and approach to music is probably similar to a lot of jazz musicians…”
Knight is a veteran with an intriguing history. He studied classical music at the Royal Academy of Music, quit when he was 16, “because life was taking over,” became fascinated by Irish music, and worked in a duo with his flatmate, guitarist Bob Johnson. Martin Carthy came to see them, and Knight was invited to join Steeleye Span (“though I hadn’t heard their music”). He played on their glorious 1970 album Please to See the King, as part of the classic line-up. When Carthy left, Bob Johnson took his place, Steeleye added a drummer, and the band became best-selling celebrities, packing concert halls and even stadiums around the world. David Bowie, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and even Peter Sellers played on their albums, and the group reached No 5 in the UK Singles Chart with ‘All Around My Hat’. “I loved it,” says Knight. “It was good in those early days. There was lots of touring, lots of hard work, and a lot of laughs.”
Steeleye fell from fashion during the 80s and 90s, but Knight stayed with them until they recorded their comeback concept album, Wintersmith. By the time it was released in 2013 Knight had already quit the band, “because I thought ‘you know what, I’ve had enough.’ But there’s no resentment, and I still have a chat with Maddy Prior every now and then.” He had already begun to play – and improvise – with the jazz saxophonist Trevor Watts, and had formed his own trio, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner, matching his violin against guitar and percussion.
The collaboration with John Spiers started, he explains, “because we were thrown together.” In 2016, Peter was booked to do a talk and a workshop at the FolkEast festival in Suffolk. Also at the festival was Spiers, who was considering what to do next after Bellowhead had called it a day. “I had lost my main gig and asked if the festival had any collaboration projects. And they got back and said ‘do you want to play with Peter Knight? So it was a bit of a chance thing.” Knight says that they would probably never have worked together if it hadn’t been for FolkEast’s suggestion. “We got together for a few hours, put some tunes in the hat, and did the gig,” Knight remembers. “And the reaction was good, we really loved it – that was the important thing.”
“But then”, adds Spiers, “in typical musician fashion we didn’t do anything for a whole year. Then they booked us again, and we did do something about it!”
Knight & Spiers released their first album, Well Met, in 2018, but by then Knight was involved in other musical projects. Alongside Gigspanner he had begun working with the Gigspanner Big Band, where the core trio are joined by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin (aka Edgelarks). The following year, Spiers also became a member of the increasingly impressive and inventive Big Band, which of course allows space for improvisation in its arrangements of traditional songs.
So how does Spiers compare his improvisations with Knight to his continuing work with Jon Boden (that will include a Bellowhead reunion in the autumn)? “With Jon it becomes set in stone, though I have a little bit of freedom to muck about. That act is based around arranging, and quite tight and carefully crafted arrangements, and nailing it is something I enjoy.” As a squeezebox player he says, “I have this constant need to support whoever I am playing with… so being coaxed out of that space to create something from nothing is great. You have to challenge yourself and play in a very different way.”
Knight & Spiers will be on tour for a month promoting the new album – something the latter particularly enjoys. “I absolutely love it, because with stuff I’ve done in the past, you are doing a job and know what’s required of you. You’re having fun, but the gigs feel quite long. When I’m playing with Peter, I’m concentrating really hard on everything. I blink and it’s half-time. It feels like nothing, but all the tunes have happened.”
Read the Songlines review of Both in a Tune
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Songlines magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today