Many hearts must sink when reading about folk groups breathing new life into that much-misappropriated genre. Most atrocities committed in the name of folk are as bland or as tediously earnest as to make you claw at your ears with a hey nonny-no. The genre arguably required cleaning up in order to bring it back into fashion, but for decades now folkies have been blinkered to the fact that it’s meant to be the music of the people, not the tofu-wielders; unless they’ve got the incredible voice of Shirley Collins, they should be digging for today’s gossip, outrage and unexpected beauty in beer-spattered muck, not politely clapping in folk clubs and packing sandwiches for the ceilidh.
Great folk songs survive because they tell strong stories that are relevant to different generations, and Stick in the Wheel mix revivalism with folk-punk attack: this is an acoustic band with attitude. Lead singer Nicola Kearey is from London’s East End and sings in a harsh, no-nonsense accent, and carefully chooses her material. Ewan MacColl’s Champion at Keeping Them Rolling was written in the 1950s, but here it sounds like a contemporary truckers’ ballad, while The Blacksmith has none of the exquisite sadness of the classic Shirley Collins version, but instead a furious anger at this story of betrayal.
For one breed of folknik the preservation of a song’s air of antiquity is a sacred duty. This London band take the contrary approach, gleefully (at times brutally) wrenching the ancient canon into modern times. They do so not by going “folk rock” but via raw minimalism, setting Nicola Kearey’s cockney vocals to accompaniments of dobro and guitar, with strands of fiddle and flute and the odd storm of handclaps.