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Bonny Light Horseman - Rolling Golden Holy (Album Review)

Thursday, 13 October 2022 Written by Craig Howieson

There is an invitational warmth to folk music that is hard to resist, an allure that, when done well, draws you into a safe place where common fears and heartaches are shared, and triumphs celebrated together. It is one of the reasons Bonny Light Horseman’s self-titled debut was such a success. A nuanced and respectful reimagining of folk standards that had lain dormant for far too long, it was a simultaneously modern yet timeless masterclass in American folk. 

The capabilities of the group are no surprise when you consider their pedigree. Both Anaïs Mitchell, and Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) have thoroughly impressive catalogues in their own right, with each having released arguably their best records within the last 18 months. Meanwhile, producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman has been a go to guy for indie-rock's elite for well over a decade.

Based on this you would be forgiven for thinking that Bonny Light Horseman was nothing more than a side project for the trio, a chance to hang with friends and make some music in the process.

And while there may be an element of truth to that, their debut and now its follow up, ‘Rolling Golden Holy’, exude a special quality that makes you wonder if this is in fact where their hearts truly lie. 

Perhaps as a result of it being a reworking of covers, the band's debut had an overwhelming immediacy. That same immediacy is initially missing from ‘Rolling Golden Holy’. Like pulling up a blanket on a freezing winter's night, it takes a minute for you to feel its effects. But once you do, you never want to move. And as the record takes hold, it becomes very hard to remember a time you weren’t familiar with this set of songs. 

“Who’s gonna lace up your boots,” Mitchell sings on Comrade Sweetheart, one of the sparsest but most crushing tracks on the album. Ghosts abound on ‘Rolling Golden Holy’, those of lovers past and present, and questions of their impact on our lives. Elsewhere, as Johnson takes lead vocals on the road tripping California, we are welcomed on an easy riding alt-country whirl in search of an ideal. And wrapped in pulls of lap steel and a Muscle Shoals shuffle, that ideal feels well within grasp.

‘Rolling Golden Holy’ is a record of subtleties, with its most precious moments being of matchstick proportions. Whether that is the rip of guitar that sits upon the clunk of banjo and Mitchell and Johnson's indissoluble harmonies on Cold Rain and Snow, or the smoky breath of harmonica and Johnson's off time backing vocals on Summer Dream. 

Johnson's ruminations on previous generations on Someone to Weep For Me and Mitchell’s impossibly perfect chorus on Fleur de Lis single out two particular tracks that feel like they could echo through the ages. They also sharpen your awareness of how rare it is to have a folk record so carefully curated, that remains so human. 

Striding out with an enduring collection that is all their own, Bonny Light Horseman are now comfortable in the saddle, knowing exactly when to lay it on thick to make a point and when to reign it in. Long may they roam.

Bonny Light Horseman Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat February 04 2023 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Sun February 05 2023 - GLASGOW St Luke's
Mon February 06 2023 - MANCHESTER Band on the Wall
Tue February 07 2023 - LONDON Union Chapel

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