REVIEW: Tarantism Acoustic Disco (December 2023)

The legendary Tarantism Acoustic Disco. A CD review crossed with a gig review.

In the run up to Christmas 2023, on Christmas Eve Eve to be precise, the Tarantism Acoustic Disco provided the music for a party hosted by the legend that is Paul Torrie, in his home town of Barrybados. It just so happens that they also have a new CD available, so let’s kill two vegan turkeys with one stone and review them both!

Let’s go back to basics. Tarantism are stalwarts of the grassroots festival scene, with almost three decades of gigging under their belts. Their blend of celtic-folk-punk-rave is tailor-made for kicking up a dust storm and/or a mud bath in the open air with ya mates around you. We were lucky enough to be invited to hop aboard the Tarantism train almost as it pulled out of the station and consider the guys to be very dear friends.

There is one problem with Tarantism though. Over the years, as the line up fluctuated, the band have become a little disaggregated. Not musically, but physically. Members of the band are spread out across this green and pleasant land, which is probably inevitable, given the band and traveller culture are intertwined so closely.  They are peripatetic,  and never really put down firm roots. Some of the band even live on boats, calling home wherever they wake up to find their canal boat moored.

This means rehearsals are a pain in the arse and recording new material often involves the magic of the interweb. In 2022 the band released the amazing ‘A Pill to Purge All Melancholy’ album and did a tour to support its release. At the time, they said it would probably be their last proper tour, although they are not ready to hang up their festival boots just yet.

So how does a professional musician get by when their band are not available? The answer is obvious really. Set up another musical project.

The line up of Tarantism has fluctuated over the years, but the one constant at the heart of the band has been Mel (vocals and whistles) and Magnus (guitarist and, well, kitchen sink).

Back in 2016, guitarist Magnus had got himself a job playing keyboards with another band. Hawkwind. You might have heard of them. Mel had got herself a sideline making vegan cheese that is actually edible. But aside from playing in Tarantism together,  they also happen to be long term life partners. And what do two musicians sharing a home do? They make music.

They have several albums under their belt as a folk duo, but in 2016 they decided to try something different: playing disco classics in a folk style. Mel sings and plays whistles while Magnus plays guitar and a kick drum – at the same time.

We first heard of this plan at the Green Gathering. I was running an open mic stage and asked Mel and Magnus if they would like to do a few numbers on our stage.  They said they would like to do a folk disco set. This sounded a bit weird to me, but do you know what? They rocked it! They had punks, hippies and rastas throwing shapes and getting their groove on. It didn’t make sense, cos disco is rubbish. Isn’t it?

When you’re young, or at least when I was young, it’s easy to get painted into a musical silo. I was a punk and didn’t have much truck with anything that wasn’t punk. It stayed that way for quite a while.

I already had a secret soft spot for heavy rock due to my elder siblings’ record collection. Slowly, bands like The Clash and The Ruts turned me on to the idea of listening to reggae; going to see local bands turned me on to the blues; ceilidhs in Newport and The Pogues turned me on to uptempo folk music, all nighters turned me on to Nothern Soul; festivals opened my mind to all sorts of weird and wonderful fusions – you get the picture. But at no time have I ever been inclined to buy a disco record or go to a disco. There’s too much ‘proper’ music about to waste time on that disco nonsense.

I didn’t think much of the film Saturday Night Fever, but I wasn’t on the same page as the anti-disco DJ Steve Dhal who went as far as organising a bonfire of disco records at a baseball match in Chicago in 1979.

But hearing Tarantism play disco has prompted me to rethink. It has to be said that a lot of that seventies and eighties disco stuff was quite catchy, certainly far more memorable than some of the nonsense that passes for ‘popular’ music these days. Give me The Bee Gees and KC and The Sunshine Band over the tripe that fills the charts these days (says me, as if I know what is in the charts today).

The fact that it’s these stalwarts of the festival scene knocking out these disco tunes gives them an added credibility that causes the most snobbish of punks to shuffle off any inhibitions they might have and thrust their hands in the air like they just don’t care.

Since that first time I saw them at the Green Gathering their repertoire has grown. At that first gig they had to repeat some of the tunes because they didn’t have enough tunes to keep the crowd entertained long enough. People were baying for more.

They are first and foremost a live act, and I had always though that would be all they would ever be. Then out of the blue, in December 2023, a live CD materialises. And it’s a bit special.  Early copies come with a handmade 3D cover, lovingly put together by Mel and Magnus. It is a miniature disco, complete with dancers and glitter ball. The album is recorded live, unedited, with no overdubs or any of that malarkey.

The album opens with ‘Just Be Good To Me’ by the SOS Band from 1983, before jumping ahead to 2001 with ‘I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, by Kylie Minogue.

We then get ‘Lady Marmalade’, originally released in 1974 by Labelle,  and covered many times, including All Saints and Christine Aguilera.

If I’m sounding like I’m secretly an expert in disco here, I’m searching the net for these details. I’ve never even heard the song title ‘Lady Marmalade’, but the lyrics “Hey sista, go sista, soul sista, go sista’ are immediately recogniseable and catchy. I was familiar with the song without even knowing it.

The same can be said of ‘Freed from Desire’, by Gala. Who the hell are Gala? But the chorus is insistantly recognisable. ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ is apparently by Snap.

Me bird, Megan, is shaking her head at my lack of awareness of these original artists, but each and every tune is subconsciously familiar to me.

Then we come to ‘Lost in Music’. Even I have heard of Sister Sledge.

Then we start getting into border line rave tunes. ‘Red Alert/Pump up the Jamms’, Basement Jacks/Technotronic. I’m on slightly more familiar ground from here on in.

‘Groove is in the Heart’ by Dee-lite. I think I might have that in my collection somewhere. ‘Voodoo People/Out of Space’? That’s the Prodigy.  Of course it’s in me record collection.

Now ‘Praise You’… I have the Fat Boy Slim version on his era defining ‘You’ve Come Along Way Baby’ album, but as us the case with many of his hits, it was a sample of an oldie. In this case Camille Yarborough’s 1975 tune.

The album finishes off with two instantly recognisable tunes even to this old punk. ‘Funky Town’ by Lips Inc and ‘We are Family’, again by Sister Sledge.

It’s all jolly good fun and will have you singing along as you dance around the house, even if, like me, you don’t know who did the originals. Disco, on reflection, is uninhabited, unadulterated,  pure fun.

But as I said, the best way to experience this music is on a dancefloor full of mates with the music being performed live. Which is exactly what we did on 23rd December. They are playing The Market Street Club in Barrybados, a traditional working mens’ club. We have a few liveners downstairs with the locals before heading upstairs to the function room.

We had managed to get a cheap hotel a stones throw from the venue so we were going to make the most of it. We were first in so had the pick of the seats. Megan was a little nervous as there were balloons on the wall, and she’s not a big fan of balloons. But when one of them burst and Megan had to run out – Torrie, the hard boiled sweet with a soft interior – went around the venue and took down all the balloons. Bless him.

Tonight was organised by the man, the myth, the legend, that is Paul Torrie. A former member of 2,000 Dirty Squatters, driving force behind the old Surplus Festivals, and now, in conjunction with Orrible Ian, organiser of the Working Classtonbury festival in Mid Wales.

Torrie came over to chat and when he found out were are getting married he offered to buy us a drink. Which was nice. But as we had arrived before there was anyone on the door taking money, we felt we ought to weigh in with our tenner for two tickets first. Which we did. He then very kindly bought is a round. Bless him.

As the night progressed we noticed that nobody actually took up post on the door taking money, so effectively the money we gave Torrie was us buying our own drink. It’s the thought that counts though Paul.

The night started with Keef it Real spinning some discs (or rather selecting some MP3s) to get us in the mood. The aforementioned Orrible Ian arrived with a huge bag containing a job lot of Santa hats that must have fallen off the back of a sleigh, which were then distributed to the gathered masses to bring festive cheer to the proceedings.

Eventually Tarantism take to the stage and do their funky stuff. The dancefloor fills up and people thrust their hands in the air like they just don’t care. Probably because they don’t actually care. The festival family has gathered and love is in the air.

The Jagerbombs eventually flow so we cannot remember what they played, although many (quite possibly all) of the tunes on the album get an airing. We also get a rendition of ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer, which frustratingly does not feature on the album. Now this is a tune that transcends mere disco. It is an absolute classic of psychedelic funkiness and is one of my all time favorite tunes. I don’t need to Google this one. And it gets dedicated to me and my favourite fiancé, due to impending nuptials, which was the perfect tune for us to get our groove on to.

And then it was over. A Tarantism folk disco is always an evening of unadulterated joy, but with it being Christmas Eve Eve, there was an added warmth to proceedings and everyone’s cup runneth over with love, peace and good will to all people. We floated up the hill to our hotel and – apparently – I fell out of bed because I was too drunk to lie down. Another night to tell the grandkids about in years to come.