Monday, February 15, 2010

Olden Days (1)

So I thought what the world probably needed most was for me to start keeping a diary of the various gigs I seem to have been going to.

Apologies in advance to anyone who properly knows about this stuff.

The Imagined Village
Jan 23rd
Colston Hall, Bristol

Wasn't quite sure if I was going to like this. 

The Imagined Village is a folk "super-group": an ensemble consisting of three performers (Chris Wood, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy) who I'd pay good money to hear playing solo, backed by a band that disconcertingly includes synths, a sitar, and one of those huge punjabi drums you play with curly sticks.

It took me a while to get the hang of what they were doing: "Yes," I said, "I get that England is a multi-ethnic society; I get that if folk music is the music of England then it ought to include a Dhol and a Sitar...but I'm still not sure I wouldn't just as soon be listening to Martin Carthy singing John Barleycorn without all the synthesized jiggery pokery that seems to be drowning out the words."

Yeah, I know. Going to folk gigs for less than a year, and already claiming to prefer the Martin Carthy version.

But I was very much won over, partly by Chris Wood's infectiously self-deprecating patter. "This is a traditional song," he says "I learned it the normal way, from Simon and Garfunkel (*)...There have been lots of versions...but the one thing they've all lacked is a sitar" -- whereupon we notice that, yes, the sitar player is indeed picking out the melody to Scarborough Fair, and, yes, Wood's expressive, harsh, almost anti-lyrical delivery contrasts with the rather sweet accompaniment to produce something which works as a song. 

Call it "fusion" if you need to.

Not that I "got" all of it. Eliza Carthy's synthesizer laden rendition of something called Space Girl left me wondering if there was a musical joke that I was failing to get? Was this some traditional song about a girl being warned not to go onto the moors recast as a warning to young aliens not to travel in space? (**) But no-one can quarrel with her fiddle playing.

I wasn't convinced by all of the lyrical updatings: I don't see that My Son John is automatically improved by adding references to Iraq and Afghanistan or having the protagonist lose his legs to land mine rather than a canon ball: but the performance is undeniably powerful.

The evening winds up with two entirely unspontaneous encores. Martin Carthy leads the entire company and the audience in the Copper-song Hard Times of Old England rather more successfully updated (by Billy Bragg, I think) so it's about modern, rather than eighteeth century, rural life.("The countryside alliance expects I suppose / my support when they're marching to bloody Blair's nose / but they said not a word our post office closed".) Carthy is then left alone on stage, the very personification of old fashioned folk, just that slightly over-articulated voice and plinky-plonky guitar to do a solo rendering of that traditional old English classic, er, Cum On Feel The Noize. The rest of the cast come back on stage, one at a time, to wind up the evening with what was both a corny sing-a-long and an objective correlative of the proposition "folk music can be old fashioned and up to date at the same time."

Simon Emmerson, the onlie begatter of the Imagined Village project invites Martin Carthy to read a rather pointless piece from the previous Saturday's Grauniad, which had revealed what kinds of music Evil people enjoy. Mr Mugabe likes Cliff Richard, Osama Bin Ladan likes Whitney Houston -- and our very own little Nicky Griffin likes English folk, particularly Eliza Carthy. As a contribution to the debate, the audience was invited to give a two fingered salute and shout "bollocks": which was filmed and will be forwarded to Mr Griffin in due course.

Of course, what was really offensive in the article was the laughing-behind-the-hands attitude of the journo: implying that while it was comically incongruous that Mugabe would curl up with Cliff, English folk is very much the sort of thing you'd expect English Nazis to like. And the whole evening was an effective slap in the face to that kind of lazy thinking.

VERY IMPORTANT FACT: During the interval, we witnessed an event which has never before occurred in British Theatrical History: a queue for the Gents, but not for the Ladies. It is unclear whether this was because:

a: Colston Hall foyer, newly revamped in the popular "airport departure lounge" style has allocated a sensible amount of floorspace to bathrooms or

b: The audience disproportionately consisted of males over the age of 45

(*) Since S & G arguably stole the  song from Martin Carthy, that was actually quite a pointed remark.

(**) No, it actually an original song by Ewan McColl. Shows how much I know...

Bristol Old Vic
4th Feb

"This tune was originally written in 1653...Which is a tricky time signature."

It goes without saying that Bellowhead are fantastic. I do, however, start to wonder if they are a little too fantastic, in danger of becoming a rampaging juggernaut that will give everyone else the impression that this is what folk music is actually like. They are a sufficiently big noise that, for one night only, the Oldest Continually Working Theatre In Britain had physically removed the seating, so people in the stalls could dance along to all the hornpipes and morris tunes. No-one did, but it was nice to think they could have done if they'd wanted to.

Jon Boden (tall, fiddle player, singer) and John Spiers (short, squeeze-box player; sometimes, one feels, playing Swann to Spiers exuberant Flanders) are sometimes described as "punk folk" -- or even "junk folk", whatever that might mean. Bellowhead is another "supergroup" that has formed around them. Some of the performers are traditional folkies (Sam Sweeny, of the aforementioned Kerfuffle, plays fiddle and even whips out some Northumbrian pipes in the final number) (*). Others, like the four piece brass section, not so much.

This evening was a try out of new material, all of which, Mr Boden tactfully pointed out, was about shagging. The songs range from ultra-traditional fare like The Two Magicians and The Broomfield Hill to David Bowie's Port of Amsterdam and an utterly out of place calypso about running out of a Chinese restaurant without paying the bill.

There's a lot more stage business than there was the last time I saw them. The brass section walk off stage at the beginning of one song, only for the trumpeter to rush back on to play his one bar at the end of the first verse. Boden is doing less patter than usual, though, and more actual conducting. I get the impression that this is really is new material that they aren't quite sure of.

It's cheeky, almost naughty, and one sometimes feels that, like the Imagined Village they are working a shade too hard to prove a point about folk music being neither arthritic nor white. Two Magicians is one of those edifying Celtic songs in which a man tries to rape a lady by magically changing into various kinds of animal ("So the lady she turned into a hare / and ran across the plain / But he became a greyhound dog / and he ran her down again") with a stonking chorus. Here, it's dominated by a 70s Jazz/Funk brass section which really has nothing to do with the piece, but which doesn't distract Boden from his slightly ironic, folksy delivery -- gesticulating so wildly that you start to wonder if he's drunk, or about to lose his balance.

I like best the songs where where Boden's actually telling a story (usually signified by raising his left arm and pointing at thin air) -- the reinvention of The Broomfield Hill ("rather an odd courting tactic") and a genuinely dramatic version of The Weaver and The Factory girl. Some of the material is a little over-the-top for my taste: a rendition of a sea shanty about harbour side prostitutes  ( Little Winnie Ducket / Washes in a bucket / she's a whore but doesn't luck it) veers between a very loud, very rocky declamation and a sweet, Sunday School delivery for the verse about the Vicar's daughter. It made for a stunning bit of live musical theatre, but I don't know that I'd want to listen to it very often.

I guess the only downside of the evening was this. There were two or three numbers which absolutely stopped the show. One was Kipling's Cholera Camp -- which gives full range to Boden's dramatic ability, the delivery getting wilder and wilder as the fever rises; an increasingly excitable and out of tune brass section; and little character spots for other musicians ("The chaplain's got a banjo...!") to say nothing of a sing a long chorus for the audience ("Oh lord for it's a killing of us all...": it is, as the man said, the jolliest song ever written about cholera). Another was the final double whammy of London Town and Frog's Legs. All of which are, of course, songs from their existing albums.

I don't know if this is because the audience likes the stuff they know more than the unfamiliar material; or because the new material is not quite as polished as the stuff they've been doing for years; or if the brilliance of the musical experimentation is in danger of drowning out the, er, tunes.

"Wizard sex,", indeed.

(*) English border bagpipes, actually.

Fairport Convention
St George's Bristol
5th Feb

I shall now display my ignorance.

Obviously, I know who Fairport Convention are: at any rate, I know that Fairport Convention are, and I know that they are mighty, legendary, seminal etc. And, having read the programme notes, I know that people I have heard of, and indeed heard (Dave Swarbrick, Ashley Hutchings) are intertwined with the band's history. But I hadn't actually heard any of their music until last night.

So Fairport fans, of whom there are several, are probably going to want to lynch me after they read what follows Presumably the rope will break and they'll give up after the third attempt. (Do you see what I did there?)

St George's a more sedate venue than the Old Vic, or at any rate, than the Old Vic when it's full of Bellowhead fans, and this evening feels more like a Recital than a Gig. The support group Dark Horses were, er, trying. Keith Donnelly is, we are assured, a very funny man, who has written jokes for both Jasper Carrot and the Tellytubbies. I thought he was trying too hard. ("I don't speak French. I joined the French society at school. We didn't do much. Except surrender to the German society.") He'd written all the (serious) songs, and played the guitar. Flossie Malavialle has a sweet voice. The material resembled Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare of what folk music is like. An eco-friendly re-write of Green Grow the Rushes ("ten for acid rain, nine for global warming, when she's gone our earth is gone and ever more shall be so"); an unaccompanied cri-de-coeur from all the animals that man is horrid to ("I am whale" "I am fox") all filtered through a decent bluesy delivery. I didn't positively want them to leave the stage but I didn't demand an encore, either.

O.K: here is my impression of the main feature.

There's a lot of folk instrumentals, dominated by two brilliant fiddlers doing that intense diddly-diddly-dee stuff where melody dissolves into pure, breathless rhythm; backed by OTT 70s style heavy (*) rock. This very much appeared to work, to be musically clever, and I could see the connection to Dave Swarbrick (who I heard at this venue at the end of last year) even before the programme notes explained that to me. I particularly enjoyed the one about the man from Shetland who reacts to being hit over the head with a mallet by going home and writing a tune.

There's traditional and semi-traditional vocal material which worked less well for members of the audience (e.g. me) who didn't already know the songs. The main set finished on a narrative ballad, Matty Groves, which I feltI  ought to have liked, but couldn't follow. The rhythmically and lyrically complicated Festival Bell worked rather more, although it possibly meant more in the context of the festival for which it was written.

The sections most clearly in the spirit of 1970s rock seemed to be veering into antiques: Clarrie tells me that when I listen to the whole of the Babicombe Lee concept album I will appreciate the way it changes from traditional folk to contemporary rock, but listening to the final section out of context revived all my worst memories of Thursday night Top of the Pops.

And this is a built in problem: a show by a group which has been touring for 40 years is always going to be full of material whose significance is entirely lost on the newcomer. I simply didn't grok the importance of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" ("Sandy's song, but tonight, it's our song") until it was explained to me.

This was no tribute band or reunion gig; I was clearly in the presence -- particularly with the fiddlers -- of musicianship of a very high order, and it has certainly made me wish to familiarize myself with band's back catalogue. But I had an overriding sense of having walked in at the very end of the party.

(*) Actually, I may not be a sufficiently sound geologist to accurately distinguish between the "hard", "heavy", and "soft" varieties: wild drum rhythms and electric guitar riffs, at any rate.

June Tabor
Old Vic
7th February

I would not dream of attempting to write criticism of the wonderful June Tabor.

They'd put the seats back into the Old Vic, and the audience was, if anything, older than on Wednesday. If Bellowhead was a pop gig and Fairport a recital, June was very definitely a grown up concert.

There is June Tabor, looking all somber and monolothic. There is a quartet of musicians (piano, base, fiddle, squeeze-box). There is an an Actor (Simon Russell Beale, no less). They perform a highly structured sequence of songs and readings on a single theme, "the sea". There are some laughs, but not many.

It avoided a lot of the more obvious choices of music. We finished on the fantastic Patrick Spens which seems to me to be a perfect example of what June Tabor does best – a relatively simple folk melody which allows her a full range of characters and drama; positively angry when the sailors are accused of wasting the kings money; genuinely desperate as the inevitable shipwreck occurs. ("there's a hole, a hole in our ship's side and through it pours the sea..."). But there was no Admiral Benbo, and Shoals of Herring turned up only as an exquisite, but very brief instrumental solo.

There was a lot of Cyril Tawney material, of course, but surprisingly, three different pieces by Les Barker. I was aware of Barker as a writer of cheeky-chappy sting-in-the-tale comic poems, and clever parodies of folk songs. I hadn't realized he wrote straight, and absolutely heartfelt songs - like the chilling Wall of Death (about over fishing) and Over the Sea, about the highland clearances. Tabor explains the clearances in a tone of voice which implies that she's still personally annoyed about them. (We  do also get one of his dafter songs, "No-one sings a shanty like Sinatra sings a shanty" which gave Tabor the opportunity to go "do-be-do-be-doo....")

Ship wrecks, over fishing, highland clearances...and by way of light relief, a medley about cannibalism: a slow, expressive reading of The Ship in Distress is followed by the engagingly daft, unaccompanied Little Boy Billee, about two sailors who attempt to eat the cabin boy because they are so hungeree: "So Billy went up to the main-top gallant mast/And down he fell on his bended knee." Aside to audience "and that's not easy to do." My French wasn't good enough to follow the third one, in which the protagonist really does get eaten. With sauce. (*)

June Tabor's performance style is emotional but understated: delivered straight to the audience, letting her voice tell the story, head drooping to the right to show sadness when the bad thing inevitably happens, bowing when the song finishes. She's at her most animated during the instrumental pieces, when she could obviously not restrain her feet from starting to tap in time with the music.

Oh, and at least three words on Mr Beale's readings. He starts out with a brilliantly silly couplet by the aforementioned Les Barker and reads it so deadpan that it takes the audience several seconds to realise that the punch line is a punch line: His reading of a passage about the unpromising subject of Aberdeen Fish market by one H.V Morton ("the Bill Bryson of his day") genuinely brought the house down adding a much needed light note to the darkness of the rest of evening.

On the basis of her website, Ms Tabor only does about 3 concerts a year, but I'll be holding my breath for the next one. (Maybe someone will invite me to stay in York at the end of September?)

(1)Wikipeida, which I trust implicitly, says the Billee poem really is by William Thackary and is a parody of the French one.


Nick Mazonowicz said...

"David Bowie's Port of Amsterdam"

Jacques Brel by way of Scott Walker.

Andrew Hickey said...

To be fair, Space Girl sounds absolutely nothing like anything else MacColl ever did. I've got it on an old vinyl copy of "The World Of Ewan MacColl And Peggy Seeger", and it's a quite extraordinary thing - all tootling jazz clarinets.

Sam Dodsworth said...

an unaccompanied cri-de-coeur from all the animals that man is horrid to ("I am whale" "I am fox")

I absolutely refuse to take this sort of thing seriously until they get beyond the charismatic megafauna and start singing about mosquitoes and liver flukes.

Gavin Burrows said...

I shall now display my ignorance.

So long have I waited for this moment of triumph and superiority that I will inevitably start monologuing...

But I had an overriding sense of having walked in at the very end of the party.

...well actually you hit it spot on there. If you really want to know what was special about Fairport Convention, and don't have access to a time machine, you need to listen to Liege and Lief. (It's on Spotify.) (Or at least skip the first two albums, where they were just generically Sixties and pre-folk.) Nowadays they aren't even really a shadow of their former self, more a tribute band to their former self. Seeing Richard Thompson solo is still a good idea, however.

Your thoughts on The Imagined Village seem somewhat similar to mine.

Folk tends to be very good when its good, but when its bad it's horrid. So you need a strong sticking-with ability, but if you read comics through the Eighties you probably evolved that.

Jody Macgregor said...

"The material resembled Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare of what folk music is like."

That's such a wonderfully descriptive phrase I'm tempted to nick it.