Thursday, March 25, 2010

Olden Days (5)

Spiers and Boden
Queen Elizabeth Hospital Theater
12 March

OK: I know this is heresy, but I'd rather hear Spiers and Boden being Spiers and Boden than being front men for Bellowhead. Jon Boden doesn't feel the need to go quite so far over the top when it's just the two of them, and the focus is naturally more on the songs than on the arrangement. There's a real glee in the way he introduces the story of Will and Earl Richard without revealing the "twist ending". And no-one else can work an audience in the way that he does: where other performers are happy to suggest that you join in the refrain Boden spends minutes rehearsing us, tellling us to go for volume, not accuracy and not to bother with consonants.

There's a goodly dollop of irreverence: the Morris tunes are played much too fast to dance to, and introduced with an implausible story about the small village with three different Morris sides (each of which hates the other two). But they care a great deal about The Tradition. I doubt that the Outlandish Knight who drowned six king's daughters but was drowned by the seventh is really old enough to have been represented in cave paintings, but it's a nice thought. I'm quite prepared to believe that the daft song about the knight who kills the hag's spotted pig and cuts off her head when she demands his horse and his hound and his fair ladee in recompense really is related to Norse mythology.

Not sure if the QEH space did them a lot of favours. It's one of those small, in-the-round theatres; they'd put some tables in the stage area to create a cabaret feel, but that had the effect of making it hard for the front row to see the performers: for those of us in the fixed seating, the very small venue felt less intimate than it could have done.

And it could be that their set has become a bit fixed: we always have Earl Richard, all-along-and-down-a-lee, one song from the floodplain and finish with Innocent When You Dream. (Tom Waits is now officially so old that his songs count as traditional.) Although I grant that I may only be noticing this because I've heard them four times in the last eighteen months and would happily hop on a train tomorrow to hear them again if they were in Bath or Cheltenham.

A fiddle, a squeeze box, a lot of attitude and some great songs. It's probably a cliche to say they're my favourite act.

Folk House
19 March

ABCDEFG (album)
No Masters Collective

There is a slight air of the shambolic about tonight's gig. One half of the support act has gone down with food poisoning, and takes to the stage slightly late after settling her stomach with neat vodka. (It works, apparently.) The twenty foot photo of Woody Guthrie that was supposed to preside over the proceedings won't fit on the stage. One of the amps adds a high pitched improvisation to some of the songs. Lou has a sore throat, and leaves the talking, of which there is slightly too much, to Boff. He manages to skip an entire verse of "The Day The Nazi Died", and the irritation from the stage is palpable.

And you know what? It really doesn't matter at all. They may have mutated from a punk dance band into acoustic (not infrequently acappella) folkies; but they are still anarchists. Possibly situationists. Set lists are more guidelines than rules; Boff is quite free to pause between songs to tell an amusing story about what just happened to him in the Gents. ("I hope you weren't expecting these little anecdotes to have punchlines.") The slight sense of chaos rather suits the mood.

Well, maybe once or twice it goes a bit too far. "Charlie" is a wonderful witty singable tune, all close harmony with occasional interventions from Jude's flute: a sort of secular rationalist Lord of Dance. ("In between the platypus and perfect Aphrodite / Charlie come with opposing thumbs to question the Almighty"). When the song references (for no very good reason, it must be said) Chumbawamba's greatest Hit, and the audience reacts, Boff takes it as a cue to embark on a rambling anecdote, which doesn't help what's a very tightly constructed song.

Very different audience from last year's gig at the old site: possibly only hard-core fans were prepared to travel out too the wilds of Southville, but more casual listeners are prepared to venture on to Park Street to see if they are still singing the famous one? Last year's crowd were stamping along to "The Day the Nazi Died" before the band got to the first line; this year's are laughing at lines from "Add Me" as if they'd never heard them before.

Chumbawamba deal in sweet, catchy melodies with light, often frivolous lyrics – which address big, heavy subjects. Their folk songs come from the musical hall rather than the village green. "Singing Out the Days", which could pass for an authentic World War I marching song, leads into a few lines of the traditional "I Don't Want to be a Soldier" ("I don't want a bayonet up me arsehole / I don't want me bollocks shot away"). Perhaps too many of the melodies are easy, marching jingles of this kind, where the last line of every stanza is slogan, and the final repeat is sung at half speed to make sure you remember it. Only rarely do the lyrics make a penetrating or original point, or even present an argument. Their stock in trade are tiny little incidents which seem to illustrate some bigger point. Martin Simpson once remarked that some people treat the Folk Tradition as sacrosanct and want to preserve it unchanged: "Well, that's not music, that's pickle." It's very doubtful if Chumbawamba's song adds anything to this bon mot. ("Preserved and safe on a high up shelf where soiled little fingers can't mess / catalogued labelled and rarely played / polished and pure and posessed") It's doubtful if it's meant to: but it's a sweet, sweet song and a good excuse to make the audience sing "Pickle! Pickle!". The story of the Alzhiemer's patient who was once an opera singer – and who retains a few bars of Madam Butterfly after the rest of her personality has dissipated – has already been told (as the song acknowledges) by Tony Harrison. The story of the concentration camp survivor who protested against a performance of Wagner in Israel is a pretty naïve cry against fascism but also a metaphor about the power of one little guy with a football rattle to disrupt a whole hall-full of stuck-up concert goers. The horrible story that James Hetfield is pleased that Metallica's music was used to torture suspects in Guatanamo becomes a swinging show tune in which the band imagines tying him up and forcing him to listen to Chumbawamba records.

The new album finishes with a so-much-for-subtlety response to Nick Griffin's attempts to annex folk music to his white supremicist ideology. It's a just-this-side-of-parody Morris tune which eschews anger or refutation in favour of ridicule and silly rhymes: "His arms were stiff as cold lasagne / 'Cos all he knew was Rule Britannia / Dance, idiot, dance!"

These are songs about songs. Songs about people who respond to hatred with songs; songs about what life would be like if we all responded to hatred with songs; songs which are themselves responses to hatred. A white man in a rough part of New York is approached by a group of black people: he thinks they've come to mug him; but they've actually come to sing doo wop to him. George Melly sees off a knife-wielding mugger by reciting da-da-ist poetry at him. Soldiers sing "songs for our humanity in the face of inhumanity to demonstrate our sanity" and everyone suddenly bursts out singing when the armistice is declared. (This is literate music: references to Siegfried Sassoon, Wagner, Tony Harrison, Shostakovitch and Puccini and take their place alongside the Larkins and the Brechts on the previous album.) Darwin is a dancer and evolution is the dance he taught us about; a Mexican rebel survives the firing squad because of "the rhythm of life inside him".

The greatest ire is directed at people who misuse music – Catholics who thought that Satan could "get" you if you played the Devil's interval; communists who used it as state propaganda – and against any pretentious performer. A lovely ballad about a bored office worker ("Oh, I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep!") is said to be a riposte to millionaire pop singers who dare to say that touring and making albums is hard work.

That's why, I think, these "political" lyrics contain so few arguments; why some of them seem almost deliberately naïve. The album; the concert; the act of making music and poems is the argument. The beautiful harmonies and terrible rhymes are offering us a model of a different kind of world.

I don't know if I believe it. I don't know if I believe "that words can save us." I don't know whether one guy spoiling a lot of people's night at the opera really does anything about the concentration camps. But that isn't the point. The little guy with the rattle is doing a small thing to re-assert his human dignity; just like the waitress who spits in the soup of the customer whose been leching at her and the soldiers who carry on singing until they're slaughtered. Maybe that's all we can do. The melody is the message.

Words is all
In the underground
and ticket halls
Declaring peace
Wall to wall

Back in Leeds
The news we heard
No one killed
No one hurt
Wish all the young men
Used only words


The aforementioned Martin Simpson is the next tenant at the folkhouse on Easter Saturday. He's more or less bound to sing "Never Any Good" and "One Day" which are two of the best songs written since, well, ever, and his guitar makes sounds that you didn't know a guitar was able to make. There appear to be tickets.


I realize you're all getting tired of positive reviews. I promise to find something to eviscerate before too long.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Olden Days (4)

Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol
Redgrave Theatre, Bristol
Feb 26th

Friday came down to a straight choice: Ashley Hutchings at the Redgrave, or Steve "Fifty per cent of Show of Hands" Knightly at Colston Hall. Apparently, everybody else picked Steve Knightly. You know things aren't too good when the usher asks if you wouldn't mind sitting near the front.

Ashley Hutchings is one of the founders of the aforementioned Fairport Convention; Ken Nicol performs with Steeleye Span, so together they account for both the folk groups I had heard of before I started listening to folk groups. (They've also been in the Albion Band, but then so has everyone else.) I know Mr Hutchings primarily as a producer and arranger of traditional music, particularly the Morris On series. (Black Joke from the Mother of All Morris album would almost certainly appear on my list of all time top ten folkie tracks (*)) Tonight, the focus is on their own, self-written music. There is, of course, a new album.

The pair don't seem phased by the relatively poor turnout. Much of the evening has a light, even zany atmosphere. Ken tells a long, punchline-free anecdote about meeting a professional regurgitator while queuing for an American visa. Ashley speaks of his enthusiasm for ten pin bowling, and then sings a song in which he imagines Francis Drake refusing to go up against the Spanish Armada until he's finished his coke and hotdog. There's a ragtime (it says here) number in which the birds and the bees ask the groundsman to leave some wild space for them on the cricket pitch (please make this corner a short boundary / for the sake of good grave, that's W.G) and a surprisingly sombre one about apprentices being sent to fetch stripy ink and buttonholes on April Fools Day.

But it's also quite literary. Before Ken plays a traditional Irish hornpipe ("written by me, in Preston") Ashley recites from memory a long passage about clog dancing from Arnold Bennet; a song about the Ponte Vecchio is introduced with some lines reminding us what Wordsworth felt about Westminster Bridge. 

The absolute stand out number is the reworking of Gypsy Davy in which the lady declines to go away with the raggle taggle gypsy but instead remains in her fine house -- but with just the slightest hint that she's going to regret it afterwards.

They look old, slightly weather-beaten, even dishevelled; as if they've been together for so long that making music no longer takes much effort. The evening opened with a haunting psychy piece called Prologue and ends with an identical song, this time called Epilogue. The temptation to draw Samuel Beckett analogies is overwhelming.

A funny, mellow, melodious evening. But I do start to think that 60s style folk rock may not really be my thing.

[*] Assuming that the Bible and Shakespeare are already there:

10: Birth of Robin Hood (Spiers and Boden)
9: Black Joke (Jim Moray / Ashley Hutchings)
8: King of Rome (June Tabor)
7: Muir and the Master Builder (Dick Gaughan)
6: Roots (Show of Hands)
5: World Turned Upside Down (Billy Bragg)
4: Little Pot Stove (Nic Jones)
3: Sovay (Martin Carthy)
2: Passing Through (Peter Seeger)
1: Grand Coulee Dam (Woody Guthrie) 

Chris Wood
Folk House, Bristol
27 February

Any attempt at objectivity must now go out of the window.

Since hearing Chris Wood for the first time at the Hatfield mini-festival last July, I have become quite evangelical about this performer. Given that his most famous song is an ode to atheism, this is perhaps a little ironic.

Or perhaps not. Wood says that he is a little uneasy about Richard Dawkins' endorsement of his "atheist spiritual", Come Down Jehovah. On the other hand he's rather pleased to hear about a choir-master who wants to re-arrange the song and perform it in church. "I don't have any more problem with Richard Dawkins than I do with any other fundamentalist," explains Wood. He doesn't like anyone who thinks they've arrived at absolute truth. He is the kind of atheist who counts English hymn-writer Sydney Carter as one of his heroes. Before Jehovah, he leads the audience in a rousing chorus of one of Carter's carols. (I'll crow like a cock, I'll carol like a lark / In the light that is coming in the morning!) [*] 

While I've greatly enjoyed his performances with the Imagined Village and the Handmade Life group, tonight's intimate performance – just the singer and an acoustic guitar – seems to me to be the Real Thing. He tells us that Cold, Hard Windy Night was taught to him by Martin Carthy, and you can hear it in every line.

I don't think any of the recordings capture the impact of Wood's stage act. For one thing, he talks a lot. He comes onto the stage pretty much as soon as the support act has left ("we don't want to be precious about this") and immediately starts moaning that the sound team have put on a random music CD in the gap between the performers. "You wouldn't go to Stratford and expect them to be playing fucking Alan Bennet on the way in..." His songs are lyrically dense and complex so in some cases they benefit from his explication. It may not be immediately obvious that Spitfires is a response to Nick Griffin's Euro-election leaflets; or that No Honey Tongued Sonnet is partly about the 11+ exam or exactly what it means to "watch the spuds chitting".

If you only know Come Down Jehovah from the version with Kathrine Polwart on Trespasser, you might be surprised by the humour which he brings to the song live: the way he looks up and pauses for a second before singing "my neck is terribly...stiff"; or the dripping sarcasm he brings to the Cottager's Reply ("this Cotswalds house that you call...nice...")

He has a bit of a reputation for being relentlessly downbeat, but in fact, there's quite a range of tones and styles. My Darling's Downsized a song about love and gardening in which every line is  funny but every sentiment entirely sincere – may perhaps invoke the very English ghost of Jake Thackray. There's perhaps a hint of Steve Tilston in Spitfires and a smattering of Billy Bragg in the more ranty political ones. (There's no more mandate for you soiled institution / we're all praying here for divine retribution / don't you go asking for another contribution. If Chris chooses to cast a satire about the MPs' expenses scandal in the form of a riff on Ballad of a Thin Man then who are we to ask why?) 

If he has a chink in his lyrical armour, it's slightly tendency to the sentimental, even the corny. (Louise observed that, like all cynics, he's a romantic at heart.) So three accutely observed vignettes about his six year old daughter lead to the not very profound observation that when she's with me / I get much more than I'm giving. It's notable that when Martin Simpson sings Come Down Jehovah, he omits the last couplet (if we've done our best / we'll be ready for a rest) to the over all improvement of the song. 

I hadn't heard the epic One in a Million before, although I'm told it was the best new folk-song of 2006. The lyrics (by an oral storyteller named Hugh Lupton) are like a modern Chaucer: they start with a realistic setting (a fish and chip shop) populated by absolutely naturalistic portraits of "stock" characters and only gradually allow you to realize what you are listening to is, in fact, a fairy tale. The melody creeps up behind you: in verse one, I might almost have said "this is pretty much a recitation; the words, not the tune, are doing the work" but on each repetition the actually quite jaunty verse and the almost dirge like refrain works their way into your head. It's a long, long, song – he's a demanding performer and you have to pay attention right the way through to see where he's going with his stuff. In the end it's the way the character's voices (speaking, as the fellow said, "the very language of men") merge naturally with the persistent melody that makes the song so heartbreaking. (She said Billy love I'm sorry / I never meant no harm /Oh you're kindly and you're comforting /And I love it when you sing / But in all the years I've known you/You never said a thing.)

I've bought all his CDs, but I haven't been able to listen to them. Not right through. The songs are too...intense? The chilling Hollow Point remains the only piece of music (the only piece of music which doesn't involve warrior maidens setting fire to themselves) which makes me cry ever time I hear it. I think that it was written with the Handmade Life band in mind, and a great deal of the song's power comes from the threatening instrumental heartbeat which gets louder and louder as through the hourglass the sand is falling / and there is nothing he can do. It's impressive that Wood can achieve the same effect on stage with his guitar alone. When I've heard something like that on my I-Pod I don't want  to -- I can't -- just go on and listen to the next track. I'm left feeling, as the other fellow said "that I need a brisk walk round the block, possibly pausing at a bar on the way back for a quick glass of perspective and soda."

He really is that good.

[*] My enemy's enemy is my friend, of course; but it's a little hard to see why someone who regards God as a perverted genocidal monster would be enthusiastic about a song which portrays him merely as a rather beautiful illusion. A goodly number of Christians would be quite comfortable with the line "Heaven is right here on earth, Jehovah: not tomorrow but right now today." (Wasn't that the burden of Honest to God?) And yes, as a matter of fact, I do know the difference between fundementalism and evidence based thingamijig.