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.

1 comment:

Andrew Hickey said...

I'm certainly not getting tired of the positive reviews - apart from anything else, I'd far rather hear about something genuinely interesting and fun than find out that there's even more rubbish in the world than I thought (this does not mean you're excused from eviscerating the Welsh Series when it returns in a couple of weeks if it's as bad as I suspect...)

These are actually really useful to me, because I love traditional English folk, but have never really known where to start investigating beyond things featuring at least one person with the surname Carthy or Waterson (or Ewan MacColl). Rather pleasingly, you seem to have more or less the same tastes as me when it comes to this music, and to have sought out a lot more of it than I have, so you've let me know about music I otherwise wouldn't have heard. Please keep it up...