Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Olden Days

Martin Simpson
Folk House, Bristol
3 April

You know that bit, just before the last song of the first set, when the performer mentions that there are copies of his latest CD on sale at the front? Tonight, Martin Simpson used that space to point out that we are all agreed that all the politicians on all sides have, this time around, been more corrupt, useless and dishonest than ever before, that it is incredibly tempting to say that they are all the same, but that people died to get us the right to vote, and that if we don't use our votes on May 6th there is a real danger that the BNP will get in.

I don't necessarily share all their politics or all their religious views. But over the last few weeks I've increasingly felt that old guys with guitars in poky little venues are the only people left who talk my language.

There is a rumour going around that the BBC are going to rename the Radio 3 Folk Awards "The Martin Simpson Awards". This year he was nominated for Best Singer, Best Musician, Best Song (twice), Best Traditional Song and Best Album.

Quite unaccountably, the actual prize for best song went to Show of Hands' obvious bit of ranting about not liking politicians and bankers very much, rather than to "One Day", Mr Simpson's hauntingly delicate song of grief and healing. Simpson's songs have an absolute knack of changing direction half-way through: almost like a well wrought joke, except that the result is tears, rather than laughter. His most famous song "Never Any Good" (winner, Best Song, 2008) appears to spend six stanzas writing his his father off as a wastrel, before suddenly revealing how much he owes to him in the final stanza. (Come to think of it, the lyric doesn't identify who the song is about until the penultimate verse, where it is revealed almost in passing: "If you had been a practical man / You would have been forewarned / You would have seen that it never would work / And I would have never been born".) "One Day" takes this a stage further. As he explains it, his friend Martin Taylor wrote the opening, heart-breaking stanza's about the suicide of his son Stewart. Taylor wrote "You rode like a king and you sung like an angel / but it brought you no pleasure, it brought you no joy" and Simpson turns the song round with the inspirational "One day I'll hear hoof beats and not grieve for the rider / and the songs that you sung will bring peace and not pain." He absolutely proves the old rule that the most specific is also the most universal: a song full of reference to gypsy customs and snatches of Romany language, it will speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Although the new album is called "True Stories", Simpson isn't really a story teller in the way that Chris Wood and Martin Carthy are: these are songs expressing feelings and (very often) places.

I think this gig was the first time I've properly understood what it is he does with his guitar: over and over again his hands are playing a different tune to the one his mouth is singing. Counter-melody is probably the polite term. Which is, I imagine, physically very difficult to do. He doesn't have the world's greatest singing voice: the complexity of the guitar and voice arrangement is greater than the sum of its parts. Louise said that it often sounds as if there are two guitarists playing together.

The set contains a good mix of his American bluesy material English traddy stuff and his own songs. I have to say I'm not convinced by his Patrick Spens (which actually did win the award for Best Traditional Track) but that may be because I prefer June Tabor's versions of practically everything on general principles.

He finishes with two pieces on an electric banjo, complimenting the audience for not running from the room when such a monstrous device appears. Everyone agrees that Stag-o-lee was, all things considered, a Bad Man. Woody Guthrie has him hanged, where Peter Seeger has him going to the electric chair, but Martin tells us that "Stag-o-lee shot Billy in eighteen ninety five / Billy's in the grave yard, but Stag-o-lee's still alive" which is both a better line and closer to what actually happened.

I believe that if you are a proper French Gourmet, the correct answer to the question "What was the best meal you ever ate" is "The last one." I am told by people who know that Martin Simpson is one of the greatest acoustics guitarists in the world; I think he's certainly the best musician I have heard.

Oh, and he sings "Come Down Jehovah" better than Chris Wood does. Sorry, but it's


Which reminds me. Chris Wood complained about sound engineers who play unrelated CDs before and after the main act comes on. So was there some obscure ironic vengeance in Mr Wood's raucous Cold Hard Haily Night blaring out over the PA only a few seconds after Martin's delicate encore of Boots of Spanish Leather had faded away?

Robin Williamson & John Renbourne
South Bank Club, Bristol
12 April

After Dylan, the Incredible String Band's "Big Huge" was the first folk album I bought. The first bars of Maya bowled me over with their overwhelming strangeness; self indulgent, certainly, fey, possibly; long rambling songs which contain several different melodies; lyrics which make no sense at all and one track that lasts exactly 20 seconds. Yet it all seemed to hang together in some kind of vision. All very child-like and English: where John Lennon's controlling muse was Alice in Wonderland, theirs was clearly Winnie the Pooh.

So while the Band itself are (I believe) not on speaking terms, I feel incredibly –seriously– privileged to have heard Robin Williamson perform live on three separate occasions. He has matured from the archetypal hippie to the archetypal ageing hippie, in an entirely positive way: white beard, long hair, wise, whimsical, charismatic, yarn-spinning, the chief bard of the order of celtic-something or other. His primary instrument is the harp; but in the course of the evening, he also pulls out a recorder, a whistle, a mandolin, and does some drumming. John Renbourne, an equally venerable 60s veteran, sits to his right, looking like your slightly bemused grandfather, doing his guitar thing content in the knowledge that he invented jazz folk (arguably) and doesn't need to show off.

There was a minor glitch at the venue. Everyone marched into the downstairs bar where the music usually happens, and found that this time things were being set up in the upstairs bar, which wasn't quite ready. This had the neat effect that the people who arrived first had the last choice of seats. Two of the haven't-been-to-a-concert-in-years fraternity kept opining that this was a poor show given how much we paid for the tickets. (Two members of the same club became rather agitated at the Martin Simpson gig because the venue's doors remained closed until the, er, "doors open" time.) I refrained from saying that the really surprising thing was that one could get into the presence of these demigods for less than fifteen pounds. I mean, seriously. Does Bob Dylan play church halls in Southville? Next month, the Colston Hall will be asking £40 to hear Don McClean. (I thought American Pie was a clever song until I heard Desolation Row and realised where it came from. Forty pounds!)

They start with a long blues number, Sometimes I Just Can't Keep From Crying. Then John Renbourne picks out a long, delicate instrumental which becomes a tub thumping gospel song. He and Robin Williamson sing together. They are arguably not singing quite the same tune, but it doesn't really matter. "Thank God I can sing this song of his love / I know some day I'll be singing above." The last time I heard Robin, it was in the basement (one could hardly say crypt) of an evangelical church in Clifton. He seems to be one of those hippies who takes a little of this and a little bit of that from the different religions of the world, as happy singing "Keep to the sunny side of life" as something all Celtic and mystical. Or maybe he can just enter into the spirit of whatever song he happens to be singing. Later on, they do a country and western number called something like "You keep me stoned on your love baby" which Robin described as corny and mawkish and sang without a trace of irony. He tells us that Bob Dylan once described the Incredible String Band as "quite good" and then sings "Where are you tonight, sweet Marie" on his harp. I don't know whether it was intended as a send up of Dylan, or whether slowing down and articulating the words simply allows us to see what funny, witty lyrics the master wrote. John did "Lord Franklin" (which, as we all now know, mutated into Bob Dylan's Dream) sounding unbelievably sad and unbelievably ancient. Robin told us that real life cowboys were nothing like John Wayne, but more likely to have been Mexicans or Irishman, and then did an arrestingly different version of Buffalo Skinners, which he thinks probably gives an accurate picture of what cowboy life was like: "Well then our season ended and the drover would not pay / You've ate and drunk too much, you are all in debt to me." A strange artefact; a bluesy version of a song more associated with the Oakie tones of Woody Guthrie, accompanied by an ethereal harp. It works.

We finished on some daft Irish musical hall whimsy. Robin is enjoying himself so much that he sings the last verse twice, and the audience join in the chorus. "Her lips were like the roses / Her hair was raven hue / By the time that she was finished / She had me ravin' too." He relishes the daftness; the cod Irish accent; the silly jokes. Yet there is no incongruity of going from heavy blues (he loves to play blues on an actual harp, instead of a "blues harp") and "Buckets of Rain" to wondering where on earth the blarny roses grow. This song, just as much as the hymn or the country ballad, is worthy of his respect.

He said that the man who made his steel whistle was the closes thing he'd even met to a Hobbit; yet it was hard to avoid thinking that this old, bearded, whimsical, wise hippy was the nearest thing you'd ever seen to a leprachaun.

Godlike. No, seriously: God like. And for fourteen quid.

Jim Moray
Jazz@Future Inns, Bristol
April 14

"This is a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in a river".

Last week, Martin Simpson told us the story about how a young man met two sisters and gave the younger a gay gold ring (and didn't give the elder anything). This week, Jim Moray tells us how a younger sister was given a beaver hat (the elder sister, she didn't like that). In the first version, once the younger sister had been murdered by her jealous sibling her body is fished from the river by a miller, whereupon "a fiddling fool" cuts up her body and turns it into a violin, as you do. "But the only song that fiddle would play was 'oh, the dreadful wind and the rain' ". (Martin Carthy does a version in which the ghoulish instrument, more helpfully, identified the older sister as the murderer.) In Jim's version, the dead girl floats down the river. The miller fishes her out. And then he takes the rings off her fingers, and throws her in again.

There is probably some kind of a message here, both about millers and about folk songs.

The first time I heard Jim Moray (at the Folk on the Oak festival) I was a little underwhelmed: he seemed to to be singing a lot of old standards which hardly any one else would touch (Barbara Allen; Early One Morning) with electrical beats which mostly drowned out his voice. However once I'd listened to his albums, especially the superlative Low Culture, I decided that I had totally misjudged him. He has a sweet singing voice and uses a range of electronic sounds to put genuinely clever twists on (mostly) familiar old songs. Not all of it works, but when it fails to work it fails to work interestingly. ("Lucy Wan" is a charming folk song about incest and murder; the Daily Mail complain a lot about how nasty black people's music is violent; so the notion of alternating the traditional verses of the song with a modern, how you say, hip hop interpretation of the same story is extremely clever, even if I don't care to listen to it very much.)

So I was decidedly intrigued to hear that he was doing a purely acoustic set – grand piano and guitar only – in the Jazz club beneath the hotel in the new shopping centre.

He certainly knows and cares about his folk music, and, to my untrained ear, he can play the piano very well and the guitar well enough. He opens on the piano with a rather good Dives and Lazarus ; his plinky plonky guitar version of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies had Martin Carthy written all over it. The more raucus songs survive the acoustic treatment best. Lord Willougby is loud and dramatic (the recorded version depends mainly on Jim's keyboard, I think); and he makes Oh Don't Deceive Me, Lord Never Leave Me sound almost sinister in such a way as to banish all memories of Frank Spencer! He seems like a nice, self effacing chap – and frankly, he's a big enough "name" that he doesn't need to be playing this tiny venue – but has no real stage presence or "patter". Some of the songs outstay their welcome: Lord Bateman can seem interminable at the best of times.

On record, he has a rather interesting voice – words like "cheeky", "naive", "boyish" and "innocent" all entirely fail to describe it. Tonight he was, I think, getting over a cold: that thing where your voice changes from low to high half way through the line was probably happening more than he meant it to. On the CD, "Gilderoy" is a really, really, poignant ballad: listen to that giggle or twinkle he puts into the word "rakish" in the line "he's such a rakish boy". He carried the song off well enough on the piano tonight, but that detail didn't seem to come across.

All credit to the guy: his massive reputation depends on sticking two fingers up at sacred cows and singing Early One Morning with a drum machine, but he's still prepared to come to a venue that seats 50 and let his songs and his pleasant voice speak for themselves. He's not a natural story teller like Martin Carthy or Chris Wood and he's not a brilliant musician like Martin Simpson. He his, however a man with an absolute genius for iconoclastic recordings of familiar songs. And Low Culture is a superlatively brilliant album.

Mawkin: Causley
Theatre Royal Bath
April 16th

Mawkin: Causley is the result of a coalition between Mawkin, a folk instrumental band, and Jim Causley, a folksinger. They have been described as a folk boy band, and there is certainly a general sense of boyish naughtiness in evidence: a sort of camp rivalry between band and singer. You never quite forget that this is a team up between two acts, rather than a single entity. ("I wrote this song," says Jim "And then I gave it to Makwin, and they did what they always do..." "Yeah," says the guitarist "We threw it in the bin.")

There's a pleasant variety to the evening: Brothers Dave and James Delarre (who say they learnt their trade as buskers) do a guitar and violin set together; the whole of Mawkin does a set of hornpipes without Causley; Jim straps on a piano accordion and sings a comedy song with Alexander Goldsmith, the real squeeze box expert. (I was aware of the song which warns young married men about the dreadful consequences of allowing German musicianers to tune their wives' pianos, but I hadn't heard this one, in which a German clock winder winds up a married ladies clock. What is it about these Germans?) And no-one can restrain Jim from taking to the stage by himself to recite, with voices, Roahld Dahl's version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can honestly only get away with this kind of self-indulgence if your music is stunningly good.

Which it is.

There are some weird musical jokes. The traditional North Eastern song "Greenlanders" is presented in a cod Spanish arrangement – because Dave once met some Geordies on the Costa Del Sol. (The Greenlanders were Geordie miners who spent the winter on whaling ships. "I know that's not very popular nowadays, catching whales," says Jim. "But it's better than catching crabs.") But mostly it's just clever, beguiling arrangements. The absolute stand out is "Jim Jones in Botany Bay". The band create a complicated changing sound scape around the piece, particularly notable for Dave using the guitar almost as a percussion instrument. ("A bit like Voodoo Child" he says, which leaves me unenlightened.) But the arrangement never seems to swamp the original song -- although perhaps Jim can't quite do "angry" in the way that the last stanza requires.

One bijou problem, by the way, is acoustic: in the songs where the whole enemble is together and Mawkin are getting into the groove it can be quite hard to hear Jim's voice over the instrumental; which doesn't matter too much in something like The Cutty Wren -- which is more or less giberrish anyway -- but a bit of a shame in something like George's Son which has a good story to tell.

If the Radio 3 people had followed my plan and given Martin Simpson the prize for "Best New Foksong" then they could have given Mawkin: Causley the "best traditional track" prize for "The Cutty Wren". I don't think anyone knows precisely what the song means, although it has something to do with the Peasants' Revolt, but this arrangement manages to make the repetitive lyrics positively sinister. Jim confides that one day when he sings "oh where are you going said Milder to Molder" it's going to come out as "said Mulder to Scully".

Jim's introductions take the mickey out of all his songs – and out of other singers, and folk music scene in general. ("Some other, more...mature...singers on the folk scene also take a long time to tune their guitars.") Yet he knows where his traditional songs were collected, and the one song he wrote himself ("The Keeper of the Game") is derived from a volume of Anglo Saxon riddles that he just happened to be reading. Given the subject matter, Mawkin naturally decided that the arrangement should have a reggae vibe about it. There is something self consciously over the top about the performance, which tempts one to say "camp" -- as if they are trying to put the songs in quotation marks. But it's less showy and anarchic than Bellowhead. Jim apologizes for the number of depressing songs he's singing: the little drummer boy who dies at Waterloo; the soldier singing about all the places he's seen action – which actually turn out to be the names of London pubs and brothels; the psychotic sea captain who has killed his entire family and means to starve the passengers on their way to Americee. But in fact it's a funny, joyful, sing-a-long evening. They finish with a drinking song ("Let union be with all it's fun / For we will join our hearts in one") and then top it by doing "Cropper Lads" as an encore. There is a huge sense that the band is having a good time and sharing it with the audience.


Sam Dodsworth said...

I read "Chips With Everything" at school, so I've always assumed that "The Cutty Wren" was about the Peasants' Revolt. But now you mention it, the actual words don't mean much and Wikipedia thinks the earliest known version is late C18(*). I think it'll always sound menacing to me, though.

(*) Is this actually true of all "ancient" folk songs, in the way that all "ancient" customs and ceremonies started in 1850?

Mike Taylor said...
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Mike Taylor said...

The Voodoo Child reference (playing the guitar like a percussion instrument) is a reference to the Jimi Henrix song "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" -- not to be confused with "Voodoo Chile" (and, yes, that is the correct spelling), a very different song from the same album.

There's a not bad live video of Hendrix playing the song at -- you can hear the percussive effect right at the start.

Mike Taylor said...
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Andrew Rilstone said...

Cutty Wren can obviously be taken as a revolutionary song in some way or other. After going to great lengths to catch, kill, and cook the smallest of all birds, only the spare ribs are given to the poor. But presumably it's referring to some older tradition as well.

I'm rather partial to Les Barker's version, sung by June Tabor in an uncharacteristically light moment:

"Its not very big though says Millda to Molda,
We won't need much stuffing I don't see the sense.
Of course its not big though said Molda to Millda,
Its one of the salient features of wrens."

Louise H said...

I'm beginning to quite like some of this stuff. Keep up the links.

Re two guitars; many many years ago I was working for a couple of weeks at the woolly monkey sanctuary in Cornwall and was around for the period round the funeral of the founder. It was a huge old house, with people everywhere and I walked past this room and heard two or quite possibly three people playing acoustic guitars. Glanced in and there was just John Williams (the guitarist, not the composer) twiddling away. How on earth anyone could make that many notes come out of a guitar at once still baffles me.

Mike Taylor said...
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Mike Taylor said...

Also on the subject of one guitarist sounding like many, are you familiar with Phil Keaggy? His wholly absurd piece The Reunion is here on Youtube if you want to get an idea: if the slow part at the beginning bores you (shame on you!), skip forward to 1:00 and listen through to 2:25 or so. Also the section from 3:00 onwards.

Gavin Burrows said...

I'd been tempted to leave a post asking for Doctor Who andfolk stuff, but hadn't wanted to push my luck!

Sam Dodsworth said...

Cutty Wren can obviously be taken as a revolutionary song in some way or other. After going to great lengths to catch, kill, and cook the smallest of all birds, only the spare ribs are given to the poor.

I always imagined it as passers-by questioning a bunch of angry-looking men with weapons who say they're "just going for a little walk".