Andy Irvine ended his first set with his own version of that old poem about the Highwayman (you know, the one who came riding, riding, up to the old Inn door). It took eleven minutes. I have rarely been so totally caught up in a piece of musical storytelling. I caught my breath when "her musket shattered the moonlight...and warned him with her death" as if I had never heard the story before.
"That's the way to sing a ballad!" said Ian Storror who runs the Future Inn gigs. The man in front of me wanted to know if the Tim the Ostler got his comeuppance. It was one of those performances which left me literally lost for words.
I must admit I'd almost overlooked this show -- I didn't recognise Andy Irvine's name and Irish folk music isn't always my favourite cup of extremely strong tea. Fortunately, Ian's write up (which contained the expression "Woody Guthrie, who was to become an enduring influence on his music and outlook") alerted me to the fact that this was the kind of thing I might like. There were, indeed, several songs about people whose hearts are tonight in Ireland and who have left someone or other behind in Galway – but it was the long, traditional, meandering narrative ballads which made the evening for me.
He does "Arthur McBride" to a jauntier, folkier tune than Bob Dylan. His introduction is almost as funny as the actual song. ("...and they tell him they're pacifists. He doesn't believe them. So they make an exception and beat the shite out of him.") His version of "The Demon Lover" (another song which Bob had a shot at) goes back to an older, scarier form of the ballad, which leaves us in no possible doubt as to the identity of the ship's carpenter. (They had not sailed a league, a league / A league but barely three / Until she espied his cloven foot /And she wept right bitterly.) Every folk singer has at least one song about a man being robbed by a prostitute. Irvine does a variation of "Barrack Street", re-imagine by a New Zealand folkie named Bob Bickerton. Same set up: gold-digger comes to town to spend his hard earned cash, but foolishly goes up to girl's room after imbibing whisky and strong porter – but a completely different punch line, in which the tables are turned, and turned again. It brings the house down. Andy says he was very reluctant to release it on record, because that would mean all his live audiences would know the punch line already.
I didn't feel that any Guthrie influence was particularly in evidence tonight. (His records do, indeed, have stirring anthems about unions, strikes and people on long dusty roads, and very good they are too.) But he does have a nice line in turning personal experience directly into song: almost a kind of musical journalism. His signature track is a glorious, rambling, indulgent, autobiographical account of a pub he frequented at the beginning of his career. In a sense, its not much more than a litany of anecdotes about his mates; but the voices are so perfectly observed, and the tune so infectious, that you almost feel you've been transported back to August 1962 (At closing time we didn't go far / Down the road to the Pipe coffee bar/ "The usual suspects there you are / Have you'se no homes to go to?")
And he finishes with "The Boys are On Parade" a wonderfully nuanced anti-war anthem, containing several sides of several arguments, razor sharp language and a string of clever Gilbertian internal rhymes, all counterpointed by a light, jaunty march tune that I literally can't stop humming:
Merely the whim or intuition of an elected politician
Makes a melee without conditions as the monster quits the cage
Its a machine that knows no quarter dealing death and sowing slaughter
Raping mothers, wives and daughters in an all consuming rage....
Why, I sometimes ask myself, does anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?
I've heard Steve Tilston a couple of times before, but I'd never heard him do "The Naked Highwayman" live. And the reason becomes clear: those tongue-twisting rhymes and rhythms must be incredibly hard to sing. Steve ostentatiously gargled water before embarking on it, and still got tangled up in verse 4 (Your money or your life I'll have it's all the same to me / It's hanging for deciet or murder in the first degree.) Doesn't matter a bit: he just goes right on and sings it again. Wonderful, silly song. Set in Brizzle, too. He's just written a novel about Bristol pirates.
He finished with Slip-jigs and Reels. He always does. It's a great sing-a-long ballad which has almost nothing to do with the life of Billy the Kid. It's been covered by – well, everybody. There's a story that he was once in a Whitby cafe when the question "Who wrote the Fairport Convention Song, Slipjigs and Reels?" came up on Mastermind. He spilt all his chips in his excitement.
Thursday night was an anniversary concert: 40 years since he made his first record. An extensive collection of wives, friends and grown-up children joined him on the stage. Martha rushed down from her own gig in Cheltenham to join them for the second half. (I have never heard her before, but she has a voice, as the young people say, to die for.) The Tilston clan were raised near the Worth Valley Railway, and son Joe sings a song called "We Were The Railway Children" which demonstrates that song writing talent is at least partly inherited. All four children bring a cake onto the stage and sing "Happy 40 years in show business to you". "Awww...." say Steve. It looked to me as if Joseph was restraining Brizzle bluesman Keith Warmington from going into a harmonica riff until the last chorus of Slipjigs, so as not to drown out Dad's delicate lyrics. (Well, there's talk of a pistol: some say a knife / But all are agreed there was somebody's wife.) Genius. I used to think it was by Trad. Peter Bellamy recorded it, for goodness sake.
You could mistake a lot of Steve Tilston's output for traditional songs, but he does seem to have become less overtly folky as his career has progressed. He opens the night with "Rocky Road", an early crie de couer about life as a touring musician: it's pretty much a re-write of Prickle Eye Bush, which is part of the joke. But his song-writing seems to me to have improved with age. This isn't one of those gigs where you listen politely to a lot of songs off the new album in the hope he'll eventually do one of the famous ones. The new songs are highlights of the evening. "Pretty Penny", of course; an evisceration of the banking industry, written (Steve swears) before the credit crunch hit. How can you squeeze so much well aimed invective into a song with such a pleasant, lilting tune which drifts into a "la-la-lai" refrain without sounding either corny or forces? (And behind their hedge, they don’t plant wheat /They don’t cut corn, they don’t pick tea / They don’t dig coal, they don’t forge steel /They just push numbers all about /They push too far, we bail em’ out / To keep their fingers firm on fortunes wheel.) Genius. Possibly the highight of the evening for me was "Speaking in Tongues" a spine tinglingly ambivalent patriotic anthem. (First I'm human being then I'm European but I've got to get back home to England...) This is the work of a man who has thought and considered and put both sides of an argument to a catchy tune. And the heart breaking middle-aged waltz, "The Road When I Was Young"; and "Madam Muse", a thought provoking contribution to the "song about not being able to write a song" genre.... the list goes on and on.
For the encore, his current wife joined the informal ensemble to do that Cuban revolutionary thing that Pete Seeger sings in what sounded to me like passable Spanish. Good one to get the audience singing along to. But then Steve and his guitar were left by themselves on the stage to wind up the evening with a work-in-progress called "The Reckoning" about how all the things were are doing to the world and the environment right now are going to have to be paid for by future generations. Another big, moving, thoughtful, intelligent piece.
I left the theatre reminded of the blurb on the back of my copy of Dylan's collect lyrics: the nicest thing about this evening is that there are still more new songs to look forward to.
Martin Carthy/ Dave Swarbrick
It's the modesty and the professionalism of Martin Carthy that blows me away every time I hear him (fourth time this year, if anyone's counting).
He comes onto the stage and starts tuning, and adjusting the mic until it is just so, and making those signals which sound-men are so adept at interpretting, drawing a little smiley face in the air when he's happy with the pick-up; while Dave "Not Dead" Swarbrick is doing something with his fiddle which might be tuning or might be improvisation but which turns out to be a melody, and then unannounced, while the audience is sill settling, Martin, with that serious, humble face, as if the song is singing him, declaims "Sovay, Sovay, all on a day, she's dressed herself in man's array...." I have always loved this song; I think it may be my favourite English traditional number; a strange, melancholy tune; a rip-roaring story, economically told.
As I have said before - I don't play or read music myself, so when it comes to the purely instrumental my ear isn't good enough to distinguish the excellent from there merely very good. I'm told that Swarbrick is the best folk fiddler alive, the one everyone else copies, and can well believe it. He seems to be in good health, propelling himself around the venue with a single walking stick, although he did complain that his seat was uncomfortable. Someone provided a cushion for the second half. His enthusiasm for his instrument and the tradition is absolutely infectious: he keeps smiling at particular riffs, like a comedian telling a favourite joke, and the fizz when the two performers catch each other's eye ("again?" "again!") is a joy to look at. At one point Carthy starts to expound the virtues of a particular tune ("like a lot of English folk songs, it's in the time signature of "one") Swarbs looks puzzled and says "Oh, are we doing that one?" "Diddly, diddly dee" sings Marin. "Not "Dee diddly dee?" he replies.
They take it in turns: Martin and Dave together; then a song with just Martin and his guitar; than a set of jigs or whatnot from Dave. (I do like the way that folk fiddlers describe the things they play, not as "piece of music" or "numbers" but simply as "tunes".) In a funny way, the most spell-binding moment was Dave's description of the writing of the Bunting collection of traditional Irish harp music. (It seems that at the end of the eighteenth century, the city fathers of Belfast held a harp festival in order to make a record of the near extinct Irish tradition. Ten harpists – mostly blind, and one over ninety years old – attended, and the last vestiges of the ancient music was written down.) His account of Blind Mary, a tune possibly written by legendary harpist Turlough Carolan was so exquisite that I could almost forgave it for not having any lyrics. (I, of course, now now regard myself as an expert in this stuff, having listened to all seventeen hours of Ron Kavana's musical history of Ireland on the coach to York the other week. Gosh, wasn't the Times beastly to Parnell?)
Martin did a depressing thing called "The Treadmill Song", not at all like his normal style, which is apparently one of only two authentic prison songs in the repertoire. (He claims to have personally collected the other one from an old school friend who had had a career in the burglary business.) But possibly my favourite song of the evening was "King Willie", a fairy tale about a woman whose mother-in-law curses her always to be pregnant but never to give birth. It was Martin Carthy's own idea to match one set of traditional words to another traditional tune (originally about cider, apparently) but the combination sounds exactly like what a strange, celtic fairy tale ought to sound like.
Sitting in a room with beer while two men sing world-old stories about lady highwaymen, Irish harpers and witches. It really doesn't get much better than this.
Spiers and Boden
Bath Folk Club
The best thing about this evening was Jon Boden's announcement that Bellowhead are doing a second night at Bristol Old Vic in November. (The first night sold out pretty much immediately.)
The best thing about this evening was John Spiers introduction to the medley of hornpipes. "In the middle, there's sea-shanty. It's a sea shanty sandwich. You can sing along. It's called 'Haul away.' The lyrics are: 'haul away.' " I actually laughed for five minutes at that.
The best thing about this evening was also Jon Boden's introduction to "Captain Ward".
Jon: "We'd like to do a song about a pirate."
Member of audience: "Arrr!"
Jon: Well, I suppose we could do a song about a farmer if you'd prefer that...
The best thing about this evening, indeed the best thing, about every Spiers and Boden gig, was "All a Long and Down a Lea" – in which, as regular readers will remember, Bold Sir Rylas kills an Old Lady's spotted pig. The relish with which Boden sings "And now the wild woman Sir Rylas fell on / And split her head down to the chin" becomes more over the top every time he performs it.
The best thing about this evening was the opening set by Jon Boden's taller brother Tom, who turns out to be a most decent folk singer in his own right, offering a funny Barrack Street and a touching version of Stan Rogers' wonderful Lock-Keeper. And also when his brother joined him on the stage and they did Oats and Beans and Barley off the Folksong a Day Project.
The best thing about this evening was the two John's going into Prickle Eye Bush without announcing it, and everybody joining in. But then, everyone joined in everything. How can you not join in Sing High Sing Low and So Sailed We? Or Sailing Down To Old Maui?
In short: the best thing about the evening was everything about it.
And I got to say "Thank you" to Jon at the door on the way out. Bob Dylan doesn't shake hands with the punters, does he? He doesn't even shake hands with the President.
They really are the best live act in the world, and (I still say) much better when they are being nuanced and intimate on a small stage than being over the top and expansive on a big stage with Bellowhead. This really is the folk act for people who think they don't like folk music.
Also heard Eliza Carthy in an open air gig at Bristol Zoo back in August. She's good: lovely voice, good band; but I have to say I find myself a little underwhelmed by some of her material. It's clever, all right. "Mister Magnifico" is, come to think of it, another variation on the "being robbed by prostitute" theme: a middle aged man tries to score with some French students and gets cleaned out by them; "The Rain in Spain" is a weird silly piece which she wonders if the whole of England will become a car park when the population moves to Spain. I couldn't help feeling that the set contained a lot of clever musical jokes I wasn't getting. But I'll have more to say when I hear her and her Mum in more traddy mode next month. I understand her father, whose first name is apparently Martin, will be there as well....