Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fish Custard is now available in cartons....

The Viewer's Tale volume 2 

Andrew Rilstone's collected reviews and digressions about Doctor Who series 5 (The One With The Guy With The Floppy Hair) is now available in book form from those nice people at Lulu.

Still available...

The Viewer's Tale volume 1
Who Sent the Sentinels
Where Dawkins Went Wrong

and while you are there, why not pick up a copy of Andrew Hickey's splendid book about "The Beatles" as well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You. Could. Not. Make. It. Up.

The timing of the wedding has yet to be fixed. In a bizarre twist, it falls on the same date as Adolf Hitler's macabre marriage to Eva Braun as the Third Reich collapsed. The Nazi dictator married his long-time mistress deep in the Fuehrer's bunker below Berlin as the Russians closed in and the pair committed suicide together the next day. William and Kate are said to be planning a 'very traditional' ceremony to show Britain 'at its best' and intend to have as many people as possible inside the Abbey.

"This is a sad, sad reflection on our times, when people must feed off the carcasses of beloved stories from their youths—just because they can't think of an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea that I made up myself."

Joss Whedon on the "reboot" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
"I’ll be a story in your head, but that’s okay, because we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know. It was the best. A daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you that I stole it? Well, I borrowed it. I always meant to take it back. Oh, that box, Amy, you’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big and little at the same time. Brand-new and ancient and the bluest blue ever. And the times we had, eh? Would had… Never had. In your dreams, they’ll still be there. The Doctor and Amy Pond and the days that never came."

Monday, November 22, 2010

A man thinks that Thing-A is Very Bad. He also thinks that Thing-B is Very Bad. He has to admit, however, that Thing-B makes Thing-A Slightly Less Bad. So he has to concede that if you are going to do Thing-A (which you really shouldn't) then you probably ought to do Thing-B (bad as it is) because it reduces the badness of Thing-A. 

So, for example: someone might say "I don't think you ought to eat animals; and since I don't think you ought to eat animals, I certainly don't think you ought to work in a slaughter house. But since some people are going to eat animals anyway, it's better for there to be some very skilled slaughter house workers who ensure that the cattle are killed quickly and efficiently, than for the job to be done by incompetent botchers who make the poor brutes suffer more than they need to. In that sense, the slaughter-man, while doing a 'bad' thing, is also making a bad thing slightly less bad. 'Making a bad thing slightly less bad' could be described as good'." 

Or: "I don't think we ought to have wars, but if we absolutely must have wars, then at least let's have soldiers who follow the laws of chivalry, obey their commanding officer, don't torture captives or civilians (and lets have clever commanders who win battles efficiently so the dreadful thing doesn't drag on too long.) If war is wicked, then it's wicked to be a soldier; but its possible to be a soldier in such a way as to make war less wicked than it would otherwise be, which is, in that limited sense, good." 

If someone came along and chopped your arm off out of the blue, you would probably be quite peeved. But if your arm was riddled with gangrene and you were about to drop dead, then you'd be quite relieved. You'd probably say "thank you" to the surgeon who performed the amputation. But you'd much rather not have had gangrene to begin with. Something can be "good" in itself, like happiness and sunshine and fluffy animals; but it can also be "good" in the sense of being less bad than the alternative. (Occasionally, without being cruel or callous, we can be thankful or relieved when a very sick or very old person died.)

When the Pope says this, it's terribly surprising, hypocritical and controversial, apparently. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010


My taste is apparently sufficiently mainstream that it overlaps substantially with the judges of the Radio 2 folk awards. That makes me feel -- vindicated. Particularly pleased that Nancy Kerr's "Queen of Waters" and Chris Wood's "Hollow Point" are both up for "Best Song", and Andy Irvine's wonderful "Demon Lover" is up for (but won't win) "Best Traditional Song." Chris is more or less bound to win something -- he's up for best singer, best song, and best album. Obviously, I think it would be a travesty if anything other than "Hollow Point" got the best song prize. (But nothing can be taken for granted: last year Martin Simpson got the prize for the perfectly okay "Patrick Spens" but not for the stunning "One Day".) Maybe then it would get some mainstream attention and we could say "in yer face" to the people who think no-one is writing protest songs any more. Not that it matters, of course. I'm backing Norway for next year's Eurovision. 

A Heretic Writes....

Bristol Old Vic
10 November

Bellowhead are quite good and a bit over the top, in the same way that the Pope is quite religious and a bit Catholic.

Their gig at the Bristol Old Vic sold out practically over night, and an extra one was hastily added, which also appears to have sold out. I get the impression that some fans went to both nights. Possibly in the future we will have to ration Bellowhead tickets, or have a ballot.

All the seating at the Old Vic was in place (last time, the management removed it) but that didn't stop the audience coming to their feet for the first encore ("this is a song about a prostitute") and if not exactly dancing, then at any rate enthusiastically pointing their fingers in the air to indicate that the protagonist was going up to the rigs, down to the jigs, and indeed up to the rigs of London town.

One wonders how much further over the top they can go. The trombonist is, for reasons best known to himself, wearing full clerical robes and a dog collar. The trumpeter keeps standing on his chair. The whole brass section pogo dance at every opportunity. John Spiers (squeeze box) and Sam Sweeny (fiddle and bagpipes) do that thing where they turn and face each other and start to couch down as they play faster and faster. Sam Sweeny wrote his name on my deluxe hard back version of the new CD. He looked about twelve.

Jon Boden is, well, Jon Boden. He finishes "Port of Amsterdam" with legs apart, arms uprasised, having an onstage emotional crisis like a crucified Freddy Mercury. He's wearing a strange sparkly jacket, and has taken to playing some of the percussion. Each time the the viborslap [I looked it up] goes "twang", he looks vaguely surprised.

They maintain their "supergroup" status admirably. For on (or for all I know, several) nights James Fagan (as in "Nancy Kerr and") was at the front with John and Jon. He got to play the banjo in "Cholera Camp". But there's a nagging fear that this has ceased to be about folk music and become about Bellowhead gig. They started out, what, six years ago doing high octane orchestrations of material like Prickly Bush, Slo Gin Set, Haul Away, Horn Fair -- songs that Spiers and Boden had performed to death as a duo. Now they are a fully fledged Phenomenon, the Songs are starting to get lost in the Performance. And the Performance is still wonderful. "Little Sally Racket" is a harmless sea-shanty -- hardly even that, a pub song on the level of Frigging in the Rigging. Jon Boden starts to channel John Lydon screaming the lyrics ("Little Sally Racket / Pawned my best jacket / And the lost the ticket") at the audience so you can't actually hear them -- but then coming to the front of the stage with the other singers and sweetly singing the verse about little Kitty Carson (who ran of with a parson) in close harmony akapella -- if they'd momentary turned back into the Copper Family. It hardly matters if this destroys the song: there wasn't much song there in the first place. But I'm still uneasy about the 1980s ska [check this] brass stings completely taking over "The Two Magicians", which, in the hands of Martin Carthy or Bob Fox, a good story with a good tune. I really felt that they could have been singing anything. The narrative of the "Broomfield Wood" survives the treatment; "The Weaver and the Factory Maid" gets lost completely. Which is why, I guess, they are at their best having a great time in inconsequential shanties and drinking songs. Away you, Santy, my dear honey, oh you New York girls, can't you dance the poker? And why not?

Nothing on their albums or their TV appearances remotely captures just how extreme their stage act as become. Spiers and Boden remain my favourite stage act and I would unhesitatingly drag anyone who thought they didn't like folk music to the Old Vic the next time they pass through Banksyville. If Thursday night hadn't already sold out, I'd have been very tempted to go twice in one week. But I couldn't help thinking of myself crying into my beer during Martin Simpson's Dylan impersonation or being swept away to Otherworlds by Robin Williamson, and wondering is this is really what English folk music is meant to be about. Oh, every got to their feet and jumped in the air in the final final encore of "Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth"; I jumped up and down as well. But my heart wasn't in it. What was it Mr Wordsworth said?

"....and from the rubble gathered up a stone
And pocketed the relic in the guise
Of an enthusiasts, yet in very truth
I looked for something that I could not find
Affecting more emotion than I felt..."

A word, by the way, for Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, the support act. I heard some people being quite rude about them in the interval. There were a couple of glitches in their performances -- untuned violins and forgotten words and what not. I've never seen an act where this kind of thing didn't happen: but your Steve Tilstons and your Martin Simpsons are confident enough to say "I'm singing that bit again cos I cocked it up." These two were obviously nervous, as might be expected when they are, er, opening for the biggest names in folk, and kept drawing attention to their fairly minor mistakes. ("Our CD is on sale. It costs £5. But there are only six tracks, so it's not a bargain or anything.") But this in no way detracted from the act, which was a mixture of innocent, delicate reworkings of traddy material (a haunting, agonizing "Hares on the Mountain", an American variant of "I wish, I wish") and some quirky stuff they'd written themselves. And it was an inspired pairing. Bellowhead are, as I may have mentioned, a little over the top. Jonny and Lucy are so understated that they practically not there at all....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blast From The Past

first published Sep 6th 1997

Oh, what a circus....

Both nuns and mothers worship images
But those the candle lights are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries
But keep a marble or a bronze repose
And yet they too break hearts....

W.B Yeats

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This became redundant the moment Elton John got up to sing Goodbye to Norma Jean in Westminster Abbey. In the modern age, it seems that tragedy and farce have become the same thing.

That said, I admit to having had to clear my throat a couple of times during the service. But then I cry at the end of Watership Down, so what do I know? While the rest of Airstrip 1 struggles to come to its collective senses, there are a couple of things which I feel need to be said. Anyone passing this page hoping to hear something funny should come back next week.

1: The Royal Family are, like it or not powerful symbols.

Symbols are not irrelevant or meaningless, however much we might wish they were. We may disapprove of it; we may deplore it as a focus for neo Fascism or heritage-nostalgia; we may even want to burn it or stick safety pins through it; but the Union Jack is not simply one more geometrical design. When I look at it, I feel something. When I look at the Stars and Stripes, I feel something different, and less vivid. These feelings have very little to do with my opinions about the Act of Settlement, Scottish devolution, the Fifth Amendment or the electric chair. They have more to do with carrier bags, beefeaters, tourists and ladies knickers--or, in the case of Old Glory, with Superman, themed pancake restaurants and sit-coms set in high schools. But the fact that some coloured stripes can call up such strong and definite mental pictures proves that they have significance.

The Royal Family are symbolic in very much the same way. Killing one of them therefore has a very powerful emotional and psychological effect on me: just as burning the Union Jack, inverting the Crucifix or tearing down Nelson's Column would do. I can be as liberal and republican and anarchist as I want, but the death of Diana Spencer means something.

One occasionally meets professing atheists--usually, of the communist, rather than the scientific, persuasion--who affect not to understand why the art gallery was so full of images of the Roman death penalty. No-one is very convinced.

2: Constitutional monarchy is quite a good idea.

A presidency (unless it is created in the throes of a blood-soaked revolution) feels bureaucratic, empty, artificial. It has no symbolic, emotional, or psychological resonances: one feels nothing when one looks at it. No one could ever feel any affection towards The European Union (though they may think it is a very good idea) because it would be a nation built on filing cabinets, press releases, and directives on headed note paper. Having a King with a real honest-to-goodness palace, golden coach, crown, sceptre and ceremonial guards reminds you that your country is a Very Important Thing. It enables you to feel good about it--and indirectly, to feel good about yourself.

The High Church with their incense, silk cassocks, golden chalices, massive cathedrals and awe-inspiring music, have attached a something to their religion which we non-conformists ('turn to page B5 of the yellow service book') have totally chucked out. A good ceremony hits the congregation in the face with the fact that they are in the presence of something unbelievably important. A good state opening of parliament has much the same effect in a secular sphere. 'Look!' it says 'You belong to something very old, and very spectacular, and very special, and very magnificent--and that makes you a very special person, too!' It really is pretty off the point to complain that the Queen is very rich and very expensive. That is the point of her.

I also must admit that I have a grudging affection for all the silly and vulgar traditions which have grown up around the British Royal Family in particular. This has nothing at all to do with the history of the kings of Britain, much less with the Privet Council or the Royal Pejorative. It has more to do with crepe paper and fruit cake on trestle tables; with village fetes; with good natured crowds squeezing into Hyde Park to look at the Royal Wedding fireworks, with slightly tacky souvenirs.

I asked a friend of mine what he remembered of the Silver Jubilee. 'A lot of mugs', he replied.

We have in England an odd, matey affection for our Royals. We call them 'Charles and Di', 'Andy and Fergie', 'The Queen Mum'. If we actually meet them, we call them 'Ma'am' -- what a parlour maid called her employer, or a schoolboy called the headmistress. We knit little booties for their babies, get personal letters on our Golden Wedding Anniversary, and get invited (with thousands of others) to tea and sandwiches in their back garden.

When I look at the Queen's official residence, I think of the Family waving from the balcony on Jubilee day in 1977. I think of a tear-stained Mrs Thatcher being driven through the gates in her limo, to hand in her official resignation. I think of that footage of the Beatles fans climbing over the fence while their idols were getting their MBEs. But mostly, I think that it was the place to which Cer-ristopher Robin went down with Alice. I can't imagine that the White House or the Supreme Court is mixed up with nursery rhymes in the minds of most Americans. Do you think the Queen knows all about me?

3: The Royal Family on the whole perform this ceremonial function very well, but this does not mean that they are remarkable people.

The Divine Right of Kings is a late heresy. When one of our kings started to believe in it, we very properly chopped his head off. I think the King is but a man and what have kings that paupers have not got save ceremony; once more unto the breach et-cetera, et-cetera, et-cetera.

Being Queen of England is significant in precisely the same way that being Queen of the May is significant. You take someone ordinary. You put them in a pretty dress and pour flowers over them. You dance around them, and you sing silly songs. You pretend that the ceremony is just as it's always been, even though it was only invented in your granny's time. It makes you feel good about yourself, your family, and your village, because it symbolises the continuity of English tradition, or the cuteness and innocence of childhood, or the permanence and rebirth of nature, or some other lie. You hope that the little girl chosen will be well-behaved and not spoil the occasion, but her Queen-of-the-Mayness is not dependent on whether she pinched her baby brother's last jelly baby on Friday night.

I believe Diana Spencer to have been a good person. I had a letter from a reader of my webpage condemning Tony Blair for making such a fuss about someone who was nothing but a 'bed-hopping party girl.' I want to encourage people to condemn Tony Blair as often as possible, but I don't want to associate myself with this sort of speaking ill of the dead. Diana Spencer put in more hours work for charity and more visiting of the sick than her job description required her to. She paid more attention to people--held their hands, smiled at them, remembered their names--than the other stuffy Royals. But this is a sort of goodness which is possessed by tens of thousands of nurses, nuns, vicars, salvation army volunteers, doctors, school teachers, social workers and even the odd human being. It is not grounds for canonisation. In normal life, it would not be grounds for an O.B.E.

4: Idolatry is a bad thing

There is no real harm in putting up a statue of Jesus outside your church. There is no harm in getting the best artist in the village to carve it out of the finest materials. There is no harm in using it as a focus for religious devotion: the mental pictures of God which most of us pray to are theologically pretty stupid. (I admit to occasionally falling back on a rotund sepia monarch which lodged itself in my brain in nursery school: fat, jovial, like the man in the moon, and I think--it is hard to bring the image into focus--with an Elizabethan ruff. When I try to do better, I end up worshipping Robert Powell.) And there is probably very little harm in the more naive church goers starting to think that Jesus really does live in the churchyard (just between the porch and Gladys Winterbotham's grave). Maybe it's stupid of them to walk to church every evening to pray to the statue; but if they are really praying, who is going to stop them?

The trouble starts when you start to attribute divine powers to the statue itself. The trouble starts when you think of it, not as an image which helps you point your mind at God, but as a magic statue. Before very long, people think that touching it, or leaving flowers for it makes sure that God will bless you or heal you or make you win the lottery. People queue for hours and hours to touch it. They scream and cry for just one glance. Or else they chip fragments and splinters from it, and put them in magic amulets, and sell them at huge prices and believe that as long as they are wearing them they can eat economy burgers without catching CJD. People who profess atheism--people who have never even heard of Jesus (Sunday school stopped years ago; the teachers are too busy polishing the statue) start doing scientific studies into whether the amulet can heal the sick.

When that happens you can be absolutely sure that the puritans will be arriving on the next train. They will tell you that the statue--not God--is now your object of devotion. They will march into the churchyard and smash it down and use the fragments to pave the road. They will go into the church, and smash up all the other paintings and statues you happen to have there, and then burn the vicar's holiday snaps for good measure. And they will leave you with a reformed, republican, Protestant religion: one free from idol worship, but with no beautiful statues, no focus for the holy--and one where the naive, pious villagers find it very hard to say their prayers, because all their symbols have been taken from them.

5: Our adulation of Diana Spencer has become idolatrous.

For a week, we have been told that Diana Spencer was Special and Unique, not because of her ceremonial and symbolic role, but because she was such a special, unique, saintly person. ('Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint.' If Diana was a saint, what are people going to say about Mother Theresa?) So we have heard about her wonderful charity work, incredible kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, and how she did amazing things like cuddle her children and send them off to expensive boarding schools like everybody else. Ten years ago, the same papers were praising her for hitting her children, but we'll let that pass.

The reasoning seems to be that since millions and millions of people treat her as if she was special, she must actually have been very special. Her lack of stuffiness is the best candidate for Specialness which we have been able to find. I call this superstition. When little children believe (as quoted on Tuesday's Channel 4 news) that 'She was special because she cared about sick children' then I'm afraid that I turn puritan.

We must smash these icons; purify the alters; and prohibit people from praying to plaster saints. If you aren't old enough to treat monarchy sensibly, then you shouldn't be allowed to have one. Our lives will be poorer without these grand ceremonies and daft traditions, but the superstitious worship of a perfectly ordinary human being is a much greater evil. The 'fitting tribute' to Diana Spencer that the press are so worried about should be the dissolution of her cult.

William can be president for life, if he wants to be; but please let's not cut the throat of any more may-queens

Dear Mr PM

Please note. You should have said "The whole country apart from Andrew wishes them every happiness." Or, in your language "The vastmajority of the country wishes them every happiness." Or possibly the "The vast yes majority of the yes country...." Not that Andrew wishes them any ill, of course. I suppose in that sense you are right: I wish them every happiness to the exact same extent that I wish happiness to any other two people I have never met. Apart from Nick Clegg and Tony Blair, obviously. On my way to Tescos, if it wasn't that I live near Stokes Croft and have to pretend that I don't like Tescos, for reasons I can't remember, I walk past the sorting office. I sometimes drop in and pick up a package from Amazon. There's a big sign outside saying "Royal Mail", with a picture of a crown. It's the most decreptit building you ever saw, it looks like a warehouse. On one side there's a small trading estate which I have never been near, and on the other side there's a small local railway station which I have. (In between there are some reasonably nice looking flats. Years ago I was mugged in the ally between my flat and the Royal Mail sorting office.) If you took away the picture of the crown and the word "Royal" you'd have to put something else there. "The British Mail" sounds white and BNP. "The People's Mail" sounds commie. "The Mail" sounds like a racist newspaper. And then Andrew Lloyd Weber would have to write a new national anthem and we'd have to elect a president. The joke used to be that you could summarize the anti-republican argument in two words: President Thatcher. Then it became President Blair. But that was in the days before the whole celebrity thing had gone completely to cock. These days, we'd (seriously, really) be talking about President Boyle or President Goody. So keep up the silly tradition by all means, at least until you can think of something to put in its place. But don't involve me in the back story. It's a bit like the Olympic Games. I'm not against the Egg and Spoon Race. I don't want the Egg and Spoon Race abolished. I'm not even against us hosting the international Egg and Spoon Race, although if it comes to a straight choice between the Olympics and, say, Universities, I'd go for the Universities. But I do rather get bored with the idea that I should, and indeed do, care who win the gold medal in the egg and spoon race, any more than the guys in the running club do, or should, care whether the 1950s Captain America was an imposter. Ho hum. Eighteen months of the Daily Mail calling for mandatory street parties and compulsory bunting, eighteen months of the Guardian saying that anything the working class are interested in should be abolished, eighteen months of the Express saying that Prince Philip dunnit. I think perhaps I shall hibernate.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It went zip when it moved and pop when it stopped, apparently.

Tom Paxton
St George's Hall, Bristol
8 Nov 2010

Confession time. Although I am reliably informed that Tom Paxton is a living legend, I had honestly barely heard of him before tonight. Although it turns out I had heard a lot of his songs. All through his set, I kept saying "Hey...didn't Val Doonican used to sing that?" There are not too many performers in the world who can namecheck Pete Seeger and Vera Lynne in the same evening. Pete Seeger introduced him at Newport; he claims to still listen to the tape to hear Seeger saying calling him "A young guy..." Vera Lynne ("is she still around?") was the most gracious TV host he ever worked with. She covered one of his songs, "Whose Garden Was This?"

The phrase middle-of-the-road kept wandering into my mind.

Paxton is the product of that particular moment in the 60s when card carrying muses were bestowing painfully whimsical children's numbers and biting protest songs on the same performers. The Marvellous Toy ("it went zing when it moved and pop when it stopped etc etc etc etc") has been adapted into a children's book by a Bristol based illustrator, but in his very grandfatherly way, Tom claims not to understand the accompanying I-Phone application.

He gets away with the appalling cod-irish sentiment of "That's my Katie little lady and I love her" by doing it as part of a medley with two other songs about his children. "Jennifer's Rabbit" is much better bit of children's whimsy than the toy which goes zip and pop: it recalls Where the Wild Things Are and Little Nemo. He follows it with a song simply called "Jennifer and Kate": a more recent piece about being a grandpa, and what his two daughters are like now they're grown-ups. ("There is this thing about fathers, they live in their own zone / They tell ya "hi, how are you" then they hand your Mom the phone.")

One certainly can't fault his sincerity. Nor his ability to laugh at himself: he prefaces "Last Thing on My Mind" with an Internet parody of the song. He wishes he could have started a rumour that the Marvelous Toy, like Puff the Magic Dragon, contained hidden drug references. His liberal anger is undimmed by time [good phrase – delete in second draft]. "I hear your government is going to set the unemployed to work. For no pay. What are they going to build? A new pyramid?" But his contemporary protest songs still seem to me to be a little obvious, like Tom Lehrer on a bad day. "Seeing Russia from her back porch / Means she knows foreign relations / And it’s only left-wing media / Who ask for explanations." Sarah Palin not very bright! Hold the front pages! But it's nice, in a depressing kind of way, that "I'm changing my name to Chrysler", with a few name-changes, is as topical today as it was 30 years ago. 

The hall isn't full, but everyone there is a fan; everyone knows all the songs and sings them whether he asks them to or not. I prefer the straight folkie-ballads: "Ramblin' Boy" (knew the song; didn't know it was by him) is wonderful, of course; and his new-ish love song to the peace movement would sound like a hymn even without the Biblical refrain. ("Marching round the White House, marching round the Pentagon / Marching round the mighty missile plants / Speaking truth to power, singing peace in Babylon / Asking us why not give peace a chance"). And I'm finally converted to the ranks of Paxton's fans by the encore. "The Parting Glass" -- sung unplugged at the front of the stage -- is charming. The song about his days of playing coffee houses in the Greenwich Village ("I miss my friends tonight") is a genuinely touching piece of nostalgia. "There's nothing wrong with looking back" he explains "Provided you don't stare". But his tribute to the New York fire-fighters is nothing short of breath-taking.  Remorselessly imagined; terribly specific; and obviously deeply felt. "Thank God we made it to the street; we ran through ash and smoke / I did not know which way to run; I thought that I would choke/ A fireman took me by the arm and pointed me uptown / Then "Christ!" I heard him whisper, as the tower came crashing down" A genuine great contemporary folksong. In which nothing goes zip, pop, or indeed whirr. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

I'm not sleepy...

Martin Simpson

7 Nov
Colston Hall, Bristol

And then there are evenings which you can't even try to review: evenings when the singer -- and, come to that, the audience -- are "in the zone"; when nothing could possibly be better. Evenings which you just don't want to end. The environment had a good deal to do with it, I think: since I was last there, Colston Hall has spruced up the minimal Hall 2. It's still a small room, where you're up close to the singer (and bring your drinks in from the bar) but it's got a proper stage and proper lighting and people sit in rows and listen to the singer. In silence. You don't sing along at a Martin Simpson gig; that would be a kind of sacrilege.

I've sometimes felt he's the kind of performer who improves as he goes along, as if it takes him a few songs to get into the groove. Or maybe it takes me a song or two to get attuned to his musical style; or just that he tends to start with a couple of his Nworelans songs which don't speak to me in the quite the way the English ones do. (He recommends the Princess and the Frog, by the way.) But a few songs in, and I'm with him all the way. A lot of it's the usual Martin Simpson set-list: he has a formidable list of songs that the audience would be dispointed if he didn't play. He finishes the first set with "Never Any Good", of course, and I swear I've never heard him do it better: the left-turn in the final stanza hits me in the gut as if I hadn't heard it fifty times before; he opens the second set with "Come Down Jehovah" and I still maintain he does it better than Chris Wood himself. He does the unbearably sad "One Day". He does that wonderfully bittersweet piece where the oral memories of a nonogenarian folk-performer are set to one of his own accordion tunes.

But he also does a couple of things I've never ever heard before. He does a Leon Rosselson  song called "Palaces of Gold", a strange, bitter piece, written in a sort of mourning plainsong. It was originally written in response to the Aberfan disaster: the children of the rich, it says, don't go to schools where there is a risk of them being buried alive in mining debris. Now we have an old Etonian prime minister claiming that "we're all in this together", Martin thinks it's time to start singing the song again. The slide guitar continues to play the tune for several minutes after the last stanza; as if Martin is responding, musically, emotionally, to the devasting argument that the song has made.

It occurs to me that that makes three of my all time favourite songs are Leon Rosselson covers. Actually, four: Billy Bragg singing "The World Turned Upside Down", Dick Gaughan singing "The World Turned Upside Down" and, for reasons I don't propose to explain this afternoon, Dick Gaughan singing "Stand Up, Stand Up for Judas". (Chumbawamba wreck "The World Turned Upside Down", I have to say.) 

And then – then – Martin does "Hey Mister Tambourine Man", which he may be singing on Dylan's 70th birthday tribute album. He's only done it a few times before, he stumbles once over that swirling, complex lyric, growls at himself, and then carries on. And that may be why this is, I think, the single best thing I've heard during the forty or so gigs I've been to this year. Well, partly because Martin is the best musician I've had the pleasure of hearing, and partly because any reasonably unbiased commentator would regard Mr Tambourine Man as among the best songs ever written by human hand. But more, because this was still partly a work in progress; a performer exploring, coming to grips with, learning about a great song. To borrow a phrase from our friend Andrew Hickey: how can the human race be capable of producing such beauty?

Not to mention Boots of Spanish Leather.

The best thing about these small gigs is that you can grab a word with the performer after the show. I thanked Martin for the show, and asked him to reassure me that he'd be recording Mr Tambourine Man. And he said what a wonderful song it was, how great it was to be exploring those lyrics on the stage, how amazing that Dylan could produce such a song at the age of 20, when all he'd done up to that point was protest songs. Martin may be one of the worlds greatest guitarists and he must have known he'd just done a very special set, but we're all just fans basking under the genius of the almighty Bob.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An English Heart

Waterson : Carthy
Chapel Arts, Bath
Nov 4th

Norma Waterson looks like your granny. Eliza Carthy looks pregnant. Sitting at the back of the stage there's an old man with a warm smile doing that plinky plonky plonk thing on his guitar. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal, chatty. Norma asks if anyone in the audience remembered to bring hot water and towels. Eliza teases her mum about the hypocrisy of doing a song about the evils of rum-drinking. She goes off on an extended ramble about thinking that the Victorian folk music collectors had been literally collecting folk singers. She imagined Cecil Sharp as something out of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. "The Child Ballad Catcher." This kind of thing must come easily when you are the First Family of Folk.

Although "Gift" is billed as a mother and daughter album, this is definitely Norma's night. She has a big folder with the words of the songs in front of her, though she plainly doesn't need it. Any possible sense that she is a "little old lady" vanishes in the first bars of the first song; a rich, deep bluesy version of Lads of Kilkenny. She remains seated throughout, but she sings as much with her hands as with her voice, raising her arms to tell the audience to join in, poking the air with her finger to emphasise a particular line. Her Mum was a proper Victorian, she says, who had prints of Monarch of the Glen and When Did You Last See Your Father in the hall; and her muse seems to be located in the music hall and the parlour rather than on the village green. When the piano accordion and the double base are in full flight, you almost feel you are in a fairground or a circus. "I really, really love this song!" she exclaims before leading the entire company in a rousing ballad (with actions) about the famous lighthouse keeper's daughter. "But Grace had an English heart / and the raging storm she braved / She pulled away o'er the rolling sea / And the crew she saved."

The evening's theme, if it it has one, is looking back – the songs which have been important during Norma's lifetime. So it's not an evening of pure folk: one of the show stoppers is an astonishingly deeply felt "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" (Although perhaps only in the context of folk music could an elderly lady with a Yorkshire accent deliver lines the about looking swell and full of that yankee doodle dum with so much feeling and so little irony.) And the next minute she inhabiting a hard, masculine Richard Thompson number like "God Loves a Drunk."

Mostly, Eliza harmonies and fiddles around her mother's voice, but she dominates and astoishing close harmony re-invention of an ghoulish ballad called "The Cruel Brother." ("What would you leave to your mother dear?" / "This wedding dress that I do wear / Though she must wash it very very clean / For my hearts blood stains every seam"). They wanted a big ballad for the album, so they got down their biggest book of folk lyrics, picked one, cut the lyrics down to a managable number of verses, came up with a new refrain and rearranged the melody. Eliza wanted to sing a song that she remembered from her own childhood, but says that the only ones she could remember involved monsters taking children away and people going to hell. So she settles on the beautiful "Praerie Lullaby". Her dad puts his guitar away and gets out a banjo. 

But it's the sentimental music hall ballads which own the evening. Norma says that for years, she didn't particularly see the pun in Bunch of Thyme. When she first heard Martin singing it, she thought perhaps he was just allergic to thyme.

"No more than the the rest of us" says the old man with the guitar.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Three Folk Singers in a Church Near Wells

Show of Hands
Wells Cathedral
Oct 23

Regular readers may recall that I can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands. Having now seen them do a remarkable, sell out show in a very special setting I can report that I, er, still can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands.

The setting was, of course, very special indeed: Wells Cathedral; tactfully lit, coloured spotlights illuminating the stonework. I did a little reading about medieval architecture during my MA, so was instantly able to identify the style as "twiddly on the outside, but rather plain on the inside". I award several points to the clergyman who introduced the show for managing to say "This is a church, you know," without actually saying "This is a church, you know".

Rather wonderfully, Show of Hands begin their set in darkness, with Steve Knightley  entering from the back of the Cathedral, singing "The preacher of the island" as he walked down the aisle, and then disappearing while Phil Beer did a fiddle piece by himself.

(I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of Shows of Hands' discography, and this was one of a number of songs that I was hearing for the first time. Obviously, when he was "unplugged", you couldn't hear the words perfectly. I therefore very nearly committed a full fledged Mondegreen. I was just about to type that the song was very probably about Caliban.) 

Phil and Steve said that they liked to do shows that are appropriate to the spaces they are performing in. For this "Spires and Beams" tour -- five cathedrals and numerous old churches -- this meant an acoustic, down tempo set, concentrating on reflective pieces. I'm not sure that they didn't take this a little bit too far -- would God really have minded if there'd been just a couple of jigs and reels?

Some of it I like a lot. I thought the recorded version of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" was a slightly obvious response to the global credit thingy but I liked tonight's slowed down version much better -- if only because, in the new form, you could follow every dripping, angry word. I was much less convinced by the slowed down "Country Life" (also sung by Steve walking up and down the aisles) -- but it was nice that the audience knew the song so well that they started hummng the chorus without any prompting. 

I'd never heard the uncharacteristically vicious Sydney Carter song "The Crow on the Cradle" before, nor the weirdo Charles Causley poem which conflates Santa Claus with Herod (this latter leading into a wonderfully extended fiddle riff). To my slight surprise, the highlight was "The Dive", Steve's very personal song about a father and son -- they are separated on a diving expedition, but some paternal link enables the dad to find the boy before he drowns. The only other time I've heard them do this one live, at the atmosphere-free Fiddlers club in Bristol, they filled the stage up with blue smoke and did all sorts of pop starrish lighting tricks, and came across as corny. This time they just sang it, and it worked. It may not be a folk song, really, but its a remarkable bit of song writing. Was there ever a reel/A rod or a line/So strong and true/So straight or fine?/The tide unwound him/Through time and space/He came out the darkness/Right to that place.

And, of course, inevitably, almost a cliche before it happened ,"All the Way To Santiago", the moving, powerful, all-join-in song about human rights which has suddenly becomes a guaranteed, no-question about it show-finisher. It references Chile, it references miner -- it even mentions people coming up from the dark and seeing the sun again -- and it would have a great, great chorus even if wasn't suddenly topical. But they came down onto the floor again for the encore, leading the audience in one last chorus of "The Larks they Sang Melodious" as if to to prove that whatever else they may be, Show of Hands are first and foremost folk singers.

So, why do I remain ambivalent? I think maybe it was a mistake to do a single long set, and maybe the Cathedral wouldn't have collapsed if they'd done a "Roots" or a "Cousin Jack" or a "Keys of Canterbury" or something with a bit more oomph. For the first 40 minutes, I thought that this was maybe the best gig I'd ever been to, with every song dragging me though an emotional crisis; and dropping me out on the other side of it, but in the second half (about the time of the song in which Steve narrowly avoids a car crash and starts to wonder all sorts of deep things about fate and life) my stamina started to give out. I started to feel that all the songs were a bit similar, and that maybe Steve's technique of whispering lines over the closing bars could be given a rest.

I am going to hear them again next month in the less sacred setting of Bristol's Soviet-style era Colston Hall, so maybe I will be able to make my mind up then. 

When England Went Missing...

Robin Williamson
Green Note Cafe, Camden Town
Oct 28

Have the salad, with a choice of five mini-portions of tapas. Or have the special: Louise spoke most highly of the Pumpkin pie. But get there early if you want a seat. I'd be surprised if the venue holds fifty, and all the chairs which aren't actually bar-stools are reserved for diners. We learned our lesson at the Martin Carthy gig in January. This time, I joined the queue at 6PM and kept getting mistaken for the bouncer.

"Which did you like more, the first set or the second set?" said the elderly gentleman I'd been chatting to in the queue. (He used to run a folk club in Newcastle and had lots of stories to tell about performers from the olden days.)

Well... The first set was based around the harp. The songs seemed to run into each other, as if Robin starts with a set-list but keeps finding that the spirit of the music has carried him away. He opens with a couple of traditional Scottish harp pieces, but then (maybe just when we're starting to wonder if this is going to be a purely instrumental set) starts to wonder who moved the black castle and who moved the white queen. Oh it's that old forgotten question: what is it that we are part of? And what is it that we are?

I've been trying to think of a word to describe Williamson. Whimsical? Psychedelic? There's certainly some nonsensical oddness in some of his lyrics ("an elephant madness has covered the sun / the judge and the juries are playing for fun") and some of the time he doesn't so much sing as chant -- even howl -- while his fingers move effortlessly over his harp. Strange? Surreal? But it feels as if the words and the tune and the music are meaningful; as if he really does see himself in the role of an inspired bard and is struggling to put his insights into mortal words.

He does a absolutely astonishing piece called Battle of the Trees – a story of King Arthur from the the Mabinogion or somewhere like that. He sings it, recites it, chants it, improvises around it on the harp. He stops playing to tell the us the names of the three treasures which Arthur was seeking ("Say their names with me") and the three worlds of Celtic mythology. Then he sings a strange ballad which references the song. He says that the stories of "this island" only lived on the printed page, and that was not the place for them, so he developed a way of turning them into performance pieces.

In the second half, he puts the harp away and gets out his guitar. (If the big drum is used at all, it's only for tapping with his foot.) He gives us October Song, of course, and that daft old country and western song called "You keep me stoned on your love" which he loves so much, and gets us all singing along to "Goodbye my sweetheart, goodbye my dear-oh" and an old blues song which goes something like "Whang-dang-doodle". Some singers ask the audience to join in. Williamson improvises around the audience. He growls out different versions of the "whang dang doodle" refrain while the audience keeps up the melody. But always, that hippy strangeness. A song about his mother and the various women who brought him up is called "Since words can fly invisible / I send this song to you my dear ones gone."

He tells us that he's going to finish with a song by "my old friend Mike Heron". This is, of course, Painting Box. The version on 3,000 Layers of the Onion has a slightly knowing whimsicality about it: here, it's distanced and made strange by Williamson's bardic delivery. But the songs seem to take over again, and without anyone having to ask for an encore, he goes straight into Way Back in the 1960s "This was funny when I wrote it, because it was about the future; but now, it's rather sad." No: it's still as clever and strange and funny as it always was, and it always was terribly poignant. "That was way way before before wild World War Three, when England went missing and we moved to Paraguay."

2011, he says, will be his 50th year as a performer.

The first set or the second set? Battle of the Trees is certainly the song I'd like to take home with me: I've literally never heard anything else like it; and I don't think anyone else could do anything remotely similar. Possibly some of the new songs in the second half -- the one about his mother, the one about Bina his wife -- had a slight sense of sameness about them.

But really, it's a half-remarkable question. We weren't there to hear the songs. We were there to hear Robin Williamson. The programme described him as "charismatic". And didn't "charisma" originally mean mean "one with a gift from God"?

Yes; that's the word I was searching for. There's a quality about Williamson and his music which I can only describe as "holiness".