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.

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