Sunday, December 05, 2010

Follow Me Down

(from Private Eye)
Show of Hands
29 Nov 2010
Colston Hall

"At every trough you stop to feed..." sings Steve Knightley. "WITH WHAT!"

"With you arrogance and ignorance and greed" responds the audience.

"I pray one day we'll all be freed...from your absolute indifference, your avarice incompetence..."he sings.

"Your arrogance and ignorance and greed!" we all sing back.

"A.I.G" sighs Steve, post orgasmically, in case anyone who hadn't heard the song before had somehow missed the point.

"And will you be wearing your jackboots?" said a Certain Person the first time I mentioned that I was going to hear a Show of Hands Concert.


Trying to characterise the group to someone I was chatting to at another gig, I found myself saying "Their concerts can feel a bit like religious revival meetings."

Hmm, again.

I mean, lots of artists allow or encourage the audience to join in their songs. Spiers and Boden always use Bold Sir Rylas a-Hunting Went as a big all-join in set piece; Chris Wood's support guy tried to split the audience in two and get us to sing in harmony; Tom Paxton appeared to take it for granted that we knew all the words of all his songs and were going to go ding when it moved and pop when it stopped whether he told us to or not.

But you feel that Show of Hands numbers are positively written with audience participation in mind. That their studio recordings have an important element missing. That the would be no point in singing Cousin Jack without an audience to bellow along with the chorus. That during the chant bit in Country Life, they're playing the audience like an instrument. That the perfect performance of Roots would be the one where the congregation handled the sea-shanty bit and left the celebrants to do the political argument section by itself. Like I said about the madness which is Bellowhead: you haven't really heard the group unless you've heard them live. Orchastrating some sort of communal experience. The stuff in Roots about singing in pubs and cafes and being buskers true, and even though they're now playing in big venues, there's still something of the pub singer in the way they connect with the audience. "From the Albert Hole to the Albert Hall" as some wiseguy said.

Steve Knightley and Phil Beer fall into an Eric and Ernie routine, with Knightley slipping into the role of the clever, verbose onw whose ego is devastatingly pricked every now and then by the quiet violinist. "Phil is so overwhelmed that he has to leave the stage now" says Steve "Or he would be, if he has bothered to read the set list." This leads into the group's solo spots: Steve does an akapella trad song, the name of which entirely escapes me, about a lady whose sad because her true love has been pressganged; Mirands Sykes puts aside her double bass for a uke and sings something vaudavillish; and Phil does a quite brilliant jaunty fiddle reinvention of Dylans Seven Curses. But not before he's told the story of buisiness consultant who once gave Steve some free advise "Smile once in a while, you miserable bastard."

But there's still something -- uncomfortable? -- about the exercise. After the Bellowhead gig I complained that I wasn't really caught up in the emotion. After Show of Hands, I'm more inclined to complain that I was. Regular readers (Sid and Dorris Bonkers) may remember that after a superlative production of The Valkyrie (an opera), I found myself wondering whether Wagner really was a dangerous man after all: whether this music was literally too powerful to be played. I would hardly go that far about a man with guitar and man with a fiddle and lady with a double bass singing songs about how they once took a wild 16 year old to a festival and wonder what he's doing now, or a lady who won't except a fine silken gown from lovelorn noblemen, even if it does have nine yards drooping and trailing on the ground. I can get as misty eyed as the next man about tin mines and saffron toast: my father was Cornish; I've got ancestors who really did go off and look for gold in South Africa. And as long as you're just howling along, it's a fine song, better than a fine song. "I'm leaving the country behind / and I'm not coming back / so follow me down, Cousin Jack." But there's a nagging feeling: all this emotion is about what, exactly? What am I feeling nostalgic for? The tin mining industry? I heard Bob Fox the other week. His songs were nostalgic for the coal mines and ship yards: but they were real folk songs rooted in real experience written by or for people who had really been down the pits and really knew what it was like. Folk music is always open to the charge of sentimentality; of feeling sad and then feeling sad about the fact your are feeling sad. (So's opera. Wagner especially. So's everything which isn't a Radio 3 masterpiece called Opus 54 in B Sharp Flat.) But isn't there a world of differnece between, say "Whistle of the buzzer/ Time to rise and shine /How I long for Sunday,/When I'm going to the mine." and "Did Joseph once come to St Michaels Mount / Two thousand years pass in a dream/When you're working your way in the darkness,/Deep in the heart of the seam."

But it's an amazing song, and it's an astonishing feeling to be in a packed hall full of people who know the words and the tune. I compromised, this time, and wore the Union Jack tie with the F.A.F badge pinned to it, which hopefully sums up my ambivalnce.

Steve Knightley's son Jack has just ended a course of luekemia treatment at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, maybe five minutes walk from the theater. Of course he pays tribute to the hospital staff; of course he repeats the story of the gig three years ago, just after the diagnosis, where he walked from his son's bedside to the theatre and then back to the hospital. And then he goes into a spirited final encore of "Are we still all right / Are we still strong / We've got one last chance / Lets not get it wrong." Which is another great, fine, song which I happily joined in and sent me out of the theater with a spring in my step tinged with just the right amount of sadness, joy and pain are woven fine, and all that. (Last time I heard him perform in Bristol, he told the same story in the context of "The Dive") God knows one doesn't blame him for referring to his sons illness -- there's probably no singer on earth who wouldn't. But it still makes me uncomfortable. As if I've been manipulated into feeling a certain way about a certain song. Blackmailed, even. And yeah, manipulating feelings is a pretty good definition of what arts all about. Maybe I should shut up.

The support artist was one Rodney Branigan who in between perfectly decent songs in the "heartfelt" mode (a rather intense one about domestic violence stood out) performed guitar riffs which bordered on the tricksy. He finished his act by performing what he described as a song about schizophrenia, in which he started out doing that thang of playing entirely on the fret of the guitar, and ended up playing two guitars at once, swapping them over mid song, even (if what Cliff tells me is right) retuning one of them while playing the other. Clever stuff. Word to the wise, though -- I liked very much the Mexican inspired stuff where you partly use your guitar as percussion instrument, striking it faster and faster with your open hand very much. But describing it as "a song about spanking kids" probably goes down better in Texas than it does it Bristol.

"It doesn't mean he's got talent" says Steve "He just practices a lot".

It's a long time since I can genuinely say that I laughed so much it hurt.

Chris Wood
Colston Hall
28 Nov

I don't really have anything to add to what I said about Chris Wood the last time I heard him. He really is on a whole different level to any other performer I've ever heard.

But I've seen no more than that little boy saw,
and I've certainly learned nothing new
The thinker sits on the brink of eureka,
dizzy with deja vue


We never did Shakespeare nor none of that stuff,
so this isn't no honey tongued sonnet
No sugar, no spice, no je ne cest que,
but doggerel with nothing much on it


Two widows talking:
by the strand they tell their story to a sailor
The sun will bleach their grief a little paler


Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's
Toss a coin into his moat
He can say anything he likes to try and please us
But don't dare ask for our vote


But sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that's not my own
It's a land of hope and glory voice an Anglo-Claxon overblown
Their's is another England that hides behind the red, white and blue
Rule Britannia no thank you

Kathryn Tickell
Bristol Folkhouse
Nov 22nd 2010

Kathryn Tickell plays the Northumbrian Pipes, which are like little bagpipes you hold under your arm and inflate with a bellows. You don't blow down them, so in principle you could sing and play at the same time. She appears in a group with a fiddler (her brother) a squeeze box player and a guitaraist. She sometimes plays the fiddle herself. Together they play tunes, some of which are traditioanl and some of which are new. They are very good indeed and I would like to hear them again some day. However, since I have no knack for dancing about architecture, I propose to not to say anything else.

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