Bristol Folk House
The Ash Keys folk nights have decamped from the quaint, out of the way arts centre in Southville to the community education center and tea-shop on Park Street. I am going to quite miss the old venue's church hall chic and the crazy barmen who sang Basque protest songs and claimed that Chumbawamba saved his life. But the Folk House is easier to get to. (Once the Hobgoblin music shop has finished relocating, it will be very convenient for any performers who need to nip out in the interval and buy a quick accordion.) The big room where they do the gigs, which used to look like a school hall, has undergone some refurbishment recently, and now looks like a school hall.
The new venue retains the slightly rough-and-ready club atmosphere of the old one with local artists opening for the big names. Rachel Dawick, who has recently arrived from New Zealand and apparently spent last week busking in Broadmead started this evening off with some self-written swingy country stuff. Then a local choir called the Roving Blades did a short set of acapella folksy harmony stuff. Rather good, this, I thought: any set which finishes with the audience singing "hi, ho, chicken on a raft" is a good one. I'll even forgive them the extra "local" verses. ("Saturday morning nothing to do / think I'll go to B & Q").
As to the main performer.
Ian King clearly knows and cares about his folk. We're told he used to be a dry stone waller; he talks Yorkshire although he sings with a rock'n'roll accent. He name checks Chris Wood several times. He sings almost entirely traditional material. He's got a band with two electric guitars, a three man brass section and one of those percussionists who plays drums with his hands but also uses the box he's sitting on as an instrument.
His first number was Death and the Maiden. The electrics twanged out a rhythm. The brass kept coming in with little "stings", like an 80s cop show. When Ian eventually started singing, I couldn't quite tell if he was singing the traditional tune, or had simply swiped the words and put them to do new young-people's repetitive beat type thang.
As the evening went on it started to grow on me a bit. The second number was Adieu to Old England, which confirmed that he was sticking to the traditional melodies, more or less. The brass section was largely "replying" to the vocal melody, while the drums carried on doing much the same thing as they had been before. I positively liked the version of Flash Company we finished on: Mr King sort of softened it up so that what's often a beat-out-the-rhythm-in-the-air marching song came out almost as a romantic ballad.
Lots of people have done, and are doing, performances in which someone sings folk songs in a relatively folky way, while something different and modern and instrumental is going on behind it. What makes your Jim Morays and your Bellowheads work for me is very largely the element of surprise: each song is different, and you don't exactly know what's going to happen next. (Bellowhead turn Flash Company into a rather desperate, discordant, out of tune muddle, as if it was being song by a hopeless drunk.) After I'd heard the first couple of songs, I felt I'd "got" Mr King's schtick: trad folk songs with (sticking my neck out here) a "ska" beat behind it. And that sorta kinda worked: but it wasn't interesting enough to keep me excited through a whole set.
Not surprisingly, my favourite part of the evening was the bit where he got out his acoustic guitar and did a rather heartfelt "What is that blood on your shirt sleeve?" without the band. (Not a song I'd heard before, although it's obviously related to the second part of Lucy Wan, which Jim Moray does that weird hip-hop version of, where the young guy who's killed his sister (in that version) and his brother (in this) tries to pass the blood off her blood as horse's blood and then realizes he's going to have to leave the country. One of the fun things about listening to to this stuff is drawing the lines and connecting the dots between different songs and different singers.) He followed this by bringing the Blades back on stage and doing a nice, Raahbin Gentle Raahbin, with them repeating the chorus and him improvising a bit around the verse.
All of which sounds rather more negative than I actually felt. King seems like a good guy with a nice stage manner who cares about the material. The audience (much younger than the usual crowd) seemed very enthusiastic; the girl in front of me tried to start a standing ovation; a young bloke kept shouting "good one, man."
Tell you what. Disregard this review altogether, I'll go get the CD and listen to it a few times and then let you know what I think. Mike Harding says it grew on him.
Looks to me if there are still tickets going for Chris Wood on Saturday. If you're anywhere near Bristol it would be almost sinful to miss it.