Thursday, May 05, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (4)

Saturday Evening

The regular reader of this column (I know where he lives) may remember that Clarrie and I have a long standing friendly disagreement about Steve Knightley and Phil Beer.

I say "I am going to a Show of Hands concert", and she says "Don't you mean 'rally'?". I say "I'm going to another Show of Hands concert" and she says "Don't forget your jackboots". I say "I'm going to hear Phil Beer doing a solo gig" and she says or "I expect soon they'll let you join the Party."

This is because they once wrote an ambivalently patriotic song called "Roots" to which we may possibly be returning before too long. We tried to explain this friendly disagreement to a young person in a Watchmen tee shirt in the queue. (We decided it was prudent to form a queue before the headline acts started to be sure of a good position. I think that the main hall was big enough to hold everyone who was at the festival.)

"My friend sometimes calls me a fascist because I like Show of Hands"I remarked.

"You what?" he explained, in a tone of face which suggested "I hope they have found a cure for being crazy when I am a terrible old person of nearly 35."

I have myself in the past sometimes expressed an ambivalence about the group. While I thought that Steve's solo gig at the QEH earlier in the year was splendid, and very much enjoyed Phil fiddling in the Cabot's Circus jazz club the other week, I had to admit that I just didn't think their Cathedral gig was terribly good, and felt myself manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way, by their Colston Hall gig last year.

So I should probably come straight out and say it: this evening was simply the best live gig I've ever seen, by anyone, ever.

Steve comes on stage at 7.30 to introduce Fisherman's Friends. He (Steve) had apparently been asked to put the evening's programme together, and he's treating it as a sort of "Show of Hands revue" He is, after all, the Greatest Living Devonian: they are genuine Cornish fishermen who hit the big-time when they were given a multi-million dollar deal with Universal Music, and a dozen other folk bands all said "Hey! That was meant to be us!"

It's an unusual act by anyone's standards. Ten older men line up on the stage and bellow out shanties and other nautical themed songs, mostly unaccompanied, a few to a single accordion or guitar. There isn't much in the way of sophisticated harmony; and there doesn't seem to be a great deal of interest in the purity of the Tradition. This is, when it comes down to it, eight guys singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Sloop John B" and "Dance to your daddy, my little laddy." (I remember hearing Bob Fox singing a pure, full on geordie version of the song in a pub last year, full of history and his love for his new granddaughter. It almost broke my heart. This was just a catchy tune.) But the sense of fun, and boisterousness and catchiness and lets be honest the sheer volume of the group just carries you along with it. I enjoyed "I thought I heard the captain say / Come lay your money down" and "Bound for south Australia" and "A sailors not a sailor not a sailor any more". It's a mark of how mainstream and commercial they are that they didn't sing the Whale Catchers or Come All Ye Trawler Men (authentic songs about whalers) but did sing the decidedly modern and non-traditional Last Leviathan (about how the last whale has been killed by the horrid fishermen). But they sang it awfully well. And they have a nice line in banter. "I had a sore throat this morning. The doctor told me to such a fishermen's friend.'m not going to say it. Those sorts of joke leave a nasty taste in your mouth." (Apparently, the reason they have to be referred to as Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends is to avoid infringing the cough sweets trademark.)

"Do you like Irish music?" says Cathy Jordan, front man Dervish, in her very broad Limerick accent. "Oh...that's grand, because that's really all we do." Initially I wondered about her diction (I like lyrics, as you know, and was having a problem making them out); but of course she was singing mostly in Gaelic, making strange dance movements, almost seeming to weave a story in the air with her hands. She sings and plays bodhran and sometimes gets out a penny whistle: there's also fiddles, mandolins, accordions and guitars, all contributing to what is technically know as the diddly-diddly-dee style of music. There's an English language ballad about a girl jilting her husband at the alter because she has a man who has more money, more houses, and a better donkey. (It's dedicated to Kate Middleton.) And there's a remarkable re-reading of Bob's Boots of Spanish Leather. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard that song, I'd have £2.53, and I'd never before noticed that there is nothing whatsoever to indicate which side of the dialogue is male and which side is female. When Bob sings it, I'd always thought it was about a girl leaving a boy. Cathy makes it quite clear that it's the girl whose demanding some nice footwear as a consolation prize.

And then, then, then on comes Show of Hands.

Up to this point, you would hardly have know you were in Bristol, or that Bristol had been front page news, all round the world, for all the wrong reasons. "Some of my songs go out of date" says Steve "And some don't". And he launches straight into a song, entirely new to me, called "Is there anything left in England...that's not for sale." It's about going back to his old school and finding the playing fields have been sold and built on. And about politicians taking bribes. And about high streets being taken over. "By Tescos?" he asks. And then straight into Santiago (Chilean exiles returning home), which is usually kept back for the end of the show, and then straight into Phil's fiddle led cover of Springsteen's Jamestown (steel town dies when the industry closes down) and then -- of course -- Country Life (supermarkets selling cheap food and destroying the rural way of life.) 

I wouldn't necessarily say this was a "political" set or that it was "about" the police invasion of Stokes Croft. Steve is always political, that's why (joking apart) people can get annoyed by his lyrics. And he believes that songs -- and I take it, folk songs especially -- can acquire new resonances when they are sung in new contexts. As he always says: he wrote Santiago about Chilean exiles returning home after the fall of Pinochet, but the references to miners, and people emerging from darkness, has linked it irrevocably with the Copiapo disaster. He has a vision of England, just as surely as Guthrie or Dylan had their visions of America. And tonight that vision -- that imaginary England, if you like -- caught, or expressed, the mood of the audience. Of me, anyway. He does all the angry, crowd-pleasing songs. "The coffin of our English dream / Lies out on the village green / While agri-barons CAP in hand / Strip this green and pleasant land"  "Toxic springs you tapped and sold / Poisoned every watering hole / Your probity, you exchanged for gold" Even the lighter songs have an angry edge to them tonight. "Stop Copying Me" is about silly children who think it's funny to repeat the last thing you said. Silly children who think its funny to repeat the last thing you said. But it also becomes a rant about people who computers have put an end to real communication. "You know I've got no space to hang around on Facebook or give my front page another tweak / With mindless wittering, another twat Twittering, when I communicate I SPEAK."

He started to wind up a relatively short set with "Now you're gone / Will you come back to me" a fairly straight and uncharacteristically sunny love song about begging a departed girlfriend to come home.

But Steve doesn't do "encores". Steve prepares a show. A set which had consisted entirely of showstoppers was but the hors d'oeuvre. He brought Fishermans Friends back onto the stage, to join them in Show of Hands answer to a sea-shanty. ("Now give to me a cornishman to eat a tasty pasty / And if inside it's most cold beef he'll never thing nasty"). And then, in what was clearly going to the climax to the entire weekend, the Greatest Living Devonian lead the Worlds Richest Cornishmen and the entire audience in his (yes, heavily romanticized) song of the Cornish Diaspora. Dammit, if the irish and scottish and yorkshire and geordies can get all maudlin from time to time, then I see no reason why the rest of us shouldn't.

The soil was to poor to make Eden,
Granite and sea left no choice
Though visions of heaven sustained us,
When John Wesley gave us a voice...

if we are gong to treat songs as arguments rather than artefact's then I admit I could do without the line in which the 19th century Cornish emigrant howls in horror about a future where the English will live in "our" houses and the Spanish will fish in "our" seas. But this a poem and a performance and Steve is playing the audience like Phil is playing his fiddle. I don't think I've ever been so caught up by a live performane, not even at the opera. I was sobbing by the end of it.

And then. Then. And you have to admire the audacity of the man, the sheer barefaced cheek, he says: "How can we follow that? Well, actually, we can...." And, of course, he does. He brings Dervish back onto the stage, and does a full dress performance of his cod-Irish ballad of the farmer who bets all his money on a horse that he's dreamt will win the big race. ("Lady Luck had come half-way/The horse's name was "Galway Bay"./20-1 the odds that day./I went to make my wager."). Cathy contributes to the vocals: the whole band backs up the climax with a massive, full-on minute of diddly-dee with the audience clapping along to signify the final lap of the big race.... (ten to go, and from the track the hooves were drumming thunder.) I said before that his unaccompanied version at QEH was "as nature intended" but this is as good as the song, or any song, could ever be. I can only hope someone was recording. I have no words. I have no words.

I've said it before, but whatever else he does, Steve Knightley is a folksinger to his core. He wound up the evening by lining up Dervish and Fishermen's Friends on the stage and singing the farewell shanty ("haul away your anchor / tis our sailing time.) Straight. Unaccompanied.

No Roots.

And then everyone piled back into the Fred Wedlock room where Jims Moray and Causley were still engaged in their "silent disco" (where you listen on headphones and choose which DJ you want to listen to). (Jim Causley seems to have done a set of his own, unless he was one of the surprise guests in the programme and I missed him.) Steve and Phil and the friendly fishermen came into the disco as well. The DJs stopped to sing "happy birthday" to Steve. Steve danced with his wife, even when Jim Moray put on "remember you're a womble".

And please note. Here is a man who has just done an awesome and presumably exhausting set, who then walks out into the body of the theatre, and who is not mobbed by fans and autograph hunters, but politely approached, one at a time, by people wanting to shake his hand or offer him a CD to sign.

Why, I may have asked before does, anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

"Show of Hands are a very good live act" said Clairre.



Graham MF Greene said...

I suspect that 'Galway Farmer' caused the same kind of heightened emotional state in me that 'Cousin Jack' caused yourself. Albeit maybe in a different direction.

Also, I believe I gave my permission to be quoted on the condition that I be referred to as 'The sextacular and mysterious Clarrie' throughout.

Bristol Routes said...

Have quoted a bit of this post on my blog at Hope that's okay...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Quote it, swing to it, sing it, yodel it, as the fellow said.

(Yep, I did see Sunday night, but haven't had a spare evening since Wednesday to turn "notes" into "post". Should go up tonight or tomorrow.)

Mike Taylor said...

"Why, I may have asked before does, anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?"

It seems strange to leap straight from "this music is good" to "other music is bad".

Could it possibly be that there are two kinds of good music? Or even more?

Andrew Rilstone said...

By George, I think the fellow may have a point! :)

Gavin Burrows said...

I would say it's analagous to the Hindu concept of Kathenotheism, or "one-God-at-a-time-ism". Folk is my favourite music while I am listening to it. But so is dub, hardcore punk, minimalism, krautrock, electronic noise and probably a whole host of others.