Wednesday, June 22, 2011

follow my twitter feed for my exciting adventures in Glastonbury. at least until the charge runs out on the phone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dick Gaughan

Bristol Folk House
11th June 2011

A Dick Gaughan gig is not for the faint-hearted.

He performs for ninety minutes straight, not singing so much as snarling. His voice has become more and more like a growl as he's got older, but that suits the angry tone of the songs. Fine old rabble-rousers like Tom Paine's Bones jostle with melody-free rants about former comrades who abandoned the Cause. ("I used to see you salute that poster of Che Guevara / I guess it wouldn't look too chic in the house you live in now"). But just when you are starting to wonder if he Dick an endless supply of shouty revolutionary anthems he sits down, chats about General Humbert and the 1798 rebellion and launches into an exquisite six minute Irish lament on his acoustic guitar. 

The invective kicks in early. He starts, as he always does, with the non-specifically inspirational battle hymn "Now what's the use of two strong legs if you only run away and what use is the finest voice if you've nothing good to say...." and then sings a story, new to me, about a man who finds that his vast wealth is no use to him after a shipwreck. ("Think of your favourite banker!") And thence to another new one about some unspecified people entirely failing to notice that their world is collapsing around them. "They all sang Hallelujah as the waves engulfed the land..." "At the time of the last election I decided to write a song venting my anger at a wee institution called New Labour" he explains "but I realized you couldn't write a whole damn song about New Labour..."

Although he claims not to use a set list the evening covers most of the most famous musical bases: we get Song for Ireland, Now Westlin' Winds ("I couldn't imagine not singing it"), Games People Play and the incomparable Both Sides The Tweed. He says he stopped singing the latter for a decade because he couldn't quite work out what it was about: the penny dropped when he heard the quote about it not being our differences which divide us, but our inability to embrace those differences. Prejudice is the most contemptible thing in the world: the one thing he really hates. (Well: one of the things he hates. He's half Irish and half Scottish and thus a passionate advocate "of English independence." The best thing about getting old is that no-one tells him he'll become a Tory when he grows up. "I hate all that patronising shit." But God escapes relatively unscathed this evening: no Pastor Jack or Stand Up, Stand Up For Judas or Son of Man although Old Tom Paine does tell us to kick off religion and monarchy.)

Any performer in this vein risks turning into the parody folk-singer who hates poverty, war and injustice "unlike the rest of you squares". You hate prejudice do you? Pretty controversial. And don't think much of rich bankers? Or New Labour? Very brave of you to say so. His signature song -- which, astonishingly, he says he hasn't sung for years -- assures us that he could sing happy songs if he wanted to "But that wouldn't help those in trouble / That wouldn't help make their pain disappear / And the homeless, the workless, the hopeless and helpless / Wouldn't be any happier, would still live in fear." Indeed, and will Sir be walking on water after Sir has finished singing?

But it doesn't feel like that when you're caught up in a Gaughan performance. Because the anger is so genuine and unaffected. Because the songs are so perfectly crafted. Because for every full-blown rant there is a lyrical traditional poem and that authentic snarling voice soars above the delicate guitar melodies and Robert Burns seem to become a living presence in the room.

Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free

We read that Mr Dylan was unhappy with the job-title of "protest singer": he thought of himself as just a singer. Dick Gaughan quite happily proclaims that it's his job to make people feel angry and sad in order to make the world a better place. There's a thin line between protest singer and preacher; between bard and prophet. But isn't the really great preacher the one who reminds us of the platitudes, the obvious truths that we're always in danger of forgetting?

When you're called for jury service
When your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election
When you freely voice your thought
Don't take these things for granted
For dearly were they bought...

Thank god that there are still guitar wielding prophets like Dick Gaughan.

Angry Scots-Irish Playlist

Jim Moray

Chapel Arts Center, Bath
10th June 2011

It would be terribly easy to underestimate Jim Moray.

The write up on the Bath "Listomania" website, said, in effect "Wow. He does, like, folk songs. But he does them, like, modern." Which he certainly does. But that's hardly a U.S.P, is it? I am told that folk singers were using electrical guitars as long ago as the 1960s. It's not exactly unusual to see an act with a modern drum kit. Where, exactly, are all these po-faced "protectionists" who think that songs should stay exactly the same as they always were?

When I first heard Jim (at Folk By the Oak in 2009) I said -- terribly unfairly -- "Oh...he's just singing standards that no-one else would do, and sticking electric beats behind them. Sort of folk mash up. Quite clever if you like that sort of thing, I suppose." Subsequently, I spotted that he has a voice, as the young people say, to die for. Which he does. He really, really does. His second encore tonight is Valentine (a "morris-waltz-lullaby") full of a poignant urgency which breaks out into bitter-sweet joy in the final stanza. I assume that the refrain "Throw the oats against the vine" means something extremely rude. It leaves the audience feeling warn and lovely, coming as it does after the more obvious show-finisher in which we have all sung about quiet and witty girls by the quayside to the point of exhaustion. And there's a casual informality ("I'm Jim...") to his stage persona which makes it impossible not to like him.

But none of this remotely gives him the credit he deserves as musician, an arranger of music and (it's now very clear) a student of folk music. There's no Early One Morning or Barbary Allen in tonight's set, but there's a fascinating version of an obscure Child ballad called Lord Douglas. He describes it as a work in progress: "cut down from the original 300 verses to only 238",  a composite of  21 different versions incorporating material from a cognate Icelandic saga. The more familiar Rufford Park Poachers is described as "cover version" of a song recorded in 1909  "on wax cylinders". He cares about this stuff.

He takes to the piano for a long Lord Bateman (not as good as Chris Wood's version, but basically, what is?) -- and Vaughan Williams Captain's Apprentice "a jolly song about torturing children" which he thinks inspired Britten's Peter Grimes. There's certainly something operatic about his piano style, sweeping up and down the scale, and weaving in out of the melody. But most of the act is done with a three piece band -- a melodian, a hurdy-gurdy and a freak-out drummer, with Jim himself on electric guitar. The traditional instruments lead and dominate the sound leaving the drums and the guitar to provide seasoning and interpretation of what's basically still a very traditional sound. One only has to watch the way he counts the band in, whisper comments and signal to them to see that Jim is the auteur of the music: not merely a singer with a band, but a conductor, arranger, producer even.

You could write off the four TV screens as gimmickry, a way of saying "this isn't how you imagine folk music!" It's quite fun to be looking at images of pretty girls on a quayside when he's singing about pretty girls on a quayside, though I wasn't quite sure whether the image of Jim stroking an urban fox had much to do with anything. But the screens come into their own in songs like Lucy Wan, perhaps the most representatively off-beat of Jim's numbers. It's one of the most viciously nasty folk songs in the repertoire: about a boy who makes his own sister pregnant, murders her to cover it up and then runs away to sea. The obsessive (almost psychotic) call and response rhythm of the original is transformed into Moray's characteristic keening delivery, so that the verse sounds more like a lament than murder ballad. But his performance is juxtaposed with a modern version of the same story, perpetrated by a Bristol rap artist improbably called Bubz.  "So he has taken his good broadsword / That hangs down by his knee / And plunged it into fare Lucy's heart / To spoil her pretty body"  morphs into "We screwed / You creamed / I stabbed / You screamed" ...." Bubz's contributions appear (as part of a video in the style of a news broadcast) on the TV screens, so that Jim is effectively singing a duet with a recording. As a piece of conceptual art, it comments cleverly on the idea that modern yoof music is frequently condemned for being violent and misogynistic, even though much worse stories have formed part of English popular songs  since the year dot. But the more I hear it, the better it works as a piece of music in its own right. The two versions of the story start quite separate, but by the end, the rap rhythm is existing, quite happily, behind Jim's traditional singing. Jim makes it appear that controlling the electronics, working with the band and singing along with a partner who isn't actually there is easy. I would wager that it isn't.

Is Jim Moray really the biggest thing to hit folk in 30 years? I don't know: there have been an awful lot of acts since 1982. It is very tempting to point at the jiggery pokery and the occasional weird mash ups and say that he's mainly a novelty act or an iconoclast, a man who uses TV screens and rap artists to deliver a well deserved shaking to all those people in po-faced sweaters who don't exist but would jolly well deserve to be shaken up if they did. There may be a small element of that, for example, when he decides to play a Fleetwood Mac song on the banjo. But he's mostly a musician.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alasdair Roberts

Chapel Arts Centre, Bath
9th June

Most artists wind up their acts with something catchy and happy which the audience can sing along to so they leave with the gig with a spring in their step. Alasdair Roberts chooses to end his act with the Cruel Mother, a charming little ditty about a lady who strangles her babies and goes to hell. (Some people have tried to rehabilitate her, pointing out that in the Olden Days, baby-strangling may have been the only viable form of contraception but it's still not an obvious crowd-pleaser.) Granted, we get to sing-along-an-infanticide but it's not the usual "down in the green woods of ivory-oh" refrain. Oh no. Mr Roberts has dug up a version where the refrain goes: "The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall / And the lion shall be lord of all."  Which doesn't seem particularly relevant. He thinks the lion may be a celtic sun god, which hardly helps at all. Oh, and despite having two very good accompanists in tow (Rafe Fitzpatrick, double bass, Stevie Jones, fiddle) he sings it unaccompanied. He's tall and thin; his long guitarist's fingers are clenched like claws; his arms flail as he intones or chants the horrible words until I almost thought he was gong to go into convulsions.

It was in short, absolutely magnificent. As good a piece of straight ballad singing as I think I've ever heard. Readers of Twitter will already be aware that I was ****ing gobsmacked: I can't remember when I've been this enthusiastic about a performer after one hearing. (Mr Chris Wood was and is something of an acquired taste.)

Much of the rest of the evening is equally Scottish and equally miserable. We hear about Bonnie Suzie who was burned (in Dundee) for the unpardonable crime of marrying an Englishman; and the martyrdom of little St Hugh of Lincoln. Roberts is very much concerned about the provenance of his traditional songs. If he is going do a standard like Golden Vanity (the one about the cabin boy who single-handedly sinks a Spanish Galleon while sailing in the low coun-tree) you can be sure it is going to be based on a specific recording made in Edinburgh in 1901. 

But mostly he sings his own songs. Jaw-droppingly brilliant songs. (Literally so: Bristol's leading folk-journalist may be able to provide a sketch of me sitting at my table, open-mouthed, ignoring my beer.) When looking for someone to compare him with, I keep coming back to the Incredible String Band. Much tighter, more focussed, more sober, not to say dour, than the ISB ever were: but the same complex, rambling, freeform songs that take you on a melodic journey, you aren't sure where to. The same preoccupation with the mythic. The same slight tendency toward the overblown lyric. (I scribbled "the psychopomp of the cosmogenic egg" in my notebook at one point.) Some singers introduce songs by saying "this is about the miners' strike" or "this is about growing up in Scunthorpe". Alasdair says things like: "This is about Anankey, who in Greek mythology is the mother of the fates and the holder of the spindle of necessity." But you never feel that the words are taking over. The mythological song starts with an instrumental passage, almost like a Sydney Carter carol; from which the hymn to Ananke seems to arise naturally. "Who is the threader of the needle and who is orderer of all our states; who is the holder of the spindle and who is the architect of all our fates": he sings.  (You can hear the tune in the lyric.) Each gnomic question is repeated over and over, with it's own little tune, and the piece seems to end in a joyful chant "It is Anankey, it is Anankey, by whom we are all begot". (How many lyricists would say "by whom"?) The obligatory Scottish Folksong About Scotland which ends the first set consists of four or five seperate melodic gems, strung out on an end-of-the-pier fiddle-tune. The music-hall melody masks the cynicism. "It's nice to be here on edge of empire.....Oh Caledonia, my Caledonia!...Can't you get over your tiny self?"

It's not really like a traditional song: it's not really like anything else I've ever heard. But it seems to follow some kind of traditional logic: as if he's absorbed the old music's structure and is now freed up to do his own thing within it. (Different from Ian King, who opened for him, who takes traditional songs like Death and the Maiden and uses modern musical styles to explore their potentials.) One thinks of T.S Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, doesn't one, where the most original poet is the one most influenced by all the poets who came before him? I think it comes down to a  particular way of marrying words and music -- or, let's be more specific -- of marrying poem and tune. Becuase tunes are what it's all about: mostly happy tunes, dance tunes, jigs and reels and carols. At times, you almost feel that you are listening to instrumentalists -- a slightly "out there" scottish celidah band, perhaps -- making beautiful music which just somehow happens to perfectly synchronize with the verses of a young poet with a beautiful voice. Or else that your are listening to a poet singer and the instruments just happen to be imitating the rhythms of his voice. Which makes it sound almost Wagnerian. Is that how traditional songs work? The words and the tune equally important; the words telling the story and leaving the singer little scope to pour his emotion or his experience into the lyric because the expression, the emotion, is already there, encoded in the melody. I'm tempted to wonder whether this two pronged attack was what made the performance so very, very powerful: whether simultaneously attending to dense meaningful words and complex melodic tunes draws the audience into a kind of fugue state.

Not wishing to come over all po-faced, but I find myself falling back on metaphors of possession and shamanistic ecstasy and speaking-in-tongues. Some people talk about "the tradition" as if she were a living thing which can speak through a performer who honours her. That was what this evening felt like. As if the Muse had literally taken possession of this thin, wiry guitarist.

Did I mention that I was ****ing gobsmacked?