Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Sea Men Than I Could Cope With

Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends
Colston Hall, Bristol 25 Nov 2011

Fisherman's Friends do what Fisherman's Friends do very well indeed. But that really is all they do. The trouble with seeing them headlining their own gig (as opposed to doing a set at a festival) is that you get twice as much Fisherman's Friends for your money. And it turns out that there are only so many rollicking bollocking buggering shuggering however it goes songs of the high sea a man can cope with in a single sitting.

There are some attempts to change the tempo. In between the shanties, we get a medley of Methodist hymns. From Sankey's Hymnal: "We used to find that name funny when we were kids....we still do, apparently." The trouble is that what Fisherman's Friend's are doing is basically chapel singing (er, "a capella") and the chosen song is a spiritual with a nautical theme. (“Row for shore sailor, row for the shore, heed not the rolling waves but lean to the oar”)  So it isn't really that much of a change of tempo. "The Cornish Methodists were like the Taliban, only without the sense of bonhomie and good fun".

When you go to hear the same bands more than once, you naturally expect to hear the same jokes as well as the same songs. (I probably know Robin Williamson’s story about putting his harp in the lift as well as he does.) But Jon's patter has become an elephants graveyard of double entendre. "We asked if we could appear on the Parkinson show. He wrote back and said 'No, you can't.' I didn't know he was dyslexic." Despite being famous, they haven't acquired any groupies. There are application forms for us to fill out in the foyer "And for the ladies as well." To the least tall member of the group: "Are you happy?" "Not really, no." "Well, which one are you then?" And, every time someone coughs "Do you want to suck a Fisherman's Friend?....That joke always leaves a nasty taste in the mouth."

The role call at the end of the show pointedly tells us what the boys day jobs are – fisherman, ex-fisherman, ship builder, potter... Now, I don't know what songs Cornish Fishermen really sing at work, but I'm guessing not ones about South Australia or Mexico. I imagine they listen to Radio 1. These are songs from the British and American navies that have become standards. There aren’t about fishing. There is a song about whaling, but it's a modern thing showing sympathy for the poor ickle cephalapod cetacean. (“Last night I heard the cry of my companion / the roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone.") Any melancholy mood is immediately dispersed by Jon: "It's all right, it's only a big lump of sushi.” His schtick is to apologise that some of the songs are too depressing. The sad ones are actually welcome relief from all the rollicking and bollocking.

Jackie "Jim's Brother" Oates opened with a nice trad folkie set, including a Cornish version of the sublime The Trees They Grow So High – "my pretty lad is young, but he's growing". It sounded exactly as if someone had heard "my bonny boy" once and reproduced it from memory, not quite getting the point. You can really imagine some fishwives singing it while working on their lad's nets. There is more authenticity here than in any number of roared out choruses of What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor? The Captain's Daughter was a whip: "Give him a taste of the Captain's daughter." Not "Throw him into bed with the Captain's Daughter". (Have you seen the Captain's daughter? Ha-ha.)

But anything they lack in authenticity the make up for in volume. When they get going on Bound For South Australia or A Sailor's Ain’t A Sailor Ain’t A Sailor Any More it would be churlish not to say "Arrr" and join in the actions. ("Don't  haul up the rope, don't climb up the mast, if you see a sailing ship it might be your last.") Or Pay Me My Money Down. Or Woo Woo Bully In the Alley. Or the penultimate encore, Sloop John B. ("The Beach Boys sang this, and now we've immortalized it.") Last time, I mentioned that Les Barker once raised a question which has always troubled me: what happened to the Sloop John A? But it now occurs to me that this was Nassau, and it was probably actually the Sloop Jumbie. A Jumbie being a corpse that a witch doctor has brought to life. Prone to dancing back to back belly to belly. Serves you right for paying attention to me.

There is a big Cornish Flag over the stage. They play up to Cornish stereotypes straight out of central casting. It's not surprising they ended up advertising fish fingers: Cleave’s stage persona is basically Captain Bird’s Eye. So, they are staunch local people who want us to laugh with them at they grokles and turrists and Americans who visit their village in the summer. "Tin-taggle? Can you imagine King Arthur riding out of Tin-taggle? That's where a fairy would come from. It's Tin-taj-il" "Yes dear. But put the fish knife down." (A pedant would point out that King Arthur didn't ride out of Tintagil, although in the most militantly Welsh version of the story, he was conceived there, so I have.)  On the other hand, they play up to all the nasty jokes that the rest of England makes about Wesk Untry. Port Isaac has just been made a world heritage site for inbreeding. High six!

This makes their rendering of Cousin Jack a little uncomfortable. Steve' Knightley's a serious singer; he's allowed to drag you through dark places in his songs. Fisherman's Friends are a novelty band, and arguably shouldn’t. Steve imagines a 19th century emigre seeing modern Cornwall and despairing "I see the on our house...I see the in our seas...." (Although he often now changes it to "these seas".) The Fishyfriends put it back into the main singalong verse "the English they live in our houses / the Spanish they fish in our seas". If anyone is allowed to be annoyed about international fishing regulations, its a working fishermen. Peter Roe, the oldest member of the group (he's 78, as we keep being told) does a song he wrote himself about how the fishing trade ain't what it used to be due to European regulations. It's no Tiny Fish For Japan, but it comes from the heart. But in the context of rollicking, bollocking, swuggering and buggering, it feels a little uncomfortable for Cleave to put his hand over his heart when he get to "the Spanish they fish in our seas" and very uncomfortable for another member of the group to make what seems to be a clenched fist salute.

I assume you all all saw Jamie Oliver doing his chirpy cockney thing from St Pauls last week? The lady with the stew sells me my coffee in the library canteen, so she does, and sometimes banana cake as well. There's only so many times you can say "vibrant" and "multicultural" in one cookery show; but I did think he was spot on. Saffron doesn’t grow anywhere in England. Think of a famous story set in Cornwall: Jamaica Inn. Think of a typical Jamaican street food: patties. St Piran's flag seems to be an invention of 19th century Cornish language revivalists.

There comes a point where irony gives out. After seventeen or eighteen jokes, you start to think "That's not part of a jolly jack tar persona; that's simply a dirty joke." And then you start asking yourself to what extent the audience are in on the irony. They are certainly enthusiastic. A lot of them stood up at the end. I didn't stand up for Chris Wood. I'm certainly not going to stand up for what is basically a quite good male voice choir.

As a 45 minute festival band, there's no-one to touch them.