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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Also, this:

Colston Hall
12 Nov 2011

Not my cup of tea at all. They were Celtic folk jazz fusion. There were moments of perfectly nice songs. It's hard to do Lord Franklin's Lament badly, after all. But I don't get jazz. Pippa Marland does a perfectly good rendering of the song: bit too much shutting of eyes and having Emotions for my taste, but that's her style, fair enough. (Proper folk singers are dead-pan and let the song do all the work.) But then somewhere in between verse four and verse five, the violinist (she seemed to be doing long classical violin bow strokes not short stibbly fiddle player ones) starts making some long up and downy noises which don't seem to relate to the song and go on for several hours, after which the audience claps. In the middle of the song. The man next to me particularly claps the pianist, who seems to tinkle tinkle tinkle from one end of the keyboard to the other at the least provocation. (Chico: I can't-a think of the end of this-a song." Groucho: That's funny, I can't think of anything else.) The opening number was about birds of paradise. It seemed over lush, over sweet, over done. Dan was selling BOGOF tickets as if he was fearing an empty hall, but in fact, it seemed full of fans who had seen many permutations of the group and seemed to like them very much. I enjoyed the support act. His name was Mike Scott. He sang oldest-swinger-in-town observational lyrics with strong narratives and clever rhymes. (She sings bad falsetto on the number 14 bus / 'Rock of ages cleft for me', though she sings 'Cleft for us'.) I do not generally review acts I haven't especially enjoyed: not playing or singing myself, I could not begin to explain coherently what someone was doing wrong. It is demonstrably clear that people who like this sort of thing found that this was the sort of thing that they liked, since they clapped and demanded an encore. The forgoing is as much as to say "Andrew doesn't get jazz." Or possibly "Avoid anything that involves the word Celtic" (as opposed to say, "Breton" or "Cornish".) And possibly also "Avoid like the plague anything that involves the word Fusion." 

Canteen, Stokes Croft
13 Nov 2011

Hodmadoddery, once described by Bristol's leading folk blogger (i.e me) as "two men with guitars who sing folksongs" presented a set guaranteed to please all the traddy folkies in the bar (i.e me). When First I Came To Caledonia; John Barleycorn; that one which starts out as King George Commands and We Obey and end up as Spanish Ladies; a really powerful Shoals of Herring. (But then you can hardly get Shoals of Herring wrong, can you?) The loud hairy one strums while the quieter balder one plucks, but there is clever, even witty stuff not drawing attention to itself. Tony goes all Spanish Guitar in Spanish Ladies. Steve introduces Fair Annie (surely the most beautiful song ever written about father-daughter incest) as "copied from Martin Simpson copying from Peter Bellamy" and sure enough Tony's fretwork ([C] Folkbuddy) really is lovingly copied from Martin Simpson. Particularly notable was a very decent Black Waterside, with creditable tinkly guitar that genuinely evoked the ghost of Pentangle. 

As well as any ghost can be evoked on a Sunday afternoon in a bar on Stokes Croft where no-one is actually listening. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Power of Myth

The Emily Portman Trio
Louisiana Bristol
8 Nov 2011

A search for the Facebook page of the Louisiana bar in Bristol directed me to the town of Bristol in Louisiana. Well, there’s a thing.

Not been to the Louisiana before. Tiny little room above a nice pub, just far enough away from the waterfront to be quiet, but not far enough away for it to be a faff to get to. George Orwell would have liked it there. The music space is very small and felt “exclusive” tonight: me and Folkbuddy and about 15 of the (presumably) keenest folkies in Bristol. (I spent an interesting ten minutes before the band came on chatting with Jim Moray about Bob Dylan.)

Emily and her trio (Rachel Newton from the Shee, and Lucy “did a tour with Bellowhead” Farrell) finish their set by coming down off the stage and doing an acoustic encore from the floor. Brand new song. Acoustic. An adult lullaby. It was going to have a werewolf in it, but Emily’s mum persuaded her to leave it out. It’s in harmony, not that close harmony where everyone is singing the same thing a tone or two apart, but complicated harmony where everyone is singing different things and the phrases keep echoing backwards and forwards between voices. I think we’re sailing off to sleep in a boat; I think there is a monster of some kind that we are going to put to sleep; I think it’s a riff on Where The Wild Things Are, but it could just as well have been In the Night Garden. Fairy tales are what Emily Portman does. We’ve already had a song about a drunk lady who has physical wings and learns to fly, based on a novel by Angela Carter which I haven’t read. Angela Carter apparently used to come to folk nights at the Louisiana.

In between the songs, they bubble like schoolgirls; Lucy mentions that a character in one of the songs can "apparate" and admits that they've been listening to Harry Potter audio books in the car. Emily spends a bit too long tuning her banjo; Rachel wonders how she would cope if it had thirty four strings like her harp But the music is astonishingly developed and mature. This doesn't sound like the second album of a very young singer-song writer, but someone has been doing it for years. It doesn’t sound like a gig in a pub, either. The detailed harmonies, the other worldly melodies, hardly seem to be coming from the actual stage.

Emily’s songs take the merest idea or suggestion of a plot from a traditional tale, approaches them at right angles, twists them like a Rubik Cube. It’s intense, immersive writing: these are fairy tales which drop you into the heroine’s head in the middle of the story, and leave you to work out where you are. Who would identify:

Tongue Tied, I am bound
To weave my words with thistledown
Sickle moon, on the moor
Turns thistledown silver and fingers raw

as being the opening of Hans Andersen's “The Wild Swans”, about a princess whose brothers have been turned into a ducks by their mother. (Emily says she’s made them ravens to avoid any unfortunate rhymes. I am sure she knows perfectly well that it’s ravens in the Grimm's version of the story.)

It takes nothing away from Emily’s song writing to say that the climax of the evening was her version of the folk staple The Two Sisters. (We have had cause to discuss it in these columns before: rich suitor favours little sister; so big sister pushes little sister into river and drowns her; passing musician cuts up her body and turns it into a magic harp, as you do.) Emily has found an American version in which the refrain is “oleander yolling” as opposed to “oh the dreadful wind and the rain” (or "bow and balance to me" or " or “by the bony bony banks of London".) Although it's American it's still all about knights and kings and minstrels. Martin Simpson says there version where it’s a banjo, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it. This version ends:

And he took the harp to the kings high hall
There was a court assembled all
And he laid the harp there on a stone
And the harp began to play alone

It sang "yonder sits my lover the king
How he’ll weep at my burying
And yonder sits my sister the queen
She drowned me in the cold cold stream".

I don’t think I’ve heard a version which makes it explicit that the king in the final verse is the rich lover of the opening, which makes the harp's vengeance far nastier. (Carthy’s version has the King and the Queen as the mother and father of the murdered girl, even though she’s not a princess in verse one.) I don’t know to what extent Emily’s version is a composite, but it seems to turn the ballad into one of the most perfectly formed fairy tale plots I’ve ever heard, up there with Gawain and the Green Knight and Rapunzel. Chris Wood was right. Anon really is the greatest writer who ever lived

And Emily has clearly studied Anon’s work: her songs are too complex to be traditional, but the sound traditional. Perhaps she holds the tradition at arms length in the way she arguably does with fairy tales; not immersed in them or in love with them, but scrutinizing them from a distance, twisting them, taking them apart, even, dare I say it, deconstructing them.

With a lovely tunes and lovely lovely harmonies.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

All Tomorrow's Celidahs

June Tabor and the Oysterband
St Georges Bristol
Nov 1 2011

One reaches for words like "statuesque" and "stark" to describe June Tabor. Once one has exhausted ones like "wonderful" and "astonishing." There's often something cross in her delivery; as if the bonny bunch of roses-oh is telling off young Bonaparte for his silly idea of conquering Europe. (What. A. Great. Song. "O, son, look at your father for in St Helena his body lies low /And you may follow after, so beware /Of the Bonny bunch of roses”.) She plants herself on stage, head on one side, and then comes to life and declaims at the audience. She doesn’t do her thing of reciting poems between songs tonight, but her spiels often sound like recitations. She says that she chooses songs for their words and their imagery before their melody. Whether it's the teenage girl who wishes she’d listened to her mother (“But if I had kenned what I no ken / and taken my mummy’s bidding oh / I would no’ be sitting by our fireside / Crying hush to my babby-oh”) or the sailors saying fairwell to their Captain, she has an empathy with the characters in the songs. Even the utterly bizzarre pagan Christian thang about the Kent farmer who names his smallest bonfire after Judas Iscariot. (She’s good at different dialects.) She has great respect for the source singers, and never approaches songs ironically (in the way that Jon Boden or Jim Causely arguably do). She introduces a sentimental Easter carol about the Virgin mourning her son with the matter of fact observation: "Gypsys are very religious people; today many of them are born-again Christians".

The pairing with the Oysterband is not an obvious one; perhaps. She is minimalist, narrativist, a voice which is expressive and dramatic rather than beautiful. They are at the rocky end of folk rock, drums and guitars as well as fiddles and squeeze boxes. She wears a dramatic open buttoned long red coat and stands at the front of the stage; with aging folkies in eighties suits behind her. The one acts almost as a counter melody to the other, as if the Oysters are riffing off the meldoy of Bonny Bunch of Roses or My Captain Calls and June's stripped down singing is hovering in front of it.

There are points where it doesn't perfectly come off. The words of June's ballad about the man who pretends to be dead so that his lover, who won't answer his letters, will have to come to his funeral gets slightly lost in the arrangement (we were, admittedly, towards the back of the auditorium.) There's some cheeky non folky stuff, not all of which I get. June loves the Tradition, but she also loves Songs. On the record All Tommorrows Parties (which I understand to be by one Mr Underground) is dominated by June’s echoey voice, the instruments providing not much more than drum beat. Tonight there’s a more pointedly folkie instrumental. (“We have our own Nico, who can actually sing”). It stands as a song, not as a pastiche. I wasn't sure if the show finishing White Rabbit (by a Mr Aeroplane) merrited its inclusion, except as a joke which everyone apart from me got. But by that point in the evening, everyone, including me, was eating out of the band’s hands to the extent that they could have sung Baa Baa Black Sheep and got a standing ovation. (Chris Wood sometimes sings One Man Went To Mow, come to think of it.)

But the songs. I can be at a gig, admiring the technique and enjoying the noise it makes, and then a song comes and punches me in the solar plexus. The first half ends on a barnstorming rendition of the practically obscene Bonny Suzie Cleland. The last time I heard this song, Alisdair Roberts whispered it to his guitar and left the audience genuinely horrified. Today, if you weren’t paying attention, the sweet refrain (“there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love, oh my love / there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love so early oh”) could be any ballad or any love song, and you are brought up short by where it goes “there lived in a lady in Scotland / she fell in love with an Englishman / and bonny Suzie Cleland’s to be burned-ed in Dundee.” The fiddle adds a sweet diddly-dee between the stanzas. This is an almost celidah version of a song about a woman being burned alive by her own family because she’s married “out”. But angry. None of the horror is lost. It’s in the story. And the tune. 

Her father dragged her to the stake 
Oh my love, oh my love 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Oh my love so early oh 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Her brothers the fire did make
And Bonny Suzie Cleland was burn-ed in Dundee

And then in the second half, June quits the stage and leaves the Oysters to do The Bells of Rymney. Who could have guessed that this was going to be the evening’s climax? A decent enough song, Oranges and Lemons rewritten by a distinctly unjovial Welshman and set to music by Pete Seeger during his Union Sub-Comittee Agenda Blues phase? It outstays its welcome even when Robin Williamson warbles it, and my tolerance for Robin Williamson warbling is considerably greater than the next man’s. But here, the lyric, done pretty straight, competes with a raucus, twangy reggae-ish drum-led background racket. "Who made the mine owners says the black bell of Rhonda; and who killed the miners cries the grim bell of Bliamma?” Mr Seeger, being a folk singer, sang the poem, which is not exactly short, twice. Here it seems to stall or freeze on the first repeat. "Who killed the miners, say the grim bells of Blaimma. Who killed the miners. Who killed the miners.” This, rather than the second encore, was the point in the evenign where I felt like doing a spontaneous standing ovate.

And the last pre-encore number was Seven Curses; morphed from a whining lament into a rhythmical country hoe-down; with the final curses given multiple repeats. A lot like Phil Beer's fiddle cover of the same song now I come to think about it - is there, I wonder, an intermdiate version I don't know?

"So this is the Oysterband and June Tabor playing Bob Dylan, back together" said front man John Jones. "What could be better than that?" Well, quite. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Come Gather Round Friends And I'll Tell You A Tale

Martin Simpson
Chapel Arts, Bath
Oct 22 2011

"Why aren't you all at Martin Simpson?" asked Chris Wood on Friday in Bristol. ("Because he's also playing in Bath on Saturday" replied Folk Buddy #1.) Chris said that he was Martin's house guest a few weeks ago, and that he appears to do nothing all day but play his guitar.

It shows.

I don't know anything about guitar technique, but I can see the way his fingers run up and down the fret, and that he's doing obviously tricksy things involving small re-tunes mid song. Trying to describe his guitar sound makes one grope for words like "ethereal" and "subliminal"; on the record you could mistake him for a harpist; and as everyone says, it sounds as if there are at least two guitars playing. He comes onto the stage and seems to go up and down the scales, as if he’s improvising, sounding as if it’s going to be Spanish classical guitar, with a hint of some tune you know from somewhere beneath the surface, and then starts to sing “They used to tell me I was building a dream....” He’s just made a record of standards. I’d rather envisaged that Chris Wood would be the dark, depressing part of the weekend, but Brother Can You Spare A Dime sets the mood of Martin’s set. Before we leave, we’ve had unemployment (North Country Blues) natural disasters (What Has Happened Round Here is that the Wind Has Changed) and ship wrecks (Patrick Spens.) “What about the happy tune about the old man who played the harmonica every day until his 92nd birthday” I ask “You mean, the one who was kicked out of his home when his daddy died in the first world war?” replied my Folk Buddy #2.

He doesn’t have the greatest singing voice: tonight I felt, more than usual, that he was speaking some of the songs rather than singing them; but this hardly matters because they are perfectly phrased and beautifully felt. One wonders if he’s going to do a whole album of Dylan covers one of these days: I’ve heard him tackle Boots of Spanish Leather and Masters of War. Possibly, tonight's North Country Blues didn’t quite ascend the heights of last year's Mr Tambourine man, where I felt that he was (tentatively, even falteringly) creating his own version of the song. This was very definitely Martin Simpson singing Bob Dylan’s version of the song. But no-one can doubt the craftsmanship with which he retells His Bobness’s depressing story, and how much thought has gone into the surgical changes he makes when the original words just can’t be said in an English accent. (“One morning I woke and the bed it was bare; and I was left all alone with three children”.)

He’s a very autobiographical writer; he can sing a blues as well as anybody ("loo-weeze-anya, they’s tryin' to wash us away..") and spring back into his own (slightly idiosyncratic for my taste) versions of British ballads like Patrick Spens; but the voice he seems most comfortable with is that of the Englishman abroad; the Scunthorp lad who can’t quite believe how far he’s come. (He never fails to sings "I've been to Gary Indiana, Bethlehem P.A....but the furnace never burned as bright as down East Common Lane".) There are wonderfully observed vignettes about a pissed English actor he met in a boarding house in New Orleans; and the Tom Waits-y account of a series of a chance encounters over coffee:

Love never dies, lust loses its shine for sure
Friendship can fade or be forced to a close
Frost follows clear skies in the flat lands I come from, but
At that Arkansas truck-stop, love never dies

Anyone who can write a lyric that perfect has clearly studied long and hard at the feet of almighty Bob. 

While he is by some distance the finest musician I’ve ever heard perform [*] I think Folk Buddy #2  is correct that he doesn’t quite reach Chris Wood’s level as a song writer: he hardly ever gets beyond the specific. It's a person he saw in truck stop; an eccentric Englishman he met in the Deep South; the incredibly unlikely story of the shepherd who toured the world playing the mouth organ at the very end of his life. This is even true of the monumental Never Any Good, a song which loses little of its power even on the tenth or twentieth listening. He says that it's so personal and specific that he didn't expect it to resonate with other people. Well, it depends what you mean by "resonate". It isn't universal; it hasn't told us anything about Fathers and Sons or War that we didn't already know. But it has told us, in six or seven simple verses, a very great deal about Martin Simpsons' father, and a very great deal about Martin Simpson himself.

You showed me eye-bright in the hedgerows
Speedwell and travellers joy
You taught me how to use my eyes when I was just a boy...

"You taught me how to use my eyes...." These are the songs of a man who notices things; you or I would probably not have spotted, or thought to put in writing, that the fellow fixing his car had “two skeleton’s screwing” on his teeshirt. 

It's unhealthy, of course, to imagine that you've got to know someone because you follow their Twitter feed, but I smile every time Martin tweets something like "Beautiful day for dog walking. There was a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the pine tree this morning. Makes me feel good.". Some time ago, someone tweeted a review to the effect that Martin is the best finger-style guitarist in the world. "I am not the best finger-style guitarist in the world" he riposted "But I mean what I play". 

What a lovely man.

[*] Well, there’s Kathryn Tickell, but she doesn’t count. Too many notes.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Chris Wood
Colston Hall, Bristol
Oct 21

I'm sure Chris Wood would hate it if I described him as a prophet. He hates absolute truth and is deprecating about his own talent. "Little folkie me" he calls himself at one point. 

We're a very long way from Christmas, but he opens his set with While Shepherds Watched their Flocks By Night. Perhaps he's telling us that tonight won't be an evening of high seriousness? Or perhaps he just likes the tune? He fills the line about tidings of great joy with a rich, smiling warmth. 

Isn’t this the man who wrote Come Down Jehovah?

But he's an English folksinger, so the great big important subjects keep cropping up. Love. Marriage. Death. Childhood. War. And England; above all England. There is no getting away from England.

His songs start from the heartbreakingly specific; not "childhood", but his children:

hard, my little girls hard;
she's only six but don't cross her
look out here she comes; lock up your sons;
she takes right after her mother

not “marriage”, but his wife:

just last wednesday evening
she kicked off her work shoes
i pour her a large one, and I tell you no lies
she swigs and she shimmies, she looks to the bedroom
and then she looks at me with those great big beautiful downsized eyes...

And not “England”, but particular a bit of ground, a particular street, and a particular point in history:

their's was a gritty England
Workers Playtime saw them through
and an oily rag or two

But he has an astonishing knack of turning a song in the final line, so he's suddenly talking about something bigger and more universal. There's an unbearable intensity when the whimsical anecdotes about his daughter give way to

hard? 'course it's not hard
oh there's no better reason for living....

And I really do mean "unbearable": there's a reflective depth in the way he sings the word "hard" which I found genuinely difficult to listen to. "Last time I sang it, this song sneaked up and bit me on the arse" he explains, and suddenly his is talking about his own childhood, about having been a choir boy. You wait for the cynical punchline, but there is none: he’s just remembering singing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desire at weddings. Didn't he call Handmade Life "church music with drums"?

It’s hard to work out who to compare him with. The Colston Hall's blurb calls him the best English song writer since Richard Thompson, and one can see the comparison: very personal, strong narratives, songs that you could almost, but not quite, mistake for traditional. Chris has an endearingly naive habit of using traditional "tags" in the first lines of songs, almost as if he needs a jingle to get him going ("all the kings horses and all the kings men, I'm sorry but they haven't a clue") but he keeps bringing you up short by lapsing into an unaffected vernacular. Not many lines separate "Awaken arise you drowsy sleeper; awake arise, it's almost day" from

from the front door they'd had him covered
they were right behind him from the start
and though the video was buggered
someone decided he looked the part

The more obvious comparison, the one which he himself makes, is with Martin Carthy. Carthy was the first person he looked up to, he says. You can see the influence in the very un-rock-and-roll way he jerks his guitar in time with the music; with his habit of singing the melody to himself while playing difficult guitar riffs (“come on”) and the way that he is prepared to let the song tell its own story. His tongue twisting delivery of the throwaway joke song Up in The North There Lives a Brisk Couple almost seems to be channelling Martin on the stage. But most of the traditional songs he makes his own. In the hands of the Imagined Village, Cold, Haily, Windy Night is a sing-a-long rabble rouser where you thump your real-ale glasses in time with the chorus. Chris recasts it as an understated, sinister murmur. ("The English traditional version of Sexual Healing", he assure us. “Just let it work for you.”)

He thanks the sound engineer at the beginning of the set, rather than at the end of it because it sounds “so fucking brilloiant” tonight. I don't know what was done to Hall 2 during the refurbishment, but acts keep commenting on how good it is. The acoustics seems to give Chris the confidence to do a more than usually subtle, understated performance. ("He's in the zone tonight" I whispered to my Folk Buddy.) He goes straight into his only instrumental of the night, a traditional tune and one by his friend and squeeze box expert Andy Cutting. "It’s a cracking tune, but it’s a bastard on the guitar." He uses the guitar as if he's having a conversation with the audience. I was about to say "as if he's making love to the audience" but that would be impolite to one who sings so much about marriage.

He's a big fan of marriage -- not Marriage in the politician's sense, but the love between husbands and wives. Before going into My Darling's Downsized he quotes Jake Thackray . [*] This particularly pleased me, as Jake's name came to mind the first time I heard My Darling's Downsized, a "grown-up love song" of domestic commonplace which keeps on raising laughs from the audience

my love for her can't be overstated
it's deep and it's not final salary related

while remaining a powerful celebration of love for a long time partner, and the concept of marriage in general.(He quotes his friend Hugh Lupton on the subject: "I am not your partner. I am your husband. We are not a firm of solicitors.") He shares with Thackray a very English virtue of sensibleness. (I ower this point to my Folk Buddy.)

Indeed, "England" sometimes seems to be a privileged, incantatory word in his singing. I note that the MP's expenses scandal has gone from being "such a quiet revolution" on the CD to "such an English revolution" here. Mentioning England is probably enough to get you labelled “right wing” from some quarters, but he’s very clear that the idea-of-England can be manipulated in bad ways:

sometimes I hear the story told
in a voice that's not my own
a land of hope and glory voice
and anglo-claxon over blown
rule brittania? No thank you

And when he chooses to lay into England, he doesn't spare any punches. The always devastating Hollow Point tonight became a quiet, understated, chilling exercise in forensic rage, a dissection of an appalling injustice by a man who is almost too fatigued to be angry any more, coming to life to delivery the devastating final lines

just a brazillian electrician
christ only know what he came here for
but hollow point was the ammunition
it's our turn now for some shock and awe

The words "hollow point" are delivered with a maniacal glee, like the punch line of a joke, and he almost seems to jig during the final guitar riff, like some musical folk-devil. The song really is almost too intense to listen to. People ask me how I can have made the transition from opera to folk music so suddenly, but Chris Wood shares with Wagner the trick of starting from silence ("awake arise you drowsy sleeper") building emotional intensity until you think he can't go any higher, and then laying on some more ("and through the hourglass the sand is falling / and there is nothing they can do") and, then, crucially, taking you back down to where you started, calm of mind all passion spent, as the fellow said. It's hard to think that he, or anyone, has ever performed this song, or any song, better than he did tonight.

Martin Carthy, Jake Thackray, Richard Thompson, English church music, Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring...a choir boy who doesn't believing in God singing about gardening and small children and little fascists and wrongful executions. Ever since I first encountered Chris (singing the song about the man who loved his own little bit of England too much to sell it, back when we were still allowed to have folk music on the wireless) I have felt that the closest comparison is really with William Blake. And not only because he occasionally calls England "Albion". The combination of sentimental romanticism and sometimes brutal social realism; the depiction of children and hearkening back to his own childhood; the sense that we are in the presence of a specifically English revolutionary prophet. A few songs into the set, Chris told us he had been working on some new songs, but "they hadn't quite come" yet....and seemed to go off on another of his tangents. He's been reading about English history, he says, and it's mostly horrible. Wonderful moments like the invention of the National Health Service were blips in a long history of violence and robber barons, and we are now reverting to type. And then he started to play a strange, almost melodyless elegy, another aching tune of homesickness for a country you never quite knew, sung into the middle-distance almost as if he was improvising it on the spot.

And the words? What else could they possibly have been?

and did those feet in ancient times
walk upon england's mountains green
and was the holy lamb of god
on england's pleasant pastures seen....

[*] "There may be better looking, better cooking women / better slung and better at buns that you..../ but they've all got as like as not / better taste in men than you have got / so darling I'll just have to make do with you."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Dear Andrew, Have you in fact stopped going to folk music altogether?

Actually, I have merely become Remiss in writing up my notes. 

A swift catch-up of the ones which I should have reviewed would include:

Back in July I heard the aforementioned Martin Carthy at the aforementioned Green Note in London. Carthy always leaves me breathless. There aren't too many performers who would play a few bars, and then say "I can't remember how that one goes, I'll play you this instead" – and then, when he gets to the encore, say "I've remembered it now" and embark on all 22 verses of Sir Patrick Spens (Scottish fella whose ship went down.)  He also did a full length Famous Flower of Serving Men, which runs to about 30 verses. He thinks is about May festivals and not cross dressing and burning people at the stake after all. And Clyde Water, singing the whole Child Ballad version, including verses of exposition that usually get skipped: He thought it was his darling dear / Rose up and let him in / He thought it was his darling dear / But it was no such thing / It was the voice of her mother / She sounded just the same... This is why I will go and hear Carthy over and over again: he seems to know every verse of every song in the world and always be able to pull one out of his hat one that you haven’t heard before.

The following night I heard the aforementioned Alisdair Roberts at the same venue.  I was almost hoping to be disappointed by this: I felt he couldn't possibly be as good as my last review said he was. But I was disappointed, in the sense of not. I don't know how he does it; I really don't. Utter faith in the material, I think. He presents Bonny Suzie Cleland absolutely unflinchingly; detatchedly; when he comes to the end (“her brothers did the fire make and her father dragged her to the stake”) there’s a palpable gasp from the audience and an uncomfortable pause as if we couldn't quite decide whether you were allowed to clap or not. He manages to present the corniest song in the repertoire, Barbara Allen, as if no-one had ever heard it before – as if the tragedy makes perfect sense as a thing that might have happened. And then does one of his own songs which include lyrics like "the people that we know as heroes / are those who walk the line twixt thanatos and eros" and get away with that too. Not so much a genius as a phenomenon, in the sense of "force of nature".

First week of August was the Bath Folk Festival in the Widdcombe club in Bath. Rather improved in format compared with the last year, I thought, with three acts doing shortish sets each night, and odd surprises like an invasion by a mob of unseasonal Mummers. My notes appear to be rather patchy: I definitely recall hearing Steve Tilston singing songs of his new album, including the soon to be standard The Reckoning and an excellent young traddy ballad singer called James Findley who I want to hear again; and lots of instrumental music of various ethnicities.

Following weekend was a one day mini festival in Scarborough, imaginatively called Scarborough Fair. An odd one, this. The open air arena was barely half full, despite a programme made up entirely of headliners: one of the organisers rather plaintively asked us to call up our friends and tell them that they could still turn up on the door and hear (the mighty) Bellowhead. It was one of those venues with plastic, football stadium style seating and a very large stage, separated from the audience by 40 feet and a river. You could have sunk several Green Notes in the space between the audience and the front row. Which would have been a shame, because they would have drowned, but it’s the principle of the thing. With even (the mighty) Bellowhead struggling a little to put themselves across, what chance did a man with a guitar and a man with a fiddle have. Even if the man with the guitar and the man with the fiddle happened to be Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick? Jim Moray (see what I mean about headlines?) fitted in a lot better, although even he struggled to get the diffuse audience joining in with the village and city girls by the quayside. I give him a lot of points for tackling Lord Douglas -- his ongoing work in progress reworking of a traditional ballad, I think it comes out of the Cecil Sharp project – which is not a festival crowd pleaser but gets better and better every time I hear it.

I was introduced to two bands I'd never heard before: Duncan McFarlane and his band are very solid folk rockers who would probably like to be Show of Hands when they grow up: there's something of the pub band about them, but the guitars and drums don't swamp the fiddles and squeeze boxes. I wrote "Hoddamadoddery with amps" in my note book, which is probably not fair to either group. They finished on a rip-roaring Cold Hard Haily Night. No ones roar can fail to be ripped with that song.

I had also not heard the Demon Barbers before, which was remiss of me. I was about to say "sub Bellowhead" but checking the dates, I think possibly (the mighty) Bellowhead are sub Damien Barber... They do a nice a line in cheeky treatments of fairly familiar folkie fair: "Captain Ward" (which t.m Bellowhead also sing) has acquired a superheroic chorus which goes "Captain Ward...Captain Ward..Captain Ward". And they wound up with A Friend of the Devil Is a Friend of Mine which isn’t strictly traditional, I don't think. But they also (this being the Demon Barbers roadshow) had bevvys of clog dancers and rappa dancers on the stage and in one wonderfully audacious coup d'arena had two male morris dancers peforming morris steps in the style of a ballet recital. As if to make the point about just how graceful and skillful that kind of dancing is once you take away the bells and the hats. Or possibly that the rest of the troup hadn't showed up.

And there is, of course, nothing in the world like Jon Boden singing Port of Amsterdam with the serried ranks of the mighty Bellowhead behind him. Unless it is a Bellowhead audience using hand signals to agree that our hero has gone UP to the rigs, DOWN to the jigs, UP to the rigs of …. you know the song.

But in a funny way, the thing which made the festival for me was the tiny second stage. Nice bit of planning, so that you could wander to the other end of the arena and watch local bands while the sound checks were being done on the main stage. One such was a very young group called The Sail Pattern doing a combination of semi-traditional sea shanties and weirdly authentic self written material in a sort of hyper-rock style, rather as if the Pogues had taken to doing English sea songs. And as if they were fresh faced seventeen year olds with teeth. I am not sure if someone that young ought to be allowed to sing something as grim as Hold Fast (“sew me up / wrapped in sail / commit me to the sea / hold fast boys / hold fast boys / put the last stitch in me”.) . And it takes lots and lots of chutzpah, in a good way, to sing your version of Haul Away (“a puppet’s on the throne of Spain and Bonapart’s in Cairo / with Nelson’s ship we sailed away and fought them on the Nile-oh”) half an hour before Bellowhead are going to take to the main stage. And winding up your short set with the tongue twistering Mary Mac’s Mother’s Making Mary Mac Marry Me, My Mother’s Making Me Marry Mary Mac is just showing off, frankly. Rather endearingly, they seemed surprised that anyone wanted to buy their CDs and hadn't brought enough. You can download their stuff for a fiver from  Go on: they deserve your encouragement and you can claim you were a fan before they became famous. Which they are so going to do.

Robin Williamson did a gig a gig in the crypt of Woodlands Church, Clifton in September. Bob Dylan, you may have noticed, hardly ever plays in church halls. You hardly ever get to say "Thank you for a great set, Bob," after the show. And yet the Incredible String Band, in their day, were as great and as important as Bob, and I am not sure which I would choose between The Big Huge and The Times They Are a Changing if condemned to share a desert island with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Williamson seems to like doing small, community venues, I think it suits his image of himself as a bard or shaman or storyteller. (He sees himself as too Christian for the druids but too pagan for the Christians, apparently.) He’s accompanied by  his wifeand muse Bina, who plays the bowed psaltery (I looked it up) and contributes Punjabi wedding songs in which Robin and the audience can only discern the word "tandori". (She encourages the audience to sing along with everything. "Only in the chorus" says Robin, pointedly.) Robin, as we've seen before, has eclectic tastes; this isn’t a "religious" concert but he’s slanting the repertoire to the location. He does a bluesy spiritual which, he points out, was also in his granny's Presbyterian hymnal; the audience sway along to "hide me in the blood; hide me in the blood; hide me in the blood of Jesus". He does a Latin version of Psalm 24 delightedly pointing out that although the Psalms are by far the oldest songs still in actual use, no-one knows what tunes they were originally sung to. (There is, apparently, an ancient document claiming that they were sung solemnly, "in the Egyptian style", but since no-one knows what the Egyptian style is, Robin says that he's going to sing it joyfully in the South American style.) He tells a folktale about three soldiers who make a bet with the devil, and does a perfect imitation of a hot Gospel evangelist. “If you’ve never met the devil face to face – if you’ve never met the devil face to face – if you’ve never met the devil face to face – then maybe it’s because you’re headed the same way he is.” He has us all singing his version of the old Irish riddle song

Greater than god, worse than the devil
Dead men eat it, if you eat it you’ll die
Come from nothing, go to nothing
If I tell you nothing then I’ll tell you no lie.

There is chocolate cake and nachos in the interval; the church sticks to a "give whatever you like" rule for refreshments, which puts everyone in a happy mood and probably means they make more money then they would have done if they'd charged. Robin has shaved his beard off since the last time I saw him.

Heard Swarbs again and Carthy again again in the much more congenial surroundings of St George's Bristol. "The programme notes say we're the best loved duo since Morcambe and Wise" says Swarbs "So we're going to play all the right notes..." There really is nothing in the world like hearing Swarbrick's fiddle spiralling around Carthy's plinky plonky guitar while Carthy tells the story of the lady who dressed up as a highwayman to find out if her boyfriend loves her as if it has never, ever been told before. Carthy always claims that the Treadmill song is the only prison folksong in the repertoire (because the collectors didn't go and talk to prisoners.) Someone in his audience in Wakefield pointed out that he almost certainly knew the Wakefield prison song: "Here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning." There apparently being a mulberry bush in the prison yard. Finished with Byker Hill; guitarist and fiddler singing about geordies wanting to buy beer. Doesn't get much folkier than that.

When Jim Causley sings Summer Girls he introduces it by saying "I would tell you who it's by, but you'd just go "meh...Streets of London." I don't know if I would quite go "meh". Bristol's foremost citizen folk journalist despises the song, apparently: it's just about spoiled middle class people going out at an looking at some poor people in order to make themselves feel better. I wouldn't go that far myself: it's a little sentimental ("in the same way that the sun is a little hot") but it's a nice enough melody, has some decent images ("looking at the world over the rim of his tea-cup") and "Cheer up,  there is probably someone worse off than yourself" isn't a completely contemptible sentiment. If was going to take exception to something, it might have been First and Last Man, which seems to play on all the most patronising cliches about Native Americans ("I am the willing heathen /  I worship everything / I will add new words to my language / But write them on the wind."). But as we've discussed before, songs and arguments, and it's presents a powerful enough story-world while you are inside it. But overall, I was a little underwhelmed by Ralph Mctell's set in St Georges (again) at the beginning of October. I felt that I should have liked him: he opened with I Been Doing Some Hard Travelling and says he is is old enough to have been Woody Guthrie's penpal. The distance from "in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office, I saw my people" and  "have you seen the old man who walks the streets of London" isn't infinite, come to think of it. (Guthrie never wrote back to him, being incarcerated in a mental hospital at the time. A lot of his banter involves dark twists like this: he introduces an impenetrable song about his mother by saying "she lives in a world adjacent to our own" and after the laugh, reveals that he meant that she had dementia. [*]) And then it's into a decent cover of Girl From the North Country and after a short but heartfelt tribute to Bob. (He's working on a song about Suzie Rotolo, which she won't hear, because she died earlier in the year.) But somehow, the evening never caught fire for me. I get the impression that McTell sees himself as a poet and some of the writing is of a pretty high order. The London Apprentice builds up a complicated metaphor about life based on, er, the streets of London, but is rather denser than I can take in at one hearing. 

I am a London apprentice I never learned her ways 
When I walk the streets of London I'm constantly amazed 
How a road I never was on before leads to one I know 
As any cabbie will tell you that's how all knowledge grows

I enjoyed his meditation on time based on Bernstien's flashback in Citizen Kane ("it's funny the things a fella will remember"), but I question if the song actually said anything that Orson Welles hadn't already said almost as well. I did enjoy his closing number, the rocky "mythologisation" of the relationship between Bert Jansch and Annie Briggs.

Bert died a few days later, of course. When I wrote that the Pentangle set at Glastonbury in June made a weekend of sinking up to my knees in mud worthwhile, I didn't realised that this would be the last but one time they would play together. 

Spiers and Boden did a pretty standard Spiers and Boden set at Colston Hall in September. Clearly, no-one can sing a ballad like Jon Boden and no-one can play the squeezebox like John Spiers and if you have never heard them you should, as they say, kill to get a ticket. But I couldn’t help noticing that the only number that I hadn’t heard them play before was New York Girls, which (the mighty) Bellowhead have made their own. Almost as if Bellowhead, which used to be about taking and embellishing songs which the duo had thrashed out is now the place where new material is being created. That's a shame, because much as I like t.m. Bellowhead, Jon's genius as a story teller and interpreterer of ballads is seen with more detail and nuance when accompanied only by fiddle, squeeze box or guitar. Maybe some of those 365 folksongs he sang last year could find their way into some fresh Spiers and Boden set? (What price a full dress Spiers and Boden rendering of the Lock Keeper, or the Mistletoe Bough, or Oor Hamlet, even? Not Rock Candy Mountains under any circumstances. That was a mistake.) Still, one should never pass up the opportunity to hear the story of Squire Willie and his psychotic hanging-mad employer; or to bellow along to the tale of Sir Rylas and the spotted pig; or to sing along to Sailing Down to Old Maui. With the exception of Carthy and Swarbs, they're the best folk duo going. I just hope the success of Bellowhead doesn't mean they are going to become fossilized. 

The up and coming -- in fact very nearly already arrived -- Pilgrims Way did a free gig in the frankly uncongenial surroundings of Stokes Croft's very own Canteen, a sort of bar-restaurant-venue legally squatting in an open plan office. I mean, the whole point of the Canteen is "a bar with good live music", but I didn't think Lucy Wright's sweet vocals and excellent story telling was shown off to the best affect in an atmosphere where people were buying drinks and making a noise. Even if that's exactly the environment where The Hand Weaver and the Factory Maid, which she does brilliantly, was originally played. Although possibly not with a Jews Harp.

I also heard some old guy doing a Bob Dylan tribute act in Cardiff.

[*] I owe this point to b.f.c.f.j.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Theology Redux

The Ju-Ju gave us these magic biscuits. If you eat them, you will live for ever.

That’s not quite right. If you do the magic dance the Ju-Ju taught us, you will live for ever. Eating biscuits is an important part of the ceremony, of course, but it is the whole dance that’s magic: there’s nothing special about the actual biscuits themselves.

That’s not quite right. The magic isn’t in the biscuit or the dance; the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly. The dance is just a way of helping you focus.

That’s not quite right. Since the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly, there’s no real need for anything else. Some people say that we’ve gone away from the Ju-Ju by giving up eating magic biscuits and dancing magic dances, but that’s not really true. It's just that we’ve spotted that our whole life is part of the dance, and all the biscuits we eat are magical.

That’s not quite right. The magic doesn’t come from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju or submitting to him; it comes from living as he did, and working to put his political principles into practice in today’s world. That’s what he meant by “dancing”. And “magic” biscuits are biscuits which you share with people who don’t have any biscuits of their own; and that applies to all other kinds of food as well. And "for ever" means “in a world where no one starves or begs for bread; where everyone gives what they can and takes what they need; where health care is free at the point of need; and where countries settle their problems without wars.”

That’s not quite right. The Ju-Ju came to show people that their belief in magic biscuits, magic dances and living forever was completely wrong, and, in fact wicked: that the whole idea of a magic biscuits which makes you lived for ever is, in fact evil. He was only interested in sharing food, socialized medicine, and countries solving their problems without wars. Some bad people came along and added magic biscuits and magic dances to his supposed teachings for their own ends.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this.
SK was clearly being mischievous (a thing which has almost never happened before) when he pretended that everyone would immediately see that Arians weren't Christians. This left an obvious opening for Sam to pretend that couldn't see any difference between the two positions. The Dawk, after all, uses Arius vs Athanasius as his main example of meaningless theological debate.

Sam, of course, plays the standard counter-gambit – since the Aristotelian terms "same substance" / "similar substance" sound obscure and strange to us, they can't signify any real disagreement; the two schools must have been arguing about nothing whatsoever; Christians are silly etc etc. If charity were really the order of the day, he might have asked whether it made any difference if you believed that Jesus was the Creator, or merely a sub-ordinate creature. But that would require us to ask "what do we mean by difference"? That chap who did the History of Christianity on the Beeb a couple of years back pointed out that Arian art depicted a realistic, human Jesus who appears to age during his ministry, where Byzantine art of the same period depicts a more distanced, obviously divine figure. But that's a bit of a rarefied distinction. I am quite sure that Sam would be able to quite easily spot an Arian by its behaviour. It would be the one wearing a headscarf, knocking on his front door, and asking him to buy a copy of the Watchtower. Is that the kind of difference we are looking for?

We are of course, not permitted to say that "Well, the positions are different because the people who believe in the two positions believe that they are different" because Sam could then play his "Popular Front of Judea vs Judean Popular Front" card. 

In all seriousness. Christians seem able to disagree with each other about quite big theological questions, and still regard each other as "fellow-Christians", albeit "fellow-Christians who should jolly well stop denying the miracle of the mass / worshipping a biscuit and come back to the true church". But Christians have found that the question of the Trinity is one about which they are unable to agree to differ. It's not a question of poor hard done by Arians saying "But we are Christians, the same as you: please let us back into your church." Trinitarians think that Arians aren't Christians; Arians think that they are the only Christians. They knock on my door early on Saturday mornings and try to convert me, which the Bishop of Rome, to give him his due, has never done.

I don't think that the question about whether the Holy Spirit proceeeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone is a question about nothing; I think I could have a stab at saying what the difference is and why it seemed to be important. But the Pope in Rome regards the Patriarch in ... wherever he lives, do you know, I honestly don't know... not merely as a fellow Christian, but as a fellow Christian who is so near to being a Catholic as practically makes no difference. Even though he's quite sure that he's wrong about filoque.

So why do questions like Arianism not admit of the same kind of compromise?

I understand that from a position outside of any Church, this might look odd; could Sam accept that from a position inside the Church, it seems obvious. (Obvious that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon's aren't Christians, but that Anglicans are simply fellow Christians who've got it badly wrong about infant baptism.) Could he perhaps accept on trust that the person of Christ is what Christianity is about; in fact what Christianity is (in the way that the Koran is what Islam is) and that while there can be very great differences of opinion about baptism, Eucharist and even ethics, you can't mess around with our understanding of who Christ is without changing – or in fact obliterating – our faith.

To press the analogy in a possibly ignorant direction; I don't think that there has ever been a textually liberal form of Islam – the Koran is either the actual word of God, or it is nothing, and without the Koran there is no Muslim religion. Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means? But I may be wrong about that.

There are certainly clergy who take the view that Jesus was a teacher of ethics; that he preached a radical, revolutionary message; that his death was a political martyrdom; and that the resurrection is to be understood simply in terms of "his followers kept following his political message even after he died." Does Sam genuinely not see that this is different from the mainstream position that god came down from heaven, died on the cross to enable human beings to go to heaven, came back to life after he had been killed, and then went back to heaven? Does he genuinely not see why I, coming from the second perspective, would not be prepared to call the first one "Christian"?

Is the point "I don't think Giles Fraser really takes the liberal – modernist position that your ascribe to him."? (I am perfectly happy to concede that I may have misjudged him.)

Is the point "It doesn't matter if Giles Fraser takes the liberal - modernist position, because the liberal – modernist position is in fact indistinguishable form the traditional – conservative position." (In which case Fraser is equally to blame, since he appears to deny that Catholics and Evangelicals are Christians in any meaningful sense.) 

Or is the point "It couldn't possibly make any difference whether Fraser is a liberal – modernist or a traditional – conservative because all religious positions are equally meaningless? "

I think that Sam, being what C.S Lewis called a naturalist, may find it genuinely difficult to believe that Christians are what C.S Lewis called supernaturalists. I think that he finds the idea that there is Something Else apart from the scientifically observable universe so strange that he thinks that whenever Christians seem to be talking about something supernatural, they must really be talking about something natural. "I know you say that you say that you think that Jesus died so you could get in touch with God, but you can't really mean that: you must really mean 'so that you can form a more just society' or 'so you can overcome your psychological hangups' ".

I don't think that any good Christian has ever quite believed in the parody of the Atonement which Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser abominate. This is sometimes called "Penal Substitution": I prefer to call it the Tom Sawyer theory. (God wants to whip Becky Thatcher; but Tom Sawyer, who is innocent, volunteers to get whipped instead, so Becky Thatcher gets off scot free.) As committed a death-cultist as John Stott points out that it doesn't work because it's not fully Trinitarian: God is in fact both the one doing the punishing and the one getting punished. Mr C.S Lewis starts out his chapter on the Atonement by saying that before he was a Christian, he thought that the whipping boy theory  was the one he had to believe, and that it made no sense to him. He said that once he became a Christian, even the theory of one person getting punished on someone else's behalf seemed less immoral than it had; and if you changed it to "paying a debt" or "standing the racket" then it made more sense; because it's a matter of common experience that one one person has got himself in trouble, it's the innocent person who isn't in trouble who has to get him out of it. He then propounds a rather complicated theory, based on Anselm, about human beings needing to "go back" to God, but not being able to, and Jesus doing the "going back" on our behalf.

Again: I don't quite know whether Sam really doesn't see the difference between an objective Atonement ("The death of God actually changed the relationship that the material universe has to the supernatural realm") and a subjective Atonement ("Jesus' death was a good example of not striking back against evil, however horrible it is") or whether he's pretending not to for tactical reasons. Or if I'm failing to explain it very well, which is most likely. 

If the Tom Sawyer analogy is a poor one, why do people carry on using it? Because it is a very vivid and dramatic way of picturing the idea that Jesus' death made a difference. God was cross with us; Jesus was punished; now God isn't cross with us any more. Darnay was going to be beheaded; Carton  switched places with him; Darnay lived happily ever after. There are other versions: the human race owed God a debt; Jesus paid the debt; now the human race doesn't owe God a debt any more. Many nasty imperialist evangelical tracts ask us to imagine a judge, or more probably a Judge, who imposes a fine on a certain prisoner and then pays it himself. We were too dirty and filthy to go to heaven; we washed ourselves in the blood of Jesus; now we are clean. Jesus went down into hell, fought with the devil and smashed down the gates, so no-one has to stay in hell unless they want to. For the first thousand years of Christian history, the most popular theory involved God playing a trick on the devil to make him exceed his authority, and idea that would be incredibly alien to almost all Christians, but important if you are are going to make sense out of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

The Bible talks about the death of Jesus in terms of "sacrifice". It is absolutely true that the idea of sacrifice is strange to us. But the idea was clearly not strange to the people who wrote the Bible. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is handed over to be executed preparation day ("when the passover must be killed"); he initiates a sort of holy role-play in which passover wine becomes "my blood of the New Covenant". Church of England churches still have a table at the front which they call an "alter"; Giles Fraser has to perform a rite involving phrases like "in memory of thy perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross" and "Hallelujah! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." It is very reasonable indeed for a clergyman to say "We need to find ways of explicating this strange language; we need to be pretty sure we understand what "sacrifice" meant to a good Jew, and, come to that, to a pagan convert at the time of Jesus." But I don't think you can say that the whole idea of sacrifice is abhorrent, and actually anti-Christian. You can only say that if you think that the people who we depend on for our knowledge of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had utterly and completely missed the whole point of every word he had ever said. Possibly you may think that Jesus was all right but the disciples were thick and ordinary, that their twisting it has ruined it for you. Once you've said that, there isn't really anything left called "Christianity" to talk about. 
In Fraser's version, Christianity went off the rails pretty darn early. St Mark pretty definitely has a story about Jesus miraculously stopping a storm. Fraser thinks that miracles of the storm-stopping kind are completely contrary to the whole idea of Christianity. That's sort of a bit of a problem. 

It may be that I misread Fraser. It may be that (like me and St Mark) he thinks that the point of the story of Jesus calming a storm is the final line, where the disciples say "Hang on...only Yahweh is meant to be able to tell the weather off. But that means....."; that he's saying "The point of the story is that Jesus really was Yahweh; the point of the story is not that we don't need to listen to the shipping forecast before going on boat trips from now on." It would have been nicer if he could have framed in as an affirmation of what he does believe, and not as a rant about how horrible we evangelicals are. 
I'm not talking here about whether we think miracle are even possible, or whether we ought to interpret miracle stories literally or metaphorically. I am quite happy to debate with the fellow who thinks that Mark 4: 35-41 is not a news report, but (say) a commentary on the book of Jonah. But when someone says "Mark completely missed the point of what Jesus was on about; but fortunately, I get the point perfectly well" then I smile patronisingly and walk away.