THE NOMINATIONS FOR THE MONTPELIER STATION AWARD FOR BEST LIVE PERFORMANCE OF AN OLD SONG ARE AS FOLLOWS
The Emily Portman Trio (at the Louisiana, Bristol, Nov 8th)
Oh, there are lot of things to say about this song. That it's a truly beautiful, rounded fairy tale. That the sound the trio created in an upstairs room in a pub was astonishingly close to what is on the CD. That the song runs to something like 20 verses, and the group use that space to create a small epic; full of different musical textures; more a symphony than a ballad. That Emily has made a tiny surgical change to the traditional lyrics (changing "yonder sits my father the king" to "yonder sits my lover the king") which gives the tale a tragic logic and inevitability that it never had before. I found I had eight different versions of this song (Child Ballad 10, I looked it up) on my I-Pod. This is by far my favourite. A person on Youtube says it makes them imagine themselves "in the middle of an elvin forest, morning dew kissing greenery". Well, quite.
Bellowhead (at the Scarborough folk festival, 8 Aug)
Understand this: if you have only heard Bellowhead on CDs, then you haven't heard Bellowhead. They aren't only about music; they're about musical theater. You have to be there. One of my Folkbuddies, who hadn't heard them before, said Jon Boden was like a musical John Cleese. I see him more as a swaggering musical Captain Jack Sparrow. The CDs don't really convey how tall he is. Little Sally Racket is an infinitely long sea-shanty about local prostitutes, with the obligatory "haul away" refrain. Boden turns in a passable impersonation of the Johnny Rotten (or some fella of that kind) producing a sort of folk-punk hybrid with a hymn embedded in the middle. There are better Bellowhead songs. There are better Bellowhead songs about prostitutes. But this is always one of the highlights of their live act. The performance could scarcely be more over the top (and Bellowhead know about over the top) and coming in between two more restrained, or at any rate sane, pieces, it never fails to bring the house down, even when, as in this case, the stage was three quarters of a mile away from the audience.
Jim Moray (at Chapel Arts Bath, June 10th)
Jim diffidently presented this astonishing piece as work in progress. (There are more polished versions on the Cecil Sharp Project CD and on his new album, Skunk, to which we are likely to be returning at some point.) It's one of those traditional ballads (Child 7, I looked it up) which exists in dozens of different versions. Man elopes with girl; someone betrays them; they are chased by the girls family; man is killed; girl dies of sorrow; foliage grows out of their respective graves, as is more or less obligatory for lovers in folk songs. I can't imagine how Jim went about combining, and rewriting, the different versions, and apparently incorporating a sub plot from a similar Icelandic saga. It's a complicated story that I've had to listen to several times to get the hang of; one of those sagas which you always seem to be lost in the middle of with feuds and love affairs and curses taken for granted before the story starts. And the tune seems to have drifted in from another world.