Friday, March 02, 2012

The Boy Bands Have Quite Definitely Not Won

The Albion Band
Colston Hall
2 April

Vice of the People (CD)

 We're left in no doubt as to what we've let ourselves in for. The band rush on to the stage, and without ado, akapella the opening track of their album: close harmony, through the nose, copper-familly-ish; not specifically based on any song, but sounding like "arise ye men of england" or something of that kind, except that it's about the modern world and people who want their magical 15 minutes of fame. And then, still without ado, the electric guitars and the drums blare out, and we're straight into a heavy rock take on Mr Richard Thompson's Roll Over Vaughan Williams. This is most definitely going to be folk and it's most definitely going to be rock.

The programmes says New Albion Band but they definitely want to be thought of as simply the Albion Band with a new line up. Blair Dunlop, (guitars and vocals), is the son of Ashley Hutchings who founded the original band, but that's the only direct link, and Hutchings says that the new generation have largely gone it alone. Singer and squeezebox man Gavin Davenport actually seems to be the driving force, writing or arrange about half of the songs on the album, and acting as front-man in the live show. He has a deep, rich, northern voice where the younger Blair sings with a Moray-ish twinkle; they go excellently together. Katriona Gilmore contributes two songs, fiddle-playing and the only female voice. 

The live show plays right through the album, but peppers it with number from the Albion Bands back catalogue. "You will be able to see that the guitar arrangement is based on the monster rock stylings of.... Martin Carthy" explains Gavin at one point; and yes, as a matter of fact, without being either parody or pastiche, you could see a lot of Carthy in Ben Trott (lead guitar's) performance of "I was a young man, I was a rover." (Carthy did indeed appear on one album in 1973. I recall that Phil Beer once remarked during a solo gig that, statistically speaking, two out of three members of the audience would one day be members of the Albion Band.)  

We are told that Vice of the People is an album with a concept, although it isn't a concept album. The concept (and stop me if you've heard this before) is the vacuity of celebrity culture. If getting to know Simon Cowell is the only way you have of getting famous, then there really isn't much hope for you as a human being, says Gavin.  "Almost as bad as inhering a folk rock band from your dad" interjects Blair. (The bands on-stage rapport is slightly self-conscious, but still convincing.) 

You can see why folkies would make slebs their target: as Bernard Shaw might have said, martyrdom and reality TV shows are the only two ways in which people can become famous without ability. I suppose you could say that its a bit much for folkies to complain that the common people don't stand up and sing in pubs nowadays, and then complain when what's basically a glorified pub talent show becomes popular TV viewing. (Susan Boyle and the folklorization of the West End Musical, anyone?) But it presents a very good hook to hang an album on: not necessarily music of folk, but very definitely music about folk. The band is really, really, really good at voicing modern concerns in a folk idiom; and presenting it in a combination of traditional and rock arrangements. "Thieves Song" starts with the nursery rhyme "Hark, hark the dogs do bark" and turns it into a rant against dishonest politicians – we might as well be robbed by poor people as by MPs. Not a terribly new insight, as it happens, but the combination of vernacular and folkie dialect is spot on: 

"And yet you scorn the beggar man who cries out for each crust
But on the pinstripe wolfshead you invest your faith and trust
And put the biggest rogues of all your parliament within
So don't despise the poor man though his clothes be awful thin"

Even cleverer is the following "How Many Miles To Babylon?" also based on a nursery rhyme. They are not the first people to whom the idea that ancient Babylon is in modern Iraq has occurred, but it's used here with considerable ingenuity. The person in the rhyme who is trying to get to Babylon and back by candlelight turns out to be a soldier from the gulf war:

"Come see there's little left of me 
But longing for my love 
And to see the child I never saw 
I thank the stars above
Weary of the killing
Ravaged by the fight 
I must go before the dawn
Snuffs the candle light" 

He is in fact a ghost and the nursery rhyme has morphed into a hauntingly contemporary "night visiting" ballad.

Unusually, I thought the stand-out tracks in the live gig were the purely instrumental sets  particularly the "Skirmish Set", a collection of infectious morris tunes in which the drums and amps are kept firmly in the background and the melodeon and fiddle take centre stage. (The melodeon player is Tim Yates from our own beloved Blackbeard's Tea Party. There is, when it comes down to, only one folk band in the world, but that folk band is very big.) The songs, I can't help thinking, came out better on the CD than live, because, as too often happens in folk rock sets, the very loud volume made the lyrics disappear so you couldn't quite follow what was being sung about: a great shame when the group so clearly has something to say. 

The show winds up with Wake a Little Wiser, which you might see as a modern take on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a hint of the aforementioned Roy Bailey's Song of the Leaders.) 

"From Wilberforce to Nightingale from Anderson to Paine
Our ragged heroes built this land come sing their praise again
And leave your tinpot idols out a rusting in the rain
And wake a little wiser in the morning."

This is great music; I haven't stopped playing the CD since the band wrote their names on it Polished, intelligent, fun but above all, loud.