Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Spot An Irish Boomerang?

Ron Kavana
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club
17 March

St Patricks night in the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, hidden away in a back street near glamourous Euston Station, was a bit special. I was there because I wanted to hear Mr Ron Kavana who regular readers will remember won the Monty Award for Best Gig of the Year in 2010. Irish guy with guitar. He sings traditional Irish songs: ("the Night the Goat Got Loose on Grand Parade") and traditional Irish songs he wrote himself ("Reconciliation") and modern old fashioned protest songs. ("We laid the last old soldier to rest today / a lingering relic of the older way") 

There don't seem to be too many opportunities to catch him live: he describes himself as having "gone amateur" and complains at some length about the pricing policies of the CD sellers: there was no point in him selling copies of his new collection of Irish folk music, or his epic musical history of Ireland, because Amazon and HMV are selling them to the punters for less than he could get them wholesale. Not quite as intimate a gig as the one in the Bristol pub; possibly the St Patrick Nights atmosphere didn't lend itself perfectly to his intimate, meditative, interpretative singing-around-the-songs style of delivery. He suggested that the audience join in with Mountains of Morne in whatever key, rhythm or tune we liked. Some members of the audience took this a little literally and decamped to the bar when they were politely asked by the regulars not to drown out the act. 

There appeared to be some controversy about whether, as Ron thinks, the stanza which says

I've seen England's king from the top of a bus
And I've never known him, but he means to know us.
And tho' by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest.

is the heart of the song shamefully omitted by some performers; or whether in fact he has discovered or interpolated a treacherous new verse. Obviously, I've never been oppressed by Oliver Cromwell and shouldn't have an opinion, but it looks to me as if the whole song, with or without the "bus" verse is about assimilation: Paddy tells Mary that this London is a funny old place, but he's not actually planning on going home any time soon. 

But very much the star of the evening, from my point of view, was the actual club: an old-fashioned folk club of the sort that I didn't think existed any more. Upstairs in a pub; a little room that had that complete lack of atmosphere normally associated with church halls. Very friendly: lots of people chatted to me. Give or take a loud lady, lots of appropriate singing along with the act. And, before each of Mr Kavana's sets an open mic in which regulars at the club got up to sing. Every one of whom was worth listening to, and several of whom you would have happily paid to hear. Didn't get any names down, unfortunately: there was a dotty fellow who did comic readings of cod Oirish poetry; a couple who did traditional Irish songs; and a fellow who sang "Price of My Pig". But the thing which really blew my head off were the two old time fiddle sets -- that very delicate, understated, polka style violin -- performed by a a very elderly gentleman with the remains of an American accent. He turned out to be (I had to come home and check, but I'm right) Tom Paley, usually referred to as "the legendary" whose been active in traditional American music since the 50s and once performed with Woody Guthrie. It really isn't every club where you get a bona fide legend playing support.

At the end of Ron's set there was still raucous Paddy's Night noise coming from the downstairs bar, so he wave persuaded back onto the stage to do his famous Midnight on the Water (recorded by the Watersons among others) his meta-song incorporating the traditional American waltz tune. Mr Paley couldn't get his fiddle tuned in time to join in; but someone spontaneously accompanied him on a musical saw. 

I don't think the existence of this club is quite enough to make me relocate to London. I see they have one Leon Rosselson (who he? ed) playing there in June.

It doesn't come back, but it sings about how it's going to some day. 


Nicholas Whyte said...

Percy French's songs are distinctly Nationalist in political sentiment, even though he was the son of a Protestant landlord and married to an earl's niece. The line about cheering the king (which incidentally means that Wikipedia's date of 1896 must be wrong, as there is also a reference to Edward VII's first visit to Ireland in 1903) to me is just about being ashamed of blending in with the crowd; the key line in that verse for me is a bit later, "When we've got all we want, we're as quiet as can be" - I have always read it as an appeal for Home Rule, which had a brief and bizarre uptick in the dying days of the Balfour administration.

I cannot say that French was a revolutionary, and he's certainly more sentimental than political. "The Four Farrellys" is fairly indicative - see for his restrained sympathy with the radical Nationalist and his dislike of the Orangeman despite their shared religion.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks for background: I may have misunderstood a discussion I was only on the edge of.

It's a lovely song, and Ron Kavana sings it beautifully, of course.