Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Spooky Men’s Chorale @ St . George’s Bristol

still thinking about workflows

The Spooky Men’s Chorale as they always remind us, are not a Men’s Group. They are not really a folk group either, but they have ended up in a folkie space. (As a matter of fact they are playing Sidmouth next week.) They started out as a Georgian Choir, and they still do a couple of proper Georgian dance songs and an Icelandic hymn in the Georgian style in all their shows. ("You know what it is like", says the conductor or as he prefers to style himself, the Spookmiester. "You go to the theatre or the ballet, and there is no Georgian section. Or you just go out for a meal with the in-laws and feel vaguely cheated because there was a Georgian section, but it was shit.") Georgian choral music differs from other choral music in that there is no melody line: the different sections make no musical sense until they are put together.

I think that the men are “Spooky” in an Australian, Dame Edna sense — certainly there is nothing ghostly or creepy about them, although they do dress in black. It was a weekday evening so I went in my normal work clothes. The lady sitting next to me congratulated me for taking the trouble to look spooky. This happened at the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, as well. I went dressed in my normal clothes and was congratulated on my steampunk gear.

Apart from the aforesaid Georgian section, the Spookies mostly sing contemporary music in a choral style. This fits into three boxes. Firstly, there are sensible covers of popular songs: we had Tom Waits Picture in a Frame and a remarkable version of Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum. They nearly always end with the folkie version of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, the same version which Jim Moray rocks up with False Lights. Proper not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house material. I shouldn’t like to chose between the two versions. [Mem to self: find a more obscure version that no one else will know and claim to prefer that.] They can also do extremely silly versions of pop songs. They finished their main act on a choral version of Bohemian Rhapsody which someone turned into a thigh slapping lederhosen inspired knees up. It turns out you can yodel “Galileo Figaro” quite successfully.

The most characteristically Spooky material, though, is essentially sung stand up comedy material: comic monologue set to exquisite harmony. Sort of like the Baron Knights only good. So we have the aforementioned “we all have unresolved issues with our fathers / but we are not a men's group” and “you haven’t got one/ everyone else has got one/ you think you probably need one / so you do decide to get one / but it doesn't fit” and a very clever piece about waiting for baggage reclaim in an airport which turns into a political metaphor.

Like Monty Python, this kind of material is funny only once, and also like Monty Python, the audience consists largely of people who have heard it a lot of times before. I was glad they had toned down the “blokish” element of their comedy material. I get that if you say “men and sheds” everyone laughs in the same way that if you say “women and shoes” everyone laughs but it doesn’t actually apply to nay real life man or woman I ever met.

The Spookies  mak shau better than almost anybody. Their encore was possibly a James Brown number about love raining down during which which as many of the audience as possible were pulled up on to the stage to join in and sing along. I sometimes have a problem with bands that have become brands, cults, or even franchises; but the Spooky Men’s Chorale do it so well it is impossible not to be uplifted.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Mike Taylor said...

I was just starting to write "I would like to hear their version of The Fiddle and the Drum" when I remembered it's 2019 and there's a 99% chance that it's there for the hearing on YouTube. And sure enough, it is. I think the magic doesn't really come through in the video, though — it may be one of those "you have to be there" things.

I've long thought that TF&TD is one of the few straight-up missteps in Joni Mitchell's pre-jazz career. You really need a voice like Ella Fitzgerald or Aretha Frankin to make unaccompanied solo singing worth listening to. I've toyed with the idea of figuring out what the implied chords are, and having a go at it with a guitar at a local club. So many other great songs to try, though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew. Nice review. Found it by accident while looking for something else about the Spookies. I didn't agree with everything, but there was enough in there to lead me to search for others you've written. For the record I loved the Fiddle and the Drum.

Cliff from Downend Folk Club

PS It was James Taylor. I can't really imagine James Brown singing Shower the People !

Andrew Rilstone said...

I meant James Taylor. Obviously. And I never say "bass" when I mean "cello".

More folk reviews over here on my Going Out diary, which has of course become a Staying In diary at the moment.

See you when the world reopens!