Showing posts with label FOLK MUSIC. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FOLK MUSIC. Show all posts

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Don't Shoot The Support Act, He's Doing His Best

Laura Marling 
Colston Hall 
3 March   

Dear God, I had forgotten how unpleasant mainstream audiences were. These aren't people who drifted in off the street; the tickets were hard to get; Laura’s last gig in Bristol sold out overnight: people must, like us, have leapt onto the website first thing in the morning to nab tickets while they were available. Maybe all the truefans had headed for the, er, mosh, and we foolish ones who had taken the front row of seating were surrounded by people who didn't really want to be there in the first place.

Yeah, I'm a grumpy old man and everything, I've read serious critics (well, Jule Burchill) arguing that only a total saddos listen to music: it’s there to subliminally affect your mood while you are doing something else like washing dishes or having sex. Someone on Facebook was surprised to be asked to shut up when he talked over the music at a Billy Bragg concert, and concluded that he’d wandered into some weird religious cult. Which is a fair point, actually.

So, they talked, all through the first support act, Pete Roe, a local singer with a guitar and a flat cap and some decent singery songerwritery tunes. They talked all the way through the second support, Timbre Timbre, who I concede was one of the most hopelessly misjudged performances I've ever seen, droning barely audible cod blues at an audience who were leaving in large numbers. They talked about Aunty Angela's lumbago, and about who that cute boy was who keeps showing up in the office canteen.

Maybe I've misread this: I'm used to concerts where the support is "someone who the main band like and want to give some exposure to" or "a local act the promoter thinks is quite good": maybe young people regard them on a level with the adverts before the movie. But they talked, gesticulating and raising their voices to be heard above the PA, actually seeming to have some kind of full scale domestic dispute, through the main act. Quite astonishing. Folkbuddy 1 (*)  actually resorted to the old “don’t bother, he’s not worth it" gambit when I leaned forward, quite politiely, and said words to the effect of “Oh, please, be nice, he’s doing his best.” I’m a librarian. I tell people to be quiet for a living. A customer threatened to kill me the other day. What was the question again?

 So, anyway, Laura Marling. I believe I understand why Laura has become A Phenomenon. There literally isn't anyone like her. She sounds like a young woman of about nineteen possessed by the spirit of the 70-year-old Bob Dylan: world weary, rambling, occupying some space between blues and folk-Americana, long, structureless narratives that you can’t make sense out of suddenly giving way to beautiful little melodic hooks; a sound that buzzes like a bumblebee on a hot day; a sometimes preposterous naivity – ("there's a house across the river but alas I cannot swim" could be taken for a child's skipping rhyme) with a horrible maturity behind it. There’s also a hint of the Kimya Dawson type baby-voiced antifolk patter in some of the poetry. The fact that she’s awfully English but singing in a more or less American idiom and sometimes accent makes her all the more unpinable down. I could list the brilliant songs on the fingers of one hand (Alas I Cannot Swim, Give Me To A Rambling Man, I Only Love England When Covered In Snow, It’s Not Like I Believe In Everylasting Love) and there are an awful lot of songs which are likeable only in so far as thy somewhat remind you of the good ones. But that's still more classic songs than many people manage in a career. 

I thought that the purely or mostly acoustic numbers came through pretty well tonight, despite the audience; but I am not convinced by the addition of a band, which appeared to entirely drown out out the Suzanne Vega type recitative. She doesn’t have much stage presence or persona, but she makes a connection with her fans through sheer niceness.(She mentions in passing that the Colston Hall was the place where she went to her first gig: a young girl in the balcony calls down "This is my first gig!" "Well maybe in a few years you’ll be up here" she calls back.) And although I am in principle pleased that she’s fighting a one man rearguard action against pointless encores. ("If you want an encore, then that was my last song.") it gives the evening a rather anti-climactic finish. Laura Marling picking away on a guitar, singing cryptic lyrics like an infinitely old little girl, I shall listen to again, but I am not quite sure I'll have the stamina to face another one of her concerts.


 (*) Bristol’s leading citizen journalist

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.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Frome Wasn't Built in a Day

Frome Folk Festival 
18 -19 February

Frome, pronounced Frome, is a picture-skew town between Bristol and Bath; small tea-rooms and quaint terraces into which a small modern shopping centre has been unceremoniously dropped. It boasts one of the only surviving branch railway stations from Brunell's era, and no trains back to Bristol after 10PM at night. Up to this point in my life, I have always found my lack of a drivers' licence to be a very minor inconvenience. I have a very good working relationship with Megabus and regard, to the occasional consternation of visitors, distances of up to 70 minutes as "well within walking distance". Having recently discovered that the main thing I wish to do with my leisure is attend music festivals, the lack of a car becomes quite a nuisance. This weekend was, I therefore swear, the first time in my adult life I have stayed in a hotel my by myself. A pleasant room above a pub, with tea making facilities and a trouser press. Only one though: since I was there for a folk festival, there should surely have been two corbies. (1) 

This was the first time there has been a folkfest in Frome: I note that if I had turned up a week late, there would have been a potato festival in the same venue. (2) The main venue was the cavernous Cheese and Grain; sometimes used for shows but clearly often used for markets. One of the acts commented that, looking out into the audience -- some of us eating egg-and-bacon breakfasts, some of us (I use the term "us" advisedly) in Morris dancing kit, bunting and flags hanging from the ceiling and a big advert for an Indian curry house on the wall -- was the most English scene you could possibly have imagined. (3) There were also smaller gigs in an absolute gem of a local cinema, with a proper sweet kiosk and tip-up seats, just like cinemas used to be in the olden days; and a small room in a masonic hall. Since my various folkbuddies had crazy ideas about wanting to attend friends weddings and take care of elderly relatives I was on my own. I always find that a level of obsessive panic descends under such circumstances: if I had had folkbuddies with me, I would have happily sat out one of the acts to have lunch or a beer – as it was I felt I was doing something appallingly wrong if there was a single minute of the day when I wasn't listening to music: even if it was only the little girl with the "I love Sam Sweeny" cardigan playing her fiddle to an empty "open mic" cinema or escaping from the rain into the Blue Boar pub where a lady from one of the morris groups was standing at the bar singing my fifth favourite folksong. (The version in which the miller is hanged and the elder sister is boiled in lead.) Not to mention a man with a mandolin singing about the Yankie Clipper. 

And music there was a lot of, provided by many of the most eminent Usual Suspects – a veritable "who's who" of modern English flok, impressive for a brand new festival, albeit in a lower key than some: Spiers and Boden sans Bellowhead; Jim Moray sans trio, Steve sans Phil, etc. And – I mean this in a caring way – it was nice to see the weekend get progressively less shambolic as it went on; as if the organisers were (very understandably) spotting things which weren't going right and sorting them out. The main venue, the Cheese and Grain, had a bar in the back, which very naturally meant that there was a lot of ambient bar noise, some times quite intrusive, during the acts. They progressively put up notices and kept the bar lights down to minimize this. I got the impression – knowing nothing whatsoever about this, admittedly – that the sound engineer didn't know what was about to hit him; having to set up for a big loud five piece like Mabon and immediately re-jig for the very exacting guitar stylings of Chris Wood. (Or maybe the machine was experiencing machine problems. Or maybe the bands were being stroppy.)

Chris Wood was evidently getting annoyed by the P.A problems. Someone remarked on the Sunday morning that he had "used the f-word." I didn't have the heart to tell him that a gig in which Chris Wood doesn't use the f-word is more comment worthy. One of his songs (the funny tongue twisting Carthyite one about man who doesn't want to get married yet) completely broke down; I rather suspect he finished on John Barleycorn because it was an absolute foolproof crowd pleaser. But who is going to complain about having to listen to Chris Wood singing John Barleycorn? The compère was at least acknowledging that the PA had been a problem on the last day; it actually seemed to be much improved at the end of the weekend and will presumably be thoroughly sorted next year.   

The other thing they'll get better next time around is the programme, which listed names and times but no other information, leaving those of us who still don't know everything about music at a bit of loss to know whether "Fallen Tide" or "Hips and Haws" was more likely to be the kind of thing we would enjoy. (And no use of the interwebs, even though lots of us can haz smart phones nowadays: what price a fromefolkfest hashtag to tell us that such-and-such a set has been cancelled and so-and-so are starting late?) So my listening was a bit random and I probably missed some good stuff. 

I'd never heard Belshazzars Feast before: a duo consisting of the One From Bellowhead Who Is Niether Spiers Nor Boden and A Man With a Beard. This is quite definitely the best fiddle + squeezebox comedy duo you will ever heard. It really does come across as musical stand-up comedy: sequences in which Paul leads and Paul appears to follow with the wrong notes; sequences in which the audience is asked to sing along with tunes which keep changing; songs with silly words. It takes a very high level of musicianship to pull this kind of thing off. I don't know how long it would stay funny for – I don't think I'd necessarily want an album – but this set was brilliant.

Jim Moray did a characteristically splendid acoustic set, complete with "a song about a sinister woodland elf rapist" (Hind Ettin) and an "invisible child murderer who can walk through walls" (Long Lankin.) Also "If It's True What They Say", on piano, from the Orpheus folk operetta, off the new album, in which he veers convincingly into "My Way" territory, having a fully fledged dramatic emotional crises at the keyboard. And he wound up with one he said he hadn't song before, the old American ballad "Peg and Awl". It really is very impressive the way he turns his hands from the traditional song to the power ballad to the folkie sing-a-long to the sweeping semi-classical piano accompaniment. I think I'm starting to like his stripped down acoustic act almost as much as the fully fledged electronica he's made his name with.

Pilgrims Way get better every time I hear them. (Bristol's Best Known Citizen Folk Journalist suggests that they need to pay more attention to building a set rather than just playing some songs.) There's an increasingly long list of "good ones" while waiting for their eponymous signature song – Handweaver and the Factory Maid, Tarry Trousers, and Light Hussar are all first rate.

Greatly enjoyed Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. I've been trying to work out what "Carrie Love", the unbearable account of a miner during the 1980s NUM strikes, reminds me of. It's completely original; but it somehow sounds like June Tabor interpreting Bill Caddick, without being much like either of them. Really deserves to be much better known.

Spiers and Boden did a Spiers and Boden set, frankly, but you can never have too many Prickley Bushes and Spotted Pigs. I like the way they now finish up with New York Girls, but it does rather rub in the fact that Bellowhead now informs Spiers and Boden rather than vice versa. Earlier in the weekend, one of the acts whose name has erased itself from my notebook tried to get the audience singing along with one of his songs. The left hand side were to be singing a different tune from right hand side; everyone was supposed to be clapping on the off-beat. Total disaster. You can't help but admire Boden's  expertise in getting this kind of thing to work. "Volume is more important than accuracy here...good. And don't worry too much about the consonants, just do the vowels...."

Steve Knightley wound up the weekend. No-one, as I have mentioned, works a crowd like Steve Kightley. Phil without Steve is a completely different act: Steve without Phil is, well, pretty much Steve without Phil. (This evening he went as far as delivering some of his one-liners to the spot where Phil would have been.) He did take the opportunity to do slightly more restrained versions of some of his numbers. I don't quite think that the thumping angry A.I.G quite works as a slowed down Dylanesque guitar piece, but it was worth a try; on the other hand the Galway Farmer is in its natural environment as an unaccompanied piece of story telling. There's real complexity and multiple levels to his song-writing: he opened with a piece about drugs and drug pushing that I hadn't heard before: the dealer travelling round the M25 selling heroin is a "poppy seller" like the British Legion charity sellers on Remembrance Day; the heroin comes from the poppy farms in Afghanistan, where soldiers are still being killed, like in Flanders Fields, which is where the poppy metaphor got started....But it's all worn lightly, and one feels one has heard a story, not a leading article pro or against the warren drugs. "Transported" is basically just a good old funny "trick" song about the modern sheep thieves who pull the wool over the police's eyes. Steve plays the audience for all they're worth in the refrain

There's no transportation down under
No gallows in the old county gaol
At best in the morning we're fined with a warning
At worst in the evening we're back out on bail... 

But I loved the way he followed it up with the contrasting traditional and depressing Oakham Poachers. ("Oh it never happened before / Three brothers hanged together / For the doing of one crime.)  I thought the only off note was winding up with a medley of Cousin Jack and Country Life; not that the two songs don't work as a medley and not that the audience didn't mournfully join in with the "aaa-aaa-aaa" bit. But honestly. "No schools / No homes / No shops / No pubs / What went wrong? What went wrong?" It's a bit of a downer to finish a set, let alone a festival on. I accidentally heard him doing more or less the same set in Bristol a week or two later, and he very sensibly added the sing-a-long Aunt Maria from the Cecil Sharp Project, which also has a very serious point, but is a much more up beat song with which to finish an evening.

Highlight of the weekend, in many ways was Luke Jackson, introduced by the aforementioned Steve Knightley, if only because I had never heard, or heard of, him before. Luke is, I think, seventeen. He has a powerful, deep voice and can pull off bluesy Americana like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger as well as anyone; but he also writes his own songs.

Now, nearly every third support act you hear is a singer-song-writer. They all have exactly the same floppy hair and self-effacing stage manner; they are all pretty good at guitar picking; and they all sing the same agonized monologues about having been dumped by the same girl, set in the same flat at the same time of day (4AM.) God often becomes involved in the proceedings, although the singers mood isn't improved by having to admit that he doesn't actually believe in God. Luke Jackson is not like this.

Luke Jackson writes honest, hugely affecting songs about his actual life. "Kiss us at the door and wish us luck" he sings to his parents.  "' 'Cos everyone grows up." Oh. My. God. That's actual proper poetry. There is something enormously affecting about the way in which his big deep singing voice sometimes gives way to a spoken phrase which sounds terribly immature and teenage. When a man in his forties talks about "childhood" (4)  it can come across as romantic bullshit; when Luke Jackson talks about taking his dog for a walk in the park and hanging out with his friends and adds "seems as if my childhood songs have been song" he's not talking about those blue remembered hills. He's talking about last year. (Two years ago at Trowbridge he was singing about the school bus, I'm told.) 

I was born in the countryside
But I spend my day in town 
Waste the whole morning sleeping in
And then just wander round...
But who are you to judge me?
Who are you? Let me be.

You or I might have had those kind of sentiments when we were 17. We might even have written them down in that kind of poetry. But you are or I didn't have a killer voice, an impressive guitar style and Steve Knightley as a mentor. Frankly, I've got no right to be listening to his album. It ought to be being passed around every sixth form in the country as a big secret that the old people won't really understand. His Youtube stream is instructive, as well: he covers a lot of songs which are frankly much to big for him – it clearly isn't 25 years or more since he did anything at all – which seems to be exactly the right kind of mistake for a person of his age to be making. And actually, his version of Blowin' in the Wind is rather brilliant: note the way he combines elements of Young Bob's version of the song with elements of Old Bob. 

So, essentially: roll on next year's Frome, and see you all at the Brizzle fest in May.

(1) Sam Dodsworth, all rights reserved. You will, Oscar, you will.

(2) Oooo that's mean. Local gardeners getting together to sell or exchange seed. Perfectly sensible.

(3) Sensitive readers, freaked out by my reference to the toxic brand "England" are given due warning that by the end of the weekend I may well find myself listening to Mr Steve Knightley. 

(4) Say with reference to old comic books and space movies 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Five Anarchists Singing About the Good Old Days

Big Society
Leeds City Varieties
Feb 2nd

Well, that’s a thing I never expected to see. Chumbawamba in panto.

Okay, it isn’t actually a pantomime. It’s a political riff on Victorian musical comedies. For all of us who grew up in the 70s and were sometimes allowed to stay up past our bedtimes, Leeds City Varieties is synonymous with Music Hall (“Mr Larry Grayson, the entire and indefatigable orchestra, but this time, chiefly, yourselves”). But the real thing was apparently a good deal ruder and less well behaved than the Edwardian world conjured by The Good Old Days, and Boff Whalley’s programme notes say that he wanted to salvage Music Hall from that genteel image. We are told that analogies be drawn between Victorian times, when bankers had bankrupt the country and Etonian politicians were leading us into pointless wars, and modern times, when, er...

Well, analogy would be overstating it somewhat. The company marches through the gallery, down the stairs, through the foyer, up to the aisle and onto the stage singing:

"We’re all in this together!
As equals we will brave this stormy sea!
I will be the Captain, and you can work the oars
In our Big Society!"

I think we all get the point.

The set up is a little like an episode of the Muppet Show, alternating between songs and turns in front of the curtain and soap opera and back-biting back stage. It all feels rather like a college revue into which one of the best live acts in the country, a famous comedian and a first rate theater company have somehow fallen. "Panto" will do.

The role of the Big Society Band is taken by the Chumbas themselves, sans Lou, but with Harry Hamer (the band’s regular drummer before they went all folkie). Harry also has a big acting role as the hopeless conjurer Magic Barry; Phil Moody (the one with the accordion and the percussive tie) has a small one as the hypocritical journalist (the man from the Double Standard) who wants to close the theatre down for using the word “bollocks”. Jude, laying aside her trumpet in favour of a euphonium, spends most of the acted sections sitting at the back of the stage knitting. The other acting parts are played by members of the Red Ladder theatre company, along with Phil Jupitus (a.ka.“that man off the telly”) who can, of course, also sing.

Anything the songs may have lacked in subtlety is more than made up for in gusto, enthusiasm and bloody good tunes. Beatrice (Kyla Goodey) does a Marie Lloyd style tribute to the police doing any number of filthy things with a truncheon, while delivering lyrics along the lines of

"Spare a thought for the dear old boys in blue
What the prisoner has sworn, well its not true
Yes the head of the accused
Acquired a most alarming bruise
I blame the station wall that he chance to walk into"

Phil Jupitus steals the show with his turn as the entirely non-specific public schoolboy turned prime minister. He can not only sing and deliver jokes, but has a lovely knack for throwing comedy tantrums on the stage. (“Claimants and shirkers / Manual workers / We’ll hang em by the old school tie”) The entire company winds up act one doing “It’s the same the ‘ole world over, it’s the poor wot get the blame”, with new words about an MP who is let off for fiddling his expenses because he knows the judge, while a pauper is hanged for stealing bread and water.

Subtle is not the word. But I suppose it never was.

The backstage plot is a good deal less convincing than the musical turns. We have Beatrice, the suffragette, assuring us (you’ll like this) that everything will be better when we have a woman as prime minister; and Eve, the conjurer’s partner, trying on lots of different religions until she discovers (stop me if you’ve heard this before) that she’s happier thinking for herself. (“I thought you were a Presbyterian?” “No, that was this morning.”) One feels that Boff has taken to heart the old “Well, you wouldn’t dare say that about Muslim, would you?” line and is attempting to poke fun at everyone equally. (“Don’t you know you’ll have to give up sex?” “Oh...I thought they said ‘celebrate’.”) Poor Barry has a magic wardrobe which repeatedly fails to make volunteers from the audience vanish. The Master of Ceremonies had a horrible time at school because his best friend was an invisible monkey. (“It’s a cold hard world Marcel / Nobody cares or understands / A place where a man and his monkey / Can’t walk openly hand in hand.”)

If I were the sort of person who was inclined to over think things, I would say that it’s hardly fair to satirize Eve's endless quest for spirituality and then to tell the MC that it’s okay to be friends with Marcel after all. (“Sometimes / You have to step out into space / Sometimes / To an unexpected place / Sometimes / You have to take a leap of faith.”) But I suspect that this isn’t the kind of show you are meant to think about very much at all. But it is the kind of show in which Boff himself takes the role of the invisible monkey. Who turns out to live in a magic kingdom. Entered through a portal in Magic Barry's wardrobe. Obviously. It may be trying quite hard to make you like it, but it's very hard not to. We need no encouragement at all to sway along to the last chorus of :

"We’re not in this together!
Cos I can plainly see
There’s rules for the toffs and the better offs
And different rules for me..."

One can quite see why Boff would want to embrace music hall. Chumbawamba are about an endless quest for voice-of-the-people authenticity; making records with Coope, Boyes and Simpson and quoting Carthy and in almost the same breath suggesting that the whole idea of of folk music is a bit of a con. Lots of people have spotted that the aforementioned Cecil Sharp was "preserving" folk music at exactly the moment when actual folk had stopped singing songs about princesses sewing silken seams and decided that they preferred ones about the lady gardener who sits among the cabbages and peas. (Which, as everyone knows, was later changed to "she sits among the lettuces and leaks".)

I’ve been listening my way through Chumbawamba’s back catalogue. Surprising, with all the electro dance beats and punk shouting, how much they sounded like Chumbawamba, or put another way, how much of the punk sound survives in the acapella folk collective. Strange to listen to the ghost of rages past: who now remembers what the Alton Bill was, or what Paul McCartney did to upset them? In a way, I wish Nick Clegg could be subjected to that kind of fury. But the strategy of just poking fun at these ridiculous people is perhaps just as valid, more effective, and certainly more fun.

Phil Jupitus does a ventriloquists act in his “David Cameron” persona, with Nick Clegg as his puppet. "I like him sitting on my knee" says Dave "I like it best when he pisses down my leg. Feels nice and warm. I call it getting a Nick Leg." And then, to audience, "Nick Leg, you see. Nick Leg. Because his name's Nick Clegg".

What a pro.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Not As Good As Bellowhead

Blackbeard's Tea Party
The Croft, Bristol
26 Nov 2011

Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead.

On the other hand, Bellowhead do not play in the back rooms of pubs at the bottom of my street (while young people play speedcore in the front bar). Although, come to think of it, I did hear Mr Spiers and Mr Boden perform on this very stage back in 2007. And Mr Carthy. Still, it's the least folkie venue ever. All the young people were in black. I was in my floral waistcoat. The pub was smashed up during the pretend riots last July. I think they thought I was a hippy bouncer.

As I was saying: Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead. But they generate an energy, a physicality, a sense of musical theatre (completely improvised, I think) and a spontaneous response from the audience which I have never seen any folk band apart from Bellowhead come within a hundred miles of.

They do, in pretty much every conceivable respect, rock.

They came onto the stage at 9.40, after the usual local support who we will tactfully pass over. Stu the singer – not the singer on the albums, a new singer who has joined the band in the last month --  asks if there are any miners in the audience. Someone is related to one. He launches into "I can hew" . ("And when I die boys know full well / I’m not bound for heaven, I am bound for hell / My pick and shovel Old Nick he will admire / and he’ll setting be hewing coal for his hell-fire”). There is a thumping drumbeat and  an electric guitar which, I shouldn’t wonder goes up to 11. And Stu, I swear, doesn't stop moving for the rest of the evening. He encourages the audience to pogo dance by leaping three feet off the ground. He gesticulates in the narrative bits. He nips back stage at one point and re-emerges in sun glasses and pink tie-dye shirt. The whole band follows him into the physical space. Yom Hardy the cajun drummer bangs his head in time with the rhythm so his long black hair flaps up and down like a muppet. When Martin Coumbe the guitarist does a solo, the band get down on their knees to worship him.

The sound mix, I have to say, is perfect: too often in this kind of thing I have said "I believe that there may have been a folk song going on somewhere, but all I could hear was the drum". Tonight you could hear every one of Stu's words. The songs are stories or jokes played with a camp twinkle in his eye. Folk rock with the emphasis firmly on the folk.

Oh, and there was rappa dancing. In a pub. At the bottom of my street.

I now need to tread carefully. One of the many excellences about the Tea Party's first E.P (Heavens To Betsy) was the nuanced vocals of Paul Young. Young credits his Barrack Street (version # 94 of the story about the sailor being robbed by the prostitute) to the singing of Nic Jones, and it was a close match in vocal style. If you are going to swipe, swipe from the best, said I. Paul Young appears on the new album and he remains excellent. The album version of Stan Rogers Barrat's Privateers (sadly not in the live set) is quite stunning. He tones down the "roar" from the original recording, plays it as a ballad, not a shanty, tells the story, while the group weave in and out and all round the tune, even interjecting hornpipes a couple of times. But I note that Paul claims to have learned two of the lighter and more raucous pieces on the album from Stuart and there is a perhaps a sense that Paul isn’t fully comfortable with them. Not as loud and mad as Stuart is on stage at any rate. But that may just be me being wise after the event.

Landlord Fill the Flowing Glass is a venerable English drinking song with lyrics that get progressively filthier in each stanza.“I wish I had another brick to build my chimney higher /Stop the neighbours pussy cat from pissing in the fire”. It’s quite lovely how Blackbeard’s Tea Party stay close to the basic beauty of the melody and then put the heavy stuff behind it without the one swamping out the other. Too often this kind of thing is done with a nod and a wink; isn’t it funny that we’re singing “thee” and “thou” while the electric guitar is drowning us out? But this just seemed to just be a song. The drunken Landlord is followed by the endlessly sobering Chicken On Raft, possibly my favourite song about egg on toast. ("I sing "woo-woo" and you sing "chicken on a raft": and then I sing "aaa-aa" and you sing "chicken on a raft" and then I sing "woo-woo" and you sing...")

I never saw the original line up live and it may be that their stage act was always this extreme. It may be that audiences in York are holding placards saying "Bring back Paul". When I first heard the album I said that their musical arrangements were reminiscent of Mawkin and it strikes me that Stuart’s manner is not a million miles away from Jim Causley. (Actually he's like the the bastard offspring of Jim Causley and Jon Boden.)

I wish Paul Young all the best; I hope he left to pursue a brilliant solo career and not (say) because of a quarrel about who took the last slice of cheesecake. And it would be reckless to start saying "gig of the year" in a year which has included Alisdair Roberts and Show of Hands. And that old American man who sings Bob Dylan songs. But it looks to me that the addition of Stuart has propelled a band I was already very excited about into orbit.  

That's not a metaphor. He really does jump that high.

Blackbeard's Tea Party. Not as good as Bellowhead. Yet. 

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.