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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oh, and while we're here: another gem from Mr Boden. This was the sort of happy story Victorians used to sing around the piano, apparently.

Monday, December 13, 2010

At the moment, I am not very proud of the BBC at all

Some regular readers may have spotted that, in the last couple of years, I have developed a passing interest in English folk music. This is very largely down to a BBC local radio programme called Folkwaves, broadcast in a far away place called the the East Midlands. Two or three years ago, my knowledge of English folk music ran to a handful of Dylan records, a handful of Woody Guthrie records, and possibly a copy of The Big Huge. Stumbling on Folkwaves on what the presenters would doubtless call "t'internet" clued me in to what was out there -- and more importantly, to how many of the acts they played did gigs in small local venues. 

Someone called Spiers and Boden are doing a gig in the pub at the bottom of my street (the Croft) -- aren't they the ones that Mick and Lester interviewed, who sang that clever Robin Hood ballad? Better go along and hear them. Someone called Martin Simpson in a church hall in Southville -- isn't he the one who sings that song about his dad that Mick and Lester keep playing? That song that Mick and Lester keep playing about the guy who won't sell hs cottage to the man from London -- better find out if that singer sings anything else good. And don't Mick and Lester nag me every week to go and find some live music in my area?  Better give it a go.

The show covers the big names, of course, but it is long enough to cover lessor known singers, archive recordings and live perfomances which Mike Harding wouldn't go near. (Absolutely nothing against Mike Harding.) And it has that sort of shambolic intimacy which only local radio ever achieves: Mick and Lester have a nice line in banter, know what's going on in their local area, and are never phased when they accidentally put completely the wrong record on the CD player, or when the special guest doesn't show up because he can't find the studio. And of course, the whole point of radio is that you feel the presenter is talking directly to you; that you feel he's your friend.

So of course, the BBC has cancelled the programme (which has been going for about 25 years and had a worldwide reputation). 

There is apparently no place for "minority" interests like folk music on local radio. 


Save Folkwaves (facebook group)

"Without our stories or our songs / how will we know where we came from?"

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Follow Me Down

(from Private Eye)
Show of Hands
29 Nov 2010
Colston Hall

"At every trough you stop to feed..." sings Steve Knightley. "WITH WHAT!"

"With you arrogance and ignorance and greed" responds the audience.

"I pray one day we'll all be freed...from your absolute indifference, your avarice incompetence..."he sings.

"Your arrogance and ignorance and greed!" we all sing back.

"A.I.G" sighs Steve, post orgasmically, in case anyone who hadn't heard the song before had somehow missed the point.

"And will you be wearing your jackboots?" said a Certain Person the first time I mentioned that I was going to hear a Show of Hands Concert.


Trying to characterise the group to someone I was chatting to at another gig, I found myself saying "Their concerts can feel a bit like religious revival meetings."

Hmm, again.

I mean, lots of artists allow or encourage the audience to join in their songs. Spiers and Boden always use Bold Sir Rylas a-Hunting Went as a big all-join in set piece; Chris Wood's support guy tried to split the audience in two and get us to sing in harmony; Tom Paxton appeared to take it for granted that we knew all the words of all his songs and were going to go ding when it moved and pop when it stopped whether he told us to or not.

But you feel that Show of Hands numbers are positively written with audience participation in mind. That their studio recordings have an important element missing. That the would be no point in singing Cousin Jack without an audience to bellow along with the chorus. That during the chant bit in Country Life, they're playing the audience like an instrument. That the perfect performance of Roots would be the one where the congregation handled the sea-shanty bit and left the celebrants to do the political argument section by itself. Like I said about the madness which is Bellowhead: you haven't really heard the group unless you've heard them live. Orchastrating some sort of communal experience. The stuff in Roots about singing in pubs and cafes and being buskers true, and even though they're now playing in big venues, there's still something of the pub singer in the way they connect with the audience. "From the Albert Hole to the Albert Hall" as some wiseguy said.

Steve Knightley and Phil Beer fall into an Eric and Ernie routine, with Knightley slipping into the role of the clever, verbose onw whose ego is devastatingly pricked every now and then by the quiet violinist. "Phil is so overwhelmed that he has to leave the stage now" says Steve "Or he would be, if he has bothered to read the set list." This leads into the group's solo spots: Steve does an akapella trad song, the name of which entirely escapes me, about a lady whose sad because her true love has been pressganged; Mirands Sykes puts aside her double bass for a uke and sings something vaudavillish; and Phil does a quite brilliant jaunty fiddle reinvention of Dylans Seven Curses. But not before he's told the story of buisiness consultant who once gave Steve some free advise "Smile once in a while, you miserable bastard."

But there's still something -- uncomfortable? -- about the exercise. After the Bellowhead gig I complained that I wasn't really caught up in the emotion. After Show of Hands, I'm more inclined to complain that I was. Regular readers (Sid and Dorris Bonkers) may remember that after a superlative production of The Valkyrie (an opera), I found myself wondering whether Wagner really was a dangerous man after all: whether this music was literally too powerful to be played. I would hardly go that far about a man with guitar and man with a fiddle and lady with a double bass singing songs about how they once took a wild 16 year old to a festival and wonder what he's doing now, or a lady who won't except a fine silken gown from lovelorn noblemen, even if it does have nine yards drooping and trailing on the ground. I can get as misty eyed as the next man about tin mines and saffron toast: my father was Cornish; I've got ancestors who really did go off and look for gold in South Africa. And as long as you're just howling along, it's a fine song, better than a fine song. "I'm leaving the country behind / and I'm not coming back / so follow me down, Cousin Jack." But there's a nagging feeling: all this emotion is about what, exactly? What am I feeling nostalgic for? The tin mining industry? I heard Bob Fox the other week. His songs were nostalgic for the coal mines and ship yards: but they were real folk songs rooted in real experience written by or for people who had really been down the pits and really knew what it was like. Folk music is always open to the charge of sentimentality; of feeling sad and then feeling sad about the fact your are feeling sad. (So's opera. Wagner especially. So's everything which isn't a Radio 3 masterpiece called Opus 54 in B Sharp Flat.) But isn't there a world of differnece between, say "Whistle of the buzzer/ Time to rise and shine /How I long for Sunday,/When I'm going to the mine." and "Did Joseph once come to St Michaels Mount / Two thousand years pass in a dream/When you're working your way in the darkness,/Deep in the heart of the seam."

But it's an amazing song, and it's an astonishing feeling to be in a packed hall full of people who know the words and the tune. I compromised, this time, and wore the Union Jack tie with the F.A.F badge pinned to it, which hopefully sums up my ambivalnce.

Steve Knightley's son Jack has just ended a course of luekemia treatment at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, maybe five minutes walk from the theater. Of course he pays tribute to the hospital staff; of course he repeats the story of the gig three years ago, just after the diagnosis, where he walked from his son's bedside to the theatre and then back to the hospital. And then he goes into a spirited final encore of "Are we still all right / Are we still strong / We've got one last chance / Lets not get it wrong." Which is another great, fine, song which I happily joined in and sent me out of the theater with a spring in my step tinged with just the right amount of sadness, joy and pain are woven fine, and all that. (Last time I heard him perform in Bristol, he told the same story in the context of "The Dive") God knows one doesn't blame him for referring to his sons illness -- there's probably no singer on earth who wouldn't. But it still makes me uncomfortable. As if I've been manipulated into feeling a certain way about a certain song. Blackmailed, even. And yeah, manipulating feelings is a pretty good definition of what arts all about. Maybe I should shut up.

The support artist was one Rodney Branigan who in between perfectly decent songs in the "heartfelt" mode (a rather intense one about domestic violence stood out) performed guitar riffs which bordered on the tricksy. He finished his act by performing what he described as a song about schizophrenia, in which he started out doing that thang of playing entirely on the fret of the guitar, and ended up playing two guitars at once, swapping them over mid song, even (if what Cliff tells me is right) retuning one of them while playing the other. Clever stuff. Word to the wise, though -- I liked very much the Mexican inspired stuff where you partly use your guitar as percussion instrument, striking it faster and faster with your open hand very much. But describing it as "a song about spanking kids" probably goes down better in Texas than it does it Bristol.

"It doesn't mean he's got talent" says Steve "He just practices a lot".

It's a long time since I can genuinely say that I laughed so much it hurt.

Chris Wood
Colston Hall
28 Nov

I don't really have anything to add to what I said about Chris Wood the last time I heard him. He really is on a whole different level to any other performer I've ever heard.

But I've seen no more than that little boy saw,
and I've certainly learned nothing new
The thinker sits on the brink of eureka,
dizzy with deja vue


We never did Shakespeare nor none of that stuff,
so this isn't no honey tongued sonnet
No sugar, no spice, no je ne cest que,
but doggerel with nothing much on it


Two widows talking:
by the strand they tell their story to a sailor
The sun will bleach their grief a little paler


Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's
Toss a coin into his moat
He can say anything he likes to try and please us
But don't dare ask for our vote


But sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that's not my own
It's a land of hope and glory voice an Anglo-Claxon overblown
Their's is another England that hides behind the red, white and blue
Rule Britannia no thank you

Kathryn Tickell
Bristol Folkhouse
Nov 22nd 2010

Kathryn Tickell plays the Northumbrian Pipes, which are like little bagpipes you hold under your arm and inflate with a bellows. You don't blow down them, so in principle you could sing and play at the same time. She appears in a group with a fiddler (her brother) a squeeze box player and a guitaraist. She sometimes plays the fiddle herself. Together they play tunes, some of which are traditioanl and some of which are new. They are very good indeed and I would like to hear them again some day. However, since I have no knack for dancing about architecture, I propose to not to say anything else.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Heretic Writes....

Bristol Old Vic
10 November

Bellowhead are quite good and a bit over the top, in the same way that the Pope is quite religious and a bit Catholic.

Their gig at the Bristol Old Vic sold out practically over night, and an extra one was hastily added, which also appears to have sold out. I get the impression that some fans went to both nights. Possibly in the future we will have to ration Bellowhead tickets, or have a ballot.

All the seating at the Old Vic was in place (last time, the management removed it) but that didn't stop the audience coming to their feet for the first encore ("this is a song about a prostitute") and if not exactly dancing, then at any rate enthusiastically pointing their fingers in the air to indicate that the protagonist was going up to the rigs, down to the jigs, and indeed up to the rigs of London town.

One wonders how much further over the top they can go. The trombonist is, for reasons best known to himself, wearing full clerical robes and a dog collar. The trumpeter keeps standing on his chair. The whole brass section pogo dance at every opportunity. John Spiers (squeeze box) and Sam Sweeny (fiddle and bagpipes) do that thing where they turn and face each other and start to couch down as they play faster and faster. Sam Sweeny wrote his name on my deluxe hard back version of the new CD. He looked about twelve.

Jon Boden is, well, Jon Boden. He finishes "Port of Amsterdam" with legs apart, arms uprasised, having an onstage emotional crisis like a crucified Freddy Mercury. He's wearing a strange sparkly jacket, and has taken to playing some of the percussion. Each time the the viborslap [I looked it up] goes "twang", he looks vaguely surprised.

They maintain their "supergroup" status admirably. For on (or for all I know, several) nights James Fagan (as in "Nancy Kerr and") was at the front with John and Jon. He got to play the banjo in "Cholera Camp". But there's a nagging fear that this has ceased to be about folk music and become about Bellowhead gig. They started out, what, six years ago doing high octane orchestrations of material like Prickly Bush, Slo Gin Set, Haul Away, Horn Fair -- songs that Spiers and Boden had performed to death as a duo. Now they are a fully fledged Phenomenon, the Songs are starting to get lost in the Performance. And the Performance is still wonderful. "Little Sally Racket" is a harmless sea-shanty -- hardly even that, a pub song on the level of Frigging in the Rigging. Jon Boden starts to channel John Lydon screaming the lyrics ("Little Sally Racket / Pawned my best jacket / And the lost the ticket") at the audience so you can't actually hear them -- but then coming to the front of the stage with the other singers and sweetly singing the verse about little Kitty Carson (who ran of with a parson) in close harmony akapella -- if they'd momentary turned back into the Copper Family. It hardly matters if this destroys the song: there wasn't much song there in the first place. But I'm still uneasy about the 1980s ska [check this] brass stings completely taking over "The Two Magicians", which, in the hands of Martin Carthy or Bob Fox, a good story with a good tune. I really felt that they could have been singing anything. The narrative of the "Broomfield Wood" survives the treatment; "The Weaver and the Factory Maid" gets lost completely. Which is why, I guess, they are at their best having a great time in inconsequential shanties and drinking songs. Away you, Santy, my dear honey, oh you New York girls, can't you dance the poker? And why not?

Nothing on their albums or their TV appearances remotely captures just how extreme their stage act as become. Spiers and Boden remain my favourite stage act and I would unhesitatingly drag anyone who thought they didn't like folk music to the Old Vic the next time they pass through Banksyville. If Thursday night hadn't already sold out, I'd have been very tempted to go twice in one week. But I couldn't help thinking of myself crying into my beer during Martin Simpson's Dylan impersonation or being swept away to Otherworlds by Robin Williamson, and wondering is this is really what English folk music is meant to be about. Oh, every got to their feet and jumped in the air in the final final encore of "Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth"; I jumped up and down as well. But my heart wasn't in it. What was it Mr Wordsworth said?

"....and from the rubble gathered up a stone
And pocketed the relic in the guise
Of an enthusiasts, yet in very truth
I looked for something that I could not find
Affecting more emotion than I felt..."

A word, by the way, for Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, the support act. I heard some people being quite rude about them in the interval. There were a couple of glitches in their performances -- untuned violins and forgotten words and what not. I've never seen an act where this kind of thing didn't happen: but your Steve Tilstons and your Martin Simpsons are confident enough to say "I'm singing that bit again cos I cocked it up." These two were obviously nervous, as might be expected when they are, er, opening for the biggest names in folk, and kept drawing attention to their fairly minor mistakes. ("Our CD is on sale. It costs £5. But there are only six tracks, so it's not a bargain or anything.") But this in no way detracted from the act, which was a mixture of innocent, delicate reworkings of traddy material (a haunting, agonizing "Hares on the Mountain", an American variant of "I wish, I wish") and some quirky stuff they'd written themselves. And it was an inspired pairing. Bellowhead are, as I may have mentioned, a little over the top. Jonny and Lucy are so understated that they practically not there at all....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It went zip when it moved and pop when it stopped, apparently.

Tom Paxton
St George's Hall, Bristol
8 Nov 2010

Confession time. Although I am reliably informed that Tom Paxton is a living legend, I had honestly barely heard of him before tonight. Although it turns out I had heard a lot of his songs. All through his set, I kept saying "Hey...didn't Val Doonican used to sing that?" There are not too many performers in the world who can namecheck Pete Seeger and Vera Lynne in the same evening. Pete Seeger introduced him at Newport; he claims to still listen to the tape to hear Seeger saying calling him "A young guy..." Vera Lynne ("is she still around?") was the most gracious TV host he ever worked with. She covered one of his songs, "Whose Garden Was This?"

The phrase middle-of-the-road kept wandering into my mind.

Paxton is the product of that particular moment in the 60s when card carrying muses were bestowing painfully whimsical children's numbers and biting protest songs on the same performers. The Marvellous Toy ("it went zing when it moved and pop when it stopped etc etc etc etc") has been adapted into a children's book by a Bristol based illustrator, but in his very grandfatherly way, Tom claims not to understand the accompanying I-Phone application.

He gets away with the appalling cod-irish sentiment of "That's my Katie little lady and I love her" by doing it as part of a medley with two other songs about his children. "Jennifer's Rabbit" is much better bit of children's whimsy than the toy which goes zip and pop: it recalls Where the Wild Things Are and Little Nemo. He follows it with a song simply called "Jennifer and Kate": a more recent piece about being a grandpa, and what his two daughters are like now they're grown-ups. ("There is this thing about fathers, they live in their own zone / They tell ya "hi, how are you" then they hand your Mom the phone.")

One certainly can't fault his sincerity. Nor his ability to laugh at himself: he prefaces "Last Thing on My Mind" with an Internet parody of the song. He wishes he could have started a rumour that the Marvelous Toy, like Puff the Magic Dragon, contained hidden drug references. His liberal anger is undimmed by time [good phrase – delete in second draft]. "I hear your government is going to set the unemployed to work. For no pay. What are they going to build? A new pyramid?" But his contemporary protest songs still seem to me to be a little obvious, like Tom Lehrer on a bad day. "Seeing Russia from her back porch / Means she knows foreign relations / And it’s only left-wing media / Who ask for explanations." Sarah Palin not very bright! Hold the front pages! But it's nice, in a depressing kind of way, that "I'm changing my name to Chrysler", with a few name-changes, is as topical today as it was 30 years ago. 

The hall isn't full, but everyone there is a fan; everyone knows all the songs and sings them whether he asks them to or not. I prefer the straight folkie-ballads: "Ramblin' Boy" (knew the song; didn't know it was by him) is wonderful, of course; and his new-ish love song to the peace movement would sound like a hymn even without the Biblical refrain. ("Marching round the White House, marching round the Pentagon / Marching round the mighty missile plants / Speaking truth to power, singing peace in Babylon / Asking us why not give peace a chance"). And I'm finally converted to the ranks of Paxton's fans by the encore. "The Parting Glass" -- sung unplugged at the front of the stage -- is charming. The song about his days of playing coffee houses in the Greenwich Village ("I miss my friends tonight") is a genuinely touching piece of nostalgia. "There's nothing wrong with looking back" he explains "Provided you don't stare". But his tribute to the New York fire-fighters is nothing short of breath-taking.  Remorselessly imagined; terribly specific; and obviously deeply felt. "Thank God we made it to the street; we ran through ash and smoke / I did not know which way to run; I thought that I would choke/ A fireman took me by the arm and pointed me uptown / Then "Christ!" I heard him whisper, as the tower came crashing down" A genuine great contemporary folksong. In which nothing goes zip, pop, or indeed whirr. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

I'm not sleepy...

Martin Simpson

7 Nov
Colston Hall, Bristol

And then there are evenings which you can't even try to review: evenings when the singer -- and, come to that, the audience -- are "in the zone"; when nothing could possibly be better. Evenings which you just don't want to end. The environment had a good deal to do with it, I think: since I was last there, Colston Hall has spruced up the minimal Hall 2. It's still a small room, where you're up close to the singer (and bring your drinks in from the bar) but it's got a proper stage and proper lighting and people sit in rows and listen to the singer. In silence. You don't sing along at a Martin Simpson gig; that would be a kind of sacrilege.

I've sometimes felt he's the kind of performer who improves as he goes along, as if it takes him a few songs to get into the groove. Or maybe it takes me a song or two to get attuned to his musical style; or just that he tends to start with a couple of his Nworelans songs which don't speak to me in the quite the way the English ones do. (He recommends the Princess and the Frog, by the way.) But a few songs in, and I'm with him all the way. A lot of it's the usual Martin Simpson set-list: he has a formidable list of songs that the audience would be dispointed if he didn't play. He finishes the first set with "Never Any Good", of course, and I swear I've never heard him do it better: the left-turn in the final stanza hits me in the gut as if I hadn't heard it fifty times before; he opens the second set with "Come Down Jehovah" and I still maintain he does it better than Chris Wood himself. He does the unbearably sad "One Day". He does that wonderfully bittersweet piece where the oral memories of a nonogenarian folk-performer are set to one of his own accordion tunes.

But he also does a couple of things I've never ever heard before. He does a Leon Rosselson  song called "Palaces of Gold", a strange, bitter piece, written in a sort of mourning plainsong. It was originally written in response to the Aberfan disaster: the children of the rich, it says, don't go to schools where there is a risk of them being buried alive in mining debris. Now we have an old Etonian prime minister claiming that "we're all in this together", Martin thinks it's time to start singing the song again. The slide guitar continues to play the tune for several minutes after the last stanza; as if Martin is responding, musically, emotionally, to the devasting argument that the song has made.

It occurs to me that that makes three of my all time favourite songs are Leon Rosselson covers. Actually, four: Billy Bragg singing "The World Turned Upside Down", Dick Gaughan singing "The World Turned Upside Down" and, for reasons I don't propose to explain this afternoon, Dick Gaughan singing "Stand Up, Stand Up for Judas". (Chumbawamba wreck "The World Turned Upside Down", I have to say.) 

And then – then – Martin does "Hey Mister Tambourine Man", which he may be singing on Dylan's 70th birthday tribute album. He's only done it a few times before, he stumbles once over that swirling, complex lyric, growls at himself, and then carries on. And that may be why this is, I think, the single best thing I've heard during the forty or so gigs I've been to this year. Well, partly because Martin is the best musician I've had the pleasure of hearing, and partly because any reasonably unbiased commentator would regard Mr Tambourine Man as among the best songs ever written by human hand. But more, because this was still partly a work in progress; a performer exploring, coming to grips with, learning about a great song. To borrow a phrase from our friend Andrew Hickey: how can the human race be capable of producing such beauty?

Not to mention Boots of Spanish Leather.

The best thing about these small gigs is that you can grab a word with the performer after the show. I thanked Martin for the show, and asked him to reassure me that he'd be recording Mr Tambourine Man. And he said what a wonderful song it was, how great it was to be exploring those lyrics on the stage, how amazing that Dylan could produce such a song at the age of 20, when all he'd done up to that point was protest songs. Martin may be one of the worlds greatest guitarists and he must have known he'd just done a very special set, but we're all just fans basking under the genius of the almighty Bob.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An English Heart

Waterson : Carthy
Chapel Arts, Bath
Nov 4th

Norma Waterson looks like your granny. Eliza Carthy looks pregnant. Sitting at the back of the stage there's an old man with a warm smile doing that plinky plonky plonk thing on his guitar. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal, chatty. Norma asks if anyone in the audience remembered to bring hot water and towels. Eliza teases her mum about the hypocrisy of doing a song about the evils of rum-drinking. She goes off on an extended ramble about thinking that the Victorian folk music collectors had been literally collecting folk singers. She imagined Cecil Sharp as something out of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. "The Child Ballad Catcher." This kind of thing must come easily when you are the First Family of Folk.

Although "Gift" is billed as a mother and daughter album, this is definitely Norma's night. She has a big folder with the words of the songs in front of her, though she plainly doesn't need it. Any possible sense that she is a "little old lady" vanishes in the first bars of the first song; a rich, deep bluesy version of Lads of Kilkenny. She remains seated throughout, but she sings as much with her hands as with her voice, raising her arms to tell the audience to join in, poking the air with her finger to emphasise a particular line. Her Mum was a proper Victorian, she says, who had prints of Monarch of the Glen and When Did You Last See Your Father in the hall; and her muse seems to be located in the music hall and the parlour rather than on the village green. When the piano accordion and the double base are in full flight, you almost feel you are in a fairground or a circus. "I really, really love this song!" she exclaims before leading the entire company in a rousing ballad (with actions) about the famous lighthouse keeper's daughter. "But Grace had an English heart / and the raging storm she braved / She pulled away o'er the rolling sea / And the crew she saved."

The evening's theme, if it it has one, is looking back – the songs which have been important during Norma's lifetime. So it's not an evening of pure folk: one of the show stoppers is an astonishingly deeply felt "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" (Although perhaps only in the context of folk music could an elderly lady with a Yorkshire accent deliver lines the about looking swell and full of that yankee doodle dum with so much feeling and so little irony.) And the next minute she inhabiting a hard, masculine Richard Thompson number like "God Loves a Drunk."

Mostly, Eliza harmonies and fiddles around her mother's voice, but she dominates and astoishing close harmony re-invention of an ghoulish ballad called "The Cruel Brother." ("What would you leave to your mother dear?" / "This wedding dress that I do wear / Though she must wash it very very clean / For my hearts blood stains every seam"). They wanted a big ballad for the album, so they got down their biggest book of folk lyrics, picked one, cut the lyrics down to a managable number of verses, came up with a new refrain and rearranged the melody. Eliza wanted to sing a song that she remembered from her own childhood, but says that the only ones she could remember involved monsters taking children away and people going to hell. So she settles on the beautiful "Praerie Lullaby". Her dad puts his guitar away and gets out a banjo. 

But it's the sentimental music hall ballads which own the evening. Norma says that for years, she didn't particularly see the pun in Bunch of Thyme. When she first heard Martin singing it, she thought perhaps he was just allergic to thyme.

"No more than the the rest of us" says the old man with the guitar.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Three Folk Singers in a Church Near Wells

Show of Hands
Wells Cathedral
Oct 23

Regular readers may recall that I can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands. Having now seen them do a remarkable, sell out show in a very special setting I can report that I, er, still can't quite make up my mind about Show of Hands.

The setting was, of course, very special indeed: Wells Cathedral; tactfully lit, coloured spotlights illuminating the stonework. I did a little reading about medieval architecture during my MA, so was instantly able to identify the style as "twiddly on the outside, but rather plain on the inside". I award several points to the clergyman who introduced the show for managing to say "This is a church, you know," without actually saying "This is a church, you know".

Rather wonderfully, Show of Hands begin their set in darkness, with Steve Knightley  entering from the back of the Cathedral, singing "The preacher of the island" as he walked down the aisle, and then disappearing while Phil Beer did a fiddle piece by himself.

(I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of Shows of Hands' discography, and this was one of a number of songs that I was hearing for the first time. Obviously, when he was "unplugged", you couldn't hear the words perfectly. I therefore very nearly committed a full fledged Mondegreen. I was just about to type that the song was very probably about Caliban.) 

Phil and Steve said that they liked to do shows that are appropriate to the spaces they are performing in. For this "Spires and Beams" tour -- five cathedrals and numerous old churches -- this meant an acoustic, down tempo set, concentrating on reflective pieces. I'm not sure that they didn't take this a little bit too far -- would God really have minded if there'd been just a couple of jigs and reels?

Some of it I like a lot. I thought the recorded version of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" was a slightly obvious response to the global credit thingy but I liked tonight's slowed down version much better -- if only because, in the new form, you could follow every dripping, angry word. I was much less convinced by the slowed down "Country Life" (also sung by Steve walking up and down the aisles) -- but it was nice that the audience knew the song so well that they started hummng the chorus without any prompting. 

I'd never heard the uncharacteristically vicious Sydney Carter song "The Crow on the Cradle" before, nor the weirdo Charles Causley poem which conflates Santa Claus with Herod (this latter leading into a wonderfully extended fiddle riff). To my slight surprise, the highlight was "The Dive", Steve's very personal song about a father and son -- they are separated on a diving expedition, but some paternal link enables the dad to find the boy before he drowns. The only other time I've heard them do this one live, at the atmosphere-free Fiddlers club in Bristol, they filled the stage up with blue smoke and did all sorts of pop starrish lighting tricks, and came across as corny. This time they just sang it, and it worked. It may not be a folk song, really, but its a remarkable bit of song writing. Was there ever a reel/A rod or a line/So strong and true/So straight or fine?/The tide unwound him/Through time and space/He came out the darkness/Right to that place.

And, of course, inevitably, almost a cliche before it happened ,"All the Way To Santiago", the moving, powerful, all-join-in song about human rights which has suddenly becomes a guaranteed, no-question about it show-finisher. It references Chile, it references miner -- it even mentions people coming up from the dark and seeing the sun again -- and it would have a great, great chorus even if wasn't suddenly topical. But they came down onto the floor again for the encore, leading the audience in one last chorus of "The Larks they Sang Melodious" as if to to prove that whatever else they may be, Show of Hands are first and foremost folk singers.

So, why do I remain ambivalent? I think maybe it was a mistake to do a single long set, and maybe the Cathedral wouldn't have collapsed if they'd done a "Roots" or a "Cousin Jack" or a "Keys of Canterbury" or something with a bit more oomph. For the first 40 minutes, I thought that this was maybe the best gig I'd ever been to, with every song dragging me though an emotional crisis; and dropping me out on the other side of it, but in the second half (about the time of the song in which Steve narrowly avoids a car crash and starts to wonder all sorts of deep things about fate and life) my stamina started to give out. I started to feel that all the songs were a bit similar, and that maybe Steve's technique of whispering lines over the closing bars could be given a rest.

I am going to hear them again next month in the less sacred setting of Bristol's Soviet-style era Colston Hall, so maybe I will be able to make my mind up then. 

When England Went Missing...

Robin Williamson
Green Note Cafe, Camden Town
Oct 28

Have the salad, with a choice of five mini-portions of tapas. Or have the special: Louise spoke most highly of the Pumpkin pie. But get there early if you want a seat. I'd be surprised if the venue holds fifty, and all the chairs which aren't actually bar-stools are reserved for diners. We learned our lesson at the Martin Carthy gig in January. This time, I joined the queue at 6PM and kept getting mistaken for the bouncer.

"Which did you like more, the first set or the second set?" said the elderly gentleman I'd been chatting to in the queue. (He used to run a folk club in Newcastle and had lots of stories to tell about performers from the olden days.)

Well... The first set was based around the harp. The songs seemed to run into each other, as if Robin starts with a set-list but keeps finding that the spirit of the music has carried him away. He opens with a couple of traditional Scottish harp pieces, but then (maybe just when we're starting to wonder if this is going to be a purely instrumental set) starts to wonder who moved the black castle and who moved the white queen. Oh it's that old forgotten question: what is it that we are part of? And what is it that we are?

I've been trying to think of a word to describe Williamson. Whimsical? Psychedelic? There's certainly some nonsensical oddness in some of his lyrics ("an elephant madness has covered the sun / the judge and the juries are playing for fun") and some of the time he doesn't so much sing as chant -- even howl -- while his fingers move effortlessly over his harp. Strange? Surreal? But it feels as if the words and the tune and the music are meaningful; as if he really does see himself in the role of an inspired bard and is struggling to put his insights into mortal words.

He does a absolutely astonishing piece called Battle of the Trees – a story of King Arthur from the the Mabinogion or somewhere like that. He sings it, recites it, chants it, improvises around it on the harp. He stops playing to tell the us the names of the three treasures which Arthur was seeking ("Say their names with me") and the three worlds of Celtic mythology. Then he sings a strange ballad which references the song. He says that the stories of "this island" only lived on the printed page, and that was not the place for them, so he developed a way of turning them into performance pieces.

In the second half, he puts the harp away and gets out his guitar. (If the big drum is used at all, it's only for tapping with his foot.) He gives us October Song, of course, and that daft old country and western song called "You keep me stoned on your love" which he loves so much, and gets us all singing along to "Goodbye my sweetheart, goodbye my dear-oh" and an old blues song which goes something like "Whang-dang-doodle". Some singers ask the audience to join in. Williamson improvises around the audience. He growls out different versions of the "whang dang doodle" refrain while the audience keeps up the melody. But always, that hippy strangeness. A song about his mother and the various women who brought him up is called "Since words can fly invisible / I send this song to you my dear ones gone."

He tells us that he's going to finish with a song by "my old friend Mike Heron". This is, of course, Painting Box. The version on 3,000 Layers of the Onion has a slightly knowing whimsicality about it: here, it's distanced and made strange by Williamson's bardic delivery. But the songs seem to take over again, and without anyone having to ask for an encore, he goes straight into Way Back in the 1960s "This was funny when I wrote it, because it was about the future; but now, it's rather sad." No: it's still as clever and strange and funny as it always was, and it always was terribly poignant. "That was way way before before wild World War Three, when England went missing and we moved to Paraguay."

2011, he says, will be his 50th year as a performer.

The first set or the second set? Battle of the Trees is certainly the song I'd like to take home with me: I've literally never heard anything else like it; and I don't think anyone else could do anything remotely similar. Possibly some of the new songs in the second half -- the one about his mother, the one about Bina his wife -- had a slight sense of sameness about them.

But really, it's a half-remarkable question. We weren't there to hear the songs. We were there to hear Robin Williamson. The programme described him as "charismatic". And didn't "charisma" originally mean mean "one with a gift from God"?

Yes; that's the word I was searching for. There's a quality about Williamson and his music which I can only describe as "holiness".

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Olden Days

Bob Fox
Landsdown Pub, Bristol
9 Oct

It's not even that good a song. I first encountered it as a nursery rhyme. It's repetitive. No-one could call it poetry. So why did I find it so very moving when Bob Fox started to sing – as natural as anything, as if no-one has ever sung it before –

Come here little Jackie now I've smoked me baccy
Let's have a cracky til the boat comes in
Dance to thy Daddy, sing to thy Mammy...

"Authenticity" is a risky word. It smacks of middle-class anthropology: I had a positively spiffing evening observing a strange species called 'Geordies' who apparently believe that everyone should "fettle reetly." But it's the best word I can think of. I mean that it's a live song, made out of live words that mean something. The singer says he's recently become a grandfather, and his affection for his grand-daughter comes through in his singing. (It's a dandling song, he says, one to sing while you bounce little children on your knee.) The words and the tune speak of a particular world, a particular place in time: a world of extended families, heavy manual labour and beer. Lots of beer. ("Yonder comes your Daddy / So drunk he canna stand.") It's not a world I ever experienced; not a world I would have felt comfortable in, as different as can be from the Olde Englande of, say, Martin Carthy. These aren't songs in which knights court ladies who sew silken seams: they're songs in which clumsy men trip over ladies' skirts and end up making small-talk with them. (" She mentioned confidentially that her uncle was a grocer / and her mother's father's cousin was a fiddler on the shore...") Not my world: it's hard for me to identify with the nostalgia of a song like Big River – which takes for granted that a river without industry is a dead river, or even Taking On Men in which workmen dream that the idle times are over and the shipbuilding industry is starting up again. ("Gone are the days they were taking on men / the quayside's a drunken man's playground". I get that bit: I've walked around the Bristol waterfront on a Friday night.) But a world which Bob Fox brings almost agonizingly to life. Can you feel homesick for a time and a place you never lived in?

Bob is a great humorist; almost a stand-up comic. He's well aware of the irony of the situation. He says he's the first generation of his family not to have been a miner: his father wanted him to stay at school and do something better with his life. "So here I am, singing about mining to people in Clifton." But the resentment about what was done to British industry in the 80s is still real and raw and current. He doesn't refer to Mrs Thatcher by name: he talks about what "she" did. He claims he once told an audience that she had a face like a sheep's arse, and two people walked out. "I ddn't realise there'd be any Conservatives in tonight". "We're not Conservatives; we're shepherds". Boom-boom.

No-one walks out tonight, which is just as well. It's a tiny audience, and it's clear that half of them are friends of the support act. (Which is an improvement on the last gig I saw in this venue, when half the audience was the support act.) Bob pushes on through two long sets and an encore telling jokes and anecdotes, teaching us the choruses, and reassuring us that if we don't want to sing the whole thing we can always join in on the last word -- but you feel he doesn't quite get the atmosphere going he'd have achieved with a fuller house. (What is it about Bristol folkies? Is the Landsdown to obscure a venue for them to venture into?)

It's hard to pick out a favourite song. Bob said afterwards that he aimed to alternate between serious and comic songs, and I had a sense of the whole evening building up a tapestry. I like the big Ewan McColl radio ballads, of course, oral histories set to music. But the song I'm still singing to myself two days later is the corny old music-hall waltz about the man who missed his chance to ask his sweetheart for a dance: "Now as often is the case / you'll find others in your place / if ye fail to shove ahead and fettle reetly..."

Authenticity. These songs are old, and in dialect, and emerging from a way of life I never knew and which hardly exists any more. But it's more than that. They're done without irony or preciousness; Bob Fox loves them and knows then and wants us to sing along and enjoy them and like them too. But there's no trick to them. No lying. No cleverness. It's the opposite of political language, newspaper language, bishop language. They're songs which use plain words to plainly say what they actually mean. These miners and railway men and long distance lorry drivers are under no illusion that the girl they met in the pub last night is the most beautiful in the world. She isn't. But still (all together) :

she's a big lass, she's a bonny lass, and she likes her beer
and they call her Cushy Butterfield and I wish she was here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

This Week, I Have Been Mostly Listening to Songs About Highwaymen

Andy Irvine
Jazz@FutureInns Bristol
22 Sep

Andy Irvine ended his first set with his own version of that old poem about the Highwayman (you know, the one who came riding, riding, up to the old Inn door). It took eleven minutes. I have rarely been so totally caught up in a piece of musical storytelling. I caught my breath when "her musket shattered the moonlight...and warned him with her death" as if I had never heard the story before.

"That's the way to sing a ballad!" said Ian Storror who runs the Future Inn gigs. The man in front of me wanted to know if the Tim the Ostler got his comeuppance. It was one of those performances which left me literally lost for words.

I must admit I'd almost overlooked this show -- I didn't recognise Andy Irvine's name and Irish folk music isn't always my favourite cup of extremely strong tea. Fortunately, Ian's write up (which contained the expression "Woody Guthrie, who was to become an enduring influence on his music and outlook") alerted me to the fact that this was the kind of thing I might like. There were, indeed, several songs about people whose hearts are tonight in Ireland and who have left someone or other behind in Galway – but it was the long, traditional, meandering narrative ballads which made the evening for me.

He does "Arthur McBride" to a jauntier, folkier tune than Bob Dylan. His introduction is almost as funny as the actual song. ("...and they tell him they're pacifists. He doesn't believe them. So they make an exception and beat the shite out of him.") His version of "The Demon Lover" (another song which Bob had a shot at) goes back to an older, scarier form of the ballad, which leaves us in no possible doubt as to the identity of the ship's carpenter. (They had not sailed a league, a league / A league but barely three / Until she espied his cloven foot /And she wept right bitterly.) Every folk singer has at least one song about a man being robbed by a prostitute. Irvine does a variation of "Barrack Street", re-imagine by a New Zealand folkie named Bob Bickerton. Same set up: gold-digger comes to town to spend his hard earned cash, but foolishly goes up to girl's room after imbibing whisky and strong porter – but a completely different punch line, in which the tables are turned, and turned again. It brings the house down. Andy says he was very reluctant to release it on record, because that would mean all his live audiences would know the punch line already.

I didn't feel that any Guthrie influence was particularly in evidence tonight. (His records do, indeed, have stirring anthems about unions, strikes and people on long dusty roads, and very good they are too.) But he does have a nice line in turning personal experience directly into song: almost a kind of musical journalism. His signature track is a glorious, rambling, indulgent, autobiographical account of a pub he frequented at the beginning of his career. In a sense, its not much more than a litany of anecdotes about his mates; but the voices are so perfectly observed, and the tune so infectious, that you almost feel you've been transported back to August 1962 (At closing time we didn't go far / Down the road to the Pipe coffee bar/ "The usual suspects there you are / Have you'se no homes to go to?")

And he finishes with "The Boys are On Parade" a wonderfully nuanced anti-war anthem, containing several sides of several arguments, razor sharp language and a string of clever Gilbertian internal rhymes, all counterpointed by a light, jaunty march tune that I literally can't stop humming:

Merely the whim or intuition of an elected politician
Makes a melee without conditions as the monster quits the cage
Its a machine that knows no quarter dealing death and sowing slaughter
Raping mothers, wives and daughters in an all consuming rage....

Why, I sometimes ask myself, does anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

Steve Tilston
St George's Bristol
23rd Sep

I've heard Steve Tilston a couple of times before, but I'd never heard him do "The Naked Highwayman" live. And the reason becomes clear: those tongue-twisting rhymes and rhythms must be incredibly hard to sing. Steve ostentatiously gargled water before embarking on it, and still got tangled up in verse 4 (Your money or your life I'll have it's all the same to me / It's hanging for deciet or murder in the first degree.) Doesn't matter a bit: he just goes right on and sings it again. Wonderful, silly song. Set in Brizzle, too. He's just written a novel about Bristol pirates.

He finished with Slip-jigs and Reels. He always does. It's a great sing-a-long ballad which has almost nothing to do with the life of Billy the Kid. It's been covered by – well, everybody. There's a story that he was once in a Whitby cafe when the question "Who wrote the Fairport Convention Song, Slipjigs and Reels?" came up on Mastermind. He spilt all his chips in his excitement.

Thursday night was an anniversary concert: 40 years since he made his first record. An extensive collection of wives, friends and grown-up children joined him on the stage. Martha rushed down from her own gig in Cheltenham to join them for the second half. (I have never heard her before, but she has a voice, as the young people say, to die for.) The Tilston clan were raised near the Worth Valley Railway, and son Joe sings a song called "We Were The Railway Children" which demonstrates that song writing talent is at least partly inherited. All four children bring a cake onto the stage and sing "Happy 40 years in show business to you". "Awww...." say Steve. It looked to me as if Joseph was restraining Brizzle bluesman Keith Warmington from going into a harmonica riff until the last chorus of Slipjigs, so as not to drown out Dad's delicate lyrics. (Well, there's talk of a pistol: some say a knife / But all are agreed there was somebody's wife.) Genius. I used to think it was by Trad. Peter Bellamy recorded it, for goodness sake.

You could mistake a lot of Steve Tilston's output for traditional songs, but he does seem to have become less overtly folky as his career has progressed. He opens the night with "Rocky Road", an early crie de couer about life as a touring musician: it's pretty much a re-write of Prickle Eye Bush, which is part of the joke. But his song-writing seems to me to have improved with age. This isn't one of those gigs where you listen politely to a lot of songs off the new album in the hope he'll eventually do one of the famous ones. The new songs are highlights of the evening. "Pretty Penny", of course; an evisceration of the banking industry, written (Steve swears) before the credit crunch hit. How can you squeeze so much well aimed invective into a song with such a pleasant, lilting tune which drifts into a "la-la-lai" refrain without sounding either corny or forces? (And behind their hedge, they don’t plant wheat /They don’t cut corn, they don’t pick tea / They don’t dig coal, they don’t forge steel /They just push numbers all about /They push too far, we bail em’ out / To keep their fingers firm on fortunes wheel.) Genius. Possibly the highight of the evening for me was "Speaking in Tongues" a spine tinglingly ambivalent patriotic anthem. (First I'm human being then I'm European but I've got to get back home to England...) This is the work of a man who has thought and considered and put both sides of an argument to a catchy tune. And the heart breaking middle-aged waltz, "The Road When I Was Young"; and "Madam Muse", a thought provoking contribution to the "song about not being able to write a song" genre.... the list goes on and on.

For the encore, his current wife joined the informal ensemble to do that Cuban revolutionary thing that Pete Seeger sings in what sounded to me like passable Spanish. Good one to get the audience singing along to. But then Steve and his guitar were left by themselves on the stage to wind up the evening with a work-in-progress called "The Reckoning" about how all the things were are doing to the world and the environment right now are going to have to be paid for by future generations. Another big, moving, thoughtful, intelligent piece.

I left the theatre reminded of the blurb on the back of my copy of Dylan's collect lyrics: the nicest thing about this evening is that there are still more new songs to look forward to.

Martin Carthy/ Dave Swarbrick
Bristol Folkhouse
Sep 26

It's the modesty and the professionalism of Martin Carthy that blows me away every time I hear him (fourth time this year, if anyone's counting).

He comes onto the stage and starts tuning, and adjusting the mic until it is just so, and making those signals which sound-men are so adept at interpretting, drawing a little smiley face in the air when he's happy with the pick-up; while Dave "Not Dead" Swarbrick is doing something with his fiddle which might be tuning or might be improvisation but which turns out to be a melody, and then unannounced, while the audience is sill settling, Martin, with that serious, humble face, as if the song is singing him, declaims "Sovay, Sovay, all on a day, she's dressed herself in man's array...." I have always loved this song; I think it may be my favourite English traditional number; a strange, melancholy tune; a rip-roaring story, economically told.

As I have said before - I don't play or read music myself, so when it comes to the purely instrumental my ear isn't good enough to distinguish the excellent from there merely very good. I'm told that Swarbrick is the best folk fiddler alive, the one everyone else copies, and can well believe it. He seems to be in good health, propelling himself around the venue with a single walking stick, although he did complain that his seat was uncomfortable. Someone provided a cushion for the second half. His enthusiasm for his instrument and the tradition is absolutely infectious: he keeps smiling at particular riffs, like a comedian telling a favourite joke, and the fizz when the two performers catch each other's eye ("again?" "again!") is a joy to look at. At one point Carthy starts to expound the virtues of a particular tune ("like a lot of English folk songs, it's in the time signature of "one") Swarbs looks puzzled and says "Oh, are we doing that one?" "Diddly, diddly dee" sings Marin. "Not "Dee diddly dee?" he replies.

They take it in turns: Martin and Dave together; then a song with just Martin and his guitar; than a set of jigs or whatnot from Dave. (I do like the way that folk fiddlers describe the things they play, not as "piece of music" or "numbers" but simply as "tunes".) In a funny way, the most spell-binding moment was Dave's description of the writing of the Bunting collection of traditional Irish harp music. (It seems that at the end of the eighteenth century, the city fathers of Belfast held a harp festival in order to make a record of the near extinct Irish tradition. Ten harpists – mostly blind, and one over ninety years old – attended, and the last vestiges of the ancient music was written down.) His account of Blind Mary, a tune possibly written by legendary harpist Turlough Carolan was so exquisite that I could almost forgave it for not having any lyrics. (I, of course, now now regard myself as an expert in this stuff, having listened to all seventeen hours of Ron Kavana's musical history of Ireland on the coach to York the other week. Gosh, wasn't the Times beastly to Parnell?)

Martin did a depressing thing called "The Treadmill Song", not at all like his normal style, which is apparently one of only two authentic prison songs in the repertoire. (He claims to have personally collected the other one from an old school friend who had had a career in the burglary business.) But possibly my favourite song of the evening was "King Willie", a fairy tale about a woman whose mother-in-law curses her always to be pregnant but never to give birth. It was Martin Carthy's own idea to match one set of traditional words to another traditional tune (originally about cider, apparently) but the combination sounds exactly like what a strange, celtic fairy tale ought to sound like.

Sitting in a room with beer while two men sing world-old stories about lady highwaymen, Irish harpers and witches. It really doesn't get much better than this.

Spiers and Boden
Bath Folk Club
Sep 30th

The best thing about this evening was Jon Boden's announcement that Bellowhead are doing a second night at Bristol Old Vic in November. (The first night sold out pretty much immediately.)

The best thing about this evening was John Spiers introduction to the medley of hornpipes. "In the middle, there's sea-shanty. It's a sea shanty sandwich. You can sing along. It's called 'Haul away.' The lyrics are: 'haul away.' " I actually laughed for five minutes at that.

The best thing about this evening was also Jon Boden's introduction to "Captain Ward".
Jon: "We'd like to do a song about a pirate."
Member of audience: "Arrr!"
Jon: Well, I suppose we could do a song about a farmer if you'd prefer that...

The best thing about this evening, indeed the best thing, about every Spiers and Boden gig, was "All a Long and Down a Lea" – in which, as regular readers will remember, Bold Sir Rylas kills an Old Lady's spotted pig. The relish with which Boden sings "And now the wild woman Sir Rylas fell on / And split her head down to the chin" becomes more over the top every time he performs it.

The best thing about this evening was the opening set by Jon Boden's taller brother Tom, who turns out to be a most decent folk singer in his own right, offering a funny Barrack Street and a touching version of Stan Rogers' wonderful Lock-Keeper. And also when his brother joined him on the stage and they did Oats and Beans and Barley off the Folksong a Day Project.

The best thing about this evening was the two John's going into Prickle Eye Bush without announcing it, and everybody joining in. But then, everyone joined in everything. How can you not join in Sing High Sing Low and So Sailed We? Or Sailing Down To Old Maui?

In short: the best thing about the evening was everything about it.

And I got to say "Thank you" to Jon at the door on the way out. Bob Dylan doesn't shake hands with the punters, does he? He doesn't even shake hands with the President.

They really are the best live act in the world, and (I still say) much better when they are being nuanced and intimate on a small stage than being over the top and expansive on a big stage with Bellowhead. This really is the folk act for people who think they don't like folk music.

Also heard Eliza Carthy in an open air gig at Bristol Zoo back in August. She's good: lovely voice, good band; but I have to say I find myself a little underwhelmed by some of her material. It's clever, all right. "Mister Magnifico" is, come to think of it, another variation on the "being robbed by prostitute" theme: a middle aged man tries to score with some French students and gets cleaned out by them; "The Rain in Spain" is a weird silly piece which she wonders if the whole of England will become a car park when the population moves to Spain. I couldn't help feeling that the set contained a lot of clever musical jokes I wasn't getting. But I'll have more to say when I hear her and her Mum in more traddy mode next month. I understand her father, whose first name is apparently Martin, will be there as well....