Sunday, April 04, 2010

"There is a stage in a child's life when it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal aspect of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.’ This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life."
C.S Lewis "Reflections on the Psalms."

This quote is apparently the most controversial and obscure thing I have ever reproduced.

Mr Lewis is not saying "Without a belief in the resurrection, the practice of giving sweetmeats at Easter will soon be abandoned" or "The reason that we give each other sweets is because we believe in the resurrection" or "Ha-ha you say that you are an atheist but you eat cream eggs ha ha so you must believe in the resurrection really, atheists are silly." (I have heard clergymen argue the latter, though not in quite those words.)

Lewis has written extensively on, e.g how the traditions of Christmas are widely practised among non religious people; and how the tradition of church going survives among non Christian people.

The context of the quote is a discussion of "praise" in the book of Psalms.

To precis:

Having talked about death and curses in the psalms, I'm now going to talk about joy and beauty in the Psalms.

King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant: his wife didn't approve. Most Anglicans would have been on the side of the Queen. Our worship is quiet, respectful, even clinical. The Jews, in that sense, were more like pagans.

David's dancing might not be as holy as a great mystic's visions of god; but it was a lot more holy than a churchgoer just "saying his prayers" out of duty (although that's good too if it's the best we can manage.)

This "joy" was focussed on the temple.

By the way, don't make the mistake of thinking that the Temple was to the Synagogue as the Cathedral is to the Parish Church. The Temple was the place for sacrifice. The Synagogue was a meeting place for prayer and study.

It would be strange to us that the Jewish temple, like the Parthenon, was a holy abattoir, but bare in mind that it was also a holy barbecue, smelling of cooked meat.

The Jews didn't "do" philosophy in the way the Greeks did. If you'd ask David to distinguish between "enjoying" God in a spiritual sense and enjoying the festivities of the temple, he wouldn't have understood the question.

Think of a modern Christian farm labourer enjoying harvest festival: he's really thanking God for a good harvest; he's really pleased that the work is over; he's really looking forward to harvest supper, and he's really enjoying the old hymns. To ask him "how much of your enjoyment is in praising God, and how much is in singing an old song that your dad and grandad sung?" would be meaningless to him.

c.f The little boy with his easter egg.

It didn't occur to the Psalmist, then, to separate "religion" from "agriculture" and "festival": they were all one. (QUOTE: "This assuredly laid him open to spiritual dangers which more sophisticated people can avoid; it also gave him privileges that they lack.")

When the Psalmist talks of "seeing" God, he is, in fact, talking about things which have happened in the temple. (QUOTE: "The fatal way of putting this would be to say 'they only mean that they have seen the festival'. It would be better to say 'If we had been there, we would only have seen the festival.'")

If a modern Christian could, in fact, have seen the ancient Jewish worship, he or she would see the dancers, the musicians, the priests, etc, and might in addition have "felt" the presence of God. The modern Christian would be aware of that duality. The ancient Jew would not.

Once you can make the distinction between the "rite" and the "vision of god" then there is a danger that the rite becomes a substitute for a rival to God.

This did, in fact, happen in later Judaism, and it is what the prophets complain about.

When the sacrifices became distinguishable from the meeting with God, they don't necessarily become less important: they may in fact become more important. (QUOTE: "They may be valued as a sort of commercial transaction with a greedy God who somehow really needs large quantities of carcasses....Worse still, they me regarded as the only thing he wants.")

However, we already know the ways in which ritual and sacrifice can be abused. and don't need to dwell on it. The good thing about the praising Psalms is that they remind us that this need not be so: that there is a time or a state of mind when the Temple was the "living heart of Judaism" which the singer longed for.

This joy is less like "love for God" than it is like "appetite for God": the singer wants to live in the temple and sing songs to God, but he doesn't think that these are pious or merit-worthy feelings.

It wouldn't be a good idea to try to bring this kind of exuberance back into the church of England. Firstly, we're British and bad at it. More importantly, the concept of the Atonement was not present in Judaism: there's a "tragic" element to Christianity. You can't dance before the ark so unaffectedly once you know what your salvation cost.

In the following chapter, I will continue the theme of joy and talk about why the Psalmist feel that the Torah is "sweeter than honey."

Can I go, now? Please? There's some TV series people keep asking me about.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Complete Doctor Who blogs 2005 - 2010
Available now....

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Olden Days (5)

Spiers and Boden
Queen Elizabeth Hospital Theater
12 March

OK: I know this is heresy, but I'd rather hear Spiers and Boden being Spiers and Boden than being front men for Bellowhead. Jon Boden doesn't feel the need to go quite so far over the top when it's just the two of them, and the focus is naturally more on the songs than on the arrangement. There's a real glee in the way he introduces the story of Will and Earl Richard without revealing the "twist ending". And no-one else can work an audience in the way that he does: where other performers are happy to suggest that you join in the refrain Boden spends minutes rehearsing us, tellling us to go for volume, not accuracy and not to bother with consonants.

There's a goodly dollop of irreverence: the Morris tunes are played much too fast to dance to, and introduced with an implausible story about the small village with three different Morris sides (each of which hates the other two). But they care a great deal about The Tradition. I doubt that the Outlandish Knight who drowned six king's daughters but was drowned by the seventh is really old enough to have been represented in cave paintings, but it's a nice thought. I'm quite prepared to believe that the daft song about the knight who kills the hag's spotted pig and cuts off her head when she demands his horse and his hound and his fair ladee in recompense really is related to Norse mythology.

Not sure if the QEH space did them a lot of favours. It's one of those small, in-the-round theatres; they'd put some tables in the stage area to create a cabaret feel, but that had the effect of making it hard for the front row to see the performers: for those of us in the fixed seating, the very small venue felt less intimate than it could have done.

And it could be that their set has become a bit fixed: we always have Earl Richard, all-along-and-down-a-lee, one song from the floodplain and finish with Innocent When You Dream. (Tom Waits is now officially so old that his songs count as traditional.) Although I grant that I may only be noticing this because I've heard them four times in the last eighteen months and would happily hop on a train tomorrow to hear them again if they were in Bath or Cheltenham.

A fiddle, a squeeze box, a lot of attitude and some great songs. It's probably a cliche to say they're my favourite act.

Folk House
19 March

ABCDEFG (album)
No Masters Collective

There is a slight air of the shambolic about tonight's gig. One half of the support act has gone down with food poisoning, and takes to the stage slightly late after settling her stomach with neat vodka. (It works, apparently.) The twenty foot photo of Woody Guthrie that was supposed to preside over the proceedings won't fit on the stage. One of the amps adds a high pitched improvisation to some of the songs. Lou has a sore throat, and leaves the talking, of which there is slightly too much, to Boff. He manages to skip an entire verse of "The Day The Nazi Died", and the irritation from the stage is palpable.

And you know what? It really doesn't matter at all. They may have mutated from a punk dance band into acoustic (not infrequently acappella) folkies; but they are still anarchists. Possibly situationists. Set lists are more guidelines than rules; Boff is quite free to pause between songs to tell an amusing story about what just happened to him in the Gents. ("I hope you weren't expecting these little anecdotes to have punchlines.") The slight sense of chaos rather suits the mood.

Well, maybe once or twice it goes a bit too far. "Charlie" is a wonderful witty singable tune, all close harmony with occasional interventions from Jude's flute: a sort of secular rationalist Lord of Dance. ("In between the platypus and perfect Aphrodite / Charlie come with opposing thumbs to question the Almighty"). When the song references (for no very good reason, it must be said) Chumbawamba's greatest Hit, and the audience reacts, Boff takes it as a cue to embark on a rambling anecdote, which doesn't help what's a very tightly constructed song.

Very different audience from last year's gig at the old site: possibly only hard-core fans were prepared to travel out too the wilds of Southville, but more casual listeners are prepared to venture on to Park Street to see if they are still singing the famous one? Last year's crowd were stamping along to "The Day the Nazi Died" before the band got to the first line; this year's are laughing at lines from "Add Me" as if they'd never heard them before.

Chumbawamba deal in sweet, catchy melodies with light, often frivolous lyrics – which address big, heavy subjects. Their folk songs come from the musical hall rather than the village green. "Singing Out the Days", which could pass for an authentic World War I marching song, leads into a few lines of the traditional "I Don't Want to be a Soldier" ("I don't want a bayonet up me arsehole / I don't want me bollocks shot away"). Perhaps too many of the melodies are easy, marching jingles of this kind, where the last line of every stanza is slogan, and the final repeat is sung at half speed to make sure you remember it. Only rarely do the lyrics make a penetrating or original point, or even present an argument. Their stock in trade are tiny little incidents which seem to illustrate some bigger point. Martin Simpson once remarked that some people treat the Folk Tradition as sacrosanct and want to preserve it unchanged: "Well, that's not music, that's pickle." It's very doubtful if Chumbawamba's song adds anything to this bon mot. ("Preserved and safe on a high up shelf where soiled little fingers can't mess / catalogued labelled and rarely played / polished and pure and posessed") It's doubtful if it's meant to: but it's a sweet, sweet song and a good excuse to make the audience sing "Pickle! Pickle!". The story of the Alzhiemer's patient who was once an opera singer – and who retains a few bars of Madam Butterfly after the rest of her personality has dissipated – has already been told (as the song acknowledges) by Tony Harrison. The story of the concentration camp survivor who protested against a performance of Wagner in Israel is a pretty naïve cry against fascism but also a metaphor about the power of one little guy with a football rattle to disrupt a whole hall-full of stuck-up concert goers. The horrible story that James Hetfield is pleased that Metallica's music was used to torture suspects in Guatanamo becomes a swinging show tune in which the band imagines tying him up and forcing him to listen to Chumbawamba records.

The new album finishes with a so-much-for-subtlety response to Nick Griffin's attempts to annex folk music to his white supremicist ideology. It's a just-this-side-of-parody Morris tune which eschews anger or refutation in favour of ridicule and silly rhymes: "His arms were stiff as cold lasagne / 'Cos all he knew was Rule Britannia / Dance, idiot, dance!"

These are songs about songs. Songs about people who respond to hatred with songs; songs about what life would be like if we all responded to hatred with songs; songs which are themselves responses to hatred. A white man in a rough part of New York is approached by a group of black people: he thinks they've come to mug him; but they've actually come to sing doo wop to him. George Melly sees off a knife-wielding mugger by reciting da-da-ist poetry at him. Soldiers sing "songs for our humanity in the face of inhumanity to demonstrate our sanity" and everyone suddenly bursts out singing when the armistice is declared. (This is literate music: references to Siegfried Sassoon, Wagner, Tony Harrison, Shostakovitch and Puccini and take their place alongside the Larkins and the Brechts on the previous album.) Darwin is a dancer and evolution is the dance he taught us about; a Mexican rebel survives the firing squad because of "the rhythm of life inside him".

The greatest ire is directed at people who misuse music – Catholics who thought that Satan could "get" you if you played the Devil's interval; communists who used it as state propaganda – and against any pretentious performer. A lovely ballad about a bored office worker ("Oh, I wish that they'd sack me and leave me to sleep!") is said to be a riposte to millionaire pop singers who dare to say that touring and making albums is hard work.

That's why, I think, these "political" lyrics contain so few arguments; why some of them seem almost deliberately naïve. The album; the concert; the act of making music and poems is the argument. The beautiful harmonies and terrible rhymes are offering us a model of a different kind of world.

I don't know if I believe it. I don't know if I believe "that words can save us." I don't know whether one guy spoiling a lot of people's night at the opera really does anything about the concentration camps. But that isn't the point. The little guy with the rattle is doing a small thing to re-assert his human dignity; just like the waitress who spits in the soup of the customer whose been leching at her and the soldiers who carry on singing until they're slaughtered. Maybe that's all we can do. The melody is the message.

Words is all
In the underground
and ticket halls
Declaring peace
Wall to wall

Back in Leeds
The news we heard
No one killed
No one hurt
Wish all the young men
Used only words


The aforementioned Martin Simpson is the next tenant at the folkhouse on Easter Saturday. He's more or less bound to sing "Never Any Good" and "One Day" which are two of the best songs written since, well, ever, and his guitar makes sounds that you didn't know a guitar was able to make. There appear to be tickets.


I realize you're all getting tired of positive reviews. I promise to find something to eviscerate before too long.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Olden Days (4)

Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol
Redgrave Theatre, Bristol
Feb 26th

Friday came down to a straight choice: Ashley Hutchings at the Redgrave, or Steve "Fifty per cent of Show of Hands" Knightly at Colston Hall. Apparently, everybody else picked Steve Knightly. You know things aren't too good when the usher asks if you wouldn't mind sitting near the front.

Ashley Hutchings is one of the founders of the aforementioned Fairport Convention; Ken Nicol performs with Steeleye Span, so together they account for both the folk groups I had heard of before I started listening to folk groups. (They've also been in the Albion Band, but then so has everyone else.) I know Mr Hutchings primarily as a producer and arranger of traditional music, particularly the Morris On series. (Black Joke from the Mother of All Morris album would almost certainly appear on my list of all time top ten folkie tracks (*)) Tonight, the focus is on their own, self-written music. There is, of course, a new album.

The pair don't seem phased by the relatively poor turnout. Much of the evening has a light, even zany atmosphere. Ken tells a long, punchline-free anecdote about meeting a professional regurgitator while queuing for an American visa. Ashley speaks of his enthusiasm for ten pin bowling, and then sings a song in which he imagines Francis Drake refusing to go up against the Spanish Armada until he's finished his coke and hotdog. There's a ragtime (it says here) number in which the birds and the bees ask the groundsman to leave some wild space for them on the cricket pitch (please make this corner a short boundary / for the sake of good grave, that's W.G) and a surprisingly sombre one about apprentices being sent to fetch stripy ink and buttonholes on April Fools Day.

But it's also quite literary. Before Ken plays a traditional Irish hornpipe ("written by me, in Preston") Ashley recites from memory a long passage about clog dancing from Arnold Bennet; a song about the Ponte Vecchio is introduced with some lines reminding us what Wordsworth felt about Westminster Bridge. 

The absolute stand out number is the reworking of Gypsy Davy in which the lady declines to go away with the raggle taggle gypsy but instead remains in her fine house -- but with just the slightest hint that she's going to regret it afterwards.

They look old, slightly weather-beaten, even dishevelled; as if they've been together for so long that making music no longer takes much effort. The evening opened with a haunting psychy piece called Prologue and ends with an identical song, this time called Epilogue. The temptation to draw Samuel Beckett analogies is overwhelming.

A funny, mellow, melodious evening. But I do start to think that 60s style folk rock may not really be my thing.

[*] Assuming that the Bible and Shakespeare are already there:

10: Birth of Robin Hood (Spiers and Boden)
9: Black Joke (Jim Moray / Ashley Hutchings)
8: King of Rome (June Tabor)
7: Muir and the Master Builder (Dick Gaughan)
6: Roots (Show of Hands)
5: World Turned Upside Down (Billy Bragg)
4: Little Pot Stove (Nic Jones)
3: Sovay (Martin Carthy)
2: Passing Through (Peter Seeger)
1: Grand Coulee Dam (Woody Guthrie) 

Chris Wood
Folk House, Bristol
27 February

Any attempt at objectivity must now go out of the window.

Since hearing Chris Wood for the first time at the Hatfield mini-festival last July, I have become quite evangelical about this performer. Given that his most famous song is an ode to atheism, this is perhaps a little ironic.

Or perhaps not. Wood says that he is a little uneasy about Richard Dawkins' endorsement of his "atheist spiritual", Come Down Jehovah. On the other hand he's rather pleased to hear about a choir-master who wants to re-arrange the song and perform it in church. "I don't have any more problem with Richard Dawkins than I do with any other fundamentalist," explains Wood. He doesn't like anyone who thinks they've arrived at absolute truth. He is the kind of atheist who counts English hymn-writer Sydney Carter as one of his heroes. Before Jehovah, he leads the audience in a rousing chorus of one of Carter's carols. (I'll crow like a cock, I'll carol like a lark / In the light that is coming in the morning!) [*] 

While I've greatly enjoyed his performances with the Imagined Village and the Handmade Life group, tonight's intimate performance – just the singer and an acoustic guitar – seems to me to be the Real Thing. He tells us that Cold, Hard Windy Night was taught to him by Martin Carthy, and you can hear it in every line.

I don't think any of the recordings capture the impact of Wood's stage act. For one thing, he talks a lot. He comes onto the stage pretty much as soon as the support act has left ("we don't want to be precious about this") and immediately starts moaning that the sound team have put on a random music CD in the gap between the performers. "You wouldn't go to Stratford and expect them to be playing fucking Alan Bennet on the way in..." His songs are lyrically dense and complex so in some cases they benefit from his explication. It may not be immediately obvious that Spitfires is a response to Nick Griffin's Euro-election leaflets; or that No Honey Tongued Sonnet is partly about the 11+ exam or exactly what it means to "watch the spuds chitting".

If you only know Come Down Jehovah from the version with Kathrine Polwart on Trespasser, you might be surprised by the humour which he brings to the song live: the way he looks up and pauses for a second before singing "my neck is terribly...stiff"; or the dripping sarcasm he brings to the Cottager's Reply ("this Cotswalds house that you call...nice...")

He has a bit of a reputation for being relentlessly downbeat, but in fact, there's quite a range of tones and styles. My Darling's Downsized a song about love and gardening in which every line is  funny but every sentiment entirely sincere – may perhaps invoke the very English ghost of Jake Thackray. There's perhaps a hint of Steve Tilston in Spitfires and a smattering of Billy Bragg in the more ranty political ones. (There's no more mandate for you soiled institution / we're all praying here for divine retribution / don't you go asking for another contribution. If Chris chooses to cast a satire about the MPs' expenses scandal in the form of a riff on Ballad of a Thin Man then who are we to ask why?) 

If he has a chink in his lyrical armour, it's slightly tendency to the sentimental, even the corny. (Louise observed that, like all cynics, he's a romantic at heart.) So three accutely observed vignettes about his six year old daughter lead to the not very profound observation that when she's with me / I get much more than I'm giving. It's notable that when Martin Simpson sings Come Down Jehovah, he omits the last couplet (if we've done our best / we'll be ready for a rest) to the over all improvement of the song. 

I hadn't heard the epic One in a Million before, although I'm told it was the best new folk-song of 2006. The lyrics (by an oral storyteller named Hugh Lupton) are like a modern Chaucer: they start with a realistic setting (a fish and chip shop) populated by absolutely naturalistic portraits of "stock" characters and only gradually allow you to realize what you are listening to is, in fact, a fairy tale. The melody creeps up behind you: in verse one, I might almost have said "this is pretty much a recitation; the words, not the tune, are doing the work" but on each repetition the actually quite jaunty verse and the almost dirge like refrain works their way into your head. It's a long, long, song – he's a demanding performer and you have to pay attention right the way through to see where he's going with his stuff. In the end it's the way the character's voices (speaking, as the fellow said, "the very language of men") merge naturally with the persistent melody that makes the song so heartbreaking. (She said Billy love I'm sorry / I never meant no harm /Oh you're kindly and you're comforting /And I love it when you sing / But in all the years I've known you/You never said a thing.)

I've bought all his CDs, but I haven't been able to listen to them. Not right through. The songs are too...intense? The chilling Hollow Point remains the only piece of music (the only piece of music which doesn't involve warrior maidens setting fire to themselves) which makes me cry ever time I hear it. I think that it was written with the Handmade Life band in mind, and a great deal of the song's power comes from the threatening instrumental heartbeat which gets louder and louder as through the hourglass the sand is falling / and there is nothing he can do. It's impressive that Wood can achieve the same effect on stage with his guitar alone. When I've heard something like that on my I-Pod I don't want  to -- I can't -- just go on and listen to the next track. I'm left feeling, as the other fellow said "that I need a brisk walk round the block, possibly pausing at a bar on the way back for a quick glass of perspective and soda."

He really is that good.

[*] My enemy's enemy is my friend, of course; but it's a little hard to see why someone who regards God as a perverted genocidal monster would be enthusiastic about a song which portrays him merely as a rather beautiful illusion. A goodly number of Christians would be quite comfortable with the line "Heaven is right here on earth, Jehovah: not tomorrow but right now today." (Wasn't that the burden of Honest to God?) And yes, as a matter of fact, I do know the difference between fundementalism and evidence based thingamijig.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olden Days (3)

Ian King
Bristol Folk House
20th Feb

The Ash Keys folk nights have decamped from the quaint, out of the way arts centre in Southville to the community education center and tea-shop on Park Street.  I am going to quite miss the old venue's church hall chic and the crazy barmen who sang Basque protest songs and claimed that Chumbawamba saved his life. But the Folk House is easier to get to. (Once the Hobgoblin music shop has finished relocating, it will be very convenient for any performers who need to nip out in the interval and buy a quick accordion.) The big room where they do the gigs, which used to look like a school hall, has undergone some refurbishment recently, and now looks like a school hall.

The new venue retains the slightly rough-and-ready club atmosphere of the old one with local artists opening for the big names. Rachel Dawick, who has recently arrived from New Zealand and apparently spent last week busking in Broadmead started this evening off with some self-written swingy country stuff. Then a local choir called the Roving Blades did a short set of acapella folksy harmony stuff. Rather good, this, I thought: any set which finishes with the audience singing "hi, ho, chicken on a raft" is a good one. I'll even forgive them the extra "local" verses. ("Saturday morning nothing to do / think I'll go to B & Q").

As to the main performer.


Ian King clearly knows and cares about his folk. We're told he used to be a dry stone waller; he talks Yorkshire although he sings with a rock'n'roll accent. He name checks Chris Wood several times. He sings almost entirely traditional material. He's got a band with two electric guitars, a three man brass section and one of those percussionists who plays drums with his hands but also uses the box he's sitting on as an instrument.

His first number was Death and the Maiden. The electrics twanged out a rhythm. The brass kept coming in with little "stings", like an 80s cop show. When Ian eventually started singing, I couldn't quite tell if he was singing the traditional tune, or had simply swiped the words and put them to do new young-people's repetitive beat type thang.

As the evening went on it started to grow on me a bit. The second number was Adieu to Old England, which confirmed that he was sticking to the traditional melodies, more or less. The brass section was largely "replying" to the vocal melody, while the drums carried on doing much the same thing as they had been before. I positively liked the version of Flash Company we finished on: Mr King sort of softened it up so that what's often a beat-out-the-rhythm-in-the-air marching song came out almost as a romantic ballad.

Lots of people have done, and are doing, performances in which someone sings folk songs in a relatively folky way, while  something different and modern and instrumental is going on behind it. What makes your Jim Morays and your Bellowheads work for me is very largely the element of surprise: each song is different, and you don't exactly know what's going to happen next. (Bellowhead turn Flash Company into a rather desperate, discordant, out of tune muddle, as if it was being song by a hopeless drunk.) After I'd heard the first couple of songs, I felt I'd "got" Mr King's schtick: trad folk songs with (sticking my neck out here) a "ska" beat behind it. And that sorta kinda worked: but it wasn't interesting enough to keep me excited through a whole set.

Not surprisingly, my favourite part of the evening was the bit where he got out his acoustic guitar and did a rather heartfelt "What is that blood on your shirt sleeve?" without the band. (Not a song I'd heard before, although it's obviously related to the second part of Lucy Wan, which Jim Moray does that weird hip-hop version of, where the young guy who's killed his sister (in that version) and his brother (in this) tries to pass the blood off her blood as horse's blood and then realizes he's going to have to leave the country. One of the fun things about listening to to this stuff is drawing the lines and connecting the dots between different songs and different singers.) He followed this by bringing the Blades back on stage and doing a nice, Raahbin Gentle Raahbin, with them repeating the chorus and him improvising a bit around the verse.

All of which sounds rather more negative than I actually felt. King seems like a good guy with a nice stage manner who cares about the material. The audience (much younger than the usual crowd) seemed very enthusiastic; the girl in front of me tried to start a standing ovation; a young bloke kept shouting "good one, man."

Tell you what. Disregard this review altogether, I'll go get the CD and listen to it a few times and then let you know what I think. Mike Harding says it grew on him. 


Looks to me if there are still tickets going for Chris Wood on Saturday. If you're anywhere near Bristol it would be almost sinful to miss it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olden Days (2)

Martin Carthy
Green Note, Camden Town
17 Feb

Last week, Martin Carthy on a stage with dry ice and synthesisers and lights and amps in front of an audience of a thousand. This week, Martin Carthy in a vegetarian cafe not much bigger than my Mum's front room, playing to an audience of fifty -- thirty-five of whom arrived in time to get seats, the rest perched on stools or standing around the bar. (Slightly cheeky, arguably, to charge money for tickets and then set things up so you only get a seat if you also buy dinner. Good cheesecake, though.)

Carthy comes onto the stage, or rather, onto the raised bit in the corner of the cafe, and without ado, launches into "Come listen  for a moment lads, and hear me tell my tale / across the seas from England I was condemned to sail..." I loved this song when Dylan turned it into a pop ballad; I love it when Mawkin: Causley do it as a big production number; but Carthy strips it right down to the simple melody and stark, harsh words so you can actually hear it being sung by a real poacher on a real convict ship. And then straight into Broom, Green Broom, which he points, out shows that dads and teenagers haven't changed much over the centuries. ("He had a son, his name it was John/And he stayed in his bed until noonday, noon / The father arose and to his son goes / And swore he would fire his room...")

He gives us a fair old sample of his vast repertoire -- he claims that he only needs to hear a song once to know it by heart -- in two generous sixty minute sets. He refrains from singing the dirty words to Cuckoo's Nest, but if we're paying attention during a perfectly timed, unaccompanied Tailor of Whitby, we can work out what the title means. (And doesn't it give you some kind of hope for the future of the human race that a cock joke can remain funny for two hundred years?)

He does a lot of the Famous Ones, of course. There's a poignant My Bonny Boy Is Young But He's Growing; a long, dramatic Prince Heathen, with many instrumental breaks. No female highwaymen, though, to my very mild disappointment.

There are a few minor departures from his very traditional brief. The second half starts, unannounced, with a dotty bit of half-sung, half-recited Victorian music hall whimsy ("don't go in them lions' cage tonight, mother"). He does the Imagined Village version of My Son John, in which the young man's legs are replaced with carbon fibre blades rather than crutches. The Three Jovial Welshmen ("Can someone tell me why that always gets a laugh?") mistake a haystack for Barbara Cartland -- which gives some indication as to how long he's been singing that particular version of the song. I'm guessing that the stanza about Crookback Richard's taxation policy is even older.

What I like best of all are the long, long narrative ballads. The boy in the forest who sends his friend to take a love message to married woman, resulting in him losing his head. (Completely new to me: Carthy says it's one of his six or seven favourite songs, and one can see why.) The witch who curses a woman so that she will get pregnant, but never give birth, and is caught out by one of those ruses that only work in fairy tales. And the final, daft encore about the farmer who bets his soul that he can find an animal that the Satan won't recognise.

Although he obviously knows which songs work as opening and closing numbers he has no set-list, and sometimes seems to genuinely pause and say "I think I'll, maybe I'll do this one first."

Louise said that Carthy, for all his fame and influence still seems to be saying "I'm just going to sing you a few songs I like -- I hope you like then too." I think it's the modesty of the true folk singer -- he knowns that the songs are the star: he's just a conduit for them.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Olden Days (1)

So I thought what the world probably needed most was for me to start keeping a diary of the various gigs I seem to have been going to.

Apologies in advance to anyone who properly knows about this stuff.

The Imagined Village
Jan 23rd
Colston Hall, Bristol

Wasn't quite sure if I was going to like this. 

The Imagined Village is a folk "super-group": an ensemble consisting of three performers (Chris Wood, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy) who I'd pay good money to hear playing solo, backed by a band that disconcertingly includes synths, a sitar, and one of those huge punjabi drums you play with curly sticks.

It took me a while to get the hang of what they were doing: "Yes," I said, "I get that England is a multi-ethnic society; I get that if folk music is the music of England then it ought to include a Dhol and a Sitar...but I'm still not sure I wouldn't just as soon be listening to Martin Carthy singing John Barleycorn without all the synthesized jiggery pokery that seems to be drowning out the words."

Yeah, I know. Going to folk gigs for less than a year, and already claiming to prefer the Martin Carthy version.

But I was very much won over, partly by Chris Wood's infectiously self-deprecating patter. "This is a traditional song," he says "I learned it the normal way, from Simon and Garfunkel (*)...There have been lots of versions...but the one thing they've all lacked is a sitar" -- whereupon we notice that, yes, the sitar player is indeed picking out the melody to Scarborough Fair, and, yes, Wood's expressive, harsh, almost anti-lyrical delivery contrasts with the rather sweet accompaniment to produce something which works as a song. 

Call it "fusion" if you need to.

Not that I "got" all of it. Eliza Carthy's synthesizer laden rendition of something called Space Girl left me wondering if there was a musical joke that I was failing to get? Was this some traditional song about a girl being warned not to go onto the moors recast as a warning to young aliens not to travel in space? (**) But no-one can quarrel with her fiddle playing.

I wasn't convinced by all of the lyrical updatings: I don't see that My Son John is automatically improved by adding references to Iraq and Afghanistan or having the protagonist lose his legs to land mine rather than a canon ball: but the performance is undeniably powerful.

The evening winds up with two entirely unspontaneous encores. Martin Carthy leads the entire company and the audience in the Copper-song Hard Times of Old England rather more successfully updated (by Billy Bragg, I think) so it's about modern, rather than eighteeth century, rural life.("The countryside alliance expects I suppose / my support when they're marching to bloody Blair's nose / but they said not a word our post office closed".) Carthy is then left alone on stage, the very personification of old fashioned folk, just that slightly over-articulated voice and plinky-plonky guitar to do a solo rendering of that traditional old English classic, er, Cum On Feel The Noize. The rest of the cast come back on stage, one at a time, to wind up the evening with what was both a corny sing-a-long and an objective correlative of the proposition "folk music can be old fashioned and up to date at the same time."

Simon Emmerson, the onlie begatter of the Imagined Village project invites Martin Carthy to read a rather pointless piece from the previous Saturday's Grauniad, which had revealed what kinds of music Evil people enjoy. Mr Mugabe likes Cliff Richard, Osama Bin Ladan likes Whitney Houston -- and our very own little Nicky Griffin likes English folk, particularly Eliza Carthy. As a contribution to the debate, the audience was invited to give a two fingered salute and shout "bollocks": which was filmed and will be forwarded to Mr Griffin in due course.

Of course, what was really offensive in the article was the laughing-behind-the-hands attitude of the journo: implying that while it was comically incongruous that Mugabe would curl up with Cliff, English folk is very much the sort of thing you'd expect English Nazis to like. And the whole evening was an effective slap in the face to that kind of lazy thinking.

VERY IMPORTANT FACT: During the interval, we witnessed an event which has never before occurred in British Theatrical History: a queue for the Gents, but not for the Ladies. It is unclear whether this was because:

a: Colston Hall foyer, newly revamped in the popular "airport departure lounge" style has allocated a sensible amount of floorspace to bathrooms or

b: The audience disproportionately consisted of males over the age of 45

(*) Since S & G arguably stole the  song from Martin Carthy, that was actually quite a pointed remark.

(**) No, it actually an original song by Ewan McColl. Shows how much I know...

Bristol Old Vic
4th Feb

"This tune was originally written in 1653...Which is a tricky time signature."

It goes without saying that Bellowhead are fantastic. I do, however, start to wonder if they are a little too fantastic, in danger of becoming a rampaging juggernaut that will give everyone else the impression that this is what folk music is actually like. They are a sufficiently big noise that, for one night only, the Oldest Continually Working Theatre In Britain had physically removed the seating, so people in the stalls could dance along to all the hornpipes and morris tunes. No-one did, but it was nice to think they could have done if they'd wanted to.

Jon Boden (tall, fiddle player, singer) and John Spiers (short, squeeze-box player; sometimes, one feels, playing Swann to Spiers exuberant Flanders) are sometimes described as "punk folk" -- or even "junk folk", whatever that might mean. Bellowhead is another "supergroup" that has formed around them. Some of the performers are traditional folkies (Sam Sweeny, of the aforementioned Kerfuffle, plays fiddle and even whips out some Northumbrian pipes in the final number) (*). Others, like the four piece brass section, not so much.

This evening was a try out of new material, all of which, Mr Boden tactfully pointed out, was about shagging. The songs range from ultra-traditional fare like The Two Magicians and The Broomfield Hill to David Bowie's Port of Amsterdam and an utterly out of place calypso about running out of a Chinese restaurant without paying the bill.

There's a lot more stage business than there was the last time I saw them. The brass section walk off stage at the beginning of one song, only for the trumpeter to rush back on to play his one bar at the end of the first verse. Boden is doing less patter than usual, though, and more actual conducting. I get the impression that this is really is new material that they aren't quite sure of.

It's cheeky, almost naughty, and one sometimes feels that, like the Imagined Village they are working a shade too hard to prove a point about folk music being neither arthritic nor white. Two Magicians is one of those edifying Celtic songs in which a man tries to rape a lady by magically changing into various kinds of animal ("So the lady she turned into a hare / and ran across the plain / But he became a greyhound dog / and he ran her down again") with a stonking chorus. Here, it's dominated by a 70s Jazz/Funk brass section which really has nothing to do with the piece, but which doesn't distract Boden from his slightly ironic, folksy delivery -- gesticulating so wildly that you start to wonder if he's drunk, or about to lose his balance.

I like best the songs where where Boden's actually telling a story (usually signified by raising his left arm and pointing at thin air) -- the reinvention of The Broomfield Hill ("rather an odd courting tactic") and a genuinely dramatic version of The Weaver and The Factory girl. Some of the material is a little over-the-top for my taste: a rendition of a sea shanty about harbour side prostitutes  ( Little Winnie Ducket / Washes in a bucket / she's a whore but doesn't luck it) veers between a very loud, very rocky declamation and a sweet, Sunday School delivery for the verse about the Vicar's daughter. It made for a stunning bit of live musical theatre, but I don't know that I'd want to listen to it very often.

I guess the only downside of the evening was this. There were two or three numbers which absolutely stopped the show. One was Kipling's Cholera Camp -- which gives full range to Boden's dramatic ability, the delivery getting wilder and wilder as the fever rises; an increasingly excitable and out of tune brass section; and little character spots for other musicians ("The chaplain's got a banjo...!") to say nothing of a sing a long chorus for the audience ("Oh lord for it's a killing of us all...": it is, as the man said, the jolliest song ever written about cholera). Another was the final double whammy of London Town and Frog's Legs. All of which are, of course, songs from their existing albums.

I don't know if this is because the audience likes the stuff they know more than the unfamiliar material; or because the new material is not quite as polished as the stuff they've been doing for years; or if the brilliance of the musical experimentation is in danger of drowning out the, er, tunes.

"Wizard sex,", indeed.

(*) English border bagpipes, actually.

Fairport Convention
St George's Bristol
5th Feb

I shall now display my ignorance.

Obviously, I know who Fairport Convention are: at any rate, I know that Fairport Convention are, and I know that they are mighty, legendary, seminal etc. And, having read the programme notes, I know that people I have heard of, and indeed heard (Dave Swarbrick, Ashley Hutchings) are intertwined with the band's history. But I hadn't actually heard any of their music until last night.

So Fairport fans, of whom there are several, are probably going to want to lynch me after they read what follows Presumably the rope will break and they'll give up after the third attempt. (Do you see what I did there?)

St George's a more sedate venue than the Old Vic, or at any rate, than the Old Vic when it's full of Bellowhead fans, and this evening feels more like a Recital than a Gig. The support group Dark Horses were, er, trying. Keith Donnelly is, we are assured, a very funny man, who has written jokes for both Jasper Carrot and the Tellytubbies. I thought he was trying too hard. ("I don't speak French. I joined the French society at school. We didn't do much. Except surrender to the German society.") He'd written all the (serious) songs, and played the guitar. Flossie Malavialle has a sweet voice. The material resembled Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare of what folk music is like. An eco-friendly re-write of Green Grow the Rushes ("ten for acid rain, nine for global warming, when she's gone our earth is gone and ever more shall be so"); an unaccompanied cri-de-coeur from all the animals that man is horrid to ("I am whale" "I am fox") all filtered through a decent bluesy delivery. I didn't positively want them to leave the stage but I didn't demand an encore, either.

O.K: here is my impression of the main feature.

There's a lot of folk instrumentals, dominated by two brilliant fiddlers doing that intense diddly-diddly-dee stuff where melody dissolves into pure, breathless rhythm; backed by OTT 70s style heavy (*) rock. This very much appeared to work, to be musically clever, and I could see the connection to Dave Swarbrick (who I heard at this venue at the end of last year) even before the programme notes explained that to me. I particularly enjoyed the one about the man from Shetland who reacts to being hit over the head with a mallet by going home and writing a tune.

There's traditional and semi-traditional vocal material which worked less well for members of the audience (e.g. me) who didn't already know the songs. The main set finished on a narrative ballad, Matty Groves, which I feltI  ought to have liked, but couldn't follow. The rhythmically and lyrically complicated Festival Bell worked rather more, although it possibly meant more in the context of the festival for which it was written.

The sections most clearly in the spirit of 1970s rock seemed to be veering into antiques: Clarrie tells me that when I listen to the whole of the Babicombe Lee concept album I will appreciate the way it changes from traditional folk to contemporary rock, but listening to the final section out of context revived all my worst memories of Thursday night Top of the Pops.

And this is a built in problem: a show by a group which has been touring for 40 years is always going to be full of material whose significance is entirely lost on the newcomer. I simply didn't grok the importance of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" ("Sandy's song, but tonight, it's our song") until it was explained to me.

This was no tribute band or reunion gig; I was clearly in the presence -- particularly with the fiddlers -- of musicianship of a very high order, and it has certainly made me wish to familiarize myself with band's back catalogue. But I had an overriding sense of having walked in at the very end of the party.

(*) Actually, I may not be a sufficiently sound geologist to accurately distinguish between the "hard", "heavy", and "soft" varieties: wild drum rhythms and electric guitar riffs, at any rate.

June Tabor
Old Vic
7th February

I would not dream of attempting to write criticism of the wonderful June Tabor.

They'd put the seats back into the Old Vic, and the audience was, if anything, older than on Wednesday. If Bellowhead was a pop gig and Fairport a recital, June was very definitely a grown up concert.

There is June Tabor, looking all somber and monolothic. There is a quartet of musicians (piano, base, fiddle, squeeze-box). There is an an Actor (Simon Russell Beale, no less). They perform a highly structured sequence of songs and readings on a single theme, "the sea". There are some laughs, but not many.

It avoided a lot of the more obvious choices of music. We finished on the fantastic Patrick Spens which seems to me to be a perfect example of what June Tabor does best – a relatively simple folk melody which allows her a full range of characters and drama; positively angry when the sailors are accused of wasting the kings money; genuinely desperate as the inevitable shipwreck occurs. ("there's a hole, a hole in our ship's side and through it pours the sea..."). But there was no Admiral Benbo, and Shoals of Herring turned up only as an exquisite, but very brief instrumental solo.

There was a lot of Cyril Tawney material, of course, but surprisingly, three different pieces by Les Barker. I was aware of Barker as a writer of cheeky-chappy sting-in-the-tale comic poems, and clever parodies of folk songs. I hadn't realized he wrote straight, and absolutely heartfelt songs - like the chilling Wall of Death (about over fishing) and Over the Sea, about the highland clearances. Tabor explains the clearances in a tone of voice which implies that she's still personally annoyed about them. (We  do also get one of his dafter songs, "No-one sings a shanty like Sinatra sings a shanty" which gave Tabor the opportunity to go "do-be-do-be-doo....")

Ship wrecks, over fishing, highland clearances...and by way of light relief, a medley about cannibalism: a slow, expressive reading of The Ship in Distress is followed by the engagingly daft, unaccompanied Little Boy Billee, about two sailors who attempt to eat the cabin boy because they are so hungeree: "So Billy went up to the main-top gallant mast/And down he fell on his bended knee." Aside to audience "and that's not easy to do." My French wasn't good enough to follow the third one, in which the protagonist really does get eaten. With sauce. (*)

June Tabor's performance style is emotional but understated: delivered straight to the audience, letting her voice tell the story, head drooping to the right to show sadness when the bad thing inevitably happens, bowing when the song finishes. She's at her most animated during the instrumental pieces, when she could obviously not restrain her feet from starting to tap in time with the music.

Oh, and at least three words on Mr Beale's readings. He starts out with a brilliantly silly couplet by the aforementioned Les Barker and reads it so deadpan that it takes the audience several seconds to realise that the punch line is a punch line: His reading of a passage about the unpromising subject of Aberdeen Fish market by one H.V Morton ("the Bill Bryson of his day") genuinely brought the house down adding a much needed light note to the darkness of the rest of evening.

On the basis of her website, Ms Tabor only does about 3 concerts a year, but I'll be holding my breath for the next one. (Maybe someone will invite me to stay in York at the end of September?)

(1)Wikipeida, which I trust implicitly, says the Billee poem really is by William Thackary and is a parody of the French one.