Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (5)


I have done a bad thing.

Last night I drunked beer, and this morning I woke up feeling distinctly woozy, and found that I had nothing in the fridge for breakfast. What a shame there isn't some kind of, I don't know, supermarket at the bottom of my road. (OH! YOU CAD! YOU BOUNDER!) So I walked in via Cabots Circus and taken breakfast in, er, McDonalds. Not a very traditional way to greet the first day of May.

Apparently some of the Morris sides really did get up before the break of day-oh to great the May-oh at 4AM on the patch of grass behind the shopping mall-oh. (Fay Hield tells us later that the Newcastle's version involves washing you face in the May-dew, or, since the park in question is much frequented by pet-owners, the May-poo.) My enthusiasm doesn't extend quite that far, but when I get to Colston Hall, the seating has been removed from the main auditorium, and various groups are hey-nonny-no-ing away.

Some ladies are doing rapper dancing in doc martin boots, with a caller in a top hat. Another all-female group are doing something possibly connected to a May Pole dance, holding long flowery sticks in the air and making arches; followed by one of those ones where they bash sticks together. There is tiny girl of about eight, who seems to be as good a stick-basher as any of the others. A male group leaps around and waves hankies in the air.  "Before we go, can I draw your attention to this spot" says the old-timer who leads the group, pointing to one of the places from which seating has been removed. "That's where I was sitting when Bob Dylan played the Colston Hall in 1966."

Yeah. There can be nu-folk and folk-rock and punk-folk and people I wouldn't swear were folksingers at all but I deeply respect and approve the way the festival has tried to establish links with the old, the traditional, and, indeed, the silly.

Dyer Cummings, who I have never heard of, were a nice bouncy dancy band, who played a lot of infectious tunes with the usual fiddle-accordion-guitar combo, but topped out the set by leading the audience with an akapella John Ball (the aforementioned Sydney Carter carol about the preacher who was killed for supporting the Peasants Revolt). "Are all Protestant hymns like that?" asked Clarrie.

Only caught a little bit of today's Open Mic but I was glad I did. Tony O'Hare is a guitarist who haunts local folk clubs. He sang a silly ballad about the brouhaha that blew up a year or so back when a wartime bomb was discovered in the river (it turned out to be a supermarket trolley, of course). And a song about busking all day and earning "six quid and a banana". And splendid piece about MPs expenses, with increasingly preposterous Dylanesque rhymes for "sleaze". (The joke was compounded because the song used the harmonica riff from Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and I would totally have noticed that if Clarrie hadn't pointed it out.) He wasn't the best writer, singer or guitarist of the weekend. But he came the closest to embodying my idea of what a "folk-singer" ought to be like: a guy ploughing his furrow in the bar, playing to anyone who'll listen and trying to make them laugh. (He was also clearly a believer in Tom Lehrer's maxim that singing 50 verses is twice as enjoyable as singing 25). And he was the person during the weekend who most strongly made me think: "I want to learn to do that."

And thence to the main hall for the sellider (pronounced "barn dance) led by, get this Spiers and Boden. (That's like saying that you've waltzed to Yehudi Menuhin, isn't it?) There is in existence photographic evidence of me on my feet, wondering what a willow is and why one might want to split one, whether I am couple one or couple two, and precisely which is my left and which is my right. I may have initiated a couple of collisions. Tim, I hear, caused a major pile up. Clarrie claims to have taken a superb picture of Tim and I, but found no evidence of it on her camera when she got home, and has therefore supplied the above line drawing. Jon Boden sang the one about the spotty pig, but mostly, the two Jo(h)ns just played perfectly bounced tunes, with ebbing and flowing rhythms that you can't help dancing to. Well, or badly, as the case may be.

The Fay Hield Trio I almost overlooked, owing the fact that the programme decided helpfully to tell me which other artists her record label published, rather than the salient fact the other two members of the trio were Robert Harbron (as in "Kerr, Fagan and") and Sam Sweeny. That is to say: one of the best squeeze box men in the business and one of the best fiddlers in business. "Sam is in another group called...." explained Fay. "Bellowhead!" shouted the audience. "Kerfuffle!" I suggested. Actually, the trio could usefully have been billed as "a bit like Kerfuffle", in that you had virtuoso fiddling and melodian-ary behind exquisite female vocals, doing traddy material like King Henry and nearly traddy stuff like Oak, Ash and Thorn. (Mr Kiplings Poem, set to music by Peter Bellamy, who may have been mentioned before and may indeed be mentioned again.) Fay Hield is Jon Boden's partner. The last day of the festival was, as you might expect, Bellowhead-centric.

The small hall was a very nice space when it was half empty: you could sit on the floor or lean against walls -- but when there was nothing going on in the main hall, it got awfully crowded and became "standing room only". Balshazzar's Feast perform seated, so I only got a glimpse of the tops of their heads. This was a little frustrating, as it meant that one could hear frequent ripples of laughter from the front three rows who were (I assume) the only people who could see what were (I assume) hilarious on-stage antics. So I can 't say whether I would have found them terribly funny or (as I suspect) terribly irritating. I will certainly try to hear them again and see them for the first time at some point.

This was really the only logistical issue over the whole weekend. People formed neat, British queues without any rioting at all outside the main hall before the headline acts, but actually I think this was hardly necessary. For Bellowhead on Sunday night, frixample, everyone in the standing area mosh pit could see perfectly, and anyone who wanted to be there could be.

(Question: Why does Belshazzar's Feast use an image of two heads on platters on their album cover? Surely that was Herod? Belshazzar's was the fellow with the writing on the wall?)

Sheelanagig, preceded Bellowhead on the main stage. I could take them or leave them. They were clearly very good. I think it was slightly ill-judge to precede Bellowhead with a rhythmn based klezmer (didn't look it up, taking a shot in the dark) party band. However good they were (and Clarrie observed a small child, just in front of our party, who seemed likely to explode with excitement) they weren't going to be as good as Bellowhead. I suppose having gone to the trouble of clearing out all the chairs, it made sense to have another band people could dance to to. I'd maybe have preferred a total contrast. This was the only point where I felt I was watching a support act and waiting for the main group to come on.

Bellowhead are fantastic. Bellowhead are always fantastic. It is their job to be fantastic. There is plenty of space in the main hall, so people can stand if they want to. They can jump in the air to Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth. They can indicate with their fingers whether Jack is up to the rigs or down to the jigs of London town. They can shake their heads in time with the Slo Gin set. There are rumours, in fact, that Bristol's Only Celebrity Folk Blogger (TM) may have attempted to few faltering polka steps with Bristol Leading Citizen Folk Journalist (TM) during Oh You New York Girls, Can You Dance The? Jon Boden eschews witty banter, and simply sings. When I first heard it in the Old Vic last year, I had my doubts about Port of Amsterdam, but I now think it's the best thing he does. A signature song. He seems to be in melancholic agony every time he sings it. He sings about the girl who will only marry the lord if he can answer six questions ("and that is three times two") as if no such song as ever been sung before, seeming to scratch his head and think for a moment before realizing that the cock was the first bird that did crow and the dew did first downfall. There is just the faintest trace of surprise in his face when he tells us that the finest month in all the year is the merry, merry month of May, as if he has only just noticed that he's singing the song on May Day. I still think that there are moments when the performance blots out the song: The Two Magicians ("wizard copulation") is too good a story to get lost amongst the ska style brass (I looked it up) -- and we only get to sing bide lady bide (there's nowhere you can hide a couple of times. But the Broomfield Wood utterly remains a folk song. You can hear the pique in the horse's voice when he's blamed for not waking up the sleeping lord. And Jon chews up the furniture for Cholera Camp, as always. ("Theeee chaplain's got a banjo....!") (Cholera Camp, Pilgrim's Way, Oak, Ash and Thorn: we have rather been followed around by Mr Bellamy's interpretations of Mr Kipling this weekend. You can't listen to Folk Song a Day and not realise what high regard Boden holds Peter Bellamy in.) The stage sprays the audience with confetti during the final number. With their songs about lusty blacksmiths seducing shape shifting wizards, and knights falling into magical sleeps in broomfield woods, and jolly sailors being ripped off by jolly prostitutes, and jolly prostitutes being ripped off by jolly sailors, and happy beggars, Bellowhead are, in their highly idiosyncratic way, painting a picture of yet another England. It is not clear with their piratical stylings are intended to impart a john barleycornish new life to Merrie Englande, or if they are actually taking the piss out of the whole thing. Probably both at once.

The bar stays open after the show finishes. It hasn't run out of beer. (When I first saw the revamped Colston Hall, I thought "Why have they attached an airport lounge to the theater." It has grown on me. How many theaters are there where you can get a drink after the show?) Someone starts playing the fiddle. Half-a-dozen ladies in civvies get out their rappas and start dancing; another lady, starts calling out the moves, just like she was doing, in her top hat, on the floor of Colston Hall this morning. The bar-staff turn off the lights as if they want us to leave, and then possibly think better of it and turn them on again. The rappa-ing finished, a guy and a girl start unselfconsciously doing leap-in-the-air scottish country dance steps. Someone produces an accordion to accompany them: it turns out to be Jim Moray. (Twenty minutes earlier, he'd been up on the main stage, giving Bellowhead the Froots prize for Best Album of 2010 in his capacity as winner of the best album of 2009. Hedonism was, incidentally, no way the best album of 2010. I think he regularly plays the squeeze box for Nonesuch Morris.)

In the end, Bellowhead is a party: a party going on on stage, to which the audience is invited. They aren't what this music is about. It's about ballads that make you think and make you cry and make you cross. It's about someone being up on stage one minute, and playing in the bar to an audience of none the next, presumably because he likes it. It's about amateurs who care about which work-song was sung on which ship when and strumming away to silly ballads about something they read in the newspapers.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (4)

Saturday Evening

The regular reader of this column (I know where he lives) may remember that Clarrie and I have a long standing friendly disagreement about Steve Knightley and Phil Beer.

I say "I am going to a Show of Hands concert", and she says "Don't you mean 'rally'?". I say "I'm going to another Show of Hands concert" and she says "Don't forget your jackboots". I say "I'm going to hear Phil Beer doing a solo gig" and she says or "I expect soon they'll let you join the Party."

This is because they once wrote an ambivalently patriotic song called "Roots" to which we may possibly be returning before too long. We tried to explain this friendly disagreement to a young person in a Watchmen tee shirt in the queue. (We decided it was prudent to form a queue before the headline acts started to be sure of a good position. I think that the main hall was big enough to hold everyone who was at the festival.)

"My friend sometimes calls me a fascist because I like Show of Hands"I remarked.

"You what?" he explained, in a tone of face which suggested "I hope they have found a cure for being crazy when I am a terrible old person of nearly 35."

I have myself in the past sometimes expressed an ambivalence about the group. While I thought that Steve's solo gig at the QEH earlier in the year was splendid, and very much enjoyed Phil fiddling in the Cabot's Circus jazz club the other week, I had to admit that I just didn't think their Cathedral gig was terribly good, and felt myself manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way, by their Colston Hall gig last year.

So I should probably come straight out and say it: this evening was simply the best live gig I've ever seen, by anyone, ever.

Steve comes on stage at 7.30 to introduce Fisherman's Friends. He (Steve) had apparently been asked to put the evening's programme together, and he's treating it as a sort of "Show of Hands revue" He is, after all, the Greatest Living Devonian: they are genuine Cornish fishermen who hit the big-time when they were given a multi-million dollar deal with Universal Music, and a dozen other folk bands all said "Hey! That was meant to be us!"

It's an unusual act by anyone's standards. Ten older men line up on the stage and bellow out shanties and other nautical themed songs, mostly unaccompanied, a few to a single accordion or guitar. There isn't much in the way of sophisticated harmony; and there doesn't seem to be a great deal of interest in the purity of the Tradition. This is, when it comes down to it, eight guys singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Sloop John B" and "Dance to your daddy, my little laddy." (I remember hearing Bob Fox singing a pure, full on geordie version of the song in a pub last year, full of history and his love for his new granddaughter. It almost broke my heart. This was just a catchy tune.) But the sense of fun, and boisterousness and catchiness and lets be honest the sheer volume of the group just carries you along with it. I enjoyed "I thought I heard the captain say / Come lay your money down" and "Bound for south Australia" and "A sailors not a sailor not a sailor any more". It's a mark of how mainstream and commercial they are that they didn't sing the Whale Catchers or Come All Ye Trawler Men (authentic songs about whalers) but did sing the decidedly modern and non-traditional Last Leviathan (about how the last whale has been killed by the horrid fishermen). But they sang it awfully well. And they have a nice line in banter. "I had a sore throat this morning. The doctor told me to such a fishermen's friend. No...no...I'm not going to say it. Those sorts of joke leave a nasty taste in your mouth." (Apparently, the reason they have to be referred to as Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends is to avoid infringing the cough sweets trademark.)

"Do you like Irish music?" says Cathy Jordan, front man Dervish, in her very broad Limerick accent. "Oh...that's grand, because that's really all we do." Initially I wondered about her diction (I like lyrics, as you know, and was having a problem making them out); but of course she was singing mostly in Gaelic, making strange dance movements, almost seeming to weave a story in the air with her hands. She sings and plays bodhran and sometimes gets out a penny whistle: there's also fiddles, mandolins, accordions and guitars, all contributing to what is technically know as the diddly-diddly-dee style of music. There's an English language ballad about a girl jilting her husband at the alter because she has a man who has more money, more houses, and a better donkey. (It's dedicated to Kate Middleton.) And there's a remarkable re-reading of Bob's Boots of Spanish Leather. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard that song, I'd have £2.53, and I'd never before noticed that there is nothing whatsoever to indicate which side of the dialogue is male and which side is female. When Bob sings it, I'd always thought it was about a girl leaving a boy. Cathy makes it quite clear that it's the girl whose demanding some nice footwear as a consolation prize.

And then, then, then on comes Show of Hands.

Up to this point, you would hardly have know you were in Bristol, or that Bristol had been front page news, all round the world, for all the wrong reasons. "Some of my songs go out of date" says Steve "And some don't". And he launches straight into a song, entirely new to me, called "Is there anything left in England...that's not for sale." It's about going back to his old school and finding the playing fields have been sold and built on. And about politicians taking bribes. And about high streets being taken over. "By Tescos?" he asks. And then straight into Santiago (Chilean exiles returning home), which is usually kept back for the end of the show, and then straight into Phil's fiddle led cover of Springsteen's Jamestown (steel town dies when the industry closes down) and then -- of course -- Country Life (supermarkets selling cheap food and destroying the rural way of life.) 

I wouldn't necessarily say this was a "political" set or that it was "about" the police invasion of Stokes Croft. Steve is always political, that's why (joking apart) people can get annoyed by his lyrics. And he believes that songs -- and I take it, folk songs especially -- can acquire new resonances when they are sung in new contexts. As he always says: he wrote Santiago about Chilean exiles returning home after the fall of Pinochet, but the references to miners, and people emerging from darkness, has linked it irrevocably with the Copiapo disaster. He has a vision of England, just as surely as Guthrie or Dylan had their visions of America. And tonight that vision -- that imaginary England, if you like -- caught, or expressed, the mood of the audience. Of me, anyway. He does all the angry, crowd-pleasing songs. "The coffin of our English dream / Lies out on the village green / While agri-barons CAP in hand / Strip this green and pleasant land"  "Toxic springs you tapped and sold / Poisoned every watering hole / Your probity, you exchanged for gold" Even the lighter songs have an angry edge to them tonight. "Stop Copying Me" is about silly children who think it's funny to repeat the last thing you said. Silly children who think its funny to repeat the last thing you said. But it also becomes a rant about people who computers have put an end to real communication. "You know I've got no space to hang around on Facebook or give my front page another tweak / With mindless wittering, another twat Twittering, when I communicate I SPEAK."

He started to wind up a relatively short set with "Now you're gone / Will you come back to me" a fairly straight and uncharacteristically sunny love song about begging a departed girlfriend to come home.

But Steve doesn't do "encores". Steve prepares a show. A set which had consisted entirely of showstoppers was but the hors d'oeuvre. He brought Fishermans Friends back onto the stage, to join them in Show of Hands answer to a sea-shanty. ("Now give to me a cornishman to eat a tasty pasty / And if inside it's most cold beef he'll never thing nasty"). And then, in what was clearly going to the climax to the entire weekend, the Greatest Living Devonian lead the Worlds Richest Cornishmen and the entire audience in his (yes, heavily romanticized) song of the Cornish Diaspora. Dammit, if the irish and scottish and yorkshire and geordies can get all maudlin from time to time, then I see no reason why the rest of us shouldn't.

The soil was to poor to make Eden,
Granite and sea left no choice
Though visions of heaven sustained us,
When John Wesley gave us a voice...

if we are gong to treat songs as arguments rather than artefact's then I admit I could do without the line in which the 19th century Cornish emigrant howls in horror about a future where the English will live in "our" houses and the Spanish will fish in "our" seas. But this a poem and a performance and Steve is playing the audience like Phil is playing his fiddle. I don't think I've ever been so caught up by a live performane, not even at the opera. I was sobbing by the end of it.

And then. Then. And you have to admire the audacity of the man, the sheer barefaced cheek, he says: "How can we follow that? Well, actually, we can...." And, of course, he does. He brings Dervish back onto the stage, and does a full dress performance of his cod-Irish ballad of the farmer who bets all his money on a horse that he's dreamt will win the big race. ("Lady Luck had come half-way/The horse's name was "Galway Bay"./20-1 the odds that day./I went to make my wager."). Cathy contributes to the vocals: the whole band backs up the climax with a massive, full-on minute of diddly-dee with the audience clapping along to signify the final lap of the big race.... (ten to go, and from the track the hooves were drumming thunder.) I said before that his unaccompanied version at QEH was "as nature intended" but this is as good as the song, or any song, could ever be. I can only hope someone was recording. I have no words. I have no words.

I've said it before, but whatever else he does, Steve Knightley is a folksinger to his core. He wound up the evening by lining up Dervish and Fishermen's Friends on the stage and singing the farewell shanty ("haul away your anchor / tis our sailing time.) Straight. Unaccompanied.

No Roots.

And then everyone piled back into the Fred Wedlock room where Jims Moray and Causley were still engaged in their "silent disco" (where you listen on headphones and choose which DJ you want to listen to). (Jim Causley seems to have done a set of his own, unless he was one of the surprise guests in the programme and I missed him.) Steve and Phil and the friendly fishermen came into the disco as well. The DJs stopped to sing "happy birthday" to Steve. Steve danced with his wife, even when Jim Moray put on "remember you're a womble".

And please note. Here is a man who has just done an awesome and presumably exhausting set, who then walks out into the body of the theatre, and who is not mobbed by fans and autograph hunters, but politely approached, one at a time, by people wanting to shake his hand or offer him a CD to sign.

Why, I may have asked before does, anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

"Show of Hands are a very good live act" said Clairre.


Bristol Folk Festival (3)

Saturday Afternoon

Arrived about 12. Clarrie and Tim inform me that I have missed the first spontaneous full on standing ovation of the weekend, for Wildflowers, a trio consisting of three children around the age of thirteen (two fiddles and a guitar). They do a spontaneous set in the bar later in the evening, and they do indeed seem to be astonishing.

I start the day in the upstairs bar where the always reliable Hodmadoddery are applying their inventive guitar stylings to John Barleycorn -- and what better way is there of feeling that it is really spring and you are really at a folkfest then by listening to two men with guitars singing John Barleycorn in a bar? This is followed by an open night. The standard is extremely high, as you'd expect. She has a beautiful voice, but isn't at all confident on the the guitar (says me, who can't play a note). A young girl named Catherine Holt, accompanied by her father on the guitar, looks fantastically nervous, and then delivers a flawless, and quite emotive cover of the Soldier and the Princess.
Tim and Clarrie went off to see the Mummers Play about the life of Brunel. (If you don't know what a Mummers play is, it's part way between Morris Dancing and a pantomime. If you don't know who Brunel was, then, all you need to know is that he came from Bristol. They said it was great.) I stayed in the bar to hear a band called the Bristol Shantymen, because they come from Bristol and sing sea shanties. They were stunning. Not because they sang great tunes, were a decent choir, and had one man with a rather weak voice but who was brilliant at doing the funny lines and the silly long-drawn out yodels, but because they really, really, really, really, cared about the history of sea shanties. They could tell you about particular old sailors who used to sing these songs in pubs in the 60s. They cared about which songs were specific to Bristol and which came from elsewhere. They sang a shanty with the "call" lines in French but the "response" lines in English, because that's how French sailors sung it. They loved their material. It oozed authenticity and love for tradition. This is the kind of thing I'm here for.

Had to take a bet on whether I'd be more likely to enjoy Mabon ("interceltic funk folk") or Pilgrim's Way ("gimmick free folk at it's finest) in the smaller Fred Wedlock stage (named after Bristol's oldest swinger in town.) Naturally went for Pilgrim's Way. They ran though some very adequate versions of traditional songs (Weaver and the Factory Made, Tarry Trousers) before utterly blowing us all away with the songs which gave the band its name. They called it "a great humanist song" but I must admit that during the compulsory "all join in" bit, I sang "The people Lord, thy people are good enough to me" (as opposed to "the people, oh the people"). Because that's what Kipling wrote. What a great poem! It deserves to be far better known than the horrible "If..." And what a stonking tune Peter Bellamy made up for it. I have occasionally thought that a couplet from might stand very well at the top of this very blog:

And when they bore me over-much, I shall not shake my ear
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears
And if they labour to impress, I shall not laugh or scoff
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off

Phil King has a big local following. Lots of people clapped him. I could really take him or leave him. He can play his guitar, no doubt about that, but his voice doesn't excite me, and his songs seem.... Artificial. Inauthentic. It reminds me of that review of Virginia Woolf, where the reviewer wanted to shout "No, she didn't!" after every line of the novel. Apparently, when the singer was stung by a scorpion, it reminded him that Orion, the only constellation he can recognise, died from scorpion wound, and that he feels as if that hunter has somehow watched over him through his life. "No, he doesn't!"

Other people seemed to like him a lot.

Caught the very end of Elfynn in the main hall. They appeared to be rather good.

Bristol Folk Festival (2)

Friday Afternoon and Evening

Officially, the Bristol Folk Festival started at noon on Friday, although there was no scheduled music until three. Until then you could hang around and buy kaftans and hammered dulcimers and having your feet nibbled by fish, though. There were two men dressed as Wallace and Grommit outside the theatre. Whatever anyone else may say Wallace and Grommit are from Bristol. And Banksy. And Blackbeard. And Cary Grant. There was also the biggest collection of Morris Dancers ever assembled in captivity. One of the best things about the festival was hearing the tinkling of tiny bells and noticing that the person behind you in the queue at the bar was in full Morris regalia.

Oh, what foreigners must think of us, and how little we care!

However, I think the festival really began at 8.15PM, when Three Daft Monkeys, (a sort of sub-Bellowhead gypsy influenced dance band) performed a song about the legend of the Strasburg dancing-plague -- when lots of people supposedly developed a mental illness which meant that they heard music in their heads and couldn't stopped dancing to it. "They danced, they danced, they danced, they danced..." went the refrain. "Can you guess what they did then?" asked vocalist Tim Ashton? "They danced...they danced...they danced". Now, this isn't precisely my kind of thing. I'm more in my comfort zone when it's a guy with a guitar telling me he wants to share a very old story, about a lady, probably one sitting in a tower, very probably sewing a silken seam. Never mind. Everyone was seated, in a very English decorum Westminster Abbey kind of way. We worked out that the closest we could get to dancing...and dancing...and dancing...was swaying...and swaying...and swaying....in time with the music. We swayed. A couple in the front row got up and bopped vaguely. And then two people started dancing. It was perhaps more a tango than a waltz. Didn't matter. We were at a folk festival. And the folk were dancing. Dancing in the aisles....

Actually, I'd already had two personal highlights by that point. The first group on the main stage were Sean "Seth's Brother" Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. Initially, I thought they were going to be a bit shouty and electric for my taste. But two numbers in, Kathryn announced that she was going to sing her favourite song "which I learned from the singing of June Tabor." (And there is no better place the world to learn you favourite song.) This was a lovely deep expressive cover of a Pete Bond's Joe Peel, the beautiful terrible ballad in praise of an ordinary life. "You'd never have believed it you'd known / How many people mourned your going / And how lucky folks still feel / To say they knew Joe Peel". Broke my heart all over again. Really. She also did her own, rather brilliant modern song in the persona of a coal-miner, explaining to his wife why its his duty to join the strike, even though their livlihood is going to fall apart.

I was indifferent to Phoenix River Band – local sub-American electrical country rock, although I did enjoy the mock dust bowl ballad about praying to God for rain.

But next up (we didn't stir from the main hall for much of Friday) was Jim Moray, one of my utter favourite performers. Rather surprised he wasn't a bigger draw, actually, although it was early in the festival and he was up against the reasonably large name Bella Hardy in the other hall.

To be honest, I am indifferent to some of his electrical jiggery pokery. He had an apple mac on the stage ("just need to check my e-mail") and was doing clever things like sampling his voice on the spot, so that he ended up singing multi-part harmonies with himself. All jolly clever, but I don't think his voice needs that kind of enhancement. (Not that the electrical stuff and weird traddy/ hip-hop mashups on the Low Culture album aren't brilliant, or course.) He's at his best sitting at the piano singing the cod-traditional Poverty Knock -- often done as light Morris style sing a long, (Poverty poverty knock / My loom it is singing all day-oh / Poverty poverty knock / The gaffers too stingy to pay-oh) but here a mournful lament to a life wasted in the factory; or standing with the guitar to draw out the melody of the Rufford Park Poachers or yet another version of the Cruel Sister. ("Here's a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in the river".) I find his voice impossible to describe: I keep resorting to words like "choirboy" "innocent" "cheeky" "ethereal" -- the album covers with him as a kind of nature spirit somehow seem appropriate. There's a perpetual catch in his voice, as if the story of Lord Bateman's love for the King of Turkey's daughter or the three poachers murder trial is bubbling up from inside him, or as if it's so sad he can hardly bare to sing it. He really is something extremely special and unusual. And he clearly loves the traditional song book enough to muck around with it.

I can't remember one thing about Ruarri Joseph, so I assume I didn't like him very much.

The headline act, Seth Lakeman, I hadn't ever heard him before. He's the patron of the festival, and very popular. I'm afraid he was the one low point of the weekend for me. I just didn't quite see the point of him. Certainly, he's a mean fiddle player, and the climax of his main set, doing that faster-and-faster -and-faster blazing fiddles thing, was quite exciting. Intellectually, I understand what this kind of music is meant to be doing: my heart is supposed to beat in time with the rhythm (horror movie makers try the same trick, I am told) and this is supposed to make me so excited that I want to dance to it. All as theoretical as some of that young people's electrical drum and guitar music I've occasionally heard. (Nick made me listen to someone called The Wedding Present last year. Very interesting they were, but I kept thinking "I wish he'd send this nasty band away and let me listen to the obviously quite clever lyrics.") Of anthropological interest only: the main lyrics were clarly based on traditional folksongs, but it was so overwhelmed by rhythm that he could have been singing anything at all. Do folkies like this kind of thing, or is he "the folk musician for people who don't really like folk music?" I quite like the Pogues and seem to remember enjoying Gogol Bordello a year or three back, so clearly electric noise and folk can be brought together in ways I like. He went down very well with the rest of the audience.

Bristol Folk Festival (1)

Friday - Morning

I walked out on a bright may morning, like a hero in a song
Looking for a place called England, trying to find where I belong...

It's the banality which gets to me. The father of the bride is "proud". The couple are "happy". The dress is "white, with lace". Some of the crowd has "waited for days to catch a glimpse of the happy couple". Someone had the good sense not to let Rowan Williams, Arch druid and Incredible String Band fan, into the pulpit. He would have said something incredibly incredibly inappropriate and controversial, although it would actually have made much difference, because no-one would have understood it. The curate who stood in for him gave the sort of sermon you could have heard in any parish church in the country: apparently, it's not just about being in love but also about the serious business of learning to live together. When the groom's Mum got married, there was a song by a proper popular opera singer. When she died, there was a song by a pop singer I'd actually heard of. This was all fourth rate classical music, with Perry promoted to the rank of "England's best loved composer" on the say-so of Dimbleby-lite. I, along with everyone else, I get, was astonished to learn that he (Perry, that is, not Dimbleby-lite) wrote anything apart from Jerusalem, and wouldn't Billy Blake have laughed to have heard his great revolutionary and mystical poem described as "a great patriotic hymn".

All said and done, I would still rather be a cynical monarchist than an enthusiastic republican. I like the way we all get together ever ten year or so to play dress-up and pretend that we're a fairy tale kingdom with palaces and glass coaches and princesses. This is, I think, a big part of the story that we've been telling ourselves about ourselves for the last thousand ears, and I haven't heard anyone suggest a better one. (When it all became too much for me, I just muttered "President Blair, President Blair" under my breath.) But this week, it's a story which feels hopelessly corrupted and appropriated -- a story which is meant to be about All of Us was one from which I felt pretty comprehensively excluded. It was clearly not a coincidence that Cameron (Tory) and Major (Tory) were invited to the big shindig, but Blair (Labour, alleg.) and Brown (Labour) were not. (Thatcher (Tory) was invited but asked that a very polite refusal be conveyed to King George on her behalf.) The message "The head of State is a Tory, the British State is a Tory only club, is you ain't Tory you ain't part of the story" was hard to avoid. It started to make you wonder if the President of the USA wasn't quite our sort of chap, either, and thanks to the Guardian for pointing out that the King of Yugoslavia got an invitation. (*) The State seemed to have spent the week before the wedding making pre-emptive strikes on anyone it thought might have voiced Dissent on the happy day. It may or not have been a coincidence that seven days before the happy day, my street became a riot zone. It almost certainly was a coincidence that, at the exact moment when the next head of state but one ws taking his marriage vows, the police finally closed down the building which absolutely no local person has ever referred to as Telepathic Heights. (The local name for it is "that building with the pretty mural that I've walked past a thousand times and never paid the slightest attention to." The night after the Riot, the building next door hosted a gig by the Wurzles.) It was undoubtedly a coincidence that when I set out to go to the folk festival, I found that I couldn't walk down my own street because the police, who swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen, had erected barricades. Again. But it all seemed awfully symbolic.

A big old wall there tried to stop me / a sign was painted, it said "No entry"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing / that side was made for you and me

[*] No such country as Yugoslavia exists, and anyway, it isn't a monarchy.

Bristol Folk Music Festival (0)


This weekend I have

1: Drunk Gem Ale

2: Worn flowers in my hair (artificial)

3: Danced (there may be photographic evidence)

4: Drunk Gem Ale

5: Eaten three different kinds of hamburger

6: Played a hammered dulcimer ("You might want to hold those sticks by the other end")

7: The flowers, I mean, not my hair

8: Laughed (e.g at the little man singing about busking, and at Phil Beer's joke about the nerd in the music shop.)

9: Cried (about Joe Peel, John Ball and (actual proper sobs) Cousin Jack)

10: Points 1, 4 and 9 may be related.

11: Joined in, frequently.

12: Worn a union jack tie

13: Seen Steve Knightley dancing along to Remember You're A Womble

14: Seen Jim Moray playing his accordion in the bar

15: Seen English people queueing politely for the bar

16: Drunk Gem ale.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thought for the Day

I have not rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated me, or lifted up myself when evil found him
Neither have I suffered my mouth to sin by wishing a curse to his soul.
Job 29

Friday, April 29, 2011

and the really great news is...today is the BRISTOL FOLK FESTIVAL, so there's more of this to come.

Just as well there's nothing on TV at the weekend.

Robin Williamson / John Renbourne

Bristol Folkhouse 23 April

You remember Robin Williamson. I've mentioned him before: described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as "sacred"; by myself as "holy"; and by Bob Dylan as "quite good". He really does just radiate warmth and joy from the stage. There are different kinds of Williamson sets; this one was quite heavily focused on the bluesy (Don't Let Your Deal Go Down, Whang Dang Doodle) the whimsical (Sweet as Tennessee Whiskey) with a bit of Dylan (Buckets of Rain). When you go and hear a singer more than once, you expect to hear the same songs. I could listen to him plucking out Dylan on the harp a thousand times over. I still can't tell if he's parodying the song -- accentuating Dylan's tortuous rhymes ("well everybody can be like me, obviously / but not everyone can be like you, fortunately") or just drawing out a humour that's already there. And I'd have been positively disappointed if he hadn't, with that twinkly voice, finished on "Will anybody tell me where the blarney roses grow?" ("set to folk tune number 2). I love the way he makes the audience speak the words before joining in the chorus; as serious and deadpan as when he was teaching us names from Irish mythology, the last time I head him. You do, however, after several gigs, start to get used to some of the jokes and in-between patter. However, the story about how Don't Let Your Deal Go Down was taught him by Tom Paley was new to me. (As he loves to say, the song is usually played on blues harp, but works okay on an actual harp.) He's changed the chords, the tune and some of the words from when he learned it, but its still bacislly the song that Tom Paley taught him. (Tom Paley's the old guy (must be 90) who played at the Folk Against Fascism gig in London last year, notable for having appeared in a duo with Woody Guthrie --or, if the biography I'm reading is to be believed, for playing by himself because Woody Guthrie hadn't turned up. I love it that there's a tenuous continuity between Woody Guthrie and the Incredible String Band.) John Renbourne's moody jazzy slippy slidey guitar playing is never less than wonderful, but I was surprised by how passive he was tonight: Steve said you could have mistaken him for an accompanist, even though he's at least as eminent and venerable as Robin. No Incredible String Band songs or story telling tonight. Just tunes. Magical, magical tunes. Quite good, indeed.


Chapel Arts Center Bath April 15th

That damn woman with the nasty sister. She gets about, doesn't she? This time the bad sister throws the good one in the sea rather than in a river, and it's three minstrels who fish her out, with no miller in sight. She still gets dismembered and recycled as a harp, and the harp limits itself to singing "Lay the bent to the bonny broom", as opposed to "bow and balance to me" or "oh the dreadful wind and the rain" or (more helpfully) "my sister dunnit".

"You obviously like songs about death and doom and killing" said Jaqui McShee after the very enthusiastic ovation that the song elicited. Well, yes, possibly: or possibly the audience were (like me) giving their approval to a very traditional song, given a very satisfactory make-over, without losing any of its narrative drive.

Pentangle were, of course, one of the very biggest names of the second (or was it third?) folk revival of the 1960s, and more or less invented "jazz folk". This group is, in fact "Jacqui McShee's Pentangle", with Ms McShee's astonishing unearthly voice being the only link with the original group. This incarnation seemed more jazzy than what I've heard of the original: several numbers had longish sax and flute interludes which sounded (to me, and you really shouldn't pay much attention to anything that I say) like fairly traditional jazz riffs.

I associate Pentangle with "jazzy, tinkly versions of old songs" and I could have wished for a little more of that this evening. The opening number, with a whirring, droning undergrowth over which McShee's crystaline voice comes over, first with a traditional number, then with a self penned piece about the very important subject, life, thrilled me with its strangeness.  But over the course of the evening, I felt perhaps I had had as much "ethereal" and "jazzy" as I needed, and would have liked some more, er folk songs.

The Old Dance School

Bristol Folk House April 8

Ah, yes. Eight horribly talented young people. They met at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All the boys were studying jazz and all the girls were studying classical music. One of the girls teaches classical violin. They all think Andy Cutting is wonderful. They finish the night with a long jiggy instrumental piece that leads into John Ball, which it will be remembered that Andy Cutting's friend Chris Wood sometimes plays. (It's almost compulsory for modern folkies to play at least one Sydney Carter song. What price a contemporary version of Friday Morning?) It's always an inspirational number whoever plays it. The jazz-classical influence is very obvious. I don't swear if you had played me the instrumental stuff, I would have instantly identified it as folk. Not that that matters. It's all music. The instrumental riff ends with two fiddles going "peep-peep-peep" like a string quartet, not "diddly-diddly-dee" like a folk group. There was something of Lau in the jazzy way the melody gets passed around, although it was more like melody and less about rhythm, and never stopped being music. The double bass provided some rhythm in lieu of percussion, like Miranda Sykes does with Show of Hands. It was clearly very clever indeed but for my personal taste, I couldn't help feeling that there were, er, too many notes.

Steve Tilston

Wed 16th Feb Jazz@ Future Inns

Don't seem to have taken any notes at this one.

Steve Tilston was every bit as good as he always is, and his sidesman and mouth organ player Keith Warmington is simpy charming. He was mainly trying out material from his forthcoming album: regret to say that I wasn't taking notes. He sang one about a Mexican rebel, and one about what this generation is leaving to the next. He carried off all his new songs with aplomb, and almost got through My Love She Speaks Like Silence withut a hithc. ("What comes next -- come on, there must be some Dylan-heads here?") .....and then managed to mix up the verses of Slipjigs and Reels on the encore. But no-one minded at all because he's so wonderful. What the correct procedure for getting the Queen to declare someone a national treausre?

Woody Sez

Arts Theater London

Not a concert, as such, but a play about the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Started life in America, but now touring Englandland.

The programme notes described the creation of the show as being a little like a jazz improvisation, with David Lutken, the creator, who also takes the role of Woody Guthrie, acting as a kind of conductor. That's certainly what the evening felt like. The four-person cast clearly know Woody's songbook intimately, and there was a sense of the evening being a tapestry; almost a symphony. It lacked the dramatic ingenuity of This Land at the Yorkshire Playhouse last year: but it was musically far superior.

The Arts theater is a very small venue -- thirty seconds from Leicester Square, but feeling like the "fringe". It wasn't full, but that allowed the cast to create a real connection with the audience. They come onto the stage as the auditorium is filling up and play some old time instrumental numbers. Lutken says high to the audience, asks them to check their mobile phones, apologise for the frog in his throat, tells us they'll be a "hootenanny" after the show on Saturday, and then starts to talk about how much Woody meant to him when he was first learning to play the guitar in Texas.

That sets the tone. The cast are telling the story, and singing the songs, and acting out some of the characters, but it's never really a play. More a concert with dramatic interludes. Some of the numbers are performed in full. Darcie Deaville  gives us Union Maid;  the entire company does So Long It's Been Good To Know Ya.  Andy Teirston, with his big, smiley, old-timer eyes takes us through Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues ("filled it full of that gas-o-line -- that's what you call PETROL...") as well as providing a cross-talk partner for some of Woody's jokes. Including the one about the one-eyed banker who bets the farmer that he can't spot which is his glass eye ("Oh, I just looked for the one that had glint of compassion in it...and knew that had to be the glass one.").

But other songs only come through in snatches. We're asked, cleverly if not quite convincingly, to see the Grapes of Wrath as a kind of template for Guthrie's life, and verses of the Ballad of Tom Joad run right through the evening, as a kind of chorus.

It's Lutken's night, of course. Everyone is on their feet, clapping, for the final reprise of This Land, although, in a way, the scene in Act 1 where Woody tries to sing about that big ol' sign saying "Private Property" and is kicked off the wireless (and replaced with a Pepsi commercial!) is more telling. The play's maybe a little coy about Guthrie's communism. We see him singing "Ain't Going Study War No More" with the left-wing Almanac singers. He pulls a clipping of one of his newspaper columns from his pocket, and reads that if the capitalists and land-lords didn't build walls and create borders, there wouldn't be no wars. But then he decides that "There's a difference between wanting something to end and wanting to end it" before going into the ultra-patriotic Sinking of the Reuben James. Well, yes: but mixed in with that pacifism was surely a disturbingly pro-Stalinist communist party line.

The most telling moment in the production isn't Union Maid or Reuben James or even Lutken's brilliantly melancholic account of the Great Dust Storm Disaster. It's Woody sitting on the edge of the stage, describing how he returned from a gig to find that there had been an electrical fire in his home and his baby daughter for whom --indeed, with whom -- he wrote Car, Car and the other nursery ballads, has been burned to death. Almost immediately, the narrator figure goes into the last line of Tom Joad ("wherever people are hungry and starve / wherever people ain't free / wherever men are fighting for their lives / that's where I'm a gonna be"). Woody replies with "nobody living / can make me turn back / this land was made for you and me"....and begins his long slow decline which ends with him in the mental ward of Brooklyn State mental hospital.

Woody Guthrie was a more complicated character than you can put into a two-hour play, and it isn't unreasonable to "print the legend" when you are dramatizing the life of a man who spent most of his short career inventing mythologizing himself. This was a pretty damn good play, and at absolutely first rate musical tribute.

Sid Kipper

7 April - Bath Comedy Festival

Lester and Mick used to periodically played Sid Kipper on Folkwaves, back in those glorious old days when we were still allowed to have folk music on the wireless. From his records, he appeared to be entirely mad, with a dangerous weakness for puns. ("On Feb 29th, the squire awarded a haunch of venison to any lady who successfully proposed to a young man. It was a case of meat buoys girl.") So I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear him live. He was originally part of a duo called the Kipper Family, and if you find that remotely funny, you'd probably have laughed at his songs as well. (*)

Well... You'd probably have laughed at at least one of his songs, in a very broad, carry-on style music hall way. A fair sample of the tone:

Now our Norfolk turkeys are simply the best,
They sure knock the stuffing out of the rest
And if you tried one I'm sure that you would
Agree that our turkeys are Norfolk and good.
Audience: Norfolk and Good! Norfolk and Good!
You'll say our turkeys are Norfolk and Good!

Beneath the silliness, there are some sharp folk in-jokes. "People debate whether or not women can Morris dance. Since they do, you'd think that would have finished the argument." (While you take part in this frolic / Remember that it's all symbolic.) I enjoyed the one about the young lady enthusiastically sending her young man off to fight in the wars, while he sings response verses coming up with excuses to stay at home. And the entirely daft cod Latin reworking of Gaudete

Troilus et Cressida, In Loco Parentis
Honi soit qui mal y pense, Harry Belafontee

And the entirely genuine 17th century protest song, played on a harpsichord.

How roads many roads must a dodo walk down
Before you can call her a dodo?
How many seas must the white Dodo sail
Before she rests by the road-oh.

In fact, rather than reciting the entire set list, I liked nearly all of it. And the way Sid (actually comedian Chris Sugden, but don't tell anybody) keeps up the endless stream of cod Norfolk patter and malapropisms, without stepping out of character once is actually very clever indeed. ("....or you can look at my webpage, or go on Myface and Twat me...but I digest...) But I did start to feel by the end of the evening that I had now heard the joke, and that 25 of the best Kippersongs (sung in order of their royalties: "this one has earned by £178 in the last ten years") is less funny than one of them.

Also worth mentioning the support act, a local duo called Man Overboard, which I can only describe as "quirky": guitar guy Martyn Dormer follows a comedy ukele number called The Phantom Wanker of HMV with a creditably bellowed Port of Amsterdam, interspersed with some perfectly straight jiggedy jiggedy jigs by the fiddler Brendan Jones. The mixing of the very silly with the not particularly silly at a gig being done under auspices of the Bath Comedy Festival was very courageous, but I thought really worked. Will try to track these people down again.

(*) English folk music was invented by a group called "The Copper Family": get it?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

O'Hooley and Tidow

Bristol Folk House March 11

I have been reading a book called Electric Eden. Apparently, Bristol Folk House was implicated in the abortive 1922 scheme to stage a series of Arthurian operas and establish Glastonbury as a sort of English Bayreuth. This isn't especially relevant to anything, but it gives me a sort of warm feeling of continuity.

Tonight's show takes place in the bar, rather than the main hall. Belinda "used to be in the unthanks" O'Hooley sits at the piano; Heidi Tidow stands and sings. They're both wearing masculine suits. (The BBC informs me that O'Hooley is a "lesbian icon".) They keep up a self-deprecating banter throughout the show. There's a man in the audience in a kilt, who seems to think everyone came to see him. You could easily feel that you'd blundered into a rather camp cabaret.

And they start singing. They run through the darkest and most depressing set I think I've ever heard. Oh, there are some bright moments. They open the second half with What Shall I Do If I Married A Tinker, lovingly ripped off from the Silly Sisters. (If you are going to imitate, imitate the best, as I always say.) But really. This is the sort of evening where a song about about child-victims of concentration camps ("they were like you in the same year/ but you grew up, they were scarcely even here") leads into one about the execution of Edith Cavel, and then into Whitethorn, a song in which an ancestor of the singer mourns the seventeen babies she gave birth to, not one of which survived. Things don't cheer up noticeably when we get to the duo's contribution to the the "Christmas single" genre. "She is the flower that I trod on when I went to post this card...She is the plastic I wrapped up for a child to undress She is the the shadow in the darkness, the object of my distress." God bless us every one.

O'Hooley has a highly expressive, sometimes almost violent style on the piano, and Tidow's declamatory, monolithic, by still highly emotive delivery put me slightly in mind of June Tabor. The encore is based around Belinda's day job, working in an old folks home. There is some banter about memory loss and wet seat covers, before going into a mercilessly bleak piece about old age and love and regret. ("She walks with the aid of a zimmer / to the chair on temporary loan / But then, she was a dancer / The quick step, the cha-cha...")

Truly, this was the kind of evening that might make you want to go home and slit your wrists, or at the very least, have several large whiskeys to cheer yourself up. I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Chris Wood / Martin Carthy

Feb 9 Kings Place London

On Tuesday, Chris Wood had been nonchalantly crowned "best folksinger" and owner of the "best song" at the Radio 2 folk awards. ("Hollow Point" had made me cry all over again. "Folk music is like a raspberry pip in the back tooth of the establishment" he'd said.) Tonight, he was "curating" the first night of a series of talks and concerts about "the anonymous tradition", at the Kings Place art center in London. ("Think of it as like a festival, but for grown ups" he explained. I only managed to get to the first night, because the series was unreasonably in London and I work annoyingly in Bristol. So I missed my chance to be in the crowd singing Butter and Cheese and All on Folk-Song a Day.) Chris never fails to say that he regards "anon" as the greatest song-writer who ever lived.

First half of the evening was a panel discussion, also featuring Simon Armitage (a man who writes pomes) and Hugh Lupton, the story teller and lyricist who wrote the words of Chris's contemporary fairy-tale tear-jerker One in a Million. Hugh didn't say a great deal, which was a shame. The net of the discussion was cast, perhaps, a little too widely: Mr Armitage talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he has recently translated into Modern -- a poem by a single author, whose name happens to be lost to us; where Chris Wood and Martin Carthy were more interested in poems which don't really have authors, but which are the product of that nebulous thing called The Tradition. Chris said that occasionally, at sessions, he plays one of his own compositions without letting on that it is his, in the hope that other people will pass it on. "I've taken so much from the tradition" he said "I want to put a little back in" . That's about the only time I've heard him drifting towards the folk equivalent of luvviedom.

There was an opportunity for question from the floor, which, as is the way with these things, the audience interpreted as "could you say randomly whatever comes into your head for the next two and a half minutes." Chris said that he wouldn't quite regard his songs as "finished" until, presumably after he is dead, they start to circulate without his name attached to them. I asked from the floor how that could be possible: his songs are intensely personal: his wife, his children, his allotment. (@Sam: He really is married to a lady called Henrietta -- at any rate his second album is dedicated to someone of that name. She wasn't just brought in for the sake of a rhyme. Did Dylan ever really date anyone called Angelina?) He said that he thought that his song "No Honey Tongued Sonnet" which is, on the one hand, very specifically about English schools and particularly the daft and thankfully now obsolete 11 Plus examination, was actually more generally about being labelled as a failure and rising above it. He said he'd done a a song workshop with some sixth form kids, and many of them didn't know what "Hollow Point" was about. Six years is a long time: perhaps great injustices only get remembered in the forms of song?

In the second half, he and Martin took to the stage. Chris sang No Honey Tongued Sonnet and My Darlings Downsized, and part of Listening to the River, an absolutely extraordinary thing he composed for Radio2, in which he talked to members of the public who lived near the Medway and used their words to build up a sound portrait of the river: actually imitating the inflection of his informants voices on his fiddle, and then incorporating it into a melody. I think of him as an interpreter and writer of folk-songs: I sometimes forget that he's an absolutely first rate violinist. Martin sang Jim Jones, which on some days of the week is my favourite traditional folk song, and they sang Three Jovial Welshmen together. (Martin invariable introduces the song by saying "I'm going to do a song called Three Jovial Welshmen....why does that always get a laugh?" The Kings Place audience were far too respectful, and rather spoiled his punchline.)

At the beginning of the evening, Martin looked...very much like someone whose wife has been in intensive care for the last three months... but he seemed to uncurl and come to life to re-tell the story of how he was turned onto folk music by hearing a Norfolk fisherman at Ewan Mcoll's folk club singing a long ballad which appeared to obey no musical rules. The question of what makes Carthy such a uniquely special performer is one that's hard to answer. Gavin put it nicely in a review last year: he's not the greatest singer; his guitar playing can be awkward, but "some invisible magic sparks between them." Martin himself explained it poignantly and perfectly tonight. When he was a younger man, he was just singing the words and tunes. "But now" he said  "I believe them. I believe every word."

The most touching moment of the evening was Martin's warmly congratulating Chris after he's finished the set with an uncompromisingly nuanced meander through Lord Bateman. To steal a line from a review on Amazon: you can just see the torch of traditional English folk music being passed from the older man to the younger.

Steve Knightley/Jim Causley

Jan 29 - Q.E.H Bristol

It never stops amazing and delighting me, that performers like Steve Knightly who fill the Colston Hall and Wells Cathedral and the Albert Hall are quite happy to come and perform in a not-quite-full school theatre in front of I suppose 100 people. You might almost think they were in it for the sheer love of the music, or something.

Maybe I have started down a path in which all music -- and all political literature, and all episodes of Doctor Who -- can be neatly divided into "authentic" and "inauthentic"; maybe this will lead, inexorably, to me sitting in the back of the Albert Hall in 2012 shouting "Judas!" But I liked Steve better in this format than I have at any of the book showpiece Show of Hands gigs I've been to - just the words and the music. Take Galway Farmer: I only knew it from the "Best Of..." album, belted out in front of a big Irish band, with an audience that already knows the words and the punch line. Tonight, Steve presented it as nature intended. Unaccampanied. Almost....dangerous....just your voice and and a story and faith that the audience is going to care

But at the first she nearly fell
I cursed my farmers luck to hell
The second and third she took quite well
Way behind the leaders
Then moving swiftly from the back
Found the rails and caught the pack
Ten to go and from the back
Her hooves were drumming thunder

Steve is amused that the song now appears on website listing "tradtional" Irish ballads.

Similarly, his grim, murderous re-imagining of Widdecombe Fair "

But the landlord said that the last thing seen
Was a boy and a girl out on the moor
That was all he knew and he showed me the door

has a real intensity when you are only ten feet away from the singer.

It was clever idea of someone's to pair the rather grim and gravelly Steve with the sweet, baby faced Devonian Jim Causley -- no longer with Makwin, it seems, but more than able to to accompany himself on the accordian. Although I very much liked the the musical jiggery pokery in the Mawkin:Causley version, the solo Jim Jones seemed to do a better job of capturing the dramatic intensity of the piece. Jim stands on the stage with a sparkly, twinkle eyed persona, and then sings songs which are so much older than he is with total conviction: poor Dylan Thomas dreaming about the Summer Girls he's never going to get off with; the Radio Ballad about the old unemployed railwayman whose "given his whistle one last blow and swapped his old pole for a hoe". A survey once revealed that Mr Hitler was the most hated man in history, but that Dr Beeching came a close second.

Not everything works. I really think that the mighty Country Life needs the full amplified pop treatment to deliver its punch, although I could see the point of pairing it up with Downbound Train (written by some American.) But in between your angry songs, and the grim murder ballads and the worthy political torch-songs like Santiago and Cousin Jack he can be very very funny. He finished the first set with a daft number suggested when his kids started playing that infuriating "repeating everything you say" game. "Stop Copying Me", it's called, and, of course, its a call and response song with the audience repeating every line. (Which, come to think of it, manages to make some serious points about file sharing and selling exam papers.)

Yes, Show of Hands are ubiquitous, too popular to be kosher, sometimes drift into over-indulgent singer-song writer stuff and once blotted their copybook by writing a patriotic number, but this is the pure, raw story telling of a man who really does know what it is to stand in the street with an old guitar.

Olden Days

So, my extensive fanbase (Sid and Dorris Bonkers) is on tenterhooks (whatever a tenterhook is) to hear my answer to the question on everybody's lips. Namely: "Andrew: have you been to any folk concerts recently."

Well, yes. As it happens, I have...

If you really wanted to, you could have a whole book of this sort of thing.

How Many Folksingers Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb
On the news yesterday, there was a vox-pop quote from an American lady, referring to the Leader of the Free World and Commander in Chief: "He isn't even an American citizen."

Last week on Have I Got New For You, a Tory politician (such a minor one that she was preapred to appear on Have I Got News For You) said "A.V is such a bad system that only three countries in the world use it. All the rest use first-past-the-post."

I can sort of understand how someone can believe in Six Day Creation or Homeopathy or something. But these Tea Pots and Naysayers don't even understand their own arguments.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I spend a lot of time slagging off journalists and politicians for being evil lying pondscum. Because most of them are. I have really really really never been more annoyed about anything than I am about the  "In AV, the loser can win" poster campaign.

So could I draw everyone's attention to this piece in the New Statesmen, about what we're now pretending was a "war" which broke out at the bottom of my street last week.

It's a piece of sane, balanced, accurate, properly-sourced journalism that reports on what happened, and gives quotes about what people think about what happened.

And you know what the sad thing is: when I read it I was surprised and said "I didn't know anyone was still doing that sort of writing."


Sunday, April 24, 2011

This is England...

spotted in Brizzle yesterday...

several people with musical instruments, singing about how much better things were in the olden days

Girl Guides serving tea and cake...

Real live Morris Dancers!!!!!

and most importantly of all:
no riot

(do you think someone should have told them that it wasn't technically St George's day?)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare

this made me happy for a week

And Happy St George's Day

please stand for the national anthem...

...excuse me, i seem to have something in my eye

Friday, April 22, 2011

update -

we can look forward to the image of a severely broken tescoes with "closing down sale" scrawled across it adorning many a left wing bedroom over the next few years

there seem to be two distinct narratives emerging

a lot of ground level spectators seem to be under the impression that there was a concerted, deliberate attack on the shop by some lefty / anarchists which the police stepped in to stopped (ask someone what caused the fuss, and they will say "tescos"

on the other hand, other people are saying that seventy police with helicopters and horses converged to evict four (4) people from a squat, and that when they saw 70 police on their street, a lot of other locals emerged to find out what the hell was going on and things escalated from there

there is a film on the interwebs of tescos being "ramraded" (not firebombed -- it doesn't look burnt out to me) and this looks very much like spur of the moment vandalism -- not something pre-orchestrated

and now, here is a true story:

an old man became very scared, because he thought that there was an unidentified intruded in his garden -- whether a drunk, a burglar or a some kids fooling about, he did not know

he dialled 999, or, for listeners in America, 911, and asked to speak to the local police "I am very scared because I live alone and there is an unidentified intruder in my garden"

"it doesn't sound like he's committed any crime" said the officer "and at the moment, we really can't spare any officers -- we will send a car to check it out, but it might not be for three or four hours."

a bit late the old man phone the police again

"you don't need to bother with that police car" he said "the intruder was holed up in my potting shed, so i got my old shotgun and killed him"

five minutes late, the house is surrounded by panda cars, armed officers, searchlights and a helicopter is circling over head. in all the commotion, a very surprised looking tramp emerges from the potting shed, and his led away by a liason officer

The police officer in charge is absolutely furious

"You told us you'd killed him!" he said
"Well, you told me you didn't have any spare policemen" said the old man

Thought for the Day

ok : this is how it looks to me

-- tescos opens, after a long campaign by (some) local people to stop it from opening (Stokes Croft / Cheltenham Road / Gloucester Road are a characterful part of Brizzle, with cafes, independent shops, two bakeries, original Banksy graffiti, refreshingly free from all the faceless highstreet brands; the fear is that tescos will put the small shops out of business, and the empty small shops will be taken over by more subway and more startbucks. I rather like starbucks, but I think eight is probably sufficient for one town.

-- some campaigners stage a rather raucus but from what I could see peaceful and good natured demonstation outside the shop. although i use sainsburies, scumerfield and the independent one by the arches, I don't go in tescos if for no other reason than that you don't cross picket lines; you just don't.

-- meanwhile, there is a squat going on in a building near tescos, full of dangerous media studies students and sociologists. squatting isn't against the law -- it's a civil matter.

-- however, mysteriously, the State discovers that the squat also contains a lot of "potential" petrol bombs, or "bottles" as they are usually known

-- the State decides that the best thing to do is to evict the squatters -- i.e send lots and lots of bobbies onto a street where there is already a raucous, but essentially peaceful, demonstration going on

-- they further decide that the best way to do this is to close off both ends of the road so that even local people who have nothing to do with the squat or the demo can't get to their own houses (which is presumably why they surged towards my street)

-- they also decide to do this is on a Thursday before a public holiday, when lots of people are out, have been drinking, and don't have to get up the next day

-- whatever you may say about Chris Chalkley, and he's always been very charming to me, his think national act local campaign (painting murals on boarded up buildings etc etc etc) has either created a sense of a Stokes Croft Community or plugged into a feeling of community that was already there: I certainly have a "sense of place" and am pleased to live in the area in a way that I haven't felt about many other places where I've lived. so naturally, telling people that they can't walk down their own street in a street which has quite such a strong sense of identity was never going to be pretty

-- sure enough a riot develops, bricks get thrown and riot shields and truncheons get put into people's faces and tescos gets smashed up

-- in a fortnights time, when the windows have been repaired and tescos has reopened the peaceful hippies will want to stage another peaceful protest, and presumably the State won't let them because of what happened before

-- result!

this is just my impression: i don't know any more than anyone else does, and maybe there really was a bomb making factory and maybe V really was bussing anarchists in from Wales. the State controlled media is largely ignoring the story

off to the cathedral now