Sunday, June 26, 2011


I think it's Parkinson's law, isn't it, which tells you that a job always takes longer than you thought it would, and this is true even if you take Parkinson's law into account.

Glastonbury is muddy. Really muddy. You just won't believe how deep and thick and sticky the mud is. You picture it as a music festival in a field, albeit a very big festival in a very big field. You don't realise that on Day 1 (Thursday) when the festival hasn't really started, that you are going to say "I might as well go and listen to Rory McCloud in the Avalon Cafe Tent." Rory is a man who plays the mouth harp and the spoons. And the guitar. And practically everything else. And has a band, consisting of clarinets and harps and what nots and thingamys. The Avalon Cafe Tent is the smaller of two performance areas in the Fields of Avalon; which is one of the smaller areas in the festival. (I don't think the BBC goes there at all.) But I still imagine that, on the night before the festival had even started, there were a thousand people crammed in listening to Rory. Or, rather, not listening to Rory. Everyone remembers that, in the very olden days, Beatles fans used to go to Beatles concerts with the express intention of not listening to the Beatles, of indeed, making so much noise that it was impossible for anyone to listen to the Beatles, even the Beatles. Glastonbury audiences regard acts as convenient breaks in the serious business of tromping through the mud did I mention the mud -- during which they can consult their programmes and talk loudly about which acts they've already seen, and which acts they are hoping to see, and which acts they are sorry to have missed. You might think it's hard to have a conversation over something loud amplified and electric, but it doesn't seem to deter them. They shout. But it occurred to me that this was about ten times the size of the audience which seemed like a pretty good turnout when I heard the redoubtable Mr McCloud singing about divorce and world peace and playing with a Mexican mariachi band in Bath last month. 

I overheard a boy, perhaps fifteen, talking on the phone "U2 take to the stage on Saturday evening" he said. Take to the stage? It isn't clever to sound like a bad tabloid music correspondent even if you are a bad tabloid music correspondent; it's particularly not clever when you are on the phone to your mum.

So: by the time Rory has finished his set (and I repeat that the festival hasn't started yet) you realise that you are talking about, roughly, a 45 minute walk back to your tent. Through mud. Through the kind of mud into which you sink, ankle deep, at every step, more or less guaranteeing that at some point the quicksand is going to grab you and propel you forward so you are crawling though the mud on your knees; more or less guaranteeing that that the swamp is going to hold on to your boots and force you to walk a few steps in your socks. Tromping though unfamiliar areas called "Left Field" and "Green Fields"; finding that which ever way you are walking, there will always be at least 10,000 people walking in the other direction. It is genuinely quite scary to see a sign pointing to the field you believe to be quite near the one you left your tent in and see a vast lemming like migration walking towards you: do you wait 2 hours for it to clear; do you seek another one and get lost; do you force your way through the oncoming human tsunami. And once you get through the quick sand, you discover that "The tent with the orange flag, by the path, near the gate, overlooking the Big Top at the Dance Tent" which seemed easy to find in daylight looks a lot like 100,000 other tents. If you think "It would be fun to come in 2012", you must first contemplate me walking along a muddy path, holding one boot in my hand, at about 3AM, not entirely sure if I am even in the right field, saying over and over again: "This isn't fun. This is scary"

The mechanics of camping don't bother me particularly. I can go for a few days without washing my hair. I can happily sleep on an airbed, or, indeed, on the ground, although this is rather academic because the music goes on 24 hours a day and people coming back from Shangrila or the Hundred Acre wood are going to stand by your tent and shout at 4AM or 5AM no matter what you do. I rather wish I'd dispensed with the wriggling and rolling and just boldly stepped out of my tent and got dressed and undressed in the moonlight and the morning dew and let Nick take all the childish pictures he wanted. Oobviously, if you have a problem with outside toilets you shouldn't even think of going on a camping trip, but in fact the Bishop of Bath and Wells did a pretty good job of keeping the facilities as clean as any public loo is ever going to be.

(And unlike some people I am not offended by the presence, or indeed existence, of bands I don't want to hear. Glastonbury has not lost it's credentials as a music festival because it has appearances by novelty acts like the Wombles. [Blah, blah, blah excellent composer; blah, blah, blah Art Garfunkle; blah blah blah, Steeleye Span.] Mr U2 may be old and unhip but you don't have to listen to them if you don't want to: you can listen to one of the other 150 bands playing at the same time.)

So: granted that the entire lower half of my body is caked in mud; and granted that wellington boots are the least practical garment ever devised by man; and granted that it is either raining, or, worse not raining; I'm now standing in, say, the main Avalon Stage; or the main Acoustic Stage; or the Left Field Stage. And I am listening to Chumbawamba, or Pentangle, or Mr Billy Bragg. I rapidly came to the conclusion that the Avalon area was the best sub-festival: two tents, both of which likely to playing music I was prepared to listen to; a medieval themed real ale tavern; a cafe selling coffee and baguettes and home made muffins, and some toilets less than five minutes walk from the stage which no-one else seemed to know about. At such points, it became very nearly possible to forget the mud, and have a positively Good Time. I certainly heard a lot of bands that I would have travelled a long way to hear; a lot of bands who, since they were playing, I was very happy to listen to; and, of course, one or two bands that I would have been perfectly prepared to walk several miles through a swamp in order to avoid. The sensible approach is clearly to pick a stage on which there is a band that you would quite like to hear, head for that stage, and stay there all day, listening to whatever happens to be happening there. (My only subsequent disasters were when I violated that rule. On Friday night, I somehow found myself on the periphery of a vast crowd listening to Primal Scream on the main stage. The main stage was roughly as far away from me as my bedroom is from Cafe Kino. There were some pretty light shows, and the act seemed to be performing with some enthusiasm, but so far as I could tell, what they were playing was lift muzak. And when it finished, I was part of a crowd of 50,000 all of whom were trying to get away. This. Is. Not. Fun. This. Is. Scary.)

Wonderful moments, then, encased in mud and unpleasantness and generally being quite scared. (Not that I really ever thought I was in any danger. It's astonishing how good natured everyone is. When I found myself both literally and metaphorically stuck in the mud in the medieval themed tavern, four total stranger helped to pull me out. I'm sure if one had actually fallen down in the middle of a crowd, the crowd would have parted and helped one to one's feet. But being in the middle of a swamp in the middle of a crowd is just. not. fun.)

Best Moment 

Chumbawamaba walk onto the main Avalon stage. All five of them are wearing T-Shirts reading "Bono: pay your taxes".

I do not particularly care, or indeed know, about Bono's tax position. In fact, until this weekend, I didn't know he sang in a group called U2, and still am not sure if it's Bow-no or Bonn-oh. But I love, adore and respect this side idolatry the fact that Chumbawamba make every show they perform a political "happening", and somehow manage to do so without seeming preachy. Possibly because the songs are so sweet and fine: I imagine they could charm even a died-in-wool liberal democrat. After the t-shirts, the act was almost redundant, but they ran through a nice greatest recent hits package -- the Last Nazi and Charlie and El Fusilado and an entirely redundant thing about Joe Hill that I've never heard before.(But then, that naivity is part of the package: they give the impression of reading a news item or the story of an historical injustice in the morning and turning it into a bouncy, poignant akapella secular hymn by tea time.) This was their first gig for over a year, and Boff hadn't quite straightened out all the words of all the songs in his head. But that's part of the package as well. I love them to bits.

The world is riddled with maggots
The maggots are getting fat
Their making a tasty meal of all
The bosses and bureaucrats
They're taking over the boardroom
And they're fat and full of pride
And they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died.

Best Moment

Shortly after Chumbawammba, did hie myself forth to the Left Field area to hear Billy Bragg doing his thing. Never heard him live before. Hadn't been 100% sure if this was my best choice (I would also have liked to hear Mumford and Sons, who were on at the same time) Billy takes to the...walks onto the stage and immediately goes into the first bars of his thumping version of The World Turned Upside Down, which, if my I-Pod is to be trusted, is my 3rd favourite song [*]. And so on through a mixture of his teenage angst numbers (Milkman of Human Kindness, Walk Away, New England, of course) and his political songs. Which Side are You On introduced with a heartfelt rant about the coalition("It breaks my little heart to hear George Osbourne saying that we're all in this together that's not what his side believes: it's what our side believes"); There Is Power in A Union introduced with an equally heartfelt rant about the need to plan and organize: the anti-cuts demos didn't just happen, did they? Mostly, he didn't even bother with the choruses of his songs: just point the mic into the audience and let us do the work. The rabble is suitably roused. Why is there not one single professional politician who can communicate a political message with this clarity and conviction?

There is power in the factory
Power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a union.

Best Moment

I decided that I ought to at least see something on the Pyramid Stage, that's the big one, the one the BBC refers to as "The Glastonbury Festival". Sunday morning offered a sequence of acts I positively wanted to hear: Fishermen's Friends; Don McLean, Laura Marling and Paul Simon. (Also an American acoustic band called The Low Anthem who I believe I enjoyed but can't remember anything about.) I decided that the Best Plan was to proceed to the stage well before kick off, and take a position right at the front, scarcely more than a hundred yards from the stage.

The atmosphere was most jolly, with people from Westovingland waving St Piran's crosses, and a young lady who used to hear Fishyfriends in St Ives before they were famous. My view of the Friends themselves hasn't changed since I saw them at the Brizzle folkfest: they are a very good choir with lots of personality, but I don't quite see how choruses of What Shall We Do With Drunken Sailor and Sloop John B, however rousing, amount to million dollar commercial success for what is basically still a rather good shantyband. Added to their repertoire since I last heard them is a piece called Cousin Jack, which I may have previously referred to, a not even slightly traditional song of the Cornish diaspora, originally performed by Show of Hands, a west country folk band who I may possibly have mentioned. It worked wonderfully in the context of the sea -- well pool -- of white-on-black crosses in the audience, and those of us who knew the song dutifully raised our hands in air and bellowed along loudly and tunelessly. I was the loudest and tunelessest of all; it never fails to bring a tear to the old Rilstonian eye.

Where there's a mine or a hole in the ground
That's where I'm headed for, that's where I'm bound...
I'm leaving the county behind, and I'm not coming back
So follow me down, cousin Jack.

As the song finishes and they go into the cough-sweet joke ("no, we're not going to talk about sucking on a Fishermen's Friend, that joke always leaves a nasty taste in my mouth") I notice that standing right next to me in the mosh is, er, Steve Knightley (The man who wrote the song. Do try to keep up.) So, of course, I turned round and asked him if he didn't think that the song Roots equivocated slightly over it's definition of the term "English."

Course I bloody didn't. I said "You should be up there, sir" and "It's great to hear them singing your song." He said "We will be...." (I did make it back to Avalon for Show of Hands own set, which was terrifically tight greatest hits sets, with very little chatter so none of the 45 minutes was wasted: the Fishyfriends were in the audience. There's something lovely about that, isn't there?)

Up to and including Mr Don McLean, I was finding the atmosphere in the Pyramid "mosh" quite congenial. It amused me that there were posh-girls who'd come to see Bouncy and were planning on sitting there, with their backs to the stage, through six or seven acts that they weren't interested in, just in order to be at the front for their idols. (They didn't seem to have heard of Don McLean, or even of American Pie.) But they lent us their seats between acts, and were bubbly and friendly. I don't think I could have had that kind of devotion, even if the top of the bill had been someone I really wanted to hear, like Bob Dylan or, well, Bob Dylan, actually. I am male and might have survived 12 hours without a trip to the lavatory, but I don't think that I would have especially enjoyed doing so. If you were watching the BBC coverage, then the man with coloured dots painted over his face who knew all the words to Vincent was standing just in front of me. I heard Don McLean live once before, a billion years ago, in the 90s. He wasn't very good: came across much too much like a man in his 40s still trying to do the songs he used to do when he was a man in his 20s. (The medical term is "Paul McCartney syndrome".) He's now a man in his 60s who is absolutely comfortable being a man in his 60s, dark glasses and face-lifted features, slightly paunchy, coming to the middle of the stage with his guitar and not moving and letting the songs do the work. Obviously one is supposed to be rude about him because he's mainstream: I myself went through a stage of saying that American Pie is really only Desolation Row re-written by someone who didn't understand Desolation Row. But he was terrific. Quite bravely, he stayed away from a "greatest hits" set. There was an impeccable Vincent, of course, and a 13 minute long reading of American Pie which only slightly outstayed its welcome. (Having gone right through the sing it fast sing it slow one more time thing, he decided that what we really wanted was to sing the first verse again.) But I give him a lot of points for not ending the set on his Famous Song, but sending the band off stage and finishing up with a slow sad one (the one about the man who builds a beautiful house on the beach). Not charismatic, perhaps, but a showman. Not Dylan, but still a poet. And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do...

But by the time Laura Marling took to the...started to sing, things were getting uncomfortably crowded, the sun was in my eyes, and one felt that two thirds of the crowd weren't listening to her delicately understated but maybe not especially festival friendly set. She's about 17, sings folk-Americana that sounds like Dylan-at-70, and is quite wonderful. There was more air available for Paul Simon, but the general feeling was that his set was too challenging for a festival, and of course, he doesn't sing any of the old ones I know because he stole them from English folksingers. Glad I'd heard him, though.

In my boundless naivety I had imagined that most of the people who wanted to hear Paul Simon and Don McLean would leave in order to avoid Pendulum and Bouncy. Possibly a thousand or so did, but then, three thousand or so were trying to get in at the same time. Rather surprised the organizers allowed that kind of thing to happen: I'd have thought it was dangerous. I don't think that at any point I felt that I was in mortal danger of being crushed to death by rampaging mobs of Bouncy fans, but not a pleasant experience.

So. I've done the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury and never have to do it again... Unless Steve Knightley's really up there next year, of course, obviously

Best Moment

Pentangle on the Acoustic Stage were unquestionably the best bit of music that I heard during the festival. Not as nice as the Avalon stage, on the grounds of being up a hill, but it had a similar feeling of being a self contained festival, with its own bar (sans slough of despond) and it's own eatery, serving the largest pieces of carrot cake ever exhibited in captivity, and run by by a religious group that wants to restore primitive New Testament Christianity...good luck with that.

Heard "Jacqui McShee's Pentangle" in Bath earlier in the year. They were sort of perfectly all right. This was Ms McShee with the complete original 1960s line up John Renbourne (guitar), Bert Jansch (guitar) Danny Thompson (cello/bass) and Terry Cox (percussion.) This was an absolute revelation; expecially, from my point of view, because they stayed very close to their old traditional brief, with readings of blood curdling ballads like Bruton Town, Cruel Sister, Demon Lover and Hunting Song. Jacqui's ethereal voice hovering above the tinkling folk jazz cadences. And then Renbourne, who is no spring chicken, sat on the floor to finish the set with his electric sitar. If anything felt like being in Glastonbury, when it was 1968 and everyone was a flower children, this was it.

Best Moment

On Saturday night I heard a group called Flogging Molly who are like the Pogues only without the subtlety. The atmosphere before hand was lovely. I found myself chatting to the other guy who had heard Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs (a traditional skiffle band) in the morning and thought them brilliant. Since I had also thought them brilliant, there was an immediate connection between us. Unfortunately, I had been at the acoustic tent all day, where the expected reaction to, say, Thea Gilmore singing the whole of John Wesley Harding to go "Jolly good! Jolly good!". I had not realised when, taking my place toward the front that everyone was planning to signal their appreciation of Flogging Molly by jumping up and down. Specifically, jumping up and down on my jacket.

Would I do it again? There is no doubt that it has a special atmosphere: everyone has a sense of being "at Glastonbury". The aforementioned Nick correctly noted that any band could guarantee itself a big cheer by telling the audience that they were at Glastonbury. It's hard to get tickets. The state-controlled media goes on and on about it for a week. So there is a real sense of being special, being important, being privileged because you are one of only a hundred thousand people watching Primal Screen on big TV screams. The sheer amount of music available is exhilarating: there is nowhere else where you find yourself thinking "Let me see: shall I go and listen to Bellowhead, or Suzzanne Vega, or maybe take a punt and hear the Streets." (Oh yes, I have heard of the Streets. Bob once played a track about a young man whose girlfriend had left him, and whose friend was trying, not very successfully, to cheer him up.) On the other hand, you don't enjoy Suzzanne Vega more because you are missing Bellowhead; in fact, because the whole thing is so huge, you perpetually find yourself thinking that somewhere there must be this really terrific gig that no-one told you about. (The rumour that Paul McCartney had helicoptered in, done an unannounced gig in a cafe, and helicoptered out seemed plausible at the time, as did the one about the Prime Ministers aid being found dead in a toilet.) If it hadn't been raining and muddy I would probably have had more fun wandering around the Stone Circle and the Green Field and just stopping and listening to whatever seemed to be playing in bars and tents I seemed to be passing. As it was, I felt reluctant to stop and just listen to the patch of Johnny Cash-ish Americana I heard issuing from the Jack Daniels bar because I was forcefully swimming through the swamp to get to the people I actually wanted to hear in thirty or forty or fifty minutes and was a afraid I might not make it.

So on the whole, yes, I would go again, but I think I would do it differently. Travel by coach to get the perks of being a "green traveller". Arrive first thing on Wednesday, to give me longer to explore the festival before the actual music started. Pitch my tent in Avalon (now, there's a phrase I don't often get to type), near where the acts I want to hear are playing, with no need to venture near John Peel or the Dance Village; and stay away from the big stage even if there are acts I want to hear there. Don McClean was unquestionably very good. A highlight. But if I'd missed him, I could have heard the Wombles.[**]

Did I mention that it was quite muddy?

Punks Not Dad - New Forbidden - Rory McCloud - Coccoon - Stonefield Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs - 3 Daft Monkeys - Katzenjammer - Chumbawamba - Billy Bragg - Primal Scream - Kassidy - Isobel Anderson - Emily and the Woods - The Webb Sisters - Thea Gilmore - Pentangle - Guillemots - Flogging Molly - Fishermen's Friends - The Low Anthems -  Don McLean - Laura Marling - Paul Simon - Show of Hands - Imelda May -- Suzzanne Vega

[*] Since you asked: Word Bomber (Chumbawamba); Roots (you know who); the World Turned Upside Down; Muir and the Master Builder (Dick Gaughan); Brother Gorilla (Jake Thackray); Hollow Point (Chris Wood); Botany Bay (Mawkin:Causely); Albion (Chris Wood); The Devil and Pastor Jack (Dick Gaughan); The Little Pot Stove (Nic Jones.)

[**] I had my reivew all prepared: "I have now met Tom Baker, and seen the Wombles perform live, so coul my ten year old self please fuck off and stop bothering me."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alasdair Roberts

Chapel Arts Centre, Bath
Most artists wind up their acts with something catchy and happy which the audience can sing along to so they leave with the gig with a spring in their step. Alasdair Roberts chooses to end his act with the Cruel Mother, a charming little ditty about a lady who strangles her babies and goes to hell. (Some people have tried to rehabilitate her, pointing out that in the Olden Days, baby-strangling may have been the only viable form of contraception but it's still not an obvious crowd-pleaser.) Granted, we get to sing-along-an-infanticide but it's not the usual "down in the green woods of ivory-oh" refrain. Oh no. Mr Roberts has dug up a version where the refrain goes: "The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall / And the lion shall be lord of all." Which doesn't seem particularly relevant. He thinks the lion may be a celtic sun god, which hardly helps at all. Oh, and despite having two very good accompanists in tow (Rafe Fitzpatrick, double bass, Stevie Jones, fiddle) he sings it unaccompanied. He's tall and thin; his long guitarist's fingers are clenched like claws; his arms flail as he intones or chants the horrible words until I almost thought he was gong to go into convulsions.

It was in short, absolutely magnificent. As good a piece of straight ballad singing as I think I've ever heard. Readers of Twitter will already be aware that I was ****ing gobsmacked: I can't remember when I've been this enthusiastic about a performer after one hearing. (Mr Chris Wood was and is something of an acquired taste.)

Much of the rest of the evening is equally Scottish and equally miserable. We hear about Bonnie Suzie who was burned (in Dundee) for the unpardonable crime of marrying an Englishman; and the martyrdom of little St Hugh of Lincoln. Roberts is very much concerned about the provenance of his traditional songs. If he is going do a standard like Golden Vanity (the one about the cabin boy who single-handedly sinks a Spanish Galleon while sailing in the low coun-tree) you can be sure it is going to be based on a specific recording made in Edinburgh in 1901.

But mostly he sings his own songs. Jaw-droppingly brilliant songs. (Literally so: Bristol's leading folk-journalist may be able to provide a sketch of me sitting at my table, open-mouthed, ignoring my beer.) When looking for someone to compare him with, I keep coming back to the Incredible String Band. Much tighter, more focussed, more sober, not to say dour, than the ISB ever were: but the same complex, rambling, freeform songs that take you on a melodic journey, you aren't sure where to. The same preoccupation with the mythic. The same slight tendency toward the overblown lyric. (I scribbled "the psychopomp of the cosmogenic egg" in my notebook at one point.) Some singers introduce songs by saying "this is about the miners' strike" or "this is about growing up in Scunthorpe". Alasdair says things like: "This is about Anankey, who in Greek mythology is the mother of the fates and the holder of the spindle of necessity." But you never feel that the words are taking over. The mythological song starts with an instrumental passage, almost like a Sydney Carter carol; from which the hymn to Ananke seems to arise naturally. "Who is the threader of the needle and who is orderer of all our states; who is the holder of the spindle and who is the architect of all our fates": he sings. (You can hear the tune in the lyric.) Each gnomic question is repeated over and over, with it's own little tune, and the piece seems to end in a joyful chant "It is Anankey, it is Anankey, by whom we are all begot". (How many lyricists would say "by whom"?) The obligatory Scottish Folksong About Scotland which ends the first set consists of four or five seperate melodic gems, strung out on an end-of-the-pier fiddle-tune. The music-hall melody masks the cynicism. "It's nice to be here on edge of empire.....Oh Caledonia, my Caledonia!...Can't you get over your tiny self?"

It's not really like a traditional song: it's not really like anything else I've ever heard. But it seems to follow some kind of traditional logic: as if he's absorbed the old music's structure and is now freed up to do his own thing within it. (Different from Ian King, who opened for him, who takes traditional songs like Death and the Maiden and uses modern musical styles to explore their potentials.) One thinks of T.S Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, doesn't one, where the most original poet is the one most influenced by all the poets who came before him? I think it comes down to a particular way of marrying words and music -- or, let's be more specific -- of marrying poem and tune. Becuase tunes are what it's all about: mostly happy tunes, dance tunes, jigs and reels and carols. At times, you almost feel that you are listening to instrumentalists -- a slightly "out there" scottish celidah band, perhaps -- making beautiful music which just somehow happens to perfectly synchronize with the verses of a young poet with a beautiful voice. Or else that your are listening to a poet singer and the instruments just happen to be imitating the rhythms of his voice. Which makes it sound almost Wagnerian. Is that how traditional songs work? The words and the tune equally important; the words telling the story and leaving the singer little scope to pour his emotion or his experience into the lyric because the expression, the emotion, is already there, encoded in the melody. I'm tempted to wonder whether this two pronged attack was what made the performance so very, very powerful: whether simultaneously attending to dense meaningful words and complex melodic tunes draws the audience into a kind of fugue state.

Not wishing to come over all po-faced, but I find myself falling back on metaphors of possession and shamanistic ecstasy and speaking-in-tongues. Some people talk about "the tradition" as if she were a living thing which can speak through a performer who honours her. That was what this evening felt like. As if the Muse had literally taken possession of this thin, wiry guitarist.

Did I mention that I was ****ing gobsmacked?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dick Gaughan

Bristol Folk House

A Dick Gaughan gig is not for the faint-hearted. 

He performs for ninety minutes straight, not singing so much as snarling. His voice has become more and more like a growl as he's got older, but that suits the angry tone of the songs. Fine old rabble-rousers like Tom Paine's Bones jostle with melody-free rants about former comrades who abandoned the Cause. ("I used to see you salute that poster of Che Guevara / I guess it wouldn't look too chic in the house you live in now"). But just when you are starting to wonder if he Dick an endless supply of shouty revolutionary anthems he sits down, chats about General Humbert and the 1798 rebellion and launches into an exquisite six minute Irish lament on his acoustic guitar. 

The invective kicks in early. He starts, as he always does, with the non-specifically inspirational battle hymn "Now what's the use of two strong legs if you only run away and what use is the finest voice if you've nothing good to say...." and then sings a story, new to me, about a man who finds that his vast wealth is no use to him after a shipwreck. ("Think of your favourite banker!") And thence to another new one about some unspecified people entirely failing to notice that their world is collapsing around them. "They all sang Hallelujah as the waves engulfed the land..." "At the time of the last election I decided to write a song venting my anger at a wee institution called New Labour" he explains "but I realized you couldn't write a whole damn song about New Labour..."

Although he claims not to use a set list the evening covers most of the most famous musical bases: we get Song for Ireland, Now Westlin' Winds ("I couldn't imagine not singing it"), Games People Play and the incomparable Both Sides The Tweed. He says he stopped singing the latter for a decade because he couldn't quite work out what it was about: the penny dropped when he heard the quote about it not being our differences which divide us, but our inability to embrace those differences. Prejudice is the most contemptible thing in the world: the one thing he really hates. (Well: one of the things he hates. He's half Irish and half Scottish and thus a passionate advocate "of English independence." The best thing about getting old is that no-one tells him he'll become a Tory when he grows up. "I hate all that patronising shit." But God escapes relatively unscathed this evening: no Pastor Jack or Stand Up, Stand Up For Judas or Son of Man although Old Tom Paine does tell us to kick off religion and monarchy.) 

Any performer in this vein risks turning into the parody folk-singer who hates poverty, war and injustice "unlike the rest of you squares". You hate prejudice do you? Pretty controversial. And don't think much of rich bankers? Or New Labour? Very brave of you to say so. His signature song -- which, astonishingly, he says he hasn't sung for years -- assures us that he could sing happy songs if he wanted to "But that wouldn't help those in trouble / That wouldn't help make their pain disappear / And the homeless, the workless, the hopeless and helpless / Wouldn't be any happier, would still live in fear." Indeed, and will Sir be walking on water after Sir has finished singing? 

But it doesn't feel like that when you're caught up in a Gaughan performance. Because the anger is so genuine and unaffected. Because the songs are so perfectly crafted. Because for every full-blown rant there is a lyrical traditional poem and that authentic snarling voice soars above the delicate guitar melodies and Robert Burns seem to become a living presence in the room. 

Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free

We read that Mr Dylan was unhappy with the job-title of "protest singer": he thought of himself as just a singer. Dick Gaughan quite happily proclaims that it's his job to make people feel angry and sad in order to make the world a better place. There's a thin line between protest singer and preacher; between bard and prophet. But isn't the really great preacher the one who reminds us of the platitudes, the obvious truths that we're always in danger of forgetting?

When you're called for jury service
When your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election 
When you freely voice your thought
Don't take these things for granted
For dearly were they bought...

Thank god that there are still guitar wielding prophets like Dick Gaughan.

Angry Scots-Irish Playlist

Friday, June 10, 2011

Jim Moray

Chapel Arts,  Bath

It would be terribly easy to underestimate Jim Moray. 

The write up on the Bath "Listomania" website, said, in effect "Wow. He does, like, folk songs. But he does them, like, modern." Which he certainly does. But that's hardly a U.S.P, is it? I am told that folk singers were using electrical guitars as long ago as the 1960s. It's not exactly unusual to see an act with a modern drum kit. Where, exactly, are all these po-faced "protectionists" who think that songs should stay exactly the same as they always were?

When I first heard Jim (at Folk By the Oak in 2009) I said -- terribly unfairly -- "Oh...he's just singing standards that no-one else would do, and sticking electric beats behind them. Sort of folk mash up. Quite clever if you like that sort of thing, I suppose." Subsequently, I spotted that he has a voice, as the young people say, to die for. Which he does. He really, really does. His second encore tonight is Valentine (a "morris-waltz-lullaby") full of a poignant urgency which breaks out into bitter-sweet joy in the final stanza. I assume that the refrain "Throw the oats against the vine" means something extremely rude. It leaves the audience feeling warn and lovely, coming as it does after the more obvious show-finisher in which we have all sung about quiet and witty girls by the quayside to the point of exhaustion. And there's a casual informality ("I'm Jim...") to his stage persona which makes it impossible not to like him.

But none of this remotely gives him the credit he deserves as musician, an arranger of music and (it's now very clear) a student of folk music. There's no Early One Morning or Barbary Allen in tonight's set, but there's a fascinating version of an obscure Child ballad called Lord Douglas. He describes it as a work in progress: "cut down from the original 300 verses to only 238", a composite of 21 different versions incorporating material from a cognate Icelandic saga. The more familiar Rufford Park Poachers is described as "cover version" of a song recorded in 1909 "on wax cylinders". He cares about this stuff. 

He takes to the piano for a long Lord Bateman (not as good as Chris Wood's version, but basically, what is?) -- and Vaughan Williams Captain's Apprentice "a jolly song about torturing children" which he thinks inspired Britten's Peter Grimes. There's certainly something operatic about his piano style, sweeping up and down the scale, and weaving in out of the melody. But most of the act is done with a three piece band -- a melodian, a hurdy-gurdy and a freak-out drummer, with Jim himself on electric guitar. The traditional instruments lead and dominate the sound leaving the drums and the guitar to provide seasoning and interpretation of what's basically still a very traditional sound. One only has to watch the way he counts the band in, whisper comments and signal to them to see that Jim is the auteur of the music: not merely a singer with a band, but a conductor, arranger, producer even. 

You could write off the four TV screens as gimmickry, a way of saying "this isn't how you imagine folk music!" It's quite fun to be looking at images of pretty girls on a quayside when he's singing about pretty girls on a quayside, though I wasn't quite sure whether the image of Jim stroking an urban fox had much to do with anything. But the screens come into their own in songs like Lucy Wan, perhaps the most representatively off-beat of Jim's numbers. It's one of the most viciously nasty folk songs in the repertoire: about a boy who makes his own sister pregnant, murders her to cover it up and then runs away to sea. The obsessive (almost psychotic) call and response rhythm of the original is transformed into Moray's characteristic keening delivery, so that the verse sounds more like a lament than murder ballad. But his performance is juxtaposed with a modern version of the same story, perpetrated by a Bristol rap artist improbably called Bubz. "So he has taken his good broadsword / That hangs down by his knee / And plunged it into fare Lucy's heart / To spoil her pretty body" morphs into "We screwed / You creamed / I stabbed / You screamed" ...." Bubz's contributions appear (as part of a video in the style of a news broadcast) on the TV screens, so that Jim is effectively singing a duet with a recording. As a piece of conceptual art, it comments cleverly on the idea that modern yoof music is frequently condemned for being violent and misogynistic, even though much worse stories have formed part of English popular songs since the year dot. But the more I hear it, the better it works as a piece of music in its own right. The two versions of the story start quite separate, but by the end, the rap rhythm is existing, quite happily, behind Jim's traditional singing. Jim makes it appear that controlling the electronics, working with the band and singing along with a partner who isn't actually there is easy. I would wager that it isn't. 

Is Jim Moray really the biggest thing to hit folk in 30 years? I don't know: there have been an awful lot of acts since 1982. It is very tempting to point at the jiggery pokery and the occasional weird mash ups and say that he's mainly a novelty act or an iconoclast, a man who uses TV screens and rap artists to deliver a well deserved shaking to all those people in po-faced sweaters who don't exist but would jolly well deserve to be shaken up if they did. There may be a small element of that, for example, when he decides to play a Fleetwood Mac song on the banjo. But he's mostly a musician.