Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer Catch-Up

Back in July I heard the aforementioned Martin Carthy at the aforementioned Green Note in London. Carthy always leaves me breathless. There aren't too many performers who would play a few bars, and then say "I can't remember how that one goes, I'll play you this instead" – and then, when he gets to the encore, say "I've remembered it now" and embark on all 22 verses of Sir Patrick Spens (Scottish fella whose ship went down.) He also did a full length Famous Flower of Serving Men, which runs to about 30 verses. He thinks is about May festivals and not cross dressing and burning people at the stake after all. And Clyde Water, singing the whole Child Ballad version, including verses of exposition that usually get skipped: He thought it was his darling dear / Rose up and let him in / He thought it was his darling dear / But it was no such thing / It was the voice of her mother / She sounded just the same... This is why I will go and hear Carthy over and over again: he seems to know every verse of every song in the world and always be able to pull one out of his hat one that you haven’t heard before.

The following night I heard the aforementioned Alisdair Roberts at the same venue. I was almost hoping to be disappointed by this: I felt he couldn't possibly be as good as my last review said he was. But I was disappointed, in the sense of not. I don't know how he does it; I really don't. Utter faith in the material, I think. He presents Bonny Suzie Cleland absolutely unflinchingly; detachedly when he comes to the end (“her brothers did the fire make and her father dragged her to the stake”) there’s a palpable gasp from the audience and an uncomfortable pause as if we couldn't quite decide whether you were allowed to clap or not. He manages to present the corniest song in the repertoire, Barbara Allen, as if no-one had ever heard it before – as if the tragedy makes perfect sense as a thing that might have happened. And then does one of his own songs which include lyrics like "the people that we know as heroes / are those who walk the line twixt thanatos and eros" and get away with that too. Not so much a genius as a phenomenon, in the sense of "force of nature".

First week of August was the Bath Folk Festival in the Widdcombe club in Bath. Rather improved in format compared with the last year, I thought, with three acts doing shortish sets each night, and odd surprises like an invasion by a mob of unseasonal Mummers. My notes appear to be rather patchy: I definitely recall hearing Steve Tilston singing songs of his new album, including the soon to be standard The Reckoning and an excellent young traddy ballad singer called James Findley who I want to hear again; and lots of instrumental music of various ethnicities. 

Following weekend was a one day mini festival in Scarborough, imaginatively called Scarborough Fair. An odd one, this. The open air arena was barely half full, despite a programme made up entirely of headliners: one of the organisers rather plaintively asked us to call up our friends and tell them that they could still turn up on the door and hear (the mighty) Bellowhead. It was one of those venues with plastic, football stadium style seating and a very large stage, separated from the audience by 40 feet and a river. You could have sunk several Green Notes in the space between the audience and the front row. Which would have been a shame, because they would have drowned, but it’s the principle of the thing. With even (the mighty) Bellowhead struggling a little to put themselves across, what chance did a man with a guitar and a man with a fiddle have. Even if the man with the guitar and the man with the fiddle happened to be Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick? Jim Moray (see what I mean about headlines?) fitted in a lot better, although even he struggled to get the diffuse audience joining in with the village and city girls by the quayside. I give him a lot of points for tackling Lord Douglas -- his ongoing work in progress reworking of a traditional ballad, I think it comes out of the Cecil Sharp project – which is not a festival crowd pleaser but gets better and better every time I hear it.

I was introduced to two bands I'd never heard before: Duncan McFarlane and his band are very solid folk rockers who would probably like to be Show of Hands when they grow up: there's something of the pub band about them, but the guitars and drums don't swamp the fiddles and squeeze boxes. I wrote "Hoddamadoddery with amps" in my note book, which is probably not fair to either group. They finished on a rip-roaring Cold Hard Haily Night. No ones roar can fail to be ripped with that song. 

I had also not heard the Demon Barbers before, which was remiss of me. I was about to say "sub Bellowhead" but checking the dates, I think possibly (the mighty) Bellowhead are sub Damien Barber... They do a nice a line in cheeky treatments of fairly familiar folkie fair: "Captain Ward" (which t.m Bellowhead also sing) has acquired a superheroic chorus which goes "Captain Ward...Captain Ward..Captain Ward". And they wound up with A Friend of the Devil Is a Friend of Mine which isn’t strictly traditional, I don't think. But they also (this being the Demon Barbers roadshow) had bevvys of clog dancers and rappa dancers on the stage and in one wonderfully audacious coup d'arena had two male morris dancers peforming morris steps in the style of a ballet recital. As if to make the point about just how graceful and skillful that kind of dancing is once you take away the bells and the hats. Or possibly that the rest of the troup hadn't showed up. 

And there is, of course, nothing in the world like Jon Boden singing Port of Amsterdam with the serried ranks of the mighty Bellowhead behind him. Unless it is a Bellowhead audience using hand signals to agree that our hero has gone UP to the rigs, DOWN to the jigs, UP to the rigs of …. you know the song. 

But in a funny way, the thing which made the festival for me was the tiny second stage. Nice bit of planning, so that you could wander to the other end of the arena and watch local bands while the sound checks were being done on the main stage. One such was a very young group called The Sail Pattern doing a combination of semi-traditional sea shanties and weirdly authentic self written material in a sort of hyper-rock style, rather as if the Pogues had taken to doing English sea songs. And as if they were fresh faced seventeen year olds with teeth. I am not sure if someone that young ought to be allowed to sing something as grim as Hold Fast (“sew me up / wrapped in sail / commit me to the sea / hold fast boys / hold fast boys / put the last stitch in me”.) . And it takes lots and lots of chutzpah, in a good way, to sing your version of Haul Away (“a puppet’s on the throne of Spain and Bonapart’s in Cairo / with Nelson’s ship we sailed away and fought them on the Nile-oh”) half an hour before Bellowhead are going to take to the main stage. And winding up your short set with the tongue twistering Mary Mac’s Mother’s Making Mary Mac Marry Me, My Mother’s Making Me Marry Mary Mac is just showing off, frankly. Rather endearingly, they seemed surprised that anyone wanted to buy their CDs and hadn't brought enough. You can download their stuff for a fiver from Go on: they deserve your encouragement and you can claim you were a fan before they became famous. Which they are so going to do.

Robin Williamson did a gig a gig in the crypt of Woodlands Church, Clifton in September. Bob Dylan, you may have noticed, hardly ever plays in church halls. You hardly ever get to say "Thank you for a great set, Bob," after the show. And yet the Incredible String Band, in their day, were as great and as important as Bob, and I am not sure which I would choose between The Big Huge and The Times They Are a Changing if condemned to share a desert island with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Williamson seems to like doing small, community venues, I think it suits his image of himself as a bard or shaman or storyteller. (He sees himself as too Christian for the druids but too pagan for the Christians, apparently.) He’s accompanied by his wifeand muse Bina, who plays the bowed psaltery (I looked it up) and contributes Punjabi wedding songs in which Robin and the audience can only discern the word "tandori". (She encourages the audience to sing along with everything. "Only in the chorus" says Robin, pointedly.) Robin, as we've seen before, has eclectic tastes; this isn’t a "religious" concert but he’s slanting the repertoire to the location. He does a bluesy spiritual which, he points out, was also in his granny's Presbyterian hymnal; the audience sway along to "hide me in the blood; hide me in the blood; hide me in the blood of Jesus". He does a Latin version of Psalm 24 delightedly pointing out that although the Psalms are by far the oldest songs still in actual use, no-one knows what tunes they were originally sung to. (There is, apparently, an ancient document claiming that they were sung solemnly, "in the Egyptian style", but since no-one knows what the Egyptian style is, Robin says that he's going to sing it joyfully in the South American style.) He tells a folktale about three soldiers who make a bet with the devil, and does a perfect imitation of a hot Gospel evangelist. “If you’ve never met the devil face to face – if you’ve never met the devil face to face – if you’ve never met the devil face to face – then maybe it’s because you’re headed the same way he is.” He has us all singing his version of the old Irish riddle song

Greater than god, worse than the devil
Dead men eat it, if you eat it you’ll die
Come from nothing, go to nothing
If I tell you nothing then I’ll tell you no lie.

There is chocolate cake and nachos in the interval; the church sticks to a "give whatever you like" rule for refreshments, which puts everyone in a happy mood and probably means they make more money then they would have done if they'd charged. Robin has shaved his beard off since the last time I saw him.

Heard Swarbs  and Carthy again again in the much more congenial surroundings of St George's Bristol. "The programme notes say we're the best loved duo since Morcambe and Wise" says Swarbs "So we're going to play all the right notes..." There really is nothing in the world like hearing Swarbrick's fiddle spiralling around Carthy's plinky plonky guitar while Carthy tells the story of the lady who dressed up as a highwayman to find out if her boyfriend loves her as if it has never, ever been told before. Carthy always claims that the Treadmill song is the only prison folksong in the repertoire (because the collectors didn't go and talk to prisoners.) Someone in his audience in Wakefield pointed out that he almost certainly knew the Wakefield prison song: "Here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning." There apparently being a mulberry bush in the prison yard. Finished with Byker Hill; guitarist and fiddler singing about geordies wanting to buy beer. Doesn't get much folkier than that. 

When Jim Causley sings Summer Girls he introduces it by saying "I would tell you who it's by, but you'd just go "meh...Streets of London." I don't know if I would quite go "meh". Folkbuddy despises the song, apparently: it's just about spoiled middle class people going out at an looking at some poor people in order to make themselves feel better. I wouldn't go that far myself: it's a little sentimental ("in the same way that the sun is a little hot") but it's a nice enough melody, has some decent images ("looking at the world over the rim of his tea-cup") and "Cheer up, there is probably someone worse off than yourself" isn't a completely contemptible sentiment. If was going to take exception to something, it might have been First and Last Man, which seems to play on all the most patronising cliches about Native Americans ("I am the willing heathen / I worship everything / I will add new words to my language / But write them on the wind."). But as we've discussed before, songs and arguments, and it's presents a powerful enough story-world while you are inside it. But overall, I was a little underwhelmed by Ralph Mctell's set in St Georges (again) at the beginning of October. I felt that I should have liked him: he opened with I Been Doing Some Hard Travelling and says he is is old enough to have been Woody Guthrie's penpal. The distance from "in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office, I saw my people" and "have you seen the old man who walks the streets of London" isn't infinite, come to think of it. (Guthrie never wrote back to him, being incarcerated in a mental hospital at the time. A lot of his banter involves dark twists like this: he introduces an impenetrable song about his mother by saying "she lives in a world adjacent to our own" and after the laugh, reveals that he meant that she had dementia. [*]) And then it's into a decent cover of Girl From the North Country and after a short but heartfelt tribute to Bob. (He's working on a song about Suzie Rotolo, which she won't hear, because she died earlier in the year.) But somehow, the evening never caught fire for me. I get the impression that McTell sees himself as a poet and some of the writing is of a pretty high order. The London Apprentice builds up a complicated metaphor about life based on, er, the streets of London, but is rather denser than I can take in at one hearing. 

I am a London apprentice I never learned her ways 
When I walk the streets of London I'm constantly amazed 
How a road I never was on before leads to one I know 
As any cabbie will tell you that's how all knowledge grows 

I enjoyed his meditation on time based on Bernstien's flashback in Citizen Kane ("it's funny the things a fella will remember"), but I question if the song actually said anything that Orson Welles hadn't already said almost as well. I did enjoy his closing number, the rocky "mythologisation" of the relationship between Bert Jansch and Annie Briggs. 

Bert died a few days later, of course. When I wrote that the Pentangle set at Glastonbury in June made a weekend of sinking up to my knees in mud worthwhile, I didn't realised that this would be the last but one time they would play together. 

Spiers and Boden did a pretty standard Spiers and Boden set at Colston Hall in September. Clearly, no-one can sing a ballad like Jon Boden and no-one can play the squeezebox like John Spiers and if you have never heard them you should, as they say, kill to get a ticket. But I couldn’t help noticing that the only number that I hadn’t heard them play before was New York Girls, which (the mighty) Bellowhead have made their own. Almost as if Bellowhead, which used to be about taking and embellishing songs which the duo had thrashed out is now the place where new material is being created. That's a shame, because much as I like t.m. Bellowhead, Jon's genius as a story teller and interpreterer of ballads is seen with more detail and nuance when accompanied only by fiddle, squeeze box or guitar. Maybe some of those 365 folksongs he sang last year could find their way into some fresh Spiers and Boden set? (What price a full dress Spiers and Boden rendering of the Lock Keeper, or the Mistletoe Bough, or Oor Hamlet, even? Not Rock Candy Mountains under any circumstances. That was a mistake.) Still, one should never pass up the opportunity to hear the story of Squire Willie and his psychotic hanging-mad employer; or to bellow along to the tale of Sir Rylas and the spotted pig; or to sing along to Sailing Down to Old Maui. With the exception of Carthy and Swarbs, they're the best folk duo going. I just hope the success of Bellowhead doesn't mean they are going to become fossilized.

The up and coming -- in fact very nearly already arrived -- Pilgrims Way did a free gig in the frankly uncongenial surroundings of Stokes Croft's very own Canteen, a sort of bar-restaurant-venue legally squatting in an open plan office. I mean, the whole point of the Canteen is "a bar with good live music", but I didn't think Lucy Wright's sweet vocals and excellent story telling was shown off to the best affect in an atmosphere where people were buying drinks and making a noise. Even if that's exactly the environment where The Hand Weaver and the Factory Maid, which she does brilliantly, was originally played. Although possibly not with a Jews Harp.

Monday, July 11, 2011

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.