Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blackbeard's Tea Party

The Croft, Bristol

Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead. 

On the other hand, Bellowhead do not play in the back rooms of pubs at the bottom of my street (while young people play speedcore in the front bar). Although, come to think of it, I did hear Mr Spiers and Mr Boden perform on this very stage back in 2007. And Mr Carthy. Still, it's the least folkie venue ever. All the young people were in black. I was in my floral waistcoat. The pub was smashed up during the pretend riots last July. I think they thought I was a hippy bouncer. 

As I was saying: Blackbeard's Tea Party are not as good as Bellowhead. But they generate an energy, a physicality, a sense of musical theatre (completely improvised, I think) and a spontaneous response from the audience which I have never seen any folk band apart from Bellowhead come within a hundred miles of. 

They do, in pretty much every conceivable respect, rock. 

They came onto the stage at 9.40, after the usual local support who we will tactfully pass over. Stu the singer – not the singer on the albums, a new singer who has joined the band in the last month -- asks if there are any miners in the audience. Someone is related to one. He launches into "I can hew" . ("And when I die boys know full well / I’m not bound for heaven, I am bound for hell / My pick and shovel Old Nick he will admire / and he’ll setting be hewing coal for his hell-fire”). There is a thumping drumbeat and an electric guitar which, I shouldn’t wonder goes up to 11. And Stu, I swear, doesn't stop moving for the rest of the evening. He encourages the audience to pogo dance by leaping three feet off the ground. He gesticulates in the narrative bits. He nips back stage at one point and re-emerges in sun glasses and pink tie-dye shirt. The whole band follows him into the physical space. Yom Hardy the cajun drummer bangs his head in time with the rhythm so his long black hair flaps up and down like a muppet. When Martin Coumbe the guitarist does a solo, the band get down on their knees to worship him. 

The sound mix, I have to say, is perfect: too often in this kind of thing I have said "I believe that there may have been a folk song going on somewhere, but all I could hear was the drum". Tonight you could hear every one of Stu's words. The songs are stories or jokes played with a camp twinkle in his eye. Folk rock with the emphasis firmly on the folk. 

Oh, and there was rappa dancing. In a pub. At the bottom of my street.

I now need to tread carefully. One of the many excellences about the Tea Party's first E.P (Heavens To Betsy) was the nuanced vocals of Paul Young. Young credits his Barrack Street (version # 94 of the story about the sailor being robbed by the prostitute) to the singing of Nic Jones, and it was a close match in vocal style. If you are going to swipe, swipe from the best, said I. Paul Young appears on the new album and he remains excellent. The album version of Stan Rogers Barrat's Privateers (sadly not in the live set) is quite stunning. He tones down the "roar" from the original recording, plays it as a ballad, not a shanty, tells the story, while the group weave in and out and all round the tune, even interjecting hornpipes a couple of times. But I note that Paul claims to have learned two of the lighter and more raucous pieces on the album from Stuart and there is a perhaps a sense that Paul isn’t fully comfortable with them. Not as loud and mad as Stuart is on stage at any rate. But that may just be me being wise after the event. 

Landlord Fill the Flowing Glass is a venerable English drinking song with lyrics that get progressively filthier in each stanza.“I wish I had another brick to build my chimney higher /Stop the neighbours pussy cat from pissing in the fire”. It’s quite lovely how Blackbeard’s Tea Party stay close to the basic beauty of the melody and then put the heavy stuff behind it without the one swamping out the other. Too often this kind of thing is done with a nod and a wink; isn’t it funny that we’re singing “thee” and “thou” while the electric guitar is drowning us out? But this just seemed to just be a song. The drunken Landlord is followed by the endlessly sobering Chicken On Raft, possibly my favourite song about egg on toast. ("I sing "woo-woo" and you sing "chicken on a raft": and then I sing "aaa-aa" and you sing "chicken on a raft" and then I sing "woo-woo" and you sing...")

I never saw the original line up live and it may be that their stage act was always this extreme. It may be that audiences in York are holding placards saying "Bring back Paul". When I first heard the album I said that their musical arrangements were reminiscent of Mawkin and it strikes me that Stuart’s manner is not a million miles away from Jim Causley. (Actually he's like the the bastard offspring of Jim Causley and Jon Boden.)

I wish Paul Young all the best; I hope he left to pursue a brilliant solo career and not (say) because of a quarrel about who took the last slice of cheesecake. And it would be reckless to start saying "gig of the year" in a year which has included Alisdair Roberts and Show of Hands. And that old American man who sings Bob Dylan songs. But it looks to me that the addition of Stuart has propelled a band I was already very excited about into orbit. 

That's not a metaphor. He really does jump that high. 

Blackbeard's Tea Party. Not as good as Bellowhead. Yet.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fisherman's Friends

Colston Hall, Bristol

Fisherman's Friends do what Fisherman's Friends do very well indeed. But that really is all they do. The trouble with seeing them headlining their own gig (as opposed to doing a set at a festival) is that you get twice as much Fisherman's Friends for your money. And it turns out that there are only so many rollicking bollocking buggering shuggering however it goes songs of the high sea a man can cope with in a single sitting.

There are some attempts to change the tempo. In between the shanties, we get a medley of Methodist hymns. From Sankey's Hymnal: "We used to find that name funny when we were kids....we still do, apparently." The trouble is that what Fisherman's Friend's are doing is basically chapel singing (er, "a capella") and the chosen song is a spiritual with a nautical theme. (“Row for shore sailor, row for the shore, heed not the rolling waves but lean to the oar”) So it isn't really that much of a change of tempo. "The Cornish Methodists were like the Taliban, only without the sense of bonhomie and good fun".

When you go to hear the same bands more than once, you naturally expect to hear the same jokes as well as the same songs. (I probably know Robin Williamson’s story about putting his harp in the lift as well as he does.) But Jon's patter has become an elephants graveyard of double entendre. "We asked if we could appear on the Parkinson show. He wrote back and said 'No, you can't.' I didn't know he was dyslexic." Despite being famous, they haven't acquired any groupies. There are application forms for us to fill out in the foyer "And for the ladies as well." To the least tall member of the group: "Are you happy?" "Not really, no." "Well, which one are you then?" And, every time someone coughs "Do you want to suck a Fisherman's Friend?....That joke always leaves a nasty taste in the mouth."

The role call at the end of the show pointedly tells us what the boys day jobs are – fisherman, ex-fisherman, ship builder, potter... Now, I don't know what songs Cornish Fishermen really sing at work, but I'm guessing not ones about South Australia or Mexico. I imagine they listen to Radio 1. These are songs from the British and American navies that have become standards. There aren’t about fishing. There is a song about whaling, but it's a modern thing showing sympathy for the poor ickle cephalapod cetacean. (“Last night I heard the cry of my companion / the roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone.") Any melancholy mood is immediately dispersed by Jon: "It's all right, it's only a big lump of sushi.” His schtick is to apologise that some of the songs are too depressing. The sad ones are actually welcome relief from all the rollicking and bollocking.

Jackie "Jim's Brother" Oates opened with a nice trad folkie set, including a Cornish version of the sublime The Trees They Grow So High – "my pretty lad is young, but he's growing". It sounded exactly as if someone had heard "my bonny boy" once and reproduced it from memory, not quite getting the point. You can really imagine some fishwives singing it while working on their lad's nets. There is more authenticity here than in any number of roared out choruses of What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor? The Captain's Daughter was a whip: "Give him a taste of the Captain's daughter." Not "Throw him into bed with the Captain's Daughter". (Have you seen the Captain's daughter? Ha-ha.)
But anything they lack in authenticity the make up for in volume. When they get going on Bound For South Australia or A Sailor's Ain’t A Sailor Ain’t A Sailor Any More it would be churlish not to say "Arrr" and join in the actions. ("Don't haul up the rope, don't climb up the mast, if you see a sailing ship it might be your last.") Or Pay Me My Money Down. Or Woo Woo Bully In the Alley. Or the penultimate encore, Sloop John B. ("The Beach Boys sang this, and now we've immortalized it.") Last time, I mentioned that Les Barker once raised a question which has always troubled me: what happened to the Sloop John A? But it now occurs to me that this was Nassau, and it was probably actually the Sloop Jumbie. A Jumbie being a corpse that a witch doctor has brought to life. Prone to dancing back to back belly to belly. Serves you right for paying attention to me.

There is a big Cornish Flag over the stage. They play up to Cornish stereotypes straight out of central casting. It's not surprising they ended up advertising fish fingers: Cleave’s stage persona is basically Captain Bird’s Eye. So, they are staunch local people who want us to laugh with them at they grokles and turrists and Americans who visit their village in the summer. "Tin-taggle? Can you imagine King Arthur riding out of Tin-taggle? That's where a fairy would come from. It's Tin-taj-il" "Yes dear. But put the fish knife down." (A pedant would point out that King Arthur didn't ride out of Tintagil, although in the most militantly Welsh version of the story, he was conceived there, so I have.) On the other hand, they play up to all the nasty jokes that the rest of England makes about Wesk Untry. Port Isaac has just been made a world heritage site for inbreeding. High six!

This makes their rendering of Cousin Jack a little uncomfortable. Steve' Knightley's a serious singer; he's allowed to drag you through dark places in his songs. Fisherman's Friends are a novelty band, and arguably shouldn’t. Steve imagines a 19th century emigre seeing modern Cornwall and despairing "I see the on our house...I see the in our seas...." (Although he often now changes it to "these seas".) The Fishyfriends put it back into the main singalong verse "the English they live in our houses / the Spanish they fish in our seas". If anyone is allowed to be annoyed about international fishing regulations, its a working fishermen. Peter Roe, the oldest member of the group (he's 78, as we keep being told) does a song he wrote himself about how the fishing trade ain't what it used to be due to European regulations. It's no Tiny Fish For Japan, but it comes from the heart. But in the context of rollicking, bollocking, swuggering and buggering, it feels a little uncomfortable for Cleave to put his hand over his heart when he get to "the Spanish they fish in our seas" and very uncomfortable for another member of the group to make what seems to be a clenched fist salute.

I assume you all all saw Jamie Oliver doing his chirpy cockney thing from St Pauls last week? The lady with the stew sells me my coffee in the library canteen, so she does, and sometimes banana cake as well. There's only so many times you can say "vibrant" and "multicultural" in one cookery show; but I did think he was spot on. Saffron doesn’t grow anywhere in England. Think of a famous story set in Cornwall: Jamaica Inn. Think of a typical Jamaican street food: patties. St Piran's flag seems to be an invention of 19th century Cornish language revivalists.

There comes a point where irony gives out. After seventeen or eighteen jokes, you start to think "That's not part of a jolly jack tar persona; that's simply a dirty joke." And then you start asking yourself to what extent the audience are in on the irony. They are certainly enthusiastic. A lot of them stood up at the end. I didn't stand up for Chris Wood. I'm certainly not going to stand up for what is basically a quite good male voice choir.

As a 45 minute festival band, there's no-one to touch them.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Canteen, Stokes Croft

Hodmadoddery, once described by Bristol's leading folk blogger (i.e me) as "two men with guitars who sing folksongs" presented a set guaranteed to please all the traddy folkies in the bar (i.e me). When First I Came To Caledonia; John Barleycorn; that one which starts out as King George Commands and We Obey and end up as Spanish Ladies; a really powerful Shoals of Herring. (But then you can hardly get Shoals of Herring wrong, can you?) The loud hairy one strums while the quieter balder one plucks, but there is clever, even witty stuff not drawing attention to itself. Tony goes all Spanish Guitar in Spanish Ladies. Steve introduces Fair Annie (surely the most beautiful song ever written about father-daughter incest) as "copied from Martin Simpson copying from Peter Bellamy" and sure enough Tony's fretwork really is lovingly copied from Martin Simpson. Particularly notable was a very decent Black Waterside, with creditable tinkly guitar that genuinely evoked the ghost of Pentangle.

As well as any ghost can be evoked on a Sunday afternoon in a bar on Stokes Croft where no-one is actually listening.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Colston Hall

Not my cup of tea at all. They were Celtic folk jazz fusion. There were moments of perfectly nice songs. It's hard to do Lord Franklin's Lament badly, after all. But I don't get jazz. Pippa Marland does a perfectly good rendering of the song: bit too much shutting of eyes and having Emotions for my taste, but that's her style, fair enough. (Proper folk singers are dead-pan and let the song do all the work.) But then somewhere in between verse four and verse five, the violinist (she seemed to be doing long classical violin bow strokes not short stibbly fiddle player ones) starts making some long up and downy noises which don't seem to relate to the song and go on for several hours, after which the audience claps. In the middle of the song. The man next to me particularly claps the pianist, who seems to tinkle tinkle tinkle from one end of the keyboard to the other at the least provocation. (Chico: I can't-a think of the end of this-a song." Groucho: That's funny, I can't think of anything else.) The opening number was about birds of paradise. It seemed over lush, over sweet, over done. Dan was selling BOGOF tickets as if he was fearing an empty hall, but in fact, it seemed full of fans who had seen many permutations of the group and seemed to like them very much. I enjoyed the support act. His name was Mike Scott. He sang oldest-swinger-in-town observational lyrics with strong narratives and clever rhymes. (She sings bad falsetto on the number 14 bus / 'Rock of ages cleft for me', though she sings 'Cleft for us'.) I do not generally review acts I haven't especially enjoyed: not playing or singing myself, I could not begin to explain coherently what someone was doing wrong. It is demonstrably clear that people who like this sort of thing found that this was the sort of thing that they liked, since they clapped and demanded an encore. The forgoing is as much as to say "Andrew doesn't get jazz." Or possibly "Avoid anything that involves the word Celtic" (as opposed to say, "Breton" or "Cornish".) And possibly also "Avoid like the plague anything that involves the word Fusion." 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Emily Portman Trio

Louisiana Bristol

A search for the Facebook page of the Louisiana bar in Bristol directed me to the town of Bristol in Louisiana. Well, there’s a thing.

Not been to the Louisiana before. Tiny little room above a nice pub, just far enough away from the waterfront to be quiet, but not far enough away for it to be a faff to get to. George Orwell would have liked it there. The music space is very small and felt “exclusive” tonight: me and Folkbuddy and about 15 of the (presumably) keenest folkies in Bristol. (I spent an interesting ten minutes before the band came on chatting with Jim Moray about Bob Dylan.)

Emily and her trio (Rachel Newton from the Shee, and Lucy “did a tour with Bellowhead” Farrell) finish their set by coming down off the stage and doing an acoustic encore from the floor. Brand new song. Acoustic. An adult lullaby. It was going to have a werewolf in it, but Emily’s mum persuaded her to leave it out. It’s in harmony, not that close harmony where everyone is singing the same thing a tone or two apart, but complicated harmony where everyone is singing different things and the phrases keep echoing backwards and forwards between voices. I think we’re sailing off to sleep in a boat; I think there is a monster of some kind that we are going to put to sleep; I think it’s a riff on Where The Wild Things Are, but it could just as well have been In the Night Garden. Fairy tales are what Emily Portman does. We’ve already had a song about a drunk lady who has physical wings and learns to fly, based on a novel by Angela Carter which I haven’t read. Angela Carter apparently used to come to folk nights at the Louisiana.

In between the songs, they bubble like schoolgirls; Lucy mentions that a character in one of the songs can "apparate" and admits that they've been listening to Harry Potter audio books in the car. Emily spends a bit too long tuning her banjo; Rachel wonders how she would cope if it had thirty four strings like her harp But the music is astonishingly developed and mature. This doesn't sound like the second album of a very young singer-song writer, but someone has been doing it for years. It doesn’t sound like a gig in a pub, either. The detailed harmonies, the other worldly melodies, hardly seem to be coming from the actual stage.

Emily’s songs take the merest idea or suggestion of a plot from a traditional tale, approaches them at right angles, twists them like a Rubik Cube. It’s intense, immersive writing: these are fairy tales which drop you into the heroine’s head in the middle of the story, and leave you to work out where you are. Who would identify:

Tongue Tied, I am bound
To weave my words with thistledown
Sickle moon, on the moor
Turns thistledown silver and fingers raw

as being the opening of Hans Andersen's “The Wild Swans”, about a princess whose brothers have been turned into a ducks by their mother. (Emily says she’s made them ravens to avoid any unfortunate rhymes. I am sure she knows perfectly well that it’s ravens in the Grimm's version of the story.)

It takes nothing away from Emily’s song writing to say that the climax of the evening was her version of the folk staple The Two Sisters. (We have had cause to discuss it in these columns before: rich suitor favours little sister; so big sister pushes little sister into river and drowns her; passing musician cuts up her body and turns it into a magic harp, as you do.) Emily has found an American version in which the refrain is “oleander yolling” as opposed to “oh the dreadful wind and the rain” (or "bow and balance to me" or " or “by the bony bony banks of London".) Although it's American it's still all about knights and kings and minstrels. Martin Simpson says there version where it’s a banjo, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it. This version ends:

And he took the harp to the kings high hall
There was a court assembled all
And he laid the harp there on a stone
And the harp began to play alone
It sang "yonder sits my lover the king
How he’ll weep at my burying
And yonder sits my sister the queen
She drowned me in the cold cold stream".

I don’t think I’ve heard a version which makes it explicit that the king in the final verse is the rich lover of the opening, which makes the harp's vengeance far nastier. (Carthy’s version has the King and the Queen as the mother and father of the murdered girl, even though she’s not a princess in verse one.) I don’t know to what extent Emily’s version is a composite, but it seems to turn the ballad into one of the most perfectly formed fairy tale plots I’ve ever heard, up there with Gawain and the Green Knight and Rapunzel. Chris Wood was right. Anon really is the greatest writer who ever lived

And Emily has clearly studied Anon’s work: her songs are too complex to be traditional, but the sound traditional. Perhaps she holds the tradition at arms length in the way she arguably does with fairy tales; not immersed in them or in love with them, but scrutinizing them from a distance, twisting them, taking them apart, even, dare I say it, de-constructing them.

With a lovely tunes and lovely lovely harmonies.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

June Tabor and the Oysterband

St Georges Bristol


One reaches for words like "statuesque" and "stark" to describe June Tabor. Once one has exhausted ones like "wonderful" and "astonishing." There's often something cross in her delivery; as if the bonny bunch of roses-oh is telling off young Bonaparte for his silly idea of conquering Europe. (What. A. Great. Song. "O, son, look at your father for in St Helena his body lies low /And you may follow after, so beware /Of the Bonny bunch of roses”.) She plants herself on stage, head on one side, and then comes to life and declaims at the audience. She doesn’t do her thing of reciting poems between songs tonight, but her spiels often sound like recitations. She says that she chooses songs for their words and their imagery before their melody. Whether it's the teenage girl who wishes she’d listened to her mother (“But if I had kenned what I no ken / and taken my mummy’s bidding oh / I would no’ be sitting by our fireside / Crying hush to my babby-oh”) or the sailors saying farewell to their Captain, she has an empathy with the characters in the songs. Even the utterly bizarre pagan Christian thang about the Kent farmer who names his smallest bonfire after Judas Iscariot. (She’s good at different dialects.) She has great respect for the source singers, and never approaches songs ironically (in the way that Jon Boden or Jim Causely arguably do). She introduces a sentimental Easter carol about the Virgin mourning her son with the matter of fact observation: "Gypsys are very religious people; today many of them are born-again Christians".

The pairing with the Oysterband is not an obvious one; perhaps. She is minimalist, narrativist, a voice which is expressive and dramatic rather than beautiful. They are at the rocky end of folk rock, drums and guitars as well as fiddles and squeeze boxes. She wears a dramatic open buttoned long red coat and stands at the front of the stage; with aging folkies in eighties suits behind her. The one acts almost as a counter melody to the other, as if the Oysters are riffing off the melody of Bonny Bunch of Roses or My Captain Calls and June's stripped down singing is hovering in front of it.
There are points where it doesn't perfectly come off. The words of June's ballad about the man who pretends to be dead so that his lover, who won't answer his letters, will have to come to his funeral gets slightly lost in the arrangement (we were, admittedly, towards the back of the auditorium.) There's some cheeky non folky stuff, not all of which I get. June loves the Tradition, but she also loves Songs. On the record All Tomorrows Parties (which I understand to be by one Mr Underground) is dominated by June’s echoey voice, the instruments providing not much more than drum beat. Tonight there’s a more pointedly folkie instrumental. (“We have our own Nico, who can actually sing”). It stands as a song, not as a pastiche. I wasn't sure if the show finishing White Rabbit (by a Mr Aeroplane) merrited its inclusion, except as a joke which everyone apart from me got. But by that point in the evening, everyone, including me, was eating out of the band’s hands to the extent that they could have sung Baa Baa Black Sheep and got a standing ovation. (Chris Wood sometimes sings One Man Went To Mow, come to think of it.)

But the songs. I can be at a gig, admiring the technique and enjoying the noise it makes, and then a song comes and punches me in the solar plexus. The first half ends on a barnstorming rendition of the practically obscene Bonny Suzie Cleland. The last time I heard this song, Alisdair Roberts whispered it to his guitar and left the audience genuinely horrified. Today, if you weren't paying attention, the sweet refrain (“there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love, oh my love / there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love so early oh”) could be any ballad or any love song, and you are brought up short by where it goes “there lived in a lady in Scotland / she fell in love with an Englishman / and bonny Suzie Cleland’s to be burned-ed in Dundee.” The fiddle adds a sweet diddly-dee between the stanzas. This is an almost celidah version of a song about a woman being burned alive by her own family because she’s married “out”. But angry. None of the horror is lost. It’s in the story. And the tune. 

Her father dragged her to the stake 
Oh my love, oh my love 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Oh my love so early oh 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Her brothers the fire did make
And Bonny Suzie Cleland was burn-ed in Dundee

And then in the second half, June quits the stage and leaves the Oysters to do The Bells of Rymney. Who could have guessed that this was going to be the evening’s climax? A decent enough song, Oranges and Lemons rewritten by a distinctly unjovial Welshman and set to music by Pete Seeger during his Union Sub-Committee Agenda Blues phase? It outstays its welcome even when Robin Williamson warbles it, and my tolerance for Robin Williamson warbling is considerably greater than the next man’s. But here, the lyric, done pretty straight, competes with a raucus, twangy reggae-ish drum-led background racket. "Who made the mine owners says the black bell of Rhonda; and who killed the miners cries the grim bell of Bliamma?” Mr Seeger, being a folk singer, sang the poem, which is not exactly short, twice. Here it seems to stall or freeze on the first repeat. "Who killed the miners, say the grim bells of Blaimma. Who killed the miners. Who killed the miners.” This, rather than the second encore, was the point in the evening where I felt like doing a spontaneous standing ovate.

And the last pre-encore number was Seven Curses; morphed from a whining lament into a rhythmical country hoe-down; with the final curses given multiple repeats. A lot like Phil Beer's fiddle cover of the same song now I come to think about it - is there, I wonder, an intermediate version I don't know?

"So this is the Oysterband and June Tabor playing Bob Dylan, back together" said front man John Jones. "What could be better than that?" Well, quite.