Thursday, November 22, 2012

Martyn Joseph / Luke Jackson

Colston Hall

"Where's Luke," calls out someone from the audience, just as Martyn Joseph is about to start his first encore ("No Retreat Baby, No Surrender" played exquisitely on a ukulele). Naturally, Martin takes this as cue to start taking the mickey out of his young protege..."Where's Luke? I fired him, that's where he is...It's my show...."

All bands engage in this kind of banter: I imagine it's the only thing which keeps them sane on a tour. But I couldn't help wondering whether the veteran really did feel a bit upstaged by the newbie. The previous night, Mike Harding had named Luke Jackson as a finalist in the Young Folk Awards (which was pretty much a foregone conclusion) and also as a nominee for the Horizon Award (which Luke says came as a complete surprise to him -- he thought at first they'd read his name out in the wrong category.) I do wonder what percentage of the audience were there to hear the support rather than the act.

Luke's first proper tour doesn't seem to have diminished the sincerity or honesty of his performance, although it's a much tighter set than I've seen him do before, cutting a lot of the chat and showcasing the different kinds of songs he can turn his guitar hand to. So it's not only the touching, biographical ones tonight: he starts and finishes with the abstract, rocky ones, and in between gives us a new bluesy one, and a gospel cover, and a narrative ballad as well as the bitter-sweet country-ish title track off his album. Only at the very end of the concert, in that final encore with Martyn, does he look back on his childhood and break our hearts as only he can.

It really does feel as if we are watching a career in fast forward -- he's already thinking about his second album -- and it's honestly hard to imagine where Luke Jackson is going to be in twelve months time. 

As to Martyn Joseph himself: he's entirely new to me, and I never feel confident in forming an opinion of a singer songwriter on the basis of a single listen. A splendid showman, definitely, who carries off a lot of slightly eighties mannerisms with some aplomb (He keeps addressing the audience as "Bristol", and comes down off the stage and stands on a chair at one point.) Not a gospel singer or a "Christian" artist, but there's a pretty strong streak of the religious running through his act. "This is not a good time for God", he sings "The right wing have defaced, the left wing have displaced, bigotry's disgraced..." It sounds a bit like Dylan's Material World and treads a fine line between the witty and the preachy. ("I'm looking forward to singing this in America" he says, after the first chorus which can't decide if it's "Allah" or "Allelujah".) Okay, I compare everyone with Dylan, but a performer who happily says things like "The sun remains an adoration flame / In spite of what these dungeons days proclaim" probably deserves it. (I think I detect a Dylanesque drawl in several of the songs, but at the end of the evening he goes into a very funny mimic of the great man.) 

A singer I haven't heard before proves his worth if there's at least one song which punches me firmly between the eyes. Martyn passes this test with flying colours: Proud Valley Boy is an astonishing, complex, rant in which an old miner looks back on Paul Robeson's visit to Wales in the 1930s. It has some re-world thoughts about unemployment ("It was one of those retraining schemes--a room full of discarded dreams") and a powerful central metaphor: 

A dragon came here once 
He shone like ebony 
At Mountain Ash and Neath 
He gave us dignity 
Back home some cursed his name 
And tried to quench his fire 
This David and Goliath in one frame. 

He talks about a musical torch being passed from Woody to Dylan to Springsteen, and there's certainly a strain of the angry blue collar industrial rant in several of his songs. He seems to like the oblique mythologising of the relatively ordinary: there are also several dragons wandering around On This Celtic Morning, a song about, of all things, the Ryder Cup. I wouldn't have expected a song about golf to work, but it really, really does, presumably because the singer really, really cares about golf. ("And the gods who play before us / somehow carry all our names / as tall as any mountain / but not bigger than the game") 

But he also does a nice line in soft, reflective ballads. I was genuinely touched by Clara, the apparently true story of an old man being saved from suicide by the old lady who had taken care of him when he was a baby. 

I hope we all have a Clara
Who sings us songs unknown 
Songs for the healing
And songs for the coming home.

Martyn is the sort of singer who produces a sequence of little epics; songs which imbue their subjects  with importance and significance; songs which take you on a journey. I must admit, though, that while any one of the anthemic songs was terrific, by the end of the set I felt I had possibly got the hang of the fact that Love was a good thing and he was in favour of it. 

This evening was the real thing. A young man with a guitar and pure, fresh voice wailing "I'm only going over Jordan..." and an older man with a darker, more world-weary voice growling "Mr Robeson, Sir...I hope that Tiger Woods knows your name". I have, as you know, nothing whatsoever against huge groups of musicians having elaborate, festal parties on the stage. But Bellowhead have never once made me cry.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Colston Hall, Bristol




They aren’t folk music any more, are they? They may not actually be music any more. They are a different thing altogether.

They are in the actual charts. They've been on Radio 2. On a proper programme, as well, not just Mike Harding. Twice. They used to finish festivals; now they are a festival. A Bellowhead concert is a celebration of the fact that you are at a Bellowhead concert. We all know to point in roughly the right directions when the chap is going (all together now) UP to the rigs, DOWN to jigs, UP to the rigs of London Town and to turn to each other to yell that, should you ever come to New York's shore you'd have to get up early to be smarter than a


“Mak shau! Mak Shau!” as a very wise man once told an up and coming boy-band. Bellowhead are a show, not just a concert.  Jon Boden is a singer, a multi-instrumentalist and when he gets on the stage his personality is somehow dispersed through the other ten musicians, so it's taking nothing away from them to say that Bellowhead is him.  Sam Sweeney, for example. A serious young fiddler who plays  old English Christmas carols in chapels: put him in in Bellowhead, and he ends up playing the fiddle on his back, pogoing, whipping out his northumbrian pipes and corpsing when the filthy sea shanty about little Lucy Lucket who washes in a bucket turns briefly into a Sunday School hymn. Boden’s own performance and body language is sixteen or seventeen times more extreme than when he is just being Spiers-and, but the songs never get completely submerged under everything which is going on around them. (What, never? Well, hardly ever.) He sort of bends his whole body into an arch at the end of Lilibulero (yes, Lilibulero — want to make something of it?) and snarls out “now I’ve been with the devil the whole of my life but I never knew hell til I met your wife…” at half speed.

There are basically three different acts on offer. (Pay attention: I am going to attempt to do music criticism, and will probably end up revealing that I don't know my Northumbrians from my English Smalls.) The first act onto the stage tonight is, for want of a better term,  Mad Bellowhead. Mad Bellowhead can be fantastic, but they also have a pretty low hit rate. (We missed Cholera Camp tonight, but be honest, did anyone miss Spectre Review or Widow's Curse …?) Their first number was Black Beetle Pie, about which I had serious doubts. Jon started out seated at the back of the stage, delivering the song through a megaphone for reasons which still slightly escape me. It was hard to track down the actual song in the arrangement. (It comes over very much better on the recording.) You can see that the title, and indeed the subject matter would appeal to their sense of the bizarre. It was followed by the similarly impenetrable Old Dun Cow. Clever? Yes. Mad? Definitely. Straight onto my playlist of songs to listen to over and over and play to friends who don't really like folk music? Not so much.  

But then mercifully, Jon announces a song about having your girlfriend deported to Australia and Fun Bellowhead take to the stage. Ten Thousand Miles Away is the song that Chris Evans played twice in succession, and it’s the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do best, or, in fact, the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do, with the raucous sing-along foreground revelling in just what a lot of bloody good tunes Anon could come up with, but which bears multiple re-listening because of the amount of fiddly bits going on in the background. It instantly takes its place as one of the songs without which no Bellowhead concert is complete. They also unveiled a very good Byker Hill (showing some Mad influence, but not enough to drown the melody) as well as touching most of their greatest hits bases (Whiskey is the Life of Man, Haul Away, London Town, New York Girls, the instrumental where they all jump in the air, etcetera.) 

I have always felt that, if the only folk music you like is Bellowhead, then you are probably missing the point of Bellowhead: like the person who eats the sage and onion stuffing without the actual turkey or goes to Last Night of the Proms without having heard any of the previous seventy five. It is, after all, a lot of very serioius musicians who we are watching being crazy and extreme and silly, people who deleted more about folk music than I'll  ever type. And by the end of the evening the original incarnation of the band, let's call them Folkie Bellowhead, had been given some time on the stage. The Wife of Usher's Well was a very impressive piece of theatre; the whole ensemble singing together with that pulsating rhythm that Bellowhead do so well, with some twangs of 80s Dylan over the top. It was shame you couldn't hear any of the actual words: it's the sort of ghost story that I'd like to have heard Jon getting his folk-teeth into. So the biggest smile of the evening came, not from the shanties and the dancing tunes or the crazy stuff, but from the sensitively iconoclastic reading of Thousands or More. Regular readers will remember that I was moved to hear your genuine original Copper Family singing this at Cecil Sharp House last month. Bellowhead start off, perfectly, with a close harmony riff on the Coppers church-style singing, before opening it up into swinging sunny arrangement, wholly in tune with the original, with Jon in his best Folksong-A-Day mode, revelling in every sweet traddy line. You had to wonder about the hippy poppy repetition of “thousands or more” at the end, but it immediately settles back into a straight fiddle melody, so we left feeling that he had started off drinking cider on the village green, gone on an excursion to some weird place, and then found our way back home. Clever without being smartass. Already almost my favourite Bellowhead track of all time at the moment, probably. 

Oh yes. After the show John and Jon decamped to the nearest pub the theatre after the show, rapidly joined by Sam and Paul, and carried on singing and playing. So we got to join in with Thousands or More, and New York Girls, all over again. And Paul Sartin completely failed to keep a straight face during an unaccompanied rendition of one of Anons forays into the  art of the Single Entendre. (It involved a farmer taking a male hen to market and everyone remarking on how large it was.) You can't get much more folkie than that.

So I mean, basically: Bellowhead.  


They’re loud. They’re mad. They’re completely over the top. They sing songs about black beetle pies. 

If Chumbawamba has just split up and you aren’t feeling miserable enough for Show of Hands, they really are the best act in the country.  And Spiers and Boden are coming back to Colston Hall, just the two of them, next year, and inviting local people to suggest local songs for them to learn. Which I have to say will be something of a relief.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Songs and Southern Breezes"

Cecil Sharp House

This evening was intended to commemorate the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This turned out to mean the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance Society merging with the English Folk Song Society. Worth celebrating. Cecil Sharp House is exactly half way between Bayreuth and a rather old fashioned Anglican church hall. It's both the very heart of English Folk Music (definitely with capital letters) and it's a place where people go to learn country dancing. In the basement, the beardiest barman I've ever seen sells real ale.

The first half of the evening consisted of the aforementioned Shirley Collins giving an illustrated talk about the life of Bob Copper. Bob, as well as being patriarch of the Copper Family and therefore the main cause of the Second Folk Revival, was a BBC broadcaster and collector of folk songs during the 1950s. This was the last time when it was still possible to go into an English country pub and have a good chance of bumping into an old fellow who never went to school, started working as a farm labourer at the age of eight, and could sing to you songs as they were sung to him by his grandfather. The living tradition, to coin a phrase. He could reasonably claim that Noah Gillette’s version of the Bonny Bunch of Roses represented a direct link to the age of Napoleon. The talk was illustrated with fascinating archive recordings which I had never heard before. An old gentleman singing through an interminable “Pickle-ally Bush” which left you wondering how many relatives he would have to go through before someone paid off the ruddy hang-man; another one singing a unique version of Long Lankin (”Cruel Lincoln”) which Mr Copper said was as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The second half of the evening was a rare performance by the actual Copper family themselves. I've heard them once before in their Young Coppers incarnation, but this was a multi-generational, extended line up, doing a good selection of the family repertoire, running the gamut of human experience from “isn't working on a farm awful” to “isn't working on a farm brilliant” interspersed with family history and memories of Bob and the previous generation. (He only bought a tuning fork when the Coppers were invited to appear at the Albert Hall. Up to then, they’d used a cow-bell.) They aren't all professional musicians, but they have preserved a style of singing down through multiple generations, and they love it. They all clasp hands warmly in the last verse of Drive Sorrows Away (”although I'm not rich and although I'm not poor / I'm as happy as those who have thousands or more”). In a way, there is nothing better than hearing them throw themselves into Sweet Rose of Allendale and joining in the harmonies of Sportsmen Arise. Cecil Sharp House isn't the heart of English folk music, of course: it’s these people, and a few others like them. 

A charming, informative, moving evening.