Saturday, February 23, 2013

Richard Thompson

Colston Hall Bristol

Richard Thompson is a folkgod. He wrote Beeswing, which may actually be the best "authored" folksong ever. I remember when there were some folkies having a session in the Hillgrove and one of them started to sing Beeswing and pub went quiet, or our table, anyway. And also the one about the motorbike. And the one that Norma Waterson sings about meeting the old opera singer in the pub. And the other one that Norma Waterson sings called "God Loves a Drunk". And From Galway to Graceland that I remember Ron Kavana singing in the tiny little room above the pub in Clifton. And Meet on the Ledge.

The drummer tonight was awesome. I don't know anything about drummers, but I could tell he was awesome. I think that all the songs were off the new album; I didn't know any of them, and I couldn't hear the words because the drummer was being awesome.Thompson was being awesome on his guitar, I think, and so was the other guy on the other guitar. I do not go as far as the person who said that guitar solos are basically masturbating on the stage. 

The first time I heard the band currently trading as Fairport Convention, I didn't think a great deal of them, but then I heard them as Fairport Acoustic Convention and quite liked them, and some of the old discography has grown on me a lot, although I wish it didn't remind me so much of the Wombles, which only proves that influence runs backwards. I have heard Ashley Hutchings once and Dave Swarbrick lots of times. 

Very possibly at some point a light will go off above my head and I will see what other people see in  Richard Thompson's current incarnation. The audience were standing-ovation-ecstatic and a couple of people I respect have written things on line about how gobsmacked they were by the physical quality of his guitar playing. Someone pointed out that he is astonishingly prolific and a good way of writing several of the best songs ever written is to write a lot of not such good ones as well. 

There was a man who came on before who sang songs about liking other places but being happy when he was on his way home to Texas and Bible belt churches not being great places to gow up. He was very good and I could hear all the words. 

I did not shout judas. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Robb Johnson

Bristol Folk House

Though greed and stupidity fuck up the show
Are we downhearted? No?

Robb finishes his main set with a bit of downbeat optimism, but comes straight back on to do an English translation of This Land is Your Land, (with a touch of the Manchester Rambler folded into it):

As I went rambling
I saw a sign there
On Kinder Scout said
No trespassing
But we followed our footsteps
Now there's no sign there
This land was made for you and me. 

The words almost entirely fail to fit the tune; I almost got the impression that they were being made up on the spot. About as faithful to the spirit of Woody Guthrie as they could have been, in other words. But also pure Robb Johnson: 

In the squares of the city
In the shadow of the steeple
In the jobless centres 
I saw my people
Some of them were grumbling
Some of them were wondering
Is this land still made for you and me?

He describes one of his songs -- about a scary man with a fierce dog on a railway station as having "a Key Stage 1 chorus". He may ask the audience to join him in a hearty "Fuck You!" to authority, but there is something in his voice and manner which reminds you that his day job is a teacher. "Well, it is."

The audience still want more. He gives us a vaudevillian summary of socialist ideology ("We haven't any money, cos they got lots and lots....").but we still won't let him go home until he's done his utopian signature tune "Be reasonable and demand the impossible now." 

I gather that he was slightly taken aback my my review of his last Folkhouse gig. ("Oh dear, was it really like that? I thought I behaved myself."). The first half of this evening is much more focussed on lyrical, reflective, story songs. A young man says goodbye to his sweetheart on the eve of World War I; a stranger's grave near Shrewsbury reminds him of his father. Yes, he can rant, but he can also take your breath away with the unexpectedly personal: 

I don't believe in heaven any more
I don't believe in hell any more 
I had a friend die in my arms once 
You know what? He wasn't there any more.

He says he was once asked to teach a songwriting workshop, but couldn't do it: song writing is a "mystical alchemical process."  So maybe I mis-sold him as a punky, Braggish agitpop protest singer. He does talk a little about the Tottenham riots, but instead of going into When Tottenham Burned he sings a song about cookery:

We decided what we're doing
We decide who does what
Some of us are chopping onions
And some of us are not

Which is what he understands by anarchism: "nobody telling you what to do". Sex Pistols punk anarchism just means being social nuisance.

Something seems to happen in the interval. He comes back crosser, seeming to stumble over his words in the inter-song raps. After a pointed piece about importing flowers from African -- where children are dying of starvation ("let them eat blood-red African roses") he stops talking and shoots out four or five increasingly angry songs without a break. The sing-a-long "we all said stop the war";  the bitter "we're here because we're here on the North West Frontier"; a hysterical diatribe against yummie mummies taking over pubs ("ignored and bored their little dears run riot everywhere / Granny Thatcher's bastard kids and the spawn of Tony Blair"); and a rant against Rupert Murdoch and the Tabloid press ("we're sorry, we're sorry -- we're sorry we got caught"). 

His politics is certainly uncompromising. The personal is the political: it's not only about all getting together to make curry, it's about noticing that the scary man doesn't have any friends and that the soldiers Tony Blair killed were human beings with names. I could have managed without quite so many caricatures of people with posh accents: that could make you suspect that we are dealing with the wrong kind of class war. It's quite jarring to realise that this nice, smiley man is quite such an unreconstructed communist. He's heard that East Germany was a brilliant place to live. When he visits the former DDR he is sad to find that the once pristine Karl Marx Square is full of people who enjoy the same freedoms we enjoy -- joblessness, homelessness, drinking larger in the middle of the day, teenage mums... "Hurrah for democracy, eh?" This  kind of thing may makes our Guaridan-reading hackles rise, bit it leads straight into a daft song about  Karl Marx coming down from his pedestal and learning to ride a skateboard ("He wrote lots of dialectic but not that many jokes"). He does concede that on the anti-war memo, along with the Christians, Muslims, socialists and communists "we've even got a liberal or two". 

This is the kind of evening which reminds you what political songs are for. (In fact, it reminds you politics and songs are for.) You may want to quibble about some of the specific, but it leaves you in in no doubt that there is some kind of hope for England's green and pleasant etc etc etc. 

Are we down hearted? No. 

Is this land still made for you and me? Well it is!  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It would be hypocritical to suddenly decide I was a huge fan of Fisherman’s Friends. They are probably better than, for example, the Brtistol Shantymen – but not a million pounds better. “Basically a quite good male voice choir” I said, which was actually a bit mean – they are always on my playlist of “folk music to play to people who think they wouldn't like folk music”. A whole evening of them involved rather more sea shanties than more people want or need, and could lead to an outbreak of double entendre fatigue. But I have very, very fond memories of their Sunday morning set on the main stage at Glastonbury ("the old man's novelty slot")  in front of a lot of enthusiastic early risers draped in St Piran’s Crosses. And I'll never, ever forget Fisherman's Friends joining Show of Hands on the last night of the first Bristol festival to sing the Cornish Anthem "Cousin Jack" (my fifth favourite song). I still think that was the single most magical moment I've experienced since I started going to live folk gigs.

Steve Knightley talks about songs being “refreshed” by events; something happens in the news and a song takes on a new, slightly different meaning. And man oh man, is it going to be hard to listen to that song about the whale ever again.

Trevor Grills Obituary - Guardian