Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sam Lee

Bristol Folk House

Memo to Folk House management: when you have sold this many tickets, take on more bar staff and bake some more chocolate brownies. Folkies like cakes and ale. I must remember to keep it in my head that the Folk House cafe is open when there isn't music: a good place to get a coffee and a bun which isn't the Boston Tea Party. Maybe I can persuade Brian to come and listen to some country music with me.

The crowd was caused by Sam Lee, new to me, but has appeared on Radio 3. Winner of the Froots "best album" prize.

First there was a man with a big African thing.

Then Sam came on. Sam is young, with something of the 1950s in his hair, and, get this, one of those knitted white sweaters, as if someone in 1972 had been briefed to do an impersonation of a folk singer. There is a brief moment of panic. Is this going to be one of those middle class music students having a sort of go at that folk stuff because its cool? Evidently not. The first thing he does is introduce Thomas McCarthy, who he describes as a national treasure. Thomas isn't the support act: he is sitting with the band, interspersing his numbers with theirs. I have heard him a couple of times before, at the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club and way back at the Folk Against Fascism benefit. He's one of the last people to genuinely grew up in the oral tradition, performing songs, or versions of songs, that he learned from his grandparents. He was raised as an Irish traveller, which, as a lady who has slightly missed the point explains to me in the interval, means he isn't really a gypsy. He gets a small round of applause when he mentions that the makers of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding were successfully prosecuted for racism. "The whole country has gone mad; they think that travelling people are some lost tribe; we've always been here." He sings in a style that you probably thought only existed on wax cylinders. Everything has roughly the same tune; hovering part way between song and poem and recitation. His mouth quivers at the end of lines, giving a strange, vibrato sound. He does the one about the man who wakes up in bed with a pig and the man who marries a lady who turns out to be ninety, not nineteen as she had claimed and the woman who married a man with no balls at all. They aren't all bawdy: there is also a quite chilling one about a lady having a conversation with her dead husband. I sometimes say of a support act that I could have listened to him all night. In this case I probably couldn't have. But I bought the CD.

Thomas's presence is important to the way that Sam Lee is setting outs his stall. Sam has a very specific relationship to folk music. Lots of folk singers tells us where they learned their songs: but they are usually talking about current folk performers, or archive recordings. Sam seems to have collected his songs first-hand; he talks of songs he heard from working shepherds and songs he collected on traveller sites. But (despite the sweater) there is no sense that he's doing a pastiche of the source singers. They're his songs now. His voice is sweet, rather alien. His movements can be a little fey; part conducting, part dancing. He ends the first set by encouraging the audience to sing along to a traveller song called Phoenix Island and for once the audience is sweetly adding to the performance, which I'm sure is due to Sam's gentle, swaying movements. 

Sometimes there is a sense that we are listening to a relatively traditional folk singer, performing in a relatively style while a band gently improvise around him. It's not quite like anything I've heard before; not like Jim Moray recasting ancient songs in a modern idiom, or Ian King trying to reinvent folk music for the twenty first century, More like dressing the old songs in a fresh suit of clothes. Possibly the climax of the evening is his  chilling performance of the Jews Garden. When he played it on the radio, he says that there were complaints ("written on paper") because it is a version of Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln -- the blood libel, the tale of the supposed killing of a Christian child by an evil Jewess. It's a stark, disturbing, uncompromising rendering, with jews harps twanging all round it. The story goes back to the sixteenth century, but is still known by Romany and Scots travellers today. Sam says that if the story is not told and the song not sung, we might forget about the murders and pogroms it provoked. He's from a Jewish background himself.

This is not what I usually think of as traditional music. Sam is not the sort of person who is going to produce a clever new take on Clyde Water or Two Sisters. These are songs you haven't heard before (or at any rate, songs that I haven't heard before); even the time honoured tale of the girl visited in the night by her dead lover is an unfamiliar one. This a a man who has taken the oral tradition, grabbed it with his hands, and done something with it; there is a sense of him immersing himself  in orality and then bringing his own musical sensibility to it -- as if he's a link in a chain, not a revivalist. That's why the presence of Thomas McCarthy is so important. (Sam listens, intently, eyes closed, whenever Tom is singing.)

I shall be honest: I need to listen to this again before I decide how much I like it. But I have no doubt that we were in the presence of something new, exciting, important.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Richard Dawson

The Cube

The Cube is a bit niche. The last time I went I saw a documentary about morris dancing. The time before that I saw a man with a paper bag over his head singing lyrics that went "Grr! Grr!" The foyer is like 1980s Sussex University, all dark and crowded with the latest bottled beer and young people with hats. The performance space is like a a time capsule of the 1970s Barnet Odeon. I am always nervous at gigs where a large number of young people are present. Have I walked in on something popular by mistake? Am I the only one who isn't a friend of the band? 

I have never heard of Richard Dawson. New Cyberfolkbuddy tells me that he is Britain's greatest undiscovered talent and the best folk lyricist who isn't Nigel Blackwell. I tactfully don't mention that I don't have the faintest idea who Nigel Blackwell is. 

First up was Two White Cranes. There is only one of her: the cranes are industrial machinery, not birds. She walks past a building site on her way to work. Her music is what I think of, possibly erroneously, as Antifolk, because some years ago I heard Kimya Dawson on a boat. She picks out fairly simple melodies on a guitar and sings simple, performance poetry lyrics in a slightly chanty baby-voice. Cyberfolkbuddy thought she recalled Billy Bragg, not necessarily in a good way; he has also sometimes been saddled with the Antifolk label. 

You say I love you 
every day 
but then almost every day 
something changes 
all of my old thoughts 
replaced with new ones 
I want to stay still 
but I move on 

I thought it worked. It was simple; it was honest; it was well observed; ("You fell asleep / In the middle of ET") it was witty; it was human and what you saw was what you got. When she spoke between songs she seemed nervous and awkward but still the same person as when she was singing, as if her music was freeing up her voice. I would pay to hear her again.

Next up was someone calling himself Tom O.C Wilson, very likely because that was his name. He was a young male with an electric guitar and the only person in the evening who had what would normally be described as self-confidence. He played rocky fifties-ish electric music which sometimes veered into show-tune territory with audible lyrics which seemed to mean something. Someone is driving around America in the 1960s ("this is the land of bubblegum and the Klan"). Someone else is adopted by a stray cat. 

The cat came crawled in one day
vulnerable and probably a stray
but dangling from her neck 
a silver bell proclaimed her has a pet 

Singer songwriters often get adopted by cats. What OC had in common with Ms Cranes was pointedly unlyrical lyrics yoked to relatively simple tunes. I would pay to hear him again as well.

It's quite alarming that the two local supporty people were quite so worth listening to. Every cafe and bar on Stokes Croft has acoustic nights with people I have never heard of playing at them. How many quite worth listening to people am I missing? How many of this years quite worth listening to people are going to turn out to be next years quite famous people? So much live music, so little time.

Richard Dawson isn't local. He is from Newcastle and on tour. You haven't heard of him, I haven't heard of him, I doubt if Mark Radcliffe has heard of him. He has made records, but they appear to have mostly been on vinyl.

He shambles onto the stage and starts chatting. He's performed before in a cinema in Newcastle that was inspired by the Cube, so now he's in the Cube, his brain feels a little bit wrong. We probably think that the guitar is a prop and that we've accidentally come to a really lame stand up gig. "I'm worried that I might go ballistic and get my cock out or something". (The man behind me thinks that this is the funniest remark he has ever heard. "Ballistic cock!" he exclaims.) 

And then more or less without warning, he starts to sing, and my jaw drops several inches. It's the purely traditional "I am a brisk lad". (You know the one: sheep stealer chappie, whose fortune is quite bad and is intending to build him a house on the moor, my brave boys, build him a house on the moor.) He doesn't so much sing it as bellow it; going from something so deep that it's almost a growl to something high and sweet without anything in between. He has a disconcerting habit of bending over double by the end of a song, at which point his hat falls off. Momentarily I wonder if this is intended to be a very subtle parody of a folk singer, but no, it's an eccentric performance, certainly, but it's meant seriously and he seems to own and respect the song and bring his own  strange, eerie power to it.

There is some more chat. He introduces the band (there isn't a band) which largely consists of dead pets, and does a long eccentric guitar piece and then a rambling self-written song about a wooden bag and the various sentimental objects that he keeps in it.

It closes with a click
and fastens with a clasp
In the shape of a bumblebee.

He's doing a project based on objects and papers in the Discovery Museum in New Castle. He bellows out one of the songs from that project, which has some relationship to Poor Old Horse but which appears to be derived from a report he discovered in the museum of a nineteenth century animal cruelty scandal.

His palms around the hilt of the axe
delivered such a horrible blow
the horse emerged a terrible cry
it struck him just below the eye
poor old horse
see what they did to the poor old horse

And then a creditably sweet William of Wimsbury. And another long free form piece about the eye complaint he suffers from. ("Its not a sad thing, it just a thing, other people have bigger things to deal with."). 

The silence of the dead 
the slow coagulation of the sky
drowning out the light 
thrown across the void by a spinning ball of fire

Lyrically, he put me in mind of Alasdair Roberts. Musically he reminds me of no-one on earth. It all seemed genuine and unaffected. At one point he gave a long introductory spiel for one of the museum pieces, and then said "Do you know, I don't feel like singing this song, because we're in a cheerful mood...". I don't think it was part of the act; I think he genuinely changed his mind about the set list. ("Ballistic cock!"" shouted the man behind me.) 

Greatest living folk lyricist? I wouldn't go that far. Undiscovered talent, part traditional nasal growler, part psychedelic wierdness, part self deprecating comedian, utterly original – more like Robin Williamson than anyone else I've heard, if Robin Williamson were a slightly bewildered Geordie who isn't quite sure how he ended up on the stage but is damn well going to give it is best shot while he's there.

The person, in short, for whom the word "quirky" was invented. I would travel to Newcastle to hear him again.

The Cube cinema. A bit niche. Isn't Stokes Croft great?

Half man half Biscuit. Don't write in. I looked it up.

Obviously, the exact moment I say that no-one will have heard of him, it turns out he's playing a big festival. I'll shut up and go away now.