Monday, January 16, 2006

A quiet skill... Gren Morris and Sam Stephens at the Pack... Friday 13 Jan 2006...










Friday night, there is always a session at the Pack Horse, run by the inimitable Frank Marmion and his new gang: In Any Order. Arrived, scored a double vodka with lime and soda top up – off to the music. Which proved to be... brilliant. I had forgotten that they had a duo booked so was expecting the usual jam – which can be curate's eggish sometimes – but it usually takes off, either in a familiar or non-familiar direction – the ease of the old, the jolt of the new or something. There were a couple of new faces and new voices – mainly unaccompanied stuff but well sung. Then as I was easing into another double vodka the duo got up. Gren Morris vocals and Sam Stephens guitar and vocals. Some material can defeat the singer because they try too hard for an accent or dialect which is not natural to them in their efforts to enter the core of the song. We all know what I'm saying here... well, anyone who ever attended a folk session over the past decades. We jolly ploughboys and miners... well, we're not actually, at this long remove from the industrial revolution, which is often the problem – romanticising of a dead age. Or bending into an uncomfortable vocal trajectory in an attempt to interpret Americana old and new. But Gren Morris here sang in a full yet understated way, closely followed by interesting guitar from Sam Stephens that flowed with the songs rather than clawhammering them into a straitjacket. (And reminded me at odd points of a continental performer such as George Brassens...) The repertoire was incredibly varied and obviously well considered: no wild rovers need cavort among the wild mountain thyme tonight as the guns thunder yet again over the Somme...

Starting with 'Lake Ponchartrain,' performed with elegance. Onto 'Matt Ireland' which I haven't heard for a long time. And done well again. 'The Flash Lad,' another favourite of mine, introduced as 'Gangsta Rap' from way back. Which is pretty funny – and also pretty accurate when you think about it. A song by Cyril Tawney, 'The Drunken Sailor,' that I have never heard to my knowledge - which surprised me because as Al Pacino says in 'Scent of a Woman,' “I've been around, you know...” A droll song, sung a cappella – loaded with that shot of realism that made Tawney such a great songwriter. Which led neatly into Kipling's great Barrack Room Ballad: 'Tommy Atkins.' Kipling has long been out of fashion in the academic literary culture although there are signs his star is on the rise again. But he was resurrected in the folk world some time back by several seminal settings and performances of the Barrack Room Ballads – notably by Pete Bellamy in the 1970's - somewhat surprisingly maybe given the broad old left ideology that has underpinned the revival since the fifties and its antipathy towards Kipling, clumsily seen as an apologist for imperial wrongdoing. But welcome. (And go here... for an interesting article that links Pete Bellamy, Kipling and this broader ideological point).

On y va: Richard Thompson's 'King of Bohemia.' During this last, it struck me that all the singing tonight had an edge of music hall to it rather than the usual folky nuances. What do I mean? Um – the notes are a bit scribbled here as the third double vodka was starting to hit. I suppose that - the songs were sung with a clever (but not slick) grasp of performance. They are knowingly delivered with the skill hidden backstage as it were, letting the song breathe and work itself through. So that it does not rely on cod folk accents or American timbres or some phony and sentimental idea that we are elsewhere in time than the present but comes, maybe, from a more knowingly performative tradition that is somewhat closer to us. And is certainly more available for study. And works very well as an underlying platform that can accomodate a large variety of songs. Maybe I'm wrong... But there is definitely something at work behind the songs here that enables the smooth transitions of old and new.

Onwards: 'Lovely Nancy,' again a song that fits well in this context;the (I think) Leon Rosselson setting of William Blake's 'I went to the garden of love;' a guitar instrumental take on a Sharon Shannon tune – which in places reminded me vaguely of Cyril Tawney's 'Sammy's Bar.' A skilful use of vibrato by Sam Stephens here. A clever segue into Tom Wait's 'Waltzing Matilda.' Sung straight again – not easy to pull off when getting inside the narrative flow of Tom Wait's home language. On to another favourite of mine: 'Napoleon Bonaparte.' This is usually sung unaccompanied: the guitar part here was especially fluid in its following of the vocal line. See my comments above about clawhammering straitjackets. The obligatory gambit of the encore was accepted: in this case truly deserved – hey, we really wanted more! Hats off to Gren and Sam.

I was talking with Frank the next day and we were enthusing over the performance. The folk scene of the early 1960's was where I initially made my bones as a guitar player and singer, before various and many detours. I've run clubs as well, so have seen the game from both sides – still do, although my club's experimental music agenda is perhaps a long way from the mainstream of folk music. Maybe not. I happen to enjoy both and have had a strange relationship with folk down the years that has run the gamut of emotions from outright love of the music to complete exasperation - to, all too often, stunning boredom. But the folk scene can still throw up a few surprises – which is why I took a chance on Friday night. After a week spent recording mixing some hardcore electronic compositions and improvisations it was so refreshing to clear my head and get back to a stripped down room above a pub, a warm and friendly audience, the obligatory few drinks and witness such a good gig. And to witness the fact that the scene can continue in good hands without resorting to the ghettoisation of the downright twee and irrelevant and/or the quasi misplaced and in any way spurious purisms based on musical and cultural ignorance. These two, Gren and Sam, have evolved a style that provides a flexible backdrop of guitar and voices that will sustain an entertainingly wide variety of songs without straining for effect or buckling under the ambition of the endeavour. A quiet skill. And damn clever...

And the beginning of an interesting run of acoustic gigs, locally. Next Wednesday, Gren Bartley, a stunningly good young performer, and then Pete Morton, back at the Pack. My favourite English singer/songwriter who has, for a long time now, brought class and grace to that maligned occupation.

2 comments:

Sam Stephens said...

Rod,

Thanks for your very thoughtful review of our gig. You are uncannily corect about how we go about stuff and why.

Regards

Sam Stephens

sam stephens said...

Rod,

If you are interested, Gren & Sam are playing at the Robin Hood Folk Club, the Tiger pub, Long Eaton this Sat 9th Sept. We shall do a whole night, ie 2x 40/45 min sets.

Regards

Sam Stephens