Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Out on the town... missing the Fall in Leicester but catching the Wilsons in Loughborough... review of Friday March 24th 2006 performance at the Pack
Sometimes it just is like this... I set off to go to see The Fall (or The Mighty Fall, as John Peel would probably have said) and Black Carrot supporting – and ended up at a folk club gig in Loughborough listening to The Wilsons (or The Mighty Wilsons, as Frank Marmion probably did say...). Sometimes it just falls out like that. Jumpcuts... too complicated to explain here...
I missed the first half but arrived in time for the second: opened by Frank Marmion, the Pack Horse club curator, playing with his long-time musical partner Dave Morton, on this number: 'Square Riggers' – playing squeeze box – and Tom Kitching, whose name I have managed to spell correctly this time round, on violin. Seated, they looked like a chamber folk ensemble almost, which gave the song a different edge: the understated backing from Dave and Tom who flanked Frank setting him up for a slow-burner which he sings with great passion.
Unlike many who attempt songs about the sea, Frank actually had served his time and travelled the world as an apprentice ship's engineer, oh, a few years back, shall we say. But it gives an extra dimension of feeling to this song – which is, after all, about the days of sail long gone. And prompts a question that I might worry away at later in this review: aren't too many folk songs now just some long lament for the past? And should they be, to retain any relevance for contemporary audiences... ? Something to ponder...
I missed the rest of the support acts as I was downstairs ordering drinks and talking to a couple of people I hadn't seen for a while. So: back ensconced for the arrival of The (Mighty) Wilsons. Who are four brothers from Tyneside way with an easy manner: lots of banter with each other and the audience that effectively disguises a professional take on things. Which is the way you have to go in Blighty, maybe... Folk club audiences don't like slick, they seem to want to see their favourites in what they perceive as a natural setting. Which is ok by me... Interestingly, for the powerhouse masculine singing which is their forte, I suppose, there is also a surprising delicacy: this could easily fall into brawling, bellowing beery stuff and that it doesn't is a testament to their skill. Plenty of volume when necessary, but the timbres of their voice blend in a way that reminds me of the softer rolling cadences of the Copper Family from the south of England, rather than the geographical and cultural neighbours of the Wilsons – The Watersons, who had a harsher edge to their singing. Ironically due to the females in the group, Norma and Lal, Norma having a voice like a blowtorch... Make of that what you will or won't, the rural south opposed to the harsh realities of life round Hull and the fishing industry. Although the rural had its share of harsh reality to deal with... Yet all of these singers share one thing, I suppose – the fact that the world their chosen material describes - in the main - comes from a bygone age. Rural become suburban, fishing industry decimated, mining – dead with the Thatcher stake buried in the heart of Count Scargill. (Although we may yet see some slight return to mining in coming years, it is unlikely that the workers within the industry will ever again taste the power and prestige they had formerly...)
There is an interesting narrative journey to be found in their set: a fascinating (for me, at least) trajectory through English social history and culture and the varieties of groups making up the complex spread of the British working classes. Spreading out from the local - a roaring version of 'Byker Hill' - to take in the more international battle glories of Trafalgar with a lovely version of 'Nelson's Death and Victory', which brings the ordinary sailors into the celebration in a unifying manner, beyond class almost, to much older songs like 'False Knight' (from the singing of Joseph Andrews, I believe, to more contemporary material such as Alex Glasgow's bitter 'Close the Coalhouse Door.'
'Close the coalhouse door, lad. There's blood inside,
Blood from broken hands and feet,
Blood that's dried on pit-black meat,
Blood from hearts that know no beat.'
Brutal images and the third verse reference to Aberfan: 'There's bairns inside' – a distant memory for younger people but within the time frame of most of the audience tonight, I would guess. Urban songs such as 'Sweep Chimney Sweep,' gloriously politically un-correct with its lines referring – innocently – to the dirtiness of the job : 'I look black as any Moor,' that also touch glancingly on the toughness and independence of the sweep in a way that fends off the twee – we're not talking Dick Van Dyke here, Mary Poppins... (This connects in a tangental way to songs like 'Sam Hall' and its antecedents – sweeps as violent, anarchic figures – and the mysterious aura of the sweep in folklore – a figure for good luck in the main). And the rural songs of the Copper Family's collection typified by 'Thousands or more:'
'Although I'm not rich and although I'm not poor
I'm as happy as those that's got thousands or more'
underlining the image (stress intended) of the stoic independent English yeoman. As opposed maybe to the lowly hired hand... The end of the night went out on a swinging and rolling 'Young Banker,' which has one of those choruses – you know what I mean. The rips and syncopations can be overdone but the Wilsons are experts – they pitch it just right. From the singing of the Watersons, I believe, this song was collected in the thirties in Knaresborough and has a backwards/forwards momentum in its narrative of girl and boy: 'will she, won't she' go with Young Banker. (Hopefully not rhyming slang...) Who seems at first glance to be a sailor of some kind:
'He said my pretty fair maid will you go on deck
With a chain of gold around your neck'
but apparently was a man who made stone walls – embankments, etc. One of those songs that seem to have verses missing but are made more interesting precisely because of the gaps in the narrative...
The rollout encore for the evening is the fiery 'Miner's Life.' Which is a wonderful song – but... I have a few reservations about it, which might seem carping, given the overall excellence of the night. Coming from where they do, it is inevitable that there will be some strong focus by the Wilsons on mining – even though the old days of the miners being at the commanding heights of the British working class have long gone as mentioned above with regard to the apocalyptic fallout from the Miner's Strike of 1984. 'Byker Hill' and – at a pinch – the Alex Glasgow song, which is more focused on the hardships and uncertainties of mining as was and the historical tragedy of Aberfan – fair enough. But one has to beware of presenting the 'Miner's Life' as if it has contemporary British relevance – this song was already out of date by 1948 with its references to the owners – 'keep your eyes upon the scale.' (I have a feeling that it was originally a song from the American trade union movement). As a requiem, maybe it works... Well – each to their own. I did notice that various members of the local CLP who used to be – conspicuously - up on their feet when the chorus came round: 'Union miners stand together' etc – and ostentatiously raising clenched fists, stayed put this time round. The times they have changed... Which isn't a cheap shot at the Old Left or the miners but just a recognition of the world moving onwards. Radical politics is not immune to ideological pressure for new ideas, after all.
Enough, anyway. What's this got to do with music, you may well ask? A hell of a lot, I believe. Having grown up with a love of folk music alongside my other musical interests, I'm interested to see where it will go now, what younger audiences will make of the tradition – if anything – how it will develop and evolve. We are, after all, in the middle of a relatively wide explosion of interest in folk forms both here and in America (probably more so over there), (sadly not always reflected in the more staid folk clubs with ageing audiences), where the musics are meeting with new technologies and ideas to go forwards in some interesting directions. O.K., some 'folktronica' sucks mightily, but there are some fascinating experiments going on... Yet: I hope that 'Young Banker' and its company of songs will still be sung in later years as other revivals come and go. Groups like the Wilsons at least, with their popularity and superb musicianship, should help in that process. Songs, after all, do seem to have a life of their own sometimes, coming through rather than from the performers in an almost mystical way and connecting with the long gone past in odd and unpredictable ways. Songs like 'Young Banker' can carry a wider renewable relevance – they deal with love and relationships and those maybe don't change so much down the years. But songs don't exist in vacuums – if they speak to us it is surely because we can contextualise them – or recontextualise them, anew. They offer a glimpse of a gone world and sometimes a flickering, opaque connection between the past and the present. That is their richness and what makes the best of them endure. Why 'Nelson's Victory' is perhaps more relevant than 'Miner's Prayer.' In a time of controversial war at a debatably equally pivotal moment in British history as the Napoleonic Wars – whichever side you come down on.
A coda: with regard to the miners – the left has always celebrated its defeats in song. But no one sings about the Miners Strike, oddly enough, a defining moment in recent domestic history from whichever side of the picket line you were on. 1984 too near?
Coda part two: like I said at the top, the gig that I was originally going to was The Fall at the Charlotte in Leicester. For reasons complex and obscure, I made it back to Loughborough instead and did the Wilsons. Regrets? Not really... I've heard them before so knew that the night would be good. And I'll catch up with old Mark E Smith at some point round the circuit. He's a survivor, looking a bit battered now but apparently on another roll at the moment. The Fall have ebbed and flowed in popularity and artistic relevance but Smith's ruthless permanent revolution in the ranks of his musicians has ensured that he has never become stale over the long haul. Ironically, given one of the themes of tonight – mining – Smith provided a major section of the soundtracks to the Thatcher Years with albums such as 'Hex Induction Hour' and 'This Nation's Saving Grace... a deeper and more interesting map of complicated times than some yahoo shouting 'Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out' - the yah boo school of political polemic... Arguably alongside Shane McGowan, the best writer in this country since punk – and McGowan came out of folk as much as punk and engineered his own sound that references both alongside his fellow musicians in the Pogues – and beyond. Smith is more elliptical, like some weird cross between William Burroughs and H.P.Lovecraft channelling the anonymous radical muse of the Northern British white working class. Surrealism meets Lowry, laced with amphetamines and a few pints or something... McGowan's songs you will hear in folk clubs: it's unlikely that the same could be said of Smith's oeuvre - given his idosyncratic vocal delivery that speaks and rants rather than sings in any remotely conventional manner. Yet he is firmly rooted in his culture, his American influences bent and melded into his unique musical vision. More so than many English folk or rock bands, that's for sure. The urban culture of Manchester where he came from, where he worked on the docks before the seventies music explosion – although he was always tangental to punk (wisely so: being a chief rather than an indian gave him longevity and much of British punk was about pose more than music)... Is it folk music, at a stretch? Idiomatically – no. Textually – writing about the complexities of the (post) modern world in a way that few others attempt – why not? And this is, after all, the guy who requested – successfully - that he be allowed to read the
Saturday evening football scores on the BBC. And has run probably the best band of the last thirty years. Discuss... Over and out...
But before I go – let us celebrate the diversity of musics available where you have such a choice on a Friday night in early spring 2006... The Mighty Wilsons... The Mighty Fall...