Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Julie Felix at the Pack Horse, Friday May 19, 2006








I wasn't sure whether to go or not... not really my music, to be honest – I'm more Thurston Moore than Christy Moore, after all, and I'd been to one acoustic gig already last week... but curiosity got the better of me... and Frank had said it would be a good night... (and the other gig had turned out to be brilliant...)

Sold out, in fact. Julie Felix was obviously a favourite and I suppose it was unusual to see her in a small club in a smallish town in the East Midlands (even if it is God's Little Acre). Fortified with a large vodka and soda I ventured upstairs...

Frank, flanked by his usual cohorts Dave Morton and Tom Kitching, started the night, playing for rather longer than planned apparently – but no matter. It helped to build a strong foundation for the night's music. Some of the audience were getting a little noisy towards the end, but I put that down to the fact they weren't used to the conventions of an acoustic venue. The set was well received – these guys have been around a while, after all, although there were a couple of shaky bits in the first song, the performance settled down quickly... as always Tom's fiddle playing lifted it. Frank looked relaxed and happy and in good voice – as well he might: his gamble on booking JF had paid off handsomely...

Julie Felix
is at the moment engaged on the Bright Shadows tour. Usually this would mean larger venues and a stage show that matched. It was to her credit that she managed to accommodate the venue – a small, raffish, but well-known stop on the folk circuit – while bringing a bit of glitz that wasn't excessive. She has a deep, dark voice, weathered by the years but equipped with a great deal of flexibility and subtle timbral shifts – matched by her choice of material which covered a lot of ground – from the well-worn paths to more open fields beyond (to get in this week's Olson reference). Solid guitar playing gave her voice a strong ground to rise from, strumming and finger-picking as the song dictated. And a professional sense of theatre – she knows how to put her material over with great éclat.

I wonder if the 'bright shadow' was that of the sixties folk world where she originally made her bones – starting off with Dylan's 'Masters of War' laid down certain markers... I admit that I was impishly tempted to shout out at the end: 'Was that dedicated to the President of Iran and his visions of the New Holocaust?' But I can't shout so well these days – and with only one double in me was not feeling particularly discourteous...

Two songs in a row without chat set a marker down: this will be about music not celebrity. The second was a more new-agey one that counterbalanced the ferocity of the opener – - and then she gave her introductions. Well-prepared: not everyone can pronounce 'Loughborough' correctly, after all. Which displayed another facet of her professionalism – and charm. Because, by God, she charmed this audience in subtle ways. Displaying: warmth, intelligence and her own brand of spirituality – without beating people over the head. Even the politics – Blair/Bush/The War - weren't overdone – wisely as, after all, not everyone subscribes to the old left take on resisting Islamic Fascism – i.e. - beat up on your own culture first and ignore your enemies while they try to destroy you...

The other pillar of her heritage apart from Dylan – Woody Guthrie. A stirring 'Plane Crash at Los Gatos' – which has a certain contempory resonance given recent and on-going events in the U.S. and, in the second set, 'Pastures of Plenty,' which continued the theme of the dispossed and disadvantaged migrant workers. A scattering from the tradition - old warhorses like 'Study war no more' and 'Long Black Veil' in a interesting reading that threw some of the audience's attempts to join in by its variation on the usual tune (stepping away from Joanie who famously warbled her version way back? Who knows? She mentioned La Baez en passante – humourously – and of course back in the Sixties' day she was often described as the UK's version of Baez. Unfairly, I guess. (As she comes originally from California). On this showing, my preference would go with Felix, to be honest – I always found the Baez stance in the counter-culture a hectoring one which is probably why Bob Dylan dumped her – like a cross between a Stalinist shop-steward and an over-zealous schoolmarm. And her voice could be irritating as well...). In which bracketed mention of schoolmarms a slick link to the Judy Smalls song about one - 'Miss Martin' - where she displayed her seductive charm to good effect by leading the audience in to join her – without badgering them into singing. Cunning and clever... As was her eponymous song about the Greek poetess in the first set– 'Sappho' – funny and sharp, using two different voices – following through on the classical theme with some Platonic dialogue? (Ironically? After all, Plato did not have a high opinion of poets...). The wide cultural and spiritual reference she employs took in 'The Burning Times' about the European assault on witches in the Middle Ages as part of the wider attack on heresy – and a song in Spanish learned from her father about a Cuban slave's plight in a white society. (Did she say that nine million died in the heresy purging years in the middle ages? Seems a trifle high to me – and see this counter-argument – here – Wicca has many strands to it...)

Other iconic songs – a dramatic reading of 'Needle of Death' by Mr Jansch and the end song of the final set, 'Blowing in the Wind,' that got the audience's temperature up. And a nice touch – coming back for an encore with 'Wild Mountain Thyme,' which is one of those songs that was so done to death you figured that it might need a stake through its heart and burial at the crossroads in a barrel of garlic... and which eventually did succumb to overuse. Yet... resurrected here, it bounced out of the metaphorical coffin in a surprisingly tender manner, and brought the audience in to the end of the night neatly (which is what its purpose always was since Francie McPeake wrote the words to the old tune). A nice surprise, which, if you had been alerted to earlier might have caused a quick run to the bar but which worked brilliantly. So much for expectations – cynicism can be overdone. And a circle closed in a satisfying manner... as it were...

What impressed me was that, if she would forgive the metaphor, she took no prisoners in her choice of material or presentation. She's upfront about her political beliefs without turning the evening into a recruiting rally for George Galloway, Michael Moore and all the usual yahoos. And she is upfront about her feminist and spiritual beliefs – despite the risk of the latter causing some unease/laughter among certain sections of the audience. Someone made a comment about this to me expecting a witty riposte from the Caliph of Cool– and I surprised them in turn by mentioning that my late wife, Barbara, was a full-blown adherent of Wicca and various pagan strands so I am not unfamilar with that area of belief - and the internal politics. She was also a warrior who didn't suffer fools... another resonance with Ms Felix, I suspect. Being vaguely New Agey is acceptable (get out the crystals, Cynthia) – but there is still much spiritual unease in the wider culture about anything that references 'pagans' and 'witches.' To accommodate all of this into a professional package is no mean feat and shows the experience gained down the years. And artistic bravery... It could just have been a juke-box of sixties folk hits for the old people. That it wasn't, that it was fresh and vibrant and resonant with contemporary concerns while rooted in the best of the past, was no mean feat. My favourite moments? Her version of 'When the ship comes in' – which is not one of those Dylan songs that you hear often – was a pleasant and stirring surprise. I realised that I still knew every word. Thanks for that...

4 comments:

Molly Bloom said...

Very, very interesting and engaging post Rod. I especially liked your descriptions of her politics and Wicca. You describe it all so brilliantly. Subtle, lovely humour and with great reverence to the music and the humanity of it all. Even when you have some reservations about it...you still seem to love it, are won over by it..challenged by it...and finally let yourself be plunged into it. I love it.

St Anthony said...

Yes, I know exactly what you mean about the Left's disarray these days - I think these people are in for a nasty shock at some point. In a real Sharia state they would be, if not the first, at least among the second wave of people to be put up against the wall. Reminds me of Jello Biafra's argument against Nazi-punks.
You sound like you had a very good night, without buying into the whole package - which is pretty much the stance I would taken. While having some sympathy for alternative faiths, a lot of the people involved don't seem to have a clear idea of what it's all about - I am a hopelessly pedantic old git and have spent far too many years reading up on this stuff. But as you say, Ms Felix doesn't seem to press her beliefs on you the way some do.

Thurston vs Christy? That should become one of those defining structures, like the Mitfords and their U/non-U malarkey.

Rod... said...

Re Christy Moore - I could never stand him to be honest - he used to sing all this up the provos garbage when I lived in Dublin (and onwards) and his voice irritates me anyway. Maybe I'll put up a post about all the singers I can't stand! Elvis Costello (great songwriter but sings as if he has a potato stuck up his hooter), Joan Baez, Cleo Laine, Chrissie Hynde (although it's more the pout that's annoying)... the list goes ever on...
As to faiths - well, it's the ones who do have a clear idea that you have to watch - because they're often the loonies of whatever brand. I'm a complete antinomian basically - anarcho-godbothering. Faith is intrinsically a private business, unprovable scientifically - so get your warlocks off my lawn, missis and take the mad mullahs and ga ga archbishops with you...

St Anthony said...

Well said, that man!
Yes, fundamentalists of all stripes - can't trust 'em.

Cleo Laine - oh my gawd, there's some quality in her voice that makes the red mist come down.