Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Strawhead... Pack Horse, Loughborough, Friday 29th June, 2007...



















It was a day of much ongoing re-organising at the hovel – so I was ambivalent about going out that night – exhaustion was looming... But it was the last gig of the Pack Horse season before their annual summer closure – so I duly made the effort. My ongoing strange relationship to folk music pulls and pushes me in contrary directions sometimes and I wasn't really sure what to expect as the last time I had seen the featured band, Strawhead, was over twenty years ago and my somewhat faded memory was of a loud, somewhat bombastic performance at the same venue. (Not that I dislike loud, given much of the music I play and listen to – I mentioned somewhere else that I'm more Thurston Moore than Christy Moore...). This time round, the band had foregone the p.a. The overall acoustics of this beat-up archetypal almost to the point of parody (yet endearingly so) folk club room are pretty good but the dimensions are longer than you realise and the vocals were not always so clear from where I sat at the back – perhaps some added miked-up help would have helped. But a small point, as overall, their distinctive sound – electric keyboard, twelve string guitar and a variety of other instruments: french horn (I kid you not), recorders, a cittern, I think and euphonium – cut through well enough. They also have a distinctive repertoire - tonight they gave a wide and varied dance through the tradition and beyond with always an emphasis on the military life, which is one of their trademark areas – navy and army – from odes to martial glory to bleak truths about the sailor/soldier's life. Despite some criticisms down the years, I don't see this as a tub-thumping exercise in nationalism. Rather, a celebration of the contrary aspects of military culture that also gives a wide spread of English/British social history with which it is intimately entwined. This ranges from songs about famous battles – Trafalgar, Sedgemoor, The Plains of Abraham – and famous protagonists – Napoleon, Nelson, General Wolfe, The Duke of Monmouth – to the localised experiences of the mainly anonymous participants in those conflicts. Tommy Atkins and Jack Tar, as it were... Plus contemporary ballads from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, written from a romantic (and safe?) distance as celebration of servicemen. These could descend into folk 'camp' – that they don't demonstrates the skill and affection behind their deliverance. What I also found intriguing was the instrumentation – especially the use of french horn. Outside of classical music, this instrument has had a somewhat obscure usage – it popped up only very occasionally in various jazz lineups, for example – check out Julius Watkins and John Graas way back, to name two off the top of my head – and more recently Tom Varner). It fits the music of Strawhead very well – they use a mix of contemporary and older instruments to create their sound – which gives a distancing almost Brechtian effect on one level – electric keyboard on a ballad about Napoleon for example – yet this also timbrally lifts the song into the present. The trick, perhaps, is to solder that link from then to now into a convincing continuum that bridges the centuries smoothly. The horn has a mournful, elegaic sound that fits folk music very well – echoes of things lost and gone... Also symbolically apposite, given its origins as a hunting horn? Tally ho... Because Strawhead range across a larger area than most, they help to define a broader musical definition of what that treacherous word 'folk' can mean. Or even breach the barriers – who really cares? The mellow brass sound of the horn – and the euphonium – give an echo of village bands of yesteryear – the rural. And the eighteenth/nineteenth century popular stage via the ballads and the band arrangements – the urban. Perhaps linked together through hints of a military band in the evocations of service life long gone. To perhaps measure some of the distance, compare the Watersons singing 'General Wolfe' – a stark and harsh unaccompanied harmony performance, with the uncluttered grace of a non-conformist hymn. Strawhead's version, played tonight, is more expansive, fleshed out by rolling keyboards and chiming guitar that take it into a different performative area. I could imagine the Watersons singing over a coffin in a spartan church and Strawhead in a crowded theatre of the time, delivering an elegy to a fallen hero in a proto-music hall setting - with the french horn giving that added echo of military band parade ground ambiance. Oddly, I could imagine a collaboration between Mike Westbrook (especially his latest incarnation) and Strawhead... which would open some interesting ideological as well as musical spaces, that's for sure...

To return to their songbook – those who have accused them of being nationalistic – firstly, I didn't see it/hear it that way, but would say, 'So what if they are?' Each to their own – and their popularity says that they have an appreciative audience out there. Secondly – to deny areas of one's common heritage and ignore the facts of history seems to me to be small-minded ideological cherry-picking – at best. Not that one should live in the past – and one of my criticisms of folk music is that the worst of it often seems a frightened gesture against present complexities that baffle rigidities of thinking – yet to ignore a large and important section of one's heritage is equally silly. A difficult balance to strike. Admittedly... But: we are what we are – to misquote a local buffoon of our acquaintance...

So: a thought-provoking gig which I enjoyed immensely. Gregg Butler, Malcolm Gibbons and Chris Pollington present their music with good humour and the self-deprecatory style that seems to be expected in folk clubs – which conceals great stage craft and experience. Best gag of the night? The one about Richard Sharpe – who, played by Sean Bean in the television series,always seems to be standing, teeth gritted in front of his wavering troops as they face another onslaught from Napoleon's boys and saying: 'Who's wi'me?' Tee hee.

The added bonus of the evening was the local contingent - hardball unaccompanied traditionalists. Local stalwarts, Steve Thomason, Jackie and Nick and the three-piece Guffaw gave a stunning display of solo, duo and trio singing respectively. No great gap here in competence between floor singer and booked act – unlike the dear dead days of old. I suspect that a strong headline band or artist helps to lift the local performers, anyway, in front of their home crowd.

And, finally,a shout for club organiser and resident muso Frank Marmion (who also contributed some good stuff with his sidekick Dave Morton in their usual format to introduce both sections of the evening and compered in his own inimitable style) for another surprise end to the season. Good to see the hordes turned out to justify Mr Marmion's choice for the end of the season. As for myself – off to London this coming sunday morning to see Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman... more of which later...







4 comments:

Anonymous said...

They are Excellent!!!

Rod Warner said...

...ain't they just!

Conrad said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Joannah

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Rod Warner said...

...thanks for the compliment! Bloggig has been a little slack recently due to other projects and illness - but hope to pick up the tempo again soon...