Monday, February 01, 2010

Review... Future of Folk Concert at the Grand Union Club, Barrow, Monday, January 25th, 2010

Down to the Soar Bridge Inn on Monday 25th January for their young folk musicians feature, compered by Tom Kitching and Gren Bartley who also closed the show. Back in the day... many folk clubs used to be like this, a mixture of ages, old and new musics, a mélange that worked – and drew a large audience... One of my beefs with the current scene is that there is too often a preponderance of older people, playing and audience, a demographic factor that bodes ill for the future, tempered perhaps by the fact that the audiences are still around but are fragmented,  go to different venues – acoustic sessions etc. Overall, there are plenty of young musicians using 'folk' either as a mainstream or a springboard to experimentation, yet you don't always see this in the average 'folk' club. Tonight was some proof indeed that the heart is still beating in the old body. House sold out and Bill Wilkes looked a happy man as we were treated to a sample of the moment. Starting with Andy Parr who seemed absurdly young but managed the opening spot with quiet panache – he kept his nerves in check on what must have been a daunting evening. Andy plays concertina, flute, whistle and sings in a high plaintive voice. His instrumental skills passed the test – a couple of fluffs here and there not detracting from his energy and skill. For me, his singing was the highlight of the set – I don't engage with instrumental folk music in the same way so freely declare my bias – but his choice of song was interesting and intelligently placed for this crowd who have firepower to spare in the choruses but know when to rein back and not overwhelm – as tonight. The Graham Miles song 'Snows of Winter' was given a sensitive reading buttressed by the assembled voices and the surprise for me – 'Wild Mountain Thyme.' A song that I remember hearing by the McPeake Family in the mid-sixties when, as a young jazz buff, I first became acquainted with folk music, which became one of those anthems that got sang to death. Yet: tonight given a totally fresh reading. Parr's voice was especially poignant here I thought and gave a marvellous link backwards for many here tonight in a natural rather than schmalzy manner.

Like I said, instrumental folk music is not my cup of meat but the duo next up played a vibrant, bouncing set, fluency coming from their paired melodeons that demonstrated an empathy beyond just knowing the notes – apparently they have played together for a good few years and this comes over in their music. Great stuff from Claire Haliday and Lauren Kluge and a nice contrast to keep the night rolling. Could almost convert me into moseying along to a ceilidh...

The advertised band apparently had to drop out late but Gren had a dep handy – Jess Morgan, from Norwich. A singer-songwriter, thrown into a folky audience – she said self-deprecatingly 'My link to folk music is a bit tenuous' – but she made out ok and they are not a shut-down puritan audience here, in the main. Interesting mixture of fragility and strength, songs spun out from her life experience with an emotional edge that carried them along well. I thought she was great – a lucky accident that provided another dimension to the theme of the night.

Lucy Ward up to the plate. I saw her a couple of months ago at this venue and was bowled over by her energy and confidence. Very up-front – 'Ay up, you all right.' Derby neat, me duck - her accent gives a natural channel to the 'tradition' without the usual linguistic contortions. (Inverted commas used to indicate the uneasy and disputed ground that word alludes to). Lucy is very much a force of nature with an abundance of sheer good-natured energy. Like all the musicians here tonight, she has a sharp intelligence and is obviously destined for a succesful career in music - or beyond. A wide range on display – 'The Fairy Boy' and Alex Glasgow's fierce 'Close the coalhouse door,' the raw Lal Waterson song 'Red Wine and Promises,' her own compositions – from the bawdy poignance of 'The Canny Lad' to the sensitivity of 'Adelphi' and contemporary relevance of ''A Life backwards.' Lucy also gave a tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle with 'Heart like a Wheel' which hit a strong emotional chord. Going out by inviting the mighty GU4 to join her on an impromptu 'House of the Rising Sun,' which was a coup de théâtre – and another resurrected war-horse with some new breath pumped into it.

Gren and Tom – I declare my interest, knowing both these gentlemen somewhat and having reviewed them often before. As they have been building their careers – as a duo and in their separate endeavours – every time I have dropped in on various points along the road I have been impressed with the speed of the learning. New material assimilated, stage personas solidifying, technique allied to emotion, energy and commitment of course – but also the plain fact that they are diamond geezers. So I'm a star-fucker – shoot me... Onto the music. A paradigmatic start: 'Green Bed' was an old English song that travelled to the US, which justifies the backbeat on two and four. Gren and Tom have evolved a fascinating and varied repertoire that incorporates English, American material - and beyond - plus self-penned songs and tunes that flows seamlessly as guitar and banjo are swopped round.  Veering more towards the U.S. tonight with a wild version of the 'Levi Jefferson Rag,' Tom's rampaging fiddle daring Gren's fingerpicking to keep up – which it did. Followed by the old Gus Cannon song 'Walk Right In' with Gren switching to banjo.  Then a sensitive reading of Blind Willie Johnson's 'You're going to need somebody on your bond.'  They vary their sets with solo spots that showcase the variety of their interests.  Tom first tonight with a dazzling rendition of a tune the name of which I didn't catch.  Apologies to Mr Kitching... Slap ma ears... Tonight an added bonus – an old friend, Big Dave, back from his travels and invited by Gren to join him in a song they used to perform a while back during university days – a raucous version of 'Barratt's Privateers.'  Tom returned for Gren's own 'Fly Fly.'  After which, a swing back into the tradition with 'Old Sir Simon the King' - helter skelter words to a jogging rhythm.  Then the moving 'No More Auction Block' which is a brave song to attempt but they have worked out how to do a sympathetic rendition without being self-conscious about the subject matter - slavery.  'The Jolly Wagoner' was given a brisk run, the old cart bouncing on syncopation and hoe-down, as it were. 
The evening went out on  another old favourite of yesteryear, with all the musicians present invited up to play along on 'Long John.' Another link in the chain... the ghosts of skiffle evoked via the shadow of 'Long Lost John etc...

The balance they achieve between the traditions is interesting - there's a strong American influence rhythmically and an obvious debt to the blues but avoiding obvious clichés - you don't hear many bent/blue notes for example, as if the African-American streams are filtered back across the English tradition to eliminate any obvious 'blackface' renditions.

So: a great night - and one that perhaps bodes well for the future...

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