Monday, June 28, 2010

Review: Magpie Lane/Habbadam at the Teignmouth Folk Festival, Central Theatre, Saturday, June 19, 2010

Down in Devon for a few days on a mission but coincidentally I noticed a while back that the Teignmouth Folk Festival would be running on the same weekend. And that Magpie Lane were headlining on the Saturday night...  So I bought a ticket with the hope that I could get to the gig.  Luckily - I did.

The venue was the Carlton Theatre just off the beach in Teignmouth centre, a small joint but very welcoming.  Backup on the night were Habbadam and Babylon Lane (no relation). The sound system was very good – a difficult balance to get in a space like this with the large selection of instruments being used. Lighting was somewhat surreal occasionally as was the occasional waft of dry ice – which was dryly amusing and received in good spirit. 

Habbadam are guitar, violin and soprano saxophone – an odd instrument for a folk band perhaps but it blended very well – something about the lemony timbre coupled to the power of a sax which made me wonder why it's not used more often. (Again – I was reminded of the old gag – folk followers being often a conservative bunch. But no one suddenly unfurled a banner with the immortal words emblazoned: 'Go home, dirty bebopper!). (Scroll down). Dane Sigurd Hocking played fluent guitar, the odd fluff early on perhaps, but blending with fiddle and sax to provide an unusual, intriguing set. The occasional vocal thrown in to balance it out – I found them much more interesting perhaps than the usual WBD Oirish set.  (Worthy But Dull).  Ditte Fromseier-Mortensen, also from Denmark, provided violin and vocals, Hanna Wiskari, the lone Swede, took command of the soprano. The material was unfamilar to me – based on the traditions of the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm - but oddly enough not, on another level, reflecting links between Scandinavian music and the British Isles. Some pleasant surprises as well - the Lars Ipsen tunes were plain weird with strange melodic arcs, taking the listener into a distant and wonderfully unusual sound world. (Ipsen was apparently an 18th century fiddler from Bornholm).  Towards the end, they brought on a local singer, Peter Huggins, to deliver 'Three score and ten,' the fishing disaster song from the East Coast that obviously resonates strongly down here as well.  In fact, with proximity to sea and rural Devon, the traditional musics and street dance/morris displays of the festival took on a relevance that is not always obvious back where I live these days in the urban Midlands.  Habbadam went out on a mainstream jazzy number to much applause - obviously a festival favourite and a band I'd like to see again.

Next up: Babylon Lane, a four-piece vocal group devoted to shape-singing. Interesting, but they didn't quite grab me, not sure why. I had to leave early in their set anyway – had a text message I urgently needed to reply to – so did not have time to settle in to their music to offer an opinion.

Magpie Lane. Mr Giles and band came recommended to me very strongly a few months ago when I was urged to attend a gig back home when they were playing just down the road from God's Little Acre. They blew me away – and few folk groups do that. Ian Giles has a remarkable voice and buttressed by the talent that surrounds him, this is a band with much firepower – instrumentally and vocally. In the present incarnation: Andy Turner/Sophie Polhill/Mat Green/Jon Fletcher play concertinas, melodeons, cello, whistle, fiddle, guitar, bouzouki and harmonica. And all sing – when they suddenly burst into five part harmony it is a joy to behear, offering a majestic swathe of sound. That first time I encountered them was in the upclose intimacy of a folk club, this go-round the more formal setting of a concert. Even though the Carlton Theatre is a relatively small venue and the band would have spent much of the weekend fraternising and playing on sessions in close contact with festival goers, amplification and stage still give a couple of degrees of separation. Which, tellingly, did not seem to make any difference. Big gig, small gig, there is tremendous skill involved here that covers all the bases, yet is not jammed in your face but subtly held back a notch or two. A lot of power under the hood... Much traditional folk music is ideologically conflicted for many reasons, historically, culturally – and often stupidly. Possibly, playing in the idiom is like learning a foreign language. For some people, surface accuracy and varying degrees of misplaced piety are enough and a certain stiffness is inherent to the delivery. For those who enter deeper into the cultural episteme(s) beneath, the rewards will be fluency and emotional engagement with the material and the audience they deliver it to. (This also goes for the listener: most of the folk audience come to the music from outside - some initial effort is usually needed to connect with the material). Giles sings with an ease and flair that subtly belies his technique and knowledge.   As do they all. The references are backwards historically, based in the main in the English country dance and song tradition, yet the band's ease of technical erudition channels the material effectively . It lives and breathes before you, rather than being a ghost dragged reluctantly to perform at a séance.  Opening with 'The Jovial Cutler,' a song from the cusp of the Industrial Revolution concerned with earlier work practices that still continued, a strategic piece that looks back at a dying world and forwards to a newer, problematic urban existence.  The timbre of Ian Giles helps to keep these old songs fresh – resonant and flexible, not given to decoration and some of the more affected ticks of the 'tradition.'  The achieved clarity and the warm emotion with which he delivers it front the band well.  But this seems a democracy of many interlocking skills: Giles will disappear occasionally to let other line-ups play in varying combinations, down to duos – Sophie Polhill and Mat Fletcher gave up a stunning 'Turtle Dove,' for example.  Hard to pick anyone out over their compatriots – they function so well on all levels it seems, held together by the dark threads of the cello's weavings. (An instrument I love and how fascinating to hear the ways in which it is deployed).  Giles amusingly said that they 'mucked' songs about, finding different tunes to well-known words, that sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't.  This willingness to continually expand and experiment give them a bracing freshness.  A couple of examples: 'A begging I will go' and 'The Foggy Dew.'  The first floated across the dance tune 'Grimstock' in a fascinating reworking of an old chestnut, the second given a more delicate and plaintive reading than usual.  Giles also dons a side drum occasionally which gives some added muscle in the rhythm department.  Nothing 'folk rock' (mercifully – in most of its manifestations a lumpy mess) – rather than clumsy grafts of backbeats, he plays from the song itself.  He uses two drums – one orthodox snare, the other a deeper military-looking artifact, sort of a quarter-lambeg on the diagonal, that looks like it was nicked from the set of 'Sharpe.'

They bow out on the encore unaccompanied: 'The Constant Lovers' aka 'Drowned Mermaid.' The five part harmonies here gave an amazingly full sound, the voice interactions on the verses – from solo to duo, adding another level of interest. I know they have been criticised for being too lush vocally but I love this expansion that seems to stretch until it fills the hall (and beyond).  But I'm a fan.  And look forward to the next time...

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I was down in Teignmouth last week on other biz, glancingly encountering the folk festival as the sun shone. Here's a couple of photos from the town centre in the afternoon.  The Fabulous Fezheads were fun, keeping the old sand dance tradition alive - memories of my late old friend Ronnie Ross of the Roadstars and solo street  fame.  The guys below were playing some nice American Old Timey sounds as I stopped to sample Guinness alfresco...  The only event I made it to was the Sturday night concert - the rather wonderful Magpie Lane.  Review written but still being deciphered (very delayed...).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thelonious Monk/Miles Davis/Doc Watson/Delmore Brothers/Max Roach

The bloody World Cup is here again so I am in need of (much) distraction, although not having a television helps to a certain extent... But, despite the fact that football bores the bejasus out of me, it would be churlish not to wish for the best in South Africa – a big moment for them.

And I am off to Devon tomorrow for a few days r and r and some biz. So:

The curse of the blogger of course, is to make rash statements: 'Apologies for being away but now I'm back etc' – to then disappear again. I have not posted any mp3s for some time and reviews have dried up somewhat as I have been busy on an ongoing project that has taken much time and energy. But I like to think that I can still roll one or two out here and there... Some jazz, some folk blues, some bluegrass, eclecticism rules as ever...

I posted Jimmy Guiffre's version of this sometime back – so here is the original, a recording of 'Blue Monk' made by the composer in 1954 with a trio, himself on piano, Percy Heath on bass and the redoubtable Art Blakey on drums. Over seven minutes long, giving them a chance to stretch out. Monk takes this at a sprightly tempo – he always plays this tune a fraction faster, I think, than you realise at first, the brain seems to say that it's a slower drag blues. He leaves plenty of space, floating phrases then suddenly doubling back, clenched repeating figures that suddenly spring out in an unexpected direction. Solid bass springs the track and Blakey knows when to push with quick cymbal spats and those trademark rolls, the battering triplets. Giuffre's version caught the pull of the time-line in the theme – at once archaic and modern and Monk of course, even more so now at this distance, proves this even deeper. Heath takes a fluent solo over Blakey backbeat hi-hat cymbal clips that continue into his own solo. Some hint of parade ground cadence that swings off sideways. Monk still in his springtime, on the cusp of greater recognition. And still fresh.

Miles from 1966: 'Dolores' a track on 'Miles Smiles.' Certain people regard this album as the last TRUE JAZZ acoustic Davis recording. Each to their own. What you do have is Miles coming to terms with the new wave and rock, both of which inflect on this album. Davis's Fifties Quintet was seen as a pinnacle of his art and certainly the rhythm section of that band took some beating – Philly Joe, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. Here the young drummer Tony Williams moves the band into new areas – I've always contended that jazz could not evolve any faster than its drummers. A lot of fifties attempts at moving the music beyond bebop fell foul of this rule... 'Dolores,' a Wayne Shorter composition opens uppishly on a line by tenor that falls into bass, band then bass again. Miles takes the first solo, open horn swirled along by William's wash of cymbals and a fast bass walk. No Hancock at first – Miles was always a master of space but with this quintet he was to explore the frontiers anew. Shorter follows Hancock enters at last on a single note line, leaving his left hand at home. Without chords being sketched, the linearities can take unexpected directions Peppy and fresh...

Another American treasure - Doc Watson playing 'Deep River Blues.' Just the Doc and his acoustic guitar, some fine picking and that warm baritone voice. Recorded in 1964, the album this comes from was a staple round our house several years later as all the guitar players worked out their own versions of many of the songs.

Alton and Rabon Delmore, brothers born in Alabama, pioneers of country music, regulars in the Grand Old Opry from the thirties onwards. (The Opry is the longest running radio show in the U.S. I discovered on the Wikipedia entry – I knew it had been around a long time but not that long!). Like Doc Watson, interestingly they crossed styles as and when, no doubt confounding purists, who seem to have little understanding at a distance of the commercial moves a musician makes. Their version of 'Big River Blues' is an antecedent of the above 'Deep River Blues' and gives a fascinating contrast in linked but different styles. Singing in close harmony, straight out of the high lonesome, backed by interweaving guitars, whether it's because they come from an earlier generation, one can track the rhythmic differences. They are just that fraction more four-square than the Doc, albeit that the lead bounces nicely off the accompaniment. Much more country, as well, Doc's voice reminding me oddly of a folk blues Jack Teagarden. In another strange reversal, later in their career, during the forties, they added electric guitar and drums – Doc Watson had started his professional career playing electric guitar in a country/western swing band. I gather his superb flat-picking technique came in part from playing fiddle tunes on the electric, in later years moving them onto his acoustic guitar.

Searing stuff from Max Roach and company – 'Mendacity,' recorded in 1961, from his album 'Percussion Bitter Sweet.' Booker Little leads the ensemble in on soured trumpet before the Abbey Lincoln takes the song. A chorus then stopped by an ensemble surge. Then the incomparable Eric Dolphy's alto – talk about 'vocalisation of tone' – this reminds me of the musical conversations he had with Charles Mingus in the quartet that recorded equally biting music - 'Faubus Fables' etc. Another ensemble punctuation then Max takes his equipment out front, the most musical of drummers, chunks of silence after each statement. An unusual solo that stops and starts, stops and starts, yet with a narrative line throughout. Far from the ker-ching of orthodox modern jazz - the times were a-changing in many ways. Abbey Lincoln returns, the lyric darkly spelling out the racism these musicians and their people endured. Angry, righteous music.

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk (p) Percy Heath (b) Art Blakey (d)
Blue Monk


Miles Davis
Miles Davis (t) Wayne Shorter (ts) Herbie Hancock (p) Ron Carter (b) Tony Williams (d)


Doc Watson (g, v)
Deep River Blues


Delmore Brothers (g, v)
Big River Blues


Max Roach
Booker Little (tp) Julian Priester (tb) Eric Dolphy (as) Clifford Jordan (ts) Mal Waldron (p) Art Davis (b) Max Roach (d) Carlos "Patato" Valdes (cga) Carlos "Totico" Eugenio (cowbell) Abbey Lincoln (vo)