Saturday 23 May 2009


Brighton Corn Exchange, 20th May

I have to admit being initially befuddled by the programme notes, and their mention of the 1651 album Cast A Bell. I mean, I know Tabor’s been singing folk a while now – but surely not that long! It turns out 1651 is the name of her current backing band in their own right. But like many misreadings, perhaps my mistake was telling. Throughout her career, Tabor largely eschewed the ‘electric folk’ fusion favoured by so many of her Sixties contemporaries for something more traditionalist. 1651, for example, consist of an all-acoustic accordian, double bass and alternately a piano or violin. Those there only to shout “Judas!” must be sorely disappointed.

Of course the retro approach often feels like a fool’s errand. You feel some try so hard to preserve folk music they stick it behind glass, put it where it’s unable to breathe. But Tabor thankfully avoids the traps of reverentialism. Like a compass driven through the pages of a book, she seems able to transcend the divisions of time or chronology. She speaks of an acquaintance coming across an old ballad, and enthusing it may have been as early as Napoleonic – only to find it to be Norman. At the same time she’s quite willing to sing contemporary songs, even closing the night with Save The Last Dance For Me.

There’s more to it, however, than simply choice of material. In an unusually perceptive mood, Wikipedia commented “June tends to be adventurous in a way that avoids modernism.” It might be illuminating to compare her to Sandy Denny, the other great contender for great British female folk singer, against whose voice Tabor’s is as different as night from day. On Fairport’s Come All Ye, for example, Denny throws herself into the song; warm, effusive, unreserved. The opening number here, though also about a Saturday night dance, is stately rather than stomping, reflective rather than euphoric.

Perhaps the secret of Tabor’s success is in combining folk with the chanteuse tradition, and finding it a closer fit than might be supposed. Like Lotte Lenya you sense not emotion expressed so much as held back, creeping through the cracks like light around a closed door. This sense of seeing only the emotion’s shadow paradoxically makes its expression all the more powerful – as if you saw the full light you’d be blinded. What you glean of Tabor’s personality from the gig would seem to confirm this, a combination of doomed romanticism with no-nonsense Northern-ness.

Tabor also excels in finding subject matter to suit her voice. While everyone thinks of folk as something communitarian, her tastes are much more solitary; with stark black ballads her stock-in-trade. (She didn’t even join in the closing singalong to the Daughters of Albion night at last year’s Festival.) The fact that she seems tapped into an almost limitless supply of such songs, both traditional and contemporary, suggests such perceptions of folk, however widespread, may be no more than stereotypes. People in times past may have liked to cut a rug, but their worldview also included a fatalism that we tend to overlook.

1651 (the band, not the year) gave her a suitably sparse backing, allowing her voice the space to linger. In the evening’s undoubted highlight, a medley of gypsy songs, there were points when they were hardly playing at all. As ever, a true artist will recognise when the best thing to do is nothing.

Perhaps the evening’s only flaw was Tabor falling into the folk habit of talking too much between (or even during) songs. Some kind of context and explanation is of course desirable, especially for the songs sung in foreign languages. But you also wondered at points if she was trying to counter the often sombre tone of her music with some more uplifting chat, something about it felt compensatory. There’s a point where the songs really have to be left to speak for themselves.

I suspect this in-concert film (recent but with a larger backing band and different set-list) might not be on YouTube long, so if the screen below is blank you’ve already missed it. If it’s still there, however, note there are also further instalments.

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