Tuesday 8 November 2011


Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, 12th Oct

I’d only seen Eliza Carthy once before, some three years ago, at the Daughters of Albion night. Though for some reason I don’t seem to have mentioned her at all in my write-up, she made an impression on me – a wild card, leaping on stage and stirring things up with her rousing fiddle.

So, while the Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham is perhaps not the rockiest of venues (and rarely gets confused with the ABC No Rio), I was initially surprised by the sound of this set. It was all very songwritery, the words witty and urbane, the music more notable for nice arrangements than foot-stompin’ tunes. It all felt strangely un-folky, with (in perhaps the biggest surprise) Eliza playing very little of her trademark fiddle.

I may have something of an agenda here. When music is raw and raucous, people tend to look for a black influence. And of course much great music has come from exactly this influence. But, beyond all the prinnying about the happy past, folk gives us a reservoir of raucousness beneath our feet.

Equally, I may have simply been confounded by my own expectations. (For all I know she has sounded like that on record all along, with the last time I saw her the exception to the rule.) I did find myself getting into it more as it went along – to the point where the very final track, ’Thursday’, I liked a great deal (check vidclip). That may be partly because it is built around a simple and effective tune, rather than a fancy arrangement looking for a home.

But also it made respective sense of (if such there be) her change in musical direction. Rather than hiding or excusing away the mundanity of a middle-aged life, it instead finds a poignancy in a mundane situation. Having become confused about the day, she believes she has more time at home with the family, and doesn’t have to take to the road. It’s rather like Joni Mitchell’s ’Chinese Cafe’ upside-down, rather than reflecting on the troubles of adapting to middle-aged life it struggles to raise itself out of them. (“The baby she distrusts my suitcase/ So I put it away in a safe place.”) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Life is too short to waste on trying to recapture your youth.

I wondered if that song was the key to it all, and if I could hear the rest of the set again I would glom on to it. But alas live sets cannot be replayed, and instead I was on a bus taking a bizarrely circuitous route back to Brighton...

St. George’s Church, Brighton, 27th Oct

’Freedom and Rain’, the 1990 collaboration between June Tabor and the Oysterband is of course a classic album, rated both by folk fan and not. Yet of course after it the two went their own ways and, having missed the moment, there was no way to see them again. Until twenty-one years later, when they reunite for a successor (‘Ragged Kingdom’) and... yes, really!!!... embark on a tour which takes in Brighton.

Judging by this night, the new album draws from more contemporary styles. It’s predecessor included contemporary songs, true, but they generally already came in folk styles. (For example Shane McGowan’s ’Lullabye of London’.) This night featured versions of more modern-sounding numbers, including PJ Harvey’s ’There Was My Veil’ and even Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’. (Though the latter doesn’t seem to be on the album.)

As I’ve said before, Tabor must surely be one of our finest folk singers. Her voice is so full of feeling, yet so free of affectations or showy flourishes. Some attendees baulked then when Oysterband frontman John Jones took over a fair portion of the singing. (As Tabor plays no instruments, she’d then slip off to the side of the stage.) Unfamiliar with the band beyond this collaboration, I couldn’t say whether these were tracks from the new album or band classics enlisted to fill up the set. I suppose time will tell.

Personally, I found myself enjoying these numbers enough. The only parts which didn’t work so well for me were when Jones and Tabor traded vocals (such as their cover of ’Love Will Tear Us Apart’), which didn’t seem to marry so well.

Naturally we all focus on the vocals, but seeing the band live I wondered if the drumming was just as integral to the sound. It’s not rock’s regimented “factory beat” which Matt Groening has railed against, more a series of circular rolls and rhythms which stop the sound slipping into lockstep. Check them out in the vidclip below. Ironically, I noticed this on the military-themed opening number, ’The Bonny Bunch of Roses’. (So different to the Fairport Convention version that it took me a while to recognise it as the same song.)

If I had one complaint, it might be the choice of venue. The natural acoustics and size-defying intimate feel of St. George’s Church might have been better suited to a solo, acoustic Tabor. A standing venue, with the standard brightly-lit stage, might have served this night better. But still, a combination I never hoped to see, armed with brand new material... I simply would not have missed this one.

This is from the first reunion at the Roundhouse last year, performing ’All Tomorrow’s Parties.’

Dome Theatre, Brighton, 1st Nov

Thirty singers, all unmicrophoned, lined before a plain background in bright traditional dresses, colour-coded for their section in the harmonies, looking like pastel crayons in the box. The image is bold and simple yet striking and containing variety – the perfect visual correlative of the sound.

Though I first heard them during their Eighties popularity and have music by them at home, it’s not until now that I notice something quite fundamental about them. As you most probably don’t remember at all, a recent installation led me to discover the Renaissance music of Thomas Tallis. Having then found a Tallis LP in a charity shop, I had been playing it recently and (as you are supposed to) noticing the intricacies of the vocal lines. Yet the lines here are no less intricate, it’s merely the harmonies sounding so... well, harmonious that allows you to miss that.

However, if the music rewards attention it doesn’t necessarily encourage it. Perhaps it’s the foreign language, perhaps the relative shortness of the pieces (some stopping just as they seemed to be getting going), perhaps just something in the style, but it somehow becomes rather chill-out. It’s like trancing out to someone’s mellifluous voice, then only noticing as they stopped speaking that they could have been saying something interesting. (A friend said he found the same thing, so it wasn’t just the mood I was in.) In a way this is odd because the successions of held notes on first impression sound rich and resounding. I am not entirely sure whether this is a disadvantage or not. Perhaps folk music should sound simple and heartfelt, and disguise its sophistication in smocks.

Coming soon! Gig-going gets culty...


  1. Eliza Carthy has always been like that in her own sets, and on about half of her records (the other half sounding more like the rest of her family). It's when she's playing with others that she has the raw, folky violin sound. Both are good, but I definitely prefer the latter.

  2. Aha, so seeing her in collaboration did skew my perceptions! Thanks for the info, Andrew!

  3. "Perhaps folk music should ..."

    You know as soon as I reached that word "should", I felt my hackles rise. Of all musics, I think folk is the least shouldy.

    "Coming soon! Gig-going gets culty..."

    You saw the Blue Öyster Cult?! I love those guys! (By coincidence, I have the Imaginos album playing in the background as I write this.)

  4. Well folk music is a genre and so surely has a character, which means it can act out of character.

    Of course we shouldn't get too restrictive about these things and (as previously said between us) folk needs to be cut quite a broad definition. These three gigs weren't very similar, but I'm happy to think of them all as folk.

    Afraid I haven't been to see Blue Oyster Cult in the last few weeks! To be honest I don't really know them, beyond 'Don't Fear the Reaper.'