Mick Ryan is, as we all know, is a prolific song-writer and skilled at melding his ideas into shows or folk operas as he is happy to call them. Here At The Fair is his sixth such show and, as always, he has assembled a fine cast: Heather Bradford, Alice Jones, Pete Morton, Geoff Lakeman and the trio Granny’s Attic – George Sansome, Lewis Wood and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.
Ryan’s shows are usually historical and/or political subjects so this particular fair is set up in a country town in 1850. Initially it’s all very jolly with the instrumentation featuring reeds and euphonium echoing the sound of a fairground organ. The various characters introduce themselves and comment on their lifestyles. Ryan is generous in sharing out the parts with Geoff Lakeman playing Doctor Maldini, the snake-oil salesman; George Sansome as a ballad-seller; Heather Bradford plays the fortune-teller Madame Lavengro and Pete Morton is allowed to go completely over the top as Professor Sleary, the owner of the flea circus. Ryan plays Vincent Crummles, the showman, with Alice Jones as his daughter. Aficionados of Charles Dickens will recognise the names.
Gradually, a darker story begins to emerge. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne plays the clown Steven Starling who, we learn, is searching for his father. The second disc begins with Maldini recalling the events at Peterloo and Madame Lavengro remembering the last great Chartist meeting. There are other missing persons in this story – is there a link between them? As the show progresses the characters confess the truth about the hardship of their lives in a travelling show, admit that their best days are behind them and confront the truth about themselves. Any more information would be spoilers.
Mick Ryan’s songs are always singable, which is why so many people borrow them, and even in the darker moments of Here At The Fair there is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Things may be bad now but they were good once. Sadly, in the words of ‘If Only’, there is no going back so everyone blinks back the tears and looks forward.
If you haven’t yet heard Jeff Warner live, you have a rare treat in store. Jeff is the son of two of America’s foremost song collectors, Frank and Anne Warner and, as such, his knowledge is unparalleled. On stage he is relaxed and genial swapping between concertina, banjo and guitar – and sometimes jig-doll – and rarely have I so devoutly wished that a gig would never end. I do love Americana and Roam The Country Through is what I mean by that. This is the real thing.
All these songs are traditional except when they’re not and I probably should explain what I mean by that. Take the opening track, ‘Jordan Is A Hard Road To Travel’. Most of us would consider it to be traditional but Jeff’s version owes much to Uncle Dave Macon who adapted a minstrel song written in 1853 by Dan Emmett who probably pinched an earlier song. OK, let’s call it traditional.
The seventeen tracks here mix traditional songs, some collected by the Warners and others by Cecil Sharp, twentieth century poetry, music-hall tunes and even a bit of gospel. The journeys that some of these songs have undertaken are quite remarkable. ‘Lass Of Glenshee’ is as Scottish as they come and was probably written in the late 18th century in Perth and the Warners collected it from an old logger in the Adirondacks in the 1940s. You can only imagine how it got there. From the same source came ‘Jamie Judge’, a real logging camp song. In complete contrast is ‘It’s My Lazy Day’ by Smiley Burnette who appeared in movies as Gene Autry’s sidekick.
So, we have a selection of songs than span more than 150 years, most with a well-documented provenance but as with ‘Lass Of Glenshee’ we can speculate on how ‘Gypsum Davy’ arrived in Tennessee. Jeff doesn’t need much support but he’s aided by Alice Jones on vocals, keyboards and whistle and the fiddle of Ben Paley and, all in all, this is a damn fine record.
England’s premier folk duo Show of Hands, once described as “the most famous unknown band in Britain”, brought the house down at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Sunday with a ‘pull all the stops out’ show marking their milestone 25th year.
Singer songwriter Steve Knightley and multi instrumental wizard Phil Beer took to the stage of the iconic London venue for the fifth time with a memorable milestone gig which prompted two standing ovations.
Some 5,000 fans descended on the capital not just from all over the UK but also from Canada, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.
The first band to ever hold a raffle at the Albert Hall maintained the tradition, raising £4,355 – the most ever – for chosen charities MIND and Great Ormond Street Hospital & Children’s Charity, the main prize being a beautifully crafted cello mandolin made by SoH’s Devon-based instrument makers Oddy Luthiers.
One of British folk music’s most popular acts – and two of the most active ambassadors in the acoustic arena – Knightley and Beer were joined by long-term guest Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals.
A dramatic opening saw the performance of Knightley’s spellbinding song ‘Widecombe Fair’ with Beer appearing high in the organ loft playing an eerie fiddle.
They were soon joined by the Devon’s 30-strong Lost Sound Chorus for the moving ‘The Old Lych Way’ about the ancient Dartmoor trackway along which coffins were carried. The choir returned throughout the evening to swell the sound on some of the band’s best known songs and numbers from most recent albums Centenary and The Long Way Home.
Also taking to the “Kensington village hall” stage were top mandolin player Rex Preston, 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Duo’ winners Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin and Canada’s hugely entertaining Matt Gordon & Leonard Podolak, their fiddle and banjo music punctuated by outbreaks of clog dancing (joined by Mr Knightley!) and “hamboning” (traditional African American body percussion).
Long-time collaborator, composer and keyboards player Matt Clifford, who famously worked with The Rolling Stones, added to the sound as did Devon teacher Chris Hoban, who has penned some of Show of Hands’ more recent songs including the epic ‘Katrina’ (also performed on the night).
Towards the end of the first set, there was a surprise appearance by renowned Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter who read Siegfried Sassoon’s To Victory in his inimitable way before a performance of the WW1 song ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ while Alice Jones was a solo Morris dancer in ‘Twas on One’s April Morning’.
Steve Knightley also announced a £150,000 crowdfunding appeal to bring an extensive Shrouds Of The Somme art installation to the capital.
Last year Somerset artist Rob Heard painstakingly hand stitched calico shrouds onto 19240 12 inch figures representing every Allied soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – making a powerful artwork that was seen in Exeter and Bristol. Knightley was closely involved in the unique project, serving on the committee.
Now Heard has embarked on making more than 70,000 shrouds to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 in 2018 – commemorating every soldier who died at The Somme with no known grave. It is hoped to display the new work in London for Armistice Day (November 11) next year. The crowdfunding campaign will launch on May 10. shroudsofthesomme.com
Show of Hands’ “anthems” ‘Country Life’, ‘Roots’, and banker-baiting ‘Arrogance Ignorance And Greed’ were all on the set list as well as the traditional favourite ‘The Blue Cockade’. Their trademark ‘Cousin Jack’, about emigrating Cornish miners, was the rousing finale before they stepped back on stage for Knightley’s “hard to believe it’s not traditional” number ‘The Galway Farmer’ and a rousing ‘Santiago’ with the whole company on stage.
A lavishly illustrated 224-page hard-backed souvenir book marking the band’s 25th year went on sale on the night, entitled No Secrets –A Visual History of Show of Hands.
Tying in with this, the Knightley-penned single ‘No Secrets’ was released on Friday (April 21) via Amazon and iTunes. Says Steve: “This started live as a piece of advice for a friend getting married but it is also apt as the ethos of our business and it became the backdrop to the book.”
Show of Hands 25th year continues with a busy UK festival schedule (including Folk by the Oak, Underneath The Stars, Wickham, Sidmouth, Cropredy, Towersey) before a newly announced tour of English cathedrals this autumn (Oct 4-Nov 8), from Chichester to Carlisle, supported by young singer songwriter Kirsty Merryn.
You’re probably thinking that you’ve heard of Alice Jones before, and you probably have: The Gina Le Faux Trio, The John Dipper Band and her collaboration with Pete Coe working on the Frank Kidson collection as well as what seems like a dozen other things in her native Yorkshire. Poor Strange Girl, however, is her first solo album.
Alice sings the way she speaks which isn’t always a given even now. Despite that, she casts her musical net wide. The title track, which opens the set, was collected by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky and, even before I read her sleeve notes, I had the feeling that she was referring to herself. Next is ‘Woody Knows Nothing’, adapted from traditional sources by the late Erik Darling and we’re still a few thousand miles from Yorkshire. As well as an interpreter of traditional songs Alice is also a composer and musician, playing keyboards, whistle and tenor guitar so next up is the first set of tunes, both written by her before the first traditional songs collected in England, ‘The Cruel Mother’ and ‘Green Bushes’; the latter from the Kidson collection.
Variety is one of the selling points of the album. There is a set of mazurkas and another of polskas; two fine songs from the Warner collection; a very timely version of ‘Adieu To Old England’ and ‘Long, Long Trail A-Winding’ to finish.
Poor Strange Girl was produced by Jon Loomes and Alice is supported by Tom Kitching on fiddle and Hugh Bradley on double bass but this is definitely her album and very good it is too.
If you haven’t seen Pete Coe on stage recently (why not?) the title may require some explanation. “Frank” refers to Frank Kidson, something of a 19th century renaissance man from Leeds: publisher, artist, historian, antiquary and collector of folk songs and tunes. His first volume of songs was published in 1890, a full ten years before Cecil Sharp had even heard a folk song. Kidson was a founder member of The Folk Song Society but now he’s thought of as the “lost” collector with only one of his books remaining in print. As for “five finger”, that was how he described himself – he had many talents but pianist was not among them.
Having got the history lesson out of the way let’s get down to the business in hand. This splendid double CD set brings together twenty-seven Kidson songs and tunes. Alice Jones is every bit as much a multi-instrumentalist as Pete Coe, specialising in keyboards and reeds with a fine, natural voice that complements Pete’s unmannered style. The approach is essentially simple with minimal additions – there is a brass trio on two tracks, some fiddle, mouth organ and hammered dulcimer here and there – but the songs are what’s important.
Lest you think that this album is hard work, think again. These are often earthy songs and are treated as such – Pete even sets ‘Turpin Hero’ over the ‘Teenage Kicks’ chord progression and swears he hasn’t changed a word or a note of the melody. Many of the titles will be familiar and many others conceal familiar songs. ‘The Swan Swims So Bonny’, for example, is a nicely involved version of ‘The Two Sisters’. In contrast, disc 2 opens with a down-to-earth version of ‘Hares In The Old Plantation’ that’s half chorus. I hadn’t heard it before. ‘All On Spurn Point’, another new song to me, is the fascinating story of a shipwreck tainted by pecuniary considerations. Very modern. Kidson’s version of ‘Bonny Light Horseman’ is very different from the familiar one but this album is full of such delights.