“I miss you like a world cup penalty” – what an image. Only one band could get away with that and make it melodic, vibrant and tender in a song with a thumping rhythm that makes you want to sing along. And I went to see them last weekend (though sadly Melbourne was the Derbyshire one not the warmer one where people like Merv Hughes and Glenn Maxwell played their home cricket).
If you’ve seen Merry Hell, you know what to expect so this is written more for Merry Hell virgins (as they were grinningly called on Saturday night). That said, the Melbourne gig was probably the best I’ve seen – the sound was good, the band were on form, the venue was well worth driving a distance through the icy roads to get to. At the start of the second half the band received the 7th annual Blues and Roots Radio Worldwide Album of the Year Award for Let The Music Speak For Itself, described by BRR as “a history of the band if you like, or maybe an introduction for those who have recently climbed aboard their unstoppable folk-rock charabanc of joy”. I can’t beat those last six words, so let’s talk about the gig in Melbourne.
Keeping It Live has been an occasional series of reviews and articles for folking.com since before lockdown, so let’s start with something that struck me on Saturday night – this was the first event I’d been to where it was as though lockdown was in the past. The feel’s been increasingly diminishing over the last year or two, but this was the first event where it didn’t hang over the shoulder. The gig was an old-fashioned (pre-Feb 2020) drive through dark and icy roads to have a beer, good company, great music and a great night out – for which the skill of both the venue and the band should not be underestimated.
I’ll come to the venue later, but let’s start with the band and the set. For me, Merry Hell’s recorded music is great … but their live performances are better, always. It’s not just the performance – invariably good as my experience of the band has been – it’s the very human connection with an audience: the songs, the on-stage talk, the acoustic walk into the audience to play. Quite simply, you’re joining with them on the charabanc of joy.
I’ll talk through the first half to give a feel.
‘We Are Different, We Are One’ was the opener. The sound in the venue is good, the acoustics are good, the band on fine form blasting us with the anthemic celebration of both difference and unity, the audience joining in the rousing chorus. What a start. You already know you’re in for a good night. There are seven in the band on stage, a backdrop of small lights looking like stars on a dark background. Though the members of Merry Hell seem far too down to earth to accept the nomenclature of ‘star’, I can’t stop myself from writing in my notes, “Stars behind, stars in front”.
The rumble of the keyboards, the scrape of the fiddle lead into 2015’s ‘There’s a Ghost in Our House’. Less well known than the more recent songs, it keeps the audience uplifted and gives the opportunity for humour, for connection in conversation as well as song. “I thought I saw a ghost at the back of the room. It was rather handsome …. And then I realised I was looking at a mirror”.
The third song, ‘Bury Me Naked’ is introduced with a health and safety warning, “The song is dangerous, you’ll be whipped into a frenzy, initially a gentle sway, but during the choruses your arms will shoot up in the air and start swaying, caring not a jot”. And, sure enough, the swaying happened, the arms shot in the air, the chorus was sung, the applause was raucous. Bloody hell, they’re only three songs in…..
Can you follow that with a song that brings a prickling to the eyes? Merry Hell can. With the introduction that made me think of the news as well as friends, “It’s OK to be heartbroken for both sides”, they play ‘Lean on Me, Love’. The lyric opens with boredom and dark clouds and grows to the darkness of the final three verses:
And when you’ve said all that you can say
When they turn their backs and walk away
When your dreams cave in and fade to grey
Lean on me, Love
When you’ve been howling at the moon
And your hope has been and gone too soon
When rock n roll don’t shake the room
Lean on me, Love
And when dreaming doesn’t make it so
And your aching heart is gonna blow
Turn on, turn up, your radio
And lean on me, Love
It’s an early song but when songs are as good as this, you keep them in the set. When you play them as well as this, you keep them in the set. We move from roisterous swaying to not-a-pin-dropping-verses and a barely perceptible gentle-joining-in-with-the-tender-refrain. The increasing darkness of the lyric only serves to increase the strength of the offer to lean on me, love.
There is, in the members of Merry Hell, a unique ability to display a strong humanity in good songs. I’m reminded that this is the band that, in an instant as far as we could tell, allowed a mate of mine to use ‘We Need Each Other Now’ for the Lincolnshire Refugee Doctor Project, “it sums up the reason, we are doing the work we are”.
Let’s take the next two songs from the evening: ‘Leave It In The Ground’ and ‘Sister Atlas’, both from the more recent Emergency Lullabies album. The former is introduced as a modern song about the loss of coal industry, the people of such towns (the band are from Wigan), but rather more than that, “This song honours our industrial past, but it looks to the future”. I reckon it would be impossible to find a band with more to say, and as sympathetically, about the world we’re in. ‘Sister Atlas’ is the tale of Greta Thunberg who has “brought more awareness about climate change than any politician”. The song has the refrain, “Big world, young shoulders/Now she’s in the mainstream/ Now she’s on the cover of running-out-of-Time Magazine”. It’s another anthem, it’s another song to sing with, and, just as we swayed earlier, it’s another song to physically join in, with our hands and arms. This is a band that relates to an audience as well as any I’ve seen. They have the inclusiveness of a music hall theatre (by the way, there’s a vaudevillian reddish top hat amongst other stagecraft), but they have rather more to import.
‘Come On England’, which follows, is another gem. Take the three stanzas at the heart of the lyric:
There are some who would change this fair home to a prison
To enslave the many, and bow to the few
The robbers, the racists, the breakers of faces
Who hide behind masks and the red white and blue
So stand up, come on England, live up to your history
Your heart can’t be held in a flag or a crown
Raise your tea cups and glasses, you bold lads and lasses
And drink to the spirit that will never lie down
For I come from the land of the diggers and levellers
The fighters for freedom and our national health
The beaten mistreated but never defeated
The builders and guardians of the true commonwealth
This is a song to reclaim England for the English, all the English not just The Few (Bragg), a reminder that we can be proud to be English, or as the introduction had it, “These are qualities we share, the vanity of politicians [took it away from us]. We built an NHS not for ourselves, but for each other”.
After which, the band left the stage for Virginia to sing and play, which she did … on her own … without electrification … wandering around the audience so there is no barrier, no longer a performer separate on a stage but a minstrel amongst the crowd.
To reflect, then: Merry Hell are a belter of a live band, there’s a couple of singers who swap lead vocal and it’s easy to focus on them, but there are seven musicians in Merry Hell who share the playing and the choral vocals which make the bands anthems powerful; this is a collective performance with a big sound. More than that, the band make their songs louder, more powerful, more shared by having an additional hundred and odd in the audience who don’t watch the band, they take part with the band.
I’ll leave you to go and see Merry Hell to find out about the second half – but if it sounds like a good first half, in the second half it rises, people danced, and a good time appeared to be had by all.
More than that though, Merry Hell, for all the warmth of their lyrics are a band, not poets. Above all, they are a damn good live band doing something with heart which is probably better than anyone is doing at the moment. As well as anyone on the folk scene now, they are keeping music live, keeping audiences coming out – to festivals in the summer and to venues across the country in rain, ice and snow in the winter.
At the half time break, someone wandered past me humming and singing one of the songs they’d just heard. (They were youngish, not even an Old Grey.) Immediately after the break, the band were presented with the aforementioned award for Let The Music Speak For Itself. It’s not just me, then, who thinks they’re pretty good.
And finally … not many people talk about the venue and the promoters. But they should.
Up and down the country are many people, mostly volunteers, on a labour of love, keeping ‘the scene’ going. So a quick bit of recognition too both for those involved with developing and keeping the Assembly Rooms in Melbourne as a great venue and also for the people from Village Folk, the non-profit-making organisation putting on this gig and a series of others.
So … go and see Merry Hell; go to Melbourne Assembly Rooms (https://melbourneassemblyrooms.co.uk/events-overview/); go and see one the gigs put on by Village Folk – or set up a local folk club in a pub (we need to keep them going as well) where you meet with a bunch of people and play. Keep it live.
Artists’ website: http://www.merryhell.co.uk
‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’ – live: