MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC and THE RABBLE CHORUS live at Snape Maltings

Merry Hell Acoustic

Merry Hell don’t often get to play at places where the bouncers, sorry ushers, wear DJs but they’d never played Snape Maltings before. This is a classical concert hall with spectacular acoustics in which Virginia Kettle absolutely revelled – singing scales between songs just for the joy of hearing her voice resonate around the space. Of course, they needed a big space to accommodate the choir, so let’s start with them.

The Rabble ChorusThe Rabble Chorus are an amalgamation of four community choirs under the musical direction of Kirsty Logan who teaches all of them the same repertoire – clever, eh? There were three hundred of them of stage and that’s quite a sound, believe me. They opened their support set with ‘Drunken Sailor’ which was rousing but I’d hoped for something more. That came with ‘Emerald Green’, a song from Merry Hell (used with permission, I hasten to add) and Nancy Kerr’s ‘Poison Apples’ which established their right-on credentials. Then came a song in Czech which sounded wonderful but turned out to be totally inconsequential.

A small group of the men sang ‘Sweetest Kick’ from the Spooky Men’s Chorale and a similar group of the women sang two songs from the Borders and Orkney. Sadly, I didn’t get the name of the leader of ‘Cattle Call’ but she has one hell of a voice. I liked their setting of ‘Crossing The Bar’ and they closed with a visit to South Africa via Paul Simon’s ‘Under African Skies’ and ‘Nkosi Sikelel ‘iafrica’.

Merry Hell began with a couple of their crowd-pleasing anthems; ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After Until We’ve Had The Night Before’. The choir had remained on stage but were keeping their powder dry for a while. ‘Stand Down’ and ‘Bloodlines’ followed and then we hit the first peak with The Rabble Chorus joining in on ‘We Need Each Other Now’ and ‘Bury Me Naked’ – songs that really benefit from massed voices.

There are always some fixed points in the set: ‘Lean On Me Love’ and ‘Drunken Serenade’ are essentials and ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ and ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ add lightness as does ‘Finest Hour’ while Virginia’s solo, ‘Violet’, from her eagerly anticipated solo album was a delight. Bob Kettle’s top hat creates a shadow for him to hide in but I managed to get some photographs this time and I still marvel at how Neil McCartney makes his violin sound like a trumpet. I do think that Merry Hell should try working with a brass band.

The first encore of ‘Coming Home Song’, sung a capella with the choir, was a joy – I only wish they could transfer that sound to the sweaty intensity of The Old Courts or The Citadel. Perhaps the only miss-step was following that with ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’ instead of perhaps leaving the final thought that “we will fly away” hanging in that wonderful space.

Finally, and I don’t usually do this, I’d like to thank the Maltings staff. They have a strict no photographs policy but after some cajoling and consultation and probably sworn affidavits from Merry Hell, I was awarded the red sash that made me an honorary usher and allowed no, positively encouraged, to take pictures. They have style in Snape.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ websites: http://www.merryhell.co.uk/  https://www.therabblechorus.co.uk/home

Venue website: https://snapemaltings.co.uk/

‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ – live:

MERRY HELL ACOUSTIC – live at The Old Courts, Wigan – 29th April 2018

Merry Hell Acoustic
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.

Jenny ColquittSupport came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.

If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished –  I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.

They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.

As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.

The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video: