Recently we got a chance to revisit Bishops House for a gig. Bishops House is a venue close to heart as this where I got married last year. This was not the Bishops House I remembered though. True the building is still intact, the old wood looking regal under the dark sky, but on entering to a three-part gig we have been invited to, we notice a pure ocean of electronics, be it loop peddles, samplers and many many forms and functions we had no idea about. The lights all blink their own rhythm in their own space and time like peddlers shouting out their wares and overlapping each others voices in the dark.
As part of Sensoria (the festival) and Sonido Polifonico (the micro label), we look forward to an evening of sounds and visuals with the intention of escapism, inner thought and at times mild terror.
The night starts with Aeourth. The floor is surrounded by his instruments, the mood is set as he kneels down to start the music. There is something about the start of the session that sounds cellular, quiet at times with a biological hum. The sounds transition into the feeling of tiny pricks of legs, the skittering of spiders as everything shuffles as if navigating in the micro-world.
Throughout there is a sense of awe, the soundscape is growing from small to large. Flashes of a powerful figure appear on the screen, and we move to a tunnel and the sea as it fades in and out of view. . You feel water Aeourth brings out a fiddle bow and bows on a guitar. Later he plucks what looks like a dulcimer, and as the electronic soundscape seems full of bells, we see reeds and the sound becomes all so oppressive. It comes full circle and feels small, microsopic but the visuals and sound combine and it sounds like tiny invisible robots swinging limbs, maybe nanobots; the piece hints at something dark to come later in human society (maybe).
A good introduction to the rest of the evening. Whilst we are sure no harm came to the violin bow or guitar strings, the sound it produced was rather hair-raising (to a fiddle player myself) and traumatic in all the best ways.
Next up was Carusias Arise! Starting in a dark wood, you see a silhoutte of a Male figure, and the set takes off from there. The artist has a number of switches and buttons, and as the sounds emerge he chants over the top, we are not sure for certain but it seems at one point there is reference to a cradle, (we might have misheard this). Like a trance, the visuals back up the looping performance, severe splashes and dashes of colour combine and explode to form an eye that watches, and the lines spiral around and around in an electronic terror. The performance hints at the horror at the fringes of knowledge and experience while sometimes showing glimmers of hopefulness. The artist chants over the top reaching inward, like a commanding inner voice or conscience. The whole sessions ends with an anxiety, a feeling of dread even, but all-in-all this slightly trippy experience has been a good one.
The last segment of the night is Burd Ellen, the acclaimed electro-folk duo of Debbie Armour and Gayle Brogan. There is much anticipation, and we have been keen to see them for a while. We were treated to their project of “Neither Witch Nor Will Warlock” a commissioned piece for the WITCH // HAG Festival (how good does that sound?).
Burd Ellen are recognised by the BBC, the Guardian and Songlines, and frankly, can see what the fuss about. When the music is combined with Kieran Milne’s evocative landscapes and visualisations, something special happens indeed. A sense of brightness and optimistic starts with the efflorescent light, the musical well that we begin by peering into. The video starts with a walk over the fields and of the whipping grass as the woods approach.
When we get there, we hear the affecting, cutting words and the atmospheric chimes of “The Lovers”; Burd Ellen’s take on a version of “Maiden Hind” [Roud 205]. The song’s tragedy around personally discovered incest between siblings and tragedy has the soundings of doom. You do not see the act, but the track grinds like a heavy metal tool on an anvil. It feels like the weight of society’s disapproval crushing the joy of a carefree, fun act with a misery. The worlds of the brother’s life at sea and that of the woods of the sister collide in the display, the sun ends somewhat blindingly implying a malady of the mind yet to come.
When it moves to the sea, we get some fiddle strings, swirly clouds and the drone of more misfortune to come with a rendition of “The Lass of Lochroyan”. The earthy, ill-fortunes of the people in these stories resonate against the power of the Witch at the centre. She pulls the strands of fate as the Tarot flashes up in a sequence and the esoteric takes over.
Well worth the wait, this magickal exhibition of forms is a collision of occult art, folk music and storytelling in all the best possible ways.
We had the pleasure of attending an event which marks the shimmering of the air and the slipstream of the horror season as we move from the month of Halloween and into the one of even darker nights and exploding lights.
With a strong connection to Folk Horror, early 20th Century, poetry and traumatising children’s television (which is slightly before my time), we are treated to a thoughtful, exploratory evening of two parts, namely (i.) a lecture on the Avebury stones, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, and ideas around them, and (ii.) a musical gig that provides atmospheric samples and song over essential poetry. This all takes place within the cool, intimate wings of the University of Sheffield’s Drama Studio.
To start, we meet David Bramwell, author of “Cult of Water” as he looks into the Avebury Stones, his experiences and connections with the children’s show, “Children of the Stones”. It is an intriguing, enlightening talk and not exclusively for its educational value. Brawell does an almost Dave Gorman thing by pursuing the history of a fake stone head that was part of an April Fools Joke around Avebury and where that indeed may lead to. Along the way there is a joyous, informed exploration of monuments and interpretations of their purpose. His playful manner does dig into some of our most basic preconceptions sometimes such as, “Cavemen didn’t live in caves, they could build houses, no-one would ever live in a cave.” That raised a good laugh.
The theme of our preconceptions is the starring role here as Bramwell gives us a glimpse of what a particular brand of children’s programme was in the 70’s (I will give you a clue, terrifying). On one hand he looks at the notion of celebrity through history; and on the other he dips his toe into counterculture views of the stones when he recalls discussions with musician and celebrity Julian Cope. As you would expect, when Cope gets involved it goes, in all the best ways, from him dipping his toe in to losing a leg to an alligator under the still waters.
The second half brought us to a gig by Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus with tracks from their swift wings album. Here the ambience of the venue at Sheffield Drama Studio (which we haven’t mentioned yet) really came into its full. Sparse lighting, an enigmatic triangle of candles and the aetheric, sight saturating brightness of Wendy Pye’s nature visuals.
Combining Krauss’s haunting vocals, recorders, flute and synth loops with Justin Hopper’s assured narration, we enter the world of Victor Neuburg, a more-than associate of Aleister Crowley and the poetry he produced through his own press. Before the performance there was some context to Neuburg’s life and viewpoint which complimented the open, peaceful messages of the first half of the evening. Neuburg clearly suffered through life, but many of his joys are also scratched deep into the velum of his work, where many of his poems spring from (only having been uncovered this very year). Some of our favourite of the chilling but often bursting-with-life tracks include, “Frenchlands” an upbeat, woodwind-fuelled, mustard-yellow haze of a dream that precipitates the mind like a passing ray of sun on the face. “Coombes” a more future-centric track which can hit like a kind of spiritual cyborg, ruminating on “ghosts”, and the the otherworldly purgatory, grey and flat “October” feeling that trying to escape the taunt of spiraling, embracing thorns. Joy and gloom, the call of history and the spirit of doing justice to this creative, obscure soul is a great way to spend an evening. The album itself will undoubtedly be an interesting staple for folk fans, folk horror enthusiasts, poet-chasers and magickal practitioners all alike and together in appreciation.
Thoughtful and enjoyable as both a nostalgic folk horror memory, an exploration of counter-cultural notions (such as water dowsing), and a call to pre-Christian beliefs it was a great night amplified by the immersive, humbling and spiritual power of Swift Wings’ performance.
If you are interested in having a listen to the album, then click on to their Bandcamp here, or checkout a sample video below.
Sit up, science is about to begin! For those who like to follow the Roud index as much as the Alper-Doger Index, an EP is out which looks at some incredible stories of science, celebrating them in the warm halo of Findlay Napier and Megan Henwood. The stylings of Glaswegian Napier and bluesy-lyricist Henwood’s folk have combined into something both nerdy and musically beautiful, the likes we have not seen of any time in recent memory (except of course their first EP “Story Song Scientists”, of course). This fusion with its heart in experimentation goes some way to make us quicken from a slow meander to a quintessential sprint with purpose as we hear of some previously unheard human accomplishments from our history (and not all positive in nature).
This EP contains crackly call-backs to yester-year, poetry and good old melodies whose quaint exterior masks the quite seismic effects on our history. Supported by the Arts Council these science stories spectaculaire are a potent mix of songwriting that is every bit the beauty of that potassium experiment you remember with all its fireworks (and less of what could be found behind the safety screen afterwards).
“Ode to the Man with the Man with the Golden Arm” is like a quick,friendly embrace with its gentle and softly spoken, 60s ballad influence. Describing James Harrison, a man with a rare antigen to Rhesus Disease in his blood, the song captivates with a folky, calling harmony and a melodic guitar pluck that quietly celebrates his accomplishment. On discovery of the antigen, Mr Harrison is purported to have saved 2.5 million babies in Australia by regularly donating blood every week for 60 years. The duo’s voices celebrate as a reverent singing whisper for an enormously generous human being; the track ripples its delicate butterfly wings in the Far East spreading its influences out. Like the calm, thoughtful works of Simon and Garfunkel, Napier and Henwood glow in awe with their captivating song style.
The idea behind the “The Anarchist Cookbook” is, of course, that book of legend whose reputation hadn’t dimmed in some circles I knew at school in the 90s. The recipes for such things as the construction of weapons, how to make LSD, and most famously, bombs were contained within. The spirit of the age is invoked as the song wonders how William Powell’s book could have affected the conscience of the author, “there is ink on my fingers, blood on my hands”. The juxtaposition of the damning lyrics with the dream-like guitar dissolves into a final chorus of clicks, static and growing synth drums that really sticks in that time-honoured tradition that the jolliest tunes are probably the most grim in content (just look at child ballads). Mirroring Mr Powell’s own regrets, the song is like a poorly maintained fairground. Breezy and fun, the danger lies beneath the surface in the track; it rises to the surface in the off-beat continuation of “Specimen 4 – TAC” (Track 8).
We also want to talk about “1800 and Froze to Death”. This delightful ditty is the catchy, sing-a-long blues number that we would normally find within Megan Henwood’s cabinet of music, and it being here serves the listener very well. The early track speaks of Mount Tambora’s eruption (the most powerful on Earth in 10,000 years) and how it created a climate catastrophe of famine and exceptionally cold temperatures. Clever rhyming with and charming interface between the two singers allows this song to flow as it talks about global, seismic changes to the world in the style of a guy out of work and down on his luck. Smoky and stylish like Henwood’s solo fare with a good eye on the word (as per Napier), this is worth taking pause for.
There are other tracks for you to mull over here, but without going into details it is safe to say that “The Story Scientists” has been a worthwhile experiment with everything here. Henwood and Napier’s voices are complimentary, the album is polished in production, and there have been some inspiring choices of science throughout.
Like the thunderous hooves of an approaching stampede, Birds and Beasts’ second album is a groove-filled, thumping and purposeful sophomore album which puts it’s classic rock expertise to very good use.
Album Launch Date: 23/10/21
If you have been living in a cave for the past few years, then chances are, (without you realising) you have had a song or two written about you by a band from the sunny uplands of West Yorkshire. This will not be due to your lack of up-to-date news about youth slang, or your dislike of music post 1982, but it might be because you are a bear. Let us explain.
The Huddersfield-based band “Birds and Beasts” are the duo of Anna and Leo Brazil who had an epiphany about nature and our relationship with it. By looking at the behaviour and lives of animals, they combine the daily struggles of being an ant (for example) with imagery and situations we recognise as part of being human too. This natural communion has served them well on their previous offering, “Entwined” and now, after returning from that shady glen, their second album is out called “Kozmik Disko”.
There is a temptation for us of a certain age (or with children) to have apocalyptic visions of a rave style “Baa Baa Black Ship” or a Hard House version of “Nellie the Elephant” while a DJ plays sped-up samples from a BBC Wildlife documentary (I am almost certain that second track exists and I have danced to it). Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth as “Birds and Beast” carefully knit a strikingly sharp cardigan which has shades of commentary, wry humour and great sounds, as a well-constructed work that does not take short cuts. It’s mastering at Abbey Road Studios have put a real magnetic luster on the already fine contents.
Take track 4 “The Bloat”, for example. Here is a song about warring hippos in direct confrontation of a watering hole. A watery layer of classic rock, some chunky riffs and jazz undertones the scene plays out like one of those old film brawls with flailing arms and accusations calling out over the top. Think of the Barn Fight from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” but instead taking place in a 1970s Discotek. The vocals compliment each other well, there is a little kick of a pace and the song is an example, as many are on the album, of the artists’ versatility. Much like the Cape Buffalo, a thoughtful exploration of one’s partnership can suddenly turn, the track snakes in one direction and then finds a new emotion and beat, Before you know it you have been a lead in to a music genre that has been skillfully smuggled and blended in.
“The Current” tells of a shark and it’s electrical impulses that lead it to food, friends and family. Like the strong guitars of Heart’s “Barracuda” (also another shark, of course), the song has a strong beating heart where the two guitar tracks interact which pushes it on. Clean guitars throughout and a nicely light drum compliment the upbeat glow of the singers’ voices. It warms the hands and feet like a gentle, coal fire. A fine example of classic rock, “The Current” takes a concise approach to describing the creature as it feels around the busy waters much like the electric anticipation of a live concert.
“The Day I was Born” is even more radiant describing the sweeter side of love alongside the intoxicating role of the honey bee. More than ready to jump into a soft shoe shuffle, the track is full of platitudes such as, “I am yours, body and soul”. The honey bee here is chosen from birth to “marry” the Queen bee, and the human subject comparatively is more than smitten and in love. The sense of all life being preordained and the subject being strongly carried by the waves of fate presides through the number. While we listen there are the bouncy sensibilities of 60s boy bands powdered with the pollen of 80s new wave and rock as those awesome brief synth interludes put their head over the parapets. Colourful and joyous, the track grabs you like a rainbow bulldog clip and refuses to let go. Wherever Birds and Beasts travel through or end up at with their songs there are some extremely catchy segments and turns of phrase that indicate some well-placed confidence in the songwriting department.
The joy of the album is that there are obvious and easy choices taken here, the songs are written well enough to take a pummeling even by an individual with no knowledge of the natural world because the human factor is equally recognisable and celebrated alongside. For every eloping couple there is the song, “Wolfpack” about two wolves leaving the pack to start a new life; for every hero there is “Keep Walking” the ant who sacrifices communication and closeness with the rest of the hive in order to save them; and if that’s not analogous enough we get “Deep Down”, a scorpion’s tireless search to find a mate. True, there is a lot about love here, but not once do you have to sit down to dull the nausea. There is all sorts of love: obsessive love, romantic love, love through duty and the songwriters give each a proper examination in the light of their watchful eyes. It helps that everything from the album cover artwork (designed by the band), to the off-beat, bright, DIY style to the music videos add oodles of charm; no scrap that, noodles of charm all hugging together in an instant ramen cup.
One of our favourites from the album has to be “Silver Moon Array” where a hedgehog awakes a little early (mid) hibernation and does not recognise the world he has stepped into. Incredibly atmospheric, you feel a shiver as the snow comes and the hedgehog’s vision of stretches of grass is replaced by concrete. The duos’ vocals dance together with a good harmony with Anna taking the lead adding a great sadness underneath the jangly melody and tinged with an almost Caribbean keyboard backing track. The accompanying video (see below) just adds to the scene and tugs the heart chords.
In case you hadn’t guessed, we strongly recommend “Birds and Beasts”. Their new album is a tight work that is informed by, but also extremely generous with it’s genre influences. It is an original series of tracks that pays its respects to animals without dressing them up in top hats and dinner jackets. Evocative and confident, the “Birds and Beasts” second album is an essential purchase for those with a hankering for unabashedly classic rock with an intriguing central premise that goes a long, long way.
Birds and the Beasts are launching their album tour, starting at the Laurence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield (supported by Dan Healey) on 23rd October, and then are going outward to other great venues, check out the details here.
The album is available from all good stockists, we recommend you purchase from the band directly here.
Bursting on to the Sheffield theatre scene comes “Soonchild”, a play from the Red Earth Theatre Company which is adapted from a book by Russell Hoban. It is a story of the environment and the value within it, as a whole it is based on Inuit mythology. Red Earth is an organisation based in the East Midlands that is spreading their song outward, what could be the message they are delivering? Red Earth warms the heart with their forthright central tenants that “everyone is creative”, “everyone’s heart can be moved”, and “everyone can feel fully alive”; all great goals and guiding principles.
It doesn’t appear to be all empty words either as the company demonstrates their good works through conducting research into deaf and hard of hearing theatre as well as integrating this into their plays in a meaningful way. It feels like they pursue theatre for all as a duck chases a cracker; their earnest determination is a bright light of representation in the arts, and it shows in this work. Their website is here https://redearththeatre.com/
More on this later though, let us return to the story.
“Soonchild” is pretty much as the name suggests; a child is in her mother’s womb and she is due to arrive soon. Unfortunately she does not believe in the world outside and will not be born until she hears the World Songs. The job of finding these falls to the child’s father John, a shaman who is doubting his connection to the spirit world. Not only this, he has recently had a run of bad luck trying to solve people’s problems in the village, he has “lost his mojo”. With the help of the spirit of his Great Grandmother (who likes her vodka), Nanuk the polar bear and many others he seeks the stories out to bring to his child which as well as convincing his child to be born might itself might be part of saving the world from an unknown danger.
SCENES AND CHOICES
From the offset you feel that this adaptation by Wendy Rouse and Amanda Wilde (director) is confidently making the choices it does. The Montgomery theatre has the space and versatility to carry off the play, it all comes together nicely here as it is a familiar, family atmosphere.
In terms of representation, there isn’t only an interpreter (more than one in truth as performers Matilda Bott and Brandon Plummer and Craig Painting switch these duties) but there are subtitles too. These appear on a nicely constructed sign by the side of the stage to keep the watcher informed (with the captions effectively done by the University of Nottingham captioning team).
There is another crucial element which we haven’t mentioned up to this point. The whole show has original accompanying music by the band “Threaded”, a group of musicians that have had high praise from Fatea Magazine and other folk circles. Consisted of Jamie Rutherford, Ning-ning Li and Rosie Bott, Threaded are a lively, smiley and emotive bunch of musicians that bring a range of moods to suit within the show. There is the swaggering music of the polar bear, the scary violin at John’s first death or the truly excellent potion-making tracks “Big Dram Brew” through guitar, violin and (refreshingly) clarinet. It is atmospheric and joyful to see these guys perform, and they seriously get involved in the theatrics too. A very notable addition is their commercial jingle that is a wry smile to our notion of a polar bear being all about Coca-Cola.
Much like the book, the play is based in the modern day; the mix of the spiritual and the old and the issues of today form an exciting explosion like caesium in water that crackles and illuminates society’s worries for all. John could be considered in the grasp of depression over the loss of his relevance and skill but he is also concerned about the environment, and fearful for his transition to fatherhood. Craig Painting brings a lovely array of rubber faces to a full range of emotions, he is truly the “Sixteen-face John” that the story demands. You never doubt he is having a hard time, he portrays the character’s fallibility and sadness throughout with no pantomime, and this is a challenging task in a story where there is not a quick and easy resolution to this these tidal waves of worry through the play.
Matilda Bott also brings a lot, particularly in her ability to switch between roles at the drop of a hat (or a shawl). A veritable spring of energy, Bott is a joy to keep up with throughout. In one scene early on it is presented that the performers are playing “rock, paper, scissors” to determine who will play John the Shaman’s wife. Bott “loses” the encounter and it does to Brandon Plummer to play this part. What comes across as a bit of fun and games is really a clever bit of casting which makes a bigger statement than how it appears. A man playing a woman is not a new thing, but it is only in the finale of the play when the two men kiss when you realise it could be making a positive statement about sexuality too. And like it’s treatment of depression, self-worth, and disposable commercialism it is all simmered into the narrative like those hidden carrots in your child’s pasta so with quiet acknowledgement and acceptance “Soonchild” is the very best education.
Soonchild is also a brave and accomplished production that knows it’s family audience. Alongside the acting there is puppetry of all sizes (Plummer in the towering puppet of Nanuk or the tiny puppet of John traversing the mountains) and the puppet design adds a lot to what is seen (Nick Ash, Emma Powell, Steve Tiplady). There are also models, musical interludes and enough wonder to shake glittery wand at. Younger children will be taken in by the spectacle, older children will see the magic in the fantasy and parents will be entertained through and through. One surprise was the inclusion of a noteworthy shock in the play that comes at the end of the first half. The scene itself is beautiful, haunting and the lighting is on point (Callum Macdonald). It is however uncompromising, so parents of young children may need to reassure them at this point (though admittedly this did not seem to be an issue when we watched the play).
Soonchild is a rousing, spiritual and, at times, bizarre story (like all great works based on mythology). The tale is kept fresh for children and adults alike through its transitions between acting, puppetry, shadow-work and special effects; and at no point do you feel that you know what is going to happen, and that is the joy of it. Multi-layered and interesting it’s core message is shouted even stronger with the thoughtful and effective inclusion of signing and subtitles.
There is procrastination and procrastination. I mean I have thought about painting the walls in my office a beautiful forest green for weeks (and haven’t managed yet) but sometimes people put off really big things, things that matter. In the world of music there are bands who take their sweet time between album releases. For example Daft Punk took 12 years between “Human After All” and “Random Access Memories” and The Who went from 1982 to 2006 without a further album release in the middle. You have groups like this, then you get Geoff Lakeman.
Geoff Lakeman is a surprisingly low-key figure in a flock of Lakemans, but there are few that will not recognise the name at all. Many are well known folk artists after all including Seth, Sam and Sean Lakeman, all artists very present and productive in their folk projects, but what of Geoff? Well if Lakemans are like springs of musical versatility then perhaps you could say that Geoff is the “limestone” that helped these waters emerge. As father to the others, he is the unsung song,the unseen wind that performed folk as a family for several years only taking it up full-time when retiring from a long, distinguished career in wall-street journalism. So when we think about time taken for artists to release work, few will match Geoff’s record of waiting until his 69th year to put his thoughts on to silver disc.
But it is well worth the wait, our review of it is here and tonight he plays at Village Folk in Chellaston.
Making his way in a rather quiet and unassuming manner, Geoff took the stage to show us what he knows. Perhaps this element of Geoff taking his time to make a disc from his 40 years of performance is what makes listening to Lakeman now a special and privileged event.
It is a refreshing set. Lakeman skips across the Atlantic on more than one occassion bringing us “When the Taters are Dug” and “A Wide, Wide River to Cross.” The former being a delightful ditty about rural life from Maine, the latter is like a spiritual hymn with it’s powerful resonating introspection, the singer reaches far and wide in both location and tone. The crowd are rapt and attentive as he holds the stage for his own, it is a delight to see him touring. Delicate in character Geoff also sang “Someone waiting for me”, a track not found on “After All These Years” and when he comes back to our shores he storms in with an original number “Tie ‘Em Up”, based in history but eerily relevant to today’s issues to do with fishing quotas.
Geoff also plays one of our personal favourites “Rule and Bant” about a couple of tin miners trapped in the ground following an accident in the 1800s. An emotional number, Geoff’s voice is quite elastic here portraying fear, good cheer and mystery. Politics gets as good as a visit as history too with Lakeman playing an excellent cover of “England Green, England Grey” by Reg Meuross instead swapping out the fine guitar work for his own concertina. As becomes apparent, the set has more than a few flashes of politics and history and has an awful lot to say much like the aforementioned Meuross who alongside Geoff are likewise chroniclers of our modern injustices. The joy of seeing Geoff is that he embodies the soul of folk music as he plays alone with a rare concertina quality with no production tricks, echos or otherwise. For many this alone is folk music at it’s purest, like col0ssal veins of iron before they are treated to become stainless steel. People who like their songs about the working man will not be disappointed here.
In person and in performance there is isn’t a big band or a wall of sound but does not suffer for it. It is quite a pertinent observation as Lakeman jokingly tells the audience about the creation of the album. It is pretty entertaining to hear how it came to it’s current shape, especially at one point where Geoff sends a track off to Sean doing the production to add in another instrument and it comes back with more backing and Kathryn Roberts’ voice appearing on the number as a surprise. His laments about being coerced into including the track “Doggie Song”by said Roberts are also entertaining as he becomes concerned about being remembered for the guy who sings about “dog turds”. The risks of musical typecasting is certainly real!
As well as showcasing a large amount of the album’s tracks, Geoff took some delightful sunny detours. He sings “The Seeds of Love”, that old, old classic collected from Cecil Sharp and a jaunty, folky version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Making Whoopee” that makes really does the earth move. These little moments of sweetness and humour really bring a roundedness to the set elevating it above the preconceptions that some might have about folk music, e.g. that it’s all about death and seriousness.
So in a strong, simple performance whose strength is it’s simplicity and clarity, Lakeman shows us he is an entralling, generous and accomplished host. The set brims with stories, the room sways and sings along in time and the night is awash with a quiet energy that fills the corners of the Lawns Hotel. A great night, a thorough, committed performance and as always a gracious, attentive and warm reception by this night’s organisers, definitely give one of Geoff’s gigs a go.
Check out Geoff’s website for more information about where he is touring here!
Village Folk is one of the best live venues we have been to.. granted we write for them, but we also believe it is a great atmosphere, a welcoming family of people and a special night out, check out their website here to see which folk act they are getting next (they get some of the best) http://www.villagefolk.org/
“Sharp, witty and accomplished there is a class to Roberts & Lakeman’s new album that cannot be measured on any known scientific apparatus”
Producer: Sean Lakeman
Iscream Music Records (2018)
Released 9th March 2018
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman are indeed a famous duo. Maybe the best known in folk circles due to the two well-deserved wins for “Best Duo” at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. People always presume that the difficulty in fame and music is in the ascent, but surely Lords and Ladies have the added pressure of walking their parapets safely once they have been built. Roberts and Lakeman haven’t installed a hand rail on their high wall though to keep them safe however. They are still dancing, leaning over the outcrop, shouting to the crowd and having a regal ball in plain sight. Their new, fifth album “Personae” is an album of energy showing no lack of original ideas, adventure or showmanship in the realm of fantastical stories.
It all starts with the cover photograph (by Niki Bidgood) which is either an otherworldly rodeo or Roberts is performing a superhero feat of strength with her hips. It is warmly baffling, but in the best possible way. Perhaps as the album is called “personae” it is in the spirit of one “reining” in their outward appearance. The whole scene is like a painting where your eyes cannot be trusted- here you wonder if it is sea or land, it could be either. Whatever the intent, there is a lot of fun to be had here and this definitely spills over to the album. It spills over despite any attempt to keep it contained like a rainbow bucket filled with sparkles.
The CD starts with a belting version of Child Ballad 265, “The Knight’s Ghost”. The duo’s rendition makes it rather a favourite for ourselves. We love traditional and maintaining the way things have been; here the song isn’t just elaborated, it is upgraded. Like most ballads the advice of the story inside is of mixed quality. It does remind how grief can make us take rash actions (as the main subject begins revenge against those that she thinks have done her husband harm) though maybe in everyday life we cannot rely on our late partner’s ghost pointing out our errors. For an opener on an album it is a vivacious interpretation that benefits from clear guitar work and emotive, nuanced vocals. It is quite a powerhouse. Sam Kelly’s additional vocals are characterful and fitting. Overall when thinking of the track, going back to the comparison rodeos, this song is much like that the bucking animal who sprints out at the fire of the gun, it bucks and hops and is determined and fierce. A great opener.
Track 3 “Tribute of Hands” is an original fast-paced number that brings some more of the myth to the table. Inspired by the story of the founding of Antwerp the duo have managed to create something as bloodthirsty and grim as any song from the folk song canon, and it fits especially well. Along other tracks, It forms a backbone of tracks about history; legends with a slight fairytale kick and mischievous attitude that give the CD a fantastical anchor. The woodwind in the middle ramps up the mystery and wonder, it is as much of the song as dry ice is in a Prince music video. It all works very well as it speeds along exuding charm. We need more fantastical stories of this kind being brought to life, though this might mean I would stop reading fairytales.
“The Street of the Cats Who Dance” is our favourite of the quintessential piano-led ballads on the album. At first we thought the song might refer to Istanbul which I believe is heavily linked with cats, but the song actually refers to St. Malo, a town in France. In history the governors had the idea of unleashing hungry dogs at night to enforce a curfew on wrongdoers. Night time curfews and nightwalking in history are fascinating reading (I have a great book to recommend on this), but this aside the cats are dancing because the dogs were eventually banned from being used in this way following a particularly gruesome death. The song is incredibly well mixed, Lakeman has created some good harmonies of Roberts’ voice which shines throughout. The song has stirrings of early Tori Amos which, in my opinion, always gets the senses going. This is no Amos tribute though, it moves it’s feet to it’s own beat. It is hard to imagine who else would have the presence to take this song on in the future, but for now this is the least of our concerns.
There are many other fine tracks on the album. The vaudeville, “poison club” exemplifies the mischievousness, playful nature of two folk artists quite perfectly listing some of the best ways substances to have fun to (or die from). Their cover of Sandy Denny’s “Solo” is pure beautiful intention, and “Old, Old, Old” (about a Seychelles tortoise) could be part of a growing tradition of the duo pointing out remarkable creatures in the world around us. Throughout Lakeman doesn’t miss a beat in the instrumentation. It is a credit to his mixing that the weapon of choice on whatever song he is performing on sounds more like a pumped-up army as opposed to a single man, the depth across the disc even on more poignant numbers like “Independence” is breathtaking.
We cannot fault this album. The disc is thoroughly entertaining diving right in and waving to the crowd; it is a work that will be spinning in our music player for periods of time not yet anticipated. For any sci-fi fans it is fairytale in a similar way to Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who with it’s kind of cool, slightly unusual but prestigious appearance.
Another way to understand the value of this album is to imagine that in the depths of Winter you were cold and someone recommended you buy this disc because it would keep you warm. You might don your pickaxe and hard hat to go down the mine in preparation for finding some coal, but what you would find instead is a cave of diamonds from floor to ceiling that shine in the dim amber light of your torch. Take the bag that is your heart and fill it to the top.
Which is just as well because energy prices are going through the roof.
Hi everyone. Quite a bit of time has passed since my last festival post and as the cold sets in to it’s fullest we have snow as far as the eye can see (well it is here). Before the hot rays return I wanted to bring you a roundup of some of the things that we saw at Derby Folk Festival a few months back (ESPECIALLY AS THE LINEUP FOR 2018 is looking pretty colossal!)
Derby is quite a central place and relatively easy to get to, so we do enjoy travelling down and seeing what is happening.
For those who have not managed to get there yet, it is a friendly festival wit venues that aren’t too far from each other, and always a good and varied lineup across the range of Folk genres and popularity. We think in all ways it gets the balance good for an inner-city festival). There is also ceilidh, often some dance workshop and plenty of public displays too that make it a fun few days.
Thinking about Derby Folk Festival, the first rather small (but important) point to note is the Main Marquee. Every year its a sight to see. It’s a big space sitting in the very heart of Derby’s art quarter which ends up weathering an potential weather storms at the quite late time of year. In 2016, the rain fell and got everywhere. Let us say the Marquee seemed to take a bit of a battering and the Gods seemed displeased. This year the Marquee is reinforced, looks a lot more solid like a great metal tree awaiting the harshest of elements. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the weather didn’t come so it wasn’t put to the test. It still looked great though.
Another thing about the festival is there is plenty to see, some cool food vans, many great bands and the lovely yearly addition of Adverse Camber (more on them later). Apologies if you or your band are not mentioned below, we have taken a chance to highlight some of the lesser-known artists this year. The rest of you, I will catch up with you shortly I am sure!
So.. lets get to the music! Rather than go day-by-day, let me point out some of the great stuff that springs to mind that I would recommend and makes the festival special.
A young folk bicep of a group flexing their musical muscles, “Rusty Shackle” is an energetic start to the festival. From Wales, the groups comes across as a sometimes understated indie voice, sometimes a fine mirror to Billie Joe Armstrong; either way they have an incredibly broad range. One minute it is the broad anthem of “King Creole”, a song of self worry and ruin, the next it is a surprising medley of numbers including the wonder of “Touch My Bum” (The Cheeky Girls) which got a few nods of recognition. They certainly have a sense of humour too, and it is this fresh-faced, joy and fun that make them a very good gateway to folk for a young crowd; they are a veritable folk aperitif. Other fast and melodic numbers include the quite sweet number “3AM” with a welcome bit of banjo riffing, the denser more urban and expansive “When the Morning Comes”, and a personal favourite “Down to the Valley” that reminds of the best of 80s pop in a direct collision with Show of Hands at the top of their game.
It is all a sweet sound indeed with electric guitar, fiddle, banjo and drums and trumpet laying down spritley, rocking and seriously entertaining set of tunes you should check out. They are also a pretty industrious bunch being on an extensive tour so see their website and perhaps check them out here.
The Rheingan Sisters
A duo of artists that spring to mind the Rheingan Sisters’. We see one of their sets (they actually have two different sets over the festival), and are on very good form,
Fantastic as always with excellent fiddle technicality and songs of evocative soundscapes, we caught them as they were trialling some new material much of which revolved around French bal music and other influences from the region. They did “Cuckoo” from their “Already Home” album as well and this was rich and deep as ever. This allows us to lose ourselves in the ballroom amongst the party of strings. One of their new numbers took us into the depths of forests, in a sweeping and glorious portrayal of environmental destruction, and this was our favourite. Epic and contained like a jack-in-the-box, the Rheingans continue to impress and make a mark. We are just a little dismayed we did not catch their full set (our fault, nowhere elses). Details of their projects can be found here.
Adverse Camber – Dreaming The Nightfield
Burning brightly from a number of past intriguing shows, Adverse Camber return to Derby Folk Festival with performance, story and song about the old book of tales written in Middle Welsh, the Mabinogi. We have seen them on more than one occasion and the fire is still there in their performances. It is quite a treat to see something drawing on old history and myths from our own isles, and I am saying this absolutely loving the older shows from Persia (the Shahnameh show the other year) and their more Nordic sagas.
It is a warming experience for Derby to let the Storytelling in, after all stories and myth aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Whichever side one falls on, here it certainly adds to the variety of what is on show and delivers a quieter (but not too much!), individual first night at the festival. It is quite a sensory, word-spinning reflection of a show and as such it brings a different kind of wonder to the corner of the Guildhall for a night.
Telling some stories of the fair and just lord of Gwnedd, Math fab Mathonwy, Pryderi the lord of Dyfed, a magician (Gwydion), heroes (Lleu Llaw Gyffes) and a woman made of flowers (Blodeuwedd) there are lots of enchanting tales, and as with many stories from history; usually a moral involved (especially with Blodeuwedd). The wonders keep coming.Whether it is (literally) magic mushrooms transforming into golden shields, a plot involving the theft of especially tasty pigs or (my personal favourite) the part where the great lord transforms his son into a series of animals (and learns the creatures’ natures) there is a lot to digest, and like a fine stew more the better for it. The three storytellers Stacey Blythe, Lynne Denman, and Michael Harvey all have their time to shine as musicians and singers in turn with Michael Harvey taking the lead with recounting the stories. The music is stirring and the stage evolves alongside the story which is a pretty special thing to see.
What happens is that throughout the show the cast carry and assemble of series of sticks in what at first seems like a kind of sculpture maze, but it becomes apparent that it is forming the aspects of the stories so the sticks are representing either creatures, mountains or even dead soldiers. The movement of the sticks actually grounds the play and connects the artists to the environment, the touch of dynamism is welcome and it is intriguing to see how the sticks assemble together and actually balance. It is a pleasure to see the company’s continued creative use of set pieces in their shows.
Alongside Naomi Wilds (producer) they have put together a close to home, wondrous series of stories that will leave you wanting more of the magic and more of the myth from those rainy, misty Welsh valleys. We heartily recommend, as of the time of writing there are two more dates coming early 2018 for the show if you can make them, have a look here.
Robyn Johnson joins a (growing) list of female acoustic musicians this year who are convincing me that you do not necessarily need a full band to create a good variety of songs and feelings. Admittedly and embarrassingly at time we at FP find solo guitar acoustic artists a little wanting and numbing. Of course there are always exceptions, and this is not knocking guitars of any shape or size, we just require more convincing. Let us say however that this year we have come to out senses a little bit more on this issue.
Under the banner of Village Folk (excellent hosts in and and out of the Derby Folk Festival, see here), Robyn emerges riding a midnight blues train that has a few folk-town stops along the way. Johnson played some delightfully understated and rhythmic entries such as “Say it with wine”, a lyrically break-dancing tune that wears a bit of a Country and Western hat. Sweet and vulnerable it probes modern living and anxieties in what is an essential piece of acoustic listening. There is also the exploratory, evocative “midnight ramble” which Johnson plays to warmed up, appreciative and rapt audience. Midnight Ramble has particular interest due to it being written about the characterful characters and experiences gathered while the inner town of Derby late on a Friday night, it has everything “Gypsies selling roses”, propositioning men, and a swirling blues ambience.
“Plastic Bag Fairy” is a demonstration of Johnson’s excellent acoustic guitar times and tones; as the first song she wrote it is interesting to see how it contrasts with the rest of her set. Slightly more optimistic and sunny, it shows the good in people who have little to live on. Ending on “Pour Me” is the striking of a match to a can of gasoline as a finisher that refuses to take things slowly.
An intriguing addition to Derby Folk. Worthy and in a way delightfully low-key, her songwriting left an impression with us. Check out her Mixcloud of recordings here.
Kim Lowings and the Greenwood Band
Pretty much the highlight for us and several others at the festival, Kim Lowings and the Greenwood Band had been on our cards for a good while, but we hadn’t seen them live until now.
The band has a good sound and a nice range of instruments. Lowings herself has a distinctive and clear voice and it was all enhanced by the Guildhall’s acoustics. The joyful thing about Lowings and the Greenwood is that they have a playful aura which they cast on to several oldies giving them continued leases of life. Their version of “The Cuckoo” was rather special, and their take on “Oh the Wind and Rain” leaves you wanting more.
We do not want to go into too much detail here, except to say they are an entertaining and rich sound experience, and that for you should check out our other blogpost here about their latest album “Wild & Wicked Youth” here. Take a look at Kim Lowings and the Greenwood’s site here.
Kirsty Merryn was a very welcome addition.
Recently basking in the sunshine from her debut album “She & I” (it is very, very good) she had a chance to perform in Derby Cathedral to an attentive audience. Performing her numbers solo without band accompaniment, Merryn brought a touch of class. At one point she was brought a bouquet of flowers (this has happened a lot while we have been on the road recently), adding even more colour to her flourishing, piano led set. Some songs she shared included ghostly tale “Without Grace” about Grace and William Darling and a tall lighthouse, “The Birds of May” had a strong stillness to it’s sound, like a pagoda next to a small pond of bright koi. This was a general theme and feeling throughout the set; Merryn provokes with a powerful front and a quiet strength that shatters aggravating noises around. She is a fantastic role model in this regard that men and women could look to equally. She also previewed a love song to the sea that she was working on which was exciting to hear. Usually she is the support for Show of Hands, and in a way she is a perfect foil to their louder more anthem-fuelled sounds. They both share a sense of wonder in people and musically approach their reflections on them from different angles.
Like Kim Edgar but earlier in furrowing her own path, Kirsty Merryn is on an upward trajectory. Check out the video below, her website here and keep tuning in for more writing about her in the near future.
Oka Vanga are another group for which we have been acquainted with for a while. We reviewed their latest album, “Dance of the Copper Trail” and found it, “An incredibly listenable album that is tightly managed and has a pretty rich, consistent sound” here, Suffice to say they did not disappoint in person either. Playing some material from their EP, as well as some other acoustic wonders (bolstered by some great double bass) like “The Devil’s Tide,” an exciting, interesting song about a female pirate.
Hosted by live music aficionados, “Village Folk.” they brought a Western charm with their tales of birds, trains and magical trees. The set was punctuated by a heartfelt and warm few songs by Dave Sudbury. He sang “The King of Rome”, and we cried a lot. Fantastic to see him and the friendly reception that he got with the generous applause and acknowledgement. Here is Oka Vanga’s website.
There were many big names at Derby too including Show of Hands, Oysterband, Roberts & Lakeman, and Leveret too which were fabulous to hear while we were moving from place to place. The schedule is enormous, detailed and leaves you with choices to make but in the best possible way.
“Derby Folk is good value, convenient and friendly with good systems for putting the audience close up to both big and upcoming stars of the folk and roots circuit.”
This trend of encouraging this myriad of folk names continues for 2018 as some due to be attending include: Lady Maisery, Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys and many, many more. The tickets are available here and more information about the Festival as a whole here,
This coming year the festival will be running from 4-7 October 2018.
There will be an extra concert on the Thursday compared to previous years (see the site for details).
A hallmark example of a revival done well, “The Transports” brings stalwarts of the folk world to tell affecting stories through song and history.
Peter Bellamy’s folk ballad opera about migration, “The Transports” is back. Having it’s 40th Anniversary it does not so much ask the crowd to continue dancing, but rather teaches a few new steps that should encourage the shyest member to put on their shoes and join the party. It does this through an injection of modern stories, local history research, and a selection of eminent and accomplished musicians who makeup the cast. On tour at a number of venues, it is a dazzling and consummate collection of songs and stories that can clearly be seen to have been sharpened by the whetstone of politics. But while there is a strong theme around migration and hardship, there is also a lot of love and altruism here and the strongest theme that emerges is people’s visible spirit of optimism even when one is short of life choices. We shall return to this later.
Funded by the Arts Council England, we went to see the show at the grand Opera House in Buxton, Derbyshire (and a lovely venue it was too).
There is a lot to see and think about in this theatre event, so in turn let us look at the three main strands within the performance: the historical part, the contemporary links, and the song performances themselves.
So “The Transports” is based around 1783. It starts with the story of Henry Cabel (Sean Cooney) who is an honest man in Suffolk looking at his neighbours in Norfolk and their wealth. He is down on his luck and struggling to feed himself; as the narrator (Matthew Crampton) says, “He’s a good man.. but he’s getting tempted.” This is the first of many explanations by the narrator which paints a morally grey landscape for all the people whatever their time of history, there is a lot of philosophical complexity to be wrought here. Crampton does a good job throughout of planting the seed of reflection in the audience, giving them the context and the tools and asking them if they would have acted differently in such a harsh and brutal world where the stakes are much higher. Crampton has a great voice that entices and explains. He pulls the audience in like a magical toyshop owner, he has some joy and sorrow that he cannot live to keep to himself. His investment in the role is not only visible to see, it can be gleaned from his wonderful research of Parallel Lines that feeds directly into parts of the play (more on this later).
The story progresses, Henry’s desperation leads leads to some unfortunate consequences with him joining with vagabond Abe Carman (David Eagle from the Young ‘Uns) to attempt burglary, They are caught, go to trial and then there are some bad outcomes.. and some very bad outcomes. Mostly framed around the songs, “The Transports” doesn’t so much explain every inner and outer working of the character in their song like in musicals per se (there are no songs about doing laundry for example), it rather opens a space for a broader discussion, a wider personal reflection about that character’s feelings. There are a few acting segments that illustrate this too, though it is much more about the song. That being said, David Eagle makes a truly lothesome yet fetching man of different moral dispositions in his role which made me think extensively of Fagin (the pickpocket from Oliver Twist, not James Fagan to clarify). His time is short, but the performance both inside and outside the “Robber’s Song” is a something to enjoy a lot. From all the musicians (barring maybe Greg Russell’s Turnkey) he carries more of the mannerisms into the song and embodies the character such that is certainly memorable.
As the play continues events move like the great waves between England and Australia, up and down with joy and grief. Henry meets Susannah (Rachael Mcshane) his future wife in prison and we begin to see some of the joys and the warmth that can be found in oppressive circumstances. Rachael plays her role with some grace and kindness whilst Cooney’s Henry is hopeful and the aforementioned Turnkey (Greg Russell) has a whale of a time being the hero (though not at carrying newborns). Alongside the artists having an acting turn, the choice of having the narrator direct so much of the action and explain what is happening is a good one. It means the musicians can play to their strengths and focus their characters into their musical numbers and tightens what we see; especially as the the whole cast necessarily are on the stage at all times.
As mentioned already, there is a huge silver streak of optimism within the play that doesn’t paint the historical situation as “entirely hopeless” even when things seem bad: love can happen in a prison or someone’s conscience will often lead them to a good deed. It mentions “change” in the form of the French Revolution and portrays England interestingly as a social pot about to boil over. It makes the times multi-faceted and lifts from the writing Bellamy’s faith in people to do good things. Even when people do less good things it is either through an attempt to control oppressive circumstances (Susannah stealing cutlery to escape being effectively a slave) or as a small footnote to a future of great accomplishment on the right side of the law. The play certainly makes you think about the notions of rehabilitation, circumstance, and morality.
One of the joys of seeing “The Transports” is it’s knowing looks at how the themes in the historical story are still very much a part of our modern fabric.
Returning to Matthew Crampton’s narrator, there are a number of wry references to the “privately-run” prisons of the time (and now), but also a sharing of the names of people involved in another exodus from London to the textile mills of Derbyshire. Through the research of the Parallel Lines project, he mentions the grim applications of the Poor Law and the experiences of children working in industry. The disparity between the lives they were promised and the lives they actually led is quite jarring, for locals who might not be aware of the price to dignity that some industries have made, this play is quite an eye-opener. Each show is different too. Depending on the venue, the narrator gives the names of local people from history who have suffered similar fates and hardships based on the decisions of industry owners and Government. Doubtless there are parts of the tour which even more history than being seen at Buxton but even the smallest mentions of a person or two are enough to think of these cruel times and how far (in some ways) we have come. It was both enlightening and sad. The effort to integrate this research into the play has the effect of slowing down events, but it is a poignant and relevant stop which really adds a cultural significance, and a heart to this showing of “The Transports”.
Another significant and pretty heart-wrenching modern link is the production’s choice to include the Young ‘Uns song, “Dark Water.” Telling the story of two Syrian refugees attempting to swim across the Aegean Sea it is a claustrophobic, gutting and poignant song. With the media spotlighting this issue a lot last year, this brings it back again explaining much like for the characters of the piece Henry and Sussanah, that these journeys are an ultimate risk that flies in the face of modern discourses against immigrants. Rather than seeing asylum seekers as mildly inconvenienced, carefree people and are coming to this Country to scam hard workers, it highlights a desperation that can only come from all-consuming hopelessness. It is a timely reminder of a risk-taking decision we could all very easily have to make if our lives got threatened in the same way through war or famine.
Songs and Music
This production of “The Transports” is certainly an energetic one. It helps that much like the original run (that had influential folk artists such as Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and June Tabor to just name a handful), a number of recognised and young artists are involved in this.
Joining those already mentioned (Sean Cooney, David Eagle, Rachael McShane, Gregg Russell) there is also Michael Hughes (the Young Un’s) Nancy Kerr, and the members of Faustus (Paul Sartin, Saul Rose, Benji Kirkpatrick) who bring their trademark qualities of solemness, raucous energy, and focus to a pretty varied roster of songs. It is an impressive lineup that delivers some memorable experiences with each several highlights throughout.
All are great without exception. There are the beautiful laments of The Mother (Nancy Kerr), a wonderful number with Rachael McShane and Sean Conney that looks towards freedom, and a few other that are equally affecting. The opening Overture song is especially strong; it is clearly a sprint start and Paul Sartin’s voice and passion gives the beginning of this longboat of a play the oars that will push it onward. The Young ‘Uns seem like they born to do “The Transports”, especially as their music has more than once taken a cue from modern news (listen to Carriage 12) and the magnitude of their unaccompanied voices sits incredibly well with fellow award winners here. Another number which is especially fun is “Plymouth Mail”. What can only be described as a “land shanty” in my vocabulary, is a galloping, high octane number with the horses of the cart pulling with an energy and determination that matches the accompanying scene perfectly. There are some quieter moments too, but of course it all ramps up again for the finale. The final performance of “Roll Down” is certainly a powerhouse in every sense of the word. Going out on a sublime high, the ensemble case gives it more welly than a gaggle of pirate wanglers. Amazingly deep, rousing and quite brilliant, the show goes out with an unmatcheable gusto.
All together, a great contemporary take.”The Transports” in 2017 is a triumph in it’s mix of song performance, history and human philosophies. Fans of the artists involved should go just to see them all in one place, but compared to what else this whole production brings this would be the slimmest of reasons for enjoying it. Kudos to creative producer Tim Dalling’s inputs and Paul Sartin’s role of Musical Director which has shaped a hugely spirited, and committed modern take that feels very faithful to the core messages of Peter Bellamy.
There is a lot here, a lot to take in, and 40 years since the play first went around it feels inside like it is as relevant as ever .
Some tickets are available for the touring show on “The Transports” website here.
If you are still unsure, have a look at their preview video below.
The images used in this post belong to their respective owners, I do not imply ownership of them with their inclusion here.
For one night only the Studio space of the Crucible was turned into a a kaleidoscope of story, wonder and history with a combined storytelling and musical performance of “Fire in the North Sky” by Adverse Camber. There were birds, bears, men forging with gold and silver, and other incredible creations told and performed from the Kalevala, a hundred thousand lines of collected story traditions from ancient Finnish history so rich in material you feel that the show barely scratched the surface of the epic. Collected by Elias Lonnrot in the 19th Century it was brought to life by Adverse Camber, an independent production company that curates original, expansive stories from another time and another place, and works with artists and venues to transmit these tales more valuable than silk to a modern audience. They are quite local too coming from Derbyshire, and much like their other recent work I reviewed, The Shahnameh (here), there is an energy and excitement to their show which balances the need for telling stories that stand up on their own merits. Not only this but the company manages it without unnecessary set-pieces of over-the-top props that could dilute the richness of the story, the oral tradition takes centre stage. Credit to the producer, Naomi Wilds for shaping the show and director (Paula Crutchlow) for moving the pieces, the Studio was a particularly good choice to host such a program. The decision to use the Crucible Studio meant that quite an intimate connection could be forged with the audience that neither cramped the audience or dwarfed the performers; much like in Goldilocks, the size was just right. The words flourished on the boards of the stage and there was no danger of there being much empty space in the audience as the pre-show interest must have been immense with the studio being fully packed out to the gills and rapt in attention.
“Fire in the North Sky” does not have a single theme as such running through it. It is a series of stories with certain characters rotating, appearing and disappearing into the ether which echoes the variation and improvisation of these sung stories in antiquity. Like a river the whole thing moves a winding course as a necessary and inescapable aspect of storytelling but there in presentation there was evidence that the tales chosen are sufficiently different in order to provide at least one tale of interest to each audience member. There is a cast of four and all are utilised in connecting to the audience in a different way; Nick Hennessey took the lead in the engagements and telling stories, Anna-Kaisa Liedes and Kristiina Ilmonen brought a bewildering myriad of voice improvisations and Tima Vaananen performed his kantele playing skills throughout linking the stories together. It does mean there is something that everyone will enjoy and given as the performers are folk story and music academics, there is a feeling of being part of something that is well researched and conveyed that adds an extra dimension to the raw draw of a pub yarn from old friends.
With the stories themselves there is certainly an interesting array with several of them touching on the notion of humankind, godhood and the pure power of knowledge. As expected there is morality seeping through the seams where some questionable choices are made by the characters but there is also the heroic ideal shown with individual mortals making bold and beautiful choices in this a strange ancient world. A favourite is the story of Ilmarinen, the blacksmith who upon losing his wife decides to forge a new wife from gold and silver to “fill the space” on her pillow and bed where her head and hip were.
Despite his toil and looking like he would fail at some point. he does indeed forge a new women but comes to to the realisation that she is cold to the touch. It is part allegory for the futility of substituting human love for material love and part warning of the limits of man’s power (especially well communicated by Nick Hennessey who you can practically smell and feel the sweat and scorching tools as he works the blacksmiths fire).
In another story, Ilmarinen is being forced to forge the Sampo, a magical mill that creates grain, salt and gold, a veritable philosophers stone plus. An enigmatic device to us, but clearly the most life sustaining and valuable commodities of the age. Here both Anna-Kaisa and Kristiina Ilmonen create a vivid scene as the metal goes in the fire and comes out in a number of forms such as a crossbow, a ship. a cow; in the audience the tension rises and the instrumentalists add layers of wails and hisses that are somewhere between creature, human, and material. There is a noticeable breadth and variety of sounds that emerge of a degree and quality I have not yet heard in equal during another storytelling event. At times in the show it felt like you could get lost in thick conifer forests that had sprung up around, and the lush grasses had risen from our seats for the precision of the elements of the soundscape that are introduced are second to none.
There are also some other familiar figures such as shape-changing witches, the magical musical player Vainamoinen who brings to things to life with his kantele, and Lemmionkainen a youth restored to life through the maternal questing on his mother; it is an exciting spectacle from a rather unknown storytelling region from my own experiences, but on that draws parallels to other more familiar cultures, e.g. Osiris in Egyptian mythology for example who body is pieced back together. Tima Vaananen certainly brings some magic with the music throughout and the authentic addition of this old instrument seems as essential as the Finnish self-deprecating wit. It’s presence acts like the thread that holds the seams of the epic together. The theatre experience is encapsulated with a free programme that is given out which explains the song and story style, the history of the region, and crucial information about the characters focused on. It is a good starting point for anyone keen to learn about Finnish myth an itself a nice souvenir.
In just the two Adverse Camber productions I have seen I have been impressed. There is a great variety between the two but both share a great selection of stories, the curation of some less obvious but interesting material for the audience, and some warm story-telling. Out of the two, Fire in the Sky had a bigger cast, probably more musical and backing variety (but then there is a bigger cast) than the Shahnameh. The Studio allowed the story to progress across the bigger space but the Shahnameh necessarily had to make more creative use of the space and set pieces when I saw it in the smaller Derby venue (which did add some charm). They are minor comparisons and differences, both are a great showcase of talent, a veritable saga of morality and creation, and most importantly an enjoyable night. If you get the chance to see an Adverse Camber work go and see, prepare to be educated and entertained in uncountable ways!
If you want to check out Adverse Camber and their upcoming work, check out their website here.
I do not claim ownership or copyright on the above publicity pictures, see Adverse Camber’s website for more information.