With this year seeing the THSH celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, what better way for the jewel of the city to signal its intent for the next quarter of a century, than by orchestrating an exquisite programme of folk music that will see a torrent of talent flood into Birmingham for the wonderfully titled ‘Imagined Isle Festival’.
Of course, the Town Hall and Symphony Hall have for a some years now, had a weekend in their calendar dedicated to celebrating the folk tradition. But it is with this, the first Imagined Isle weekend, that you sense a labour of love that Chris Proctor and the team at THSH really want to nurture into a unique celebration of folk music that will become a regular fixture in the musical landscape of Birmingham.
This celebrated anniversary is in its infancy when compared with the historic Town Hall venue that proceedings will be held in this evening. This October will see the hall reach its one hundred and eighty-second birthday, quite an achievement. Such an impressive setting demands an equally impressive line-up. The organisers of the Imagined Isle weekend have certainly delivered. Topping tonight’s billing is the multiple BBC Folk Award nominee, Emily Portman, accompanied by the Coracle Band. In addition to this, there is the delightfully mournful offerings from the much heralded The Furrow Collective – membership to this group of folk purveyors includes Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton and Alasdair Roberts – as well as a combination of solo and joint performances from both Newton and Roberts.
First to greet the expectant audience is Alasdair Roberts. Indeed, Roberts is wholly familiar to Birmingham audiences, having toured extensively across the many venues scattered across the city over the last ten years or so. Upon seeing Roberts for the first time at the Glee Club back in 2005 in support of the superb ‘No Earthly Man’ album, I can recall standing out immediately was that Roberts in no way masquerades within his chosen genre. His very being is that of authenticity and innovation, all of which have seen him release the majority of his output via the esteemed Chicago based label, Drag City Records.
Roberts begins with ‘The Flower of Northumberland’, before performing ‘The Problem of Freedom’, a self-penned song taken from his 2015 self titled album. The combination of Roberts’ unique vocal and guitar style envelop the hall, before he invites Rachel Newton to take to the stage, placing herself behind her harp and joining him in a beautiful performance of ‘Green Willow’.
Roberts makes his temporary exit and affords Newton with her opportunity to shine with her solo slot. A challenge in which Newton delivers with such grace that the audience are left wowed by an almost seemingly effortless endeavour. Newton is extremely comfortable in the spotlight. Her humorous stage banter is a delightful bookend to each song. Newton’s performance of ‘Don’t Go Out Tonight My Darling’, taken from her latest album, ‘Here’s My Heart Come Take It’, is easily the best of her set.
The Furrow Collective are next to take to the stage. Roberts and Newton, we have already been acquainted, but now we are finally introduced to the other two vital components of this intriguing group. Lucy Farnell and Emily Portman complete the line-up and the audience prepare themselves for the onslaught of the darker and more oblique traditional folk songs gleaned from across the wealth of the canon that has emanated from the tiny isles that form this part of the world.
Each component of this group is so unique to the other, not only in the instruments that each of them play, but also in the voicings of each member. Combined, they are a force to be reckoned with. ‘Many’s the Nights Rest’ and ‘Willie’s Fatal Visit’ are received warmly in spite of the less than jovial subject matter. ‘Wild Hog In the Woods’ offers some light relief as a result of the less sinister melodies that lessen the fact that the song deals with the notion of murderous wild hog that has amassed a multitude of victims.
All of tonight’s performers would make worthy headliners, but it is to Emily Portman and The Coracle Band that the audience now look to in order to attempt to surpass what has already been offered up on this triumphant evening. Following the exit of Roberts, and the addition of Toby Kearney, Sam Sweeney and Matthew Boulter, the band are ready to begin. Newton, Farnell and of course Portman remain on stage and unleash a set that will focus upon not only the wealth of folk classics that have marked the way to this point in time, but the set will also delve into the original compositions of Portman. ‘Nightjar’ and ‘Brink of June’ are particular favourites, taken from Portman’s 2015 album ’Coracle’. Roberts makes a welcome return to join the rest in a rousing rendition of ‘Some Old Salty’, leaving the audience delighted, no doubt eagerly awaiting the news as to what the second year of Imagined Isle will deliver.
Words: Chris Curtis
Photograph – PR courtesy of Elly Lucas