I hadn’t come across the support act, Tom Lewis, before tonight but he turned out to be an absolute delight. A retired British Navy submariner, now living in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, Tom sings songs about the sea — some shanties, some of his own composition, and some very miscellaneous numbers, all linked by water. His voice was strong and clear and he was a confident performer, chatting easily with the crowd and punctuating his set with stories and anecdotes, all relevant and all interesting. He had the entire audience singing along from the second song onwards.
The audience was a good one and the room was full and enthusiastic. Tom kicked off his first set with a rousing version of ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, accompanying himself on the ukelele, and including a surprising convincing imitation of Jesse Fuller, the black American one-man-band who wrote the song. The set moved from composed songs to traditional songs and back again, with Tom carefully giving credit wherever credit was due and accompanying himself on ukelele and button accordion. Highlights for me included ‘150 Days Out from Vancouver’, written by Cicely Fox-Smith, a Canadian poet from the early twentieth century, the very funny ‘Wreck of the Nancy Lee’ and Tom’s own ‘Marching Inland’, a song about a sailor leaving the sea.
Tom’s second set after the interval was equally enjoyable, starting with ‘Radio Times’ where, in about four minutes, he managed to very cleverly tell the history of pop music and the UK folk scene over the past fifty years. ‘The Widow-maker’, sung unaccompanied, was very powerful and ‘Christmas at Sea’, with words by Robert Louis Stevenson, managed to stay the right side of sentimental. Claiming that his grandmother had taught him that ‘A ridiculous shared is a ridiculous halved’, Tom then sang — and got the rest of us singing – a totally silly song that has been inexplicably recorded by Lyle Lovett, all about riding a pony on a boat and full of 1950s cowboy film references. Tom’s set ended with a song about how sailor’s lives have changed, ‘A Sailor Ain’t a Sailor Anymore’. I for one — and I suspect the rest of the audience too — would have happily had much more of Tom and if he comes back to Brum, I’ll be there.
My feelings about the main act are much more mixed. Ruth Notman is an up-and-coming young singer. Her 2007 album, ‘Threads’, took the folk world by storm and is often on my CD player. Her second album came out recently and is, in my opinion, just as good. She sings a mixture of traditional songs and her own compositions, she was a finalist in the BBC Young Folk awards a few years ago and she’s a fine songwriter. All those things promised a very good evening.
She often works with Saul Rose, the melodeon player, but tonight was accompanied by a cello player, Hannah Edmonds. Hannah was excellent and the cello worked well with the keyboards and guitar that Ruth played. I certainly didn’t miss the melodeon. Both girls are accomplished instrumentalists and on some of the songs were able to create an amazingly haunting atmosphere. All but one of the songs came from the two albums but that was fine and songs like ‘Hedger and Ditcher’, ‘Waters of Tyne’ and ‘Billy Don’t You Weep for Me’ were a real pleasure to listen to. The variety of songs was good and the set was well-paced. The audience were obviously fans of Ruth’s music, joining in without prompting.
Unfortunately, Ruth undercut the whole thing by presenting herself as a ditsy young giggly girl who didn’t know what she was doing. There were too many stories about forgotten capos, not winning awards, playing in the wrong key, dropping out of college, shopping with mum. She repeatedly told us that she was ‘rubbish’ at this and that. It was as though she was trying — really rather hard — to convince the audience that she wasn’t very good after all.
When once or twice she hit a wrong note — as most singers and instrumentalists do — she fore grounded the fact, making a face and apologising. The audience wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t called attention to it. The audience were there for her, but as the evening went on they became gradually less responsive to the silly chatter although they continued to respond appreciatively to the music.
If you tell people often enough that you’re young and incompetent, they come to believe you and it’s the self-deprecating comments that stick in their minds, not the songs. Ruth Notman is highly talented, but despite the high quality of the music and the performance, it was ultimately a less satisfying evening than it could have been.
San Francisco Bay Blues
150 Days out from Vancouver
Old Grey Squirrel
The Wreck of the Nancy Lee
Blow the Man Down
New York Girls
Christmas at Sea
If I Had a Boat
A Sailor Ain’t a Sailor Anymore
Hedger and Ditcher
When the Lonely Day Dies
Lark in the Clear Air
Who’s the Fool Now?
Over the Hill
The Cruel Sister
Johnny Be Fair
Billy Don’t You Weep for Me
Waters of Tyne
But Still I Love Him
Hold Back the Tide
Encore: Farewell, farewell
Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund