Paint in your mind’s eye a late Monday night in Digbeth where, above the Custard Factory, appears the dazzling ‘Birmingham Live’ website logo laser projected on to low scurrying clouds. Message urgent: reviewer needed for The Imagined Village at the Town Hall this Thursday. Now, Watson, pay close attention. From this message we can begin to construct a working hypothesis. We know, do we not, that the gig being at said Town Hall, by its very nature, will be imbued with some cultural cache?
Further, it won’t be loud and will provide Birmingham Live, in addition to the other nobel artisans of this good city, the opportunity to be seated. May I conjecture it won’t be a Napalm Death tribute band, Holmes? You may depend upon it my dear Watson! Be so good as to consult Bradshaw and we’ll get there with out delay; notwithstanding, a brief stop at the Club to front-load some pre-gig Breezers because, unless I’m very much mistaken, we will need to be prepared for the worst. Good God, Holmes, you don’t mean? Yes, Watson: I’m reliably informed that the evening’s back-stage rider will include camomile tea (gasp), carrot cake (shock) and, steel yourself man, warm mead (quelle ho’urgh!). Merciful heavens, Holmes you don’t mean? Yes, Watson, you’re deepest imaginings made corporeal: it’s a Folk Music evening!
However, Birmingham Live, in the pursuit of rigorous, critical objectivity, eschewing any artifice of prejudgement or stereotyping, was relieved not to see a single beardy, lentil-munching sandal gazer in sight. Suggest a Folk Music gig to many people and they’d rather take their kids to a Gary Glitter panto. But these Folkies are crafty, see. They pull their Arran wool sweaters over our eyes and call it World Music. But the Village people take umbrage at that broad brush stroke categorization. Be that as it may. Then what the devil is this Caucasian/Asian Folk fusion foundation; an eclectic collective ensemble of sublime polymath musicianship and vocal delight? Mission statement coming right up: ‘There is a lot of discussion in the media at present about what constitutes the English identity…we are not trying to re-invent the wheel or for that matter re-invent the English folk tradition. What we are interested in is building an inclusive, creative community where we can engage in the debate passed down to us by the late Victorian collectors of English song, dance and stories…’ No Morris dancers then? Phew!
But, come on, let’s throw them a bone; Folk Music has been hung with more dodgy labels than a £2.30 genuine 24 carat tiara from Primark. And something else to ponder: Donovan began as an earnest, ubiquitous cap wearing folkie; and Pentagle’s epiphianic electric/folk fusion came from humble origins. Both now feature on the Amorphous Androgynous anthologies, ‘A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind’, forty years later. Furthermore, Birmingham Live, having seen with its own eyes a bloke playing sitar with Hawkwind, standing up, it can only be with tingling relish that we anticipate (albeit seated) Sheema Mukerjee weaving melodic sitar tapestries and tonal/drone driving riffs.
The Town Hall must be a near sell-out, the band were told to expect 300 if they were lucky. At £16.50 a throw, on a Dickensian drab evening, Birmingham Live gives it up massive to the dedicated punters. There’s a least nine people on stage and a reverential gasp of adoration ensues when the slight, sinewed figure of Martin Carthy takes centre stage. Even better, he’s let his daughter, Eliza, stop up late to enchant us with vocals and fiddle. Principal vocals are from Chris Wood who did a brief opening set of haunting, open-tuned acoustic autobiographical portraits including a withering indictment of Anglo klaxon nationalism. It’s clear, early on, that whilst there’ll be no proselytizing, there’s a strong ethos of social/class/political themes to be explored. And how many artists have a care, or the commercial courage to do that these days? We even had to get an anarchist leaning US band with a 90s philippic to put an exploding Christmas cracker up Simon smug Cowell’s gurning messianic arse.
Opening number is the haunting, Victorian sea ballad, Sweet Jane, with cryptic references to Darwin’s Beagle voyages and a (paraphrased) verse that went: the Church may shout, but Darwin roared. No, don’t tell Richard Dawkins, he’ll just go off on one again. Meanwhile, laser projected, giant misty rings alight on the beautifully restored plaster relief Corinthian columns sublimating a Mysterons’ gig at The Acropolis. Carthy leads the vocals, with Eliza on fiddle, in the fertility symbolism ballad, John Barleycorn Must Die. Think, The Wickerman meets Farming Today. Enigmatic lyrics celebrate the pagan rituals of sowing and harvest that were to be assimilated into the spiritual cycle of birth, death and resurrection in the Christian Liturgical Year. As Chris Woods quipped during the evening; it’s not just entertainment, it’s educational as well.
They lightened-up with Space Girl. A sultry, mid-tempo, Bonzo Dog’s breakfast of buttock-clenching lyrical contrivance relating how, one night, Eliza eloped with a Martian who, sadly, couldn’t rise to the occasion on account of being a servo-robot. Honestly, there’s no pleasing some women. Still, the Theremin solo was galactic cool. Co-band founder and mandolin wizard, Simon Emmerson, calls for the house lights up and invites us to give Nick Griffin the finger accompanied by a 3-2-1 countdown shout of ‘Bollocks’. They want to make an audio tour collage of each gig and let it go viral on the BNP and other related websites. The prospect of shouting out bollocks in the Town Hall raises a frisson of anticipation in the upper-circle. Gosh, Geoffrey, do you think we really should? Oh, do let’s! So they do and it’s satisfyingly cathartic. Furthermore, it’s a gratifying, apposite irony shouting bollocks at Nick Griffin; given that his alter-ego horror hero had only one of them.
We had Scarborough Fair that, Woods claims, is the band’s rightful repatriation of the Dylan and S&Gs covers. Charming though it was, the latters’ song-over during the opening scene of The Graduate must take dibs. S&G 1 – TIV 0.5. A re-working of My Son John bristled with anger at the mutilations being inflicted in dodgy dossier justified battle zones. The encore, a reworking of Hard Times in Old England, was a plaintive lament for countryside communities being homogenized by the nouveau riche, second home, pristine 4×4, designer distressed wax-jacketed Chelsea farmer, Aga hugging misanthropic tossers, who just adore the village shop but just can’t get fresh canapÃ©s when you need them, darling.
Last song of the set is Cold Haily, Rain Nights (trad) tells the story of soldier who pleads with his bedroom banished lover that he’s getting soaked outside so can he come in and get his leg over. Although, with references to maidenheads being ruined it equally be a portent of a Millwall away game. The band let it rip: by now, silver-machine cellist, Barney Morse-Brown, is on his feet, frenzied bow resin about to ignite. Then it all really kicks off when dohl maestro, Johnny Kalsi, percussion pulverizes our DNA into mesmerized jelly. Emmerson name-checks him for his sartorial dress style and being the future of English Folk music. Sitars, dohl and Theremin not being global inclusive music? Cut it some slack, lads. So, a magnificent climax to a life-affirming night. And to think that those Something About Mary, cum-quiffed cretins, Jedward, breath the same air. Damn it, where’s the Real Ale bar? A hey nonny Yo!
Review – John Kennedy
Photos – Steve Bulley