For many years now St George’s Day has been at best ignored and at worst, an embarrassment. This may be because of a national identity crisis and a fear that encouraging nationalistic events we might be inciting intolerance and racism.
Yet, our neighbouring countries don’t have such a complex and their respective Saint’s days are a reason for national pride and in Ireland’s case, a reason for global consumption of Guinness and worldwide festivities.
However, spurred on by our neighbours’ dialogue of devolvement we’ve been forced to assess our own aspects of national identity. No man spearheads this movement better than the Bard Of Barking, Billy Bragg. With albums like England, Half English and a biography called The Progressive Patriot, Bragg has attempted to wrangle national identity back from the right wing, concentrating on inclusion rather than exclusion.
Bragg kicks off this three day event (which I’d like to think would be longer if the national holiday got pushed through), talking to The Stirrer’s Adrian Goldberg. Here Bragg pulled out the main points I’ve just breezed over in my introduction, expressing his strong beliefs and exemplifying how it fits in with his own identity.
The talk created a strong catalyst for this weekend’s experiment; throwing down a manifesto that asked us to respect our traditions but also question them and take them forwards. The weekend’s events were further justified by being based in Birmingham’s Town Hall. Dormant for around ten years, it was once a great place to hear grand and glorious speeches. Now with a refurb to boot, Birmingham Council have managed to retain the glorious fixtures but renovate the space. The real master stroke was thinking how the venue should be used to make it vibrant and relevant to a modern audience.
Aptly, the so called ‘Folk renaissance man’ Chris Wood was first up with a deep and sonorous voice which proved the acoustic refinement of the venue. Wood effortlessly captivates the audience with songs that are historic in tone with a classic rich-folky voice; and sings strikingly modern lyrics. The Town Hall of my childhood sounded cavernous but through some clever shielding they’ve managed to make it sound close and warm.
Next came the first real surprise of the weekend. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis are teenage siblings who pound out an extremely infectious brand of rockabilly and bluegrass. Bragg was good enough to point out this seeming contradiction in the talk he delivered earlier. Though they are playing quintessentially American rooted music they are British born and their roots based grasp on the genre was an energy stuffed delight. Not only was respect paid to the tradition but it was given raw attitude; encompassing skiffle, dance hall, ska and punk through their songs.
Billy Bragg points out early into his set he should get Marmite as a sponsor as “You either love me or hate me.” Regardless of how you feel about the particularly British by-product of the brewing industry, you can guarantee that everyone who had chosen to spend their Friday night in a town hall weren’t regretting it.
Storming on to ‘World Turned Upside Down’ a traditional tail of one of the first civil uprisings, he was so fired up he broke a guitar string straight off. From then onwards it was a heavy rotation between his two electrics and one acoustic through a smashing set which mixed new with old. The great thing about Billy is that he has a legacy of great songs with new tracks never to be ashamed of. Actually, the paired down live versions with Mr. Bragg either pranging about or serenading have a more lasting appeal than the pop sheen of his new album, Mr. Love And Justice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great album, just live it becomes a firebrand. You might not necessarily agree with everything he preaches but it’s very difficult to not come away from the evening without his rants ringing in your ears. And with three encores and two standing ovations, plainly the audience didn’t want to leave.
Saturday evening was devoted to Rising Folk. An evening of nu-folk gets off to a rocky start in some part due to Sharron Krauss failing to live up to her title of “Folk’s wild child” and partly to do with the elderly usher refusing to let us in until “a suitable break in the performance.” Which seemed to last forever. When we did get in, the overall impression was of a deep and dark depression that two pints of London Pride (’London price more like’) meant it wasn’t my zone. Despite the evening supposedly have a young fresh faced appeal, I felt like I was being gnarled at by curmudgeons.
A kazillion times better were Tunng. The East London group with a lovely Birmingham connection via Static Caravan recordings, were an absolute pleasure to watch. Sam Genders wonderfully full lyrics tempered by Becky Jacobs sweet asides are all brought together sonically with the aid of electronic gizmos and a string of seashells by the bearded rest. They manage to create something delicate and thoroughly modern. Genders quips about half way through that they’re feeling a bit over-whelmed having just “played small sweaty gigs in Germany.” The sound was given true majesty by these wonderful surroundings.
Unfortunately Tunng made Seth Lakeman pale into insignificance by comparison. Even with a strong session band to beef him up he managed to lose his main strength; his fiddle. Playing it sparsely and swapping between that and a cappo’d acoustic guitar made you wish that he’d employ someone to play it. “Kitty Jay” remains the strongest track in his set.
Saturday night ends with our national dish, curry and Sunday begins in the afternoon with a showing of the BBC’s excellent Folk Britannia at the Symphony Hall. To someone like me who only really came to this Folk thing through singer songwriters like Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl, later via Beth Orton and folktronica, it’s a great four part series to put everything in its right place.
The main event in the evening helped even further by actually presenting us with the physical manifestation of some of those movers and shakers. Collected together under the title Daughters Of Albion, the all female vocalists united the talents of stalwarts June Tabor and Norma Waterson with Kathryn Williams, Bishi, Lisa Knapp and Lou Rhodes. Backed ably by Martin Carthy, Tim Van Eyken and pulled together by composer Kate St John. One by one they were introduced by the delightfully shambolic Williams. June Tabor was the most reserved but her music inspires reverence whilst Norma Waterson was more like a surrogate folk mother and more playful with it. Lou Rhodes’ voice well known for its bleating drama on Lamb records is mellowed but more empowered under this ensemble set up. Bishi picked up a similarly post-dance tip with her intricate sitar playing and thoughtful lyrics. Lisa Knapp stole the first half by performing a version of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work with the other ladies on back vocals. Truly sublime. Most notable of the second half was Lou Rhodes’ cover of PJ
Harvey’s Down By The Water.
It occurred to me listening to these covers that maybe I was born to listen to folk, I just haven’t really realised it because I didn’t think it belonged to me. Maybe the ultimate lesson of the weekend is that I learnt a bit more about where I’ve come from and where I’m going.