Wednesday, May 14, 2008

 

Daughters of Albion - sheer magic at the Brighton Festival 13.5.08

I’ve just been to a near-perfect gig (in a post-punk world, at any rate). Daughters of Albion is a collaboration between some of the finest female English voices of today, performing traditional folk songs and re-working contemporary compositions by PJ Harvey, Tom Waits and Kate Bush.

Earlier in the afternoon I’d popped down to the Dome for an interview and had the pleasure of meeting Kathryn Williams and guitarist Neill MacColl (son of Ewan, brother of Kirsty). Williams is a softly-spoken and self-effacing but hilarious interviewee, and they kindly performed a spine-tingling version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face”, sitting in an empty corridor at the Dome, just Williams’ fragile voice and MacColl’s guitar. It was a magical moment which raised the bar on my expectations of the evening’s concert.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Starting with an ensemble performance of North Country Maid with Norma Waterson on lead vocals, we were treated to a thrilling series of stellar performances from old-school folkies like Waterson and June Tabor to newer talent like Williams and Lou Rhodes (ex of trip-hoppy types Lamb) and up-and-coming Anglo-Indian psychedelic folkie Bishi.

Kathryn Williams bumbled endearingly through her role as compere, mysteriously introducing June Tabor as the one who keeps them in stitches on the tour bus, but who’s got such a fuck-off stroppy face you could only really imagine her handing out detention notes for bad behaviour. Tabor’s rich tones brought magic to an English and German version of Lili Marlene, and delighted on A Place Called England, Maggie Holland’s search for the true England, finding it not in flag and empire, but where someone’s sown “Marigolds and a few tomatoes right beside the railway track”.

Bishi is a new name for most of us, coming on like an Indian Billie Holiday, bags of glam and attitude and barely age 20. She played an impressive sitar on her own Indian Skin, Albion Voice and rocked out on Hares on the Mountain, enthralling the audience of old folkies and the younger fans drawn to see Williams and Rhodes. I’d like to see Bishi belt it out like Winehouse as she’s got the potential to be a massive star, but maybe she’s just happy doing what she does, and fair play to her.

Vocalist and fiddle player Lisa Knapp was the only weak part of the evening for me, as I found her voice undistinguished and her contribution low-key, until she performed her own There U R from last year’s Wild and Undaunted album, tempting me to find out more about her music.

The final ensemble piece was a gripping version of PJ Harvey’s dark and nasty Down by the Water, a chilling murder ballad drawing a thread through the traditional songs of the evening to the astonishing comtemporary lyricism which proves the art of The Song is still very much alive and well.

With a magnificent orchestra featuring Martin Carthy on guitar, a hurdy-gurdy player and even a knife player (!), arranger Kate St John deserves as many plaudits as the vocalists for creating an evening of sheer magic bringing together generations of our finest vocalists and celebrating a proud tradition of the English singer and songwriter.

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