After deriving great enjoyment from blasting out the title track at the recent Unthanks weekend, I resolved to look for this record, finding it in Coda, the folkie record shop in Edinburgh. Together with their sister Norma, the Watersons were big players in the 1960s folk revival, mostly known for unaccompanied singing of traditional tunes. Bright Phoebus however is different, being newly composed songs performed with instrumentation, sometimes very sparse and sometimes more lush. It is an odd beast and I can see why it might have disconcerted folk purists when it came out. Some of the songs sound very much like extrapolations of the folk canon, notably ‘The Scarecrow’ and ‘Fine Horseman’, but others go in very different directions. The album opens with the jaunty ‘Rubber Band’, in which Mike and others sings about their being the fictional Rubber Band, making this the folk equivalent of the opener to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (a record released by the Beatles); this jaunty tune sounds very far removed from the world of silver tankards and people singing shanties with fingers in their ear. Likewise ‘Magical Man’, ‘Shady Lady’ (reverse engineered country) and the title track. ‘Bright Phoebus’ starts off with just guitar and Mike’s voice, but then more voices and instruments come in, with both arrangements and composition leading this away from the uncontaminated stream of pure folk music. Going back to Beatles analogies, the track could the Watersons’ ‘Hey Jude’ (analogy does not work if you dislike ‘Hey Jude’).
Anyway, this is a great record, with the juxtaposition of the folkie numbers and the brash uptempo tracks giving the album an exciting feeling of expectations being shattered. Long out of print it is great to see it recently re-issued by Domino, now basking in the reputation of a lost classic. Sadly Lal and Mike Waterson are no longer alive to see their record attract a new generation of admirers.
A friend recently recounted a bizarre story she had heard from a (female) friend who was in a band with a load of blokes. When the band went on tour they would often find themselves all sharing a room. The first thing the blokes would all do is draw up a rota, allocating each of them a time-slot during which they could perform solitary activities of an onanistic nature. The woman member of the band was not included in the rota but her husband was; she did not think any of this strange.
I myself have never been in a band but I know that some readers have been. Is it normal for touring bands to draw up a rota of this kind?
For the last few years Januaries have seen me travel to Northumberland for a singing weekend organised by popular folk group The Unthanks. I am always a bit wary of writing about it publicly online, as the event is meant to be a private one. I have steered clear here of either reviewing the mini-concert the Unthanks treat attendees to on the Saturday or writing identifiably or critically about any of the attendees, but if any of my Unthanks singing weekend pals think I have crossed a line, contact me privately.
For those who are unaware of who The Unthanks are, they are a folk music group from Northumberland based around sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Every year in the depths of winter they host weekends on a farmhouse holiday camp at which a few dozen people get to hang out with them and learn songs from Rachel and Becky. I started going to these as my beloved’s plus one some years ago and have kept going even after reasons stopped her from going, which is ironic as she sings all the time while the Northumberland weekend is almost the only singing I do all year. A lot of the other attendees are people who keep coming back each year, making the event feel like a reunion of old friends, but there is always a bit of a rollover, which keeps it fresh and stops it getting too car keys.
The weekends revolve around music and food. On arriving I consumed a copious quantity of cake and then the singing workshops began. A gentle commencement was a round from Bagpuss about porcupines, which we had to first sing as ourselves and then as the mice who sing it in the programme. More serious fare followed with ‘Three Ships’, an angry tune by Mike Waterson about how lax safety standards in the British fishing fleet led to the loss of three trawlers from Hull in a short period in early 1968. An odd feature of this tune was that the lows lead the melody, with the middles and tops doing the harmony parts; this was an unusually common feature of the songs this weekend. ‘Ah Cud Hew’, a song about a wrecked coal miner whose lungs are now full of dust provided more folkie sadness. Yet again I am struck by how mining folk songs are all either “Mining is shit” or “Oh fuck, they’ve closed down the mine”.
I did not cane it on the first night in Northumberland but an advancing cold meant that on waking in the morning I had almost lost my voice. Thus it was a struggle for me to participate in the Saturday workshops, but I did my best, with green tea and vocal exercise leading to something of an improvement. The big tunes in this session were ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ and ‘Bright Phoebus’. The former is by Cyril Tawney (composer of Unthanks weekend classic ‘Chicken on a Raft‘) and tells of a sailor who has fallen out of love with the sea after his heart has been captured by a woman back at home; Maddie Prior and June Tabor recorded it on their first album. ‘Bright Phoebus’ meanwhile is by Mike and Lal Waterson and was the title track on their album of 1971. Not having heard this song previously I was struck by how little it resembled what I think of as folk music, sounding like the kind of big tune that would boast massed backing vocals and big production when recorded. It is a great song, with lyrics about how great it is when your affections are returned. It is a great big brash good time tune – I love it.
Another key feature of the weekend is always going for a walk to see first a castle and then a pub. This time the castle was Dunstanburgh, now a cyclopean ruin that was apparently destroyed by cannon during the Wars of the Roses (its Wikipedia page is somewhat vague on this point). We sang some songs beside it and walked on to a beach, there to sing some more, and then made our way to The Ship Inn in the village of Craster where we drank hearty ales and delighted the locals. As well as group singing there were some individual turns. I was struck by the odd coincidence of hearing ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’ and ‘T Stands for Thomas’ only a few days after hearing the same tunes performed by Rue, particularly as the latter song is much better known as ‘P Stands for Paddy’. The big hit of the pub sing-a-long was however ‘The Citizen Chanty’, led by a chap who sings with the Commoners’ Choir. This takes the tune of ‘A Drop of Nelson’s Blood’ but changes the lyrics to be a riposte to Theresa May’s bullshit comments about rootless cosmopolitans and I really enjoyed blasting out the chorus about being citizens of the world.
Singing in pubs however provides opportunities for members of the public to join in the action. Some rugger buggers were in the pub, downing beers to make up for a match being cancelled. One of them came forward to lead a song, which did cause my pulse to race given the reputation for sexism and racism of rugby songs. Instead though he led a call and response thing that was like some kind of haka thing; we thanked our lucky stars. I was talking afterwards to a woman who found herself surrounded by the other rugger buggers during the haka thing; the swirling waves of testosterone had given her the vapours.
The evening saw the traditional dining event known as the stuffing of the faces before a mini-concert by the Unthanks. Things were discussed. A couple of us went outside to look at the clear skies of Northumberland, seeing such delights as the bow of Orion, Betelgeuse glowing scarlet, six of the Pleiades, and two passing satellites (or the same one passing by twice?).
Singing outside around a fire seemed less apocalyptic than last year, when the accession of Trump made it feel like we were at the brink of a new age of darkness. But as dreadful as that dipshit’s presidency has been, he has not yet either destroyed the world in a nuclear war or initiated a functioning dictatorship in the USA, so to me as we gathered round the fire it did not feel like we were desperately trying to banish the horrors of the wider world.
Inside there was a round of random sing song stuff, with people doing party pieces. To some extent this has become a greatest hits event for recurring Unthanks attendees but two exciting new renditions were ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’, a song featuring on the forthcoming compilation And Then We Bate The Shite Out Of Them, and’The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song’, which gets great mileage out of rhyming Hunt with every word possible except the one that first springs to mind [/spoiler]. Sadly I had not learned a song to perform myself and in any case my throat might not have been up for it, but I have already formed some ideas for next year.
One tune that turned out to work surprisingly well in this kind of jolly sing-a-long environment was Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’, which can be belted out with hand claps and foot stomps covering for the lack of synthesiser accompaniment. Try it in the comfort of your home.
As always, I came away from Northumberland thinking that singing is great and that I should do more of it. The problem is that I come away from Northumberland thinking this every year and then do nothing about it.
One class of concert I keep going to and not writing about are these Santa Rita concerts organised by the Ergodos people and held in the Little Museum of Dublin. They follow a similar pattern: one arrives and has a little drink of the wine from the sponsors (Santa Rita) and then mills around the rooms of the Little Museum of Dublin, which is a Georgian house on St Stephen’s Green that has been converted into a quirky museum of Dublin stuff. Then Garret Sholdice of Ergodos has a chat with the artist performing by a fireplace after which everyone is encouraged to skull another glass of the tasty wine (from Santa Rita) before heading down to the exhibition room for the concert, in which it is not permitted to bring the wine. The concert is then usually about an hour long. which means I get home sufficiently early that my cat is not too annoyed at having her dinner delayed.
The concerts are not always of the same type. Sometimes they are of the classical recital class, with particularly memorable ones in this regard including Malcolm Proud playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on harpsichord and William Butt playing music by Bach and Britten on cello. They have also had folkie ones, like Sam Lee’s interesting folklorist performances of tunes collected from Irish Travellers or Chris Woods’ neo-folk adventures. And they also have whacky performance art nonsense like a Jennifer Walshe concert where she did the whole event like it was a seance or funny electronic stuff like the one by Chris Watson, where he stitched together a load of wildlife recordings to create an imaginary vision of a magical country rising temporarily from beneath the sea. Whatever they serve up, these concerts are always great and I pass judgment on my so-called music aficionado friends who never show up to them.
The most recent one of these concerts was by Rue. Rue are a local three piece comprising Radie Peat and Cormac Dermody, both also of band Lankum, and Brian Flanagan from the United States of America. They are billed as being a cross-fertilisation of Irish trad-music and Appalachian music from over there. The concert was good but I found it more like redux version of Lankum than an actual trans-Atlantic mind meld. Much of this came from the fore-grounding of Radie Peat’s work in the set, both her drones and her vocals, with several of them being her on her own which meant that poor Brian Flanagan did not get much of a look in. But for all that here were some great tuneage on display in the performance. The two that struck in my mind, perhaps because I had heard them before, were ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’ and ‘T Stands for Thomas’. The latter is a variant of ‘P Stands for Paddy‘, a song of coded courting, while the former is a first person testament from said Biddy Mulligan, a resident of the Coombe and a street trader. The song has apparently gone through an odd journey as in days of yore it was pretty much sung in music halls to make fun of the working class residents of the Coombe but in more recent years it has acquired a more celebratory tone.
Caveats about intercontinental failure aside, this was still a great concert. Possibly the unique selling point of the Santa Rita concerts (aside from the wine) is how cosy they are – it is easy to end up sitting almost on top of the artists. And it is nice being on top of artists.