Live: Shirley Collins in St. Michan’s

Shirley Collins was playing as part of Tradfest, just as Dónal Lunny & Andy Irvine had been. And she was also playing in a church, but this time the church was St Michan’s, located quite close to Panda Mansions. This is the church with mummified crusaders in its crypt: in the not too distant past one could apparently shake the mummy’s hand while taking part in a tour, though I have not seen this done myself.

My beloved and I arrived down early to avoid any sitting at the back unpleasantness, which meant we had to mill around in the cramped foyer before they let us in. We were able to nab a seat pretty near the front but the relatively small size of the church and its width would I think have meant that most attendees would have a decent enough view of the performance, although I did hear from a friend that the flat floor caused them problems when they found themselves sitting behind a tall person.

The concert started with two blokes onstage playing bluegrass tunes on fiddle and guitar before being joined by Shirley Collins and the rest of her band, who appear pretty much to be the people who played on recent album Lodestar. The songs were mostly from that record too, a mix of sad English tunes about bad things happening to people and somewhat chirpier tunes, often from the Appalachians (that chirpy mountainous place). Collins introduced some of the songs with anecdotes about their origin or where she first heard them, though much of the chat was handled by Pip Barnes, who otherwise played guitar and assisted on backing vocals; I thought perhaps be because Collins, being old, wanted to rest her voice.

It was a quite magical concert, the unshowy talent of the musicians going well with Collins’ voice. I was intrigued by her version of Child Ballad 286 (the one about the cabin boy who sinks an enemy ship after being promised a great reward but is then betrayed by his captain), as it does not appear on Lodestar and is separately one of the highlights of the Lankum album Between Earth and Sky (where it appears as ‘The Turkish Reveille’). ‘Death and the Lady’ is also striking, this being a new version of the song Collins performed first many many years ago, with Ian Kearey’s arrangements and guitar part being most impressive. Kearey is the musical director of the touring group and the producer of Lodestar. Bizarrely he appears to be a former member of both the Oyster Band and the Blue Aeroplanes… small world.

Her ‘Cruel Lincoln’ was a version of the ‘Long Lankin’ tale of brutal murder and revenge. While sometimes presented in a manner that leaves unclear why Lincoln/Lankin/Lankum bears such an animus towards the Lord’s family, Collins presents him as a stone mason irked at not having been paid for his building work; if so his slaughter of the Lord’s wife and infant child seems like a disproportionate response. It also made his almost supernatural powers a bit harder to explain away (though not the ease with which he is finally brought to justice).

At the end they finished with a song called ‘Sorrows Away’ (also known as ‘Thousands or More’) and invited people to join in with the chorus. And it was one I had learned at my first Unthanks singing weekend! Score. I was able to do an approximation of harmonies and everything.

Then we went for post concert drink in a pub that we heard would not be full on a Saturday night. And indeed it was not – partly because they had a guy playing a guitar and singing, whose music was being amplified through the whole pub at ear-splitting volume. “One last song!” called out Dennis, a wag, but the fellow insisted on delighting us long after we had been more than satisfied by his efforts. As a tolerant soul, I considered him to be not the worst thing I have ever heard in a pub but I could have done without his music being blasted out from speakers at us despite our sitting as far away from him as possible and in a different part of the bar. I think audible as background music would have suited his efforts far more than how it was served up.

image sources:

Mummies in St. Michan’s vault (Smithfield Square)

Lodestar (Discogs)