The January Ryburn Folk Club night got the new year off to a good start with guests Harp & a Monkey supported by a wide range of resident and visiting singers.
After the usual instrumental warm up by ‘The Sessionaires’, Pete Coe led some of us in his anthemic Red Shift song ‘Seven Warnings’ followed by probably the most varied set of songs we’ve heard at the club for many a year. These included a brand new and somewhat different style song from resident songsmith Chris Manners, a fine ‘Locks & Bolts’ ballad from Sue Burgess, a Dylan song (North Country Blues) from Chris Coe who also joined forces with Annie Dearman on the somewhat racy traditional song ‘Fancy Lads’.
Later in the night we heard ‘Banks of Newfoundland’ from Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison, Dave Pawson’s ‘Lizzy Lindsay’ and a very authentic sounding ‘Silver Dollar’ from Phil Cerny. A very un-authentic sounding ‘Jolene’ was delivered with concertina accompaniment by Terry Evans whose husband Huw himself delivered another of his rambling anecdotes about life, with no great punch line but plenty of laughs along the way.
Harp and a Monkey polarise opinion. Many of the audience had travelled specifically to see them and knew what to expect. Some people who didn’t know them were a little put off by their pre-recorded backing tracks. Instrumentally they share banjo, guitar, accordion, glockenspiel and, not unexpectedly, harp. These were often doubled up on the backing tracks along with additional content like sound effects, atmospheres and some very carefully chosen and occasionally highly emotional oral history interviews, underlining the content of a song. The nearest I can get to it in description is to liken it to a live version of the Radio Ballads. For me it worked really well, but I’m not only a Radio Ballads fan but a qualified film sound designer and I felt completely at home with the concept – and their interaction with the tracks was masterful.
To even things up acoustically, PA was a necessity but there is no getting past the fact that it does create a barrier between performer and audience. It wasn’t a problem when we had Nic Jones last year but then it wouldn’t be would it? Here, it did restrain the audience a little and the opportunities to join in chorus and refrain lines were not as readily taken as usual. This was more than compensated by the friendly, amusing and engaging presentation from the three excellent performers.
The songs themselves were high in social comment. Apart from a couple of traditional songs (The Manchester Angel and The Molecatcher) and a re-working of Harry Boardman’s ‘Bolton Yard’, it was self penned stuff. Three songs from their ‘wartime suite’ started the second half, ‘The Gallipolli Oak’ being the most memorable. The story is of a man taking an English Oak sapling to plant somewhere near the unmarked grave of his slain teenage son, bribing a Turkish gardener to water it. Generations later the Turkish man’s descendants are still watering the tree and the soldier’s family still visit the tree. At the other end of the scale was a song about the plight of men who survived the war but didn’t successfully survive the peace.
The ‘allegedly’ Playford tune, ‘Oats and Beans and Barley Grow’, gets a new set of words under the title ‘Payday’. A song which had particular resonance for me, having visited some of the Spanish Civil War museums last year, was ‘Walking in Footsteps of Giants’, a comment on the fact that many northern men who took part in the mass trespass on Kinder in 1932 also went on to walk across the Pyrenees and join The International Brigade against Franco’s fascists.
There could be so much to say about all of the songs.You won’t find any tub thumping, as they approach both the hardness and the beauty of life from most unexpected directions and are beautifully crafted. Rather than produce an academic treatise here, I would urge you to open your mind, go and see the band and, better still, buy the CDs. You’ll be rewarded with a hugely thoughtful performance dressed up expertly with a music that often belies the content. As they remarked from the stage – the darker the material the more the instrumentation starts to resemble a ‘Peppa Pig’ backing track. Don’t be fooled – there’s humour, pathos, blood, sweat and tears in there!