February 22nd, 2005


The heart of the song

Look, rhodri told us what he thinks and what someone else thinks about the Free French gig at the Water Rats last Tuesday, and everybody else has mentioned it, so there's not much I can add, is there? Music journalism doesn't come naturally to me, & I don't feel that coming out with a batch of clichés is any better tribute to a band than just saying "dude, they were great". Anyway, they were great, and their lyrics (which I have already been plundering for sigs and catchphrases) have now given me a new tagline for my life: "Hilariously unprepared but crucially prepared to have a go". I'm going to sound like a teeny fangirl for saying this, but frankly if a band makes me want to write their lyrics all over my pencil-case then I'm theirs.

I liked The Vichy Government, too, but I think I'd've liked them more if they could have sorted out the balance between the keyboards and the vocals (hint: if your music is basically poetry with a backing-track, DON'T DROWN THE WORDS). The venue's acoustics may have been partly to blame for the imbalance but really, guys, if the keyboard makes my bowels quiver, it's probably too loud. Or am I just getting old?


A more complete contrast could hardly be imagined than Fairport Convention at the Corn Exchange on Sunday. Giants of folk rock, with 35 years of experience (and back-catalogue!) to draw on, they can always be relied on to give a good show... or so I thought. Unfortunately, this was definitely not the gig I'd have chosen as an introduction to the band for Fairport-virgin addedentry. It may seem churlish to complain about a band concentrating on their new material rather than old favourites, particularly when most of the people on stage weren't even in the band when the old favourites were released (Simon Nicol is a founding member, Dave Pegg joined in the 1960s, but the others are all 1990s Johnnies-come-lately) ... but when the new songs seem to be taking a band which was once a pioneer of progressive folk ever further into the fields of MOR and soft-rock, there may be cause for complaint. Tellingly (no pun intended), the best of the new batch isn't even a Fairport original -- a dark and brooding rendition of Ralph McTell's "The Girl from the Hiring Fair" -- and close on its heels is the lively "John Gaudie", an old Chris Leslie song from his years with Whippersnapper. It's a fine song, but if even the resident songwriter is reduced to trawling his old material for the new album, something's gone wrong.

However, they're still a bunch of great musicians; and when everything comes together they still have the power to amaze. Any song featuring a Leslie/Sanders duet is a guaranteed success, whether they're playing fiddles back-to-back or going head-to-head in a double mandolin attack; it's not just their effortless virtuosity, but the sheer infectious joy they display. And the band do justice to the classic tracks: "Crazy Man Michael" is superb (even though Nicol can't hold a candle to Richard Thompson), "Matty Groves" still manages to sound fresh (and not just because of the introductory shenanigans in which the opening bars are morphed into 'Suicide is Painless', complete with Ric Sanders twirling his violin bow in a daft impression of a helicopter), and it would be a heartless Fairport fan who wasn't moved by lighter-waving anthem "Meet on the Ledge". But is this enough? Not enough to make me buy the new album.

On the other hand, it's a shame we only arrived in time to hear the last set of pieces by mandolin-playing support act Simon Mayor and Hilary James, and not only because it's not every day you get to see and hear a mandobass; their sparsely beautiful chamber-folk had an immediacy that Fairport seem to be losing, and Mayor's effortless fingerstyle could beat Chris Leslie hands down.


As much as a reminder to myself as a notification to others, more gigs to look forward to over the next few weeks: The London Sinfonietta and Jonny Greenwood at the Royal Festival Hall on March 27th; The Tears at the Junction on April 18th; and, if I can make it to London on a weeknight, there's Momus and The Free French at Bush Hall on Wednesday 27th April.