Thursday 23rd February: “You won’t like them,” I was warned by a colleague when I told him that I was going to see tonight’s headliners. “Their music is really complex.” To be fair to him, he did then say that “complex” wasn’t really what he meant (perhaps correctly, given my love of the beyond-simple genre of prog-rock) but that he couldn’t really decide what he actually did mean. Anyway, time would tell. But before that…
A few years ago, Suzy Bradley worked in the same building as me and I knew that she was a musician but, until tonight, I hadn’t managed to see her perform either solo or with her band. Suzy Bradley and the Morning After are comprised of Suzy herself on vocals and acoustic guitar, David Martin on electric guitar and Lucy Blakeson on cello – an unusual combination of instruments to say the least. Together, however, they worked and from them we got a nicely varied set. Starting with Neverland and then Sleeping Beauty, with the two guitars working together to give a nicely mellow sound before they were reined back to allow the cello through towards the end, there initially seemed to be a fairy-tale vibe going on, but I Don’t Know Why was a much livelier drinking song which was enhanced by some great vocal and facial expressions from Suzy. Vocally, Dust To Dust was archetypically folk while Dark Days (which was originally performed while Suzy was with a previous band) was a slightly rockier number with the electric guitar used sparingly but to eerie effect in places before bursting into life for the body of the song. The set ended with Suzy performing Blue as a solo and, again, it was very folky but showed that she has a very good, powerful yet subtle voice. (There was one other track, but I forget what it was called.) Overall, this was an extremely entertaining performance of modern folk and it was very well received by an audience who sat in rapt attention throughout – something you don’t often see for a support act.
The softly-spoken David Hughes seems, from comments on his website, to be a regular fixture on tours with tonight’s headliners and is, perhaps a slightly more traditional singer than the previous act but one that combines a degree of wit and humour into his set. Preceding every song with a story about its origins, he proceeded to entertain us with Two-stroke (written when he discovered that Bert Jansch’s Blackwater wasn’t about David’s local river but a much smaller one in Ireland), The Ballad of Jazzie B (from a musical he is working on that tells the story of hip-hop’s real beginnings in early twentieth century Essex), Thoughts And Prayers (a folk song about Facebook) and You And I Both Know It Had to End (his tribute to a certain type of 60’s songwriter and the genre of songs about the women they met on the road, which ended with the marvellous lyric “by the time you get to Tesco, I’ll be gone”). I didn’t catch the title of his final, much livelier song, which he performed with a soon-to-be-familiar backing group, but there still seemed to be a humorous tone to it. It almost seems an unfair comparison, but the person that sprang to my mind while watching David’s set was Mike Harding but, it has to be said, the humour was nowhere near as blatant and the songs not of the same style. This was a much gentler performance of songs which, along with the stories behind them, painted whimsical pictures and brought forth wry smiles.
My aforementioned colleague might have been slightly surprised by the line-up of Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle. The original version (simply Pentangle) that he remembered consisted of vocals, drums, double bass and both John Renbourn and the late Bert Jansch on guitar, both of whom I suspect he was slightly in awe of at the time. The current line-up, however, eschews guitars completely and consists of Jacqui McShee (vocals), Spencer Cozens (keyboards and vocals), Alan Thomson (bass) and Gary Foote (saxophones and flute). Usually Gerry Conway plays drums but was not behind the kit tonight for some reason. All of the band have played alongside some of the most famous musicians on the planet. I was expecting some sort of folk rock but, perhaps due to the lack of guitars, the set was more a sort of folk jazz fusion, with the beanpole figure of Foote especially looking as though he had just stepped out of a Parisian jazz club. On that note, the Duchess had once again been set out with tables, chairs and candles, giving the venue a laid-back club-like demeanour tonight. Without guitars Thomson’s bass took on a more prominent role, with the keyboards and saxophones becoming the lead instruments, providing a lighter backing to the vocals than most other acts I have seen. The opening song sounded familiar to both me and Andy but, while he couldn’t remember what it was the only thing that sprang (incorrectly) to my mind was the opening Simple Minds’ Belfast Child. Jabalpur was written, before the advent of Google Earth, about an apparently mysterious Indian city which the shrinking world has removed some of the mystery from. Once I Had A Sweetheart was a modern arrangement of a traditional English song and really showcased near-septuagenarian McShee’s still incredibly strong and emotive vocals, while another song whose title I didn’t hear showed just what a lovely language French is when sung. Shock And Awe was possibly the most jazzy song of the set while whatever it was that opened the second half of the set contained an extended instrumental which allowed each individual instrument (and musician) its time in the spotlight. During the remainder of the set we got, amongst others, one song with Cozens on vocals, a very traditional folk song and one with Scottish origins, the latter being a song in which it was entirely possible to lose yourself in the music. There was also a two-song encore, the first of which Andy recognised and the second which reminded me more of lounge music than either folk or jazz. Overall, this might not have been my usual choice of gig but it was one that I ended up enjoying a lot, thanks in no small part to McShee’s ageless voice and some wonderfully timeless music.
Afterwards, I visited the merchandise stand and, after purchasing a few CDs, got the latest release signed by McShee. I told her what my colleague had said, which both made her laugh and seemed to shock her slightly as she told me that was insulting to me and that he didn’t know what he had missed. You can be certain that I passed that on.