Song Links, review


Song Links 2 Launch Concert at Cecil Sharp House, London, Sunday 17th April 2005
I never could understand why the original, initial phase of the Song Links project received so little publicity or press back in 2003, not only since it produced one of the finest CD releases of that year. Sure, Stirrings magazine did its bit with a splendidly appreciative review, and I all too briefly appraised the lavish book-and-two-CDs-set for NetRhythms, but major approbation was curiously conspicuous by its absence elsewhere in the folk media. However, hopefully by now the world will have woken up to the importance of the project, which has now spawned a sequel in the form of Song Links 2. Whilst the original Song Links (let's call it Phase 1) drew fascinating parallels between the English and Australian variants of traditional songs, Song Links 2 compares and contrasts English songs with versions that have travelled over the Atlantic and been sung (and further developed) in North America.

For this second phase of the project (as with Phase 1), its instigator and driving force, the magnificent Martyn Wyndham-Read, has gathered together from each side of the pond a truly handsome roster of folk performers representing the cream of singers specialising in traditional songs from their own country. Most of these artistes, having already recorded their contributions in the Fellside studios, were able to participate in the grand CD launch concert down at CSH; the exigencies of touring schedules for several of the American artistes who'd provided recordings for the CD itself entailed a few substitutions, but these were managed expertly and in the end all but one of the 18 pairs of songs from the CDs were able to be performed on the afternoon. That meant a total of 34 songs - which, plus the necessary introductory exposition/s, amounted to a very long concert. But it was a glorious one - and an equally glorious day outside for that "other" Marathon, since the sun shone like I've never known in London. - and the estimated two-hour launch window swiftly expanded to nearer four (including the interval break and the various formal presentations and thanks which followed the actual concert). But I've known few concerts that have slid by so effortlessly yet left such a mark in the memory; it was a tremendously uplifting occasion. That shining, life-affirming quality completely reflected the sheer amount of dedication, research, attention to detail, commitment and expertise and musicianship of every one of the participants, but even more palpably a reflection of those very qualities being present in those with the vision, the project's "A-Team" (Martyn Wyndham-Read, his wife Dan and Fellside Records' supremo Paul Adams) who were truly leading by example in this stunning achievement (and let's not forget the generosity of the many "Dan Plan" sponsors too). For a start, the roster of artistes was one to die for: the English contingent comprised Martyn himself, John Kirkpatrick, the Copper Family, Mary Humphreys & Anahata ("why can I never see them performing without a fixed smile descending on my face?" remarked George who sat next to me, and I know exactly what he means, their music-making just makes you feel so good!), Bill Whaley & Dave Fletcher, and four representatives of the upcoming generation of excellent younger performers (Jim Causley, Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and John K's son Benji), whereas the American contingent was represented on this occasion by Jeff Davis, Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means, and a three-piece harmony group Southern Brew who include among their ranks talented young singer Cassie Franklin. OK, so it was a shame that (in particular) Jean Ritchie, Jody Stecher, Tim Eriksen and Bruce Molsky weren't able to make it over, but as I said above the surplus songload was shared out very appropriately, several extra songs being taken on by Sara and/or Kieron. So all this added up to a really special event, with many tremendous individual performances and some really heart-stopping moments. It kicked off in enchantingly ramshackle but entirely likeable fashion, as the incoming audience were greeted to an intriguing sight (the 22 - count 'em! - performers crowded slightly uncomfortably onto the stage) and an enticing sound (a set of session-tunes being enthusiastically squeezed, bowed and strummed by those assembled thereon). Then came the concert itself, which was "presented" (ie the songs were introduced and set into context) by Shirley Collins, who warmly and entertainingly conveyed an enormous amount of information (her credentials are impeccable of course, for she'd accompanied Alan Lomax on his song-collecting tour of the States some 40 years ago, and latterly authored the comprehensive notes for the CDs' booklet).

Now comes the next impossible task - to give you anything other than a list of highlights is just not practical! So here goes! Martyn has chosen so wisely, from among the very finest English performers of traditional song today. Who else to communicate the vitality and multi-layered richness of the material but artistes with not only superb vocal and instrumental talents so ideally suited to the task but also the right attitude to match. John Kirkpatrick was his usual fount of boundless stomping energy, as he turned in a highly ebullient rendition of Bow Down To The Bonny Broom. Mary and Anahata excelled with a jaw-droppingly intense reading of Barb'rie Allen (Mary's singing is a real miracle of expressive interpretation, and I think every time I hear her perform this classic ballad I'm convinced it's even better than the last!), as well as a sprightly May Carol. Bill & Dave proved themselves the very embodiment of all that's good and solid and characterful about traditional music and its effective performance. The two versions of Locks And Bolts were absolutely outstanding: Martyn's wonderfully mellow and well controlled vocal expressiveness was uncannily matched by the meltingly beautiful accompaniment of John Dipper (violin) and Iris Bishop (accordion), while Sara Grey gave the finest of her many performances of the afternoon yet so late on into the programme. (I must mention here that Sara had been suffering from a chesty cough for several days prior to the concert, but you'd barely have noticed as her singing throughout was as captivating as ever and she proved herself a real trouper by taking on the additional songs!) Jeff Davis turned in a superb and fascinating rendition of the American variant of Rose Of Allendale to counterpoint the Copper Family's more wellknown version (though it still got everyone singing along!). Kieron Means shone whenever he appeared, but when singing with his mother the closeness of their almost identical vibratos highlighted the familial relationship in a most uncanny way. Which leads me on to observe that maybe the real-est stars of the show were the younger performers, especially perhaps Jim Causley whose vocal talent is a revelation (his rendition of Young Man Cut Down In His Prime was a real show-stopper) and whose grand showmanlike sense of humour enabled him to rise above a radical "fluff", a miscount of which verse he was at during Pricklie Bush (mind you, it's so easy to lose track in this song, where most of the verses are so similar!). Not forgetting Lauren McCormick (who, sadly, didn't get any solo songs) and Emily Portman (who'd found herself "depping" for Jean Ritchie at the very last minute to perform the American May Carol, and did a splendid job!) - although together making light work (so to speak!) of Tarry Trowsers and Polly Oliver, their contributions in tandem with Jim (as The Devil's Interval) were unbelievably fine, supremely confident and assured. My only slight reservation came with the selections performed by Southern Brew, whose exceedingly close harmony arrangements (though surely and finely executed) seemed to rob the texts of some of their impact or meaning (the line sung by the high-tenor of their male singer Dennis George at times being virtually indistinguishable from the ladies'). The Coppers - just the three "principals" on this occasion - delighted with their "extra" contribution, Birds In The Spring, which was slotted in after the cuckoo.! But at the risk of omitting other key performers from this roundup, suffice to say that the whole concert was magic, the organisers' hospitality second to none, and everybody was going around beaming with joy, a state of euphoria from which it proved impossible to come down for a very very long time afterwards (even whilst battling with the post-Marathon traffic jams coming north through Finchley later that evening!). One hell of an achievement, and my heartfelt thanks to all those involved. My goodness, to think there's likely to be a Songlinks 3 in two years' time - mmm, better start booking now!!!

David Kidman