Anthology – June Tabor

Anthology - close up

Some time in the early 90s I went to see a band called Perfect Houseplants. They were a four-piece modern jazz band: saxophones, keyboards, bass and drums. As often happens with jazz bands each musician had a solo slot early in the performance and another member of the band would announce the soloist to the audience. After Martin France on the drums and Dudley Phillips on bass came the keyboard player. As the piano notes faded away the saxophonist, Mark Lockheart, came to the microphone and, clearly at a loss for words, said simply, “The amazing Huw Warren”.

Huw’s excursion on the keyboard had, indeed, been amazing. In the space of just two or three minutes he had given us an improvisation that had wandered from modern jazz through classical to up-tempo folk and back again. But what struck me most was that a fellow musician who knew him well was so blown away by this performance that he couldn’t find adequate words to express his admiration. At that moment, in the Crotchety Hall of Memory, a shiny brass plaque bearing the name Huw Warren was screwed to the  wall and the curator still polishes it lovingly from time to time in recognition of that day.

The following year the same venue put on a concert by the English folk singer June Tabor¹. I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket for several reasons. First, I have always loved June Tabor’s deep, dark chocolate voice and her repertoire of English folk music. I feel some empathy with June, too, because we both went to the same university. When I was there my college won the University Challenge TV competition and June had captained her college team in that competition a few years earlier. It’s a tenuous connection but Oxford alumni do tend to stick together. The most compelling reason, though, for going to this particular June Tabor concert was that her accompanist was to be the pianist I still think of as “the amazing” Huw Warren.

I had hoped that the June Tabor/Huw Warren collaboration would create a folk/jazz fusion to rival the fabulous Pentangle. In that I was disappointed. Where Pentangle created music with elements of both folk and jazz, at first, June Tabor’s songs seemed to lie outside both those styles. Soon, though, I realised that it was just the unusual arrangements, the distinctive voice and my unwarranted expectations that had fooled me into thinking we had left the standard orbit of folk music. With my expectations re-adjusted I was able to sit back and enjoy the evening. I enjoyed it enough to feel the musophile’s irresistible itch for a permanent record of the songs I had heard and came away with June Tabor’s Anthology CD.

Anthology - CD

Anthology is not available on Spotify as an album, presumably because it’s a compilation  and all the tracks can be found on earlier albums released between 1976 and 1992. The link given above is to a playlist that reconstructs the album from the individual songs.

There are 16 songs on Anthology, all of them folk songs, most of them dark and sombre. There are songs about the tragedy of war that leave a lasting bitter taste in the mouth (The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, No Man’s Land). There are songs about life and love and death that bring a salty dampness to the eyes (She Moves Among MenStrange Affair, Hard Love). And June Tabor’s deep passionate voice makes those songs sound all the bleaker. But it’s not entirely dark and gloomy. There are up-tempo, almost jolly tunes (Dark Eyed Sailor, Heather Down the Moor) and then there’s a wonderfully uplifting story about a pigeon that’s more recited than sung (The King of Rome).

The songs on Anthology are best appreciated from your most comfortable easy chair, free from the distractions of modern living. Shut the door on the kids, turn off the phone, let your eyelids close and allow Ms Tabor’s singing to conjure up mental images of scenes your eyes could never see. But, if you must have something to watch while you listen, here’s a YouTube video of my favourite song from AnthologyHard Love². Note, however, that the visuals are entirely static. (I guess the video maker agrees with me that the imagination makes more vibrant pictures than any movie camera.)

Over the sixteen year period covered by this compilation June Tabor worked with a number of accomplished musicians from both folk and jazz fraternities. Special mention must go to the folk guitarist, Martin Simpson, and (of course) that immensely versatile pianist, Huw Warren. Together with a few guest musicians they created highly distinctive arrangements to complement June’s voice. And the effect can be stunning.

“She can stop time and draw tears from the stoniest heart. She sings with compassion, honesty, stoicism and a painfully acute sense of life’s transitory hold”. (Sam Saunders)

There is one more aspect of June Tabor’s material in general and of Anthology in particular that I’d like to mention. The song selection seems to have been guided as much by the words as the music. Even in the light-hearted songs the lyrics are never trite and the words of the sad songs have the pathos and profundity of some of the finest modern day poets. As her appearance on University Challenge attests, June is a highly intelligent woman and her choice of material reflects that. Chris Jones, writing on the BBC’s music website, put it like this:

“… the sense of scholarship that she brings to her work never lets you forget that you are listening to, perhaps, the greatest interpreter and curator of indigenous British music”.

Anthology - warren, tabor, ballamy

Quercus – Huw Warren, June Tabor, Iain Ballamy

Since around 2005 June has been working with Huw Warren and the jazz saxophonist, Iain Ballamy. The trio is known as Quercus and they released an album (also called Quercus) in 2013. I’ve only heard a snippet from that album but, from what I’ve read, it follows the general theme of Anthology in that it presents folk songs, ancient and modern, arranged for a jazz group. Like Anthology, Quercus is not available on Spotify although June Tabor’s artist page there shows a picture of the Quercus trio. (Spotify does list a different artist called Quercus, though. As far as I can see the two are unrelated.)

The June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren incarnation of Quercus has a short tour in the UK next year (2017). Dates and venues can be found here. Crotchety Man would love to go but the logistics are problematic. The album is on my birthday wish list, though. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

Notes

  1. June Tabor won the BBC Folk Singer of the Year Award in 2004 and 2012.
  2. Hard Love was written by the American folk singer/songwriter, Bob Franke (rhymes with ‘Yankee’).

A Christmas Playlist

Christmas Playlist - charlie brown

I sang “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” – and they did!

As Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year instead of a track of the week I’ve put together a Crotchety Christmas Playlist on Spotify. In the process I discovered several rather good Christmas albums. I recommend the playlist to accompany your festive turkey and afterwards I think you’ll find these yuletide collections will go down rather well:

With the exception of Pentatonix those artists are probably familiar to followers of this blog so I won’t bore you by saying anything about them. Pentatonix are a five-piece a cappella group based in Arlington, Texas. They won NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011 and have recorded several albums since. A Pentatonix Christmas is their latest offering; it was released in October 2016. And very good it is, too.

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmas and may all your listening be pleasurable.

I Believe in Father Christmas

I Believe in Father Christmas - letter

Christmas songs are always sweet. A few are sugar plum sickly. One yuletide song, though, can be savoured every year with no queasiness at all. It is Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas.

Those of you who admired Greg Lake’s music will know already, I expect, that he died of cancer on 7th December, so this post serves as both a tribute to the singer, songwriter, guitarist and bassist and as Crotchety Man’s celebration of the Christmas season.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I Believe in Father Christmas is an anti-religion song. How else can you interpret these lyrics?:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite

Lake himself, though, said that it was meant to be a protest at the tawdry commercialisation of Christmas, not an attack on Christianity itself. The “Father Christmas” in the title is not a jovial man in a red suit who gives presents to excited children nor is he a Christian saint. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas – peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. There is no irony in the title, Greg always did believe in Father Christmas in that sense.

I Believe in Father Christmas was released as a single in November 1975. It was a strong candidate for the Christmas number one on the UK charts that year but, in the end, it was unable to dislodge Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody from the top slot. It nevertheless continues to be a favourite on many radio stations at this time of year.

I Believe in Father Christmas - troika

The original guitar tune sounds quite Christmasy on its own but the addition of a counter-melody by Prokofiev propels it deep into a frosty Winter Wonderland. The Prokofiev tune is the troika passage from the Lieutenant Kijé suite written for a film of the same name. It was suggested by Keith Emerson, Greg Lake’s bandmate in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it takes us on a breathless sleigh ride through the snowy Russian countryside.

In the story on which the film is based a military clerk makes a mistake in writing an order promoting several ensigns to the rank of second lieutenant. Wikipedia tells us that instead of “praporshchiki zh … – v podporuchiki” (“as to Ensigns (names), [they are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”, he writes “praporshchik Kizh, … – v podporuchiki” (“Ensigns Kizh, (other names) [are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”. In later versions of the story the name Kizh is spelled Kizhé or Kijé.

Ensign Kijé, of course, did not exist but after his promotion he comes to the notice of the Tsar. To hide the mistake the officials invent a fictitious life for Lieutenant Kijé who rises quickly through the ranks to become a General. Eventually, the Tsar decides to honour General Kijé as a war hero and his script writers are forced to kill him off. The whole story is a gritty satire on bureaucracy.

I Believe in Father Christmas - greg lake

Greg Lake, 1947 – 2016

Somehow Greg Lake’s guitar tune, the Prokofiev theme and the story of Lieutenant Kijé all come together to create a worthy addition to the traditional canon of Christmas songs. And it makes a fitting memorial to an exceptional musician, too.

Soothing

Soothing - zen accessories

Here’s a Track of the Week on the periphery of Crotchety Man’s sphere of interest. It’s a new song by Laura Marling, a singer/songwriter and musician with a background in contemporary folk music, but Soothing is a long way from conventional folk tunes of any period.

The instrumentation is highly unusual. It sounds to me like a duet for acoustic double bass and fretless electric bass guitar. But it’s hard to tell whether I’m hearing one instrument or two. Either way those deep ringing bass notes bounce along, imparting an irresistible impetus to the song, while at the same time providing a counter-melody for the singer’s voice.

The production is sparse, like a pen and ink drawing devoid of colour but with a simple beauty of its own. A little light percussion adds a touch of sparkle but it hardly seems necessary. Then, about half way through, sumptuous strings add a wash of pastel water colours and bring fresh new life to the monochrome print.

The words suggest that a former lover has come to the singer’s door hoping for forgiveness and reconciliation. She turns him away but Laura Marling’s voice sounds hesitant, uncertain, lost.

Oh, my hopeless wanderer,
You can’t come in.
You don’t live here any more.

Both parties are hurting but the man who strayed isn’t the soothing balm she needs. As she offers a fond farewell soft heavenly voices wash across the canvas bringing the deeper colours of pathos to the picture.

May those who find you find remorse,
A change of course,
A strange discord resolved.

Ethereal synthesiser sounds accompany the singer’s final, uncompromising words.

I banish you with love.

You can’t come in.
You don’t live here any more.

It is done. The separation is complete and the finished painting is ready to be hung on the wall. It is a work of muted colour tones but the subject is engaging, the brush strokes are bold and the overall effect is quite enthralling.

Soothing - semper femina

Laura Marling – the tattoo reads “Semper Femina”

Soothing is a single taken from Laura Marling’s forthcoming album, Semper Femina, due to be released on 10th March 2017. The official video was directed by Marling herself and it seems to be exploring themes of gender and sexuality. Personally I find it slightly uncomfortable viewing. In any case, it doesn’t reflect the rejection and finality of the song it is promoting. My advice is to listen on your favourite streaming service but, if you like watching women in tight plastic body suits squirming sensually on a bed, here’s the video.

Elusive Butterfly

Elusive Butterfly - blue morpho

It’s officially winter here in the northern hemisphere but the other day, although it was chilly outside, there were fluffy white clouds hanging in a clear blue sky over the green green grass of the back garden lawn. Looking out from the cosy living room it could almost have been summer again. Suddenly my peripheral vision caught something flitting past the patio windows.

By the time my eyes had latched onto the movement whatever it was had already gone. The brain, a few centimetres behind the eyes in space and a few milliseconds behind in time, searched for a match in its movement database and found ‘butterfly’. Another millisecond later the search algorithm stalled. The verification procedures had reported an error: there are no butterflies at this time of year in England. It must have been a bird, probably a blue tit attracted by the seeds in the bird feeder.

The imagined butterfly was too elusive to catch and yet the flapping of its wings had caused a small storm in the chaotic atmosphere of the Crotchety mind. Blowing in that freshly-stirred wind there was this song by Bob Lind released in 1966¹.

It was a time when every pop song seemed to be worth listening to and Elusive Butterfly was no exception. It’s a pretty folk song that has been given the lustre of a pop song arrangement. It has a tune that appeals to all tastes, including your granny’s, and lyrics worthy of the poetry shelf in your local bookshop. Like many good songs the imagery is vivid: a brightly coloured butterfly seen from a bedroom window as it skips over a wildflower meadow and is pursued by a mysterious shadowy figure. Perhaps the apparition carries a butterfly net or perhaps he only wants to capture the fluttering beauty on camera. Either way he wishes us no harm.

Don’t be concerned, it will not harm you
It’s only me pursuing somethin’ I’m not sure of
Across my dreams with nets of wonder
I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love.

Elusive Butterfly - hands

Also spinning in the eddies stirred up by those half-seen wings was a memory, tattered and faded with age. It was the memory of a small cardboard box some 20 cm square and 4 cm deep with a clear plastic lid. The box was fixed to my bedroom wall where most ten year olds would have posters of their comic book heroes. Pinned inside the box, on display for everyone to see, was the biggest butterfly I had ever seen, a butterfly with iridescent blue/green wings and a thing of the most exquisite beauty. It was one of my most treasured possessions.

Elusive Butterfly - kitten's pounce

Elusive Butterfly was Bob Lind’s only big hit. In the U.S. the song peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and in the U.K. both Lind’s original recording and a cover version by Val Doonican reached number 5. According to this article the song has been covered by over 200 other artists; Spotify has versions by Cher, Petula Clark, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Hugh Masekela and quite a few others². The butterfly’s flight may have been brief but its exotic beauty lingers on in the ancient canyons of your mind.

Notes

  1. There’s also a longer, live version by the songwriter on YouTube here.
  2. Crotchety Man once owned Cher’s version on a vinyl single. The B-side was a song called You Better Sit Down Kids which is a heart-rending speech by a father to his children in which he tells them, “Your mother is staying, I’m going away”. That’s another great song.