Sunday, 19 February 2017

Shirley Collins:Lodestar.

"There was blood in the kitchen, there was blood in the hall. There was blood in the parlour where the lady did fall." - Cruel Lincoln.

Shirley Collins may be 81 years old but when it comes to delivering a chilling missive from the cold blooded old times she could teach people a quarter of her age a trick or two. In fact her voice sounds even better with age. It befits a singer of folk songs to have an oaked delivery and Collins somehow manages to combine that with a sweetly spoken innocence that makes for an effortlessly winning formula.

It's not the only duality evidenced at the Barbican's Lodestar concert. I've long held a theory that any work of art that can have you crying one moment and laughing the next is a very powerful thing indeed. At times I wasn't far off doing both at the same time. Not least in Collins and her wonderful band's retelling of children thrown overboard on ships, lovers washed ashore, and heartless landlords.

Shirley Collins had not performed on stage for a long time until rather recently. Between 1981 and 2014 she didn't perform live at all. After a hugely acclaimed career with her sister Dolly she'd succumbed to dysphonia which had resulted in the loss of her singing voice. A performance with Current 93 at the Union Chapel saw her begin again a rise to prominence which culminated in last year's hugely lauded Lodestar album and this packed powerhouse of a gig.

The night had begun, for me, suitably enough. As I supped a pint of Jugged Hare pale ale in The Jugged Hare I noticed the Brighton Morris Men were in 'limbering up' with a few tankards. It wouldn't be the last I'd see of them. Then Mark Stewart (of The Pop Group) asked me directions to the toilet. I resisted the temptation to tell him it was beyond good and evil.

The concert, itself, was broken into two parts. The first, despite an impressive array of guests, was merely a starter. Dave Arthur and Pete Cooper (who'd later appear as part of Shirley's band) ran through a couple of banjo numbers, John Kirkpatrick (introduced as the sultan of squeeze) proved that he had a decent set of lungs to match his accordion prowess, Lisa Knapp's ethereal take on the folk tradition was eclipsed by both the ever wonderful Alasdair Roberts and Olivia Chaney's homage to Shirley's melding of the baroque and folk worlds. Graham Coxon suffered a few technical problems. The ridiculously low level of his impressive guitar playing exposed his weak, reedy, voice and, in the company of folk giants, he appeared a little out of his depth.

After the amuse-bouche a sumptuous feast. Pip Barnes acted as compere and joined in with a bit of the singing too. He's got a fine set of pipes on him and I appreciated both his and Shirley's introductions and histories to the songs. Where they came from and where they ended up. Normally how they got there remained a mystery but often there was some to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic.

This touched on the work Shirley did in her other job as musicologist and author. Her book America Across The Water chronicled the song collecting trips she took to the USA with the legendary Alan Lomax in the 50s. We were treated to songs she'd picked up in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia and a particularly humorous, bordering on ribald, anecdote about sharing a double seated toilet in an outhouse in the Ozarks.

There were songs from closer to home too of course. Maidstone, Billingshurst (in Shirley's home county of Sussex), and even a couple from around the Basingstoke area. Both Mapledurwell and Popham receiving surprising mentions. There was even a song, Sur Le Borde de L’Eau, sung in what sounded to me like impeccable French.

Every member of the band deserved the standing ovation they received but special mentions must go to Ossian Brown for his mournful sounding hurdy-gurdy work and Ian Kearey for his mandolin, his slide guitar, but most of all his relaxed stewardship of the nine piece ensemble. Glen Redman provided solo dances while also leading his Brighton Morris Men in some pretty impressive moves. Shirley seemed very touched by the youthful, and all female, Boss Morris too.

It was quite a gala, something of a celebration. It even felt a bit like an episode of This is Your Life at times. But what underpinned everything all night was Shirley Collins herself and that wonderful voice. She could have us beaming with glee on an 'upside-down' song like Old Johnny Buckle before tearing at our heartstrings with Pretty Polly's tale of star crossed lovers torn apart by cruel parents, and finally going for the full emotional jugular with the almost unbearably poignant Washed Ashore, a tragic tale of a young lady so heartbroken by the death of her lover that she lays down next to him saying "we shall lie here forever. The grave is our bed".

These songs, the old times they look back to, and the times we may soon be living in are dark but with voices like Shirley Collins shining a light on them we should be able to navigate our way through. After all, isn't that what lodestars are for?

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