The Theatre, Poole Lighthouse
Tuesday 1st November 2016
Walk Into The Morning
Peppers & Tomatoes
First and Last Man
Still In Dreams
Reverend Thunder (Blind Faith)
You Well Meaning Brought Me Here
The Girl From The Hiring Fair
The Streets of London
West 4th Street and Jones
I have seen Ralph McTell before, in the late 60s, and I must confess there is no memory beyond that I did. That’s no criticism … in the same period I saw John Renbourn, Davey Graham, The Humblebums, Martin Carthy and The Young Tradition in short order. In those days no one sold albums at gigs, and I couldn’t have afforded one if they had. Music was purely of the moment. The only McTell album I have in the original LP form is Spiral Staircase. Yes, the 1969 one with the BIG one, Streets of London. Actually the recording we all know and love is a 1974 remake.
A lot of artists have a BIG one, but few have one that big. When Don McLean was asked what America Pie means, he famously replied “American Pie means I’ll never have to work again.” But then Vincent was a major hit too. McTell’s only other chart entry was Dreams of You (I have the 45), though Naomi is a major song for some of us. Then Nanci Griffiths covered From Clare to Here. Like Elton John, there’s a signature melodic feel to many of his songs..
Streets of London must be one huge millstone around your neck, nearly fifty years on. He can’t think to himself, “Hmm, shall I do Streets of London tonight or not?” The other thing is that the song was a gift to thousands of (fellow) buskers, and unfortunately buskers don’t pay royalties. If you go to busker territory, London’s South Bank or Bath’s main street, chances are you’ll hear it today. When we were doing ELT sketch shows, the song was one that we did on many, many shows over a six year period. It’s fixed in my mind exactly as sung by my friend, the late Alan Tankard, with added harmony vocal backing. My favourite version so far.
So is Ralph going to show me something tonight to make me change my mind?
It was a very good audience for Poole. No support. Solo. He was in the theatre, not the concert hall. A good choice … better a nearly full theatre, than a half full symphony concert hall, and it was more intimate.
Before the show I thought, this is about the best CD sales stand I’ve seen. Twenty-five different CDs, two videos, a biography, a pack of guitar strings, T-shirts AND they took credit cards. His autobiographies should have been there but sold out earlier in the tour. Five of the CDs were in his 6 track Songs for Six Strings series, packaged like guitar strings.
The guitar strings packets are appropriate, because I’d never realized what a hugely accomplished guitarist he is. When you listen to the records, there’s bass, strings, piano, accordion, bagpipes etc as appropriate, so you don’t think about him as the “guitarist.” He obviously is.
As usual, I’d checked Setlist.com for earlier shows in the tour. I was not surprised that tonight’s content was very different to Buxton at the start of the tour.
He started out with Walk Into The Morning from 2007’s Somewhere Down The Road, and the evening was bookended by songs with fine harmonica playing. As he told us afterwards, the genesis of the song was a retrospective look at his busking days, which as it happens took us back to Poole High Street in 1962, when he lived in a semi-commune next to a fish box store over a betting shop. The Poole connection was strong throughout the evening.
The joy of stand-up solo singer songwriter is as here, when the sound is crystal clear, and his articulation is so good that you hear every word in every song. That’s articulation at Paul Simon / Leonard Cohen levels.
He dated Nanna’s Song to 1965-1966 in Paris, and it’s from his first album. He quietly dropped in what I guess we all knew, the pub quiz question … Streets of London was originally conceived as “Streets of Paris.” It’s odd, but I never really got to like Nanna’s Song, and prefer his later work.
Barges was like all the songs, introduced by funny and engaging narrative. That’s something the best folk singers (like McTell) honed in the small clubs. He has a rare gift for it. As we were going out the couple in front of me were saying, “It’s not just the music. The stories are so good.” Barges is about narrow boats on the Oxford Canal at Banbury … but “narrow boats” doesn’t scan.
Peppers and Tomatoes is a great lyric, though I had never realized it was jointly inspired by his uncle’s allotment and his travels in Yugoslavia before it broke into warring factions. The narrative with its chilling ending is worthy of Leonard Cohen.
First and Last Man was enhanced by the intro – we all know the picture of the Native American on a horse, hands raised, looking at the sky. He had it in his flat in Croydon. The Beach Boys used it as the logo of Brother Records, and did the opposite as the sleeve of Surf’s Up. Anyway, great song.
He moved to 12-string guitar for Diamond Joe which he learned from Rambling Jack Elliot, who was a fixture on the early UK folk scene … I saw him myself. He was our cosmic link to Woody Guthrie, of course.
Hesitation Blues has at least fifty major versions in the years since 1916’s version by the Victor Military Band. Ralph McTell learned it in 1965, well before Hot Tuna’s version, which I’ve always loved for Jack Casady’s bass. Ralph McTell sat down for this, explaining that some intricate numbers were best seated, including the catalogue of ragtime era songs transposed from piano to guitar. The version he was harking back to was Blind Gary Davis … I recalled that Ralph Mays took the stage name “McTell” in honour of Blind Willie McTell … decades before Dylan’s song.
Still in Dreams has been my ear worm this week, as I played McTell a lot before the show. Still seated, beautifully taken.
He stayed seated for a long, very funny story involving Blind Gary Davis and Country Joe McDonald (no spoilers), then did his song for and about Reverend Gary Davis in Harlem, Reverend Thunder (Blind Faith) demonstrating his abilities to change to a soulful blues voice.
He told us about his Gibson J-45 (bought when he was nineteen) before switching to a Martin Ralph McTell signature guitar … another fabulous anecdore that I won’t spoil. That was in an Open D tuning for The Setting. I’m not sure which is my favourite Ralph McTell song apart from that screamingly bleedin’ obvious one, but The Setting is a candidate. It has a deliberately Irish feel to the melody.
The Martin was put down, and he moved to grand piano for two songs. The first, the title track of his fourth album from 1971 was You Well Meaning Brought Me Here. In its original version it had a full orchestra. It works perfectly with just piano.
The second piano number was another favourite, Naomi. I was playing it earlier today, and my companion assumed it was a recent song about love in old age. Not so at all. He wrote it observing his great aunt and great uncle decades ago. That’s brilliant writing, putting yourself into a different age group’s heads so beautifully.
Back to guitar. The Girl From The Hiring Fair was given to Fairport Convention, who still do it. It makes me think of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset novels (though I think he mentioned Ireland), and the annual hiring fairs for maidservants and agricultural labourers. Like a slave market really, but voluntary. Well, voluntary if you wanted to eat. A Mills & Boone romantic novel in a song.
It led into The Streets of London. It brought tears to my eyes as many many of the audience sang along to every single word, word perfect too. Mainly high female voices. Ralph is used to it and stopped in odd places to let the sound swell and fill the hall. Magnificent.
The final number was First Song. He explained that he’d like to do a medley of big hits. But there was only one of them.
The single encore was West 4th & Jones Street, which had me buying the 70th Birthday DVD from 2014 to get a copy, The song is based on his 1963 reactions to the iconic cover photo of Bob Dylan and Suzy Rotolo on Freewheelin’ which was photographed at West 4th & Jones Street. His song takes us back to the bitter winter of 1963 and through the year to the Kennedy assassination … a time when he was in Poole. He prefaced it by congratulating Bob Dylan on his Nobel Prize to frantic applause (well, from me at least). It’s a great song, with Dylanesque harmonica, as on the first song of the evening.
Overall, the major reminder is that he is NOT a one trick pony. There are songs in his catalogue right up there with Streets of London, some are mentioned above, others are personal favourites that we did not hear tonight like In The Dreamtime, Around The Wild Cape Horn, Sand In Your Shoes and Let Me Fly or Let Me Fall. He’s a first rate guitarist. His voice a 72 has not a sign of ageing. His linking narrative is the best in the business. The sound was perfect.
Catch a show. A real must.