Spiers & Boden
The Backyard Songs Tour
Forest Arts, New Milton, Hampshire
Friday 24th May 2013
Set list (approximate):
From memory, not notes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed one. Corrections very welcome! *
Catherine’s Tune / Ironing Board (?)
Gooseberry Bush / Laudanum Bunches
Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor (false start)
The Hampshire March / Portsmouth
The Birth of Robin Hood
Three tunes + Sportsman’s Hornpipe
Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor
Frozen Gin / Vinegar Reel / The Sloe
Jiggery Pokerwork / Haul Away / Seven Stars
New York Girls
* (NOTE: March 2014: Listening to Lucy Wan in the car almost a year later … I’m sure I remember them introducing it, so maybe it’s missing above)
Forest Arts is a community theatre in the New Forest, one of those small theatres that host the best stuff nowadays. Spiers and Boden don’t seem to stop working … Bellowhead tour, Jon Boden solo, Spiers & Boden, back to Bellowhead in the summer. Long may they run.
This was a small, intimate setting. The thing about new British folk is the unassuming nature. There was music and dancing from local musicians in the bar before the show, and the principles were watching it, just as John Spiers was selling the CDs in the interval, and they both were at the end. There is no rock star about it whatsoever, and that includes starting exactly at eight as advertised, and adding the encore on to the booked time, not including it … they played fifteen minutes more than the ninety anyway.
Another thing is that because of the sparse instrumentation, not only can they sound like the record, they can sound better. Watching close up, with superb sound balance, I could truly appreciate the range of John Spiers’ melodeon playing for the first time. Well, there were four different instruments on stage, all members of the “diatonic button accordion” or “free-reed aerophone” family of instruments (thank you, Wiki.) The four different sized instruments, all of which look historic, are changed constantly … I’d say one was a concertina, and three melodeons, but it’s an area I don’t know. They have melody, and an elided bass drone. Having spent most of my life listening to 95% American folk with an emphasis on folk rock, the English style is a great change, and while I never totally embraced the Fairport Convention / Steeleye Span folk + bass and drums, I find the “real thing” more satisfying. Throughout the evening, you never feel the gap of missing instrumentation. The melodeon adds bass, and Jon Boden performs on a stomp board … basically a slightly raised platform of thick plywood, which is amplified in some way, and played with his feet in industrial boots, while fiddling AND singing of course.
I didn’t catch the titles of all the instrumentals, and at a guess rather over half the set was instrumental … jigs, reels, hornpipes, morris tunes, dances. I’m too ignorant of the genre to pinpoint the difference, but it’s like a legendary Irish pub, just two guys, one on fiddle, one on melodeon fill the room and have people itching to dance, and in the second half some did … bravely, as the dancing area was behind the musicians.
They did all three on my “hope they do …” mental list, which was topped by The Birth of Robin Hood, a sublime ballad that would be in my most-played list this year. The others were Prickle-Eye Bush and Tom Padget. The Prickle-Eye Bush was definitely an improvement on the Bellow album. As on the version on Works it has added backing vocal, though unlike Works it’s just John Spiers. The power of both singing, with John Spiers in the chorus, is such that I’m surprised they don’t do it more. It’s much more raucous than the backing singing on Works, and as with Bellowhead, they do raucous as a speciality.
The Back Yard Songs tour was so named because they agreed to do local songs as a one-off in each venue, a brave move, but then you recall that Jon Boden recorded 365 folk songs in a year for the Folk Song A Day project. I’ve only downloaded the month of May so far, deciding that more than one set of 30 / 31 songs a month would be indigestible, so I’m doing it a month at a time. Anyway, they announced that they were having problems finding New Milton songs (though I would have thought a lot of traveller songs relate to the New Forest). Jon Boden went back to Ralph Vaughan Williams folk song research in 1902, and apparently Vaughan Williams discovered some in Bournemouth, my home town, and the nearest large town to New Milton. This was a major surprise to me as my memories of Bournemouth folk clubs in the 60s are Al Stewart doing Desolation Row, two girls with Joan Baez voices doing Deportees and a lot of fat blokes in rugby shirts doing Chastity Belt and The Good Ship Venus. But Vaughan Williams discovered Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor from Bournemouth singers. So my home town is more musically sophisticated than I’d ever imagined. I’ll research it! This link goes to the lyric of Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor. It was sung by Peter Bellamy too, so given their enthusiasm for Bellamy, it may be where they first met it.
They started Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor, with Jon Boden switching to guitar, but after a verse he said he’d forgotten it (hardly surprising) and would have to check it in the interval and do it in the second half. When they announced the intervals, he said they’d both be at the CD stand, but John Spiers said that no, he’d be at the CD stand, while Jon Boden re-checked the song. When they did it in the second half in full, it got huge applause. Jon Boden is as good an interpretative singer of lyrics as you’ll find. I like his tone and accent, never veering into the Mummerset of some earlier folk singers.
They recovered the Hampshire theme with The Hampshire March and Portsmouth as instrumentals. No mention of Mike Oldfield on Portsmouth obviously. Incidentally, though Bournemouth is in Dorset since the county boundary changes of the early 70s, it was historically part of Hampshire, so it fitted.
I liked the intros all evening, especially the announcement that they were about to do a cover version … of Bellowhead … before launching into the Sloe Gin set. The run of vocals in the second half … Horn Fair, Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor and Prickle-Eye Bush … made me just slightly wish the set had (say) one more vocal and one less instrumental, but I thought the same about Bellowhead, and the instrumentals do get people itching to move their feet.
Before the encore, they said they had finally thought of a New Milton song … and started the chorus of New York Girls with New Milton … then they picked up their instruments and did New York Girls in full with the right words. They’re so comfortable with the audience that Jon Boden starting verse two again instead of verse three, correcting himself and redoing it simply adds to the fun, enjoyment and sense of reality. New York Girls with just the two of them felt as full on, flat out as having the whole of Bellowhead there. A great version. We left the hall exhilarated, happy, heads buzzing with music. You can’t ask for more.