The Full English
Wednesday 30th October 2013, 8 pm
Fay Hield vocals
Rob Harbron concertina, violin, vocals
Nancy Kerr vocals, violin
Seth Lakeman vocals, violin, bouzouki, foot board
Ben Nicholls double bass, vocals, concertina
Sam Sweeney violin, cello, autoharp, vocals
Martin Simpson Guitar, vocals
Set list, ( # is a non-album song)
The Servant Man
William and Nancy
Portrait Of My Wife
The Willow Glen #
Fol the day o
Seeds of Love #
Tunes to film clips #
The Hornet and The Beetle #
Peggy and The Sailor #
Rounding The Horn
Stand By Your Guns
The Man In The Moon
(Review has been delayed a day to avoid plot spoiler on set list!)
The stage is set at The Stables for The Full English
Why Milton Keynes, people asked me. For those who don’t know it, it was a new town created on a town planner’s wet dream of American grid plans, with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, and an unprecedented road numbering system where major routes are marked V2 (vertical 2, or north – south) and H4 (horizontal 4 or east-west). Sounds good? Well nowhere else has adopted it. And all these cross routes are 70 mph limit so Milton Keynsians whiz about. Bits of old villages survive within it. It also has the best medium sized music venue I have ever been to, The Stables, in the Laine Dankworth Centre, down a narrow country lane, just off one of those major roads. It was set up by Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth so by musicians and for musicians.We took advice and ate well in the excellent and reasonably priced restaurant, browsed the great record store in the foyer, had a coffee at the coffee counter, decided to avoid the bar. You do have to drive to get anywhere in Milton Keynes.
The Full English project is an online resource of English folk music containing 58,000 items, and this short eleven date folk supergroup tour is in celebration of it. The supergroup aspect makes you think of the Imagined Village, but this is more traditional, and led by Fay Hield. To me it was an unmissable event, and the music fully justified that, and the three hour drive each way, though we stayed over and booked a play the next day – Milton Keynes also has one of the best modern theatre buildings.
Fay Hield and Martin Simpson were at pains to explain that the Englishness wasn’t an exclusive thing, but embraced Irish, Scottish and Appalachian forms. However, I do think there is a discernible distinctive aspect to English folk music, and that Irish and Scots folk has a clearer route to American folk and country. I have mentioned my pet theory in other reviews, but there is an Englishness that can be traced through to prog rock, think Jethro Tull, Traffic, and the extended notes of English prog singers. Anyway, the Full English people know far more about the roots than me, and I think you can detect a definite guiding intelligence in the choice of songs for this tour, with a strong ear for haunting melodies. The melodies have been added, improved, tweaked by these performers, Not so much a case of Trad. Arranged by, as Trad. Improved by. It’s also not a case of everyone piling in to jam their way through a well-known standard. It’s all carefully arranged, and played by virtuoso musicians. They lined up from audience left to right with Martin Simpson, Fay Hield, Seth Lakeman and Nancy Kerr, i.e. the main vocalists, at the front. Behind them were Ben Nicholls, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweebey.
The sound mix was impeccable, right up there at Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon levels, and the mix on stage was by the record producer, Andy Bell, rightly credited by Fay at the end as a member of the band. The sound is hi-fi sound levels (like Leonard Cohen) and the earthy richness of real wooden instruments sounds natural rather than amplified … of course they are amplified, but with subtlety and care.
There are some numbers with all seven playing, but often it’s a subgroup of two, or four, or five. They opened with Awake Awake with all seven singing unaccompanied, led by Fay Hield. It was spine tingling stuff, even better than the record to my ears. They were using two TV screens either side of the stage, and racehorses appeared as Martin Simpson introduced Creeping Jane, which he sang lead on. Nancy Kerr took over to lead The Servant Man and she plays intricate violin while singing. Fay Hield took the second verse, and the combination of Fay and Nancy’s voices is a feature throughout, reminiscent of the Witches of Elswick in the female vocal blends.
William and Nancy is an instrumental, so the group is six at this point. Seth Lakeman stepped up to the centre to sing Portrait of My Wife, a thoroughly gorgeous and poignant song and apparently his new virtual single. The texture of the three violins was particularly striking on this. Then came a surprise, the first non-album track, The Willow Glen with lead vocal by Fay Hield. It was done for a BBC TV programme on willows.
Briggs Fair was introduced with a 1905 wax cylinder recording of Joseph Taylor, who had been discovered and recorded by Percy Grainger. The theme was then developed by Delius. This is an instrumental reworking, so interestingly folk to classical and back to folk again but with a classical beauty to Martin Simpson’s guitar part. This doesn’t sound like folk at all really, but it’s outstanding.
Fol the Day O is a new composition by Nancy Kerr in the mood of the Full English, with her lead vocal.
Arthur O’Bradley closes the first set. When I first heard it I couldn’t believe the speed of the singing, never letting up, an effect they achieve by Nancy and Fay taking turns to lead it
The interval comes here, and afterwards Fay commented that it was the first venue they’d played with ice cream on sale in the interval. Well, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre wheels out the stem ginger, strawberry and vanilla in the interval, so they’re in good company.
I was surprised that the second half began with Linden Lea … I had guessed it at the end of the show as on the record, mainly because I can’t see how you can follow such sublime singing and music. It was immediately my favourite track, and was announced as something of an imposter, as it was a poem by William Barnes, the Dorset poet, set to music by Vaughan Williams. But this group can play Vaughan Williams, just as they can play Delius. The string sound, with Sam Sweeney switching to cello, was ethereal. Barnes wrote Dorset dialect poems, a dialect my grandfather could drop straight into, and which even my dad found hard to follow. When I was a child the sign on pub toilets in Dorset was YERE TIZ. (Here it is).
Seeds of Love is mentioned in the album notes as the first folk song Cecil Sharp collected in 1903, though it doesn’t appear on the album. It did tonight, introducing a sequence of non-album tracks. This sub set with The Willow Glen makes me hope for a Full English Two, or maybe a DVD of the shows.
The stage was left to Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney for a concertina / violin duo ‘Some tunes’. These were used to accompany early folk dance film clips, the last of which had Cecil Sharp kicking his heels.
The Hornet and The Beetle was another non-album song, with if my scribbled note afterwards is accurate, just Fay, Nancy, Rob and Sam.
Martin Simpson led on Peggy & The Sailor a traditional song which had been finished by Martin Carthy who wrote half of it.
I’d said in the interval that I bet they’d keep the sea shanties till the end, though I guess Rounding The Horn isn’t a shanty, just a song about the sea. Ben Nicholls put down his double bass, took up concertina and sang lead on it, giving a nicely contrasting voice, with Rob Harbron also on concertina and Sam Sweeney on cello..
Seth Lakeman sang Stand By Your Guns as the closing song … a good vigorous set closer on which he played bouzouki and stamped away on the amplified footboard. Of course we knew there’d be an encore, and I knew there was only one left from the album, Man In The Moon, with Fay Hield singing lead.
It was a truly wonderful and memorable evening of music. It’s hard to keep such an ensemble together or indeed to reassemble it, as every one of them has their own commitments, but I hope they manage to do it.
Review of Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party 9th April 2014 here.
Review of Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party March 2013 here.
See also my article on Fay Hield on The Toppermost site