Tonight's show was part of the "Twisted Folk Tour" and folk music (British/American/African) is the basic earth of all popular music. That said, the very different musical roots of JACKIE LEVEN, HEM and THE EARLIES grew into a pretty eclectic programme. It wasn't a completely comfortable mix and I noticed more than a couple of people sitting out one or other of the sets in the bar. But safe programming never baked any muffins, so what the hell?
Tonight's top billing was THE EARLIES. Bringing eleven musicians onto the stage was their first good move. The spectacle, the scale, and footballing references to Burnley all came together in the serious mission to have good fun. I did wonder, during a raucous trombone solo, if the Twisted Folk Tour afternoons feature EARLIES vs the REST footie matches. HEM are eight strong at least, and with JACKIE LEVEN, a driver, Steph from the sound desk and Dave from merchandise that would be two teams, a ref and two to run the lines.
But maybe not. Stick to music, eh?
The great musical strength of THE EARLIES is in the three and four part singing. Large and confident voices, fingers sometimes in ears and custom built big fat chorus lines make the Edwardian rafters ring like tuning forks. There are memories of STEELEYE SPAN'S early days in the vocal strength. On first acquaintance the songs themselves don't stand out as the distinct stories and melodies that folk music usually offers. But the gleeful use of every instrument they could pack onto the stage makes it into an orchestral concert of very absorbing music.
Cello plays a prominent role, there are two percussionists, guitars, bass, flute, trumpet, bass saxophone, myriad keyboards and the aforementioned trombonio. Additional audio equipment lurks both stage right and thoroughly hidden at the back. It makes a big and fully justified noise when it’s full on. There's nothing within a mile that could distract your attention once this lot get into their stride. It swirls and pulses and surges in a natural and contented sort of way. So many people and such an easy, almost improvised sympathy are a rare treat. Lots of the band are smiling and no one is showing off. To be honest the individual playing is not always that great – the flute, banjo and saxophone parts are pretty basic, for example. But the overall effect works really well and a spontaneous improvised feel is definitely what the band value. For me it's at its very best in "Devil's Country", a song from the latest "These Were the Earlies" album that fairly storms along, with bucketfuls of devilishness. Christian Madden seems to control the general melee from behind an impressive organ console plus.
The sheer surprise and novelty of the show could carry you through several sets, I'm sure. But I did start to harbour small doubts about the general drift of things. Couldn’t the same effect be generated by four or five people with clever equipment? Up to a point it could. But it wouldn't be such fun. My conversion came in extra time when the band chose to do a song by (they said) "a lad from Leeds – TIM BUCKLEY". The songs was "I Must Have Been Blind". It is a very fine song, and it provided just the opportunity for THE EARLIES to really show their stuff. It was a classic case of great performers needing the freedom to unlock someone else's great standard to show a novice listener like me what the point of it all really is.
HEM had done the previous set with a much more controlled and, emotionally stirring set. Sally Ellyson's strong and warmly tender voice is the mesmeric centrepiece. Traditional-sounding country tunes of their own devising, plus a classic or two provide the craftsman built repertoire while seven musicians stir the music in a friendly and self-assured kind of way. Jerry Lieber and Billy Edd-Wheeler's "Jackson", (made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter) was the very stylish opener. Lush pedal steel guitar notwithstanding, the brittle veneer of Nashville and the rockisms of California are kept well away. This is New York Americana for a mellow generation. I wasn't too surprised to see a Bob Harris session on the agenda.
HEM's recent album, "Eveningland" is a grander affair than even this eight piece live show, with fuller orchestral treatments. The pleasure of tonight will have been more intense for all those in the audience who knew those songs and were full of anticipation for the luxury of Sally Ellyson's personal delivery of perfect songs like "Cincinnati Traveller" and "Strays". The band were enjoying the songs as much as the crowd, with a fair bit of spontaneous singing off mic and mutual grinning going on.
The applause a the end of the set is long, warm and delighted. This is a band whose mission is to connect and to share the deeper truths about simple things like love, distance, a yearning for peace and sensitivity to another's needs. Not rock and roll at all. But rather lovely and all the better for it.
JACKIE LEVEN, well known in these parts had his song about Leeds ready and oiled. Strictly speaking it's a song about leaving Leeds on the train. But that's a nice way to go and LEVEN's fine voice and guitar playing did it proud, with a convincing train impression tapped and scraped out on the guitar at the end. His set always balances gritty Glaswegian anecdotes and sorrowful songs. That voice gets richer and more decorated as time goes by. It really is quite an instrument. His presentation is much more like the old folk club raconteur/singer, but he still claims to be the "bitter and twisted, rather than just twisted, end of folk". There was some truth in that tonight, and the mournfully wry tale of his mother's recent death maybe told us more than he wanted us to know. The world needs the likes of JACKIE LEVEN.