And so we come to 6th January 2015. For adherents of the Russian Orthodox church, it was Christmas Eve; but for most of us it was Twelfth (or thirteenth) Night. And as such, rapidly approaching Blue Monday - that date in mid-January regarded by many scientific sources as the most depressing day of the year.
Despite the Auguries, a doughty group of acousticers gathered at the Swan for the first session of 2015. Though careful to avoid labelling itself as a "folk" occasion, nevertheless much of the music presented falls under the general sweeping category of "folk"; and "folk" itself is notorious for the depressing nature of its output - deaths, disease, disaster ... all grist to the folk mill. And indeed there was much of this on offer.
But this is to get ahead of ourselves. With acoustic sessions at the Swan, you never quite know what (or who) you are going to get. There must be a hinterland of 50-100 acousticers out there who may or may not pop in with varying degrees of regularity. Tonight many of the more regulars were absent (yes Mike, Graeme, Leon, James - your absence was noted and even commented upon), but there was still a solid band of ten performers (plus four audients), many of whom shuffled themselves into various combinations. Enough to provide a truly varied and entertaining evening, yet not so many that we couldn't get round twice.
David Brimacombe eased into his usual role as Compiler of the List and Photographer. We need a selfie next time, David; to complete the evidence of the night. And as usual, responsibility for the blog bounced around the room like a nervous roulette ball before finally settling here, into the equivalent of the double zero slot.
And we were off by 9.47: no Mike C, so Kath and Brian Wylie set us going with a Horslips tune: "The Faerie King". [Note the spelling of this; and compare with their later set in part 2.] They followed this with "The Gulf of Mexico", in which they were joined by Rob Watkins. Quite apart from the bounce of the music, this trio displayed an intriguing display of strings. Brian's Blarge (apparently short for Large Bouzouki) had nine, Kath's Mandolin eight, and Rob's Guitar a more traditional six. Providing a prime number total of 23 in all - plus a feathered dreamcatcher, if my eyes did not deceive me.
They were followed by Colin, who eschewed strings altogether, instead selecting a D from his washboard-topped box of (I think) at least twelve harmonicas. He gave us a haunting rendition of a Northumbrian pipe tune: the "Bradford Tin Village"; which is actually nearer Durham than West Yorkshire.
Colin only wanted to do the one; so we were rapidly into Nixie, Dixie and Daure (John, John and Kevin, though not in that order). Three of them, each with a guitar: but as one was a 12-string, their 24 strings in total catapulted them into the lead in the string-count stakes. They spoke lovingly of their elusively absent drum machines ... perhaps a treat for next visit, when their wives have taught them how to switch them on. They provided us with three Bluesy numbers: "I Need Your Love So Bad", authored by Mertis John 60 years ago, and popularised by Fleetwood Mac a decade later. This was followed by a Dylan classic "Like a Rolling Stone"; while their three-number set (there were three of them, after all) finished with Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'".
Next artist John Waller's single-strung guitar offered no competition vis-a-vis the string-count contest, but he did offer two further numbers from his self-penned back catalogue. "Norfolk Wherry" invited us to imagine a cold winter dawn on the edge of a Norfolk Broad, where said wherry lay unused and futureless. "Liberator" took us to the north coast of Scotland in the closing years of WW2, where Liberator bombers patrolled the North Sea looking for U-boats. The song imagines the ghostly adventures of one pilot whose plane didn't quite make it back; and what might have been if it had. This song is based on a true incident and, we were informed, John's own father was the pilot of another such plane, that did survive.
Rob Watkins then provided us with two more classic Blues-related songs. First was John Prine's "Sam Stone", one of the first songs to view the Vietnam War from the point of view of its effect on the soldiers who survived it. Your Blogger must confess that, while being aware of the name John Prine, this was the first time I had really listened to one of his songs. One can only applaud the economy and skill of the writing, to encompass so much in so few words. Rob followed this with a more recent (2012) song by John Hiatt "The Blues Can't Even Find Me", which (among other things) references the breakdown in real human communication caused by all this communication technology that now surrounds us. Another great song, just as depressing; and Rob put them both over very effectively.
On to our resident harpist, Frances White. She single-handedly obliterated all competition in the string-count event, her instrument boasting at least 28 and probably more - you lose count up at the narrow end; and anyway, I was there to listen to the music, not count strings. She plays two-handed, of course; and with increasing precision and authority. First we had "Mawson's Jig"; though I am unable to establish whether it was written by, or for, someone called Mawson. This was followed by an O'Carolan tune, entitled "Haste to the Wedding"; and my attempt to research this led to a Computer Security Alert. It does, however, appear to be part of several agencies' repertoire of wedding music, even 400 years on. As always, it's great to have a harp in the mix.
The first half was closed by late-arrival Pam Johnson, who enlisted the services of Brian Wylie to accompany her on Lucinda Williams' "Am I too Blue?". She followed this with a Mary Gauthier song "Christmas in Paradise". Now, here are two more songwriters that your blogger has not previously come across. Perhaps I should get out more. Both songs had powerful lyrics, and Pam's clear, strong voice did them both justice.
After a minimalist beer break, we are back off round again, though with a reducing crew. Nixie and Dixie started, as they had to leave soon: and Colin stepped in with some harmonica accompaniment on a Robert Johnson song "Dust My Broom"; dating from back in the 1930s, when men and women left each other much as they always do and have - otherwise Blues singers would have nothing to sing about. They finished with a Van Morrison song "It Stoned Me", apparently about a damp fishing trip, but probably about something more. Then the threesome disappeared into the night, with many waved goodbyes.
Kath and Brian resumed with two tunes on their 17-strings-between-them instruments. First was a polished version of "King of the Fairies", a traditional Irish tune covered by the Dubliners, amongst others. Important to note the spelling difference between the two types of Faerie / Fairy (see Brian and Kath's first set). Though commonly interchangeable, most literary scholars consider Faeries to be older, maybe descended from the Gods; and sometimes with a darker side; unlike Fairies, who are all sugar and spice and all things nice. They followed this with a rousing and purposeful rendition of "Gypsy Dance", by Brunon Byron. Brunon appears to be a Polish born composer once employed by West Riding County Council: but the most telling reference I can find on the 'web for this comes from a previous occasion when Brian and Kath performed this at the Swan, as recorded by a somewhat confused blogger in 2010.
Then it was John Waller again, this time challenging Brian to select any two songs from his recently released CD of Classic Covers. The chosen songs were Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne", and Richard Thompson's "Beeswing", and John got through the word-heavy songs without noticeable error. Both are somewhat enigmatic; tales redolent with unfulfilled promise. Suzanne was a "platonic / unrequited" friend of Cohen's from way back when; while Beeswing is supposedly based on the life of English singer-songwriter Anne Briggs, who turned her back on the accolades and fame her talent might have brought her.
Colin then borrowed a guitar to give us Merle Haggard's "It's Not Love" - another somewhat sad song about people making do the best they can, given the circumstances. Then Colin too bad us all a fond goodnight, and disappeared into the seething night.
Pam came back with two final songs, assisted by Rob: another Mary Gauthier, somewhat bluntly entitled "I Drink"; and a Cheryl Crow song "We Ought to be Drinking". Something of a theme building here. In neither case did the consumption referred to seem to come under the heading of "responsible drinking", of the sort that "they" are always telling us to engage in. But hey, since when did songwriters (or performers) have to stick to government guidelines in the dispensation of lifestyle advice?
And to round the whole night off, Brian gave an impromptu rendition of Jimmy Crowley's "Funeral Party", a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if the funeral is held before the deceased has completed the deceasing process; especially if the mourners are not impartial to the odd bout of refreshment.
So there we have it. A night full of songs celebrating all the things that can go wrong in life, and what people resort to when they do. Showcasing a selection of songwriters that your blogger, at least, has not come across properly before. You learn stuff at a Swan Acoustic session. So thank you everyone for your informative performances ... and do all keep coming!