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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Jim Causley: more Devon than devil

Jim Causley has a new album out called Dumnonia, which is a reference to a pre-Roman tribe based in the westcountry, and it's got a whopping 18 songs on it. The unifying force of this avalanche of riches, according to the sleeve notes, is that he set out to make a kind of Devon specific CD, although with the proviso that it's Devon as he sees it. This is a useful get-out clause, since there's a version of She Moves Through the Fair on there, which I think of as Irish, probably because the two versions I know best are by Cara Dillon and Sinead O'Connor.

Causley is an interesting character. Best known for his deep, honeyed tones, youth and time spent singing with Mawkin:Causley, he's a graduate of the Newcastle folk course. Both times I saw him with Mawkin:Causley (note the interesting punctuation) I got the impression that he was somehow on his best behaviour and wished that he'd let the rest of the band do the history bits in the intros because they weren't his strong point (the singing was). Having said that, he was clearly enjoyed by the audience, which is a great deal more than half the battle. 

It's obvious from the sleeve notes that he's got an interest in the collecting side of the music, although in a way that makes one suspect that he's slightly anxious to show that he's applied himself. He says that he's avoided a lot of the obvious stuff and then names a handful of songs - including Childe the Hunter and Widecombe Fair - which is interesting because I wouldn't necessarily have known what the obvious Devonian stuff was. I guess there's no point having a degree unless you can use it, right?

My favourite track on the album is Exeter Town, which is the story of a "wild and wicked youth" who robs and shags his way through life and ends up getting hanged for his transgressions. The song suits Causley because you believe him when he's singing it. Elsewhere there is sometimes a kind of codgerish-ness to the material (and I include in this Honiton Lace, a first-person story about a lace-making spinster) that makes him seem like a young man in the service of a tradition rather than a musician making the tradition his own. Also, I was thrown by the upbeat nature of his version of She Moves Through the Fair and its teaming with a lewd story about an adulterous German horologist. Having thought about it for quite a long time, I can't see an upside to the suicide of one's fiancee, who then returns to haunt you. You'd have to miss them a very great deal for that to be a good thing and the thumbnail sketch of the situation contained within the brief, brilliant lyric suggests that the singer doesn't really know the object of his/her affections very well. We've all been there, right? That's why it's a classic.

It would be great to see Causley embrace his raffish, dark side and choose material that plays to his strengths, which are his youth and the twinkle in his eye. And what's not to like about that?

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

What folk like these days: a bit of burlesque

I don't usually write about things I don't enjoy, I'm not paid enough. I've sat near people in newspaper offices who are critics of one form or another - food, theatre, books - and have heard the unpleasantness that can proceed from that job. The threatening phone calls, the excrement sent in boxes, the occasional shiny black eye on the critic themselves. No thanks. If somebody wants my seal of approval they're welcome to ask for it, but I see no point condemning something if lack of interest means it will die anyway.

So this is a departure and I mention it because I shelled out £30, the biggest pleasure I and my companions had was sniggering about how bad it was and because in all probability it won't die, however long I hold my foot on its neck.

I went to see some really rubbish burlesque about a week ago, at a place called The Brickhouse on Brick Lane. Tea and burlesque, it was billed as, or carbs and corseted afternoon delight as we'd optimistically anticipated. Sadly, what we got was a teenage MC in fishnets who only knew one adjective - "beautiful" - no wit or talent on display, unless you count an anorexic looking keyboard player in a corset murdering Summertime - which is, let's face it, hard - a depressing lack of originality and the whole thing in an awkward venue that reminded me a bit of the inside of the London Assembly building. I suppose the problem was that it just wasn't sexy. I liked the big feathery wings on Cupid's Sister (who did some fire breathing and was the best thing about the show) but was unable to resist the thought that even her act would have been more entertaining if she'd accidentally set them on fire. Late on, when insurrection was taking hold, we actively discussed using the scones on the tea tray as missiles.

It was made even more disappointing, if that were possible, by the fact that my friends had seen something really good a few weeks previously: La Soiree at the South Bank. Here's a spot of pole dancing as you've never seen it before from that show to give you some idea what the competition was like. Note: he keeps his hat on all the way through, because that's how good he is. The Muse cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good helps and I see that - gosh - the tickets are only £20.

Yesterday there was a piece in the Evening Standard about a new "fetish-burlesque" club called The Box in Soho where "high rollers pay around £1,000 a table", possibly even more after the full, enthusiastically disapproving spread on page three of the paper. It's disappointingly scant on details: there's a naked man in a pig mask being set alight by two women. One presumably to hold the matchbox, the other to call the Standard's picture desk. But even more impressively: a woman known as "Laqueefa played the tune of a popular song on her genitalia". I have no idea how one would do that but (1) Laqueefa must be from a large family where they had to make their own entertainment and (2) what song please? Did the reporter not recognise it, in which case how did he/she know it was popular? My money would be on a nice rousing version of John Barleycorn but I'm often wrong about these things.

Burlesque has been edging in on the folk scene for a couple of years now. It was the title of Bellowhead's first album, the Belles of London City have coopted stuff from it to become the most widely celebrated morris dancers in the country and up-and-coming folkies Urusen were at The Old Blue Last on Thursday supporting a band called Tu Fawning who were from Oregon and whose sound and customised, elongated trumpet I associated with Archaos, the chainsaw juggling circus troupe. It's everywhere and it's getting bigger.

I'd certainly pay £30 to hear Laqueefa's rendition of John Barleycorn, or whatever. In fact, I'd probably pay £30 to see someone do that trick with nipple tassles where they make them go around in opposite directions: I think it's what I was secretly hoping for from the Brick Lane excursion and have been ever since seeing Gypsy as a child.

But what I'd really like is some way of discerning which of these shows is any good since there are so many  firing up around London at the moment and some of them, inevitably, are just jumping on the wagon, using the reasoning that sticking the word "burlesque" on the bill will pull in the punters. Surely there must be a website with cabaret listings or an expert of some kind to whom one can turn? Time Out's not doing the job...

Consider this a cri du coeur. With pasties.

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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Absinthe and iPhones at the BBC folk awards

If there's anything gloomier than a bunch of musicians who've been nominated for an award and not won, or a bunch of musicians who haven't been nominated for an award surrounded by their peers, it's a bunch of musicians who won and then got drunk. At the BBC folk awards on Monday the consensus afterwards seemed to be that if anyone else ever wanted to win an award again then every single member of Bellowhead would have to die...

Here are the results. As you can see Chris Wood and Bellowhead got two apiece: both have recently had new albums out. But the ubiquity of the 11-piece wall-of-sound band was such that when I ventured the opinion that Jon Boden, Bellowhead's main vocalist, was robbed in the Best Singer category after producing 365 solo podcasts this year, what I got three times in reply was a weary shrug and the response that he won it last year. Oh. Right.

In other news: Steve Knightley of Show of Hands had his brand, spanking, uninsured iPhone nicked at the bar afterwards, Mike Harding was hotly anticipating an article in the Manchester Evening News towards the end of this week, Jackie Oates wasn't drinking, Damien Barber's lucky lace - given to him by an old gypsy woman (if you say so, Damien ;-)) - didn't do the trick and a member of Bellowhead who shall remain nameless had a hip flask the size of a hot water bottle containing absinthe. "I've got big hips," he offered by way of an explanation.

Auntie had outdone herself. True, there used to be a sit-down meal attached to the ceremony but with its rotary, rubber chicken overtones those things are often just a cumbersome brake on the main event. So with all the usual caveats about the economic climate, there was pink fizz and canapes beforehand, a very glamorous venue in The Brewery, City of London, and a slew of celebrity prize-givers. Also true, most of them - Tamsin Grieg, Frank Skinner, Mark Radcliffe and Jeremy Vine - are on contract to the Beeb, keeping appearance fees to the minimum. But there was free booze on the tables and repeated warnings that the show would be going out live on TV and radio (parsed as *please don't get drunk and start shouting - you can do that later*).

The whispers around my table during the ceremony were largely about Tamsin Grieg: her off-the-wall speech - hailed by a cry of "we love you Debbie" after her role in The Archers - provoked questions from within and outside the room (by text, it was live) of whether she was mildly inebriated. But you had to pass close to her table to get to the loos and it was reported back that all the wine on her table remained unopened. I guess the trip to Hollywood for Episodes has left its mark and she's just a kooky girl.

Joanna Trollope's cut-glass tones felt a little nannying, with all her talk about the "ethereal" nature of the voices of various people well-known for not being particularly ethereal, her speech seemed slightly off-key. But she was very thorough in her appreciation of the nominees for Album of the Year and intonation is no barrier to liking good music, so the bristling in the audience should probably have been less than it was.

To recap then: Chris Wood and Bellowhead won most things, there was drinking and then there was more drinking afterwards at the Thistle hotel down the road. I managed to leave my jacket in the cloakroom at The Brewery but the nice man running the mini bus service picked it up for me on his next run. So that was OK.

The Levellers had finished off the evening with some wordage about folk being the music of protest. I think the definition of folk is a bit more inclusive than that but I wonder whether the pervasive sense that evening of being under fire was as much about surprise that it hadn't been cancelled completely for money reasons as anything else.

Yet what is the purpose of the BBC if not to do this? The number of folk festivals to be found over the summer is proof that there is money in this kind of music if you know how to tap it. But the Beeb isn't supposed to be about that anyway. There was a hat-tip to Mumford & Sons and there are lots of similar folk-ish bands who could usefully have had a look-in. Personally I would have liked to have seen the Urban Folk Quartet and Urusen there.

And the remit could be wider - not much Scottish stuff going on despite an entire festival full of it in Glasgow only last month.

But it was fun and it went off without a hitch. And you can't ask for much more than that really, can you?

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page and then indicate using the drop-down menu next to the *like* button that the blog is one of your "interests" You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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