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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Manufactured Moonshee rising

I went to a rather odd event at Cecil Sharp House the other night. It was an album launch for a band called Moonshee and it came with some enticing bells and whistles.

The first half of the gig had Ashley Hutchings and his son, Blair Dunlop, steadfastly refusing to admit that they were related to each other, while Dunlop demonstrated convincingly that he's got the musical wherewithall to make it in the industry no matter who his dad is. A couple of years more stagecraft under his belt and he'll be flying, I reckon. It's a bit weird that he's already played Cropredy, though, as I only heard his voice this year (didn't see him) and assumed he was an established singer-songwriter. But it turns out he's 19.

Then there was Ruth Angell, who appeared to be a friend of Dunlop's, and has a beautiful voice and a way with magical realism. She introduced one of her own songs by describing how she'd been sitting in a cafe in Paris when she'd noticed that there was a tea chest with metal edges on the pavement nearby. Instead of calling the bomb squad, she watched as a little man - "very small indeed" - climbed out of a panel in the side, chopped up some bread for the birds on a bread board, fed them and then crawled back into his tea chest. She said all this with a completely straight face, which suggests talent.

The messing with reality was good practice for what happened next, though.

The second half was all Moonshee, who'd been hanging around in the foyer looking simultaneously slightly overdressed and underdressed. There are four beautiful girls - two blonde, two brunette - and two cheeky looking, older, Asian guys, who play traditional Asian instruments.  

The British/Asian folk fusion was well-judged if a bit samey, in terms of tone and tempo. It was folky enough for my taste and I'd quite happily listen to it in the car: it created an ambience.  But there was also something odd about it, that I couldn't put my finger on at first.

The band wasn't really looking at each other and appeared to be concentrating very hard: the girls at least. The guy on percussion was enjoying himself and kept looking around for some eye contact with his fellow band members, but eye-contact was there none.

Plus there was no banter and what talking there was, was weirdly stilted. Then the singer, who had a northern Irish lilt, introduced their eponymous song by saying: "Apparently a Moonshee is a storyteller, someone who removes barriers between cultures. So quite a fitting name for this band." And the penny dropped.

No sense of ownership of their own band name, the appearance of being worried about forgetting something they'd rehearsed over and over, very little on-stage chemistry.

Manufactured band!

"This band is the brain-child of John Dagnell," the singer admitted at the end, inviting a round of applause from the slightly disconcerted audience. Dagnell works at Park Records, which mainly does Steeleye Span. And sure enough, it turned out that the musicians had auditioned to be in the band, except the guys, who were session musicians. And the songs - largely traditional - were arranged by Paul Gibbon, who's been around the block a few times. I've got Jethro Tull written next to his name in my notebook.

Speaking to the two blonde, female band members afterwards they were charmingly enthusiastic but they described Cecil Sharp House as a "folk club", which isn't exactly untrue but it's untrue enough to suggest an unfamiliarity with what it does.

Dagnell said he'd been working on the project for ten years - which means that some of the band would barely have been out of junior school when he started - and that the difference between Moonshee and The Imagined Village was that Moonshee "are more commercial".

I wouldn't argue with that. I suppose the most surprising thing about this project is that no one's tried it sooner (*braces self for slew of emails explaining that someone has*) What I'm wondering, though, is whether Park Records has the money and the social media marketing skills to launch a commercial, manufactured band? One of the things Peter Knight said when I interviewed him the other week was that Park Records may not have a proper website but there's always a human being on the end of the phone when you call. And frankly, if they'd got a handle on the social media side of things I would have expected a much bigger turn out for the album launch.

Dagnell also seemed uncertain whether it was OK to admit that Moonshee was put together by him, insisting at one point that the Australian lady guitarist, who was using a music stand, was one of the moving musical forces behind the band, before appearing to change his mind about that. He also denied that he had any ambition to be the Simon Cowell of the folk world. Had to ask.

Having said all this, it's a very commercial sounding album and kind of lovely with it: a million miles better than anything you'd get on The X Factor. And I expect the live experience will gel as they get more practice with audiences and, you know, enjoying themselves. So I wish them all the best and would like to see them play at a festival next summer, after they've had a chance to get used to being together (it was only their second gig). I'll be very curious to see what happens next.

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  1. Discussion about this:

  2. Yes, someone has:

    From Wikipedia:

    "Manager Albert Grossman created Peter, Paul and Mary in 1961, after auditioning several singers in the New York folk scene."

    And bloody good they were too.

  3. If you ask me these guys below, India Alba, are a much better representation of what can happen when two cultures... folk and asian music... come together to make good, not manufactured music!


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