Me and my blog

Follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Mediaeval Baebes geek out

Standing outside St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City last week, the crowd seemed a bit unusual - or rather there was a greater concentration of unusual-ness in one place than is strictly normal. There was a man with a plait in his beard, another wearing a fur coat. There were Goth girls and girls in corsetry-as-daywear. Some fellas wore one-of-a-kind hats, others had dyed eyebrows. Many of the women had unusually intensely coloured hair. They had a quality that made me imagine a Neil Gaiman book-signing, although it took a while to figure out why. I felt faintly nervous, enjoyed the spectacle, listened to the conversation going on around me. Then I relaxed. This crowd I recognised: the geeks were out and they were out in force for The Mediaeval Baebes.

I reckon that if there had been time to ask, a straw poll of audience members would have revealed an above-average number of smart phones, days spent working with technology or applying it creatively, people with hobbies about which they were passionate and a higher-than-usual collective IQ.

This is a hunch.

For my world is increasingly populated by geeks, which is something welcome. The same dynamic that means that single women acquire gay friends because of the bond of childlessness, leads me as I get older increasingly to enjoy sincere enthusiasts (aka geeks) and to appreciate the side-effects of enthusiasm in any given area of life, which include success and fun. And this is despite having originally been encouraged by a society that celebrates effortless superiority to believe that there was something suspicious about enthusiasm.

These days I see geekdom as a cast of mind involving intelligence and a lack of excitement about the mainstream - but beyond that it takes many forms. (My companion at the Christmas Mediaeval Baebes gig - the last of their 2011 tour - pointed out that a straightforward early music crowd looks very similar, though perhaps a bit less S&M-y.) The unifying characteristics of geekdom might be described as a lack of inhibition about liking the things that one likes - gaming, role-playing, perhaps one's job or musical pursuits, the period of history (or whatever) you like to fantasise about, politics - and a level of concentration on and knowledge about this stuff that can easily tip over into creativity, obsession or both. I've sometimes wondered whether there is an area of the autism spectrum that might account for it - a point at which empathy is mainly restricted to those with whom you share your enthusiasms - but between Christmas and New Year is a bad time to try and get hold of the professionals who'd be able to discuss that theory knowledgeably. Maybe later...

I am also developing a theory that geeks, in fact, rule the world.

Anyway. Here is a picture of the band that brought together that audience and this train of thought.

Although, to be  honest this is not exactly the band that I saw last week. I believe someone's joined the group since the pic was taken and since The Mediaeval Baebes started between 15 and 20 years ago there have, according to Wikipedia, been 27 members in total, swapping in and out. What I like about this image, though, is the fact that it's air-brushed, as if the band exists in theory - perhaps inside a fantasy computer game or a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley - as well as in reality, as six or seven people with independent, relatively normal lives.

I know they have independent lives because one of them was Bev Lee Harling, who supported The Destroyers the other night at Wilton's Music Hall. She works hard, that girl.

The gig started with Bev, decked out as a vestal virgin with flowers in her hair, walking down the aisle of the beautiful church - St Sepulchre is the musicians' church in the City in the same way that St Bride's is the journalists' church - which was decorated for Christmas, carrying her fiddle and singing She Moved Through the Fair. She was eventually joined by six other maidens - though I use the term advisedly - with long hair and costumes fastened under the bust a la popular representations of Morgan Le Fay. And though it never got that folky again the scene was set for a certain level of theatricality.

What followed was a kind of theme park whirl around musical genres - with the emphasis on early music - that was a bit Hammer Horror camp, a bit Robin of Sherwood and a bit Witches of Eastwick. But retro. Crucially, though, it also managed to pull off the clever trick of becoming its own genre by throwing in a slightly shy wink to soft porn in which every smiling glance between Baebes appeared to be a meaningful glance and every pipe placed between the lips was apparently laden with significance. Tonguing: oh yes. It was knowing entertainment, medieval stylee mediated by Cadfael, Ridley Scott and anyone who ever wrote a song, gave an interview or performed an entertainment about women labelled "witches" for being bewitching (although if witches really existed, as with criminals, surely only those bad at witchcraft would get caught?) It was none the worse for that, just derivative in a highly unusual and therefore enjoyable way.

The American lady in the next seat spent some of the interval expounding on the complexity of the time signatures in which they were singing their songs in Latin and early English - I hadn't recognised any of them, though they were pretty - and telling me how successful The Mediaeval Baebes are at something she described as "RenFair" in the US. This turned out to be a kind of transatlantic battle re-enactment scene ("renaissence fairs") for people who enjoy dressing up and pretending, but don't much like violence. Think Kentwell Hall but with fairies and dodgy accents.

On this occasion, I don't think it was the often a capella music that had packed the church out, although it was delightfully produced and packaged, but the way in which the show appeals to people who like their entertainment reassuringly niche. It made me wonder whether this was the target area at which John Dagnall of Park Records was vaguely aiming when he made Moonshee.

Whereas the first half was all about floaty maidens with circlets, beautiful hair and slender arms picked out attractively by backlighting, the second half briefly became The Middle Eastern Baebes, which reminded me a bit of the incidental music of Gladiator and probably produced a collective belly dancing fantasy in the audience. It then returned to a nice bit of chanting about the circle of life in time to send us out to the pub feeling all winter solstice-y.

I discovered afterwards that there is a Mediaeval Baebes musical all tee'd up and ready to go, which has been put together by a German actor called Micha Bergese, who is probably most famous for playing the dashing werewolf (below, right) in A Company of Wolves.

They're looking for some financial backing, which is proving an uphill struggle at the moment. But there may well be some geeks/enthusiasts out there who'd jump at the opportunity to be involved and I suspect anyway that if the thing were done right it could turn out to be a money-spinner, since musical theatre is - I'm theorising again - geekdom at its broadest.

If you're interested to find out more you could contact the show's producer, Julia Hannan. Otherwise I believe they'll be touring again in the New Year. Get in touch with your inner geek...

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, about Dylan Carson, who was Kurt Cobain's best friend.

* Or if you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news queue you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Steeleye Span goes wassailing at The Barbican

There they went a-wassailing. Steeleye Span were, indeed, six at the Barbican on Monday - except when they were joined on stage by John Spiers and Martin Carthy. Dodgy picture alert (Maddy Prior was at the back trying to look inconspicuous during an instrumental and the battery on my camera ran out before I had a chance to take anything with the zoom. Sorry 'bout that.)

They played the whole of Now we are Six, starting with 700 Elves, dedicated Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Professor Brian Cox because "there's a lot he could learn from this song" and then introduced the "and friends" part of the evening...

At that point things got temporarily a little less festive - though there were three people in the front row wearing tinsel halos who may well have disagreed. The Strawbs sang something with a chorus that repeated "May you rot" over and over again, which seemed a bit bah humbug under the circumstances. They also used a line that I've heard referred to (by Peter Knight at a Gigspanner gig) as the Broughton/Dempsey disclaimer - after Joe Broughton and Kevin Dempsey - offering the audience the opportunity to return their CD by post if they didn't like it "and we'll send you one that we don't like". Ordinarily I find it funny but on this occasion it mainly made me wonder about its provenance. I first heard it from Joe Broughton at an Urban Folk Quartet gig and, sure enough, he laid claim to it later by email, adding that he sometimes had to stop using lines when they became too widely passed around. However he couldn't recall specific examples, as he was "very hungover on an Austrian tour". Prost... I guess jokes are like songs and the folk process also applies.

The second half was great, especially for the delicate The Two Constant Lovers, in beautiful five or six part harmony, with a bathetic intro by Knight describing the lovely woman on the cliff edge looking out to sea as if she were about to leap. "Then in the fourth verse she does."

John Spiers and Martin Carthy joined the band on stage for the Padstow Mayday song recalling, for me from my days as a baby reporter, the controversy that singing that song on any day apart from Mayday causes in the town. John Buckingham of the Padstow museum said, though, that these days they feel benevolent towards the Steeleye version, partly on account of it almost having become a tradition in its own right. "As long as Steeleye Span don't produce an 'obby 'oss and start dancing around the stage they'll be safe," he said. Mind you, they like a bit of controversy in Padstow. This is the place, after all, that celebrates Darkie Day while often claiming that its origins lie in a shipwreck involving a slaver on the shore nearby.

Then there was Bedlam Boys - what an odd song that is, lyrically - and The Lark in the Morning before Carthy and Spiers trooped off - even though Rick Kemp said it might have been more appropriate for Carthy to have remained as it was he who'd brought them Cold Haily Windy Night in the first place.

Later on, when Spiers - a good 25 years younger than everyone else on the stage - returned with Carthy for the finale he looked so electrified by being that close to Maddy Prior while she was singing All Around My Hat (followed by a seasonal Gaudete) that he almost forgot to come in.

And that's the thing about Steeleye Span. They've been around for over four decades now and watching them recalls nearly a lifetime of memories for most of their audience: an entire lifetime for the younger members. It's hard to disentangle what's theirs and what's your own. It just ended up feeling like ours and I can't think of anything more apposite at this bittersweet time of year.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog in your Facebook news queue you could *like* its Facebook page.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Freedom of Information request for names of folk awards judges denied

I received a letter from Rachel Hallett in the BBC's Freedom of Information department late on Friday. This attachment came with it (it's in four pieces).

In reply I sent this.

A few minutes later I received this from Rachel Hallett.

So, in essence, the list of the names of the judges is a secret and this is not the first attempt that has been made to retrieve it from the BBC, Smooth Operations and UBC Media. Also someone somewhere believes (1) that the way Smooth Operations organises the awards legally qualifies as "art" and (2) that not releasing the names of the judges serves the best interests of someone.

I would like to know who that is please?

This secrecy does nothing to enhance confidence in either the process or the outcome of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. In fact, it does the opposite. It also appears to be the opposite of how the BBC's own rules say an awards ceremony paid for by the licence fee and taxpayers' money should be conducted.

What on earth is going on?

I ask John Leonard at Smooth Operations, Fergus Dudley, whose responsibility it is to make sure that the awards are properly conducted, and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, whether this is the correct use of the Freedom of Information act?

So far John Leonard has said that releasing the names of the judges may result in the judges wrongly using their positions to get free CDs. To which I ask: how does marketing usually work in his experience? Is he saying that Mike Harding pays for every CD he plays on his Radio Two folk show, which is produced by Smooth Operations? And has no one at Smooth Operations heard of Sound Cloud?

His second point was that releasing the names of the judges would make them subject to lobbying by "big business".

The two companies he went on to mention in this context were Topic and Proper. But nine out of thirteen of last year's winners work for one or the other, so how's that working out?

When I originally asked for a list of the judges of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards it was because I thought it might make an interesting blog post and that lovers of folk music might be curious to see something from backstage at the most powerful marketing tool on the folk scene at the moment.

However, the intransigence of all concerned is making me wonder whether there may, after all, be more here than meets the eye? It always struck me that there's a lot of moaning about them by people you'd expect to be enthusiastic about a folk fest. And now I begin to understand why...

After all, the thirty per cent correlation - I got around to counting - between Alan Bearman's client list and this year's nominees doesn't look good.

I would have thought that for the integrity of his awards ceremony John Leonard would like to prove that it's all above board by giving us more clues about how these decisions are made and perhaps opening it up to people who don't know any of the judges personally by publishing their names? This would allow bands who don't have a manager or PR with friends among the folk awards judges - and let's face it, since the judges' identities are a secret, knowing who they are would properly make you an insider - to send a free download to someone who might be interested? The awards would almost certainly become of wider interest as a result.

Releasing the names of the folk awards judges would be doing folk music a service.

I will, of course, submit the request to the information commissioner.

But in the mean time, over to you John Leonard.

* Previous blogs on this subject, with the first one at the top

* Read the next post about the folk awards

* If you are interested in receiving posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Destroyers do something constructive at Wilton's Music Hall

Wilton's Music Hall, just off Cable Street in Wapping, is the only venue I've ever known that makes its audience seem cooler and more attractive by association. There's something about the combination of falling-down plasterwork, expensively restored moulding and thousands of twinkling fairy lights that glamour the eye and makes one think it would almost be a shame if the place were ever brought up to surburban standards of rectitude, as various funding bodies have been talking about doing for over a decade now. It's more bohemian than the Czech Republic.

Also there, on Friday, were The Destroyers who emanate from Birmingham - at least half of the fifteen-strong, inter-generational band have a connection with the Birmingham Conservatoire - and the show was sold out.

As the audience milled around, drinking mulled cider, Bev Harling and the Kitchen Sink struck up. They're a four-piece (the line-up has changed since the video above) containing Frank Moon, of The Urban Folk Quartet (another band from the conservatoire) and his missus, Bev, who started by playing the fiddle and singing, mesmerisingly, from the floor among the audience. The whole set had a burlesque-y quality entirely in keeping with the venue: she made the playing of various domestic accoutrements - glasses of water, a wok, an electric drill - seem rather a fruity undertaking, making one think that, all things considered, Frank's a lucky man...

There was a brief pause for theatrical faffing by the sound crew - everything that takes place in that building seems theatrical - before the gradual arrival on stage of various Destroyers, jamming softly away as if they were the background for a piece of Parisian street theatre. As their numbers swelled so did the noise level, until finally...

there were fourteen of them on stage, awaiting only their front man, Paul Murphy, for the full chaotic effect. And what an effect it was...

From the off, the sixty-something's growling vocals created a sense of occasion that matched the venue. You want theatrical? We can give you theatrical...

The energy levels were phenomenal - the only band I've seen to match it are Bellowhead - and the audience seemed to have come along to exploit that, moshing, whooping and crowd-surfing to the balkanised, mariachi folk with its capacious brass section and lyrics full of portent and calamity, as if they had no intention of seeing another dawn.

The subject matter for the songs was diverse, with many of them written by Murphy. There's a Hole in the Universe, made me fear for the safety of the part of it directly above Wilton's; Methusalah Mouse is about a genetic experiment gone wrong; and they finished up with an instrumental version of Tam Lin, which they coupled with Music for a Found Harmonium.

The Destroyers have been around for eight years, building a following, gathering terrific reviews - especially for their live performances. And yet somehow they've never made a dent on the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. How can that be when they sound like folk, they call themselves folk and the folk like them?

"I manage the band," said Louis Robinson, the tallest man on the stage, one of two fiddle players: the one wearing the velvet tam-o-shanter and a pair of low-slung Indian trousers. "I suppose that's the difference between being managed and having 'management'. I should really have got in touch with someone involved in that whole scene."

And yet what is the point of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards having upwards of 150 judges if not that they can get around and find stuff for themselves? Perhaps if their names were known they might even receive invitations to gigs from people they didn't know?

The Destroyers come very highly recommended. Just don't expect to be able to remain seated...

* If you'd like posts from this blog to land directly in your Facebook news feed, you could *like* its Facebook page.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Jamie Smith's Mabon hits the road in style

On Wednesday night Jamie Smith's Mabon blazed through The Old Queen's Head in Islington and rather a lot of people packed into a warm room with each other's germs and some splendiferous chandeliers made out of gramophone horns to see them.

They were ably supported by Maia, who write a lot of songs about large objects hurtling through space, and whom I'd definitely also travel to see: it was quite an evening. So here's the Mabon playing a tune called The Gordano Ranter, which came with a hilarious passive-aggressive intro about how it's named after someone unpleasant they met, who was ranting at the Gordano service station. "And now we have a bit of a rant about him every time we play it," Smith nodded.

They're a seriously classy live act, though not exactly a dance band because many of their tunes are a bit too rhythmically complex for that to work out: they say they're as happy playing a sit-down arts centre or a theatre auditorium as a pub. Oli Wilson-Dixon supplies some soulful, gypsy-style fiddle and harmonic seagull-sounding noises, as well as reeling meanly in tandem with Mr Smith himself, on accordian.

Memorably, an audience member shouted "Easy on the fucking reels, you bastards" toward the end and for a long moment it was impossible to tell whether it was a suggestion for the final encore - things were getting a bit sweaty - or the best heckle ever at a folk gig. Both, as it turned out because the last tune was called Easy on the Reels.

However, it wouldn't be right to discuss their present UK tour, which is drawing to a close, without mentioning their transport, which has been causing a bit of a stir. Iolo Whelan, on drums (though not while I was talking to him), explained that it had started at breakfast the morning after the first gig, when the subject of their tour bus was under discussion and Adam Rhodes - bouzouki -  got his hands on a copy of photoshop, with which he is apparently a bit of a whiz. Well, judge for yourself...

It was posted online, to a few well-deserved gasps of awe. "But the response was also a bit mixed. I think a few people couldn't decide whether it was for real or not."

So when their tour took them to the Isle of Man, with which the band seems to have an implausibly large number of connections considering the small number of people who actually live there, they employed something a bit like a heli-cam to produce this.

However, due to some confusion about which of their two Facebook pages - the result of Facebook's faffing around, not theirs - this one was supposed to be gracing, the response was more muted than before, which a neutral observer might put down to the widespread knowledge that the Isle of Man is a very welcoming place that likes to roll out the red carpet for its visitors. Especially visitors with so many local connections.

So, to clear up any remaining confusion, this appeared shortly afterwards.

... which would come in handy for all those European celtic festivals they play. Just don't ask them how they manage to pack all their gear into such a small plane...

... because you might make them cry.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed, you can make it so by *liking* its Facebook page.

Emma Hartley blog logo

24hourlondon logo

Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?