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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.

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