Though she keeps up a fairly consistent touring schedule these days, a London appearance by June Tabor has become a rarity and, therefore, something to be treasured. Tabor has been performing live for over thirty years now and remains a thoroughly commanding, singular stage presence. Her concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday brought Topic Records’s 70th anniversary celebrations to a wonderful close.
Tabor has often organised her concerts (and sometimes her albums) into suites linked by themes, and the concept for this evening was songs reflecting upon the relationship of the British people to the sea. The selection of material was solid and in some cases surprising, including many songs that Tabor has not yet recorded, and encompassing the dolorous and the humorous, the intimate and the epic, the ancient and the contemporary. Tabor was surrounded by a superlative quartet of her regular musicians - Huw Warren on piano, Mark Emerson on violin/viola, Andy Cutting on accordion and Tim Harries on double bass - and supplemented the songs with instrumentals and a couple of poems and prose pieces, all thoughtfully and elegantly sequenced. She opened with Cyril Tawney’s moving “The Grey Funnel Line” (featured on her 1976 debut Silly Sisters album with Maddy Prior), before offering a dynamic war-at-sea suite including “Polly on the Shore” and “The Fiddler.” Les Barker’s sublime song about the Highland Clearances, “Across the Wide Ocean,” brought the first half to a thrilling close, while other highlights came in the form of an evocative version of “The Lazy Wave” and a chilling, gothic take on “The Brean Lament.”
Despite her unwarranted oh-so-serious reputation, Tabor has always excelled at delivering comic songs. Here she offered a superbly funny rendition of a Les Barker parody of generic folk-song tropes and practically acted out a sailor’s plea not to be eaten by his starving shipmates in the Thackeray ballad “Little Billie.” “Some songs about potential cannibalism at sea,” she quipped, by way of introduction.
The antidote to a million sweet-voiced folk-singers, Tabor’s extraordinary, expressive vocals sounded richer than ever and, as always, allowed her to dig deeper into the material than many of her contemporaries and descendents have managed. There’s never a moment in which you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less than fully committed to communicating the emotions in a given song. Her spare, jazz-and-classical-inflected approach to the tradition, coupled with the mixture of burning passion and cool detachment that defines her singing style, makes her sound quite unique - on the folk scene and beyond. She ended the show with the classic ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” - in its dramatic, perhaps definitive wide-screen arrangement from her 2003 masterpiece An Echo of Hooves - while a gorgeous, slowed version of Ian Telfer’s tender “Finisterre” (the final track from her 1990 collaboration album with Oysterband) provided the encore. “The tale we told each other has an end,” Tabor sang, a mixture of hope and sorrow coursing through her voice. Far from a wash-out, this was a thoroughly exhilarating evening of songs of the sea.