Tuesday 15 February 2011

See the Sea: An Interview with June Tabor

See The Sea: An Interview with June Tabor

Over her 40 year career, June Tabor has carved out a singular place on the British folk scene, and beyond. She’s an interpreter par excellence of everything from Anglo-Scottish ballads to French chansons, jazz standards, comic songs, and material by writers including Richard Thompson, Bill Caddick, Lal Waterson, Elvis Costello and Les Barker. Add to this her collaborations with Maddy Prior, Martin Simpson, the Oyster Band and the Creative Jazz Orchestra, among others, and the result is a staggeringly rich and accomplished body of work. The signature, throughout, is Tabor’s extraordinary voice: a hauntingly low and expressive instrument that can warm and chill, convey imperious detachment and burning passion, and dig deeply into the soul of a song, powerfully transmitting its emotions to the listener.

Dubbed “chamber folk” by one commentator, Tabor’s unique jazz- and classical-inflected approach to the tradition has been honed across concerts and recordings with her regular musicians, including Huw Warren (piano), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (accordion) and Tim Harries (double bass). It’s this line-up that shines again on Tabor’s latest album, Ashore [review], another glorious piece of work whose thirteen beautifully measured and atmospheric tracks explore maritime themes. I had the pleasure of catching up with June over the phone for Wears the Trousers to talk about the new album, cannibalism at sea, gender politics in traditional music, and exactly what a good song can do.

Firstly, I wanted to congratulate you on Ashore. It’s another fantastic piece of work and I’ve been totally absorbed by it over the past few days. You’ve recorded many songs that have referenced the sea in some way over the years, why did you decide to focus an entire album on songs dealing with those themes and images?
The album really came into being out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in 2009. That was a show to celebrate Topic Records’s 70th anniversary. Topic asked me to contribute and it was up to me to do exactly what I wanted - great! So I started to think about material … We’d come to the sea, musically, a few times before, just because there are so many different kinds of songs that can be connected under that theme. Linking songs, I’ve found, can shine new light on older material; it can make you think again about songs that you thought you knew. So I started looking at the repertoire, and then to think about material that we hadn’t performed before, and would like to. I also started to think about the relationship of the British people, specifically, to the sea. And of course Topic is a very British label; they’ve done so much to promote and celebrate the music of these islands. So that seemed appropriate too. And when it came to thinking about a new record this seemed the obvious solution. It’s such a fascinating area, so rich and diverse. I don’t make albums because I have to; I make albums when I want to make them, when I think “This is something special, something I want to share.”

Where does your fascination with the sea stem from do you think?
Probably from the fact that I was born nowhere near it! As a Midlander I was born about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get, though of course we in Britain are never very far from the sea; it’s part of the British psyche in a way. My own relationship with the sea was born of trepidation, really. Just standing and looking out at the sea is so overwhelming. It’s like nothing else. And I still can’t swim!

It’s not in any way a romanticised view of the sea that the album presents, is it? The songs tend to associate the sea with loss and conflict and separation.
And getting eaten!

Indeed! The jolliest song you’ve recorded here is about cannibalism.
Well, precisely. I couldn’t resist that one [“Le Petit Navire”]. At the QEH show, we performed it alongside two other pieces: “The Ship In Distress” - another amazing piece of work - and Thackeray’s “Three Sailors of Bristol City.” Songs dealing with cannibalism at sea were surprisingly popular in the nineteenth century. “Le Petit Navire” is wonderful and I love the fact that although the poor boy does get eaten, they do so with a nice white sauce and a salad.

Very classy and very French! Let’s talk about some of the other songs on the album, firstly the two tracks that you’ve previously recorded: Ian Telfer’s “Finisterre,” which opens the record, and Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line.” Why did you decide to revisit those two, and what were you seeking to do differently with them this time around?
They’re both songs that I’ve loved for many years, since the first time I performed them. And they’ve stayed in the repertoire throughout the years - not constantly, they do come and go - but they’re songs that I’ve always returned to. I loved what Maddy and I did with “The Grey Funnel Line” [on the first Silly Sisters album], and we still perform it that way, but this version is very different. You’ve got Huw’s incredible piano-playing, then Mark’s viola comes in… It creates something very visual, a piece of cinema. I’ve dedicated this version to my friend Mac Brown, who was in the Navy. He said that this song sums up exactly what a sailor feels when he decides to turn his back on the sea. I think that this version speaks so strongly of not wanting to leave, but knowing you have to for your survival as a human being. Very sadly, Mac died before he could hear this version.

With “Finisterre,” the new arrangement really developed around Andy Cutting’s wonderful spacy accordion-playing, and it’s evolved through performing it at various concerts. I picture this version this way: it’s the 1940s and here’s Humphrey Bogart, nursing his drink, gazing out to sea… Again the arrangement, and the way it builds, just give the song another dimension. One of the things I love about this kind of music is that you can constantly find new dimensions in it the more space you give it.

There’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere to the album. I’ve been listening to it sitting in front of the fire, bundled up in a big jumper, with a blanket…
And a hot toddy, I hope!

The record really makes you feel the rain, the gales, the hail, the north wind.
Yes, the weather and the sea are so inextricably intertwined. In the notes to the album I talk about the shipping forecast, that litany of place names, those very matter-of-fact descriptions of the weather, interrupting the Test Match. It’s really a part of our heritage.

Was it a conscious decision to emphasise atmosphere and mood this time around?
Yes, in a way. But ultimately it’s the songs that tell me what to do with them. The words are so strong that they inspire - dictate, really - the approach that we take: the instrumentation, the arrangements, my phrasing.

On this album you’re also returning to material by Elvis Costello who wrote two songs for you in the early 1990s. In this case, though, you’re taking on one of his most iconic songs, “Shipbuilding.” How did you decide on that one?
I really just sit down and let my former-librarian’s mind rove over all the songs that might be possibilities for a project. At the QEH show, we did a suite of songs about war-at-sea, and I thought “Is there a song that talks about war and the sea in more contemporary times?” And I found myself thinking about “Shipbuilding.” Of course it’s a pop song. But it’s an extremely well-written pop song with so many great references. The lines about being “back by Christmas,” the “telegram” and “notifying the next of kin” - they all speak so clearly about ordinary people’s experience of war.

I listened again to Robert Wyatt’s version, and I thought “Well, I can’t see how to do it as well as that…” But then it becomes a bit like solving a crossword clue. I presented the song to Huw and said “Shall we have a go?” We began by stripping it back. Most contemporary songs don’t work well that way; they were written with accompaniment in mind … But this one did work. Huw is so good and so quick and we came up with this version. It’s always risky to take on a song that means so much to people. But hopefully those who like the Robert Wyatt version will also respond to this ... And the images of the Falklands War are still very fresh in people’s minds, not the younger generation of course, but for a great many people. They will tap into those images when they hear the song.

I’m fascinated by your treatment of the Child ballad that’s on the album, “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.” It turns the song into this incredible dream sequence, almost.
This one originated when I was asked by Maria Hayes, an artist based in North Wales, to contribute something to a film of her making paintings of seals. I performed a spoken-word piece for the film, and Maria asked if I had any Selkie songs. I thought of this one, looked at it again, and was really struck by it. The Joan Baez version would have been the first that I heard, though that one had a new tune. When Child collected his version it was thought that no tune had survived. But this version was collected from John Sinclair of Flotta in the 1930s.

In terms of the approach, it’s completely improvised. The idea was to set up a kind of parallel story-telling between the accompaniment and the lyrics, reflecting the parallel worlds described in the song. And there’s a spoken-word piece that’s included before the final verse. That’s something that I enjoy doing in live performance. I think it can be quite arresting. And there’s a tradition to it, partly for practical reasons: ie. if the singer forgets the lyrics - which can sometimes happen with these long songs…

I was thrilled to see “Across The Wide Ocean” closing the album. It’s a song that you’ve been performing live for a number of years now, and I think it’s devastating, a Les Barker masterpiece. Tell me a bit about the historical background to this.
Les wrote it as part of his opera The Stones of Callanish which is about the history of emigration from the islands of Scotland. He used translations from the original Gaelic of testimonies of those who were evicted during the Highland Clearances in the nineteenth century. The lyrics come directly from those testimonies.

It’s an incredible piece of work. It’s so graphic, and not only in terms of the images. Those lines: “They hunted us like deer..”; “They said we’d have a farm.” In many cases false promises were made to the emigrants, and many of those who did reach their destination - Canada, mainly - who didn’t die on the journey, found that there were no farms for them there and they starved. The descriptions of the hardship that they suffered … It was, essentially, a form of ethnic cleansing.

The song confronts the pain of that history before bringing it into the present-day in the final verse: “And man still steals from man/The rich take what they can.” It conjures images that we’ve all seen in the press of contemporary emigration, migrants washed up on beaches in Spain. The boat people. All those resonances.

Again, in terms of the approach to recording it, it’s improvised. Huw begins playing, I start singing when I feel like it, and then the other musicians come in. And it’s never quite the same twice.

Ashore is your nineteenth album by my calculation… How has your approach to making a record changed over the years?
Well, when I started out I hadn’t got a clue! My introduction to making an album was the first Silly Sisters record with Maddy and I remember going into this rather flash studio, with all sorts of equipment, and I wasn’t sure about it at all. Also, I was so used to singing unaccompanied at that stage. In fact, when I came to record my first solo album, Airs and Graces, and the first track “While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping,” Nic Jones had to put the instrumentation on afterwards; it was the only way that I felt I could do it. He managed it, bless him, but he did say that he turned partially grey in the process.

Eventually, though, I found that the best way for me to record is to do it live, with the musicians. It gets the best results. Even if there’s a mistake, or something goes slightly wrong, it’s a true performance that you’re getting.

No artifice.
Exactly. And I do think that shines through the performances by all the musicians on the albums. Some kind of chemistry - much over-used word, but I suppose that’s what it is - happens under those conditions. Recording in a nice location helps too. A nice big room. With windows.

You’ve always chosen great material to record, whether traditional or contemporary. Do you think that what you look for in material has changed at all over the years?
Yes, probably. But it’s still always about the words first. Strong images, a strong narrative. As I’ve got older economy of lyric has become more desirable, where the song is the most effective distillation of an idea. A song, for me, is like a short story. A good song takes you inside it, and when you’re spat out on the other side at the end, you’re changed.

Have you been tempted to write yourself? I think you’ve said that “Aqaba” with Bill Caddick was the closest you came to that.
I have suggested ideas to people, as with Bill and “Aqaba.” Long ago I did try to write a song: I do still have it and come across it sometimes. I set myself a fairly ambitious task, because it was based on the work of Marie de France, the 12th century writer. It’s a werewolf story, and a really strong piece of material. My aim was to adapt it into English ballad form. But when I got to something like verse forty-three, I thought: “Well, no, this isn’t really working…” I should have got Gabriel Yacoub to do it, but unfortunately I didn’t know him at the time!

Self-criticism comes into it, certainly: thinking that it wouldn’t be good enough. But I do know that I can spot a good song, and that I’m a good interpreter of songs. And of course there are song-writers who don’t perform their own work. So it always excites me to track down a good song and to get it out there to a wider audience. With some singer-songwriters, their work is so personal that it can be difficult for another singer to interpret it. There has to be an element of … detachment, I suppose, in the writing so that I can find a way to make the song my own.

You’ve talked before about the cinematic quality of the great ballads: “Young Johnstone” as Peckinpah meets Kurosawa for example. Is that quality something that you look for in contemporary material as well?
Sometimes, yes. A song like Lal Waterson’s “The Scarecrow” certainly has that. I’ve found that referring to film can be a useful way of explaining something to someone else; it’s often helpful to go to another art form. Though they do always tend to be older films.

A new one I’d recommend is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, which is out here in a few months. As it progresses it felt like this incredible folk ballad to me. And when it got to the final image I thought: “That’s ‘Bonnie James Campbell’!”
I’ll make a note of that! “Bonnie James Campbell” is fabulous, isn’t it, a whole film in itself.

I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about gender, both in relation to traditional music and the folk scene more broadly. In interviews you’ve mentioned the resourceful female characters that feature in some traditional songs, “Geordie” for example. Is a feminist dimension something that’s important to you in a song?
It’s interesting, when I was younger I wouldn’t have thought about the feminist or sexist qualities in a given song. But as you get older - and more sensible - you do find yourself thinking more and more about what a song is actually saying. I wouldn’t sing something just because it had a good female character, but there are certainly songs that I wouldn’t sing now, “Prince Heathen,” for example, just because of the violence that’s done to the woman in the song. In the case of “Geordie,” he is such a wet and she just marches in there and says “I’m going to sort this out.” It’s wonderful. These kinds of characters do turn up again and again in traditional songs. Though I’m not sure just how accurately it reflects the reality of the time, given women’s lack of power. As with the “broken token” ballads - those affirmations of faithfulness - there’s probably an element of wish-fulfilment here.

Do you find it more of a challenge to inhabit a song that’s written from a male point-of-view? Or is it more about the emotional content for you?
It’s more about the emotional content, really. And I have sung a lot of songs from a male perspective over the years. With modern songs, though, one sometimes feels less inclined to do that. I was thinking last night about Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country” for some reason… And changing it to “Boy of the North Country” doesn’t really work, though of course people did it. But it just doesn’t sit as well.

One of the things that I love about traditional music, the big ballads, is that you’re not locked into one perspective as in many pop songs. I was listening to your version of “Rosie Anderson” the other day and the way it moves between perspectives is incredible. You sympathise with both the male and the female character over those many verses. Again, it’s cinematic.
Yes, it’s another amazing song. “‘My meat I cannot take,’ he said/‘My clothes I cannot wear/For thinking on Rosie Anderson/That once I loved so dear.’”

Kills me every time, that verse. It’s such a powerful image of emotional torment.
And then her descent… Heartbreaking!

I know it’s not a song that you perform these days…
Well, I’ll make a note of it. Perhaps we’ll start doing it again. It might be one to revisit.

How do you think things have changed for women on the folk scene since you started out?
That’s a hard one. I would like to think that it’s less difficult now. The folk scene remains a fairly small world in some ways - it should be much bigger - and it has this independent spirit that has allowed a lot of women to flourish and develop … In terms of younger artists, I’m thinking about someone like Emily Portman; I love the way she approaches songs; I haven’t seen her live yet, but I have her album. Even so, being a female performer isn’t easy. There are still certain preconceptions, I think, about what women should sing, and not sing, and what we’re good at. But it has got better, I’d like to think.

Looking back over your career, is there a particular project or a particular album that you feel especially proud of?
Album-wise, I’d probably say An Echo of Hooves. Or aleyn, which was a concert album, though we edited out the sounds of the audience. Some of the performances there are very special to me. In terms of projects, working with the Creative Jazz Orchestra was a wonderful experience, not only for the songs that ended up on A Quiet Eye, but also those live performances that found their way on to Always.

Such as that phenomenal version of “Casey’s Last Ride.”
What a song! But honestly when I get together with Huw and Andy and Mark and Tim and we’re working on something like “Across The Wide Ocean” that’s such a thrill. I love working with them. It’s a relationship that keeps on getting stronger and better. And who knows where we might go next?

What do you enjoy most about live performance these days?
It’s the interaction - the exchange - between the musicians, me and the audience. Everything lifts, the music goes onto another level… And you think “I’m never going to sing that song as well again!” The last concert at King’s Place, for example, was wonderful. Great piano, great room. Just a wonderful collective experience. Now, that’s the best of live performance. The worst was probably being on a bill with Steve Harley years ago, with no-one listening…

Do you and Maddy ever talk about doing another Silly Sisters album?
We’ve been talking about it for years! When we get together now we discuss songs we might do. But we haven’t got around to it yet.

And I believe you’re recording again with Martin Simpson at the moment.
Yes, just one track on Martin’s new album. We’ve been discussing a few things that we might do for it, and now we’ve decided. I’m heading off next week to work on that.

What do you think about the way people tend to access music these days?
(groans of despair) Well, the good side is that so much more music is available now. It’s much less restricted than it used to be. But you see, when it comes to the Internet…well, I’m a book person. And when it comes to music I don’t really want to hear something that someone’s recorded with love and passion squashed onto one of those MP3 things where you’re losing so much. I have to say that it makes me worried and scared that people might just download an album and in the process are losing about 60% of the glory of the arrangements and the performances. My hope is that people who do download might seek out the record afterwards.

What are your plans for this year in terms of touring?
Not! As usual there will be scattered performances throughout the year. But the conditions do have to be right and it’s not that easy to find the right places… Plus, as I’ve got older, I’ve found that I really don’t enjoy travel as much as I used to. But I do absolutely love to perform live and so there will be some.

Ashore is released through Topic Records on 21st February. Go get!

Review: Rabbit Hole (Mitchell, 2010)

“I’m just trying to get things back into shape,” announces Nicole Kidman’s Becca, sociably, to a neighbour inquiring about her garden, in the excellent opening sequence to Rabbit Hole (2010). The line serves as an ideal entry point to John Cameron Mitchell’s film, which explores the attempts of Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) to "get things back into shape" following the death of their young son Danny in a road accident eight months previously. The drama comes from the extent to which their responses to the tragedy diverge. Howie wants to attend group therapy sessions and charges Becca with erasing any trace of their son from the home. Becca accuses Howie of pressurising her into having another child. Gradually, the couple start to pursue new acquaintanceships, Howie with a woman (Sandra Oh) that he meets at the therapy sessions, and Becca with the teenage boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who caused Danny's death.

Adapted by David Lindsay Abaire from his play, this mostly quiet drama seems a distinct change of tack for Mitchell after the wild provocations of Shortbus (2006). But as in that movie the best scenes here are fresh and perceptive, with surprising details. Abaire writes good, tart dialogue for the most part, and the actors' pleasure in the strong material is palpable. After a few years of constrained and sometimes awkward performances, it’s great to see Kidman acting on instinct once again and delivering a compelling, skilfull performance that's among her best screen work. Her line readings have wit and surprise, and she never seeks to make Becca too conventionally likeable. Eckhart is solid too, though a case could be made that it’s Kidman’s scenes with the secondary characters that are the emotional bedrock of the movie. She and Teller are particularly good together, and there’s excellent support from Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s pregnant sister, and from Dianne Wiest who brings total conviction, humour and poignancy to her role as Becca’s mother. She’s rewarded with the movie’s best scene.

A few scenes strike false notes. The tone seems slightly off in all of the "group" sequences, and Mitchell occasionally indulges in some crude cross-cutting and obtrusive “opening-out” of the play that renders several moments too obvious. And the attempts at humour sometimes feel forced, as if Mitchell and Abaire were saying: “See! This isn’t as much of a downer as you were expecting, is it!?” More revealing in its quieter episodes than its big emotional outbursts, Rabbit Hole is nonetheless a distinctive, intelligent and often insightful film, and one that’s fully deserving of your attention.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Review: True Grit (Coen, 2010)

The Coens's track record with remakes (remember their miserable take on The Ladykillers [2004]?) and the fact that I’ve found myself recoiling at the mannered quirks and misanthropy of their last couple of films didn’t make True Grit an especially appealing prospect for me. Well, surprise: the film turns out, against the odds, to be one of the brothers’ most entertaining and certainly most emotionally satisfying works. The 1969 film version with John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell casts a long shadow; indeed, it seems to be screened on British TV just about every other week. But, like Rowan Joffe’s just-released Brighton Rock, the new True Grit succeeds in carving out its own niche. This it achieves by returning to the Charles Portis novel, and restoring the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld here), the teenage girl who employs the US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down the murderer of her father, to her position as narrator of the tale. The result is a stylish and involving piece of work that ultimately hits harder and cuts deeper than the original film.

Despite some nicely achieved touches of absurdist humour, there’s a pleasing straightfowardness and lack of self-consciousness to True Grit: you’re immediately pulled into Mattie’s quest, rather than feeling that you’re simply watching the Coens “doing” a Western. Pleasures are many: from Roger Deakins’s beautiful cinematography to the Coens’ astute and unexpectedly affectionate screenplay. And of course there are the three main actors. The remarkable newcomer Steinfeld renders Mattie’s doggedness at once admirable and comic, Matt Damon is funny and surprising as the Texas Ranger, and Bridges’s performance as Rooster is, well, a barn-stormer. They’re superb sparring partners throughout. The Coens’s savvy here even shows in their choice of music to conclude the movie: Iris DeMent’s celestial version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” playing over the end credits, captures precisely the tone of Protestant stoicism and resilience with which the film is infused. Highly recommended.

Review: Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre)

The new Orange Tree Theatre season gets off to a disappointing start with the British premiere of Jason Sherman’s Reading Hebron. It’s the second play by the Canadian playwright that the Orange Tree has presented, and like Three In The Back, Two In The Head (staged in late 2005), Reading Hebron takes as its focus a real-life murder, in this case the massacre of twenty-nine Muslims carried out in the Mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs by a Kiryat Arba settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, in February 1994. The play juxtaposes - and integrates - dramatised recreations of testimonies from the Israeli Government’s Commission of Inquiry into the killing with the frustrated investigations of one Nathan Abramowitz, a non-Israeli Jewish academic conducting his own examination of the massacre. Increasingly, the play becomes a stylised psychodrama that attempts to probe Abramowitz’s attitude to his Jewishness alongside the fallout from the tragic events in Hebron.

Director Sam Walters has stated that he intends Reading Hebron as a complement to The Promise, Ben Brown’s play about the 1917 Balfour Declaration (which led to the creation of the state of Israel) that was staged to great success at the OT earlier this year. The Promise had its problems, but it was a masterpiece of depth, insight, coherence and feeling compared to Reading Hebron. Despite a barrage of information and a superficial flow of movement and activity, the piece has no dramatic centre: what we have here feels like a ton of research and speeches in search of a play. A few individual lines resonate but Sherman’s writing is often mediocre, offering familiar banalities about the oppressed becoming the oppressors and getting hung up on the issue of Jews who criticise Israel being labelled as “self-hating.” The writer has clearly done his homework, but ultimately the play doesn’t give you as much as you might get from a book on Israel/Palestine - or, indeed, an article.

In addition, the attempts at theatrical inventiveness - notably, a protracted stand-up routine/game show sequence - feel peculiarly strained, as do the (sub-Angels in America) interventions of a variety of historical figures as commentators on the action: incarnations of Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi, Cynthia Ozick and Steven Spielberg (“There’s no business like Shoah-business!”) all turn up at various points. The multi-tasking cast - Peter Guinness, Ben Nathan, Amber Agar and Esther Ruth Elliott - work hard as they inhabit a range of protagonists of different ages and ethnicities, but since none of the characters are drawn with any depth, it’s hard to feel caught up in much that they say or do. And as Abramowitz, the usually reliable David Antrobus seems miscast; the protagonist’s agonies simply never become affecting, despite the actor’s best efforts. In sum, Reading Hebron is a dud and, uncharacteristically, Walters’s production doesn't so much redeem the play's faults as accentuate them.

The production runs for 100 minutes; no interval. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Review: Vernon God Little (Young Vic)

Following its highly successful staging in 2007, Rufus Norris and Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little is back at the Young Vic in a recast and updated version, until March 5th. The production looks more than likely to repeat its previous success, if the wildly enthusiastic response of last Tuesday night’s audience was anything to go by. The story of the aftermath of a Texas High School shooting, focusing on the 15-year-old friend of the culprit of the massacre, who finds himself under suspicion, the adaptation embraces the dark humour of Pierre’s text, and gives the novel a bold, stylised and imaginative theatrical treatment.

It must be said that as a satire on various easy-target American madnesses - materialism, media circuses, criminals as celebs, trials as showbiz spectacles - Vernon God Little is pretty obvious, familiar and crude. There’s little depth - and next to no affection - to the portrait of small-town Texas life that the play constructs; the characterisation frequently crosses the fine line between archetype and stereotype, and a good deal of the (many) protagonists aren’t drawn in more than one dimension: they’re absurdist cartoons. But Norris’s supple and inventive staging generates interest and excitement throughout, and, at its best, the piece achieves something of the mixture of brashness, lyricism and oddity of a Sam Shepard play. There are well-staged musical interludes (with airings for everything from “Crazy” to "Galveston" to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”); a set, by Ian MacNeil, that morphs and transforms itself to evoke interior and exterior spaces with fluidity and ease; and several jaw-dropping set-pieces, not least a startling trial scene that’s equal parts disturbing and hilarious. And amidst the coarseness and scatology there are sudden swerves into tenderness here that take the viewer by surprise.

Some of the performers transcend caricature, too - or else embrace it so wholeheartedly that their interpretation achieves its own kind of truth. Clare Burt is both exasperating and terribly touching as Vernon’s mother; Peter De Jersey brings a marvellous full-throttle vindictiveness to his role as her seducer and Vernon’s betrayer; and Lily James gives bite and substance to her dual roles as two contrasting American-girl archetypes. On the sidelines there’s vivid work from Johnnie Fiori in several roles: her stupendous vocalising as the Judge in the trial scene brings the house down every time. And as Vernon, Joseph Drake makes a great professional debut here, delivering an empathetic and engaging performance that’s the production’s beating heart.

I’m not sure that Vernon God Little is really saying anything especially insightful or profound; indeed, a little late death-row philosophising becomes tedious in the extreme. And I think that the very cosy ending is a mistake: it makes the piece seem trivial. But, despite these complaints, Norris and his team produce a stirring theatrical experience here that does at least prove one thing conclusively: there are few plays that don’t benefit from the inclusion of a line-dancing sequence.

Further information here.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Review: Ashore by June Tabor (Topic Records)

June Tabor’s last album, Apples (2007), signed off with a rendition of a song by Christopher Somerville called “Send Us A Quiet Night,” a sailor’s prayer that, in Tabor’s stunning, spare version, became a wider, universal appeal for calm and safe passage. That track now feels as much like a conclusion to Apples as an introduction to Tabor’s new release Ashore, a record that takes the sea as its thematic focus. Somerville’s song is just one of many, many tracks referencing the sea that Tabor has recorded over the years, from the “Admiral Benbow”/ “Davy Lowston” double-bill that opens A Cut Above (1980) to the metaphorical stormy waters traversed in Les Barker’s “Sudden Waves” (on Angel Tiger [1992]), not forgetting (who could?) her epic “Sir Patrick Spens” on An Echo of Hooves (2003), which climaxes with its unfortunate hero and his fellow Scottish Lords lying “three miles off Aberdeen [and] fifty fathoms deep” on their ill-fated return voyage from Norway.

But Ashore is the first recording that Tabor has focused entirely on maritime themes. The album has its genesis in the concert that Tabor performed for Topic Records’s 70th anniversary in 2009, and, as such, it’s a record that gestures backwards and forwards in Tabor’s body of work, revisiting some older material from a new perspective while also producing something that feels entirely vital and fresh. Spanning centuries, the selected songs transport the listener from the Caribbean to the Shetland Islands, from the mid-Atlantic to the Plymouth docks. The result is a richly atmospheric, beautifully sequenced and, indeed, immersive experience from an artist who continues to go from strength to strength.

Working once again with her superb regular musicians - Huw Warren (piano), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion) and Tim Harries (double bass) - Tabor continues to hone her jazz and classical-inflected approach to traditional and contemporary material on Ashore. Even as she’s moved far beyond unaccompanied singing, her aesthetic has still tended towards sparsity, and there’s a particularly gorgeous measured spaciousness to the new album’s arrangements, one which allows every single note to resonate, and of course leaves plenty of space for Tabor’s unmistakable vocals, with their spell-binding mixture of subtle nuance and arresting command.

The album’s first track is familiar: Ian Telfer’s “Finisterre,” which Tabor first performed on Freedom and Rain (1990), her collaboration album with the Oyster Band. But the new treatment, building gradually from Cutting’s accordion playing, subtly shifts the song into another direction, adding a new level of mystery  to the piece. A similarly effective makeover is performed on Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line” (first heard on the first Silly Sisters album), which gains fresh depths of wistfulness and longing here as it recounts a sailor’s decision to leave the sea.

Traditional material comes in the form of “The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh,” a broken-token ballad variant (ie. one without a broken token) that Tabor first performed in the early days but has never committed to disc, and that gets a marvellously direct and, ultimately, heart-warming a cappella rendition; the transition from this track into “The Grey Funnel Line” is sublime. Art song and folk song fuse on a hauntingly spare and effective rendering of the Child ballad “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry” which - much like “The Cruel Mother” on An Echo of Hooves - succeeds in turning the piece into an uncanny and unsettling dream sequence. As often on Tabor albums, some choice French-language material also makes its mark: “Le Vingt-Cinquiéme Du Mois D’Octobre” tells of a naval battle over Gibraltar, and Tabor sets about the song with a gusto comparable to that of the troops besieging the French fleet. “Le Petit Navire” - a jolly tale of cannibalism at sea - is also delivered with palpable relish.

The album’s other contemporary songs receive memorable treatments. Against Warren’s spare, jazzy piano Tabor sidles up almost nonchalantly to Elvis Costello’s iconic “Shipbuilding,” deftly avoiding turning the song into any more of a monument while nonetheless producing a powerful, subtly dramatic and distinctive reading. The second Tawney song, “The Oggie Man,” is simply exquisite, a meditation on transience on which Tabor’s dolorous vocal, Warren’s delicate piano and Harries’s understated bass conjure a marvellously misty, nostalgic ambience that evokes the softly falling rain described in the lyrics and soon prompts the listener’s tears.

This attention to atmosphere is evident throughout the album. Combining Ronald Jamieson’s setting of a poem by Jack Renwick with a tune, “Vidlin Voe,” written by Jamieson’s late father Frank, “Winter Comes In” creates a striking evocation of the onset of a Shetland winter, with beautiful interplay between Emerson’s violin and Cutting’s accordion. Undulating piano powerfully conveys the fate of the drowned washed up on the shore, their boots “buried below the tide,” in the chilling “The Brean Lament,” while two marvellously stately instrumentals - Jamaica and Ill Go and Enlist for a Sailor - also add texture to the record.

But the most devastating track - the album’s “Sir Patrick Spens” if you will - is saved until last. It’s Les Barker’s “Across The Wide Ocean,” a song based on testimonies of those evicted from their homes during the 19th century Highland Clearances, and a piece that Tabor has been performing live for several years. Across an epic eleven minutes and a slowly building, rich arrangement, Tabor’s extraordinary vocal - at times seething with righteous anger and indignation in the verses, then turning melancholy and reflective in the choruses - channels the anguish of a history of persecution, false promises and forced emigration. It’s a staggering performance and one of many highlights on a fine album that’s another thoroughly rewarding and accomplished addition to Tabor’s superlative catalogue.

Ashore is released through Topic Records on February 21st.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Read my interview with June here.