Big Comfy Folk Club
Michael McEntee puts on some really excellent concerts at his Big Comfy Bookshop in Fargo Village along Far Gosford Street in Coventry. Book shop gigs tend to be small, intimate affairs and the concert on 18th November 2016 was no exception. although I estimate that approaching forty people were in the audience. The show was opened by Kitty MacFarlane, a Somerset lass with local connections as she attended Warwick University. She now lives in Bristol (or as Bristolians would have it Brizzle). I have relations living in that area and I always think what a lovely dialect is produced by having a Somerset burr. Kitty must have spent too long in Coventry, as there seemed little trace of the accent as she spoke extensively about her experiences. Much of her music is of the sea and the shore, this no more in evidence than in her first song "Wrecking Days". This song explores reclaiming items from the oceans which have been deposited on the strandline of the beach either being flotsam or more substantively the result of a shipwreck.
Kitty's second offering demonstrates her artistic ear as she reworked a William Blake poem into her song "The lamb". She linked the lines of Blake "Little lamb, who made thee" with the nature reserve at Steart Marshes in her home county. The reserve includes the largest area of salt marsh in Somerset, and large expanses of mudflats exposed at low tide, which are important feeding and roosting sites for wading birds and other waterfowl. Kitty told us that she worked part time at Hallsway Manor which is now a folk art centre and she related a recent encounter with various types of wildlife when having to go down into the cellars and found a bat bouncing up and down in time with the clog dancers who occupied the room above.
Human nature does not escape the eye of this perceptive girl. In her song "Saints and Sinners" she included the line "Way off in the distance there rang a bell, it rang for saints and sinners as well." This was the first time of many times during the concert that the audience participated in the songs, her soprano contrasting nicely with the (mostly) baritone of the audience. The song had an anti-war feeling about it, but was delivered in a way that depicted sadness at what was happening rather than as a protest. It was beautiful.
A further observation of her own species was included in "Bus Song" where she describes other passengers on the 25b. She admitted looking at another passenger's reading matter until spotted by the woman in question. She regrets that the listener was not on the bus with her and at the end, only the she and driver share the ride.
Kitty told us that she has embarked upon a song writing project about coastal living and as part of that she is interviewing folk that dwell there in order to get material to inspire her creative juices. In the meantime she regaled us with "Time and Tide" which she wrote some time ago on a visit to estuaries and mud flats in Northern France. Her skill as a musician enabled the audience to feel the ebb and flow of the tide through her guitar playing. Her description of wading birds with wings of blue was most effective. Her final number once again had a coastal theme "Song to the Siren" was more ethereal in that it was a plea to an dreamlike figure to take up an offer of love and asks the question "should I stand among the breakers as here I am waiting to hold you?" This is not an unknown phenomena as we all know that Sirens are dangerous creatures, who lure nearby sailors with their blandishments.
I was very impressed with Kitty MacFarlane and her self penned modern folk songs and it seems that I am not alone, because in 2017 she is going on tour with none other that Blair Dunlop. Blair is the son of a former member of Fairport Convention and has released three albums of his own songs in three years. He won the Horizon Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. He also received the Premio Campi Grand Jury award, Italy in November 2014. Prestigious company for Kitty to keep. I am sure that she will be well received, she deserves so to be.
The headline act were Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. This charming couple started their set with a song that claimed "ain't nobody who can sing like me" as they covered the Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg number "Way over yonder in a minor key". There then followed a long and complicated story about a dulcimer stand. and how they had "borrowed" an keyboard support as not many dulcimer players stood up as they performed. It appears that Blu-tac is the best means of making sure that the instrument stays in place, although if there is none available, Ben's sticky socks from the day before can be pressed into service! All this was a ploy to cover the time required to retune their instruments for their second song, "Ribbons and Bows." This lively musical offering demonstrated just how well dulcimer and guitar tones (with a capo on the eighth fret) blend. The lively tune also was an illustration of their pleasant vocal harmonies. The song conjured up some intriguing images. "hot summer skies" "I gazed a cross the world" "Ribbons and bows tied to my hands and feet" and "I feel complete."
The gig was the final date in the tour to promote their latest CD "Before the sun" The old English ballad "Lady Margaret" is one of the ten tracks featured on the disc, although in their inimitable style, they sing it their way and defy anyone to say they are doing it wrong. Ben observed before announcing their next song that it seemed that there was a lot of anger in the world at the moment and as an antidote to that, he and Hannah sang the haunting but optimistic Bill Miller song, "The sun is gonna rise" this proved to enjoy a wide dynamic range featuring two guitars in lieu of guitar and dulcimer. Certainly the lyrics display the hopeful lines "There's no reason for fighting this way" and "There's no beauty in thoughts that betray". Perhaps if songwriters ruled the world it would be a calmer place.
The new CD is a duet album, Hannah having released a solo disc in the past. The award-winning record producer David Travers-Smith heard their work and invited them over to his Toronto base to do some recording. "Before the Sun" is the result. Indeed later this month Hannah and Ben are going back to Toronto to perform at the prestigious Folk North Festival. Another track is "The Fall" which compare human frailties with those of "Strong boughs and branches" of trees. Throughout the set Ben did most of the introductions and proved to have a wry sense of humour and this contrasted with the mood of their next song "What's it tonight my love?" which I imagined was going to be an irritated "What is it now?" sort of song, but it turned out to be a song looking for some direction in life and evokes the folk legend on the lady in the lake which all ends happily enough.
A song teaching us how to let go, featured Ben on Dobro slide guitar, "Unquiet Grave" also allowed the blend of their voices to waft over the audience. There followed a song, "Gave my love a cherry" which has been consider by some as a bit rude. But being the innocent that I am, I didn't understand the connection, especially as it also mentioned giving some boneless chicken as well as bits of fruit without stones. I remain baffled.
The recent award of the Nobel price for literature to Bob Dylan and his apparent reluctance to acknowledge it prompted a version of his "Boots of Spanish Leather" where a man is sailing away from his "one true love" and asks what gift he should send back home could be defined as a sad song and so it seems, as the departee is destined to be away a long time. If the songs seem a bit downbeat, I would say in the performance they are more reflective than melancholy. However as Ben put it "If someone gave me eight hundred grand, that would cheer me up somewhat."
There then followed something that I have not seen at a Big Comfy Bookshop gig before. The support act joined the headliners on "stage" so we had a trio of Hanna, Kitty and Ben for a performance of the traditional tale of lost love, "Deep Blue Sea" To hear their three part harmony was a real treat. To close their set Ben and Hannah (or more strictly, a member of the audience) chose Gram Parsons' "A song for you" which offers the advice amongst other things that tomorrow will still arrive even if you make a fool of yourself on the dance floor, or furthermore if your love abandons you and makes you sad.
Reading this back, if would seem that the whole set was ostensibly cheerless and dismal, but this was far from the case. Certainly the songs were mostly reflective and covered sad subjects, but the performance exhibited instrument and vocal skills that were a delight to hear. I shall certainly seek out Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage when they are next in the vicinity.
As for the Big Comfy concerts, there are great thing coming up. Dates and artists are booked well into next year. for example, here are just a couple of names of artists booked to appear in the next few months. Jack Harris, Charlotte Carpenter, Nadine Khouri and Daria Kulesh. For further details go to http://www.wegottickets.com/location/14417
If you don't, you are likely to miss out on some really talented folk.
By the way there is beer, wine, coffee and cake too!