Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening at Stratford Playhouse Folk ClubReview
Less than a week after that magnificent gig I reported on with T8PES, Andrea Mbarushimana's poetry & headliner Luke Concannon, here I am reporting on Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening at Stratford Playhouse Folk Club. I hate the challenge of naming "favourite" gigs, but despite the very high bar already for gigs I've caught so far in 2022, let alone this week, I enjoyed this one to a very high degree.
Kudos once again to Doug Armstrong for inviting another act of such a calibre to our area: the gig was actually in the main auditorium, such was the level of interest.
Playing the entire evening with no support, The Darkening are "..an exceptional band" according to the Observer. I'd call them a magnificent band myself, though I'd not question the "exceptional".
There is so much I could tell you, but I want to keep the review down to readable length, so I'll give you some general thoughts plus some selected highlights & then suggest that you fill in the gaps by seeing them yourself.
Firstly of course we are talking five virtuoso musicians whose craft sits far above my capacity to comment, critique or even describe adequately. When you factor in Kathryn's fame as a player of the Northumbrian small pipes, an instrument about which I know so little, I think if you don't mind, I'll leave technical descriptions to experts as there was so much else I can praise instead.
Firstly, the band are the most genuinely collaborative & democratic I can remember seeing given that they are billed as a star & backing band. Kathryn of course plays the pipes & quite a lot of fiddle & was joined by Amy Thatcher on accordion, synth, vocals & clogs (yes really), Stef Conner on various lyres, synth, sistrum & vocals, Kieran Szifris on guitar & octave mandolin (the latter instrument I'm delighted to say was made by legendary Coventry luthier Rob Armstrong for Kieran's Dad he told me before the gig) and Joe Truswell on drums. However the combinations of instruments & voices was highly complex & generated huge verities of soundscapes throughout the two sets. To return to the theme of democracy, although Kathryn sang on several numbers, Stef & Amy took all the lead vocals & were publicly credited for writing a significant proportion of the set.
The pipes, as I said, are not ones I know too much about, but they frankly bear little resemblance to the better know forms of bagpipes, being bellows-blown and having a really pleasant mellow tone, much closer to a woodwind instrument like the oboe & fitting into the arrangements much more than the mouth blown types ever could. They have been described as "..perhaps the most civilised of the bagpipes" and I think that fits well.
You probably know most of the other instruments though Stef's use of ancient ones was itself most unusual, though suited to the band's interest in bring 2,000 year old songs to life in the most imaginative way: I could never have conceived of songs found on old steles or curse tablets along Hadrian's Wall being resurrected & performed not just on the lyre which probably accompanied them first time round, but also pipes & synths.. and it works perfectly.
The band & Kathryn are famed for their celebration of Northumbrian & Borders culture (echoing I suppose what Ellie Gowers is currently doing for Warwickshire) and so Hadrian's Wall, Lindisfarne, Hermitage Castle etc all feature in the set, but so does a song from Stef's native Fenland. It's all very eclectic & broadminded, with songs taken from their current ‘Hollowbone' album (whose title derives from the concluding song based on Northumbrian children's rhymes) but many more not on there, including a couple they tried out on us.
Both Amy & Stef have captivating voices in addition to their instrumental prowess, with the former perhaps favouring vocals to tunes mere centuries old & the latter channelling more ancient modes still. At this point I'll mention Amy's clog dancing: yes it certainly looked most impressive but I think it was even more effective as yet another instrument, so well did her intricate steps work with pipes & fiddle.
I could highlight Kathryn celebrating her 82 year old Dad graduating with a Masters in Creative Writing by setting an affecting Tyneside set poem which brought together the countryside he walks in with the words of Greta Thunberg. Or I could go for the beautiful post-lockdown song or the Roman ones. In truth however, there was nothing other than wonderful songs & no two ones I suspect had the same combination of instruments & voices.
What I would say however is that this is precisely what I most admire in music: a band with a total love of their repertoire & of playing it together. They delighted in telling the story of each one before playing it: these are historians as passionately as they are musicians & their deep love of countryside, culture & music intertwined organically.
If Kathryn, Amy & Stef caught the eye more readily standing at the front & the ear with their lead voices, stage introductions & melodic instruments, Kieran & Joe brought other, equally important dishes to the feast which I cannot leave unmentioned. The former did, to be fair, occasionally make it forwards & his yelps of sheer pleasure were regularly heard. At times part of the rhythm section, he had several solos which added another element to the diversity and a sequence of three tunes was apparently seen as designed to challenge his skills to the fullest. Joe worked his kit to the fullest, mirroring the variety of sounds going on before him: martial drumming on virtually just the floor tom, or utilising the different tones of each cymbal in sequence, or suddenly exploding into manic working of the full kit as songs exploded, switching between mallets & brushes. (Which reminds me that during one song, Kathryn managed to swap between fiddle & pipes midway which is some feat).
For songs did explode: there was fragility & delicacy throughout the set but there was an energy which had had Doug use the word "punk" about their power beforehand and it's no surprise that many of the songs set deepest in the past not only invoke pagan goddesses but have a wild shamanistic quality to them.
Personally I'd had a rather "challenging" day if you can measure the quality of a concert on its therapeutic qualities, then this one scored full marks. I'm also not the only person there who'd place it in the highest echelons of the gigs they'd seen in 2022. The name of the band evokes the Northumbrian term for twilight but believe me, this band are far from being in such a place.