Lisa Knapp sings solo in King’s Heath – a Birmingham review

It’s a long time since I reviewed a gig or a concert on this moribund blog, but lately I’ve attended a few events here in Birmingham. Christie Moore, no less! And last night, in an uncharacteristic burst of peripatetic glee, I hauled across the city on a Number 50 to see Lisa Knapp perform at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in the People’s Republic of Kings Heath. I’m no stranger to Lisa’s music, having first encountered her on social media several years ago.
I bought her first album, ‘Wild and Undaunted’, and thought it was a massive breath of fresh air in a music scene I’d abandoned years before, because I thought it had all gone horribly stale. I instantly loved her clear, soaring, bell-like tones, with a hint of vibrato at the top of her vocal range. Best of all, I didn’t know most of her repertoire, and it made a change. You can only listen to ‘Rose of Allendale’ so many times in the upstairs bars of dingy pubs before wishing to commit ritual seppuku with a blunt knitting needle. Or worse.

I was new to the Kitchen Garden Cafe. Being somewhat lazy it’s always seemed like a long city jaunt, but I wasn’t disappointed. The venue is cosy and compact. ‘Bijou’, someone called Alan said under his breath, though I don’t know that that means, but it smacks of ‘French’ cafes in the 70s. This place is better.

While waiting for Lisa to sing, a couple of us commented wryly on her pre-gig background music, gleaned from that cult film, ‘The Wicker Man’. We nervously hoped things wouldn’t culminate in a firey ritual sacrifice. Personally, I would have settled for curry and chips. On a surreal note, the man sitting next to me had actually met, and nearly dated, Britt Ekland. ‘I wasn’t ready’, he said. What are the chances?

Lisa themed most of her gig around, ‘Till April is Dead – a Garland of May’, an album she released a year ago to booming critical acclaim. It was well deserved. I have a copy, and it pops the lid on the month of May, uncapping a foaming wellspring of celebratory seasonal madness, combined with Lisa’s trademark music box electronica. She employs looping effects, vocal layering and simple virtuosity with raw passion, taking her audience on a truly delightful musical voyage.

I wrote, ‘simple’ virtuosity, but it’s obvious that Lisa has worked extremely hard to perfect her very eclectic style. I’ve lost count of how many instruments she plays, but they include violas, harmoniums, clàrsach and others. Not to mention the mind-warping, tangled spaghetti of cables she nestles in during solo outings. As an aside, I’ve seen Brian Boru’s harp in Trinity College Dublin, and I found it impossible not to think of it when I saw Lisa’s clàrsach. They are fundamentally similar instruments. Talk about plugging into a tradition!

May, according to ‘Knapp’s Seasonal Baedeker‘, is a beautiful but uncomfortable season, suggesting that renewal can walk hand-in-hand with ritual sacrifice, death and destruction. Her rendition of the murder ballad, ‘Lily White Hand’ shed some light on this, ‘Till April is Dead’ included snatches of multi-lingual Mayist proverbs, while ‘Don’t You Go A Rushing’ is a thinly veiled warning to young women to closely guard their fragile virtue. Fertility is great, as long as it’s not unscheduled. This could easily embody an idea handed down from romantic poetry: that every rose contains a thorn. ‘The worm in the bud’ or, as William Blake would have it, ‘The invisible worm / That flies in the night’.

Lisa said that most seasonal celebrations have religious origins, but May is a law unto itself and isn’t like that. This had never occurred to me, but it’s an intriguing idea.

It’s lovely to watch a musician you already like grow in stature, and Lisa played a stunning version of ‘St Anne’s Reel’ on her fiddle – or was it a viola? A revelation, as I hadn’t heard her play such an accomplished fiddle tune before. She also performed a captivating version of the Orcadian Child ballad, ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’ in Scots dialect, while managing to avoid any hint of a mannered approach or cultural appropriation. I could have cheered.

Finally, we were invited to join in with the ‘Padstow May Song’, and apparently we made a pretty good fist of it. So did you, Lisa. See you on the road pilgrim. This was not an evening I’ll forget in a hurry. Unite!


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