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!


Folk off and live …

It’s easy to forget that the British folk scene which I’ve dipped in and out of for many years now, has at least some historic and emotional links to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.

This is not the whole story, of course. People with even a cursory knowledge of music scenes will acknowledge how incredibly complex they can be, and how stubbornly they defy description. I will not get bogged down.

There is, however, a metric mega-load of difference between a traditional musician and a folk performer. Folk is something we can adopt for ourselves. A conscious choice, like buying a new coat or a bucket trip to Slovenia.

Traditional performers do no such thing. They seamlessly grow up with their music, absorbing it from the communities they were born into: a luxury few of us have in our deeply fractured world.

A fish does not simply swim in an ocean. It is in some sense the ocean itself. When it dies the ocean remains but the fish returns to it, helping to generate biodiversity. This is an apt analogy for a life well lived. Something I call ‘folk-ways’: an authentic, joined-up existence. ‘No ocean, no fish’ is very logical, but how about, ‘No fish, no ocean’? It’s a less common perspective, but one relies on the other for its existence.

Sadly, folk-ways are easily (usually?) misunderstood, having been partially hijacked by well-meaning middle class liberals. This is doubly difficult for me, as I loosely belong to that group.

All the same, I know that ‘folk music’ (the phrase seems woefully inadequate), has its real roots in working class communities where people fought for self-preservation and self-expression every day of their lives.

I also know that ‘traditional’ can end up as shorthand for everything which real folk-ways are not. It sounds fusty. No-one wants to be a fogey, in the same way that no-one welcomes syphilis or bankruptcy into their world.

People might quickly conclude that folk music and its related traditions are completely irrelevant, having fizzled out years ago in remote rural communities. But this overlooks the rich vein of urban/industrial music which sprang from the desperate dirt of the Industrial Revolution, and continues its unexpected evolution to this day. We are not historians. There are no bones for us to exhume.

‘You thought I was dead’, whispers a secret voice, ‘But I’m part of you. You will eventually die, but I cannot vanish while there is something left to be said in the world.’ It feels truly mysterious.

All this brings me full circle. I’m making the point that in spite of outward appearances, the music I instinctively love is not white, middle-class or British. It is not Black, Asian or strictly regional either.

Instead it feels deeply ingrained, and as such deserves our respect because it belongs to all of us, and ‘folk’ is refreshingly free of copyright restrictions. These traditions come from the same source as ourselves, but they cannot thrive for long in a cultural void, a museum or someone’s grumpy little clique. You cannot bottle a storm, but you can sing one up. You can dance up a storm. You can become the storm.

Following folk-ways is unlikely to bring you much kudos in this wicked old world, but on a personal level it can hook you up with something older, wiser and infinitely larger than yourself. It’s called the Universe, and you may have noticed some of it on your travels. There is much more where that came from if you will only let it in.

A question. Would you rather stand alone on the shore of an ocean, or jump into it and feel that you are part of it for a while? Instead, you could live to be old and never get your feet wet. Most people make the latter choice. Don’t be most people.

Folk me up

I’ve wanted to write something about folk music for some time, and there have been many brave attempts, followed by a lot of spectacular deletions. You see, it’s my passion and I want to do it justice.

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Well scrub that! I can’t write objectively about something I love so much, so this is the blog equivalent of bungee jumping in the dark: I have no idea what I’m about to write. Folk music as a subject attracts academic discussions, cosy chats in the back rooms of pubs and heated debates about ‘what folk music really is.’ All I can hope to do is touch the surface in a piece like this; no conclusions will be drawn… as far as I can tell.

I first heard folk songs from my dad, without knowing what they were. He used to be a jazz musician, and somewhere in the flock-lined depths of his musty old banjo case he kept a yellowing loose sheaf of songs, complete with chords. In between expertly vamping out tunes like ‘California Here I Come’, he would sing ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ and ‘The Fox’. Simple but wonderful songs; just right for a child with a fertile imagination.

I had no idea that these were part of a folk tradition: my five-year-old self couldn’t even spell ‘tradition’! I quickly recognised that songs can tell a story and whisk you away to a parallel universe peopled with talking animals, strange gods and beastly angels.

I could walk through the enchanted forest and gaze at the bright wonders locked within – as long as I didn’t stray too far from the path. There be dragons! When I grew up I forgot about the magical kingdom and mutated into a bored, pizza-faced teen.

Once again, my wonderful father intervened and came back from town clutching a handful of (very worn) Joan Baez singles. ‘I think you might enjoy these,’ he said. So I played them and I did! Joan’s singing and guitar playing lit up my world with songs of the sea, loves lost and found – strange buried treasures of the luminous spirit.

There is a folk song for every human emotion and situation because it represents our collective experience. A song can start out as a personal statement, but once other people hear and sing it, that experience becomes a shared one: something we can all relate to and use in our everyday lives. I have found that folk music contains a great deal of distilled wisdom. Perhaps some of it will rub off one day.

Early collectors believed they were gathering songs for posterity, and treated them like museum pieces. ‘If I don’t record these soon they will vanish forever’. They were wrong, because while they were busy collecting, the next generation of singers and performers were already emerging, reworking old themes into new songs and singing old ones in different ways.

The tradition is dynamic and manages to reinvent itself across different generations. This is sometimes called the ‘folk process’ – songs can and should be changed to suit the singer.

Samuel Pepys collected traditional songs, and so did the rural English poet, John Clare. William Blake sang them to his friends, and indeed most people know one or two, even if they think otherwise.

The truth is, there isn’t one musical form which can be described as ‘folk’. Songs can be rooted in an industrial or rural tradition. There are work songs, sea songs, songs about unemployment. Some songs belong to the Romantic movement, while others are brand new and completely focused on current events. Folk music is both old and new, and therein lies my fascination.

Let’s not forget that the tradition is crammed full of tunes too; there are 1000s of them! One blog entry isn’t enough, so I’ll revisit this subject later…