The Barbican and the BBC’s admirable Folk Britannia Festival reached its zenith on Saturday night with the appearance of Vashti Bunyan on stage for the final hour.
Hers is one of the more remarkable stories in folk history. In 1970 she made one breathtakingly beautiful – yet breathtakingly unsuccessful – album, Just Another Diamond Day, featuring a variety of the British folk scene’s most prominent musicians. She promptly retired from the industry to raise a family in the pastoral idyll of the Hebrides. 35 years later she records a follow up, Lookaftering, which betters her debut. Tonight, we hear songs from both.
She is lovingly protected throughout by a large band including acoustic and electric guitars and a string quartet. A young man playing all manner of woodwind provides the essential accompaniment to Bunyan’s fragile, maternal voice.
Her stooping posture and bowed head betrayed an often painful shyness – and that perhaps she didn’t really want to be there. In spite of a few fluffed lines, she grew into the evening and ended up almost grooving her hips in the encore as she performed Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, a song written for her by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards when Andrew Loog Oldham was trying to mould her into the new Marianne Faithful.
The absurdity of that is proven tonight. Of her sixties output, Diamond Day and the utterly sublime Winter Is Blue see her assume the role of sagacious earth-mother-matriarch, while Lookaftering’s Hidden, Wayward and Feet Of Clay are so frail and lilting it seems she may buckle under the emotion and abandon them.
She proves herself an admirable guitarist, though her ensemble often drowns her out. The obvious affection for the singer from her band is rivalled in recent times only by that for Brian Wilson from his Wondermints. The audience responded with silent awe, a magical realisation that such rare Arcadian beauty might still exist.
And God knows we deserved it, given how much shite we had to sit through before her. Her current producer, Max Richter, performed with his computer jigger-pokery and Bunyan’s string section. I think he was trying to be all ambient and minimalist, but it merely prompted widespread yawning, and people actually left. Phillip Glass he is not, and a laptop has no business being on stage at a folk festival.
Adem and King Creosote were inoffensive at best and irritating at worst with their standard folk fare and dull songs, while I believe a talent worth watching emerged in the shape of Vetiver. These Americans look like goats with their long hair and beards, but sing great songs in the tradition of Stephen Stills, Gram Parsons and America, while tinged with a modern edge reminiscent of a young Elliott Smith. Keep eyes open for them.
Along with Bunyan, other behemoths of Brit-folk were on show. The evergreen Bert Jansch was as brilliant as ever sliding up and down his fret board with all the ease of the consummate master he is. Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band was accompanied by his young daughter for a set that included ISB staples such as Swift As The Wind and The Hedgehog Song. Sadly, Jansch and Heron were only afforded about thirty minutes each in the rush to allow each act their allotted time. Clearly, Richter should have been elbowed to allow more from these greats.
The single thing that would have improved the night was a bit of animation from both performers and audience. Heron and Bunyan were alone in standing up to sing (and Bunyan for her final song only), while a rather subdued lot of folk fans seemed overwhelmed by the posh venue and inevitably extortionate price of beer. Bunyan didn’t even get a standing ovation. Shame on us.