Lal Waterson died in 1998, a year after her solo album Once In A Blue Moon emerged. Some 20 years had passed since her last recorded output, an album made with her daughter and sister. Her second solo work, A Bed Of Roses, was released posthumously.
Billed as “a tribute to Lal Waterson”, this gig in the HQ of the English Folk Dance And Song Society, Cecil Sharp House, assembled the late folk star’s family and their friends to play Once In A Blue Moon, as part of the BBC Electric Proms. (With Paul McCartney up the road at the Roundhouse and The Chemical Brothers getting ready to do it again at KOKO, maybe Auntie should rename this series of events the Eclectic Proms.)
Folk music at its best has the inherent ability to cross generational divides and make people feel included, whatever their backgrounds or scenes. Tonight’s show featured Lal’s niece Eliza Carthy acting as narrator throughout the concert’s two halves. Lal’s siblings Norma Waterson and Mike Waterson, her son Olly Knight, daughter Marry Gilhooley and Eliza’s dad Martin Carthy were also along for the ride. What followed, kicking off with ensemble voices only piece Some Old Salty, would be a faithful tribute to an artist, interest in whose music they will be hoping to rekindle, but also an example of familial kinship.
The Magic Numbers‘ Romeo Stodart was amongst an audience of beardie folky people sat rapt throughout. On stage, James Yorkston, with mad professor hair these days, twinkled and swayed with his guitar and harmonica. Alasdair Roberts looked stiff and skinny when offering backing vocals at the corner of the stage but also contributed guitar and piano. He sang a song called The Bird. He looked like one.
These younger stars were in contrast to Mike Waterson, announced as the family troublemaker early on, who sang with his right hand cupped over his ear to block out the damned noise of the acoustic instruments interrupting him. A vision in a flat cap, he looked like he’d been diverted from attending a meeting at the dogs to sing the sublimely wispy One Of These Days, with Lisa Knapp accompanying on autoharp. Later he’d play irked at the BBC’s producers when they patiently informed him his music stand was too high. “We’re only here to enjoy ourselves,” he protested, to indulgent applause.
Martin Carthy and Olly Knight, together with Doogie Paul’s double bass, Reuben Taylor’s piano and accordion and a string section, unobtrusively backed it all. Kathryn Williams, six albums in to her career, was content to be a bit-part player, contributing vocals in the first half. And the handsome Tim Van Eyken, fresh from his National Theatre staged Warhorse, caught Lal’s chord-shifting subtlety beautifully singing The Altisdora, backed by Taylor’s ivory-tinkling flourishes.
But since her blue-haired teenage days, Eliza Carthy has blossomed into a vivacious performer. Cleavage straining at her dress and twinkly lipsticked smile beamed at audience members and family alike, she was the show’s lynchpin, the manifestation of Lal Waterson for the present generation. Whether gutsily lead singing alto or accompanying her kin with violin, she was throughout the central rock that allowed the other performers to develop their own particular contributions to whatever degree they fancied.
Yet while Eliza and her startling bosum were the obvious stars of the night, she was upstaged by Norma Waterson. The matriarch of the family, with a kindly and saturnine expression, told tales of drinking and music and more drinking during Red Wine Promises with a voice still powerful, though subtly so. In Song For Thersa, the Watersons’ deaf childhood carer, Norma was moved to tears as she sang about a beloved person much missed. Lal Waterson, rather than Thersa, was the elephant in the room. All the performers tonight were excellent, but it was Norma who stole the show.
As they took their bows to a thundering of encore applause for the impromptu Goodnight, Goodnight, they knew what we did: if Lal had still been around, surely she would have been well pleased.