Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Imagined Village @ Royal Festival Hall, London

27 November 2007

The Imagined Village are the result of a very broad folk church, which can flex its walls to include the raucous protest songs of Barking’s most famous son, Billy Bragg, Johnny Kalsi’s Indian precussion and Benjamin Zephaniah’s patois poetry. Centering their focus around the work of one of the great families of English folk, The Coppers, who preserved an oral tradition through the ‘thin’ years of the thirties and forties, The Imagined Village seeks to open up the definition of folk music and demonstrate how, musically and vocally, it fits together with Indian music perfectly.

Chris Wood, who literally played second fiddle to Eliza Carthy in the main band, came on as warm-up man, playing a guitar made from an old telephone exchange. Although Wood took the piss out of the ‘hey nonny’ stereotype associated with folk he was none the less coy and a little creepy in his delivery of anecdotes.

There is a whiff of self-righteousness about many folk performers (supporting authentic country people against the rich, snooty incomers, promoting English multi-cultural identity, and making rueful comments about having to explain rudimentary English history) which doesn’t sit too well in a context where half the songs were explained.

Wood and his generation know damn well that half their audience are the snooty incomers and the other half barely know what the Peasant’s Revolt was, let along preacher John Ball’s role in it. And he had a tendency to put on a bit of an ‘olde English’ accent for some of the songs, a pet peeve of mine, even though I recognise it’s necessary to do so to make some of the lines rhyme.

All that said, the four songs he did manage to deliver were crackers, completely different from each other. His handling of the extremely difficult scales in the tale of John Ball, pointed up exquisitely by his guitar playing, was a masterful demonstration of the beauty of folk delivery.

The main part of the performance offered a wonderful variety of styles and instruments, from acapella to manic hoedown to Barney Morse Brown‘s extremely polished tape-looped solo, not to mention methods of delivery. A giant projection screen above the crowded stage some into play several times. With a plethora of talent to draw upon you couldn’t help but feel some people were under-used. Sheila Chandra, who finished the show with her ever-changing rendition of The Welcome Sailor, in which the tune was subtlely altered to expand on the original melody, with no two verses being sung the same, closed the show, and having heard her achingly pure singing you couldn’t help but wish she had done more than backing vocals earlier on.

Martin Carthy, although one of the biggest names, certinaly in folk terms, was somewhat reticent, and when he did come forward forward it was to introduce Zephania’s version of Tam Lyn; he gave it such a long and rambly introduction you were ready to shoot him and after he’d filled us in on all the plot points and cultural details of the original 15th century ballad, not to mention its recording history, Zephania’s version, shown on the big screen and accompanied by most of the band, turned out to omit most of the original motifs anyway.

Martin Carthy’s daughter Eliza really stole the show, rushing round the stage as far as the lead to her amp would allow, bounding up and down, long hair flying, completely lost in her music. She started off relatively restrained, with her own version of the ‘Dilly Song’, Acres of Ground, which demonstrated the sweetness of her voice, but by the the Ceilidh Medley at the end of the show she was like a whirling dervish.

Billy Bragg was exceptionally entertaining – there was a lot of storytelling as well as singing, but unfortunately few of the others were as at home exchanging banter with the audience as he – resplendent in a black velvet pearly suit, cheerfully delivering a sparky tribute to multi-culturalism, England Half English.

Folk music humour can be a bit of an acquired taste, and there was an amount of polite laughing at somewhat feeble jokes between numbers, but there was one delightfully looney moment in the middle of the show, when Simon Emmerson (formerly purveyor of latino-politcal pop back in the 80s with Working Week and latterly lynchipin of Afro Celt Sound System) showed a short film about dog walking and instituted a bird watcher’s quiz afterwards.

The film was very sweet – if you can have naive painters you can surely have naive filmmakers – and the quiz exactly the sort of audience interaction I enjoy. It brought to mind The Decemberists, as did the rhythmic, seesawing fiddling on the first song, a very lively version of John Barley Corn, featuring Billy Bragg and the Carthys.

Yes, the whole scenario may be a little twee, yes there were a lot of balding men with ponytails and goatees, and couples who looked like geography teachers in the audience, and yes, one or two of the performers even stuck their fingers in their ears to sing harmonies, but The Imagined Village is a million miles from traditional folk and really are working to move the tradition forward, while retaining traditional songs, traditional vocal approaches. It’s just that they’re not above adding an extra verse about Tesco taking over the country, or throwing in a sitar solo. Each song was at very least interesting, and most of them were an absolute delight, fuel for your musical soul.

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The Imagined Village @ Royal Festival Hall, London