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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Barbican, London, 28th July, 2008

Barbican, London, 28th July, 2008

I’ve been away for two weeks, sailing amongst the hidden secrets of the Inner Hebrides, with not a few whisky-pirates. So what better reintroduction to London life than a pizza, followed by a piratical evening of sea shanties and songs about sailors, ships and the sea, based on the Whiskyfun’s 2006 Album of the Year, Rogue’s Gallery. You may recall that collection of songs by a multiplicity of artists, ranging from Seattle’s Baby Gramps, through Nick Cave to Sting and Bono, was dreamt up by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, and brilliantly executed by polymath producer Hal Willner.

Johnny Depp Pirate
Willner, you may also recall, pulled off the equally brilliant (if not a tad shambolic) concert last year at Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown, Forest of No Return, which brought together a crazy and generally unlikely cast to sing their way through around thirty-eight classic songs from the films of Walt Disney. Well, Willner’s at it again, and this time, introducing the artists himself in a rather unflattering pirate’s outfit, he’s responsible for almost four hours and forty-odd songs. It’s somewhat better organised than Forest of No Return, there’s only one no-show (Pete Doherty, who “wouldn’t get out of the car”), and most of the audience manage to stick it out to the bitter end – not bad going.
It’s an eclectic bunch of performers, some featured on the album, but the majority not. And there are some surprises – who would have expected Squeeze’s Chris Difford to sing ‘Mingulay boat song’ quite so tunefully, or to see actor Tim Robbins, on guitar and vocals, turning in gallant versions of ‘My son John’, ‘The cruel ship’s captain’ and coping with Shane MacGowan on ‘Bound for South Australia’? But what really turned this from a simple, if not tuneful, rendition of familiar songs by familiar artists, was the genius of the band, who managed to inject something sinister, and even something slightly otherworldly, into even the most innocent performance. Led by Kate St John on mostly accordion and oboe, it included Leo Abrahams on guitars and hurdy gurdy, Roger Eno on keyboards and euphonium, Andy Newmark on drums, Martyn Baker on percussion, Dudley Phillips on bass and David Coulter on banjo, mandolins and saw. They almost, very modestly, stole the show.

Rogues Gallery
Shane MacGowan
Martha Wainwright

Baby Gramps
David Thomas
I say almost, because there are too many potential show-stealers on the bill to allow them to do that. There are some Big Names. The hideously affected Martha Wainwright was hideously affected as she sang ‘Lowlands away’, performed for the record by her brother Rufus, and mother Kate McGarrigle. Suzanne Vega seemed strangely out of touch as she stumbled over ‘Caroline and her young sailor bold’, as did Robyn Hitchcock. The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon is definitely not as funny as he thinks he is; he threw away ‘High Barbary’, but recovered somewhat on ‘Turkish Revelry’, one of the prettiest songs on the record, a story about a cabin boy who is betrayed having mined an opposing vessel and “sank her in the lonely lonesome water”, which is predictably where he ended up too. And Shane McGowan never did quite figure out which way round to hold his harmonica.
Looking like a refugee from ZZ Top, Seattle songster and guitar twirler extraordinaire Baby Gramps had a much surer touch, kicking off the show with a rambunctious ‘Cape Cod Girls’, and ending with ‘OId man of the sea’, bewildering the assembled chorus with his verses, to which they were attempting to respond. White Magic, with Mira Billotte’s dreamy vocals, performed a splendid ‘Long time ago’, and Ed Harcourt did pretty well with ‘Farewell Nancy’, accompanied on violins and vocals by the Langley Sisters, whose virginal appearance (yes – even the pregnant sister managed to look virginal) seemed rather out of place in such a group of rogues. Richard Strange, sang ‘The good ship Venus’ as well as anyone could, looking rather like a nervous English teacher about to be caught by the headmaster. The throaty and infectiously enthusiastic Sandy Dillon rasped out ‘Bully in the Alley’ and ‘Leave her Johnny’ (or should that be Johnnie?) with a voice like barnacles being scraped on the deck of an old hulk. And then there was David Thomas, whose ferocious ‘Drunken sailor’ sounded as though it was being sung with all the rage of those many hapless mariners trapped deep in Davy Jones’ famous locker.
Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, and Eliza Carthy
Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy
But for all that my show stealers were mother, father and daughter, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, and Eliza Carthy, both individually and severally. Waterson’s ‘Bay of Biscay’, sung with the support of the family, was simply sensational, her mesmerising voice filling every corner of the hall and she wasn’t bad in ‘Farewell my Juliana’ either. Martin Carthy included the marvellously percussive ‘Hog-eye man’, and Eliza (also with child) seduced the audience with ‘Rolling sea’ and ‘The nightingale’. A very special word should also go to Teddy Thompson, who had to follow Waterson’s ‘Biscay’ – “This is going to be easy then” – and triumphed with the mysterious ‘Sally Brown’ – he even got the audience to sing. He also brought the best out of the band on ‘Haul away Joe’, and pulled off a very nice duet with Kathryn Williams. Sister Kami Thompson also sang very nicely.
Teddy Thompson
Teddy Thompson
Rogues Gallery
By the time Mr Gramps danced and tripped across the front of the stage, guitar over his head, singing ‘Old man of the sea’ we’d had, as I’ve already observed, almost four hours and forty-odd songs, and it was a testament to the spirit of the evening that both the audience and performers still had the same sparkling enthusiasm that had witnessed the start of the night.
These events are always going to be a little hit- and-miss, a tad disorganised, but they are very, very, special, and on those few occasions when it all got a bit too much for me, I simply closed my eyes and revelled in pictures of dolphins swimming wildly at the bow of our boat as we sailed off the entrance to Loch Braccadale on Skye, the music adding a suitable salty and occasional saucy flavour to my reminiscences. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Kate's gig photo album Kate's photographs
Classic Malts Cruise

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