Saturday, October 18, 2008

The unadorned voice

I've been to a couple of gigs this week which showcase the best of English traditional music. Firstly, Bella Hardy and Chris Sherburn in a very small pub, giving a tremendous performance. Chris, of course, is a brilliant concertina player and one of the funniest guys on the scene. Bella has an extraordinary voice which works very well with Chris's playing, in much the way that Denny Bartley's used to, when they were together in Last Night's Fun. What I always loved about Denny was his syncopation, the way he weaved in and out of strict tempo, and Bella does exactly the same thing. She has an elastic view of rhythm and metre, and this is extremely refreshing in English traditional music, which has been too much dominated by the demands of folk dance and which has become, at times, too rigid. (A gross generalisation, naturally - think of Martin Carthy, for example - but in principle it's a fair point.)

So Bella sings her songs and she lets the story lead her. At times she almost speaks, with no adornment whatever, and her voice is delightfully pure. It's instructive to hear her sing and realise how, by doing apparently so little, she can derive so much emotional power. All those girls singing power ballads in what they think is a 'soul' music style could learn something here.

But also she is quite unmannered. There is a bit of a trend in English folk music at the moment for young women to have these odd, cracked, ethereal voices. They're all essentially copying Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas, and nothing wrong with that because they are superb acts, but it gets taken to extremes, and while, with Jolie or the Tanyas, you feel they sing like that because that's the way the words come out of their mouths and they could do no other, with some of the newer acts you feel they are straining too hard for that effect. Bella does absolutely none of that. Like Jolie, she just sings, and what comes out is what comes out. Lovely.

Secondly, the old trooper Martin Simpson. I read a review of his last album which really made me laugh, when it said his musicianship was superb but his voice needed work. Martin's been on the scene for nigh forty years, something which the reviewer may not have realised when he was handing out his advice as though he was speaking to some ingenue. Like Bella, Martin has a wonderful singing style, unadorned, simple, letting the words do the work, letting the song tell the story.

He is going back to America next month for the first time in five years, after having lived there for many years, and he resurrected quite a few pieces from his Righteousness and Humidity album. My partner prefers his British stuff, but I think the American material shows off his extraordinary guitar skills so I really enjoyed that. Another excellent gig. See him if you can.

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