Last week we went to see Chris Wood perform at the Red Lion Folk Club. We last saw him perform in Moseley more than two years ago at a fantastic gig, so I was really excited to be getting to see him perform again. Chris Wood is an amazing performer when you hear him recorded, but he’s even better (if that’s possible) live, because of the incredible warmth and presence of his voice, and because his banter with the audience is lovely.
The Red Lion Folk Club is a very long established club, where we saw Megson last year. It’s a small upstairs room in the Red Lion pub, so it’s very intimate and you are very close to the artists. The support act were David Gibb and Elly Lucas, who we saw supporting Megson too. They are a great couple of singers, and we really enjoyed their sets (and bought their debut CD, ‘Old Chairs to Mend’). But Chris was who we were there to see, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
This time, he performed alone, just with an acoustic guitar. He played an amazing range of songs, from some traditional folk songs (some new to us) along with some of his own compositions. ‘Hollow Point’ (about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes) was electrifying. Even listening to the recorded version has the power to make me cry surreptitiously in a coffee shop, so hearing it live again was incredible. I stand by my assertion that it’s the Best Modern Folk Song Ever. Ever. Folk songs have always told the stories of people who do not have their own voice, so that we don’t forget them, and also criticize those in power. ‘Hollow Point’ does that very powerfully, but also manages to have a lovely, hypnotic tune at the same time, and — if you ignore the occasional references to buses and Oyster cards — has a timeless quality to it.
Chris has a kind of gruff, slightly curmudgeonly persona, and he is (justly) angry about the mess we are in in this country. Between songs he said that he had started to think that the kind of grasping, acquisitive, nasty situation that we have the moment is actually the default condition of the English, and that grand, wonderful schemes like the NHS are actually the exception. He might well be right, but he is passionate about equality, simplicity and the fellowship of other humans. He sang the wonderful song ‘John Ball’ which is about the Lollard preacher, and expressed surprise that we did not join in with the singing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was just so mesmerised by his lovely voice that I forgot everything else. He’s right though: it is a wonderful, evocative song. I have it on a playlist that I use to wake me up in the morning. The list is on random, but on days when ‘John Ball’ comes up, I tend to wake feeling very serene, and the song stays with me for the rest of the day. I have been known to sing it under my breath while cycling in to work, like a kind of mantra.
Despite the gruffness, I suspect he’s an old softie underneath. Certainly, he can write and sing a beautiful, tender love song like no-one else. I hadn’t heard the love song ‘The Little Carpenter’ before (from the Isle of Wight), but that was lovely, as was ‘My Darling’s Downsized’, which I know well and love to bits. No-one but Chris Wood could sing about the simple joys of making rock cakes or watching potatoes chitting with such tenderness. He said that he’s quite a fan of marriage and likes the fact that the word ‘husband’ can be a verb. He also had some deadpan advice for any young men in the audience lucky enough to get the opportunity to marry (“Don’t f*ck it up.”). I think that says it all. There were many great stories about his friend Hugh Lupton (who has written the lyrics for several of his songs). Hugh sounds like a great dude: one of the anecdotes about his rather eliptical utterances ended with the comment “It’s like sharing a car with Galdalf!”.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening of music and conversation, that seemed to be over far too quickly. Throughout the gig, he was changing his mind about what to play next (some of which was new, ‘in progress’ material, excitingly), and explained that he finds playing the guitar to be a very tactile experience, and he has to literally feel his way to the next song depending on how the guitar feels, how he feels, and I guess how the audience responds. It’s such a privilege to be part of that process, and to spend some time with such a sensitive, warm, gruff, person. Chris Wood is a brilliant human.