Last night, Mr. Bsag and I went to see Chris Wood play the All Services Club in Moseley. We had been looking forward to the gig for ages, as we are both big fans, but because of various other circumstances, we were exhausted after a very hard and busy week, and wondered if we were going to be in the right mood to appreciate it. We needn't have worried: it was fantastic, and the warmest, most intimate and spellbinding gig I've ever been to.
The All Services Club is a funny venue. The decor is a two or three decades out of date, and the main room contains a tiny stage of the kind that looks as if it is more used to hosting small children wearing tea-towels on their heads and pretending to be shepherds than world-renowned folk musicians. However, the tiny venue gave the event a very intimate feel. Since there is no stage entrance, Chris and the band had to wander through the audience to mount the stage. Near the end of the show, he was talking about encores, and how the accepted procedure is:
- Band sing 'last song'
- Audience applauds
- Band goes off stage
- Audience applauds
- Band comes back on stage
- Band plays encore
Given the stage, step 3 was impossible because there was nowhere to go (he put it a bit more strongly than that, to a lot of laughter), so they would just play two more numbers and end. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I adore Chris Wood's voice, and I love his style of guitar playing. When he sings, I hang on his every word like an utter fangirl. It helps that he is a consummate storyteller. Telling stories is a very old craft (and one of the original functions of folk songs, of course), but it's difficult to do well. He pulls you in to the story from the start, so that you can't wait to hear what happens next. There are emotional highs and lows, twists and turns and unexpected and beautiful turns of phrase that make you laugh or make tears come to your eyes, so that you have to pretend you've got a bit of dust in them.
On this tour (and on the new album, 'Handmade Life'), he was playing with a fantastic band comprising Robert Jarvis on trombone, Barney Morse Brown on cello and Andy Gangadeen on drums. They were terrific, and enhanced and complemented his sound, without overwhelming the words in any way. Robert also did an uncanny impression of a Merlin-engined Spitfire on the trombone (during the song 'Spitfires'), which made plane-mad Mr. Bsag^1^ go a bit misty-eyed.
They played many of the songs off the new album (which we bought — and got signed! — at the gig), as well as a scattering of older favourites. Sometimes that can be disappointing if you haven't heard the new material yet: artists are understandably keen for you to hear what they have just been working on, but audiences like to hear what they already know and love. But in this case, it was wonderful. His songs are stories, and it was a priviledge to hear them for the first time live, rather than recorded^2^. 'Hollow Point' was a great example of the thrill of hearing these things for the first time (though I'm sure that the experience will deepen with repeated listens). It starts off describing a beautiful summer day ("Awake, arise, you drowsy sleeper"), and sounds like a traditional folk song about pastoral pleasures with some sinister undertones. But then we find out that the person in question is getting on a bus. Gradually, it you realise that it's the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station in 2005. It's a lament for him, and the feeling of doom, sorrow and inescapable fate is incredibly powerful.
I also loved 'Turtle Soup' — a song about Darwin's time on The Beagle. The tune is a great, sea-shanty-like thing, but the lyrics are very evocative too. There are a couple of lines at the end ("'Cause the church may shout but Darwin roars/At the age of twenty three") that made me covertly raise my fist in a Darwin Power salute (Biologists in da house! Reprazent!) and mutter an exultant "yes!" under my breath.
There were lighter moments too. Chris described 'My Darling's Downsized' as a love song for old gits, but that's fine by me. It's a lovely, warm song about the pleasures of cooking rock cakes and watching your potatoes chit on the allotment, and contained a lot of lines that made me laugh:
I light the touch paper but I don't retire
Because my love for her cannot be overstated
It's deep and it's not final salary related
As Chris said between numbers, folk singers have always sung because they felt that something need to be said. He upholds this tradition by championing the cause of people who are little-known, quiet, everyday heroes, from history to the present time — just don't get him started on David Starkey or Henry VIII. He also comments on the social and political situation, so there are quite a few tracks on the album about the credit crunch. He's certainly a man worth listening to, and I felt very lucky to be able to do just that yesterday.
^1^Well, OK — me too. ↑
^2^Doubly so, because only those going to the gigs have access to the album until it is on general release when the tour ends. ↑