Mr. Bsag and I were lucky enough to see Chris Wood again at the Red Lion Folk Club last week. We’ve seen him live a couple of times, and once before at the Red Lion. It’s different each time, but always an amazing experience. There are few musicians whose music I love as much as Chris Wood’s, so I will always jump at the chance to see him live. However, you get much more than music with Chris Wood. He’s such a perceptive observer of life, society and politics, and such a passionate believer in the warmth, strength and basic decency of people, that going to one of his gigs feels a bit like a secular version of a church service. You’re with a bunch of like-minded people who — I would guess — all have rather unfashionable, left-leaning views, and who feel adrift, alone and under-represented. And there’s Chris on the stage, astutely getting to the heart of the problems, speaking up for people who don’t have a voice, and reassuring us that we can rely on one another for love and support. This has always been the role of folk musicians: to be the voice of the people and a source of hope, reassurance, commiseration and celebration, and he does it superbly well.
When I jotted down the tracks he had sung afterwards, I was amazed by how much he had packed in. You get so transported by his songs, that the evening tends to go past far too fast. He did ‘None the Wiser’, perfectly balancing the bitterness of the lyrics with the sweetness of the music. He also played ‘Jerusalem’ off the new album, which he heard him play last time at the Red Lion. I love his arrangement more and more each time I hear it. The album version with the Hammond organ is glorious, but when you hear him sing and play it alone in such an intimate venue, the song gets even closer to the atmosphere of lying awake and worrying about the state of the world at 4am that apparently inspired him originally. I think everyone in the room forgot to breathe throughout that song.
Many of the songs he sang (‘The Sweetness Game’, ‘My Darling’s Downsized’, ‘Little Carpenter’) are full of tenderness, and the kind of sweet, self-deprecating expression of love that comes from being middle-aged and knowing about the ups and downs of life. I’ve always liked the ‘Cottager’s Reply’ (based on a poem by Frank Mansell), but I think I had previously seen it primarily as a satire on rich Londoners throwing money around to get their little pied-a-terre in the country. This time, the lyrical, tender way he sang the lines about the old man’s connection to the land seemed to change the emphasis to be much more about the deep emotional roots people have with the land.
The wild hare still runs as free/and at dusk the badger travels still/ancestral highways on the hill/I am as Cotswold bred as these
Chris often talks about the origins of songs as he goes along, and this really enriches your appreciation of them. For example, he told us about the context of ‘A Whole Life Lived’, which was written a time in his life when he was alternating his time between writing and performing with the young hip-hop artist Dizraeli and visiting his dying father. What had seemed to be a light-hearted, self-deprecating song about being an old curmudgeon became something much deeper and more emotional. Likewise, he talked about writing the song ‘Hard’ a long time ago when his daughter was young:
She’s hard, my daughter’s hard/She’s only six, but don’t cross her
The song was originally inspired after watching some old footage of Jimi Hendrix on the TV. At one point, a young woman who was with Jimi in the limo turned to face the camera, and he was suddenly struck that she looked exactly like how his daughter might look when she was grown up. The thing was that he prefaced the song by telling us that his daughter is now grown up, and living in a “grubby hovel” with a starving writer1. That meant that when he got to the lines “in a trick of the light, oh my daughter’s grown up”, everyone suddenly had some dust in both eyes. Time passes so quickly, and I got the sense that (like many parents) he might well still think of his daughter as that cheeky six year old, and be amazed when in a “trick of the light” he sees that she’s actually a grown woman.
I could spend all day writing about that night, but I had better try to finish. He did a barn-storming, stomping version of the traditional song ‘Cold, Hailey, Rainy Night’, which is one of my favourites, and did an encore of ‘One in a Million’ following a request from the audience, which was a beautiful way to end the night. I can’t wait until the next time.
He said this absolutely glowing with pride, so I’m certain he approves, despite his choice of words. ↩︎