Spirit of the Tradition
at Anvil Theatre,
Basingstoke, England
(27 November 1998)

John Renbourne & Jacqui McShee of Pentangle,
Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian pipes and fiddle)
and Maddy Prior & Friends
...collectively calling themselves Spirit of the Tradition.

As a regular follower of Fairport Convention, I get regular mailings advertising tours, recordings and such like. In the most recent mailing was a flier for the above collection, which sounded like a gig too good to miss. So, rounding up a companion from among my e-mail friends, I set off for Basingstoke *, negotiated the infinite number of roundabouts ** -- and, somewhat confusingly, a series of roadworks and temporary traffic lights on the top deck of a multi-storey car park (????) -- and made my way into the theatre.

First up were Jacqui McShee and John Renbourne. Now although Pentangle have been around about as long as I have, I had thus far never seen any of them live, so this was a new experience for me. After a brief introduction from Maddy, they came on, made themselves comfortable ("which seems to take longer, the older we get") and started playing an assortment of tunes from "before Celtic music had been invented" (their words), including a Booker T & the MGs ("Well, actually, not all of them, so it was more Booker T & the Morris Minors") number which featured the sort of guitar playing that had me trying to count just how many hands he was using. That and the wonderful singing from Jacqui has certainly added items to my wish list for my next CD spending spree.

Next up, Kathryn Tickell -- a solitary figure with an odd contraption at her waist... "Don't mind this bit -- it's the bellows -- the bit that gets air into the pipes ... wonderfully high tech, made for me by a local farmer 20 years ago -- two bits of wood, some leather and a bit of washing machine hose pipe. When you play the pipes, you almost tend to forget you have it on, which is fine around the house, until the postman comes -- then they look at you, glance sideways at the bellows, then you can tell they are feeling sorry for you, and don't quite meet your eye after that."

What is wonderful about seeing Kathryn perform (as opposed to listening to all the CDs I have) is the way she tells the tales of musicians she has learned tunes from, traditions from her native Northumbria, stories of her family and friends, how she came to learn a particular tune and so on. Listening to these anecdotes, you get a real sense of tradition -- of somebody so steeped in the music and its origins that it is part of their life blood, part of what they are. Somebody you could imagine telling these tales, and playing the tunes around a roaring fire in a stone-flagged and oak-beamed pub, and yet, instead of an weather-beaten old folky in cloth cap and scarf, these tales are being told by an elegant young woman. Somebody who inspires a sense of longing to be part of that tradition and at the same time, a feeling that the tradition is in safe hands. I was lucky enough to have a short chat with her (while autographing the CD) during the interval, and again, got that same feeling of belonging. The performance itself was one of somebody who loves her music, and the places it comes from.

Finally, after an interval featuring frighteningly efficient bar staff (I actually got served quickly enough that I had time to finish my pint): Maddy Prior....

To the left, a keyboard and some technology in a flight case, to the right, a stool and a selection of things with strings and an even odder contraption that I later learned was a set of uilleann pipes....

The lights dim and two shadowy figures walk out, take their places behind their instruments and begin to play. Another figure enters -- takes centre stage, enveloped in a black cloak. She advances into the spotlight and begins to sing "The Company of Ravens"....

The next half hour is an entrancing set of tunes and songs, all on the them of ravens... "Young Bloods" ("we steal from the wolves"), "Rich Pickings" ("... from the wastelands, rich pickings from the hand of man") -- first time I have ever heard a song in praise of rancid burgers and decaying pizzas. In between the songs, during instrumentals, Maddy made impressive use of the cloak, which turned out to be multi-coloured black (you know what I mean), swooping and swirling and wagging her tail. I knew Maddy could sing, this was the first time I discovered she could dance too. A most amazing performance -- almost balletic and hypnotic -- definitely the highlight of the evening for me.

After a short instrumental, Maddy returned, having changed, and presented a more traditional set of old Steeleye numbers and new material from the CD which I will be listening to shortly (once Kathryn has finished). Finally, the other performers re-appeared for a Lal Waterson song (Old Saltie) and a love song written by Maddy's husband, Rick Kemp.

A wonderful evening -- I could have listened to the raven section again, I could have enjoyed a whole evening of Kathryn and I would have really liked the ensemble bit to have been longer, but overall, a tremendous concert. Miss them, or any of the individual artists at your peril.

[ by Ian Walden ]

* Basingstoke is a town some 40 miles from London. Once famed as the location for Gilbert & Sullivans' "Ruddigore," it is now regarded as possibly one of the dullest places in southern England -- a ring road, loads of roundabouts, industrial estates, a mini-Manhattan of office blocks and a shopping mall. It is rumoured that people actually live there, but I've never seen them, and if they do exist -- poor them. (For U.S. citizens, think Detroit without the charm.)

** Roundabouts -- a wonderful invention -- stick an island in the middle of a road junction, forcing traffic to go round in circles, stand well back and chortle into your highway plans. For even more fun, find an ordinary junction, paint a white blob in the middle, put signs up designating it as a roundabout, then stand back and enjoy people discovering just how poor a turning circle their car really has.