Martha Tilston
at Union Chapel,
London, England
(30 May 2008)

Three women stood in front of the stage and sang a cappella. "As I roved out one May morning," the lead singer began, and the others harmonized. This beginning certainly set the scene for an intimate night, albeit at the seemingly cavernous Union Chapel, with Martha Tilston and her band, The Woods.

On-stage and solo initially, Tilston joked about having "a bunch of folkies" in the audience, and, with only a gentle guitar to accompany her, launched into "Night Ramblings." Her voice was a silvery essence with an intense vibrato. Even when The Woods joined her for the next number, "Winter Flowers," her voice remained haunting, and she looked entirely earnest, totally in the moment, as she trailed off with "I don't know what to do."

Although Tilston's background is steeped in traditional music, her performance tonight highlighted her own songs. However, some them have folkloric images of their own. "Red" borrows from "Little Red Riding Hood," but in a very adult way; "Corporations" criticizes the corporate world, and her anthem song, "Artificial," takes on the soul-stealing business world, mentioning how she "sleep rides" to work on the bus and wishes she could "run across the office tables." Prior to performing the song, she commented on how her six years as a temp seemed "pretty hard-core ... especially when you pressed the same button every day for coffee from the machine," stating that hers "was number 24: white coffee with a sweetener," as stated in the song. Her voice on "Artificial" worked well with Matt Kelly's mandolin and the addition of Tim Cotterell's fiddle helped set the mood.

There are times, though, when the mood changed. At one point, Matt Kelly accompanied Tilston on fiddle, using a sort of echo machine to accompany himself. It was his fiddle, his echoes, cello and Tilston's voice. The effect came across as very "nu folk," but I'm not sure if it was the best choice. After all, she's the same performer who earlier in the evening discussed how her sister, as a little girl, used to dance in circles to music and say the music made her "fizz," and how "Songs that Make Sophie Fizz," was "about recalling what music is all about: making you fizz" -- the magic that surfaces when you "get the music."

And, for the most part, the night was magical. Announcing that she is expecting her first child, Tilston's first encore, "Willie o' Winsbury," her favourite traditional song, was a thoughtful, sparse piece. However, her final number, "Good World," became a sing-along, and its upbeat, positive message that our world perhaps isn't that bad -- that we can save it -- certainly is one to pass on to her child as well as the world.

by Ellen Rawson
26 July 2008