A Woman's Word:
Karine Polwart, Kellie While,
Kirsty McGee & Abbie Lathe
at the Purcell Room,
Queen Elizabeth Hall,
London, England
(7 November 2004)

"Hello, London!" Well, yes, it was London, although it wasn't the "Hello, Wembley!" the rock stars cry out. Instead, it was the concluding night to 2004's Folk in the Fall series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring four female singer-songwriters sharing vocals, instruments and a stage.

"I drew the short straw tonight and I'm starting the evening; my name's Kellie While," the first to perform said with a laugh. The real Kellie While, pretending to be taken aback, drew herself to her microphone, asking, "Why is that funny?" as Abbie Lathe started singing "Avebury."

Known for her performances with Maddy Prior and Rose Kemp, Lathe is a singer-songwriter in her own right. Whilst she sat barefoot and finger-picked on her guitar as the other women joined in on backing vocals, "Avebury" proved not to be a new-agey song about the ancient stone circle, but a song with some anti-war qualities: "We are all the same/so put down your gun."

Moving down the line on stage, While, the youngest of the group but perhaps the best known due to her association with folk-rock groups E2K and the Albion Band, used a gentle voice on her first number, "Northern Town." It was on this chorus that the natural way all four women's voices blended became clearly obvious. Although they'd only performed together once before, they sounded as if they were meant to sing as one.

While not as well known as she should be outside of Scotland, Karine Polwart, lead singer with the traditional group Malinky, was the next up. She, along with the other women, also toted a guitar. "The Sun's Coming Over the Hill" "involves whisky, just to conform to stereotypes," she said with a grin, referring to her Scottish background. Polwart would go on to prove to be the evening's most precious gem amongst four jewels.

Flautist and guitarist Kirsty McGee (she played flute on Polwart's number), accompanied by token male Mat Martin on guitar, was the last to go. "Coffee Coloured Strings" came from an experience in Cornwall, she said. Her voice is coffee flavoured, and the song reflects her.

The evening continued in such a way, set up as a "songwriters in the round" night. Jokes abounded as each woman introduced her songs, as they complimented each other on their accents (everyone seemed to love Polwart's, While declared that Lathe has "the most sophisticated, sexy voice I've ever heard") and, here and there, serious subjects took over the stage. McGee admitted she wasn't quite sure how to follow Polwart's august "Waterlily," a song based on Colin McKay's Lullabye, his true story about his Serbian wife who was murdered when he was away seeking visas for the family to go to Scotland. Polwart herself declared that she wrote the song when an audience member at a Malinky concert in Germany told her that such massacres didn't really occur. Despite the song's background and its utter seriousness, it is not a downbeat number; rather, the music is filled with hope.

While Polwart's songwriting may have seemed to dominate the evening (her upbeat "Four Strong Walls" closed the show), the other three weren't just there for support. While finally showed off how strong her voice can be with "All That I Need," a song she said was often misinterpreted to be "about a bloke" when it actually concerns her mother, performer Chris While. McGee's new song, "Fresh Water," has an Americana-type quality to it, with haunting harmonies and a haunting chorus: "The body knows nothing till the soul cries/soul knows nothing till the body burns." Lathe came across almost like Norah Jones, but with far better enunciation, on the mellow "New Year's Eve."

Four jewels shone in London that night. They were women with things to say and sing and, although folk music has yet to take over Wembley Arena, the audience in the Purcell Room probably was just as glad that the performance was set in a far more intimate atmosphere.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 15 January 2005