St. Georges, Bristol
Never mind the arithmetic.
Twice three gets you three times the fun.
Two complete sets from two very different trios in our favourite Bristol venue, with its extraordinarily clean acoustic, perfect for the instruments they play. Two trios composed of absolutely top flight musicians, both trios at the top of their respective games, one well enough established to already have several CDs out there under their own name, the other a brand new trio whose debut CD would be my first target at the merch table at half-time.
Both trios are composed of musicians whose careers to date have spanned umpteen previous bands, multiple solo releases and all sorts of interesting collaborations. A veritable sextet of serious serial sessioneers, collaborating in threes to beguile us.
I’d bought the tickets when the gig was first announced, so we had our favourite seats booked, and we’d even ordered and paid for interval drinks – a luxury we rarely dare. How excellent, to have the whole evening ahead and the promise of top flight music.
First we had to get there; it’s only about 15 miles to the middle of Bristol from Foxy Towers, so we set off at 6 for the 7:30 start. No hurry. We then spent one of those mysterious half hours stationary on the M32 while the traffic in front of us went nowhere and we looked at the fields and trees. The possibility of missing the start of proceedings crossed my mind, but then, as is the way of these things, the road ahead cleared for no apparent reason and we made it to St. Georges with time to spare.
Ah yes, I hear you wonder, who were we going to see?
The evening began with a full set from Edinburgh-based Firelight Trio, a new grouping consisting of:
Phil Alexander – Accordion and Piano (see also: Moishe’s Bagel, Tangalgo, McFall’s Chamber, Catriona McKay, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy)
Ruth Morris – Nykelharpa (see also: Journeyman Project, Bellevue Rendezvous, The Galloway Agreement, The Village and The Road, Whirligig)
Gavin Marwick – Fiddle (see also: Journeyman Project, Iron Horse; Cantrip; Up In The Air, Ceilidh Minogue, Whirligig, Bellevue Rendezvous, The Galloway Agreement, The Unusual Suspects, Session A9, Wolfstone, Shooglenifty, Arz Nevez, Malinky and Sogdiana amongst others)
As you might expect, they’ve inevitably been described elsewhere as a ‘folk supergroup’; they all bring a depth of experience and a broad palette of musical styles to bear on a collaboration that forges its own musical reality through the different lenses of their playing. Right at the off we got to hear an evocative klezmer tune from Romania via New York, and from there on the European diaspora gave us a cascade of instrumental delights for well over an hour.
As you might also expect, with a nykelharpa featuring prominently, there got a good smattering of Swedish tunes, including the delightful Prinsen’s Polska. We heard Scottish reels, Balkan polska’s written by Swedes, klezmers recently recovered from archives in Kyiv, tunes inspired by walks in Poland and Edinburgh and even pieces written for a film that never got used in the soundtrack.
Here on the Afterword we’ve always enjoyed music from all across the globe, and as our discussions wax and wane from continent to continent it’s always apparent that, put simply, all here share a love of good music from wherever it has emerged. The Firelight Trio exemplify that culture, and over an hour in their company I get to hear music from eastern Europe, from northern Europe, and from all points in between. I hear tunes from Scotland, tunes that crossed the sea to Ireland, crossed the ocean to America, tunes that travelled in hearts and minds, from the pogroms to the holocaust, from famines to dust-bowls, on shellac and on vinyl the length and breadth of the planet. It’s an aural education, steeped in common humanity. Above all, it’s an uplifting musical experience, transcending all of the difficulties of its travels and coming out into the open again, here at St. Georges, to dance in all its glory.
After a knee-and-ankle flexing hour of rollicking playing and incredible counterpoint tunesmithery, they crammed in an extra couple of tunes by way of a high-speed encore and left the stage to a huge round of applause. We’d been privileged to hear an astonishing performance by great musicians in a fabulous hall, everything clear as a bell and all shared with an audience who were very obviously there to hear the music and chuckle at the introductions to each tune from artists of the highest calibre who were, so crucially, and equally obviously having fun!
I’d urge you to investigate the Firelight Trio – if you have any interest in European folk music of whatever persuasion, head over to their website and explore their backgrounds, then nip over to the page where you can listen to some of their tunes and buy their album; it’s beautifully recorded, it’s lovely, it’s warm hearted and really special, and it’s playing as I write this.
Given that The Firelight Trio were a new experience for me, I was delighted to think to myself as they left the stage that, even if the next trio suddenly had to rush off elsewhere and the gig had to come to an abrupt end, I’d already had a wonderful time listening to the first lot!
We guzzled our interval drinks and sat expectantly for the second trio to take the stage, the brilliant, the wonderful, the unusual and the unique Three Cane Whale.
Three Cane Whale
Now, I’ve been listening to this band since the divine Cerys named them one of her favourite folk artists back when their first – eponymous – album came out in 2010. Ever since then they’ve ploughed their own very special furrow, producing three more albums of utter delight. They specialise in shortish tunes rich with intense individuality, all gloriously constructed to make the most of their intriguing instrumentation.
As you can tell, I am fully in love with this band’s music, constantly rewarded by replaying their albums and listening intently. New things to notice with every play. Fine details skilfully hidden, revealed only to the revisiting ear. Layers of arrangement so well crafted they slip by each time to the same satisfaction, but with new clarity and nuance at every listen. So tuneful, so gently reassuring, so gorgeously British (with frequent little threads of wider redolence), so resolutely modern yet run through with quiet changelessness. Outstanding. Add to this the fact that they are operating in my neck of the woods, and their pieces are often titled with the names of places I know and love, and you will know why I think them to be marvellously beyond comparison.
This Bristol based trio consists of:
Alex Vann – mandolin, bowed psaltery, bouzouki, zither, banjo, dulcimer and music box (loves to take 20 minutes to tune extravagantly obscure stringed instruments of all kinds, and is also a lino-cut artist of great talent – see some of their album artwork)
Pete Judge – trumpet, cornet, dulcitone, harmonium, lyre, glockenspiel, tenor horn (also a fine solo pianist who has put out 3 exquisite solo piano albums with highly imaginative names)
Paul Bradley – acoustic guitar, miniature harp (who told me that the explanation for his unusual guitar playing – it’s upside down à la Jimi – is that he is self-taught on a “cheap thrift-shop guitar” that he bought himself as a youngster)
Coming on after the first trio with their confluence of accordion, nykelharpa and fiddle, the Three Cane Whale combination of mandolin, trumpet and guitar obviously presents the audience with a completely new tonal palette, and for me it’s particularly the brass element, often the lead instrument, that stands out in their sound. I love a trumpet or a flugelhorn, and with this trio it’s Pete’s part that my ear finds first every time I hear them. Having said that, when watching them play one’s eye is equally drawn to Alex’ rhythmic mandolin – here’s the driving force of their arrangements as well as half of the string section. One’s attention also quickly turns to Paul’s exquisite and extraordinary guitar parts. His guitar provides much of the bass line below the sparkling mandolin, and the intriguing intervals that Paul conjures from his guitar fretboard offer many of the little nuanced ear-catching features of their arrangements.
In many ways they are a jazz band – there’s more to the jazzy, lyrical, melodical whimsy of their chromatic explorations than you’d think at first hearing. Time or key changes hold no fear for them, and there’s plenty of alteration in the cadences as the pieces unfurl to your ears. This is why, as I said before, their recorded music rewards repeated listening so well.
I find myself thinking it’s like Trumpton via XTC via Nucleus and then again something other altogether. Where we had a musicological travelogue in the first half that was very much grounded in historical tunesmithery, here we are in more distinctly modern times, using a mischievous exploration of contrasting tones, with elements of the past squinting through only to be gently nudged aside by a startling change of orchestration as there’s an interjection from a harmonium for several bars followed by a bass solo, a zithery piece of artful plucking and then a flourish of trumpet to finish.
On Thursday last we were treated to selections from all four of their albums to date. Their merch table lets you buy all but the first of these directly from the band. Their first album, ground-breaking in its originality, is currently out-of-print, but you can source copies online without much trouble.
The most recent album, “303”, with its glorious cover featuring specially commissioned linocut artwork by illustrator Victoria Willmott, is one of the best things I’ve bought in the last few years. It doesn’t matter where you start with the band, if you like one of their albums you’ll enjoy them all. Their very uniqueness and the depth of talent they have at their disposal mean they have a consistency of brilliance that most bands can only dream of.
Go and visit their website, watch and listen to them play, and buy one of their albums. You will not regret it.
It dawns on me, as I wallow in another of their little musical suites – they like to string 3, 4, or 5 of their short pieces together and deliver them as one continuous evolution – that these guys are the perfect trio to hear at the same event as the first lot. They are such a great and complementary contrast to each other that the evening as whole has really benefited and blossomed from their differences as much as their similarities of construction.
Two trios combined to devastating effect then; one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent listening to entirely instrumental music delivered by such beautifully talented players.
Full of the usual St. Georges folk. Full of folk folk. Full of lucky folk. Folking hell what a treat they got.
It made me think..
The uplift will keep me going for weeks. The CD player is going to really earn its keep.