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Ange Hardy + The Whitehorse Whisperers

Venue: St John's Church
Town: Fernham, Faringdon, Oxon
Date: 09/12/17

Ange Hardy has produced some incredible albums in recent times with some high profile accompanists and, of course, a collaboration with Lukas Drinkwater. Her latest album "Bring Back Home" literally does that with Ange going right back home to her folk roots. The album is impressive but I wondered if taking on the road as a solo performer would work. It does. Beautifully.

The venue for the show was St John's Church, Fernham, a small village not far from Swindon. The church looks old, but was actually only consecrated in 1861. It had a major renovation recently which gives it a dual use as the village hall and is the home of Folk in Fernham, who put on the event. It also means it's warm, with underfloor heating, a major advantage on a night when snow was forecast and the temperature hovered around freezing.

Opening the night were local trio The Whitehorse Whisperers, who take their name from the nearby prehistoric White Horse chalk figure at Uffington. The trio consists of Lisa, Simon and James who are all vocalists and multi-instrumentalists playing a mixture of local traditional and self-penned songs. The quality of singing and musicianship was extraordinarily high and they're building a following in the local area that is well deserved. It was an impressive start and got everybody in the mood for the main event.

After a short interval Ange Hardy took to the floor, there's no stage, for the first of two sets. The opening song "The Gift of Song" was sung a capella, mainly as a thanks to husband Rob for lugging and setting up all the gear.

Sometimes the limit of a solo performer is that they have a main instrument, perhaps with a harmonica and a stomp box for a bit of backing, which means the songs have to fit within that restricted range. However, this is another area where Ange scores highly. She is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and loop pedal user which means she can bring a whole band with her, as we saw on the second song of the night, "The Trees They Do Grow High". This is a tradition song, familiar to many, and classic folk territory with its story of love and untimely death, but in her version it builds through multiple layers by adding flute and harp to the harmonies within the vocals, yet still keeps that essence of simplicity and poignancy. It was the first song of the night to bring tears to a few eyes, but certainly wasn't the last. Watching the song being built before our eyes is, in its own way, part of the performance that makes watching live music so rewarding. Many performers now have their backing tracks on a laptop but to see it done in real time as part of the song brings a sense of wonder to those of us far less talented. Here we see the art in artist and the one time it didn't quite work didn't matter because we don't go to watch a machine, we want to see the living breathing person.

Ange is a performer who audiences warm to, as her story alone makes her worth going to see. A teenage run-away she learnt to play by busking on the streets of Dublin, which she got to by hitch-hiking as she didn't realise Dublin was in Ireland. Returning back to England she got involved in drugs and could so easily have become just another statistic. Music saved her. This back story is told with such honesty, integrity and just the right touch of humour that you hold on to every word she says even if you've heard it before. The audience were clearly entranced and totally absorbed; I've never been anywhere so quiet.

This ability to tell a story really comes to the fore in her own compositions where the emphasis is on simplicity, but doing it really well. "What May You Do For The JAM" is the most political song she's written but not in an overly political way. It reflects the position many people find themselves in, the Just About Managing generation rent, who find every penny that comes in has to go out again so there's very little left over to put anything aside for an emergency or that extra something special. It's a song that has a resonance at Christmas particularly where the turkey alone is going to stretch the budget and there's no chance of getting a deposit for a house. As a parent to a Millennial I can relate to it.

The first half closed with "Bring Back Home", title track of the new album and it is a beautiful song of sailors lost at sea, but the chorus is about the women they left behind and that growing sense that something has gone wrong. When so you give up hope?

"Too many tides have come and gone, too many ships without him come and gone."

The second half tested the tear glands further, finishing with a trio of songs that could melt a heart of stone. "The Sailor's Farewell" is based on a true story of a woman who hung a picture of that name when her husband left on a voyage, to replace it with The Sailor's Return when he came back. Of course eventually the pictures never got swapped over. "Once I Was A Rose" is another true story of growing old in a world where family have more time pressures on their hands than they can cope with, so the elderly get quietly forgotten about to live with their memories.

"What It Is" closed the second half and this one of the most honest songs I've ever heard. To write it, let alone sing it in public and tell the story that goes with it must take enormous courage and a incredible sense of self. Several years ago Ange determined to win a Folk Award and poured heart and soul into doing just that. The album was called was "Essteesee", which is incredible and greatly loved, but it didn't win and it almost destroyed her. It took one of those Damascene moments, sitting in a singaround at a festival, to remind her that music is not about awards - as nice as they must be - but the people and the tradition and enjoyment.

I, like many people, was amazed when Essteesee didn't even get a nomination but in many ways that was for the best. What made this evening so special was seeing a great folk artist doing what they love doing, and so obviously loving it, which is performing and meeting old friends and making new ones. A show of hands on the night suggested that about 80% of the audience had never seen Ange play before; they must be kicking themselves at missing out in the past and I'm willing to bet they will be back. That's the true award.

This joy in performing, this rediscovery of the real reason for being a folk musician, was very apparent in the (heavily hinted) encore. How could we refuse? Not that we would have done because nobody wanted the night to end. "Colin the Dog", composed by Dick Wrigley, was a perfect way to close. Having had our emotions pulled apart we finished by roaring with laugher at a story where 'letting the dog see the rabbit' takes on a very literal meaning and has an ending which is as hilarious as it is unexpected.

You can't define a perfect gig in advance but you know when you've been to one and everybody leaving the venue that night knew that was exactly where they had been.

Words & Pictures:Tony Birch

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