From Psychedelia to Sonnets
The description of someone as a "National Treasure" is somewhat over-used these days but in the case of Ashley Hutchings MBE it is entirely appropriate. Ashley's contribution to what we know and love as "Folk Rock" is immeasurable .I couldn't put it better than Bob Dylan who described Ashley as "the single most important figure in English Folk Rock". Quite,Bob.
I ,myself, have followed Ashley's career for almost half a century ,since first seeing Fairport Convention performing Dylan's "Si Tu Dois Partir" on Top of the Pops in 1969. Since then, Ashley has produced a substantial and significant body of work which will never be surpassed.
Thus,it was with great pleasure that I learned that the indefatigable David Cartlidge was putting on Ashley's "From Psychedelia to Sonnets" show at Wigan Parish Church.I couldn't miss this.
The basic premise of the show is for Ashley to look back on his remarkable journey ,but this is no dry lecture, it is a vibrant, and often moving, performance with poetry and music.
The music was provided by two superb musicians and singers, Becky Mills [vocals and guitar] and Ruth Angell [vocals, fiddle, harmonium and hot water bottle -well it was rather chilly].
Unusually , this was a matinee performance of the two-hour show ,beginning at 3 pm ,with the highly civilised option of afternoon tea prepared by the Ladies of the Church. Needless to say, I took up the option of the afternoon tea ,and jolly good it was too.
A further point of note is that the show was being recorded for release as a live album ,so we were under strict instructions to behave ourselves!
Not surprisingly, the show focussed on Ashley's post-Fairport and post-Steeleye Span career ,although Ashley did read the sleevenotes that he had written for the CD reissue of the first Fairport album ,in which he beautifully summed up "the best years of our lives,the most colourful and creative period of British history [discounting the Elizabethans]".
As Ashley explained, this was not a chronological journey but ,instead, he selected songs and poems that had special meaning for him.
The show began back in 1962 with "an awakening" , with the song "Welcome To The World" ,which harks back to Ashley's first romantic experiences.
As this show was two hours long , space does not allow me to describe all of it,so I will pick out what were ,for me ,the highlights.
I really enjoyed Ashley's "Pedalling Suffragettes" ,about the pioneering women cyclists who defied male prejudice .The song dates back to The Lark Rise Band and was beautifully sung by Ruth . I also particularly liked Ashley's poem "It is not for the want of will" with its musical setting ,courtesy of John Dowland, Becky and Ruth.
"Song of Two Bridges" is one of Ashley's more recent songs ,and also one of his best. It was written for the Anglo-Italian album "My Land Is Your Land" [with Ernesto de Pascale] .It has also been recorded by Ashley's son Blair Dunlop but today's version, sung by Ruth and Becky was simply sublime. I can't wait to hear the recording!
One of my favourite albums by Ashley is "By Gloucester Docks I Sat Down And Wept" and it would appear that Ashley considers this to be his best work . From this underrated masterpiece ,Ashley read the lyrics to "The Ring On Her Finger" and Becky sung a gorgeous version of "To Ireland I Made My Way",with Ruth on fiddle.
A particularly touching part of the show was when each of the artists performed a piece for or about their children . Becky gave us the lovely "Leeds Lullabye", Ruth sang "Day of Days" [about welcoming new life into the world] and Ashley recited his humorous lyrics to "The Crocodile Line" about the calamities that are children's parties.
To complete the circle the show ended with a reprise of "Welcome To The World". A fitting end to a wonderful celebration of the life and work of a remarkable man.
National Treasure ? You bet!
Peter Cowley - Photocredit David Hiney
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