I feel extremely fortunate to be writing this review as I only found out a few days before the event that I was actually going to be able to get to the Bristol Folk Festival and I was especially looking forward to the debut performance of all ten members of The Company of Players (COP), although I was aware that seven of them had made it to take part in the celebrations to commemorate 400 years since the death of Shakespeare and his legacy of writing in the bard's hometown of Stratford Upon Avon. However due to a delay in setting off from our home in South Wales with the family in tow I thought we had missed our chance to see their set, so I was delighted to find the festival running a little behind schedule which meant catching the whole performance.
The Company of Players is the brainchild of the lovely Jess Distill from Said the Maiden who wanted to bring together a group of emerging musicians, singers and songwriters, all of whom have had some success as an individual or part of another group or pairing, in this project.The songstress and composer had been inspired inspired by projects such as the Full English, Songs for the Voiceless and Elizabethan sessions luckily for us she revealed her ambitions and was supported to turn her idea into reality.
So who are the individuals that comprise The Company of Players? Well, they are the three members of Said the Maiden (STM) namely Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkington, accompanied by Lukas Drinkwater, Kelly Oliver, Daria Kulesh who also sings with Kara, Minnie Birch, Kim Lowings, Sam Kelly from The Sam Kelly Trio and The Changing Room and last but not least Chris Cleverley. Brought together in order to not only celebrate the writings of William Shakespeare but to commemorate his life also. I was intrigued to hear how such distinct styles, comprising not only of the folk genre but also acoustic and indie influences would meld together but I was very pleasantly surprised at how this was beautifully achieved without losing any of the individual character of the artists. For those readers who wish to know further details of who was singing and playing what I have added notes at the end of each song
Daria Kulesh opened the set in dramatic style with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a murder ballad based on a Russian legend about a Siberian Lady Macbeth. This was an intense performance with a wonderful Russian Melody to carry the tale of a woman and the various tragedies that befell her and shaped her life. Daria made a wonderful if not a little scary and foreboding Lady Macbeth who I personally would not have liked to tangle with ! (Jess on shruti, Sam on mandolin, Chris and Kelly on guitar, Hannah on violin, Lukas on bass, everyone on backing vocals (bv)
Next up was Kim Lowings whose song was entitled Gather Round. Based on the idea in the Tempest of things not being quite what they seem the song consisted of lovely ethereal upbeat harmonies which made me think of waves loved the use of dulcimer in this song which all added to its atmosphere (Kim lead vocals and dulcimer, Sam on mandolin, Minnie and Chris on acoustic guitar, Lukas on electric everyone on bv)
The third offering was by Chris Cleverley entitled But Thinking Makes it So. The opening of the song looks initially at the mental angst Hamlet is going through in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet and also exploring the idea of whether Shakespeare himself had mental health issues due to the way he alludes to mental health issues in his writing. Lovely rhythms in this thoughtful renditions that add to the complex topics of the song. (Hannah Violin, Sam / Chris Guitar opening with Hamlet to be or not to be.Chris lead vocals and guitar, Sam, Minnie, Kelly on guitar, Kim on keys and Hannah on violin. Everyone on bv)
Minnie Birch followed on in her own distinct lyrical style taking Puck from Midsummers Night's Dream as inspiration, her song is called Up and Down. She described her song's theme of love as being sadder than love as usually portrayed in a love song and examines the concept that love is something not to be meddled with. The melody conveyed the sentiments and feelings of this song sensitively and delicately. (Minnie on lead vocals and guitar, Kim dulcimer, Kelly and Chris acoustic guitar, Lukas electric guitar, Sam mandolin, Kathy clarinet, Daria shruti, everyone bv)
Jess, Kathy and Kim along with Hannah on the violin did not disappoint either with their upbeat rendition, also based on Hamlet but this is a Hamlet with a twist not Shakespeare's version but a legendary tale from Iceland, possibly a story the bard used for inspiration. This Hamlet tribute titled Method in the Madness offered a three part harmony incorporating the distinctive sound of the banjo in a Bluegrass inspired tune composed by Kim and the words by Jess. I half expected to see an Appalachian clog dancer appear at any moment along with a spoons player and to coin a phrase lo and behold Kathy produced a pair of spoons as if read my mind, which added to the energy of this song, guaranteed to get your feet tapping.This was definitely one of my favourites in the set. (Kathy and Kim on vocals. Hannah violin, Minnie guitar, Lukas double bass, Kelly harmonica, Chris banjo, Sam mandolin, Daria bodhran, Kathy spoons)
Penultimately was Kelly Oliver on guitar, looking at Shakespeare's words regarding views on refugees which also highlights contemporary thoughts of some of the populace of today. You must need to be strangers is a beautifully crafted song looking at how life is from the perspective of a refugee and tackles the attitudes of the people around them through their journey to new places and trials of fitting in. Kelly's unique voice transports us along with her on this journey in her characteristic storytelling style to consider this poignant subject which is particularly apt in current times (Chris on banjo, Hannah on violin, Kim on keys, Lukas on double bass and everyone on bv)
I must admit to being a keen admirer of STM trio who gave the final performance of the set with their song It was a Lover and His Lass. This was based on As you like it and incorporates actual lyrics. Hannah's tune was inspired by Thomas Morley, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and was the most famous composer of secular music of the Elizabethan age along with Robert Johnson they are the composers of the only surviving contemporary settings of verse by Shakespeare.This was a delightful song which revels in the folk tradition and especially evocative of the Elizabethan age in which it was set. Hannah as lead vocalist and Jess' addition of harmonies complete with a catchy chorus and a wonderful regular beat, made this song another toe tapper and crowd pleaser.(Hannah on lead vocals and violin, Jess flute, Kathy mandolin, Sam, Kelly Minnie guitar, Kim dulcimer, Chris banjo, Lukas double bass, Daria bodhran, everyone bv)
All the songs complemented each other wonderfully just as in a Shakespearian play there were moments of upbeat frivolity, contemplation and reflection, beautifully contrasted with dark drama and sorrow keeping the audience on the edge of their seats wondering which play or character would next make an entrance and indeed their method of delivery in the beautifully contrasted and varied styles of songs as well as their chosen outfits which added to the general theatricality of their performance. On a personal note I have also had the opportunity to be introduced to singers that I had not hitherto heard much of and also to explore their work too.Their next gig was due to be in Settle but was alas cancelled, so your next chance to witness The Company of Players in action will be at the Looe festival which is well worth the trip to see them in my opinion and I hope to hear more from this project in the future.
The Company of Players consists of:
- Said the Maiden
- Sam Kelly
- Kelly Oliver
- Minnie Birch
- Daria Kulesh
- Kim Lowings
- Chris Cleverley
- Lukas Drinkwater
Written by Sian Northey Pictures David Chamberlain
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