Having seen FATEA favourites Merry Hell on many occasions in the past, in both their full and six-member formats, at both festivals and other types of venue, I am more than aware of their unfailing and unerring capacity to deliver high energy, effervescent and scintillating performances which also reflect genuine messages of hope in unity. It has to be said, however, that these have almost exclusively been performances north of Watford Gap.
Thus the opportunity to catch the 'acoustic' version of the band, live three times within six days, in three radically different types of venue, in the South, was too good an opportunity to miss. How well would a group proud of their roots in a north-western town more renowned for its rugby league, fabled pier, famous 2013 FA Cup win and savoury pies served in a barm cake, be received in the perceived genteel South, compared to my previous Merry Hell shows in the North? How different would the atmosphere and experience be across different types of venue?
This trio of gigs started off with the slight novelty of a Sunday matinÃ©e show at the famous Half Moon, Putney venue. Advertised as a child-friendly show, there were indeed many youngsters, toddlers and the odd babe present. Indeed, to my eyes the age profile of those present was much younger than at any previous Merry Hell performance that I've attended. In contrast to the shows later in the week, this was predominantly standing only, with just a few perimeter chairs and benches, and there was ample opportunity for dancing and jigging, an option eagerly taken up, and clear evidence that this venue format is ideally suited to the Merry Hell experience. It really was a dynamic afternoon, and surely a well-deserved addition to the long list of memorable gigs at this venerable venue.
Over the three shows, as might be expected, there was not too much variation in the set lists, (St. Edith's being the slight exception for reasons outlined below). Familiar crowd pleasers were drawn from the group's four full-length releases, BLINK...and you miss it (2011), Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain (2013), The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories ... (2015) and Bloodlines (2016).
Thus, on all three occasions, Loving The Skin You're In, Let's Not Have A Morning After and Stand Down rubbed shoulders, literally, with the ever-popular Bury Me Naked, whilst the anthemic We Need Each Other Now and Come On England, with its 'the robbers, the racists, the breakers of faces who hide behind masks and the red, white and blue', offered altruistic alternatives to the greed and selfishness which pervades so much of modern day society.
As a slight diversion, (I would proffer the reason being the chance for lead singers Andrew & Virginia to draw breath), a new element recently introduced to the performances, and perfectly in keeping with the group's ethos of building bridges and creating communities, is an interlude entitled 'Random acts of kindness from the North'. It would be churlish to give away to much 'spoiler' information, so get along and see for yourself at one of their numerous up-coming shows.
A mention for the support act at The Half Moon is warranted. Award-nominated Hannah Scott & her musical partner, Stefano Della Casa, delivered an accomplished and extremely well-received set of self-penned acoustic songs, drawn from her superb debut album Pieces Of The Night, previously reviewed in FATEA. Even Andrew Kettle, from Merry Hell was in tears following Boy In The Frame. This is a duo creating high quality music that is definitely worth investigating.
By contrast, the second gig was held at the Hampshire County Council run Forest Arts Centre, an all-seater theatre, and was, nonetheless, equally appreciated by the sell-out audience. Whilst previously mentioned favourites were reprised, including a heckled request to dedicate Come On England to the local village of Sway, high-energy and up-tempo songs such as Baker's Daughter and Hope You Don't Mind created cheerful bonhomie and full audience participation.
The band are so obviously well-versed in creating intelligently crafted lists that provide for significant shades and contrasts within their sets, thus as a counterpoint to the above, a terrific rendition of Emerald Green, together with an emotive, heart-rending a cappella performance of Bob Kettle's poignant Coming Home Song, referencing the plight of refugees fleeing war in search of a settled life of peace, left many of those present with a lump in their throat.
The age-profile of those present was clearly older than the previous Sunday, and there was an absence of aisle-dancing, nevertheless the two sets delivered tonight were most enthusiastically received by patrons who obviously were thoroughly enjoying the evening and the excellent entertainment on offer. I understand that music promotion is a relatively new venture for the venue, and as such is to be welcomed and supported. Forest Arts should also be applauded, not only for their cordiality, but also for their enlightened approach to concessionary ticketing along with providing suitable facilities for wheelchair users.
The final show of the three took place at St. Edith Hall, located in a small village close to Sevenoaks, it was built in 1912 and used as a VAD Hospital throughout World War One. Again, this was a seated event, and reflected what might be termed 'a typical folk club', St. Edith Folk, with real ale, raffle and regular patrons.
The support act tonight were Terry Hiscock and Roger Trevitt, from the legendary Hunter Muskett. Their relaxed 45 minute performance was nothing short of sublime. Showcasing self-penned material, both contemporary and older, alongside the odd cover, all delivered between warm, humorous chat and anecdotes, at the end of the set the audience demanded more, and these two talented artists were left with little option but to return for a thoroughly deserved encore.
As with Putney then, the support act had done a fine job in well and truly warming up the audience. Thus it was that Merry Hell stepped out on the stage tonight to an enthusiastic, indeed vociferous, reception, for what was their live debut in Kent. Suffice to say that Kent was more than ready, with full audience engagement from the off.
Tonight, once more, we were witness to the fact that there is an immense depth to the creative musical ability that exists within the band. Lest it be forgotten, all music played over these shows, (with the exception of Banshee Reel), was written by group members. Tea-cups and glasses were indeed raised, arms swayed, feet stomped and communal voices lifted as one, as Anthems to the Wind echoed throughout the Garden of England.
What helps set Merry Hell apart from so many others, however, is the on-stage chemistry, perhaps due to the filial and marital relationships. With humour that varies from self-deprecating, through dry, to ribald via outright hilarity, with banter that engages the audience with references the locality, be it avoiding driving into New Forest ponies or the posh charity shops and poor drivers of Sevenoaks, in addition to the prime factor of being purveyors of top-quality music, their highly-tuned stage-craft means that the group are also consummate entertainers in the widest sense.
With tonight's 'Random act of kindness from the North' again proving a huge success, (I can't wait to see pictures of the 'knitted boyfriend'), indeed being reciprocated with 'Random gifts of kindness from Kent' and Virginia closing the first set with a solo acoustic version of her 'Violet', it was clear that Andrew was, to say the least, unwell. What was also apparent was the aforementioned closeness of the group, and their concern for his well-being.
Trooper that he is, Andrew duly reappeared after the interval, (no doubt spurred on by the fact that his wife won a raffle prize), and a re-jigged second set meant a different, but nonetheless equally entertaining, half to the previous two shows. Indeed the lucky people of Kemsing were given the honour, and treat, of a brand new song, the, at times Klezmer sounding, Don't Wanna Be Cool. I'm not a gambling man, but if I were, I would lay a pound to a penny on this becoming another crowd pleaser and staple of live shows.
This was another wonderful performance. Uplifting, sincere and passionate are just three apposite descriptions of tonight's music, with an audience best described as enthusiastic, passionate, responsive and grateful.
The group espouse the view that 'Our pleasure is to please: let the audience be the acid test and let the music speak for itself...'. On these three occasionsâ€¦ they were, and it did. More than a little rhythm was put in the collective blood of those present.
So what do I glean from this quasi-experiment? In many respects it is difficult not to get caught up in the atmosphere generated by the band and how adept they are winning over an audience, but the following points appear relevant, if possibly unpopularâ€¦
Unequivocally, Merry Hell were as enthusiastically received in the South as I have seen them received in the North.
The standing venue seemingly generated a better atmosphere, you can't argue with the sheer physical presence of people dancing around (my experience leads me to believe this is not a geographical issue though) Howevere.
And, for me, it's a big however
Those attending the seated venues were no less passionate and enthusiastic, it simply manifests itself in a different way. These people reached out to the band with open arms and ears with the same veracity as those choosing to dance, they just happened to be seated. For those of us born in the 1950's, (or earlier), and for others with mobility issues, our physical ability may no longer match the yearning, but we have the same zeal.
Conclusion: It is of great credit to Merry Hell that they are adept and skilled at generating an electric atmosphere highly conducive to full-on enjoyment. The advice can be nothing other than - no matter where or whatever the venue, don't hesitate - get along, you will not be disappointed.
To repeat words that I wrote some time ago, but which are as true now as they were then, Merry Hell, never cease to amaze. If ever uplifting, joyous music was prescribed as a cure for an ailment then they would surely be one of the first names on the prescription, albeit on the understanding that one of the contra-indications of the remedy would be that they themselves are infectious.Words and video David Pratt Photo: Marvellous Gig Photography
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