This was my first visit to this folk club in heart of the New Forest. Located in the village hall, I arrived to find the room absolutely packed, no doubt the result of Ninebarrow's recent Radio 2 Folk Award nomination. MC Bill Hesp was clearly overwhelmed and appreciative of the bumper audience, making frequent reference to it throughout the evening, and noting many new faces who had travelled to attend.
Opening the evening, a bonus floor spot from another Dorset based band, Kadia, who played four songs unplugged from in front of the stage. An up-tempo and polished performance showcasing great harmony singing and dexterous instrumental skills. Songs included perennial favourite Raggle Taggle Gypsy, and Captain Ward and Cricketers Set from their new EP of traditional songs, due for release this coming April. Always a popular band and well received by the attentive audience.
Ninebarrow were on great form, fresh from their Radio 2 Folk Show live session in the distant north in Salford the day before. They were relaxed and very comfortable on stage, taking small hiccups in their stride with good humour and professionalism. You can always expect an excellent show from this duo, but somehow today there seemed to be an extra layer of exuberance to their performance.
Jon joked a couple of times during their set that he suffers from 'instrument acquisition syndrome', and indeed, every time I see them play there seems to be another instrument on stage. The latest is a new harmonium, with 70s styling and double reeds, which sat beside their trusty old blue-cased 'Wheesiana'. Add to that piano, ukulele, mandola, octave mandola, stomp box and a substantial pedal board and there was plenty of scope for instrumental variety. But as always, the key strength of this pair is their beautiful vocal harmonies and their connection to and the inspiration they draw from their home county of Dorset.
They opened with three cheerful and upbeat numbers, including old favourite Birdsong and a new song I'd not heard before with a very pretty melody, derived from a poem by Dorset dialect poet William Barnes. But then the mood turned to more traditional folk themes as the subject matters shifted to death and misery. A gallows theme ran through the rest of the set, touched with elements of superstitious folklore and the supernatural. Standout songs included Blood on the Hillside with its extended piano introduction, which got a cheer from the audience as it was introduced, as their set built to an epic rendition of Prickle Eye Bush, another new one for me, which saw the loop pedal and mandola percussion adding layers of texture. Is this an indication of a new direction for Ninebarrow?
Throughout their set the audience joined in enthusiastically with some great harmonies, no doubt lead by The Teacups, notably during the cheery drinking song Back and Sides, and their cover of Jon's dad Bob Whitley's song Coming Home. And who knew that Jon does a mean Monty Python style old lady impression too, with his between song chat regaling us with tales of past audience members picking them up on points of historical accuracy in their songs!
Co-headlinees The Teacups are a young vocal harmony group who I'd not seen before, formed by four former students of the folk music course at Newcastle University. And what a breath of fresh air they were! They treated us to a really varied set of interesting arrangements of mainly traditional folk songs, showcasing what a full and rich sound just four voices (and the occasional bit of body percussion) can produce. The tempo ranged from a soothing lullabyesque arrangement of Dance to your Daddy to the hugely energetic Rapper Set, delivered to rapturous applause from the audience. Still in fine voice, audience participation was actively encouraged during a song about pirates; much enthusiastic yarr-ing ensued. We were beside the seaside after all.
Particular favourites were Oxford City, which employed an unusual, almost discordant harmony that added an edge to the sinister subject matter, and the shanty Shiny-O with a great groove and some very satisfying bass notes from Alex. Also a song whose title I didn't catch which combined four different street cries of the 18th and 19th centuries, a bit of innuendo and a cheeky grin, each cry lead by one of the members of the group and sung in turn, and then all layered together as the song built. And it was great to hear some diddle-die-do-ing in a contemporary folk song, an as yet untitled protest song written to complain about land subsidies given to the landed gentry to fund their grouse hunting habits. Title suggestions were welcomed.
Their stage chat was lively and entertaining, with the history and stories behind the songs interspersed with banter and teasing between various members. Their two albums have their own dances, and Alex particularly animatedly acted out the words to some of the songs. At one point a brief interlude was taken to pose for the photographers in the audience, in the (perhaps vain) hope that they might prevent unflattering gurning type shots of contorted singing faces appearing online.
The evening was rounded off in a spectacular finale with Ninebarrow and Kadia's Lee joining The Teacups on stage for a lovely rendition of Farewell Shanty. As Alex observed earlier in the evening 'singing harmonies is just awesome'. And indeed so is listening to them being sung so splendidly. In the words of MC Bill Hesp, the 'most fantastic evening we've ever had here...Magic'.
Words:Kitty Chandrilla, Pics:Jo Elkington
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