A UK tour by Peggy Seeger is always an event – beforehand eagerly anticipated, then on the day a wonderful experience to be cherished and its memory savoured at length.
This latest tour finds Peggy at the grand age of 81 having survived a series of medical scares; and by goodness, it’s a cause for celebration. Here at Otley (a total sell-out gig), Peggy’s gloriously warm, involving and thoroughly companionable personality permeated the auditorium, from the moment where, pre-show, she mingled with the audience chatting away like an old friend (which is of course exactly what she is to so many folks!), before standing in the aisle by the stalls to watch her touring companion Sam Gleaves.
Even if you’re a hard-core Americana enthusiast, you could be forgiven for not having hitherto experienced Sam’s music, as for some strange reason his name hasn’t gotten around much yet – but all that’s about to change, I suspect. Right from the moment he comes onstage, you know you’re in the presence of a long tall talent (he must be nearly 6’ 9”!). A genuine, gentle fellow with the gift of an immediate and ready rapport with his audience. But not only that – as a performer, he’s the real deal alright – a really personable chap, a very competent, nay outstanding instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, fiddle) with an entirely authentic singing voice and a true feel for original songwriting in the tradition of contemporary old-time/country (I’m tempted to liken Sam to a younger version of Tim O’Brien… ). And he complements Peggy so very well too…
I can only thoroughly recommend Sam to any music lover. His stage presence and extraordinary natural showmanship completely belies his tender years, and his debut CD would be considered an immensely accomplished product by any standards. It may be indicative that in concert at Otley, less than half of its selections were performed – take it from me, it contains a large number of top-quality original songs, and while he enjoys stunning support on the CD sessions from renowned guest musicians his own musical identity comes over good and strong. I’ll be reviewing the CD for this site shortly… meanwhile I must urge you, do go see Sam live if you get the chance, and you’ll be hooked for sure.
Sam opened the show with a short but revealing set comprising seven contrasted items that showcased his multifarious talents admirably. An a cappella traditional opener, then a playful song about biscuits (not what you think!), before risking one of his own compositions – the title song from his CD Ain’t We Brothers. There followed a song from a folk opera, a gospel blessing, a riotous pair of fiddle tunes (one by Sam, the other from Kentucky fiddler Lee Sexton) and finally a fast-paced rendition of the traditional My Singing Bird (for which Sam’s written two extra verses). Sam was then joined by Peggy for a delicious fun duet on Mountaineer’s Courtship (and the obligatory exchange of banjo jokes!), before leaving the stage to Peggy for the remainder of the first half of the evening. The chemistry between the two artists was palpable, and they enjoyed a clear and hearty rapport, as demonstrated further on their fiddle-and-banjo-accompanied take on The Blind Fiddler which opened the second half of the evening, followed by a compelling account of The Cuckoo, on which Sam played a fretless gourd banjo. Only Peggy could get away with following this with a poem and song dedicated to her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger…
But what of Peggy’s own solo sets? Well, these proved a typical Peggy mixture of heartfelt-poignant (Once Again, Autumn Wedding), feisty songs of activism (If You Want A Better Life), justified-protest (Housewife’s Alphabet), home-truths (Get Up And Go), wickedly wordy (Enough Is Enough) or brilliantly economic (Logic); the affectionate Tree Of Love (written for her partner Irene Pyper-Scott) and Lullabies For Strangers (jointly penned with Kate St. John) were definite evening highlights, as was the intense Missing (the harrowing story of Murielita Dockendorff who had been “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime in 1974). The whole set was of course liberally and tellingly sprinkled with loving camaraderie, witty banter, earnest introductions, anecdotes, readings of newspaper clippings (and of course, more banjo jokes!). Little time was wasted by Peggy in re-tuning (in spite of her pithy comment “if it’s a Martin you don’t tune it, you calibrate it!”), as she moved between guitar, autoharp, banjo, concertina and piano during the course of the evening. And her voice was in great condition, with very little of her justly famed range showing any cracks at all (well, virtually imperceptible as far as I’m concerned, and certainly not to spoil the performance or the magic of the occasion).
At every turn we were gently but firmly reminded of Peggy’s unshakeable place within, and her excellent long-standing grasp of – and interpretive flair for – folk tradition (a classic ballad normally makes its way into the set – in this case it was The Half Hitch). And of her unquestioned status as a major songwriter. Time and again, calling out of her vast repertoire an exceptional song that we’d somehow (albeit only momentarily) forgotten she had written, or else temporarily (and entirely excusably!) “corpsing” on her own words but recovering with total aplomb. And I’d guarantee that even those of us familiar with Peggy’s exhaustive corpus of songs will have learnt something new during this concert. For she’s a born communicator and educator, and a genuinely consummate artist (singer, songmaker, musician) of unparalleled integrity, blessed with excellent taste and judgement. A very special person…
I came away from the auditorium holding back tears from the emotional impact of Peggy’s performance, and with a comforting, warm glow inside, a feeling of serious privilege at being in her company once again. I treasure every moment. Love will linger on…
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