It's now been 18 years since Ray moved to Sweden, and five since he took the decision to leave the Oyster Band, with whom he made some 18 albums. Returning to St. Edith Hall almost exactly a year to the day since his last appearance here, the audience tonight were treated to an entirely different set.
Some might say that it takes some chutzpah to play a whole new album, the official release of which is still a couple of months down the line, but that's what unfolded tonight as his third solo offering, Between The Golden Age & The Promised Land, was unveiled and performed in its entirety, interspersed with five tracks from Tales Of Love War & Death By Hanging, a single track from Palace Of Tears, and a set-opener comprising a short medley of Swedish folk tunes played on the mandolin.
One of the great strengths of Ray's music is his ability to compose using different styles, often taking traditional tunes, be they Swedish, Scottish or English and then either embedding or overlaying them with his own thoughtful and often contemporary-leaning lyrics. Thus 'Little Flame', a song for his daughters, played tonight with mandolin accompaniment, has an instrumental break based on the traditional tune 'Go And Enlist', whilst the jaunty 'Drunk On Summer', recalling the perceived golden age of youth, complete with a catchy chorus that had those present lustily singing along, incorporates the old English dance number, 'Speed the Plough'.
Switching between mandolin, guitar, cello and piano, together with occasional harmonica, his virtuosity was obvious, and provided for variety throughout the two sets. The cello, sounding especially haunting and melancholic in this venue, was utilised to great effect on 'oldies' 'My Compass Points To North', the paean to explorer Ranulph Fiennes, and 'The Dark Days Are Over', but also on excellent new offering 'Ocean Of Storms', which almost certainly sets a record for the most mentions of features of the Moon in one song. (See YouTube Clip)
Another trait that has made Ray's music so distinctive, has been his ability to take a story, incident or situation, and then, by reworking the narrative and adding memorable melodies, elevate the original to a much higher level. 'The Puritan', from TOLW&DBH, and performed tonight, being a good example. This skill has obviously not waned over the eight years since his first solo release as four new songs exemplifying this characteristic captivated the audience here in Kent. 'The Golden Age', paints a vivid picture of Venice, 'Love & Vengeance' recounts the story of Druze singer Asmahan, and was beautifully delivered with emotive piano accompaniment, as was 'The Promised Land', a thought-provoking song ostensibly concerning the human impulse to seek a better life.
It was, however, the rendition of 'The Unknown Soldier Has A Name', the true tale of Private Fred Broadrick, executed in 1917 for absence without leave, which left the most indelible impression for many present. This may well have been due to the resonance of the song's subject matter with the history of the venue - St Edith Hall being used during WW1 as a hospital for soldiers wounded on the Western Front, but notwithstanding that fact this was a moving and compassionate delivery.
Variety continued to be the watchword, with another opportunity for audience participation, (the challenge was accepted), with the self-explanatory 'Valentine's Day', another self-penned new song. 'Mountainside' the final song of the set, was sequenced between 'Adieu Sweet Spanish Ladies' and the encore 'Wayfaring Stranger', two traditional songs given a lease of re-invigorated life with new arrangements, the latter delivered acoustically, which was a fine touch.
This was a performance of passion and intelligence; stories were eloquently told, messages, where appropriate, were subtly conveyed without the need for hectoring. Ray's warmth shone through, the explanations and background details for each song were much appreciated and certainly enhanced the overall experience.
All of this, together with his undoubted multi-talented musical ability puts him firmly at the forefront of contemporary singer-songwriters.
As an avowed Northern European, Ray's assured, mercurial performance tonight promotes him from Premier to Champions League status.
Support for the evening came from Terry Hiscock, the talented musician probably best know for his work with FATEA favourites, the legendary Hunter Muskett, who called it a day as a group in mid 1974, ('Bradley's Road Show' anyone?), before getting back together again in 2010. (Read FATEA review here -http://www.fatea-records.co.uk/magazine/reviews/HunterMuskett/)
Playing here in a solo capacity, what an accomplished short set it was too, showcasing what a fine guitarist and song-smith he is. Six exquisitely delivered songs, included his 'Silver Coin'¸ (recorded by, amongst others Brigit St. John, Derek Brimstone and Allan Taylor) and a cracking version of 'She Broke My Heart In Three Places'. The highlight, however, may have been 'North Of Clear Lake', his ode to that fateful night on 3rd February, 1959 when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper crashed, killing all three. Catch Terry, in various solo, duo and group guises over the year, you won't be disappointed.
The date of Ray Cooper's appearance at this venue last year as mentioned above? Yes indeed, 3rd February. Synchronicity indeed.
David Pratt - Words, Pictures & Video
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