Collaborations and special projects are not unknown within the world of folk music but they're normally commissioned and involve several of the main figures in the genre. Jess Distill (Said The Maiden) took a different approach. Inspired by Songs For The Voicless she assembled some of the best and brightest emerging English folk musicians and writers to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death in 2016. Michael Tinker, who was heavily involved in Songs For The Voicless, had advised Jess that it would take two years before the project could start working seriously, so she gave herself six months and with just some sponsorship from the Looe Folk Festival set about building her team. That's the confidence of youth and the benefit of not knowing what isn't possible.
Of the ten members of The Company six are Hertfordshire based, including Jess's fellow Maidens Kathy Pilkington and Hannah Eliazbeth along with outstanding singer-songwiters Kelly Oliver, Minnie Birch and Daria Kulesh. The mix was completed with Kim Lowings, Lukas Drinkwater, Chris Cleverly and Sam Kelly coming on board. It's a stellar line-up of new talent, rightly called the youngest supergroup in history, who have that confidence to try different things and push the boundaries, whilst also encouraging each other to grow in the process.
The 23rd and 24th of March 2018, close enough to Shakespeare's birth and death days, finally saw the official launch of the album with two shows at The Maltings Art Theatre in St Albans and I was fortunate to be able to attend both, quickly running out of superlatives as the evenings progressed. Whilst the indivuals in the group have an increasing portfoilio of work, The Company of Players itself has one album which could have made for a sparse evening if it were just played from start to finish. This is where that ability to break the rules with confidence comes in. The Maltings Arts Theatre is also home to the OVO Theatre Company, who ran a four month long festival of the bard's works in 2016, so actors from there introduced the evening and songs with scenes from Shakespeare's writings that related to the music we were about to hear. I waited to see if it would work. After all there's a tradition in folk music that the song is normally spoken about - sometimes at length - before it's played so I wondered if this would detract from the music or perhaps break the evening up. It didn't, in fact it added to both the songs and the event. We didn't find out who had written the song, but the album sleeve notes can provide that information. Instead we got a song that had a context and in several cases the actors would be speaking the words contained in the lyrics. That gave a far better indication of the inspiration behind it and the scenes were well chosen, so we generally knew what was coming next even without the benefit of the detailed running order that had been made available. The show became a piece of theatre in its own right.
Daria Kulesh's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" was a perfect illustration of this. The song is inspired by a Russian story from Nikolai Lescov who in turn drew his inspiration from Macbeth, particularly with women plotting death due to jealousy or revenge, and twice during the song the actors returned with parts from the original play. It made for an incredibly powerful piece of theatre and expanded the boundaries of a work I've seen Daria perform many times before.
I've heard several of the songs by the various writers, normally in their solo sets, but this was the other advantage of the collaboration; there was now a backing band of infinite variety. With nine performers (Sam Kelly unfortunately couldn't make either night because of other commitments), some of whom are multi-instrumentalists, groupings could form and reform with the artists moving around the stage. It made for fresh and dynamic settings.
Kelly Oliver's "You Must Needs Be Strangers" isn't actually from a play written by Shakespeare, but one revised by him and others and after 400 years its pleas for tolerance still echoes. As a solo song it's incredibly beautiful but as part of The Company it receives a full orchestration. Kelly and Chris Cleveley took the vocal and guitar parts, with backing from Kim Lowings on piano, Lukas Drinkwater on bass and Hannah Elizabeth on fiddle to become one of the most moving parts of the night. That we had heard the words as narrative beforehand, acted by David Widdowson, added to their power.
The actors were superb. Along with David, Ed White and Alison Wright gave us all the elements we would expect; tragedy, love, comedy. The 1-minute Hamlet was a joyous romp and you didn't need to know the play to find it funny, although that helped. Ed and Alison beautifully represented both the coy Benedick and Beatrice, who had fooled nobody, and the melancholic Laertes and Gertrude.
Shakespeare's works have got so many sides to them, and are so open to interpretation that even a character we all think we know can be shown in a different light. Puck from A Midsummer's Night Dream is seen of as a bit of a rogue, a bit of a lad. Minnie Birch's take on him in "Up And Down" takes a different view. Meddling in people's lives, especially their love lives, may be fun for the perpetrator but can lead to all sorts of problems for the recipients. It's a song that suits Minnie's voice so well, and it's the simplicity of the arrangement that makes it so good, so heartbreaking. That transferred to a larger ensemble with the original concept was retained; multiple guitars and voices but simple harmonies and then Kathy Pilkington's clarinet to add some depth to the sound. Truely we felt for poor Titania, who is made a fool by love.
Shakespeare wasn't all doom and gloom, nor were the nights. The first half closed with a rip-roaring alternative to Hamlet, bringing in some Icelandic influences, where he wins the day. With lyrics by Jess and music by Kim "Method In The Madness" is a full-blown piece of bluegrass, complete with banjos and Kathy on spoons. Not the Bard as taught in school, or beloved by Larry and Johnny perhaps, but if it had been taught this way more people might be going to theatres. This ensemble piece got everyone clapping along and enjoying themselves but it also demonstrated the difference between the two nights. The advantage of seeing them back-to-back was the chance to compare and contract. The first show had that edge of adrenaline and a frisson to it, the second an exhuberance that it did work and it was terrific. The Saturday evening version of this song included a totally spontaneous hoedown which had the audience cheering for more.
Every piece, every performer, made a equal contribution to this launch and I could list every song, every performance, as being worthy of special mention. The ones chosen were first amongst equals becuase the beauty of this project is everyone brought something along, so it wasn't a case of what to put in but what to leave out. We saw, and the album represents, the very best of the best. Using the Maltings Arts Theatre and the OVO Theatre Company was inspired. As a group OVO let imagination provide the scenes on stripped back stages and so it was on these nights. The stage setting was simple; books, skulls, crowns and fairy lights fronted microphones which could pick up ambient sound so the performers were clearly visible to the audience and could move freely. At this point I also have to mention the sound and lighting, led by Michael Bird, who did a terrific job. His description of what he had to do made it sound very simple, which means it certainly wasn't, but every voice and instrument was clear and distinct.
I've seen many of these projects in the past but Shakespeare Songs has now set the benchmark for those in the future. It had a joy to it and showed what can be done with the right people led by the right person. The unfortunate aspect of a project like this is that it tends to be ephemeral and it's probably unlikey that this group, with their individual careers and demands on their time, will ever be able to assemble again. However, the album remains and Jess Distill had not only the vision but the dedication and drive to see it through and show that it can be done and she deserves all the praise and credit she'll undoubtedly get for this work. Yes, The Company of Players are the youngest supergroup in history, but there are even younger performers coming along behind them who can draw inspiration from this project and that will be it's real legacy.
The album is now available to buy, and you should buy it because it's full of terrific music written and performed by exceptional talents. There are ten tracks but we few, we happy few, who had the chance to see it live were given a rare treat for the encore which was demanded on both nights. "Fortune Forbid" didn't make the album. This Chris Cleverly song take the amibguity of gender that existed, of course, in Shakespeare's time and continues on to this day. Shakespeare's work still has lessons to teach us and we are fortunate in having people around who can pass on that message. I'd only ever seen one standing ovation at a folk concert, many years ago. On Saturday I saw my second and it was richly deserved. Ovations are rare, rightly so, as they should be reserved only for the exceptional. The Company of Players, OVO Theatre Group and The Maltings Arts Theatre can take their bow.
That is not the end of music in St Albans or the venue. The theatre is home to Folk At The Maltings, run by St Albans Folk Music, who put on regular events throughout the year. They also organise the St Albans Folk Festival in June, a mainly free event bring music to the pubs and street of the City. As part of the festival they organise a new roots competition and many of the performers we saw on these two nights have been invoved in those in the past. The Company of Players showed that past and present can combine to show a way forward to the future and it's gratifying that there are others around doing the same thing.
Words and photos: Tony Birch - title pic Neil King
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