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Kings of the South Seas - 'Franklin' preview

Venue: Loders Village Hall
Town: Bridport
Date: 05/10/17

If the Coen brothers wrote the soundtrack to the biopic of Lord Franklin…

Edgy, reverby guitar, shuffling drum patterns, brooding organ and the rich baritone of Ben Nicholls' voice evoked an old time, frontiersville vintage movie feel to this preview evening for Kings of the South Seas forthcoming album 'Franklin', due for release in early 2018. It was a show full of atmosphere, discordant guitar harmonics hinted at ice stressing the metal of a ship's hull, upbeat drum patterns and rousing organ tones contrasting with the dark subject matter of the songs, dominated by themes of death, hardship and solitude. The staging was simple, a handful of inspection lights attached to the microphone stands, evoking the spirit of life on board ship. A screen above the stage played short films commissioned to accompany each song, old photos, woodcuts and footage of broken ice and swirling snowstorms setting the scene for the music.

The songs were an eclectic mix, all either traditional or written during the period. Sparse, slow building arrangements, with more varied instrumentation than their previous project about the eighteenth century Pacific whaling trade, including acoustic guitar, banjo and organ alongside the concertina, drums and electric guitar that featured on the earlier project, Ben's voice again perfectly suiting the subject matter. Fans of the previous project will be very pleased with this new offering.

Befitting failed expeditions and a doomed voyage, death and a bleak sense of desolation travelled with us through the evening. Thoughtfully selected to encompass various aspects of Franklin's several land based expeditions and sea voyages to discover the north-west passage, songs cheerily entitled 'Death of a Seagull', 'Dying Brothers' and 'Song of Defeat' were introduced with a wry humour and scholarly detail, a potted history of the song or its provenance. But it wasn't all doom and gloom, the tales of grim misery were interspersed with a gentle waltz, a rousing rendition of 'Alouette' (although who knew those lyrics were so dark!) and the concertina came out for a hymn entitled 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains'. Even as Europeans penetrated the desolate Canadian wilderness, God wasn't far behind. The evening closed with 'The Wild Wild Wanderer', a jaunty little ditty set to an original tune, about the death of Carlo the pet dog who ran with the she wolves until he was seen no more - presumed wolf dinner. An oddly perfect and Coenesque summing up of the atmosphere of the album really.

The evening opened with an engaging talk from polar archaeologist Peter Wilson which generated more questions than answers. Both on Franklin's expeditions, and the nature of polar archaeology in general. And indeed the position and role of women in Victorian society. Lady Franklin herself is a interesting character, unable to relinquish her husband to his evident death perhaps for want of a role in society in her own right; as a result of her efforts more people died searching for Franklin than took part in the actual expeditions. Fascinating and thought provoking stuff.

From Peter we heard in more detail about the hardships endured on the expeditions, of scurvy, starvation and cannibalism, and the perpetual disregard of indigenous peoples by colonialists, of scientific and technological thinking of the time, and of the rivalry between glory seeking adventurers. But also about philanthropy, Franklin seeking to improve the condition of his largely illiterate crew. The newspapers published on board during the long ice locked dark winters to preserve the crew's sanity evidently provided a fertile source of entertainment and inspiration. Articles submitted anonymously commentating on and satirising the minutiae of their daily lives or lampooning fellow crew members.

But, as Peter said, it's the stories that are important. We are unlikely to ever know if the crew actually ate Franklin, his fate and final resting place are very likely to remain shrouded in mystery, and herein lies the frontier romance of the story. And it is this kind of storytelling that is what good folk music itself is about, and the Kings of the South Seas have encapsulated all of that in this project.

Words & photo: Jo Elkington

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