I have had the good fortune of seeing 2015 BBC Folk Singer of the Year Nancy Kerr perform here, in my home town of Southport, in a number of different guises ; namely,as one half of her multi-award winning duo with "other half" James Fagan; as one third of the trio Simpson,Cutting and Kerr and as a member of The Full English "supergroup". However, tonight Nancy was appearing at The Atkinson as leader of her own group, The Sweet Visitor Band.
The SVB is made up of some of the finest young folk musicians in the land: on violin, viola and harmony vocals is Rowan Rheingans from Lady Maisery and The Rheingans Sisters [who have recently released a superb duo album "Already Home"]; on drums, guitars and vocals we have Tom Wright [The Albion Band] ; on double bass and melodeon is Tim Yates from Blackbeard's Tea Party and The Albion Band and, last but not least, on electric and acoustic guitars is local lad [from Chester] Greg Russell [who ,with Ciaran Algar has won both the BBC Young Folk and Horizon Awards]. A line-up brimming with talent ,I am sure you will agree.
The Sweet Visitor Band is ,of course, named after Nancy's wonderful "Sweet Visitor" album which was released in July 2014. All of the songs on this album were penned by Nancy and marked her out as one of the finest songsmiths writing in the folk idiom [or any other idiom ,for that matter] . Naturally, tonight's performance featured many of the superb songs from "Sweet Visitor"as well as some excellent new compositions.
The concert opened ,as does the album with the stirring "Never Ever Lay Them Down" ,a prime slice of folk-rock which took me back to the heyday of bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.
Nancy has an uncanny ability to write songs about contemporary issues in a style that evokes the folk tradition. Here are several ,which Nancy and the band performed this evening.
"Hard Songs" describes the hardships suffered by those who labour in dreadful conditions to grow the food we eat and the clothes we wear.The song is dedicated to the workers in Bangadesh's clothing industry who were killed when the Rhana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka.
Harrowing images of the refugee crisis are constantly with us , and whilst Nancy's song "Where Jacarandas Grow" initially seems to be a traditional-style romantic ballad, it soon turns into a lament for those "daughters,sons,fathers and mothers" who "are cast into the sea".
The traditional song "The Great Silkie" is about a mythical figure who is a man on land but becomes a seal in the water .Nancy has re-written it as beautiful song about gender transformation , "My little fish,slip off your skin".
The concept of the female soldier is a common one in the folk tradition and in her stunning song "Lie Low", Nancy has put a new twist on this by taking a contemporary news story about a female soldier who gave birth whilst serving in the conflict in Afghanistan and creating a haunting ,traditional-sounding ballad which also incorporates a lullabye.
On the face of it ,"Now Is The Time" is a rousing folk anthem [or possibly a secular hymn] but if you dig deeper in the words ,it contains a message about the effects of global warming which will "turn cold days to fine".
The folk tradition is ,of course, replete with songs about the supernatural events [particularly the Child Ballads] and ,again, Nancy has delved into this tradition with the spooky ballad "The Priest's Garden"which follows a theme similar to that of "The Child On The Road".
Nancy was commissioned to write a pair of songs for the BBC Radio Ballad about the 2012 Olympic Games and the result was two fine songs,both of which were performed tonight.
"Apollo On The Docks" imagines the Greek gods descending from Mount Olympus and coming to the East End of London, where Nancy was born ,to "light the poor banks of the Lea".
"The Bunting And The Crown" is a great fiddle-driven ,upbeat, uptempo folk-rocker about the optimism for the future which was generated by the Games , "We might have forged the world anew in gold Olympic fire". Electric Folk meets William Blake, indeed!
Nancy and the band performed both "sides" of their new single , the uplifting ,anthemic "It Was Red" and "Gingerbread" ,about making-do in hard times.The "red" and "ginger" themes reflect the fact that three quarters of the band do ,in fact, have ginger hair , with Tom Wright being the minority!
Nancy's latest collaborative project [with Martyn Joseph, Sam Carter and Maz O'Connor] is "Sweet Liberties",a celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215. From that project,Nancy sang solo , expertly accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, "Written On My Skin" about how women who had been assaulted were able to use the Human Rights Act to gain justice .
Without doubt ,the loudest number of the evening was the "heavy metal sea shanty" "Broadside" from the Elizabethan Session album of 2014 ,on which Greg Russell really let rip with some feedback-laden electric guitar riffs to accompany the powerful twin vocals of Nancy and Rowan.
In summary,this was a stunning performance by Nancy and her superb band . Contemporary folk music just doesn't get any better than this!
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