Underground Venues - 9th July (further shows 10th & 16th July)
This is a partisan political show. It comes from somewhere on the libertarian left of the political spectrum. I'd place myself thereabouts (voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership election). If you cheerfully voted Tory in May this may not be the show for you.
Pop and folk songs may not be the best media for expressing complex or difficult ideas: they work better at a more instinctive and emotional level. In 2084 there are references to the 'rebel songs' which are no longer part of people's lives. The premise of 2084 is complex: what would society be like after 80 years of a war against terror where social and political opposition was not tolerated and the grip of the state was total?
In some ways the world depicted in 2084 does not seem all that distant - the key problems identified are familiar to us today. Rapacious banking systems; global warming; limitations on personal freedoms; hostility towards strangers and foreign cultures. As Orwell supposes a fundamentally corrupt and failing social and economic system can survive only through repressive practices.
This is something of the context of this new piece. It is written and performed by Steve Roberts (piano) and Matt Hill (guitar). Images are projected onto a screen behind them (mostly an image of a naked light bulb) and the song cycle is broken by a pre-recorded narrative of a couple who have a copy of 1984 and who reflect on how life has changed since publication of the book.
Steve and Matt perform well - though there is no scope for direct communication with the audience; the 60 minute performance is unbroken. I got the feeling that they might have been glad of the opportunity to talk to us about the songs and how they came about. The songs were all accessible and there were a number of striking lines and images that raised them out of the ordinary.
The only cover was Paul Simon's Sound of Silence which was something of an epilogue. This was a brave choice - setting your own songs alongside one by an undisputed master of the genre. The fact that Matt and Steve got away with it says something for the strength of their own material.
I should have liked to have felt more challenged by 2084 than I was - for too much of it I felt that I was simply agreeing with it - and I was ready for some music that was more difficult. On the other hand I admired the intent, and the willingness to develop the project fully.
United Reformed Church and later at St Mary's Church 25th July
The 30-strong Ordsall Acappella Singers from Salford have become an established part of the Buxton Festival Fringe - mainly for their singing but also for their exciting range of home made cake (lemon, almond and polenta for me please). They are already planning to return in 2016 and I can only encourage you to put it in your diary when dates are announced.
Community based choirs have difficult choices to make. On the one hand they want to be inclusive, giving everyone the chance to sing, on the other they want to deliver performances that are as good as they can possibly be. The Ordsall Acappella Singers seem to have got the balance just right. Their musical director Jeff Borradaile seems to be the sort of positive and enthusiastic man you would want to lead you - instilling confidence, enthusiasm and helping you to relax and sing as well as you can do.
They have given more than 20 concerts in the last year and meet weekly to rehearse. Their repertoire draws mostly on popular song and they show good taste in their choices: I Got Rhythm; Smile; Blue Skies; Can't Help Falling In Love. Given the fact that they were singing in a church it was appropriate that they included some pieces that connected to the Christian faith - Deep River, Kumbaya and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho being the day's selection.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable morning and the word is that the afternoon event at St Mary's Church went even better.
Underground Venues 20th July (further shows on 23-25 July)
This was a friendly, enjoyable and informative show and if music in the folk tradition appeals you I'd happily recommend it.
Raintown Seers have strong Derbyshire and Greater Manchester connections and many of their original songs - written by Neil Fisher - are rooted in local events and places. They began, however, with a song by Gillian Wells. Witchita says something about the American Dream and how it doesn't work out as people necessarily hope. The show is called Acoustic Connections and the band explained the links between songs where they weren't necessarily apparent.
Witchita was home to one of two factories where the B29 Superfortress was built. As many will know there are several plane crash wrecks still on the Derbyshire moors. One, near Bleaklow, is of a B29 which crashed in 1948. The plane - and the song - was called Overexposed.
Tens of thousands of British women married American forces who were stationed at bases during the Second World War. Many of these came from Derbyshire marrying husbands based at Burtonwood, near Warrington. Neil Fisher has written a song about these GI brides called Here Come The Brides.
This was followed by another of Neil's songs. Mermaid's Pool can be found up on the moor towards Kinder Scout. Legend has it that it is joined to the Atlantic - there is the connection - and that men were enticed by siren-like mermaids, never to be seen again. Neil had incorporated words from an old poem for his song.
While on the subject of Kinder Scout it was, perhaps, inevitable and necessary that we had a song celebrating the Kinder Trespass and its organisers. Benny Rothman was the song and it was played on two mandolins underpinned by a shruti box. During the war Benny Rothman worked on the Lancaster bomber - the British equivalent to the B29. This took us back to Witchita and to Jim Webb's classic song Witchita Lineman.
Apparently Webb met the schoolgirl Kirsty McColl in Paris and she told him that her father had written a famous song. But you don't really need any excuse to sing a song so beautiful and so perfect as The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. This, and another Ewan McColl song The Bonny Ship were sung by Lisa Lovatt.
We finished with another song set in Derbyshire and written by Neil Fisher. Peter's Stone is a well-known landmark by the road not far from Litton village. It was also a gibbet stone. A young man called Anthony Lingard was - back in the day - charged with theft. He was tried, convicted and hanged at Peter's Stone in double quick time.
Raintown Seers are more jolly and fun than this narrative may lead you to suppose. They have an easy going manner about them. They sing and play well and they choose good songs. My only suggestion to them is that they try a bit harder to sell their CD!
After a short informative introduction from the Musical Director, arranger and composer, who clearly appreciates his beer as much as his music, the 11 strong choral group began the concert with an arrangement of "Scarborough Fair", for solo baritone and choir with piano accompaniment, which was a pure delight, apart from the piano which sadly was a little too pronounced. To my shame I have never heard this group before, but I shall make sure I go again because they are very special.
The diction, intonation and ensemble is impeccable, and their dynamic range is magical - I have seldom heard quiet singing quite like it - barely audible but with an intensity of line and sound that is truly wonderful. They have the ability to work the acoustics of St John's like no other group I know, and their obvious enjoyment of everything they perform is palpable and mesmeric.
Frazer Wilson's arrangements are often out of this world, but yet the harmonies have a logic to them that I imagine makes them good to sing, though not always easy, and splendid to listen to. Frazer's ability to not use a perfect cadence at the end of a piece is often mystical and always just right, as is his easy light touch when talking to the audience.
We had a range of styles from 'in your face' "Oliver Cromwell", through "Vidi Aquam", Greensleeves, and an own composition "Invocation". This latter was amazing and again used the acoustics of the building to great effect. The Dives & Lazarus melody "I heard the voice" was a gem. The straight production (almost), of the Butterworth setting of Houseman's "Is my team ploughing?" made me realise more than normally what a very clever setting this is - poignant and evocative.
Placing the singers in different parts of the church, including the balcony, was truly inspired, and the mix of such accomplished singers sent shivers down my spine more than once - super! I'm sure Parry would not have recognized Frazer's harmonies for "Jerusalem" but he couldn't really object too much, after all it did give the melody new life and gave us a chance to realise what a really splendid tune it is.
I can't pick out any songs as being my favourites of the evening, because I adored them all, but the new life that was breathed into "Greensleeves", Crimond, and "Sally Gardens" made the whole performance even more memorable. They are back at Christmas - don't miss them.
Despite its roots in American rural poverty, Bluegrass music is clearly designed to put a smile on your face; grinning and foot-tapping were much in evidence as Aprille & the Shower strutted their stuff in the main bar of the Railway Hotel. This is great music for pubs; bright, engaging and undemanding, but with hidden depths. Unsurprisingly, they had enquiries regarding availability for alternative engagements during the breaks.
Aprille & the Shower have a passion for the music that shines through in their performance, and were keen to share their knowledge of the origins of particular songs with the audience. Regrettably, much of their informative announcing was lost in the increasingly raucous atmosphere that accompanied the impending carnival procession.
The band play what is described as ‘traditional’ bluegrass, which means they eschew the use of electric instruments. The eponymous Aprille is not the lead singer; instead she plays the stand up double bass, which together with the self-effacing acoustic rhythm guitar of Tim Baker provides a rock steady foundation for the rest of the band. Steve Read plays the mandolin in a forceful manner, with most of the more melodic moments going to John Leary on the banjo. The band usually plays with a fiddle, but due to illness we instead had stand-in steel dobro from Ian Wooley. It is a tribute to Ian that you would not have guessed that he was a temp – many of his musical inserts were truly delightful, including an excellent guest lead vocal on ‘Carolina Star’.
The lead vocals were generally shared by Read and Leary. I initially thought that one specialized in baritone parts and the other tenor, but as the gig progressed they swapped this around. The two voices blended very well in harmony. On occasion, the rest of the band would join in for a 3-part harmony. Initially the 3-parters were a bit shaky, but this got better as the voices warmed up.
The band told me they perform on a regular basis in Bollington and Castleton, so next time you’re passing through these locations you could do a whole lot worse than checking them out; just be prepared to tap your feet and have a smile on your face.