by Ian Mann
July 19, 2017
Ian Mann enjoys the music of singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Hattie Briggs, plus the accompaniment of cellist Barney Morse-Brown.
Hattie Briggs Duo, Yardbird Arts Club, The Hatch, Eardiston, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, 18/07/2017.
Tonight was my second visit to Yardbird Arts Club, the intimate performance space created by guitarist Remi Harris and his wife and manager Dani in the rural beauty of the Worcestershire countryside.
Last month Remi and his trio performed alongside guest saxophonist/clarinettist John Hallam and my description of the venue can be read in my coverage of that event at
Remi Harris normally performs as a sideman at these monthly events alongside a visiting soloist but tonight he awarded himself a rare evening off as Yardbird Arts Club hosted its first ever folk event with the visit of the young Stroud based singer / songwriter Hattie Briggs, who was accompanied by cellist Barney Morse-Brown.
Still only twenty four Briggs has released two full length albums, 2015’s “Red & Gold” and 2016’s “Young Runaway”. 2017 has seen the release of the EP “Hide” and the launch of the “Twelve Months of Madness” project which sees Briggs issuing a limited edition CD every month, something which has been lapped up by her loyal and steadily expanding fan-base. July’s release will be a set of Beatles covers, others have included Disney songs plus re-workings of some of Briggs’ early, previously unissued original material.
Straddling the boundaries between folk and pop Briggs isn’t a jazz performer as such but she has nevertheless appeared at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and its attendant Fringe. Indeed Briggs and her band were so well received at the 2014 Fringe that they were invited back in 2015 to perform at the main festival’s Fringe Showcase event in the 750 capacity Jazz Arena. I was fortunate enough to be able to cover that event and my review of Briggs’ performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Harris played the 2016 Fringe Showcase and he and Briggs met on the festival circuit which resulted in the singer being invited to The Hatch. Briggs is a hard working musician who has gigged in all sorts of places, her next performance will be on July 22nd at Westonbirt Arboretum in her native Gloucestershire, an afternoon event featuring her songs in conjunction with the words of author and storyteller Philip Douch.
At Cheltenham Briggs had been joined by a full five piece band but in this more intimate setting it was the versatile Morse-Brown who offered suitably sympathetic support. A prolific session musician the cellist has worked with many leading names in the folk world including The Imagined Village, Chris Wood, Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates, Maddy Prior and others. He has also collaborated with pop and rock artists including Birdy and the band Stornoway. Morse-Brown also releases his own material under the name Duotone, a project featuring his singing and songwriting in addition to the electronically enhanced sounds of his cello.
Tonight’s two sets featured Morse-Brown in a strictly supportive role as the duo performed two sets of Briggs’ material with the young singer also accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and electric piano.
The evening commenced with Briggs on guitar for the optimistic “On Your Way”, a song from the “Young Runaway” album. With its upbeat tune and life affirming lyrics (“it’s a song about taking your chances” explained Briggs) this was a good way to open the proceedings. Briggs’ confident guitar playing and Joni Mitchell influenced vocals were augmented by Morse-Brown’s pizzicato cello bass lines. A number of Briggs’ fans had travelled to see her play and some clearly already knew the songs, including the youngest audience member, seven year old Caleb. In a situation with the intimacy of a “living room” gig Briggs was more than happy to enter into dialogue with her audience. Caleb and his mother had heard Briggs on the radio, purchased an album and had been fans ever since. A heart warming story.
Briggs continued on guitar for “Old Eyes”, a song from her début album and one that I remembered from the Cheltenham performance. Dedicated to a departed but much loved pet this was a surprisingly mature and evocative piece of writing that emphasised the beauty and purity of Briggs’ voice.
The first cover of the evening was “Sacred Heart”, a song by the now defunct Americana duo The Civil Wars, with Briggs convincingly delivering the lyric in French.
Briggs moved to the keyboard, on which she adopted an acoustic piano sound, for the “travelling song” “Lift Me Up”. Here for the first time this evening we heard Morse-Brown deploying the bow, the melancholy ring of his playing complementing the comparative sadness of the lyrics.
In general the piano songs were more downbeat than the guitar ones, as exemplified by “Still With Hope I See” featuring more emotive bowing from Morse-Brown allied to a lyric speaking of clinging on to hope in the midst of a relationship breakdown.
Two piano songs from the “Hide” EP followed, the title track performed solo by Briggs and “Just Breathe”, a re-working of an earlier song titled “Disgrace”. In this rural setting the sweetness of Briggs’ voice was augmented by the sound of birdsong – plus the more conventional sound of Morse-Brown’s bowing.
In truth the piano songs were all rather one paced and the emotional content somewhat draining and it came as something of a relief when Briggs moved back to guitar to conclude the first set with the uplifting “Never Been In Love Before”, also sourced from the “Hide” EP but a song with a more positive and affirming message.
Set two began with another guitar tune, “Tilly’s Song”, a delightfully personal dedication from Briggs to one of her closest friends.
The versatile Briggs accepts songwriting “commissions” which often involve setting existing poems to music. One such was “Early Girl”, commissioned by the parent of a prematurely born baby. An unusual subject for a song but one with a positive outlook with its theme of survival against the odds. Musically the song featured a combination of acoustic guitar and bowed cello, a configuration not deployed at all in the first set.
Briggs moved to piano for “Share Your Heart” , a song from her first album and one of the first that she felt truly proud of – and rightly so. There’s a timeless quality about the strong melody and perceptive lyrics with Briggs’ expressive vocals here complemented by the rich sounds of bowed cello.
From the same album Briggs described the anthemic “All About Love” as “my most mushy romantic song”. Little wonder then that two of her fans asked her to perform it as a “first dance” song at their wedding.
The final piano song was “Castle On The Sand” from the “Young Runaway” album with its allegorical lyrics and rich, dark bowed cello accompaniment.
Briggs picked up her guitar again for a delightful version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” in an arrangement inspired by the recording by Eva Cassidy. Briggs has also performed a Cassidy inspired version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” and her first album also featured the playing of Eva’s brother, violinist Dan Cassidy. The Cassidy connection is strong at The Hatch - Worcestershire based vocalist Deborah Rose who has played at the venue on numerous occasions and once collated the programme there has also worked with Dan Cassidy and has performed an Eva inspired version of “Autumn Leaves”. I’m used to hearing jazz musicians improvising on the chord changes of the song and for me it’s rather outstayed its welcome in this context. It takes performances like this from Cassidy, Briggs and Rose to bring out the real beauty of the song, and particularly the lyrics.
The performance concluded with another guitar tune, this one a songwriting commission titled “Time” and based upon a poem written by Valerie Bloom. Briggs wrote additional verses to supplement Bloom’s words and the result is a song with a country blues feel musing on the nature and passage of time. It’s a very direct and affecting song and one that looks set to enjoy a life of its own.
For an encore Briggs encouraged the audience to sing along with the choruses of a haunting arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. This also found room for a final arco solo from the excellent Morse-Brown, whose Duotone project also looks to be well worthy of investigation.
Briggs and Morse-Brown were very well received by the Hatch audience and the whole event had a pleasingly relaxed vibe about it. In August Yardbird Arts returns to more familiar jazz territory with the visit of the celebrated guitarist John Etheridge on the 23rd. For details please visit http://www.yardbirdarts.com
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