by Ian Mann
March 01, 2009
An enjoyable, sometimes thought provoking evening of words and music from the "Bard of Barnsley"
Ian McMillan poet, raconteur and all round good egg has been plying his trade in Britain’s folk clubs for years. These days he has become something of a national institution thanks in part to his work on BBC Radio 3 & 4, hosting “The Verb” on the former and numerous quirky documentaries on the latter. Then there’s his role as official poet to Barnsley F.C., the advertising voice of Persil Blue Gel and sundry other appointments.
Sometimes dubbed “The Bard Of Barnsley” McMillan is a Northerner through and through and proud of it. His poems celebrate Britain’s industrial heritage and rue it’s more recent decline as he casts an ironic eye on the absurdities of the present. Sometimes unashamedly sentimental McMillan
champions the working man and evokes a warm nostalgia for a Britain not quite as she was, but how she should have been.
Now these poems have been turned into songs through McMillan’s collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and musical director of the self styled McMillan Orchestra, the highly talented Luke Carver Goss.
Goss leads a world class group of musicians in the McMillan Orchestra. All are versatile players who at various times have been labelled under the folk, jazz or world banners and each is a band leader in their own right. With Goss mainly concentrating on accordion the line up is completed by Dylan Fowler (guitar, mandocello), Oli Wilson-Dickson (violin), Nathan Riki Thomson (double bass) and a new name to me Clare Salaman on hurdy gurdy, nyckelharpa and violin. Goss and Wilson-Dickson are part of the Tea Hodzic Trio, the subject of a recent review on this site. Thomson’s new solo album “Under Ubi’s Tree” has also been reviewed here on The Jazzmann.
The McMillan Orchestra’s live shows are a type of musical review mixing songs and poems, words and music, anecdotes and jokes. The avuncular McMillan, dressed in a loud floral shirt makes an unconventional but compelling front man. He communicates in a broad Barnsley accent, even his semi spoken singing is delivered in fluent Yorkshire. Musical comedy is a hard trick to pull off but Goss’ arrangements and the razor sharp playing of the musicians makes it sound easy. The Orchestra are obviously well drilled but are also capable of great spontaneity, a much needed quality when backing the quixotic McMillan.
From the Orchestra’s album “Sharp Stories” came the opening number “Song Of The Quarryman” celebrating both the workforce and the unexpected beauty of a Derbyshire quarry. McMillan’s words and Goss’ music combined to paint a vivid picture of a unique landscape forged from the combined forces of nature and industry. The music featured Goss and Wilson-Dickson on backing vocals and the distinctive sound of Salaman’s hurdy gurdy.
The following “Drinks Machines” was more throwaway, McMillan’s light-hearted look at vending machines and his dysfunctional relationship with them. Salaman appeared here on the multi stringed nyckelharpa or Swedish keyed fiddle, a more distinctive beast than even the hurdy gurdy. Goss added flugelhorn, hinting at the sound of a Northern brass band.
“Messages From A Russian Heatwave” was the first of McMillan’s touring songs, a recollection of a particularly gruelling trip to Russia for a Radio Four documentary. Wilson- Dickson took the instrumental honours here with the first of a number of dazzling violin solos.
The surreal “The Shanty Attacker” was a nod to McMillan’s folk club days and the fact that this particular form of folk song could go on for hours. Gently sending up the folk scene the premise was that the “Shanty Attacker” literally bored his victims to death.
Behind the jokes and surreal daftness there is a real tenderness in McMillan’s work as exemplified in the following “Story Of Dot”, the bizarre but true tale of an old woman in a residential home. This was combined with fiddler Aidan O’Rourke’s tune “Souter Creek”, here another outing for Wilson-Dickson.
More tenderness in “Border Ballad” as McMillan attempts to explain to his young grandson why all the planes at Leeds Bradford Airport have been grounded after a terrorist alert. With it’s evocative chorus the song becomes a hymn of hope for the future.
Back to tales of the road as McMillan intones of his worst ever gig (in Glossop, since you ask) accompanied only by the resonances of Thomson’s low register bass.
McMillan touches on political issues from a leftist perspective but he prefers to gently prod his targets rather than beat them with a big stick in the manner of more politicised poets such as Attila The Stockbroker. “Curtain Down”, originally written for Radio Four’s Today programme, is a lament about the cutting of funding to the Arts and the negative effects it has on small communities. He could have had Herefordshire in mind, he had already displayed his local knowledge with a number of topical local references. McMillan clearly does his homework before a performance. The subject matter of “Curtain Down” is, I suspect, close to the hearts of the band as a whole. Many of these musicians have played successful concerts to packed houses in communities much smaller than Hereford.
“Curtain Down” proved to be an appropriate title as the orchestra took a break. During the interval it became clear that McMillan’s on-stage persona is no act. He cheerfully mingled with the audience in the bar speaking in exactly the same bluff, hearty Yorkshire way as he had done throughout the performance. McMillan is one of life’s characters,full stop.
After McMillan had shooed the audience back into the auditorium after their half time pint he left his musicians in the spotlight for the opening instrumental “Danza Vilis” which gave Salaman (hurdy gurdy), Goss (accordion) and Wilson- Dickson the chance to show off their skills.
McMillan’s return saw him asking the audience for subject matter for a song. Somehow he shoehorned duck billed platypuses (or is it platypi?), Geiger counters and pedicabs into some form of coherent narrative accompanied by the band who responded to the various twists and turns with acumen. It’s not a million miles away from what Soweto Kinch does-the phrase “rap with fiddles” came to mind. Very impressive, totally daft and great fun.
“Stanidge Edge”, an affectionate tribute to McMillan’s late father changed the mood completely, sometimes tugging at the heartstrings a bit too much for comfort.
Back into the political sphere with “R.I.P. Shepcote Lane Rolling Mills” which owes it’s origins to the book “Shining Out” which McMillan produced in collaboration with the photographer Ian Beesley. The “song” here is a list of the nicknames of people who once worked at the now closed steel mill. Recited poignantly by McMillan with suitably sympathetic musical accompaniment the names sound like a surreal list of names on a war memorial. And a memorial is what this song is, to Britain’s industrial heritage and the victims of it’s systematic dismantling over the last three decades.
These are the names of real people, the irreverent camaraderie they shared sacrificed on the altar of management speak. Like McMillan’s other political work this was a whisper rather than a shout but the image was starkly powerful for all that, and a true indictment of the values that have led this once great country to it’s present impasse.
McMillan is not the kind of guy to be overly serious for long and followed this with “It’s Good Night From Him”, a tribute to the comic genius and verbal dexterity of the late, great Ronnie Barker. Encouraged by a lilting chorus this also expressed a warm nostalgia for the shared family TV viewing of the seventies. There was certainly a grain of truth here, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that McMillan was looking back on a sometimes harsh decade with rose tinted spectacles.
Next came a swipe at modern bugbears such as the state of the railways and ipods in a sharp, lively witty little song principally lampooning the latter. We all laughed and nodded our heads in recognition.
“Forgotten Moments Of History” saw the return of McMillan’s surrealistic streak listing the mundane moments just before or after the famous ones. Fowler’s work on guitar also impressed here.
Finally came “Train Spotter”, an affectionate lampoon on the species and delivered by the Orchestra
in joyous hoe down style featuring the duelling fiddles of Wilson-Dickson and Salaman.
McMillan’s show is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The verbal wit and brilliant musicianship makes it a kind of Flanders and Swann as played by folk musicians, and with the subject matter firmly uprooted from London to Yorkshire. I love Flanders and Swann so that’s quite a compliment.
Having said that there’s no getting away from the fact that the McMillan Orchestra is essentially a novelty act, fun as it is. It’s not the sort of show you’d wish to see more than once, certainly not on the same tour and I’m not sure how well the album would stand up to repeated home listening. Mind you I still listen to F&S from time to time so you never know.
As for McMillan’s superb supporting cast I’ve heard these musicians in more “serious” projects and overall prefer them in this context. But McMillan’s sense of fun is contagious, and it’s worth seeing him at least once.blog comments powered by Disqus