by Ian Mann
October 13, 2011
Ian Mann on "An Evening of Divine Music at Worcester Cathedral".
Judy Collins plus Deborah Hodgson and Lisbee Stainton, Worcester Cathedral, 11/10/2011.
Billed as “An Evening of Divine Music at Worcester Cathedral” this event was organised by local singer and promoter Deborah Hodgson, a long time admirer of the venerable American folk singer Judy Collins. The two women initially met when Hodgson opened for Collins at the 2009 Isle Of Wight Festival (on a bill that also included Neil Young and the Stereophonics) and Collins added the backing of her Wildflower Record label to tonight’s event. This evening’s line up was completed by rising star Lisbee Stainton from Herefordshire, a singer songwriter with a growing reputation and a burgeoning following. The Cathedral itself made for an interesting and intimate listening experience, the splendid acoustics and magnificent architecture adding greatly to the atmosphere.
Deborah Hodgson herself opened the evening with a selection of self penned songs plus the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”. I’ve always been impressed with the quality and purity of Hodgson’s voice having seen her perform previously at local venues such as The Hatch (as part of a double bill with New York singer songwriter Kenny White, a show reviewed elsewhere on this site) and The Floor at St. Michael’s Village Hall near Tenbury Wells (opposite Boo Hewerdine). The Cathedral represented the largest space and audience that I’ve seen Hodgson perform to but she had no difficulties in rising to the occasion with her singing as cool and assured as ever.
Armed with just her acoustic guitar Hodgson calmly walked on to give a brief but immaculate rendition of her song ” Beautiful Sky”. She then set down her instrument and summoned her accompanists, pianist Martin Riley and cellist Catherine Oldham Harper to the stage. Both have worked regularly with Hodgson and know her material well and the singer and instrumentalists combined sublimely for the rest of the set. This included the lovely “Taigh Allain” (Scots Gaelic for “Beautiful House”), co-written with Riley and here dedicated to the Cathedral itself.
Besides Collins another significant influence on Hodgson is the late Eva Cassidy. “Springtime” was a setting of one of Cassidy’s poems to music by local composer Ian King. The song, a paean to nature and the power of human love, will appear on Hodgson’s forthcoming album which will feature contributions from Dan Cassidy, Eva’s fiddle playing brother. The album will be keenly anticipated, Hodgson’s first full length recording following a series of EP’s.
One of those EP’s, “Love Will Find A Way”, features “Truth Of The Matter”, a song Hodgson performed at the Isle Of Wight. With Hodgson back on guitar and with Oldham Harper plucking her cello like a bass this was a spirited piece with confessional lyrics.
Another joint composition with Riley “Song Be My Soul” drew on Hodgson’s Welsh roots and love of poetry with a chorus based on “Calon Lan” and with lyrics that borrowed from the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day” went even further directly quoting William Shakespeare in another Hodgson/Riley adaptation.
Although Hodgson’s is essentially a folk voice the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” is a long standing favourite item in her repertoire. It’s an effective arrangement with Oldham Harper’s sombre cello perfectly complementing the melancholic sentiments of the lyrics.
This was an excellent start to the evening with Hodgson’s strikingly pure voice superbly supported by Riley’s sublime pianistic touch on the venue’s splendid grand piano and Oldham Harper’s technically brilliant, always apposite cello playing. Hodgson had set the bar high, she really ought to be better known nationally. Perhaps the forthcoming album will change all that.
A local artist who seems to be going places is Herefordian singer/guitarist/songwriter Lisbee Stainton. Still only twenty three Stainton is a graduate of the Popular Music course at Goldsmith’s College in London and is now based in the capital. She has already released two albums, “Firefly” (2006) and “Girl On An Unmade Bed” (2010). The latter has enjoyed considerable success with Stainton enjoying the patronage of Tom Robinson and being invited to support Joan Armatrading on the latter’s 2010 UK and European tour. Stainton’s third album, simply entitled “Go” will be released on October 17th 2011 and I’ll be taking a closer look at this in due course. First impressions are that it’s a strong selection of songs delivered in a pleasingly stripped back format with Stainton herself handling most of the instrumental parts alongside her regular rhythm section of bassist Pete Randall and drummer Andy Chapman. The emphasis is on the songs, the singing and the playing rather than the grand production which is refreshing, having said that the sound is crisp and clear throughout. If mainstream success comes knocking for Lisbee Stainton it’ll be on her own terms and as tonight’s show proved the girl can play.
What Stainton plays is a distinctive eight string guitar designed for her by Joe White of Ash Vale, Surrey. Tonight in a pared down instrumental configuration she was accompanied by young guitarist Charlie Wilkinson on a regular six string acoustic. The two instruments dovetailed well on Stainton’s material, which was more poppy and rhythmic than Hodgson’s had been, and kicked off with “Just Like Me” and “Red”, the latter packed with gardening metaphors and something of a minor hit. Both of these first two tunes were sourced from the album “Girl On An Unmade Bed”.
Stainton dipped into the new album with the catchy title track and the wistful “Millions Of Flowers” before going back to “Girl On An Unmade Bed” with a version of the title track. This represented Stainton’s thoughts on leaving college and heading out into the wider world, it was a timely reminder of her youth.
However the last two songs, both drawn from the new album hinted at a growing songwriting maturity. “The Author” compared a relationship with the narrative of a novel, not an entirely original idea perhaps but very effective. “Silence Scares Me” is deliberately simple and packs an anthemic chorus. It could even be a potential hit single. It certainly ended the first half of tonight’s concert on a positive note.
This was my first introduction to the music of Lisbee Stainton and overall I was impressed with the quality of her singing, playing and songwriting. Plus of course it’s good to see someone with local connections doing so well. Let’s hope that “Go” consolidates Stainton’s progress, who knows Laura Marling style commercial success could be just around the corner, or would Ellie Goulding, also from Herefordshire, be a more suitable comparison?
The second half of the evening was given over entirely to Judy Collins. Now aged 71 Collins is a bona fide folk music legend with a voluminous back catalogue dating back to the 1960’s. I don’t intend to start by looking back over Collins’ career as in effect she did this for me. Her set was one part an account of her life story, illustrated by snippets of songs and one part orthodox concert.
I’ll admit that as a jazzer I know precious little about Judy Collins. I remember her massive 1971 hit, an accapella version of the hymn tune “Amazing Grace” which as a heavy metal fixated teenager I absolutely hated and I’ve paid her precious little regard ever since. So maybe I’m not the right person to review this concert but here goes.
An incredibly lithe and statuesque septuagenarian Collins turned in a lengthy set well in excess of the advertised one hour and twenty minutes. Accompanied only by her pianist and musical director Russ Walden Collins displayed a commendable amount of stamina and the occasional hints of frailty and the odd creaky vocal could easily be forgiven.
Collins is set to publish her long awaited memoir “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” next year and tonight’s set, perhaps anticipating this was essentially Collins’ life in song. We heard of her upbringing playing classical piano (Rachmaninov etc.) before discovering jazz and the “Great American Songbook” through her father’s record collection before moving on again to American folk via Irish traditional music. Illustrations included snatches of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where Or When” and “Danny Boy”.
Coming of age in the sixties Collins moved to New York where she became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene linking up with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Dylan’s then manager Albert Grossmann establishing faultless leftist credentials in the process. She remains a political activist to this day. She talked of her friendship with Baez and played a full length version of Baez’s biting and wordy Diamonds and Rust”, allegedly written about Dylan. From Dylan himself we heard “Mr Tambourine Man” which was particularly well suited to the twelve string acoustic guitar Collins deployed throughout the set.
Collins’ first big hit single, her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was despatched very early on in the set. “Amazing Grace” found her encouraging the audience, or “congregation” as she put it, to join in. This was highly effective with the acoustics of the Cathedral adding greatly to the resonance of the assembled voices. Another hit, her version of Fairport Convention’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was also performed and was effortlessly lovely but as a proud Brit I have to admit that I prefer the original.
Collins has always been a fine interpreter of other people’s material and spoke of her admiration for the songs of Jimmy Webb And Leonard Cohen, a snatch of “Suzanne”, with Collins now at the piano illustrated the latter. With Walden temporarily off stage Collins sang a series of songs at the piano as the evening came more to resemble an orthodox concert. This clutch of songs included Webb’s “Gaugin” from the album Paradise plus a some of Collins’ own recent songs, deeply personal, highly wordy affairs including a tribute to Collins’ mother and her struggles with Alzheimers. Much of this was weighty, sometimes harrowing stuff but the re-appearance of Walden signalled a return to the hits with Collins standing to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” as she battled the urge to cough. A sizeable audience didn’t seem to mind and called her back for an encore, a version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with Collins encouraging the audience to sing along once more.
Most of the crowd seemed happy to have spent at least part of the evening in the presence of a folk and popular music legend. Many were clearly established fans and loved every minute of it. As an “outsider” I wasn’t quite so impressed. There was too much talking for me and the whole thing was just a bit too “showbiz” for my liking. As I’ve admitted there was plenty of material I was unfamiliar with so apologies for the non inclusion of any Collins tunes I’ve missed out. There were also times early on in the set when Walden’s piano threatened to drown out Collins’ vocals, this certainly hadn’t been a problem with Riley and Hodgson and I wondered if the miking had been altered, in any event things improved as the show progressed.
To be honest on a personal level I got more enjoyment out of the two “support” acts. I’ve always rated Hodgson very highly and Stainton proved to be an exciting new discovery. Perhaps I’ve been a little harsh on Collins and should apply the same kind of indulgence that I’d allow to ageing jazz veterans (Pharaoh Sanders at Cheltenham Jazz Festival springs to mind).
On the whole this was a very enjoyable evening and I’d like to thank Deborah Hodgson for inviting me along to cover it. I’m pleased to say that the presence of a bumper audience made this a hugely successful event with all three singers doing brisk business at their respective merchandise stalls. I’m delighted for Deborah that everything went so well. I shall be keeping an eye on the progress of Lisbee Stainton and eagerly awaiting Deborah Hodgson’s first album.
From Maureen S. Child
I find this an assessment of the Judy Collins Concert. True, the support acts were pleasing and the musicianship of Lisbee Stainton is impressive, but both their programmes were unbalanced and the self composed songs all very similar. Deborah Hodgson’s programme came alive for me only with her rendition of the classic, ‘Autumn Leaves’ leaving me thinking how much better her presentation would be if she varied her programme more offering a mix of standards and new songs.
Judy Collins, age not withstanding - gave a confident and supremely professional performance - perhaps not enough to overcome the reviewer’s prejudices - but enough to inform her audiences that her talent is alive and well. How many other songs do you know about death and dementia? Her lyrics have gravitas. to dismiss them as wordy is to miss the depth of the poet’s art.
I’m quite happy to be taken to task about this review. As I’ve admitted I probably wasn’t the ideal person to review Judy Collins’ contribution to the programme. Maureen is obviously one of the established fans I referenced in my review. To refer to Judy’s original songs as “wordy” does not mean that I am dismissing them lightly. Listening to “wordy” songs at a gig for the first time it’s often difficult to appreciate the full beauty of the lyrics- you need to study the album and the lyric sheet for that. I’m a huge fan of Peter Hammill, another “wordy” artist who tackles weighty subjects such as ageing in his songs but I wouldn’t envy an “outsider” trying to review one of his concerts with no previous knowledge of the material.
Apart from the obvious greatest hits packages I’d appreciate it if Maureen could direct me to the best Judy Collins albums to listen to. I actually LIKE song lyrics to mean something and, of course, it’s never too late to learn. Otherwise I’d still be listening to heavy metal!
I believe the concert was also being reviewed by the Maverick music magazine. I suspect that their appraisal of Judy Collins’ contribution to the evening may be rather more favourable than mine!
From Stephanie Tucker Little;
The music is truly amazing and I would like to add that Deborah Hodgson’s performance was just beautiful!
Her vocals could not be better and her spirit shines through like wild flowers in all her songs. Such an amazing talent!
—Stephanie Tucker Little
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