by Ian Mann
October 27, 2010
A hugely enjoyable evening of music drawn from two very different traditions.
Louise Parker and Ruth Angell
The Hatch, Lindridge, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, 26/10/2010
This was my first visit to The Hatch since the memorable June performance featuring a double bill of singer songwriters, the UK’s own Deborah Hodgson and the New Yorker Kenny White. That show is reviewed elsewhere on this site in an article that also gives something of the history of this unique music venue set deep in the heart of the Worcestershire countryside.
As well as being a talented songwriter and performer Deb Hodgson also manages the Moonshine Room music venue in nearby Bewdley as well as booking performers for The Hatch. For tonight’s event she engaged two very different female singers, young folk artist Ruth Angell and jazz diva Louise Parker.
Based in Birmingham Angell is best known as a violinist and is a core member of folk rock veteran Ashley Hutchings’ band Rainbow Chasers. She also performs as a dep in the Celtic band Mabon and appears on that group’s “Live” CD, an album recently reviewed on this site. Then there’s membership of The Larkrise Band, Turnaround, Sid Peacock’s jazz big band Surge plus her solo projects. It all makes for a very busy musical life.
Although primarily a violin player Angell is also a talented guitarist and singer. Her performance at The Hatch centred around her settings of the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Christina Rosetti and Robert Burns. Angell and Hodgson first met in 2009 when both were performing at Tennyson’s former home at Faringford on the Isle Of Wight in a celebration of the bicentenary of Tennyson’s birth.
Angell opened her set with a setting of Tennyson’s “The Splendour Falls”, her pure but fragile voice accompanied by her own delicately finger picked acoustic guitar. Next came her interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s “No Roses”, sourced from the Palgrave Collection. Both pieces were serene and unhurried, the intimate performance space of The Hatch ( a splendidly converted oast house) being ideally suited to the fragile beauty of Angell’s delivery.
For her setting of Robert Burns’ “A Fond Kiss” she moved to a beautiful hand pumped portable harmonium manufactured by the Indian company Paul & Co. The gentle bellows driven drones and harmonics suited her voice perfectly and maintained the meditative atmosphere established by the two guitar pieces.
Next Angell welcomed her musical collaborator and life partner Sid Peacock to the stage. The Northern Ireland born, Birmingham based guitarist is also a composer and educator and runs the big band Surge whose members include graduates and students from Birmingham Conservatoire’s acclaimed jazz course.
Surge played a hugely successful sell out show at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival gaining a rave review from Phil Johnson of The Independent in the process. Tonight Peacock was happy to play a largely supportive role, his distinctive Gaudin guitar adding subtle colours and textures to Angell’s setting of Tennyson’s “The Brook” as well as appearing briefly and concisely as a solo instrument.
The duo was temporarily extended to a trio as Angell invited Deb Hodgson to share the vocals on Ewan McColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, the two women exchanging vocal lines and also harmonising delectably as Peacock and Angell provided the guitar accompaniment.
Angell then picked up her fiddle for a couple of original violin tunes, the slow air “The Lost Bagpipe” and the faster “Jenny’s Welcome To Charlie”. Despite her obvious prowess on the instrument this was probably the least successful item of the set. Angell’s violin had reacted badly to the heat generated by the wood burning stove burning brightly just behind the performers and was badly out of tune. Angell wasn’t happy with it but the audience was suitably forgiving and most regarded the piece, originally not scheduled to be part of the programme, as a bit of a bonus.
Angell quickly remedied things with a new song “Day Of Days” recently written for her newly born nephew. The simple sentiments of the song were utterly convincing with Angell singing movingly to the accompaniment of her own harmonium and Peacock’s guitar. The harmonium can also be a bit of a beast but it behaved impeccably, a welcome contrast to that recalcitrant violin.
This was a rare outing for Angell the solo artist but she gave an enchanting performance and will surely pursue this direction alongside her more high profile group work. Together with her fellow collaborators Peacock and Hodgson she had got the evening off to a magical start.
Louise Parker is a totally different kind of singer, steeped in the jazz rather than the folk tradition and with a big voice and personality that formed a nice contrast with the soft spoken beauty of Angell’s performance.
Now based in the West Country Parker has worked with leading mainstream jazz musicians such as pianist Craig Milverton and saxophonist Alan Barnes. Her singing also won the endorsement of the late, great Humphrey Lyttleton and she also appeared on the album “Cornucopia”, one of Humph’s final recordings.
Born of mixed English and Jamaican parentage Parker’s main influence has always been the tragic figure of Billie Holiday and tonight’s performance was essentially Parker’s tribute to her heroine. Accompanied only by the excellent young pianist George Cooper on The Hatch’s remarkably good quality upright piano Parker produced two sets of material associated with Holiday whilst at the same time relating the life story of this hugely talented but much exploited artist. For hardcore jazz fans like me it was a familiar tale but I’m sure that for some in the audience Holiday’s story came as something of a revelation.
Despite suffering with a cold and cough Parker put everything into a thoroughly professional performance. She even looked a little like Holiday with roses in her hair to simulate the famous gardenias. Blessed with a powerful voice she did most of her singing off mic ensuring that this was essentially an acoustic performance. In this exposed duo situation plenty of space was given to the highly talented Cooper who soloed on virtually every tune, his playing fluent, technically excellent and totally in keeping with the mood of the songs. Inevitably many of these were downbeat, a reflection of Holiday’s life and times, but there were more joyous moments too with both singer and pianist adapting their approach accordingly.
Most of the familiar items in the Holiday canon were here although the first set kicked off with the lesser known “Yesterdays” by Jerome Kern with a lyric by Otto Harbach. Holiday’s own “God Bless The Child” followed, the sadness then offset by a joyous “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”.
The bitter-sweet “The Man I Love” seemed to sum Holiday up in a nutshell followed by a more light-hearted “All Of Me” in which Parker demonstrated her scatting abilities.
The first set ended with two memorable performances. First there was an achingly sad version of “Good Morning Heartache” with Parker wringing out all the pathos inherent in the lyrics. Then came a stunning accapella version of “Strange Fruit”, a song written by the Jewish poet Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. A condemnation of the racist lynchings in American South of the 1930’s the song still retains its power to shock. Holiday’s singing added gravitas to the pithy but powerful imagery- the words are disturbing enough just in print. Of its time yet strangely timeless “Strange Fruit” is arguably the finest political song ever written. Here even a minor lyrical glitch, from which Parker recovered quickly, couldn’t diminish its still considerable impact.
The second set opened with “My Man” followed by a lively “Lover Come Back To Me” with a sparkling solo from young Cooper, his most exuberant playing of the night. Parker even through in an old Ronnie Scott joke, “this song is an alcoholic’s prayer, it’s called “Liver Come Back To Me”.
In the spirit of Holiday Parker was lubricating her vocal chords with a mixture of whisky and honey. It certainly seemed to be working as a spirited version, complete with scat vocal, of the blues “Fine And Mellow” attested.
Holiday’s own “Don’t Explain” is one of a number of autobiographical songs examining her dysfunctional relationship with men, most of whom ended up exploiting or abusing her. Parker’s quietly intense performance suggested a certain empathy with her heroine.
The clever but lascivious lyrics of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” then lightened the mood and was followed by Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” complete with accapella intro.
Finally came a rousing version of “Them There Eyes” and an encore of the ever popular “Lover Man”. By now Parker’s voice was pretty much shot and there was to be no more.
Nevertheless it had been a hugely enjoyable evening of music drawn from two very different traditions. Parker’s performance may have been a particularly classy “tribute act” but was none the worse for that. Seeing performers as accomplished as Angell and Parker plus their accompanists in such an intimate setting was a treat and if the numbers were substantially down on the Hodgson/White event the enjoyment of those present was in no way reduced.
Live music events at The Hatch remain a unique experience and Hodgson and studio owner Ben Salmon continue to attract a wide range of talented performers from the jazz and folk genres to the venue. The next performance features the popular folk/roots duo James Hickman (guitar, vocal) and Dan Cassidy (violin) on Tuesday November 23rd 2010. A review of their album “Severn Street” is to be found elsewhere on this site.