Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stewart Lee All Tomorrow's Parties, Part 5: Sunday

I continue my long-winded account of my trip to the last ever All Tomorrow's Parties festival. If you want to you can see previous instalments here, here, here and here.

After my Saturday night perambulations I went to bed, carefully setting an alarm on my phone so that I would be up in time to catch Trembling Bells at 1.00 pm. After a bit I then cleverly decided to turn off my phone to prevent premature awakening from people ringing or texting me (which shows how confused I was, as no one ever rings or texts me). As a result I managed to sleep in till after the Trembling Bells were due to start. Disastro! I thought of throwing on clothes and running down to see at least some of them, given that they were one of the acts I was most looking forward to seeing, but ablutions and breakfast came first. I was still hoping i would catch them playing afterwards as backing band for old folkie John Kirkpatrick.

When I reached Stage 2 however Trembling Bells were still playing! And playing what sounded like their own stuff too. It turned out there had been a change to the running order and this John Kirkpatrick fellow was not playing after all, so Trembling Bells started late.
If you don't know the Trembling Bells, they could broadly be described as neo-folk-rock. They mostly (entirely?) play original compositions but the sound recalls that of folk rock outfits of yore. Their singer, Lavinia Blackwall, has the kind of soaring vocal style & ability of her predecessors in that world. What makes them bit unusual is that they are led by their drummer, Alex Neilson, a man of astonishing percussive chops whose background is in the world of improv and suchlike. In an interview recently, Trembling Bells chafed at the folk rock label applied to them. At a first listen to their music, their chafing is laughable as first impressions have them like something from the Steeleye Span, Comus or Fairport Convention era reborn. But there is something to their sound that makes them their own thing. A lot of this comes from the drumming but their is generally an unusual twist on the folk-rock sound to them.

Anyway, shortly after I arrived at Stage 2, I heard Nigel Tufnell's voice come over the PA to say "And oh how they danced". A load of morris dancers then appeared in front of the stage and did their thing while the band played one of those songs that seemed to be about dancers going into an irresistible maniacal frenzy. I think the morris dancers featured some of the people who just bob up and down to the music while wearing animal heads, though it was hard to see. I heard subsequently that they had been dancing previously outside this venue's Queen Victoria (every Pontins has a shit pub called the Queen Victoria).

After that the band played on, delivering what for me was another festival highlight. I must pay tribute to Ms Blackwall's amazing vampire lady outfit, which showed off her charms to good effect. I also salute her singing and to the drumming of Mr Nielson, something that it always worth being able to see live. I loved all the other members of this great band too.
There was a lot of improv at this ATP. I saw almost none of it because most of it was on up in Stage 3, a place I had resolved to visit as little as possible. I did however catch some Evan Parker, LR Thurston Moore, and some other blokes playing on Stage 2. It was good fun. I also saw a bit of Boredoms, but as I am the one person in the world immune to their charms I wandered off to buy a drink and get myself in pole position for Alasdair Roberts.

Alasdair Roberts was playing on Stage 2. As you know, he is a Glaswegian folk singer who plays both original compositions and songs of yore. Some of the songs he sings can be lyrically a bit dark, though he tends to offset that with a relatively cheerful delivery. He is also an astonishing guitar player, which makes seeing live all the more exciting.

He began with 'The Fair Flower of Northumberland', a song about a Scottish prisoner who seduces and then abandons an English girl to aid his escape north. It is odd in that it feels like it will end terribly for the girl, but instead [spoilers] it just become a character-building life experience, with her mother saying "you silly goose, don't do that again!" and the girl saying "I've learned my lesson and probably will not run away with any other disreputable Scot in the future".

The set got very dark later though when Roberts performed one of the 'Cruel Mother' songs. These seem mostly to be a thing from Scotland (land of cruel mothers), typically featuring repeated refrains with the name of a locality. The versions I have heard then follow the same pattern. A woman gives birth to twins in the woods. She suckles them and then kills them, leaving their bodies behind. But then later she sees two beautiful children and says to them "Oh if you were my children I would dress you up in clothes so fine" but they retort "But when we were your children you strangled us and left our bodies in a shallow grave. Now we are in Heaven and you will soon be going to Hell".

What always strikes me about these songs is that there is no mention of who fathered the babies. No one gives birth on their own in the woods for fun and I find it hard not to think that the songs obscure some terrible secret as to the twins' origin. I am reminded somewhat of the Irish folk tune 'The Well Below The Valley' (found on the Planxty album of that name), which is lyrically different but in some ways follows a pattern that makes if seem like it has evolved from a Cruel Mother song. In that one a stranger meets a woman at a well, and reveals that he knows her terrible secret: that the area is littered with the buried remains of the children she has had fathered on her by her brother, uncle and father. In that one too the stranger tells the woman that she is hell bound, though as with the Alasdair Roberts song she prays that she might be spared that fate.

So that is a bit of a digression into folk's dark corners. It is still interesting to compare Roberts to the likes of Richard Dawson. They both sing of unpleasant things but Roberts is much more restrained about it. I could be wrong but I think maybe that Roberts' delivery is more true to the folk tradition, though further research may be required. I definitely recommend that all readers seek out the music of Alasdair Roberts and see him live if they get the chance.
Nearly there! Come back tomorrow for more ATP action

More astonishing ATP pictures

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