It’s Monday night at Colchester Arts Centre, which means that the 13th century church is taken over by the city’s folk club. Tonight it’s the turn of BBC Horizon Award Winner 2011, Ewan McLennan. Hailing from Edinburgh, McLennan is a fine exponent of the modal tunings and lilting melodies of Celtic and Irish music. He doesn’t stop there though – the eclectic subject matter of the songs performed tonight reveals a fascination with the history of combining social issues and folk song, especially that of America.
This fascination with international connections in folk music was echoed in his instrumental arrangement of ‘Auld Lang Syne’: a tune that he admitted, with some understandable reluctance, has possible French origins. Wherever it comes from, it sounded great – the bell-like clarity and precision of his guitar work rang true in the atmospheric St Mary-at-the-Walls.
He continued with the opening track of his debut album, ‘Tramps and Hawkers’ – a traditional Scottish travelling song, with intricate and flowing fingerpicking combining with strident vocals. The influences from across the Atlantic now crept in, with a cover of Les Rice’s ‘Banks of Marble’ – a song written in the 1940s about the Great Depression in America, and a song that holds as much relevance today as it did then: ‘The banks are made of marble/with a guard at every door/and the vaults are stuffed with silver/that the farmer sweated for.’
The event of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday presented McLennan with an opportunity to reinvent ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’, and here he performed a compelling version of it (even though he confessed that he didn’t have a clue what it was about) that served as an appropriate introduction to his own brand of protest song in ‘Yorkshire Regiment’. This is an affecting ballad written as a result of McLennan’s campaigning with Families Against the War, and the lines ‘The truth is our lives to our leaders/are not worth a grain of salt/are not worth a damn grain of salt’ elicited a ripple of supportive applause in the audience. Contemporary issues noticeably run deep throughout McLennan’s original work, and ‘Camp Esperanza’ is no different – it’s written from the perspective of the families waiting for their husbands and sons to emerge from the San José copper and gold mine in Chile, an interesting perspective on an otherwise familiar event.
He sheds the guitar for an acapella rendition of Ian Campbell’s ‘Old Man’s Tale’ – again a song that reverberates as much in modern life as it did when it was written. The timbre of his voice here is allowed to shine, and the contemplative lyrics are given extra weight by the silence of the church.
To finish, we are treated to ‘Jock Stewart’ – another track from his album Rags and Robes – an old drinking song from the North-East of Scotland that contains the refrain ‘So be easy and free/when you’re drinking with me/I’m a man you don’t meet every day.’ You certainly don’t meet a guitarist, singer and songwriter of this quality every day.
Photo Credit: Michael Farrant (all rights reserved)