As a musician on the road for the past few months, I have been listening to more than my fair share of radio lately. On tuning into radio 4 on Thursday 8th November on my way to Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, I stumbled across Lenny Henry’s series ‘What’s So Great About…?’ where he explored the work of Irish writer Samuel Beckett and his ability to present ‘philosophy without it seeming like philosophy’.
I reached Worcester where I was supporting Ralph McTell; legendary singer, musician and iconic story teller. During his performance, Ralph shared personal anecdotes of his meetings with some of the guitarists, singers and musicians who shaped his own style and technique of playing: a rich tapestry of tales which linked his life in a Croydon council flat with some of the blues music scene’s most admired exponents.
Performing on his Yamaha CP stage piano, McTell casually dropped in his experience of recording with the London Symphony Orchestra as easily as he explained the story behind The Birdman, written about the African-American folk legend John Henry – as explained by McTell, a song which describes the difference between beating the system with strength and taking on the establishment with intellect.
McTell’s guitar playing is rhythmic, sensitive and lyrical; his voice is smooth yet earthy and his songs accessible. He is witty and speaks with the humour of a friend casually sharing stories over a pint. He tells of when his mother came home to find her ‘wayward boy’ attempting to play the harmonica and guitar together for the first time with the harmonica clamped in a kitchen drawer. He has moved on since then and by his own admission ‘talks a good guitar’. McTell’s love of the instrument is clear from his latest release Sofa Noodling – authentically recorded on his own sofa which had to be brought into the studio.
Ralph McTell is honest. His songs are conversational and he shares the secrets from behind the songs to draw you ever closer to his music. Whilst listening to Naomi, written with his Great Aunt in mind, it is hard not to share in the memories McTell discloses; they are raw, they are real. Like Beckett, McTell does not deal in philosophy. He chooses narrative over conclusion, involving the audience in his own stories and those he has borrowed from others.
Review by: Louise jordan
Album Stream: Affairs of the Heart (Boxset)