It’s less than a week since the triumphant and sold out conclusion of Bellowhead’s latest UK and European tour and yet, here are Jon Boden, Paul Sartin and Sam Sweeney on the road again. This time they’re mustered under the banner of The Remnant Kings, to tour Jon Boden’s concept work, Songs From The Floodplain.
I’m at Cecil Sharp House early, partly to interview Paul for a piece on Faustus for fRoots magazine and The Kings are still in the throws of setting up and sound-checking, with not everything going quite to plan. It offers valuable, brief insight as they play through a song, still discussing some of the finer points of the arrangement. Sam sat behind the drum kit, where he’ll spend the evening, is trying out a shuffling beat and Jon is instructing changes to the emphasis of the harmonies. But as soundman Andy Bell has concerns about the drum sound, the focus switches and Paul is grateful for the distraction, so we make ourselves scarce.
Interview in the bag, I slip out of Cecil Sharp House for refreshment and am glad that I check the onstage time on the way, as I’m advised 7.30 prompt and there’s no support act. The early kick off will catch a few out, but on my return most people have their seats in anticipation. There’ll be two sets and the reason for the early doors will become apparent as the evening unfolds.
Going Down To The Wasteland is the opener and Jon’s dystopian, post-apocalyptic vision, Songs From The Floodplain will form the backbone of the evening’s entertainment, albeit not in its entirety and somewhat reshuffled. It’s a measure of the man and the work that he wrote and recorded the whole thing, playing every instrument, with just the help of Keith Angel and Dave Rusby at the mixing desk.
It takes this supremely talented, five-strong band to bring it to the concert halls and Jon, Paul and Sam are joined by Rob Harbron and Rick Foot. The latter is restricted to plucking and bowing the double bass, but the rest will regularly ring the instrumental changes through the show. There are also two wax cyinder, machines, names Eric and Edith, although one of them seems to be suffering from first night nerves.
If you’ve seen The Remnant Kings over the last couple of years, the evening still follows the format of mixing in traditional songs that offer a glimpse of Jon’s A Folk Song A Day project. But whereas those were originally posted on-line with minimum embellishment, they are worked up with some style by the band. With Jon as the always engaging focus, you can sense the mutual, musical confidence and some of the arrangements are quite magical. One minute they are a fiddle quartet with bowed bass, the next it’s all concertinas, with guitars, banjo oboe and more besides all featuring at various points.
Jon explains that the traditional songs have been chosen to fit the overall dystopian theme, so there are protest songs and ballads that reveal life as a rocky road. Even the closer of the first set, which was “Lou Killen’s calling card,” Jon informs us is, “About some very devout people, although it’s not entirely clear that their doing all that well out of it,” before launching in The Rose In June, a tragic tale of shipwreck and drowning.
The second set follows the same course, with some clever segues and it’s striking how well Jon’s original songs slip into the folk mix. The imagery of The Pilgrims Way, for example is of ancient willows, gnarled and bent, alder glades and mossy banks, through which a forgotten footpath leads. In some ways it reflects the musical journey that we are on tonight.
Jon also offers an interesting little revelation with all of this talk about apocalypse, asking whether we know that the word is derived from a Greek root that means ‘the lifting of the veil.’
By way of another treat there are three songs featured in the performance that Jon suggests are strong enough to survive any catastrophe. If you’ve seen the show before or even searched You Tube Hounds Of Love will come as no surprise, although it’s wonderfully realised, but the latest addition to the canon is I Want To Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me). It somehow seems to have morphed into a beautiful, tender waltz that shows the lonely, lovelorn heart of the song. Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Memories is the evening’s clincher and gives the wax cylinder machine a starring role, as Jon leaves the stage and the band accompany its wobbly warble.
It’s just around 10.00ish and the reason for this early finish, is that the band immediately decamp to the bar for a communal sing-song. Admittedly the compact proportions of the basement watering hole won’t allow everyone in, but there are enough doughty folk to start a robust session – a joyous conclusion to a great night. In the ephemeral world of music, nights like this feel important and will linger long in the memory.
Live Review by: Simon Holland
Some post-show magic at the bar:
Remaining Tour Dates
04/03/2013 CAMBRIDGE The Junction / 01223 511511
05/03/2013 READING South Street Arts Centre
06/03/2013 LUDLOW Assembly Rooms / 01584 878141
07/03/2013 BURY The Met / 0161 7612216
08/03/2013 PONTARDAWE Arts Centre / 01792 863722
09/03/2013 TRELAWNYD Memorial Hall / 07899 024162
10/03/2013 COCKERMOUTH Kirkgate Centre / 01900 826448