I’m at the Lexington for what is billed as a Word In Your Ear event, one of a series of nights originally started by Word magazine and now revived following the unfortunate, sad demise of that title. Typically for a publication that always tried to go a little further and deeper into the usual poplar cultural grab bag of music, movies, television, literature and so forth, the evening promises a mixture of music and more.
Former editor David Hepworth acts as a sort of compare, promising a stage discussion on Brit-pop and Soho Hobo to come, before introducing Katy Carr as the opening act. As pleased as I am to see the spirit and adventure of The Word live on, it’s Katy that I’m here to see, as it’s the first chance that has presented itself, since writing up the album feature here.
Katy takes the stage in a vibrant, vivid red dress and matching pillbox hat with a clever winged badge on the front. They look to be a custom made and matching set, very 40’s styled but with an almost futuristic sci-fi styling too. Her aviators for the evening are guitarist Sam Slater, who is also part of The TG Collective, double bassist Paul Tkachenko and George Simmonds on trombone. With Katy playing ukulele and keyboards it’s a striking and different musical line up, but one that proves most adept at allowing Katy’s unique songs to take flight.
The set starts with Katy and her uke running through a short sharp rendition of Painting The Clouds With Sunshine. She reveals it’s something that her grandma used to sing. Such songs and the stories that Katy’s coaxed from her British grandmother fuelled a growing passion in the young singer that led to her exploring her Polish heritage and the fate of that country through WWII and beyond.
As she sings a screen behind her shows images of 30’s Poland and those images change over the course of the evening, courtesy of young film maker, Hannah Lovell.
Katy will refer to them time and again as she tries to flesh out the story of Paszport. Certainly for those who are unfamiliar, there is a lot to try and get your head around, but Katy is engaging and clearly in her element. I find myself wishing that there were more artist of her calibre with a real story to tell. As undoubtedly harrowing of some of Polish history is, there are good reasons it should not be forgotten.
Things continue in brighter mode, however, Travelling To You seems brightly lit by the desire and hope of return and reunion, but perhaps contained within that lies the fact that so many Poles found themselves forced into exile in the years after WWII. In fact Katy then dedicates Red Red Rose to the 1.8m people who were transported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of the country. The drama of the song is enhanced by the arrangements with the trombone and bowed bass lending a melancholy gravitas.
This isn’t an easy or pretty story to tell, but she does so with an integrity enhanced by slipping between the two languages and by settling on the small, human details, letting them reveal the bigger story.
There are moments of lightness and humour too notably in the story of Wojtek a Syrian bear and Polish Army mascot. The accompanying film of soldiers playing with the powerful beast is both touching and funny. I guess the health and safety aspects of sparring with an animal that could probably rip your head off were probably, rightly of secondary concern. Then there’s a rendition of I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, apparently picked up from a Chelsea Pensioner called Jack, whose friend used to sing it when on bombing raids.
My three favourite songs from the album are all included too. Mala My Little Flower tells of a Polish wartime heroine. It has the sprightly feel of a folk dance tune, but Katy explains Mala’s (pronounced Mawa) story, hiding Jewish refugees, joining the partisans and the personal sacrifice and tragedy that beset her. Motylek, which translates as butterfly commemorates the heroics of the 303 squadron of free Poles who were central to the Battle Of Britain. Most dramatic of all, however, is Kommander’s Car and the daring escape from Auschwitz therein.
Despite the need for a fair degree of explanation, this still has the sense of being a tight set. The skill of the musicians helps make it so, bringing out the drama of the songs. Katie’s voice is strong and perhaps has more of a tremolo to it than I had picked up from the album, with a little suggestion of a soupcon of a young Eartha Kitt about it.
Katy certainly seems to be well received and as if to confirm this , the guy I’m sitting next to enquires what I’m up to. When I tell it’s a review for Folk Radio UK, he confesses to being more into indie-rock – “You know four guys and guitars, that sort of thing.” Even so Katy has impressed him as she has me. I’m sure if you give her the chance and go with the flow, she’ll impress you too.
Review by: Simon Holland