Back in September we reported on the release of the CD recorded as part of the joint project between The English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Folk By the Oak Festival at Hatfield House – The Elizabethan Session. The live sessions were originally performed at Hatfield House and Cecil Sharp House back in March last year, prior to the release of the CD. Those sessions have been revived and brought north to Celtic Connections for a final performance at The Mitchell Theatre on Sunday Night.
Celtic Connections is well known for the rich mix of collaborative opportunities provided to musicians and enjoyed by audiences, so it’s fitting that the full stellar line up for The Elizabethan Session have been able to make their way to Glasgow and contribute to the festival. And rarely has the Mitchell stage played host to such a gathering.
As Emily Askew, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Bella Hardy, Jim Moray, Rachel Newton, John Smith and Hannah James took to the stage the audience were in the mood for something extraordinary, following a very well received supporting set from Danish trio Dreamer’s Circus; and they weren’t disappointed.
The opening combination of Nancy Kerr’s voice and Rachel Newton’s harp in Shores of Hispaniola set the tone for what was to be a memorable event. By mutual consent the company acknowledged Nancy Kerr as the most significant contributor to the project in terms of song-writing, but neither can Nancy’s vocal contribution be understated. As well as the opening track, in the spirited anthem of feminism on the high seas, Broadside; and the haunting The Oak Casts His Shadow, Nancy’s voice is impressive for its clarity and versatility. From a different place on the vocal spectrum comes Devonian John Smith’s transatlantic sounding drawl… passionate and mesmerizing in London. And if we’re discussing vocal talent, then Bella Hardy’s Love In Idleness reached every corner, and every soul, in the hall.
Highlighting individual contributions just doesn’t feel right, though, because it’s as an ensemble that The Elizabethan Session really shines in live performance. It’s the spirit, and result, of the collaboration between all these fine musicians, composers and song writers that makes the performance. This was never more eloquently stated than during the more complex instrumental passages, when eight musicians came together to produce a sound as rich and inspiring as they did in the recording studio. Emily Askew provided a fine explanation of the Elizabethan dance influences behind The Monnington Pavane & Ortiz Ground before the company delivered as fascinating an insight into the music of the time as we could ever hope to enjoy. Similarly, in the galliard that followed True Lover’s Knot Untied, the enchanting trio of Hardy/James/Askew was lifted by the full band in a sound of perfect unity.
Contrasts abound, of course. During Rachel Newton’s exquisitely gentle Come Live With Me you could have heard a pin drop and Jim Moray held the audience equally spellbound during The Straight Line and the Curve, his piano in a fine duet with Martin Simpson’s guitar. While the fun-filled, blusey Lady Lizzie (which didn’t feature on the CD) saw Nancy Kerr provide relief from the Elizabethan/folky morbidity with a song about keeping up appearances in the face of the insurmountable pressures of state.
Oh poor lady Lizzie,
Lizzie don’t you wear a frown,
Everybody’s getting busy
Putting Lady Lizzie down
It’s impossible, in a review, to do justice to a set that stretched to ninety minutes of the most glorious music. When the inspiring harmonies of Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women, coupled with the beautiful instrumental Gather the Owls brought the evening a conclusion, the only recourse was an encore; and a taste of Elizabethan Hank Williams in the shape of Suspicious Mind gave the audience another chance to enjoy an impassioned vocal performance from John Smith.
The Elizabethan Session has been a resounding success in England, and it’s been a great move on the part of the Celtic Connections organisers to bring the original contributors north for a final performance before the project closes. Celtic Connections succeeds in bringing music from around the world to Scotland that might otherwise go un-noticed. It also succeeds in bringing music from our closest neighbours that often suffers the same fate.
Review by: Neil MacFadyen
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas