To my mind, 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award “Best Duo” nominees Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow comprise one of the most captivating live partnerships on the scene, and not only because they possess a real gift for communicating with their audiences. They achieve this through a compelling blend of unassumingly brilliant and versatile musicianship, stunning singing, exquisitely observed songwriting and cheeky, inclusive “northern” banter that guarantees them an instant rapport. Their latest venture takes them and their trusty van out on the road to play 30 micro-gigs in 30 real-ale venues on their Summat’s Brewin’ Micro Tour.
This adventure is a natural follow-on from the song of that name which originally appeared on the duo’s award-winning, groundbreaking 2014 album The Hum (read our review), a song that resulted from their researches into the real-ale revolution. That song is (naturally) revisited here, recorded live at a gig in Saltaire in June this year in a slightly riotous rendition that along its tipsy way “treads the thin line between Rachmaninov and Les Dawson” (yes!). It forms a logical companion to, if not quite a central focal point for, the duo’s timely reflections on not only the aforementioned real-ale revolution and the micro-brewing industry but also the wider issues embraced by the nation’s drinking culture, from traditional drinking songs and their hangovers through to associated themes of loss and alcoholism.
Boozy folk-tales (Three Drunken Maidens) and woozy voice-of-experience depictions of states of inebriation (Murphy’s Saloon, and a dubiously-rhymed remake of All For Me Grog) are balanced, or thrown into relief, by the sometimes almost detached commentaries on drink-fuelled events and their impact on mind and body. Somewhere in between the two, hoary old chestnut The Wild Rover receives a wonderfully wistful reading that reeks of whiskey-soaked introspection, while the album, like the duo’s current live gigs, closes with a gorgeously harmonised take on The Parting Glass that’s guaranteed to send you staggering gently home to mellow alcohol-fuelled heaven. However, and fab though those items all prove, there’s a generous tipple of added delights on offer at the micro-bar. For a time, I found it nigh impossible to get past the collection’s irresistible, multi-replay-inducing opening track, Loudon Wainwright III’s priceless vignette White Winos, with its chattering chorale of wine-glasses among the ingenious accompanimental colourings. Shortly after, Elliott Smith’s Between The Bars melds nicely into Belinda’s tasty, sweetly reflective instrumental The Copper, but best of all is the supremely individual O’Hooley & Tidow treatment of Down Where The Drunkards Roll, a true masterclass in bleak melancholy that transcends even the original Thompson versions. Within a mere alcohol’s-breath of that cathartic reinterpretation, in close proximity we encounter two high contrasted self-penned songs. First there’s the gloomy yet typically percipient The Passenger, which explores the mind and background of an eternal alcoholic (“you only live once, ain’t that the truth”). After a scratchy tune-interlude, there’s the delicious portrait Last Orders, which might well be retitled New Orders after its gloriously cheesy, jittery 80s-style electropop-synth setting.
The sheer ebullient inventiveness of the duo’s musical settings, their committed sense of fun, their consummate, enviable musicality, their serious ability to grab your attention and carry you through the experience – all these qualities are faithfully conveyed in the exceptional recording, lovingly crafted by Belinda and Heidi themselves at their Huddersfield home and sympathetically mixed by Chumbawamba veteran Neil Ferguson. There’s an equally lovingly crafted intimacy about the project as a whole, for everything about the album and the attendant tour has been carefully kept “micro” and independent. Hence, the album is only available either to order (via the duo’s mailing list), or to purchase at their gigs and at a small number of independent record shops. Entirely fitting too.
Review by: David Kidman
SUMMAT’S BREWIN’ MICRO TOUR DATES
11 NEWCASTLE Cumberland Arms
16 LOWDHAM Old Ship Inn
19 OTLEY Folk Festival*
25 BURTON-UPON-TRENT The Brewhouse
26 BOGNOR REGIS Southdowns Folk Festival*
27 EVESHAM Bretforton Fleece Inn
01 CARDIGAN Cellar Bar
02 BARRY West End Club
03 SWANSEA Chattery
04 FROME Cooper Hall*
05 SUDBURY Edwardstone White Horse Inn
06 HARWICH Samuel Pepys
07 ALDEBURGH Folk East @ Pump House
08 CROYDON Oval Tavern
09 HASTINGS Electric Palace Cinema
11 CHESTER Fringe Festival @ St Mary’s Centre*
12 SKIPTON Folk Unplugged @ Narrow Boat
16 YORK Thorganby Village Hall
17 HEBDEN BRIDGE Wadsworth Community Centre
18 WHITBY Musicport Festival
23 DOBCROSS The Swan
24 SALFORD Eccles Town Hall*
25 SHEFFIELD Shakespeares
26 LONDON Nunhead Ivy House
* Normal O&T show