Nancy Kerr is one of those musicians who seems able to live several parallel lives. In just the last couple of years that has meant performing in a duo with husband James Fagan, as part of the Full English, in the Melrose Quartet, as part of The Elizabethan Sessions, in a trio with Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting and, at present, on tour fronting her Sweet Visitor Band.
Sweet Visitor was originally recorded and released as a solo album, with guests listed separately for each track. The band was put together for a subsequent tour and initially comprised James Fagan, Tom Wright and Tim Yates from the album guests along with Rowan Rheingans. For the current, and one previous tour, Greg Russell has taken over from James. Even though that’s the only personnel change since I saw the band perform their debut gig at Towersey 2014, it was apparent at the Ashcroft that the sound has changed over the last 18 months. For a band whose members all have other, and often multiple, commitments they’ve clearly put effort into creating arrangements of the Sweet Visitor material that can be quite different from the originals.
The songs, both those from the Sweet Visitor album and the new ones introduced for this tour are all Nancy’s compositions, setting the Sweet Visitor Band apart from her other activities where traditional songs mix with the contemporary. Nancy’s writing style, though, could leave you in some doubt about this. She has an uncanny ability to meld twenty-first century lyrics with song structures and melodies that bear all the hallmarks of the English tradition.
The Ashcroft gig kicked off with a familiar song from the Sweet Visitor album, My Little Drummer, written, she told us, for her eldest boy when that was his career ambition. As those ambitions have now switched to astronaut, Nancy suggests another song might have to emerge. It’s comments such as these, liberally interspersed between songs that rapidly draw the audience in, reinforced by Nancy introducing each band member right at the start of the evening. It all helps create an atmosphere in which the audience’s appreciation of the songs thrives.
Another track from the album follows, Sickle and Harvest, and we’re given a first taste of the full vocal capacity of the band, all five harmonising, giving the final choruses a full, rounded sound that bodes well for the rest of the evening. We weren’t disappointed as voices were joined in various combinations throughout the set. Nancy always takes the lead but often with Rowan in close support and Greg frequently adding a lower harmony line. Not surprisingly, though, it becomes even more impressive when Tom and Tim join in. Nowhere did this work better that on the closing song, Never Ever Lay Them Down, a song with a rousing chorus that Nancy describes as “a song about city life and love in an age of austerity”. Comment on the state of our world is never far away from Nancy’s lyrics and so we also have songs that reference misbehaving priests, working conditions in the third world, conflict driven migration. But these references can be quite subdued, what at first hearing might seem to be a bucolic folk lullaby turns out to be inspired by the story of a female soldier giving birth in a war zone. It’s nothing new to heap praise on Nancy’s performing and song writing, her ever growing collection of awards testifies to that, but I can’t resist one more illustration of the subtlety of her lyrics. One of the new songs introduced for this tour references both the fragility of water supply and current concerns on transgender issues. How to fit both into one song? How about
“little fish strip off your skin…
…If you wish to walk or swim let nothing hinder”
Lyrics, though, are only part of the Sweet Visitor experience, listen attentively to the instrumentation and more treasures abound. Arrangements vary between solo voice with only a fiddle for company to a substantial folk rock sound with Tom giving us just the right mix of drums, Greg on electric guitar and Tim on his upright providing a very solid bass line. With Rowan and Nancy each able to contribute either violin or viola, one had to keep a close eye out to see who was playing which instrument. The contrast between these full band arrangements and quieter, sparse accompaniments gave a thoroughly pleasing texture to the set. There are plenty of other variations on offer, all of the band members can lay claim to being multi-instrumentalists. Rowan switches to banjo for a couple of songs and introduces a far more unusual variant, the bansitar. Made by her luthier father, it’s shaped like a like 5-string banjo, strung like a 5-string banjo but with a sound board rather than a skin that, in Rowan’s hands, certainly gives a sitar flavour to the sound. Tom and Tim, the traditional back-line boys, also get to be mobile. Tom comes out from behind the drum kit to play both electric and acoustic guitars whilst Tim provides melodeon for a couple of songs.
By the end of the evening we’d heard most of the songs from the Sweet Visitor album along with half a dozen others. A near sell-out Ashcroft audience was enthusiastic in appreciation and many left with the album in their pockets. The new songs are destined for a second album promised for later in the year. If you don’t manage to catch the band at the few remaining dates of this tour, be sure to look out for it, there will be plenty of fine, fine music to savour.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Order Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band’s latest double A side single: It Was Red & Gingerbread. Available via Bandcamp.
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