It’s been a bad day. To be honest, it’s been a terrible year, what with one thing and another, but today it all seemed to catch up with me, and to top it all off I’ve got a rotten cold. No amount of super-strength West Country cider is able to soothe my ragged tonsils. All I want is aspirin and bed.
But I’ve got a date with Lady Maisery, whose recent album Cycle is easily one of the most impressive folk releases of the year, so I bite the bullet and catch my lift to Downend on the outskirts of Bristol. Road closures and puzzling diversions mean we arrive late, and the trio are already into their first song, the Rowan Rheingans-penned Sing For The Morning. The venue, an impressive, cavernous church, is freezing. So much so that after the first song (a rousing stomp, ironically vernal given the wintry conditions) all the onstage talk is of knitwear, and Hannah James dons a sweater.
But any lingering chilliness is dispelled by the next song, a cover of Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood. It’s a song that has always emanated warmth, and today’s performance is particularly stunning, with Rheingans’ homemade bansitar (a cross between a banjo and a sitar) giving the tune a lysergic eastern tinge that fits perfectly with the original’s hymnal quality and Hazel Askew’s deceptively gentle harp.
Hannah James takes the lead vocal for a cover of Todd Rundgren’s Honest Work, but it seems wrong to talk in terms of ‘lead’ vocals when the effect of the harmony singing is as potent as it is here. Honest Work is one of the more contemporary songs in the group’s repertoire, but it sits easily next to the a cappella Diggers’ Song. The charged political message in both of these songs remains valid to this day.
In A Father’s Lullaby accordion, banjo and harp combine to mesmerising and heartbreaking effect, and an entirely vocal version of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is equally spellbinding. The first half closes with the night’s first real foray into tune-singing, the group’s unique selling point. Bagpipers/Sheila’s 70 is James’ pièce de résistance, a rapturous dance tune led by accordion and fiddle, with the trio’s trademark wordless vocals providing an extended harmonic melting pot. It bubbles, swells and leaps, and is a real high point of this show as well as the album.
The quality doesn’t let up after the interval. A uniquely harmonic take on the always weird and wonderful Katie Cruel is followed by more intricate and uplifting ‘diddling’ in the form of Minoorne Labajalg/Elin’s Trall, a wonderful example of Estonian tune-singing. An emotive Crow On The Cradle is given even more significance by its composer Sydney Carter’s family links to Bristol, Order And Chaos indulges Hazel Askew’s love for physics (read Hazel’s guest post on FRUK about the song here) and Rheingans’ penchant for plucked violin and Eostre is a soaring, thrilling, percussive finale.
An encore is obligatory and comes in the form of the Shaker hymn Land On The Shore, a song whose warmth and inclusivity encapsulates the night’s performance. My sore throat forgotten, the cold weather banished, I sing the chorus with the rest of the audience. Lady Maisery have proved themselves one of the most invigorating and talented live acts around. They are a rare tonic in these troubled times.
Cycle is Out Now via RootBeat Records
Catch them tonight (29 Novemeber) for the final date of their album tour at The Met, Bury
Thanks to David Barrs who filmed Lady Maisery on the night.