The opening night of ‘Words & Music’, Nancy Kerr’s curated series at Kings Place, could be described in simple terms as part concert, part book reading, but as always with Nancy Kerr creations, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The Sweet Visitor Band lineup for this evening includes the one and only James Fagan, together with Tim Wright, Tom Yates and Greg Russell (no Rowan Rheingans tonight), and they are on tip-top blistering form throughout. They open with Crow’s Wing before Nancy introduces the evening in typically poetic style: “It’s about how we hang our stories from the wings of birds”.
As those who are familiar with Nancy’s latest album, Instar will know (reviewed here), one of the inspirations behind that extraordinary album was the bestselling book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, an equally extraordinary memoir of grief and healing told through the tale of training a goshawk. The book addresses the human need to see ourselves reflected in the animal kingdom and the transformative power that exists in nature.
There are shared themes here, not just with Nancy’s work, and Instar in particular, but with traditional folk music more generally. And it’s these parallels, together with the expert curation of the material that makes the evening so coherent and compelling, illuminating new aspects of both writers’ works as well as the human condition itself in its relation to the natural world.
Helen Macdonald is a brilliant and engaging speaker, introducing and reading extracts from the book – at times amusing, at others deeply moving. The clever interweaving of selected passages from the book with Nancy’s songs makes it seem in this context almost as if each was written for the other. As collaborations go, this is seamless, powerful, thought-provoking stuff.
Highlights include at the start, the epic Child ballad The Gay Goshawk, which Nancy sings unaccompanied, in segments between readings from Helen. In both narratives, the scene is set for the hawk as the agent of rebirth. Then there is James Fagan’s brilliant and atmospheric bouzouki intro on Kingdom, and a beautiful Kerr-Fagan rendition of I Wish (from the Kerr Fagan Harbron album Station House). All of these are real treats; things you don’t hear every day, let alone in such a meaningful context. And of course, saved for the finale, there is the evening’s triumphant theme tune, See Her Fly Home.
At the final summing up, Helen speaks for all of us and is spot-on in saying, “I didn’t realise quite what this would be like, but I’ve had the most astonishing evening.” As promised in the publicity surrounding the series, this was indeed a truly unique event: not just a concert, not just a book reading, but a journey of discovery, and one which lingers in the mind long after the tube ride home.
The next event in Nancy’s Words & Music series is On Common Ground, Friday 2nd December with Rob Cowen (author of Common Ground) and Simpson Cutting Kerr.