You could claim that I was predisposed to love Shirley Collins and the Lodestar band’s live show at the Barbican. I bought the Limited Edition Deluxe LP of the album in November (reviewed here on FRUK), and it’s been a mainstay on my turntable ever since.
I’ve never seen Shirley Collins live, but – forgive me – I would have had to have been six-years-old if I’d attended her last concert performance in 1981. So it was a chance for me – as well as many others – to glimpse a legendary figure whose vocals enhance some of the greatest British folk albums of all time.
But Shirley Collins’ first live shows in more than 35 years could have been something of an anticlimax. The weight of expectation might have set the bar too high and sullied the experience.
The evening started pretty low-key, with a series of special guests – all Shirley Collins’ devotees – one after another playing a pair of songs, introduced by Pip Barnes. The artists ranged from veteran performers Dave Arthur and Pete Cooper (two-thirds of Shirley’s favourite folk band Rattle the Stovepipe) and John Kirkpatrick to newer faces on the folk scene, Alasdair Roberts, Olivia Chaney and Lisa Knapp, plus Britpop superstar Graham Coxon (it told you much about the makeup of the audience when the Sultan of Squeeze was greeted with equal enthusiastic applause as the Blur guitarist).
For me, the support performers that made the biggest impression (and boy did they all look a little lonely in the middle of the Barbican concert hall stage) were Olivia Chaney and Lisa Knapp. Lisa with her beautiful unaccompanied Polly on the Shore, and Olivia’s electric-guitar-led version of The Gardener.
Graham Coxon bumbled on stage with a quip about not usually plugging in his acoustic guitar. Ironically, when he did, the other end wasn’t plugged into anything. So his version of the Collins classic Cruel Mother was largely a cappella, with the audience barely breathing in order to hear his unamplified acoustic picking. Thankfully a technician sorted it out, and the more punk-folk of Coxon’s own song Sorrow’s Army was fully electrified.
After the interval the Lodestar musicians took to their seats, Shirley Collins saunters on with the rest of her band. Above them, a huge screen onto which short films were projected to illustrate the songs on the album.
And, apart from an encore interlude with assorted Morris dancers, it was indeed Lodestar in order. There has been a recent resurgence in bands performing whole albums, the advantage here was that this was the exact set of musicians who performed on the LP.
So, apart from a few flourishes, the performance is as it sounds on the record. But what a performance. The assembled musicians are nothing short of brilliant, the arrangements are in turns atmospheric, joyous, stirring and thrilling.
In the middle sits unassuming Shirley with her gently commanding vocals, her voice a little deeper but with even more character. As always, her singing is straightforward and unembellished – choosing to let the ancient songs work their magic.
The opening medley Awake Awake/The Split Ash Tree/May Carol/Southover coupled with stills from the Jack in the Green May Day festival in Hastings, and a solo Morris Dance is rousing and slightly unnerving at the same time. But it’s the start of an enchanting set of songs, enhanced greatly by the atmospheric accompanying visuals which range from disturbing to romantic, ethereal to comedic.
Alongside some scene setting from Pip Barnes (who also sings backing vocals and plays the guitar), Shirley occasionally chips in with an anecdote about her song collecting trips with Alan Lomax in the 1950s. Shirley chats away as if you have just popped by her cottage in Lewes, and is never less than delightful.
The band is tight with each musician matching Shirley’s mantra of keeping the songs to the fore rather than the playing. Particularly impressive is the restrained percussion and drums from Alex Neilson of Trembling Bells, who adds texture and vibrancy to these ancient songs.
It’s a quietly astonishing achievement that a set of mostly traditional songs sung by an 81-year-old can sound so fresh and contemporary, avant-garde at times. I’m sure there were many in the audience who hoped Shirley would delve into her back catalogue of classics, something from No Roses or Folk Roots, New Routes perhaps. But good on Collins for creating a new masterpiece and being bold enough to push on creatively after 40ish years in the wilderness.
Shirley Collins has been described as The Secret Queen of England. But with Lodestar and this run of stunning live shows, I fear her secret may be out…